Arena, Labyrinth, Plot

(This is part of a series of post I’m writing in order to have something to refer to as a trigger when Alzheimer’s claims my consciousness. There’s more parts that I wrote first, if you’re interested: prologue 1, prologue 2, part 1)

Vivid memory: sitting in one of the weirdly tall presentation halls at the GDC in 2004, and watching in horror and awe as Nicole Lazzaro blasted a hole in my brain. It would prove to be a wound that I would never recover from.

Nicole Lazzaro: Action Philosopher

Do you know of her 4 Fun Keys? If you are game designer and the answer is ‘no’, then first: swift kick to the shins!! And, next, get started. It is good stuff.

In 2004, though, the year that Nicole would give her first ‘4 Fun Keys’ talk, I had had none of that. In 2004, I was a four-year Electronic Arts ‘vet’, making games starring James Bond.

Like most of us at that time, I was largely self-taught, at least in the tasks that I was being paid for. I had been taught to program by my father, and had been taught to make movies by my university, but I was doing neither of those things. I was an associate producer, trying to guide a group of unruly level designers through the corrals of shipping a game at EA.

And I needed some game design principles with which to guide those guys. Hoo, boy, did I ever. They were, as we say, ‘challenging’.

Fortunately, I had a slight leg up, having been buried in psychology and technology for most of my childhood (thanks to parents who shared those interests), and having been an avid roleplayer and gamer for my entire life. But, although I had been working in the games biz for years by this time (my first gig was in 1996) I had not really been exposed to anything like a games industry collective wisdom. You know, like the kind of thing you could get at the GDC.

After all, it was EA. When you said, “I would like to go to the GDC this year,” the response was always a crooked look, and: “Why, you looking for a new job?”


For the record, Dudes Who Always Said That: “No, asshat. It’s because, unlike you, I have an interest in pursuing and contributing to human knowledge. Unlike you, I am not happy with plundering my industry for personal benefit. I want to give something back. You can’t imagine what that would feel like, can you? Wow, that says horrible things about you.”

I’ve always wanted to say that. I wish I could say it to his/their face(s).

ANYWAY! Where was I?

RIGHT! I had been starving at EA, you see. For years, I had been learning my trade, but with the exception of just a brief handful of other intellectual souls, I was without collaborators in trying to grasp something like a functional theory to explain what in the hell we were doing.

And it seemed important, you know?!? Lots of money was flowing through a thriving industry, I had been shaped by the games I had played, and there seemed to be some kind of underlying structure to what we did. But there were blessed few academics interested in what we were doing (seems strange that less than 10 years later that has changed so fast), and what few books existed at that time had failed to compel me.

We were drowning in a need to succeed with motivating our players, but we had no theory to work with, and I had not yet encountered the theorists that would (soon) solve this problem for me.

“FINE!” I said, shaking my fist at the sky, “I’ll make my OWN damn theory!”

Of course, being a young, brash, un-academic, I proceeded as most of us did: I made it up. Looking back, I imagine that I could have consulted with the grand wizards that stalked the halls of the building I worked in at the time (you know, guys like Rich Hilleman and Bing Gordon… the ‘little people’). Hell, every leader on the team I was on had been making games for over a decade. But did I ask them what they thought?

Of course not. I was way smarter than those guys. Pssh.


Anyway. In my off-hours (or, during the 30-minute map build cycles we had on 007: Agent Under Fire), I would furiously scribble manic insanity in a notebook I was carrying around, attempting to first brainstorm all the varieties of player motivation I could come up with, and then organize them.

Game designers all do this, I think, at some point. There’s a joke that floats around the GDC: “What this industry really needs is another player taxonomy!” There are as many taxonomies as there are designers, I believe. (Perhaps a taxonomy of designers would be useful!)

What I came up with would prove to be simultaneously insightful and revealingly incomplete. Heh. I have a blind spot, it turns out.

I devised a three-motive system that I lovingly/pretentiously named ‘Arena, Labyrinth, Plot’. It went like this:

  • The ‘Arena’ was the part of the game that had moving, unpredictable targets in it, and required a skill test to overcome. The ‘shooting and jumping’ part.
  • The ‘Labyrinth’ was the path, doors, and keys that the player traversed during play. Quests, achievements – that sort of thing.
  • the ‘Plot’ was the context & characters that gave the experience meaning. Story, or the lack thereof.

There was a lot more to it, but you get the idea. It was neat. Wrong, as I would soon learn, and woefully focused on what I knew (single-player action/adventure), but neat.

‘Soon’, in fact, was GDC 2004, in that weirdly-tall presentation hall, when Nicole Lazzaro put this slide up on her screen:

The 4 Fun Keys - Hard Fun, Easy Fun, Serious Fun, People Fun

Suddenly, the ‘Arena’ was where ‘Hard Fun’ (‘fiero’) happened. The ‘Labyrinth’ was where her ‘Serious Fun’ (‘relaxation’) happened. My ‘Plot’ was a small part of what ‘Easy Fun’ (‘amusement’) was talking about, but hers was broader and more complete.

And I had totally missed ‘Social Fun’. It hadn’t even occurred to me.


(For the record, while that omission may have been partially attributable to the pre-‘social’ game developer culture at the time, it’s far safer to place the blame on my inherently solo gaming habits. I… don’t play games with other people much. They never want to 100% all the levels and do all the challenges and stuff! Is that so wrong?!?)

But for me, in that moment, my obvious omissions were not the point. The point was that I was sitting in the room with at least one other person who was trying to think about this problem in something like the way I did. And from the looks of it, there was significantly more than just one.

We’re at the end of this tale. I’ll close with the other thought that hit me at that time, something that has continued to be my focus and priority in thinking about these problems. It is this: Nicole’s work (and most of the work that has been done on this topic) was focused on understanding the player-side part of the equation.

This is crucial work. Understanding our players is the basis of everything we do, and it was the work that simply hadn’t been done at that time. Nicole (and a few other people, who I hope to talk about next time) did and continue to do pioneering work in pushing forward our empathy for our players.

(Amazingly, this is also the part that many people on the development side consider a waste of time, and actively discourage. Although, it should be said that the success of Zynga and their motivation metrics has finally shut most of those bozos up. Good riddance.)

However, the part of the equation that has always drawn my interest has been the design side. Nicole identified ‘Hard Fun’ in her model of motivation – and my process has been to try and define a series of guidelines for designers that would lead the way towards creating that kind of fun in a person.

I haven’t succeeded in this. At the time, I called this the ‘Arena’. Now, it’s something else, and I have the distinct impression that we are getting closer to a solve for this problem. But, solved or not, I walked out of that hall in 2004 filled, both with the illuminating brilliance of new insight, and with the contentment that there was still plenty of work to be done.

Which is important, I think, for a 100% completist like me.

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