In Part I, game designer Ian Schreiber outlines the debate between metrics-driven design and the more touchy-feely intuition-based design. In Part II, he explains the difficulties with trying to measure the "fun" in your game. In Part III, he tackles the issues of measuring difficulty, game balance, and the value of games to players.
Another example: measuring difficulty
Player difficulty, like fun, is another thing that’s basically impossible to measure directly, but what you can measure is progression, and failure to progress. Measures of progression are going to be different depending on your game.
For a game that presents skill-based challenges like a retro arcade game, you can measure things like how long it takes the player to clear each level, how many times they lose a life on each level, and importantly, where and how they lose a life. Collecting this information makes it really easy to see where your hardest points are, and if there are any unintentional spikes in your difficulty curve. I understand that Valve does this for their FPS games, and that they actually have a visualizer tool that will not only display all of this information, but actually plot it overlaid on a map of the level, so you can see where player deaths are clustered. Interestingly, starting with Half-Life 2 Episode 2 they actually have live reporting and uploading from players to their servers, and they have displayed their metrics on a public page (which probably helps with the aforementioned privacy concerns, because players can see for themselves exactly what is being uploaded and how it’s being used).
Yet another example: measuring game balance
What if instead you want to know if your game is fair and balanced? That’s not something you can measure directly either. However, you can track just about any number attached to any player, action or object in the game, and this can tell you a lot about both normal play patterns, and also the relative balance of strategies, objects, and anything else.
For example, suppose you have a strategy game where each player can take one of four different actions each turn, and you have a way of numerically tracking each player’s standing. You could record each turn, what action each player takes, and how it affects their respective standing in the game.
Or, suppose you have a CCG where players build their own decks, or a Fighting game where each player chooses a fighter, or an RTS where players choose a faction, or an MMO or tabletop RPG where players choose a race/class combination. Two things you can track here are which choices seem to be the most and least popular, and also which choices seem to have the highest correlation with actually winning. Note that this is not always the same thing; sometimes the big, flashy, cool-looking thing that everyone likes because it’s impressive and easy to use is still easily defeated by a sufficiently skilled player who uses a less well-known strategy. Sometimes, dominant strategies take months or even years to emerge through tens of thousands of games played; the Necropotence card in Magic: the Gathering saw almost no play for six months or so after release, until some top players figured out how to use it, because it had this really complicated and obscure set of effects… but once people started experimenting with it, they found it to be one of the most powerful cards ever made. So, both popularity and correlation with winning are two useful metrics here.
If a particular game object sees a lot more use than you expected, that can certainly signal a potential game balance issue. It may also mean that this one thing is just a lot more compelling to your target audience for whatever reason – for example, in a high fantasy game, you might be surprised to find more players creating Elves than Humans, regardless of balance issues… or maybe you wouldn’t be that surprised. Popularity can be a sign in some games that a certain play style is really fun compared to the others, and you can sometimes migrate that into other characters or classes or cards or what have you in order to make the game overall more fun.
If a game object sees less use than expected, again that can mean it’s underpowered or overcosted. It might also mean that it’s just not very fun to use, even if it’s effective. Or it might mean it is too complicated to use, it has a high learning curve relative to the rest of the game, and so players aren’t experimenting with it right away (which can be really dangerous if you’re relying on playtesters to actually, you know, playtest, if they leave some of your things alone and don’t play with them).
Metrics have other applications besides game objects. For example, one really useful area is in measuring beginning asymmetries, a common one being the first-player advantage (or disadvantage). Collect a bunch of data on seating arrangements versus end results. This happens a lot with professional games and sports; for example, I think statisticians have calculated the home-field advantage in American Football to be about 2.3 points, and depending on where you play the first-move advantage in Go is 6.5 or 7.5 points (in this latter case, the half point is used to prevent tie games). Statistics from Settlers of Catan tournaments have shown a very slight advantage to playing second in a four-player game, on the order of a few hundredths of a percent; normally we could discard that as random variation, but the sheer number of games that have been played gives the numbers some weight.
A Note on Ethics
The ethical consideration here is that a lot of these metrics look at player behavior but they don’t actually look at the value added (or removed) from the players’ lives. Some games, particularly those on Facebook which have evolved to make some of the most efficient use of metrics of any games ever made, have also been accused (by some people) of being blatantly manipulative, exploiting known flaws in human psychology to keep their players playing (and giving money) against their will. Now, this sounds silly when taken to the extreme, because we think of games as something inherently voluntary, so the idea of a game “holding us prisoner” seems strange. On the other hand, any game you’ve played for an extended period of time is a game you are emotionally invested in, and that emotional investment does have cash value. If it seems silly to you that I’d say a game “makes” you spend money, consider this: suppose I found all of your saved games and put them in one place. Maybe some of these are on console memory cards or hard disks. Maybe some of them are on your PC hard drive. For online games, your “saved game” is on some company’s server somewhere. And then suppose I threatened to destroy all of them… but not to worry, I’d replace the hardware. So you get free replacements of your hard drive and console memory cards, a fresh account on every online game you subscribe to, and so on. And then suppose I asked you, how much would you pay me to not do that. And I bet when you think about it, the answer is more than zero, and the reason is that those saved games have value to you! And more to the point, if one of these games threatened to delete all your saves unless you bought some extra downloadable content, you would at least consider it… not because you wanted to gain the content, but because you wanted to not lose your save.
To be fair, all games involve some kind of psychological manipulation, just like movies and books and all other media (there’s that whole thing about suspending our disbelief, for example). And most people don’t really have a problem with this; they still see the game experience itself as a net value-add to their life, by letting them live more in the hours they spend playing than they would have lived had they done other activities.
But just like difficulty curves, the difference between value added and taken away is not constant; it’s different from person to person. This is why we have things like MMOs that enhance the lives of millions of subscribers, while also causing horrendous bad events in the lives of a small minority that lose their marriage and family to their game obsession, or that play for so long without attending to basic bodily needs that they keel over and die at the keyboard.
So there is a question of how far we can push our players to give us money, or just to play our game at all, before we cross an ethical line… especially in the case where our game design is being driven primarily by money-based metrics. As before, I invite you to think about where you stand on this, because if you don’t know, the decision will be made for you by someone else who does.
[This article is an excerpt from Level 8: Metrics and Statistics, part of Ian Schreiber's course on game balance called Game Balance Concepts.]
Ian Schreiber has been making games professionally since 2000, first as a programmer and then as a game designer. He currently teaches game design classes for Savannah College of Art and Design and Columbus State Community College. He has worked on five shipped games and hundreds of shipped students. You can learn more about Ian at his blog, Teaching Game Design.