Passed by Ubisoft and LucasArts, Célia Hodent helped the Epic Games studios to make Fortnite the success we know. His secret? An in-depth knowledge of the cognitive mechanisms at work during a game. On the occasion of the release in June of her book “In the brain of the gamer”, she explains her methods.
Editor’s note: The second part of this interview will focus on ethics in video games and will be published next week.
What makes gamers like or dislike a video game?
A central question here is that of motivation. When we play or, more generally, when we do an activity, we like to have specific goals, accomplish them and be rewarded for that. This is true in a game but also in school or at work. These are called extrinsic motivations. In a game, therefore, it is important to have clear goals, to know what will happen when we reach them, etc. There are also what are called intrinsic motivations and they are just as important. It’s the idea that humans are more motivated by an activity that meets their needs for skill, autonomy and affiliation.
How does this translate into a video game?
If you progress in a game, go up in level, it makes you want to continue because you feel that you are competent in this activity. It is therefore important that players understand how to play. We think a lot about the construction of the introduction: the idea is to make participants understand how the game works, but in a fun way. Rather than receiving a host of instructions, players feel like they are learning on their own.
And the need for autonomy that you evoke? What does this mean?
Human beings love to express themselves. Being able to choose an avatar, his clothes, dance movements like on Fortnite … all that allows to express himself. Autonomy also means being able to make choices in a game. There are some that give us more or less autonomy. If games like Minecraft or GTA are so popular, it’s mainly because they offer so much freedom.
What about the feeling of affiliation?
It’s the need to feel affiliated with other people. We are a social species. So we tend to like games that allow you to interact with other people in an interesting way. We also see it in sport: many practices are team sports. In video games, interactions can be based on competition. But we must not forget the cooperation which is also very interesting even in competitive games. In Fortnite for example, we can collaborate. And in RPGs, everyone has a specific role to play so we all need each other.
How do you apply cognitive science to video games?
When we talk about UX, user experience, there are two fundamental axes: is the game usable and is it engaging. Usability is asking whether we understand where to go, how enemies can harm us, how we fight them, etc. We also think a lot about the amount of information that players have to memorize because we have to avoid overloading it. This is why the choice of the elements which will be permanently displayed should not be taken lightly. In Fortnite for example, whenever you are close to something you can open, a pop-up tells you which button to press to do so. So you don’t have to memorize it. This simplifies the life of those who start the game and those who return after a few weeks of break. Regarding player engagement, the work will for example focus on the introduction of certain elements. In Fortnite, construction is very important but it is very complex. In story mode, we therefore decided to introduce it at a time when the players are blocked. Players are more interested in what they learn then than if they had been given a long list of instructions well in advance of the obstacle.