The Invisible Hand: Using Level Design Elements to Manipulate Player Choice

Supervisor: Jonathan Skinner
Thesis / Project completed December 8, 2008
Master of Interactive Technology degree conferred December 13, 2008

One of the key tasks of a level designer is to manage “level flow,” the path that the player takes through the level. A good level subtly leads the player and makes the world feel larger than it really is. To accomplish this, designers use elements such as light and sound to attract or repel players and guide them, almost imperceptibly. This project examines the effectiveness of these level design elements within the context of a complete, first-person shooter level with specific interest on how players’ natural motivations could affect their reactions to these elements. Using the Bartle player types as a basis, this work defines three core motivations for player navigation: achievement, exploration, and combat. The hypothesis for this project was that players with the same primary motivation react similarly to a given flow control device.

This study involved the creation of a complete Half Life 2 level featuring eight common level design elements spread out across sixteen different decision points. In total, thirty subjects participated in the study, which involved taking a brief survey, playing through the level, and then talking about their experiences. Overall, the study was successful at identifying and analyzing player motivations when moving through a first-person shooter (FPS) level, though not in the way originally intended. For all but one of the decision points, the dominant decision was the same across all three player types. That does not mean that the design elements were completely ineffective, simply that they were one of several factors that affected players’ decisions. Factors such as the distance between paths or the player’s natural survival instinct also seem to have had a substantial effect on player decisions. Analyzing the data at a higher level, in addition to reviewing the qualitative information from players’ interviews, yielded some very interesting trends about how players make decisions in FPSs and could serve as the basis for substantial future research.

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