December 5, 2022
The Riddler Paradox
Why Feedback is Essential to Game Design
When we design games, we are guided by a vision of what we want our players to experience. But how do we know if the experience we’re striving to create translates to the player’s experience? In this article, Hyper Hippo’s Senior Game Design Manager, Gabriel Lefebvre, introduces the Riddler Paradox and what it can teach us about designing games that will resonate with your audience.
I am nothing, yet I contain everything. I am infinite, yet I can expand. If someone gives you some of me, they’ll move away from you. What am I?
Think you’ve figured it out? Click below to see if you’re right!Click to Reveal
What is the Riddler Paradox?
Now that you’ve solved the riddle, tell me about your experience. Was it fun? Was it too hard? Too easy? I rely on you to tell me, because, as the riddle’s creator, I can’t know what it feels like to solve it.
This brings us to the riddler paradox:
The creator of the riddle is the only person who cannot experience the riddle.
Let’s Apply This to Game Design
A brain teaser is a clear cut example, but this principle also applies to any game design element and any user experience.
As a designer, when you play the games you have designed, you tend to play it as you intended. This means that you’re likely missing other perspectives and approaches that your players take that may differ from your own.
So what’s the solution?
You need feedback! From colleagues. From friends and family. And ultimately, from your target or real audience.
This feedback will help you decipher what your players feel about your design. What are their expectations? How does their experience compare to your intent?
You can improve the quality of feedback you receive by focussing on the areas more likely to present a discrepancy between your objectives and the resulting experience. These include:
Is the difficulty appropriate for your intended audience? Does it vary in a way that challenges players without pushing them away?
Is the rhythm of content consumption engaging and varied? Or is it relatively consistent, but takes longer for players to achieve a win?
What emotions do you want your players to feel? How does the level of emotional intensity vary over time? Do you bring back emotional moments regularly throughout the gameplay sequence?
What does the game mean to the player? What message do they feel the game is conveying? Does their perception differ from your intended meaning?
Is the gameplay experience consistent in quality between areas and levels of the game? (Standalone driving levels in a single person shooter game, I am looking at you!)
What do players say when you ask them why they play your game? If requesting feedback from friends or family, ask them what would lead them to choose (or not choose) this game if they came across it on their own.
In all the cases above, it’s critical to remember that we’re talking about feelings. The feedback you receive will be centered on what your game makes people feel and how their feelings shape their experience of the game.
The trouble is, feelings are hard to quantify. Worse, feelings can be tough to express. Collecting and analyzing feedback is an art in itself, and could be the topic of an entirely different blog post.
When it comes down to it, your job as a game designer is to decipher what your players feel and compare that to your intent. And if they don’t match? It’s up to you to tweak, iterate, collect feedback, and repeat!
The Riddler Paradox is just that: a reminder that your game audience is not yourself. Your experience playing your game will not be the same as your players’, and you need to continually take their perspective into account if you want those sweet positive reviews!
Making a game is a conversation with your audience–so listen to feedback with a genuine interest. Always!
Appendix: The Quantitative Question
You may be thinking, “wait, but what about quantitative methods to assess game design feel?”
Quantitative behavior data can certainly help you to improve your game’s experience. That being said, it’s important to remember that data reveals the symptoms but rarely the cause. Quantitative data is not useful to assess the “why”, but it can still help translate a subjective experience into actionable values.
Here are two examples to show you how to use quantitative data to assess qualitative experiences.
EXAMPLE 1: Puzzle Difficulty
- Have a group of testers play through your puzzles (here assuming a series of levels).
- Calculate the success rate for each level.
- Reorder them to create variations in difficulty that flow well (though make sure you don’t conflict with the natural order of learning your puzzle mechanics).
EXAMPLE 2: Level Pacing
- Have a group of testers play through your levels
- Measure the time they take to play through them.
- Reorder your levels so that they create a good pacing that is not just from the shortest to the longest (In a future blog article, I will come back to this point: how peaks and valleys are critical to achieve a good pacing).