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GDC10 Notes: Sid Meier on Why Everything You Know is Wrong

Friday morning’s keynote was from none other than Sid Meier himself, co-founder of Firaxis and the creator of the Civ series.

Session Title: The Psychology of Game Design (Everything You Know Is Wrong) from Sid Meier

Meier began his talk with the assertion that gameplay is primarily a psychological experience and player psychology is primarily based on egomania, paranoia, delusion and self-destructive behavior. If you like playing the Civ games, it’s because you love being a god-king and controlling everything, therefore you are an egomanic.

However, game play doesn’t map to real life. He described the Winner Paradox, in the real world you never really win, but in games you almost always win. In the real world, the Super Bowl has only one winner, sports leagues have only one winner, you almost never win. In the games world, you almost always win.

Reward vs Punishment — players are inclined to accept rewards.

Meier talked about “the first 50 minutes rule”: the first 50 minutes must be very compelling and fun, and show the player a preview of all of the fun they’ll have for the rest of the game. In trying to engage them during this time, you almost can’t reward the player enough (though this doesn’t negate the difficulty level).

He used to believe that players only needed 4 difficulty levels, but in Civilization Revolutions he discovered they actually need 9 difficulty levels. The difficulty levels give a player a feeling that they’ve mastered a level. The psychological conclusion for gamers is that everyone is above average.

Meier then talked about his “Unholy Alliance,” which is the connection between the player and the game designer. All of these things must match in order to create a compelling game experience.

  • The player is the star of the game
  • Players must be willing to suspend their disbelief, and fall into the story of the game
  • Moral clarity — don’t put users in dilemmas, it’s more satisfying to win against a cranky ruler in Civilization than a pitiful begging one telling you about the women and children you are killing
  • Mutually Assured Destruction
  • Humor / Style / Music / Atmosphere must match

Meier warns, be careful to be true to the vision of the game and value the players time. You have to be consistent with the style and the vision of the game, to keep the player engaged in the game.

Meier described then what I will paraphrase as: game players aren’t rational and don’t understand probability.

In playtesting, a player always expects to win a 1.5 to 0.5 battle, even when probability dictates that sometimes they will lose. He had to make the odds even odder in many cases to adjust for players’ expectation of how “fair” a game feels. With his mathematics background, he learned this his brain is too logical and scientific, and he didn’t take psychology into account.

My Bad — Meier recaps mistakes, or his “my bad” moments

  • Real-time civilization — the first version of Civ was a real time game where the player is just an observer, similar to the style of sim city. This didn’t create the feeling of control and egomania that the current turn-based civ does, where you are the god-king
  • Rise and fall — first version fo Civ had an idea of civilization where you have a setback and recover and rise to an even greater prominence. Players want a game about progress, and the rise and rise of civilization, not the downfall. Lots of players reloaded from a save file at the first setback
  • Tech tree — he used tot hink a tech tree is about a rise through darkness, and you wouldn’t know what’s at the end of the path. It’s incongruous to learn writing and know that in the future that will lead to a jet fighter. But players want predictability and want to be in control. Randomness must be treated very carefully, because random acts create paranoia
  • The Dinos Game — the game which was never made
  • Civilization Network

In playing a singleplayer game, feedback and validation is really important

Protecting the player from themselves — keep them from reloading their save files to win every fight, don’t give them too many options/settings, cheat codes are questionable and mods are good.

What’s the point of all the game design? Meier describes game design as trying to create the epic journey. The epic journey is full of interesting decisions, learning and progress, the feeling of just “one more turn” (players are riveted and always leaning forward to ask for one more term) and replayability.