As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Which is why the more I learn about dog training, the more I transport lessons of dog training into lessons of game design, like the boring old church vicar whose sermon each Sunday can be guaranteed to be about what he saw on TV the night before. On the other hand, I’m a great believer in the world being our sourcebook, in finding the lesson or the inspiration in every single thing we do, that everything can be turned into something. Indeed, this is the best way to learn anything, to take what we are learning and link it to all the other ideas in our brain and see the wonderful universal truths that reinforce the patterns and also highlight the differences. Indeed, that also applies to game design: the best game design is about identifying the pre-existing ideas in players’ heads and making the game spark along those lines so it is so naturally intuitive you cannot help but follow them as if you’ve always known the rules, yet also evoking curiosity when the paths diverge. Yes, even my metaphors in my blog introductions are lessons in game design.
So expect more of this, just as there was before. And not just because I keep learning about dog training but because dog training is about psychology and game design is 100% about psychology. And dog training is 100% about games and game design. The more you make training fun, the more the dog wants to do it. And making it fun is what those five words in the title are about. Those are the five principles of rewarding your dog. If you follow them the dog has the most fun, engages the most, learns fastest and everybody wins. So yes, you want them in your game.
Fair is pretty obvious. We are drawn to games because they are fair. Because in the main, everyone gets equal shots at luck and everyone is on a level playing field. If a dog sits and gets a treat, you can eventually phase out the treat or ask for more complex behaviour to get the treat, but not straight away. If a sit gets a treat today and not tomorrow the dog learns that you aren’t fair – and he doesn’t want to sit quite so much. If you expect him to sit but don’t tell him to in the way you agreed upon, he gets confused and distressed. You’re not being fair. And if another dog gets a reward for the same thing while the first dog does not, the first dog may get very upset. Right down to the insects, animals understand the concept of fair. Throw fairness away and you throw away fun.
Quick is equally important. We play games again because they give us what real life cannot, and probably the most important part of that is feeling like we matter. That our actions have direct, identifiable consequences. The dog brain needs a reward in under three seconds to connect it to what it just did. Players can’t hold much out longer. An action should have return. That doesn’t mean that long term strategy isn’t a thing, but if you want engagement over that long time you want to keep people invested and we invest in what makes us feel powerful. And that sense of power comes from impact – immediate impact. Every action in a game should have a clear, palpable result. Even if it is negative, at least it is a result of what you did. One reason euro games are so successful is very little is negative it’s just less than what your opponent gets: you get a wood and a stone this turn, they got three wood and two stone. But you did an action and got a reward straight away. That is the most motivating thing you can imagine.
Generous is next. I talked about abundance in the linked post above about how dogs play games. Abundance is the sweetness that makes quick even better. Science shows that people learn fastest and adapt quickest when the reward they receive vastly exceeds their expectations. Abundance is difficult to put in games but the games we tend to come back to are the ones that have this. The problem is if you give people everything easily, it’s hard to challenge them or make the game a puzzle to be solved. But the easy solution to this is to make everything like getting blood out of a stone, where every point feels like you had to wring it out with effort. Sometimes hard work is fun, a brain burner is very rewarding but you have to be careful. And often you can get this without sacrificing abundance. A game can be a challenge and be overflowing with rewards. Seek abundance and your game will be better. Be generous to your players, because they – and your dog – deserve it.
Variable is important because animals, just like humans, have very poor tolerance for boredom. Animals will even forgo food rather than eat the same thing every day. The snacks for the dog should change. Change taste, change texture, change their value and change when and where and how they come. Variety really is the spice of life. In games this means you want there to be different kinds of rewards – different ways to win, different advantages to have, different ways to engage, different strategies to play. Even the tiniest arbitrary difference of wood and stone say, is enough to interest the simple human psyche. We don’t like too many variables, of course – we can’t juggle more than about six – but we love variety. Keep it simple is an excellent rule but don’t keep it boring.
Lastly there’s unpredictable. Like Fair, most of us know this one fairly well – it’s well established that games need to be not be solvable or just a matter of iteration. But we often boil this down to just “make it random”. Random dice rolls, random set up, random combinations. Unpredictable is more than just random: unpredictable means surprise. Surprise is the best friend of Generous – people engage more when they encounter what they do not expect. Keep things hidden. Include the unexpected. Let people explore and find things. Hide treats around your house for your dog. Give him a snack when he least expects it. He will feel like you are a wonder and try ever harder to please you. The surprised gamer, likewise, keeps digging, keeps trying. He is hungry. He wants the surprise. And that’s what you want: to not just engage but to keep them engaged, until their souls sing.
And instead of teaching them to sit and stay, you’re teaching them to keep playing your game. A place where things are fair but generous, where rewards come instantly but in ever different ways, and there are still surprises to be found. That’s what makes good games.