Dark game design: the tricks and deceptions some developers use for short-term gain

EA’s iOS Dungeon Keeper revival has been widely criticised for its cheap free-to-play trickery.

That light in a doorway in Half-Life 2, those two switches coloured red or green in The Stanley Parable, those shiny golden rings that trigger a satisfying ding when you collect them, that table that shows you all the loot you have yet to unlock: there is an unabashedly behavioural component to almost every game. Colour, sounds, animation and music have inherent qualities that a smart team can use to accentuate effect. As a designer, if I need you to notice something, feel something, or find something fascinating, there are lots of behavioural tricks I can use.

It all depends on the kind of game I want to make. An experient designer thinks in terms of highs and lows. He’s all about the theatre and psychology of games. Perhaps his goal is to get you more deeply into the emotive space of the game. Perhaps he wants to use the game to convey a point. Either way, he focuses on the beats of the game and making sure he has your attention. But experient design has a dark side.

‘Dark game design’ is a term I adapted from ‘dark patterns’, a phrase used in the user-experience community to describe sleazy web (and other) design. Dark patterns are lowbrow tricks, such as disguising a banner advert to look like a Windows dialogue box in order to make a user download malware. A less invasive pattern is the practice of filling an innocuous checkbox by default to register a user on an email list.

An equivalent dark game design pattern uses tutorials to direct a player into buying things. You open a city-building game for the first time. It welcomes you, invites you to build your first building, open your first quest, earn your first reward and then buy your first in-game object. If you feel that transacting is easy, safe and socially acceptable, you are more likely to do so again. Psychologically, this is called ‘onboarding’.

“With the rise of social and mobile games, dark design patterns have exploded. In part, this is because they are easy to replicate, but also it’s related to economics. “

With the rise of social and mobile games, dark design patterns have exploded. In part, this is because they are easy to replicate, but also it’s related to economics. On PC or consoles, games tend to be sold up front. There is a kind of trickery used in promoting many games to maximise sales (effective trailers, say), but once bought, there’s rarely any more need for dark game design.

But free-to-play games rely on a few users paying for the many, and doing so repeatedly. There’s greater temptation in that environment to manipulate the game in order to generate better outputs (better adoption and better revenue). The free-to-play game maker often has to consciously choose not to fall into darkness.

As with all dark sides, choosing to deploy dark game design usually swaps short-term gain for long-term troubles. Just as many web users have learned to avoid those fake dialogue boxes and look for the checkbox signing them up to a newsletter, players get wise to dark game design. The novelty of sharing high scores is replaced by autocanceling. Players learn to do this as reflexively as muting their TVs when adverts play.

In the short term, your game’s player numbers may go up and your revenue might explode, but you inevitably sacrifice integrity. You might have onboarded a few players to pay for stuff, but you’re teaching many more to ignore any messages that the game spits out. It becomes harder to communicate with players and you lose their loyalty or the possibility of a game building a unique, defensible culture.

“In the short term, your game’s player numbers may go up and your revenue might explode, but you inevitably sacrifice integrity,” Kelly says of dark game design.

Maybe you’re fine with that. Casino game makers solve loyalty problems with massive amounts of advertising. They know what the expected lifetime value of their paying customer will be and simply work out a cost of acquisition. Maybe you hide in ethical equivalence. If you play the iOS version of Dungeon Keeper, it asks you to rate the game. But if you want to rate it less than five stars, it pushes a form on you to email the developers. The result? Lots of five-star ratings and a defensible argument against the trick.

Personally, I think the main problem with dark game design is the way that it leads to fatalism. Once you do one grey thing and the numbers go up, you do something a little greyer, and another, and another. Pretty soon you can’t really tell what’s dark any more.

When your studio only thinks of a game in terms of its numbers, that frames how you make decisions. Do we add feature X or mode Y? What numbers back that decision up and how do you know it will be successful? Dark game design may be founded on a circular sort of logic, but it’s a circle that’s hard to break out of.

Tricks often work. Deception is often rewarded. All arguments to the contrary start from the place of saying you just shouldn’t go dark because it’s wrong. And the fatalist says: prove it. The outputs do matter, but so does the darkness or light of the solution to improve them.

When adding a feature, do pay attention to what you expect the numbers to do, but also ask the question: ‘Are we going dark to get there?’ If so, find another way. There is always a smarter path, a way of getting to where you want to be without sacrificing the ephemeral qualities of the player community you’re engendering.