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15 Minutes of Fame: Psychologist and games researcher John Hopson

From Hollywood celebrities to the guy next door, millions of people have made World of Warcraft a part of their lives. How do you play WoW? We're giving each approach its own 15 Minutes of Fame.

What keeps gamers hooked on their game of choice? Chances are, it's an element of the gameplay that was teased out with the help of games researcher John Hopson. The experimental psychologist and beta program head for Microsoft Game Studios examines what makes gamers do the things they do and then designs ways to keep them happily doing just that -- most recently, in titles such as Shadow Complex, Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach.

All that, and he's a WoW player to the core. "I mostly play in the two semi-official Microsoft WoW guilds, and lately I've been a hardcore player in a casual's body," he notes. "My wife and I had our first child a few months ago, so we've both dropped raiding and have been levelling alts instead since that doesn't require a fixed schedule. So far, we're both up to 5 level 80s apiece. :)" We thought it was time to turn the tables on Hopson, a loyal reader and occasional commenter at WoW.com, and ask him for his perspectives on WoW from the inside out.

15 Minutes of Fame: Thanks for talking with us, John. Let's start at the top: Who's your main?

John Hopson: I play in two of the semi-official Microsoft guilds, and they'd prefer to not to advertise. One's an Alliance guild on a PvP realm, one's a Horde guild on a PvE realm.

Weird as it may sound, being in the Microsoft friends-and-family guilds has been one of the best aspects of my WoW experience. They're big enough to encompass a wide variety of players, but everyone's smart and mature. There's also a certain undertone of civility that I find unique to guilds derived from real-world groups. Because everyone knows they might end up running into each other in the hall, the drama tends to be a lot lower. Of course, it also leads to weird situations like a low level employee giving orders to a general manager because the employee is the raid leader that night.

For most of this expansion, I've been playing a feral druid. I love being an off tank and having a different job in every boss fight. I raided in TBC as a resto shaman and in vanilla WoW as an arms warrior.

Experimental psychologist, games researcher, writer ... Gamer ... Which came first, the chicken or the egg? How did you find yourself studying how people play games and working with game designers to make better games with that information?

I'm a gamer, first and always. When I went to graduate school, I found myself doing behavioral psychology during the day and working on some of the early text-based online roleplaying games (MUDs) as a hobby at night. I kept seeing connections between the two and ended up writing an article called "Behavioral Game Design" that was pretty widely read within the industry. The Games User Research group at Microsoft decided I was their kind of guy and gave me a call. I didn't even know this job existed before they contacted me.

Tell us a little about your own WoW habit. What do enjoy most about the game?

For most of my WoW career, I've been a moderately serious raider. I enjoy the coordination aspects of raiding, working out the right strategies to beat a boss with the strengths and weaknesses of a particular raid group. I also like being able to do little activities that add up to raid success, spending an off night getting that one last little thing that might help beat a hard encounter.

Since my son was born, I've become very casual and spend most of my game time leveling alts. So far, I'm up to five level 80s.

When you play WoW, do you find that its design sucks you in and propels you through the content without a second thought -- or do you find the professional researcher on your shoulder picking, poking and questions the design choices?

The researcher is there all the time. I drive my friends and guildmates crazy by dissecting the experience as I go. "Oh, I see what the designer's trying to do here ..."

In general though, the design works as well on me as on anyone else. The only exception is achievements; I'm totally immune to them. Since my work was part of the inspiration for the original Xbox Live achievements, that seems strangely appropriate, like a supervillain immune to his own toxins.

You blogged recently about having your article on behavioral game design used in a Cracked piece on "5 creepy ways videogames are trying to get you addicted." Are game designers really using behavioral principles much differently or extensively than companies making other types of products and services?

I don't think that game companies are using behavioral principles any differently than any other industry. No one complains that their airline is addicting them when they offer frequent flyer miles or that their coffee shop is manipulating them by offering every tenth latte free. But when it comes to games, some people get a little antsy about this sort of "engagement engineering" in a way they don't get about other products.

Psychology informs game design the same way anatomy informs furniture design. If a chair is shaped to fit your body, no one says the chair designer is trying to manipulate you. But the idea of games designed to fit your mind seems to cross into uncomfortable territory for many people. Our minds are already set up to respond in certain ways and a good game designer can use those responses to create a better experience for the player. It's in everyone's best interest for designers to understand their players.

When does the idea of designing a game that players want to play slide into the shadier territory of "tricking" players into becoming "hooked"? Is there a line in the sand, a point at which a compelling rewards system begins to feel unethical?

For me, the line is when the reward mechanisms are unrelated to the game design. Every game has something players find rewarding, otherwise you wouldn't play it. There's no way to make a fun game that doesn't have a reward mechanism of some kind. The point of my work is to help designers understand the impact of their design choices so that they can choose mechanisms that are consistent with their overall vision for the game. If the game is intended as a deep, immersive experience, the designer needs to choose reward mechanisms that encourage that style of play. If it's a casual game played in short bursts, the rewards should reflect that.

Think of it like cooking. It's perfectly ethical for a chef to tweak the levels of various ingredients in their recipe to make it taste better. It's not ethical to add in some other chemical purely to cause cravings.

Can you give us an in-game example?

I don't want to accuse any particular game of shady practices, so I'll focus on an example of how engagement mechanics can be added to a game in a way that's ethical and organic to the fundamental game design.

Consider the alchemy mechanics in WoW. Every time you make a flask for a friend or do your daily transmute, there's a chance of a proc or learning a new recipe. That's a great engagement mechanic. It gives the player an extra little nudge to do more alchemy without being too pushy. Or consider the cooldowns on major alchemy transmutes. They have to have some kind of limiting factor on those transmutes to make them valuable, and giving them a one day cooldown means that every day there's one more reason to log on. The designers aren't tricking the players with those cooldowns, they're just structuring the rewards they'd be giving out anyway.

Is this concern something that should even be considered at a regulatory level when employing behavioral design principles?

I don't think there needs to be any gaming-specific regulations, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were more regulations in the future that affected gaming. I could easily see laws governing online privacy or the use of personal data such as friends lists affecting how we design games.

Let's talk about the importance of social networking in WoW's behavioral game design.

Our friends are a huge factor in what we do and how we do it. Everything from obesity to divorce has been shown to spread along social networks. To pick a simple example, look at achievement notifications. Whenever time you see a message saying your friend has gotten an achievement, it's a little reminder about WoW. It's a reason to log in, or a reminder of another way to play the game, or even just a topic of conversation for you and your friend. The key here is to provide value to both the player and the game. The notifications can't be just in there for attachment purposes, they have to make the game better for the players as well.

Do you think features like Real ID will contribute significantly to the attachment and attraction players feel for the game?

I think it will help attachment a little, but not much. It'll make WoW feel like less of a ghost town if and when players move to StarCraft II or Blizzard's next MMO, and makes it slightly easier to transition between Blizzard games than to games by other studios. Past that, I think it might turn out to be like the in-game voice chat, decent but not good enough to make people switch away from dedicated social networking tools.

Is there a difference in how you define the behavior of a hardcore gamer and one who is literally "addicted"?

Like any other activity, I think the difference is the effect that their gaming has on the rest of their lives. I know plenty of people who are happier and better off because of their gaming, myself among them.

What's your take on Blizzard's decision to crank up the reward vs. time spent in game activities, from leveling to raiding?

It was exactly the right call. There's just no way to justify creating content that only a tiny fraction of players ever got to see.

Part of the problem here is the mental legacy of old-school arcade games. Because those games were so small, the only way they could provide long-term play was to get progressively harder. You can see this in games like Tetris, where it's always the same game and just gets faster and faster until you lose. These days, the industry is moving towards a more balanced perspective on difficulty. We don't want players to get bored, but there are other ways to keep them playing besides blindly ramping up the difficulty curve until they quit. Look at other types of entertainment; no one expects a movie to get harder and harder to watch as it goes along.

The hue and cry from the hardcore gaming community seems to be for a game with a more unforgiving level of risk and time vs. reward, with today's WoW being perceived in that crowd as the "EZ-mode" game of choice for the casuals. Do you think there's as large a market for a more hardcore experience as these gamers would claim there is?

WoW is certainly easier than most MMOs, as the progress of the <Undergeared> guild demonstrates pretty definitively. However, there are still plenty of goals for elite players, such as the special raid mounts and titles. It's also important to remember that only about 30% of WoW players ever make it past level 10. To my point of view, that means even a game as casual-friendly as WoW is still failing 70% of its players.

A game focused on the hardcore would necessarily be a much smaller game. A game focused on the top 5% of players would have to be 5% the size. Some of them exist now, like EVE Online and Darkfall. They do OK, but they're niche products.
Your screenshot of a "secret" Sarth 3D strat raises the whole topic of strat resources. How does the proliferation of strategy sites and YouTube video guides to game encounters affect game design? How do they affect player expectations and then the degree of involvement and ultimately reward they get from the game?

The online resources make it possible for players to choose their own difficulty level. If you want to wander around The Barrens looking for Mankrik's wife on your own, go for it. And nothing is stopping a raid from seeing a boss without reading a strategy first. It's a wonderful contradiction of human nature. When players have a choice, they make the game easier and then complain that it's too easy.

It's also a serious challenge for game designers. By tapping into these online resources, players are removing mystery as a potential source of fun, which in turn forces designers to compensate. If you've already seen the boss fight on YouTube, then just seeing it on your own screen won't be that big a deal. That means the designer has to make the actual execution of the fight fun, rather than just relying on the players' confusion and discovery to entertain them.

You're a new dad (congratulations!), and you and your wife have historically played WoW together. How does WoW fit into your relationship and now your family life? What are the positives you've experienced as a gaming couple?

Gaming has been a great mutual activity for us. It gives us a shared social group and stuff to talk about. We usually play as a tank/healer combo, which is fabulous for finding groups. Since our son was born in February, we've both been playing very casually, mostly leveling alts to give ourselves options in Cataclysm.

On the downside, it means we have to maintain two full gaming rigs. On the upside, it's generally pretty easy to talk her into letting me get a new graphics card, we just have to get two.

Have you kept up with the flow of changes ahead for WoW in the upcoming Cataclysm expansion? Any thoughts there?

I'm really glad they're finally biting the bullet and fixing the rage mechanic for warriors. Having rage be proportional to the amount of damage taken and received made the class impossible to balance well.

What about personally -- are you and wife planning to play in the expansion?

We're definitely planning to play, but it's still up in the air what that play will look like. We may start some goblin alts, or we may try to convince our raid to let us share a raid slot, with a single raiding character controlled by whoever's not on baby duty.

Follow Hopson's musings and further writings on his personal blog, GrumpyBadger.com.

"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with these players from all walks of life, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Aron "Nog" Eisenberg to Olympic medalist Megan Jendrick ... from a quadriplegic player to a player who's racked up every achievement in the game.

Filed under: Interviews, 15 Minutes of Fame

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