Stuff’n’Stuff 09: Loss Aversion is a Bitch!

Have you ever heard of loss aversion? Well it is perfectly aware of you anyway. The principle is simple – while finding $100 feels good, losing that same $100 is absolutely afwul. Not a huge leap of thought brings us to the fact that we try avoid feeling bad… at all costs. Here are two cases I’ve encountered while working on one game.

Case I

So there is your avatar and it has some energy. You spend that energy to start a mission. You can win a reward or die trying. Of course, if you die, you get nothing. Or you can resurrect, but it’s not free. If all the costs and rewards represented in totally fictional points it boils down to this: you spend 50 points just to enter the mission. You can earn like 10 points for completing it. Resurrection costs 100 points. Yeah, like that. And guess what – people are willing to pay 100 point just to avoid losing 10 points. Moreover they feel pretty good about that judging by the feedback on forums and number of daily resurrections.

Case II

So those players try to complete simple missions, like going to place B from place A. And if they do they get rewarded. Just yesterday a “quest” system was implemented. In essence it says – if you manage to move from B to A 10 times without losing, you get a reward.

I expected it to be welcomed by the players. After all we reward players with meaningful stuff for doing things they are already trying to do (I bet there were no players willing to fail some of the missions instead of trying to complete them). And of course if one does not like the quest she can skip it for free (there is a cooldown which prevents from abusing quest skipping). It’s like geting paid for breathing. Easy money.

The reaction was like this: quests stink, rewards suck, go to hell.

I believe the reason is simple. Players see a task. And for some reason they fail it (BTW you cannot FAIL the quest – you can have a drawback). And they feel like they have lost the reward completely forgetting that couple hours ago they were not even presented with the possibility to earn it.

Players can skip any quest, but it also feels like losing reward, despite the fact they will get a quest with a similar reward anyway.

The bottom line is that players focus on losing instead of enjoying winning.

But there is the twist to that story: the fear of losing a reward (or cancelling an unwanted quest) makes players invest additional resources in completion of the quest, even if they do not enjoy the tesk (for example the task is to win a couple of rounds in The Forest, and player likes to rock in The Desert). And they end up spending more than earning, which makes me experience 2 contrasting feelings. I am glad to have additional profit. But it saddens me that the quests were completely misunderstood. They were supposed to bring joy, not frustration.

I’m pretty sure that soon players will learn to treat quests as the bonus it is intended to be. Or not. Either way, we’ll see what happens next.

PS I hope this post was not a total loss of your time, cuz u know… loss aversion.

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Stuff’n’Stuff 07: Why are We Smarter Then Everybody?

In the “Fail of democracy” article, among other things, I suggested that the endowment effect was the reason of our inability to value others’ ideas over our own.

Indeed the mere fact of owning something creates an emotional attachment to that thing. My pen is better than John’s one because mine is cheaper. Jack’s pen is worse than mine because mine is more expensive. Actually my pen appears to have the best possible price and quality ratio.

I seriously doubt that developing a game is less complicated than owning a pen, so there should be other factors at play. Not to mention that the endowment effect is not the correct one.

There are 2 similar but different biases:  the Ikea effect and the NIH effect.

IKEA-Logo

The Ikea effect basically means that labor enhances affection for its results. It makes us favor something that we’ve made over other things, even if both are 100% identical.

Imagine that you were asked to construct a Lego car for me. Before you begin constructing it I make perfectly clear that I would own it. Another person is given exact same task and instructions and will construct exact same car. When both cars are ready you are given a chance to buy one of them. Which one would you choose? Note, that despite the fact that I own both cars, you still, most probably refer to the one constructed by you as “my precious”, or at very least as “mine”. Additionally, chances are if I price your car higher than another one, you’d still be willing to buy your car.

The more effort you put into something, the more attached you get to it. But studies show that even a slight hint of effort is enough for that effect to emerge. Attachment also increases a lot if you manage to complete the project and this factor is a really strong one. In fact, unfinished project can seriously demoralize people. Many lose interest in their current jobs if they put lots of work into a project which gets cancelled. However that’s not what we are discussing today.

MadScientist

The NIH (Not Invented Here) effect makes us fall in love with our ideas.

Like the Ikea effect just a bit of mental work is required to get trapped by it. As much as reordering given words into a sentence. And that is not an exaggeration, there was a study which proves this thesis.

How many times did it happen to you – you suggest an awesome idea, but no one seems to care. But a week later someone who previously declined your idea tells you that he came up with something awesome and basically repeats you (I sure hate when my boss does that). It’s not because they want the credit, or because they are stupid. It’s just the way we are. If we think we came up with something we value it over identical idea, expressed by someone else.

Thoughts are a bit trickier than that. The effect can be amplified. We tend to come up with ideas that are coherent with our views. No wonder all my dark and moody suggestions are declined by happy and lively peers.

Could anything else affect our preferences? Of course! I have no idea how this effect is called, but we tend to associate things with history, memories and experiences. Or don’t you have that old junk, that have not been used for years (not THAT junk!) but you still keep it because you’ve had a history with it long ago? The experience does not even has to belong to you. Let’s say I give you a sweater. It is unremarkable in all the aspects and most probably you have no particular feelongs towards it. Now I can tell you that Paul McCartney owned it. Or that it was serial killer. Would it change the way you look at the sweater? Even if you know I’m messing with you, most people would form a positive or negative to a completely neutral object. And if it happens to things, maybe it could happen to thoughts ot ideas? Like,”Hey wasn’t it what Hitler said before starting a genocide?”

OK, back to the track. The phenomenon of self-admiration seems to be universal and can be easily seen on the road. Have you noticed that you are surrounded by morons? Everybody who drives faster than you do is a damn irresponsible moron. Everybody who drives slower is a damn slowpoke moron. Is it just me or is it the play of several biases fired up by the extreme situation?

Now, what is the point of all of this?
Well I was going to examine my previous articles with these effects in mind, but it turned out to be a long and dull wall of text. So there you go, no dull self-observations, just a little bit of info each of us could use. And I promised to write about it anyways.

Logo 10

PS. On a totally unrelated topic – Otaku still hasn’t got laid and he needs some cash to change the situation ($500 would do the trick). No, not hookres! Virtual ticket to fictional America in a video-game I’m working on! More details here. Or here. It’s the same anyway. Thanks, bye!

Stuff’n’Stuff 04: The Authority of Team Leader and the Fail of Democracy

One of the first rules is as follows “Don’t design by committee. Do not treat the design work as a democratic process in which each person’s opinion has equal value (“design by committee”). One person must have the authority to make final decisions, and the others must acknowledge this person’s authority.”

Ernest Adams, “Fundamentals of Game Design

 “Programmers always try to change the task to an easier one. Do not let that happen. ”

My boss, on one of my first day at work.

Hello everyone!

Last time I was talking about the problems one could face, trying to assemble a team and start developing a game. This time I’m going to discuss one of the major difficulties I’ve encountered while actually developing a game.

But first I should provide some background to the events I’m about to describe.

I’m 26 right now. I have been playing games since 6 but for a long time I did not think that I would end up in gamedev. Not that I did not want to, it just did not occur to me. In late 2011 however I have finally came to understanding that it’s the only one thing I actually might enjoy doing.

I’ve started from extensive internet search (sloperama.com was especially helpful). I sent couple of resumes, received several test tasks and eventually got rejected. Totally predictable but still painful. Soon I’ve found a job in a large Russian gaming magazine Igromania.

3 months later I finally entered the game designer club as I got a job in a social gamedev company. I clearly stated that I had no prior game design experience, but I guess I was at least not as bad as others who applied as well. I was the only one game designer in a 20+ person company (now there are more then 40).

Just knowing about this effect could benefit many people. But most of us are incredibly ignorant about our ignorance.

I was assigned to 3 already released games. I was to suggest ways to improve them. I would pinpoint a problem and suggest several ways to solve it, usually trying to point out pros and cons of various solutions. Then I would discuss it with my boss and he would decide what to do. It was a dream come true, only better – maximum creativity and no responsibility whatsoever.

One month later I was assigned to write a concept for a new project. My boss came to me and said: “We want to make a new game. It must be a single-player side-scrolling beat’em up for social networks. You can do whatever you want, but we already have the interface. We need you to write a concept and a story. You will be working with an artist and a programmer. Oh, it has got to be about Japan and there has got to be a woman.

It was a strange task. Never in my life could I imagine that the interface could be developed for a game without a concept, based only on a vague “beat’em up” definition. But it was great as well – after all I got to start creating a new game from scratch. I still had only one, maybe two months of experience, so I ended up influenced by a programmer – we had sufficiently similar interests to easily communicate, but different enough not to agree on everything, which lead to very productive arguments. He was working like 1 year longer than me, so I listened carefully to his ideas and usually chose his ones over mine. Not blindly of course.

The original theme of the game was pseudo-historical steam-punk in Japan. Looks a bit like Assassin’s creed, though…

The working protocol almost stayed the same – the better part of the core mechanics I would write on my own (still usually suggesting several variants). Some things I would discuss with the programmer and usually changed some parts of the document. The story was totally my domain, and it was only guided by the interface style (weird, right?) and the thesis about Japan. And my boss would decide what to do.

It was the most fun I could have. And our small team of 3 was really productive. Until the artist decided to quit. Not long before that my bosses decided that they are uncomfortable with real names of places and historical characters so some changes were to be made about the story. A new artist joined the team as well. She was unable to maintain the dark pseudo-historical steam-punk style, so the whole visual part had to be redesigned. My vision totally differed from hers.  I was designing a dark and brutal game with blood and sticky feeling of bad things happening no matter what. She was the opposite. She was the one who was working on 3 other titles and her word had more weight.

Moriarty knows how to make smart decisions. He also knows how to make people do as he wants. I might have had a crown but had no authority and power.

Shortly after that I was made the leader of the project. So every single aspect of that game became my personal responsibility. But I still could not enforce my vision to be executed. Fuck. Every single letter in the script was contradicting a gay cowboy dude she had drawn. Luckily she got help from a newly hired artist, who was like drawing straight from my mind. I asked him to draw one boss-character and animate him. This boss was so much cooler then the main cowboy-character, and only blind could not see that her style did not match the task at hand (which I tried to communicate to boss several times, but only this time did a make a stand and finally got what I wanted).

She left the project and only 3 of us remained. Unfortunately, along the way we appeared in a position where the visual style again dictated the concept, so I had to rewrite the whole goddamn story again and rethink the style. The carousel of artists turned into a 3 month-worth setback as we had to start work on visuals from scratch. Again. If I took a stand earlier the loss would be at least 1 month less. Staying true to what you believe is crucial. Unfortunately for me I rarely did so…

As I said – before I got promoted, boss was the one to make the decisions. Sometimes he liked my ideas better, sometimes he preferred programmer’s ones. At first it seemed like nothing have changed: I still discussed stuff with programmer and we still argued. But now it was my job to choose from several options. And, like my boss, I sometimes preferred my ideas and sometimes not.

It’s really hard to make an unbiased evaluation of ideas and to compare them.

First of all it’s natural for people to value something that belongs to them, over something that belongs to other people.  A good example of this concept is shown in a short YouTube clip by Dan Ariely. He discusses this quirk more extensively in his book “Predictably irrational”. It’s a good read.

So for example if my idea is in its outcome it absolutely identical to your idea, it’s hard for us to see it this way. Well theoretically. I’m not a psychologist.

The other feature of our brain is that we easier see others’ mistakes, then our own. “We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.” (Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman).

So for example if my idea has a flaw, and my your idea has an identical flaw, I feel like your flaw is worse.

This situation is tough on itself but it actually gets worse.

So, I am aware if the biases which can affect my judgment. Now I can resist them. But my opponent does not give a shit about it. It goes like this:

My Idea is a “5” and his idea is a “5”. If I knew nothing about human brain I would evaluate my Idea as a “10” and his idea as a “1”. And that is what my opponent does. So we both theoretically push our idea with the force of a “10” and criticize other’s ideas as “1”. The more stubborn one wins.

But I am aware of the biases. So I try to be objective. I probably end up evaluating my “5” as a “7” and his “5” as a “3”. But he still thinks he has a “10” and I have a ”1”. Who will push harder, how do you think? I eventually tried to explain the biases, but it only made things worse. People do not like smart asses.

I wish I had the persuasive abilities of this brutal dude…

And it goes worse. So I sometimes think that his ideas are actually better than mine. Which in my book is great for me, him, team and project. But he thinks that I am weak and if applied enough pressure I will give up. So the arguments become less and less productive and a lot longer.

It’s bad on itself – the productivity of the arguments decreased as well as the actual time on writing code. But it made the chemistry of the team bad. I started to think of him as of a jerk, and I am pretty sure the feeling was mutual.

Now, you probably have heard of the halo effect (it has got nothing to do with the game. Well maybe it has, the title is so hyped…). The halo effect or halo error is a cognitive bias in which one’s judgments of a person’s character can be influenced by one’s overall impression of him or her.

In short it means that if I like how the candidate looks and talks, I expect him to be a man of honor and I believe he will be a good president, even if I have no clue what his political or moral values are. Or if I’m pissed at my coworker I might end up thinking that all his ideas suck. Or he will think this way about me. And it cannot be good.

Our disagreements were getting out of hand.  There were 3 people in our team. So we started to vote. The most ridiculous thing is that I think of myself as a man of honor, so if we vote, I tend to obey the collective decision. But it was not the case with him (or, it’s just the availability bias talking). If he was outvoted he would continue to argue. At that point of time I would sometimes lose my temper and yell at him (not proud of it) stuff like “I’m in fucken charge here, shut the fuck up and do what I say for fuck’s sake”. Not a good idea. Well yes, he would sometimes do as I said, but not for long. And it was bad for my self-respect, and I’m sure the others began to think less of me. I know I did.

Knowing how brain works can sometimes be really helpful. But I still have no idea what to do if someone refuses to listen to reason? How to compare my ideas versus other’s? Or how to be a person you believe you are?

The basic idea behind the arguments, in theory, was simple – a bunch of people discuss several ideas and come to a consensus. They make decisions and they act accordingly. It was a serious surprise for me when I found out that several of the decisions we’ve made were executed not the way I’ve suggested (and we settled on them), but the way he wanted to. Now I had to double check every detail to make sure that he did not do things which counteracted my decisions.

It was a norm for me to ask him to do A, and he would say that he will do B and we’ll see how it works. It was better than searching for stuff he’d do his way. At least I knew what was going on.

I began to fear every single feature that had to be implemented. I would spend hours trying to force myself to start working on a feature. I was second guessing every minor decision. It’s not that I have forgotten all the game design principles, it was the fear of the upcoming unavoidable at least 2-hour long arguments.

It had, of course, obvious counterproductive effects. Lengthy arguments tend to come down to tiniest irrelevant details and blow them out of proportion (you can read more about this in Dan Ariely’sPredictably irrational” or Jamie Madigan’s “Psychology of games” blog) and it makes everyone involved to forget about the big picture, the general direction or even what is this feature needed for. It’s like you want to milk a cow but during an argument comes up a thesis that a horse is more user-friendly and you end up building a chariot.

But as bad as it was, it still could go worse and it did. He began to alter the story – the only one thing he did not care about before. I mean what the fuck? Folks from other projects would come to me so that I write them texts, because they knew I was the man to ask. I did not have to help them – I was not working on their project, and had enough on my plate, but I did help them. And everyone knew that I could write in different styles and I could write long or short, I could make the text funny, brutal, creepy or anything they needed (my Russian is much better than English, but I hope to change it with practice). And the only person who found my texts bad was actually supposed to be subordinate to me.

If you’re in the same room with Joker – you are in trouble. If he points a gun at you – it’s time to pray. But if i had a choice – put myself into the situation I’ve experiensed or in front of that barrel, I’d choose the latter. Joker is fun after all, and Batman might save me…

It kept going like this for 8 or 9 months. We actually released the game. Despite the fact that it was half ready (hey, only 3 people were working on it for 8 months, 3 of them (months, not people) were lost in the very beginning) I am really proud of the outcome, considering… We actually had much more mechanics, but we did not have enough visual content like main character’s animation, which is not a good thing for a brawler.

It was not received very well, but at least we tried to pull out something that no one in Russian social gaming space tried to – develop a real time beat’em up with a deep skill system and real-time player interaction. Could it be better? Of course. Could it be worse? Yes, it could.

Maybe I should have preferred more of my decisions from the beginning, or maybe we would be better off with his ideas. Or maybe the best outcome would be if we switched all his ideas for mine and vice versa. But most probably it’s something else. In the end it were my decisions, no matter who suggested the ideas behind them. And my bad decisions led to a not so good game.

I feel like in school again, when my mom thought me not to copy others, but to make my own decision. And I lived by that code until last year. The simple fact, which I knew from school, remains true. It sucks to make mistakes. But it sucks even more to make mistakes of other people.

I still think that the best features of the game were born out of our discussions. But when the discussion is over, the decision is made, the whole team has to commit to it. Is it too much to ask?

Broken pieces still can be put together.

2 weeks ago the project was closed till better times come. Our small team exists no more – but we all continue to work on other games, and I hope on ourselves. I do.

As I continue working in that company, I still am trying to make my own game. Since my last post (and frankly a bit earlier) I’ve had some major progress there, so I might soon dedicate a post to it.

The last 8 month thought me 2 very important things, which you probably already know:

  • stay true to your own vision
  • be careful with the people you choose to work with

I hope you will not have to experience what I’ve had to experience, and I hope this post, though very long for such a simple message, will be useful to someone. Do not do my mistakes. Better do your own ones.

And we’ll see what happens next.

Update, 17 april 2013
More then a month has passed since my team was dismissed.
My relationship with that programmer could not be better. Any ideas why?