For Honor Director Jason Vandenberghe Speaks On What Keeps Us Playing

What is it about games, really, that drives us to spend hours at a time playing them? It’s a question that Jason Vandenberghe, creative director of For Honor, has been unraveling for years in a series of talks at the annual Game Developers Conference. His latest panel, titled Engines of Play: How Player Motivation Changes Over Time, looks at what pushes players to start playing a game and how that’s separate from what keeps them playing. Before his talk, we had a chance to chat with Vandenberghe to find out what he’s learned and how it’s affected his game-design philosophy.

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Can you give us a general idea of the talk you gave at GDC 2016?

Jason Vandenberghe:
The talk is called Engines of Play, and it’s the third in the series. I’ve been doing this long-term study in player motivation and developing a series of models about it, and in my second talk, I reached the point where I had this nice model of players that talks about how players are different from each other and what kinds of things they like.

I put it into practice, and I found that it was missing a couple of things. It wasn’t explaining certain aspects of player behavior, and our designers had some holes in their knowledge. So we started looking for other models to use and expand our repertoire. So the talk is about how we took the model of the five domains of play, and then this other model called Player Experience of Need Satisfaction. PENS is a gaming translation of a thing called self-determination theory, which turns out to be one of the most important models of human psychology out there, and we sort of merged them together in an unholy fusion.

As it turns out, when you start to sit down at your console and you’re like, “What am I going to play tonight? What am I going to do?” The decision that you’re making is usually based around taste, like “what am I in the mood for?” And then you start playing, and fairly rapidly, that taste gets satisfied. After 30 to 60 minutes of play, you’re like, “Cool, I’m good, that’s been handled.” But sometimes you find yourself still playing, and maybe a thousand hours of gameplay later, you’re no longer playing for taste. You’re not playing because you like the cool fantasy stuff, or the action-adventure. You’re playing for other reasons.

The reason you’re playing is called satisfaction theory. You’re playing for these universal truths, these universal satisfactions that all humans want. Things like mastery, development of skill. It’s stuff that, when you put the controller down, you still have it. When I stop playing my video game and set the controller down to go to dinner, I still have the skill. I don’t lose it when I turn off the computer.

How has learning all that affected your approach to your work in game design?

JV: It’s pretty simple. One thing that I’ve learned to say about this is that psychology is not really directly useful as a game-design checklist generator. Game psychology, and these models of psychologies, are tools for making better game designers.

All that’s happened is that I’ve gotten a better sense of empathy for my players, so then I naturally build systems that they will like, instead of systems that don’t work for them. And the same thing is true for my designers. I don’t necessarily say to them, “Hey, how does your design fit this checklist thing?” What I say is, “Here’s how people work,” and then when they build a design, they can use that language as a way to talk through whether this will work for our players. And then they will naturally find the holes in their designs, and it gets better and better

Have you discovered a particular satisfaction-related feature that you find works often, or that you’re fond of?

JV: What’s awesome about this approach is that I didn’t actually need to do any of the research about PENS and satisfaction. Self-determination theory was a theory that was introduced in the early ’70s, and it’s all about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is, “I’ll give you a dollar if you go and do this thing.” You’re doing it, but it’s for something external. Intrinsic motivation is, “I really like doing that thing. I have an opportunity to go do it. I think I’ll go do it.” And it’s a theory that talks about why people do that, like what are the conditions under which people are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, and how that all works. It turns out to be this incredibly important theory in all of the structures we have today in our society. It really changed the world in a big way.

For us, mastery is a really good one. We have this game design rule of thumb, which is that the game needs to be easy to learn and difficult to master. That’s mastery, that’s satisfaction. Because if a game is easy to learn and easy to master, well, you master it, but then you hit the maximum. You don’t get any more skill tokens out of that because you’ve reached the maximum skill. But if a game is easy to learn but difficult to master, like if it’s got this really long journey that you need to go on in order to really master it, and there’s this endless amount of skill that you can increase, then what that says to a player who likes that experience is, “as long as you keep playing at this game, you’re going to continue to accumulate skill points, and this is an endless resource for you.” So if you like that game, and you like that kind of skill, and you feel a sense of attachment to that skill and you like the fact that you’re good at that, then this game offers you an opportunity to collect those skills.

Of course, we’re making a fighting game, a game about swordfighting, multiplayer conflict and stuff, so that’s been a big deal for us. But at a high level, everything in your game needs to serve that long-term satisfaction in some way. Everything needs to reinforce and support those long-term satisfactions because that’s the real reason people are playing. Long-term, it’s autonomy, mastery, and relatedness.

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The amazing thing about it is, where this whole model came from, there was a paper they published in 2006 that detected that when people buy a game based on their tastes, it can be a perfect game for them in terms of their tastes, but that doesn’t predict whether or not they’ll buy the sequel. But they’ve also found that people will buy a game that may not be a perfect fit for their taste, but if it has a high degree of satisfactions, if it gives them a high satisfaction experience, that predicts whether or not they will buy the sequel. So that paper is kind of the basis of this theory, that people will start out based on tastes, but they’re going to come back for the satisfactions.

It’s true for every major franchise. Assassin’s Creed has a huge amount of that stuff. All of the really big, world-famous, long-standing video games turn out to do really well, which we would expect. You’d expect that to be true, right? Those are the games that people are going to recommend to their friends. If you play it for 20 hours and you’re like, “I’m still playing this and I’m having a really good time,” then you’re going to say, “Yeah, go ahead and buy it. Chances are you’re going to like it too.” But if you’ve played it, and you’re kind of, “enh, I don’t know. Like, it was cool, I liked it at first, but I don’t know, something about it, it just didn’t grab me.” That’s the language players use when they mean “It didn’t satisfy me. It didn’t have these satisfactions in there. It satisfied my taste, but I just didn’t want to keep playing. I wasn’t getting anything out of it.”

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