Designing for Humans

Patrick Miller

Test, test. Is this thing on?

Can everybody hear me? Okay, great. Looks like it just about time to get started,

but let’s give folks a few more minutes to trickle in and find seats.

Now, before I begin, I’m supposed to remind you all to fill out your audience evaluations after the talk; you should get them in your email soon. That’ll help us make the talks better! Especially if you like me and give me a really great rating. Then I can come back and give more talks! Win-win.

Wow, there’s a lot of people here. Oh hey — excuse me, Mr. A/V guy, do you know if I can play a video on this?

Oh. Okay. Well, we’ll give it a shot.

Right, we’ll get started. Hi friends! Welcome to the GDC 2037 Design Track kickoff. I’m David Pebbles, I’m the VP of Knowledge at Trio Games, and I’ll be speaking to you today about Designing For Humans: How Trio Games Won Capitalism.

First off, here’s the slide we put at the beginning of all our PowerPoint decks. It’s the mission statement for Trio Games: We want to create maximum value for players. Aw, that sounds nice, right?

Yay, video games.

Let’s start at the beginning. In 2027 we released our first game, Challenge of Champions, a free-to-play multiplayer online battleground that did well enough that we didn’t have to make another game for a while. Real quick, how many of you in the audience are CoC players? Just raise your hands.

Wow, that’s a lot. How many of you made it to level 30?

Mmm, okay. How many of you play ranked? Cool.

Now, when we released CoC, we wanted to make sure that it was a game that grew with the players. Normally, when you play a competitive game, you spend dozens, maybe hundreds of hours practicing it, you get as good as you can, and then when the new version comes out all of your hard work might be thrown away. So we released it with the intention of continuously patching it, adding new content, evolving and growing the experience in response to players’ needs. We felt like that was more respectful of the time and labor players put into the game — this is thinking of “player value” in the economic sense of the word, you see.

But at a certain point we realized that focusing all our efforts on the core game itself and adding new content was missing a lot of possible player value. Since the game is multiplayer, your experience as a player is in the hands of nine other people, and if something goes wrong in your interactions with those people, your experience might suck.

Yeah, sounds like a bunch of you were around before the great Behavioral Modification patch, huh. If you weren’t there, well, that was a patch in early 2030 that basically decreased toxic behaviors by about 90%. And the crazy thing is, this stuff didn’t just change the game experience, it changed the way players behaved outside the game, too.

So we kept on growing Challenge of Champions over the years by finding different ways to maximize player value, in the game as well as the systems around it. Sometimes that meant changing player behavior, and sometimes that meant—

Oops, dangit, the clicker’s not — oh, there we go —

…And sometimes that meant building out infrastructure to improve the quality of service. Yeah, internet infrastructure, but also like, water purification and power plants. Turns out it’s pretty hard to play games without water or electricity. But that’s a different talk! Check the GDC Vault from, I think it was 2032? Anyway, enough introduction, let’s get to the part you’re all here for.

Despite all of this work to improve the player experience, we had one pain point we didn’t think we could ever change — money. See, we found that players’ experiences were consistently negative when they felt like other players were able to spend more money on the game than they were. It didn’t matter that none of that spending affected their chances of winning — there’s no pay-to-win mechanics in CoC, just cosmetics and convenience. The poorer players’ problem wasn’t that they couldn’t compete against richer players, it was that they could tellthe richer players had more money.

So we just assumed that was a problem we couldn’t solve — after all, why would anyone spend money on cosmetic stuff if other players couldn’t see that they spent money on it? And if we made it all free, the players would love it, but we wouldn’t be able to pay people to continue making the game awesome, leading to an overall decline in player value. Whenever this topic came up — and it did come up — the conversation always ended here, and no one ever really pushed on it.

And then one day it came up among a handful of leftist agitators in an obscure off-topic Slack channel — they mostly used it for sharing diversity memes — and one of them pointed out that the Trio Games had more than enough financial resources to lobby for a universal basic income in every country we had an office in, which could potentially slash operating costs significantly.

Like, what? I know what you’re thinking — why would anyone work on this for free? Well, one of the lefties in HR put out a pulse check to see what people thought, and as it turned out, people were surprisingly enthusiastic.

Oh, funny story about that — actually, she had to do it as an internal hackathon project, since her boss thought it was silly and no one would go for it. But then she sent out a memo with the results of her surveys and interviews, and everyone spent three whole days glued to the office intranet.

Kinda crazy, right? But here’s what happened. As the studio grew, leadership focused their culture and hiring efforts on attracting people who were primarily motivated to work on making cool stuff for players, and less about money.

(I mean, how many of us would be in this room if all we wanted from work was to make money?)

As long as they were taken care of, about 80% of the company was down to keep working on it. Turns out, most of the studio played the game for years before they ever worked on it, and they knew how bad it felt to be the poor person in the group. Plus, without the pressure of a paycheck, they were free to balance the rest of their life however they wanted; no more crunch, everybody can work from home a lot more, that kind of thing.

None of us realized it at the time, but in hindsight, this was when things really started to happen. It just seemed like any other office drama, you know? But I guess when you’ve got a worldwide organization with a lot of smart and capable people realizing that profit-seeking is getting in the way of the mission everyone signed up for — and what’s more, that the things in their way were just specific people — everything can move a lot faster than you’d expect a software developer to move.

Right after the memo discussion died down and people were ready to get back to work, a psychologist and an economist working on CoC released some exploratory research results around the playerbase’s attitudes towards generosity and disposable income. There’s a lot of slides in this deck, but here’s the most important takeaway they found: On average, players are more likely to donate more per month to play CoC with all content free than they are to spend per month to unlock content, and they’d feel better about it.

You know, when you phrase it that way, it almost makes too much sense. Of courseit’s going to feel better freely giving a developer a couple bucks to keep making a cool thing than it would to spend that money to check a flag in your account that says “It’s okay, you paid for this virtual hat, you can wear it now.” It’s just that none of us ever thought we could just ask something like that.

Ooh, another funny story!

While the extreme majority of surveyed players were in favor of making all content free, there was one group who was opposed: anyone whose lifetime spend was over $10,000. Most of their feedback consisted of rants about communist freeloaders. (Interestingly enough, opinions in this group didn’t change if they were offered refunds.) But, frankly, no one really felt great about playing with them anyway, because they mostly seemed to enjoy showing off how much money they could spend that you couldn’t. So they threatened to leave, and everyone was actually pretty stoked about that.

So, the players were down to do it, and so were the employees. The last thing standing in their way was the executive team, who argued that not paying salaries would cripple their ability to assemble and retain world-class talent, compromising the company’s ability to serve our players. Which, yeah, there’s something to that, right? If you want the best, you should be ready to pay for the best. (And considering their salaries, it’s likely they considered themselves examples of what you get when you pay for “the best.”)

That argument lasted about two hours before HR released a memo projecting that the company’s proposed transition to a worker-owned collective was driving up recruitment efforts across the board — in part because the news coverage about all this had self-selected all the profit-motivated people out of the recruitment pipeline, making it easier for us to find people who are really into what we’re doing, and in part because there are plenty of world-class game developers who would be happier with less money and more time. (It’s actually pretty cool, now — we’re getting lots of volunteers from other studios, who are sending their folks to work on CoC for a couple years at a time so they can learn how to work in a development collective the way we do.)

Now, normally the executive team doesn’t, strictly speaking, have to argue with the rest of the company — if your execs or your board of investors are in opposition to a thing, that thing isn’t happening. But we got lucky, here. Thanks to a foreign acquisition early on in the company’s history, none of the execs actually owned any of the company any more. The owners looked at what was going on, decided it wasn’t worth dealing with, and let the studio spin themselves off with a license to keep building the game in exchange for a percentage of profits.

Ohp, and here’s the last slide. I guess it gets kind of anti-climactic here, which is good because we’re all out of time. With the entire company aligned on this course of action, the plan itself was pretty simple — “Find the people stopping this from happening and hire them to make it happen” — so we did that, and they did their jobs. All told, we’re happier, our players are a lot happier, and we’re making about 5% more this year through donations than we were last year through charging for unlocks.

Well, that about wraps it up. How are we doing on time?

…Got it. Okay, we’ve got a few minutes for questions. Just line up by the mic over here. You, sir, why don’t you start us off.

Heh. The question was “What are you going to do next?” Unfortunately, I can’t announce any future plans yet, but, heh, it’d be kind of nice to work on another game, you know?