Thinking Fast & Slow – Experienced Utility in Game Design

Utility is one of those words which mean something different to psychologists than it does to us normal humans. People aren’t who researchers would like to assume we are. We know what made us happy, or hurt us. However, our memory is subject to how we process the world – something we’re not rational about. So it’s our memory of events which matters, not what actually happened that determines if we like something, or not. That understanding ought to impact how we design games.

First, some background on memory – or experienced utility to use the psychologist’s term. From Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation by Jeremy Bentham, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.” The term utility, in the psychological sense, includes pleasure and pain in the its scope, and our recollection of them. It’s completely subjective, and verity has nothing to do with it.

Don Redelmeier and Daniel Kahneman did a pain study on… a really painful medical procedure. They tracked two different measures of “utility”: pain at any given moment and a global retrospective rating. They charted the results for a variable length and variable pain intensity procedure. Summarizing their results as two rules:
* Peak-end rule: The global retrospective rating corollated to the worst level of pain, and at its end.
* Duration neglect: Duration had no effect whatsoever on the ratings of total pain.

1. If you’re in maximum pain at the end of a procedure, you will feel the whole procedure was more painful.
2. The average level of pain maters, if it matches the pain at the end.
3. How long a procedure lasts doesn’t matter to your perception of pain-level.

Applying that to medical procedures, if you’re goal is to minimize pain, lower the peak intensity and gradual relieve pain at the end, rather than reducing duration of the procedure. If you’re goal is to reduce the actual amount of pain experienced, reduce the duration, even if doing so causes patients to have a more awful memory. Reduction of the actual amount of pain experienced is the rational goal, but not the one that participates will select given the choice. They’ll opt for a duration increase of 50%, because their memory of the pain will be less severe.

So, what the hell does this have to do with games?

Here’s what getting utterly stomped on looks like in Hearthstone (click for larger):

Priest go BOOM!

Quick recap: The player on the top has utterly crushed the bottom player (me) with a score of 34 to 2. (The first to 30 wins.) Interestingly, in this particular case, I had been doing fairly well, up until the last two turns, at which point I got utterly stomped. Lopsided defeats like this are painful, and do happen fairly often.

Or do they?

Is it possible I’m just remembering wrong? Humans do widely overestimate the frequency intense events…

Hypothesis: By applying the psychological concept of utility, we can reduce the intensity of the negative memory formed by loosing so badly and quickly. In doing so, we can increase near and long-term player retention.

Goal: Reduce the intensity of the loosing player’s “pain” by obscuring the magnitude of their loss. That should result in an increase of immediate replays after substantial losses and corresponding increased long-term customer retention.

Specific actions to be taken:
1. For the looser, do not display a negative (or zero) number for the player’s health (visible in the lower right hand corner of the player’s character.) Assume that players will be lazy, and not do the math, especially because they (initiatively) know that it won’t come out in their favor.
2. For the looser, do not display the damage of the killing blow. This extends the logic from action #1 to it’s logical conclusion.
3. For the victory, do display the negative value and killing blow damage. Those are positives, so hype the hell out of them, possibly even more than they are already. (Supported by the psychological concept of loss aversion.)
4. Prevent end-game “burst” damage. High mana costs cards (the blue crystal in the upper-left) do more damage – that’s desirable and to be expected. However, when a player takes 15 hit points, or more, of damage in a turn, that’s “pain.”
5. Change Archmage Antonidas (the minion in front of the winning player) from “Whenever you cast a spell, put a ‘Fireball‘ spell into your hand.” to “Whenever you cast a spell, put a ‘Fireball‘ spell into your hand*, at the end of your turn.*” Using the existing card, a player can do at least 12 points of damage in a turn, even if they don’t already have a ‘Fireball‘ card in their hand. That is “burst” – arguably too much.
6. Review logs for other combinations which have the same issue. For example, a Shaman could do more than 25 hit points of damage in a turn, but that has been fixed.
7. Ramp down the effect of repeatedly cast spells. A gradual step down will result in a less painful memory. Applying that here, each subsequent ‘Fireball‘ spell should do one less damage than the previous one. Even though the result would have been the same, in this case, the intensity of the negative memory would have been reduced.
8. A more substantial ramp down of 50% would also potentially cause players to reconstitute their decks instead of every Mage deck always having two Fireballs in them. At a minimum, one would expect less back-to-back casts of the same spell on the same target. If those would be desirable outcomes, for other reasons beyond the scope of this document, then that would also bear testing.

How to measure success:
1. Time until next play. Desired outcome: Down for the looser. Remain unchanged for victor.
2. Time until next play of the same class. Desired outcome: Down for the looser. Remain unchanged for victor.
3. Is there a deck composition change. Desired outcome: none, just want to watch for unexpected results.

Why is this important:
It’s critical that players not come to the conclusion that Hearthstone is a “pay to win” game, otherwise huge numbers will never play. Legendary cards, indicated by the orange pip under their name (visible on the Onyxia card in my hand) are extremely rare. For example, after expensive play (261 wins, and more losses than that,) I have five legendary cards, two of which I spent money for. Getting defeated so roundly by a legendary card drives home the concept of paying to win. Spend $50 and you’re statistically likely to get 2.

Blizzard must be ever vigilant at managing the player’s memory of the performance of legendary cards, because, for better or worse, they’re going to be assumed as being bought – even if they weren’t.

(Lots of assertions in this section which bear further study and supporting proof, but that’s for another day.)


Stay Awhile and Listen How Two Blizzards Unleashed…

Stay Awhile and Listen: How Two Blizzards Unleashed Diablo and Forged a Video-Game Empire – Book I

“Allen was a student of how retail worked. In fact, we all spent a lot of time thinking about how retail worked. One thing that was really obvious was that having a line of games on a shelf was really valuable because it would create more of a brand identity. If you walked up to a shelf and saw 10 of one kind of a game and one of another, you’d say, “Wow, there must be something to this game series if there’s 10 of them. They’ve got a lot of shelf space.””
Read more at location 3097

So the idea was to do a series of games called WarCraft that were about various times in history: a fantasy game, a Vietnam game, a World War II game, earlier historical periods, futuristic games.
Read more at location 3100

TL;DR: the power of the colon.

For anyone wondering how Blizzard is going to crack the mobile nut, this is how it’s going to be done. They have a huge player base that they can directly leverage into mobile and then cross-promote to.

This is just so obvious and utterly necessary. Yet Hearthstone doesn’t already do this. They must not want to tip their hand yet or some (probably tech) piece is missing. Those are the only explanations that make any sense.

There already is a Hearthstone clone. It took 20 days from development start to release. The *only* possible defense against that level of overt hostility, especially on Android outside of the US, is to have incentives above and beyond what’s in the game itself. MMO-Champion Link Chinese News Article

Mobile is rife with this crap. Mostly because the games by themselves must be so much smaller in scope that a typical high-end PC game (i.e. WoW, D3, CoD, etc.). Furthermore, the development toolchain is really good, especially for a mostly 2D game like Hearthstone.

“I think it’s a sobering experience when you realize that you’re responsible for the salaries of people who have wives, husbands, and kids. So we took it pretty seriously that we were going to make this company a good place to work and to make sure people got their paychecks and that it was a stable environment, economically. That wasn’t always easy. We were scraping by a lot. We bounced paychecks. – Max Schaefer”
Read more at location 2113

Nothing but the brutal Truth.

Stratechery 2013 Year Review Just read them All…

Stratechery 2013 Year Review

Just read them. All of them.

Uncanny Valley of a Functional Organization

“Functional organizations are unusually reliant on a visionary leader. …

Everything is tied together at the CEO-level, which means communication channels must be excellent, both from the bottom up and also across functions. Moreover, the vast majority of employees only ever see a piece of the product; it’s up to the CEO to set the broad vision and ensure that it is being followed.

The upside is a holistic and integrated quality to the resultant products that is truly extraordinary. People talk about how the iPhone integrated hardware and software, but that is just a crude approximation for what is effectively a single vision of what a phone should be, down to the tiniest detail.

Pulled part of this particular article out because it illustrates a challenge that many organizations have making technology shifts. As an example, let’s consider the Blizzard’s WoW Armory app. It has a bunch of WoW specific features and one which is cross-game, namely chat. However, they don’t call it that. Instead it’s WoW guild chat and channel restricted.

Imagine instead if they had done what Facebook did, namely break their Messenger app into a completely separate app from their standard Facebook client. The net result is a base-line functional experience in the main app, with a specific app with chat features galore. That, combined with their single sign-on mechanism, results in a really great overall user experience.

Blizzard has already done the hard work of ensuring cross-game chat. Yet there’s no mobile app to take advantage of that. And that’s the nut of the challenge presented by technology transitions. I guarantee you someplace inside of Blizzard, someone is made the argument that it’s not worth the resource allocation to build it, because there isn’t enough user uptake. Yet there isn’t enough user uptake, because the app they would use most doesn’t exist.

Pop quiz, for all Blizzard games what’s the #1 thing people do aside from actually gameplay?

Answer: Chat with each other.

(Note that’s not to diminish the other features of the WoW Armory app. As a player, I use the calendar features for example.)

Why can’t I chat across games via the mobile app like I can in game?

Why not do the base-line feature for all games and then do deep-dive features on a per game basis?

I just don’t know what I’m missing, but it feels like something related to how their functional organization is deterring priorities/allocating resources causing shearing because of inadequate communication.

I do know that in a matrix organization, like NASA/JPL, they do strive to address this problem. Early on, I got to work on several space probes as a user interface programmer. As a UI programmer there were a series of first principals that were reinforced by my peer group of other UI programmers (i.e. use Motif) and were outside of the influence of the project team. That worked for a while, until I subverted the process and went “functional,” got stuck to a project which did control 100% of my work, and never returned to my matrix group.

I essentially went “native.”

Warren Spector lecture 07 – Mike Morhaime

Ok. This is just cool. Stumbled across this and going to try to do something a bit different, but inspired by the notes on Peter Thiel’s lectures here:

Will need to review to get flow right I think.

This is a super rough cut and clearly needs editing.

Because I’m currently digging at Blizzard, Mr. Morhaime got to go first, but I’ll need to work my way through the rest. What follows is a super rough, highly paraphrased, transcription of the parts of this discussion which interested me.

If you like what you read, watch the video. It’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio” good.

Fodder for thought: Why the hell isn’t some variant of this hosted directly on It would be an awesome addition to the careers section.

Formatting: Quoted text is Warren Spector. Square Bracket text is me. Everything else is Mr. Morhaime.

  1. Gameplay first
    All Starts with a Donut.
    Core market is the center (the hole)
    The Causal market is the donut.
    Core markets + casual markets = success
    Make our game accessible to the casual market, but deep, repayable and competitive.
    Easy to learn. Difficult to Master.
  2. Build and Protect the Brand
    The Blizzard is our most important property. High quality, polish, fun.
    The absolute worse thing we could do is put out something which damages the Blizzard brand.
  3. Resist the Pressure to Ship Early
    Think long term.
    We only get once chance to make a first impression.
  4. Resist the Pressure to do Everything At Once.
    Build on your successes, gain expertise, then get more ambitious.

Myth of “Regional Taste”
Blizzard’s perspective is that there are different play styles everywhere, they just exist in different concentrations.

  1. Estimating Demand – Really an impossible thing to do.
  2. Human Resources is really important.
  3. Running an MMO is not just about game development.
  4. Communicate or people will make stuff up.
  5. Avoid financial incentives. (Gold farmers. Credit card fraud.)
  6. Testing. Never trust version 1.0.

Email is our best tools for communication. We had to become a lot more systematic about our email lists. We make it a point for senior management to visit all offices.

We are a lot better having development centralized in one location. It will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Selling the company when we did accelerated what we were able to do.

It’s better to do it the best. We do try to learn as much as possible from what’s working or not working. Rushing something to market is not something [we do]. That’s called the bleeding edge…

If you read any business book… If someone is going to cannibalize your market, it should be you.

Mike Morhaime – Studied Electric Engineer at UCLA. Loves Poker. Loves Guitar Hero, Rock Band.

There are certain types of games which we wouldn’t do because they wouldn’t raise to the standard of being a Blizzard quality title. They’re not epic enough.

Played Basic D&D. Never really evolved into Advanced.

Things he found compelling about staring Blizzard:
1) Allan make the point that they were both smart guys and they could figure out how to do it.
2) There aren’t many industry where you can start a company from the ground up via bootstrapping.

Pat Wyatt was personal friend of Mike’s before Blizzard.

I find it helps you to put on your player hat, instead of looking at what the market tells you all of the time. Think about what you want to play as a player.

Could you charge for online? They decided No. Instead of trying to charge, it feels a little bit awkward. We follow the TV model…we display ads to them. It didn’t have to generate a ton of profit. It just had to pay for itself.

Why wasn’t Brood War the game that StarCraft should have been? Because we needed several months of the public playing the game to know what StarCraft should have been.

After Brood War we had another unannounced game in development. We asked ourselves if we could work on any game right now, would it be the game we are working on? No it wouldn’t be.

“Does MMO equal fantasy?” No

“Is there a thought process between stopping working on a project? …Indefinite hold…?” If you want a high-level, we cancel a project because the effort and resources it would take to get it to a completion at a point we would consider it Blizzard quality is greater than the opportunity costs than doing something else.

Bought StarCraft:Ghost developer during development. We still think that the concept for the game could have a lot of potential and it could be a great game. Competing with Halo, Gears of War. We were on the wrong platform (Xbox old gen). Our market wasn’t growing. It was plateauing and maybe decline. In order to finish that game it needed a lot of resources…Blizzard attention… We have this concept of a big giant spotlight we can shine on one thing but it takes a lot of effort and momentum to move it, but once it’s there that’s where the polish happens.

“Blizzard seems like a company which is laser focused on goals. The one place I don’t get where you’re coming from is consoles. … Where does Blizzard fall on the consoles?” We like consoles. We like playing on consoles. [Smiling and literally bouncing on his chair.] We would like to be able to make console games without it impacting our PC business and do great. If we could do everything at the same time, we would do that. … You have to focus on what’s really important and not doing it at the same time. This is one case where we had to do that.

“Are you at all concerned that the MMO world is going to move from the PC to the consoles (the new consoles)?” I’m not concerned. I think consoles are a great platform. Eventually you’ll have larger and more epic online components in those games. I certainly wouldn’t take that off the table for us. I think we need to focus on doing a small number of things and doing them really well.

“All these people who seem critical to quality leave, but Blizzard quality doesn’t fall. What the fuck are you doing over there?” Commitment. The people we have are committed to maintaining certain level of quality. We don’t hit it right away. Nobody does. … It all comes down to what’s really important and what are you committed to.

“Do you have official training methods?” The training process is going through development. If you go through development, you start off and you don’t really understand, and if you come out you understand. How it works. Why it works. Why something is important.

“What do you think it takes to get a job in the game business?” There is not one answer to that. There are a number of different paths into the game industry. It should be something you’re passionate about. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of work. It’s moving really fast. You have to stay up on things… Sometimes it helps to get your foot in your door and to get to know people. … People that rise up through the ranks maybe have a bit of advantage over someone who is outside the company trying to get in. We get a lot of resumes. … Experiment… Those things become part of your portfolio, so when you come in on your interview you can show that, “Hey I was really interested this, so I did this. Look.” We can see this guy took the initiative. He learned on his own. You don’t go do side projects on your own if aren’t interested in it.

“When you hire is it team fit or talent fit?” We look at both as they are both important. You can get disqualified basically if either of those aren’t there.

Must be a gamer. For all of positions. Our director of finance is a hard core WoW player. This saves Mike time because he doesn’t have to go convince him that we need to spend money on things like support.

“Before WoW came out, you said … the thing that the industry underestimates it the appeal of location based entertainment.” It’s about the appeal of playing with other people. You could call Rock Band location based gaming with 4-5 people in your living. The social aspect of gaming that connects people together is really exciting [bouncing in chair] and has a long way to evolve.

The Sims is a single player game. “With a single player community” But just to say, maybe there’s something there…

Probably if you look at it, the stock market is maybe one of the largest massively multiplayer games. (In reference to what Allen co-founder is working on.) Allen sounds like my kind of guy. Loves finance & money.

“What would you give up games to do?” I haven’t really found the thing. I love playing poker. I really love programming and I would like to get back to that. Maybe I’m just taking a really long break.

We can’t do something half-way.

Related Posts:

Lecture 1 Warren Spector
Lecture 2 w/Patrica York
Lecture 3 w/Harvey “Witchboy” Smith
Thinking, Fast & Slow – Irrational Perseverance
Lecture 4 w/Hal Barwood
Lecture 7 w/Mike Morhaime