GameDuell’s Head of Game Design and User Experience Howard Phillips talks about engaging gameplay and the psychology of game design.
Olga: As a Head of Game Design and User Experience, what does really stand behind your job title, Howard?
Howard: Oh, there are a lot of things. First and foremost, GameDuell team members and I work at open-ended ideation looking for promising game ideas and concepts. This is integrated with ongoing prototyping and play testing. Then, separately from that, we’re also working more systematically to construct new game forms employing iterative user-centered design. But most importantly, working in User Experience (UX) and Game Design means that my primary job is to support the project teams in creating fun and accessible gameplay. At the same time, we are extending our knowledge regarding how and why certain gameplay structures work better than others, why players like them so much, and why they are motivated to play them again and again.
Olga: There’s probably a lot of psychology involved in game design, then?
Olga: Is there a scientific approach towards that?
Howard: There are certainly lots of approaches flowing out of the knowledge of cognitive science. That’s valuable, no doubt about that, but it’s important to remember that game design is also an art. You can mechanically construct things like steering wheels and joysticks and calculate the right difference between them - but without an overarching artistry, games don’t work. So the only effective approach combines science with art. That’s what’s needed to attract and engage players.
Olga: How did you acquire your knowledge of gaming psychology?
Howard: I’ve been making games since 1981. That’s a lot of games. When you’ve been in an environment for such a long period, you see the underlying patterns, the forest for the trees as they say – you see the individual player behaviors but you also recognize the common overall behaviors. Separately from that, when I worked at LucasFilm Games and then also at Microsoft, I spent a fair amount of time exploring non-gaming applications of game design and game theory, specifically, education and training. The more I explored that, the more I became familiar with the cognitive science of game play. What first started out as a quick read of leading academic research, became a deep dive into cognitive science followed by even deeper dives into psychology, neurology, and then functional neurobiology - the study of how our brain works. Lastly I retreated from the “hard science of the brain to the “soft science” of behavioral psychology - the attempt to explain why people behave the way they do. I informally schooled myself to the point where I could have semi-coherent and productive conversations with leading learning scientists and educational technologists. Having these additional perspectives has really helped me in game design.
Olga: Do you have a big academic library on games?
Howard: I have a number of great books on game design but my shelves are more occupied with books on cognitive science, neuroscience and psychology. It’s interesting, most everything we know about players’ behavior in games, and most everything that we have learned about game design, is also reflected in formal research findings from over the previous 50 or 60 years. There is great alignment between these two sources of “truth”. For me it was very interesting to discover this. Players, who are spending all their time and money in the game space, have the same brains and hearts as the subjects of research studies – we’re all humans, after all, and we all generally interact the same way, so there shouldn’t be any reason why cognitive science “truths” wouldn’t be directly related to game design “truths”. Game Design is Art and Science.
Olga: Do you play games yourself? What’s your favorite current game?
Howard: I love games - these days I’m most interested in their atomic components. For me, it’s like taking apart a broken fan and trying to figure out how to fix it. Our game lab is always full of little sparkling gems of cool, interesting bits of gameplay, so I’m constantly trying out new prototypes and thinking about how we can optimize them and make them even more fun. I like the randomness and the dirtiness of unfinished games – they’re the perfect balance between entertainment and intellectual stimulus, and for me, that’s the best kind of play.
Howard Phillips is a renowned veteran of the games industry. A double winner of the “Game of the Year” award and Nintendo’s first “Game Master” in North America, Howard is associated with over 160 games, which makes him one of the most prominent icons in the worldwide games industry.
He joined GameDuell in July 2015 as Head of Game Design & User Experience.
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