Brent's Toys,  Technology,  The Lazy Designer

Game Dev Update

Decent work has progressed on the kid’s educational/robot building game (and to the supplemental document I’m writing to explain my design process on it). If you are bored/curious, it’s the top link on my unity page. Lower your expectations accordingly.

It is not feature complete, but it’s feature sufficient and probably won’t be tweaked too much more. The most recent addition I’ve made to it is a player tracking mechanism, so I can keep tabs on how well the kids are doing while playing the various educational levels. There’s no front-end view for the data yet, but I’m tracking what I need to be tracking.

This tracking led to an interesting discussion between myself and my 5yr old. He was playing various levels on the other computer, to test the tracking system out (though he did not know that) and I monitored his progress. I kept on going up to him and congratulating him when he did well and asking him why he skipped some levels (or fared poorly). He eventually became disgruntled at this and told me to stop spying on him.

After I laughed though I thought a bit about that. In Book 5 of the Lazy Designer, one of the chapters discusses ways to track player data and what to do with it (i.e., how to use it to guide the design of DLC and subsequent projects). Aside from achievement systems though, I’m not sure how many games actually ship with these player data tracking hooks… and if so, what do players think of them. Does it bother you if you know the developer has access to your play history? Should this be voluntary data collection only (i.e., an opt-in program)?

Or does it matter? Personally I don’t really care if the developer is able to track my progress in most types of games, as long as the data collection is handled anonymously and passively (i.e., don’t force an Internet connection for the game just because you want to track my data.) What about the rest of you?

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.


  • James Paten

    Hi Brent,

    I thought one of the most intriguing things The Walking Dead games provided was showing how the choices you made compared with other players. Did you side with Kenny in an argument… and if so, how many (as a percentage) other players did the same thing?

    I did not feel I was being spied on for this… maybe because the game presented itself as the exact opposite? Sure, it was implied that My data was being collected… but I also got to see the end result, by seeing how other players chose. I, in a way, became a conspirator in the spying, as it were.

    So maybe the key is not only telling the player what data is being collected and how… but maybe also give them a way to view the aggregate data; maybe even right through the game UI? A mammoth task, to be sure. But one I think would be enormously rewarding if it could be accomplished.

  • Brent Knowles

    Hi James,

    I like that. Once the data is available to every player, it is a lot like collaborative spying. For certain types of games, it could be a lot of fun to “explore” that data. I can imagine several ways to make use of that.



  • Robert

    Hi Brent,

    Spying in modern stuff is one of the many things that keeps me going back to old games. I dislike feeling like a lab rat, and the thought of being a star in some powerpoint presentation as the someone who “took over 20 attempts to beat X!” is always there in the back of my mind. I remember a presentation on Mass Effect where the data collected was really very detailed (ie not just how long you played, whether you finished etc). If your decisions in Dragon Age Origins or KOTOR 2 could be sent to an experienced psychologist, he/she could probably give a surprisingly deep personality analysis of the player.

    I wonder how art would look like if the great writers and painters in our history had had instant data on what people thought of their work. Instead, they gave it their best, and people grew into the result often over time. Sometimes it took decades after the artist’s death for work to be recognized as exceptional. Today we have the opposite – people design according to a vision and then cut or water down subsequent works based on test subject telemetry.

    Artists should be social and creative leaders. Telemetry is making them followers.

  • Brent Knowles

    Hi Robert,

    I agree that you’ll probably never see anything really clever or wonderful created based on data tracking. What it does give you is refinement… of an existing vision. And a means towards making particular arguments.

    The truth is most videogames cannot be “artistic” in the way that a painting or novel is. There’s just too many cooks in the kitchen and the boss may not be creative in the least — the boss might be the exact opposite of creative… somebody with really terrible ideas.

    What the data gives you — when used wisely, which it often is not — is a way to argue against really stupid decisions. If someone senior is telling you to cut a plot for budget reasons you can turn to the data and show how well received the plot is, how much players enjoying exploring it, how well they engage with combat. You can argue against project directors who want to make combat easier, or reduce progression or trim branches from a story.

    Admittedly, this is not what most data is used for at this point — many studios probably just look at the highest level of data and make knee jerk reactions. But I used lower level data a fair bit to argue and save “old fashioned features” in games more than I saw it used to water down a game.

    But yeah, the data itself does create a boundary around the work, that will limit it.

    Thanks for the great comment!


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