In my experience, players tend to do what is statistically the most efficient, regardless of how fun it is. I have done research on a possible solution to this problem, specifically regarding the use of cover by players in shooters.
This article contains an example of using the scientific method to find a solution to a game design problem. Put simply, the scientific method has 5 steps:
Players in first person shooters tend to sit behind one piece of cover, shoot at everything until a room is clear, and then move up to the next piece of cover. Although this is very reliable and efficient for the player, it can be very boring. As stated before, this can be attributed to the player’s tendency to do what is statistically the most efficient.
I wanted players to have more fun and be more engaged. I could try to invent a system that does this by making players move more, but this system would have to be able to be made by a single level designer, and that system would have to be applicable to many shooter games. So the research question becomes: How can we engage players more while keeping development time and costs down?
Perhaps by using Animated Cover? Animated cover means the cover players hide behind for safety is moving around on a set path and will both disappear and reappear. Because the animations need to be simple for players to understand them, the animations can be made by just one person. The player will then be forced to move with the cover, making the most efficient gameplay also the most engaging gameplay.
I created two levels with animated cover in them for Half-Life 2: Episode 2.
The animated cover I made consisted of:
Chest-high walls that come out of the ground and get back into the ground
Large walls that rotate continuously and never stop
Large fans that the player can only shoot through, but cannot move through
Large sheets which are transported over set lines, and move at a set speed
I then duplicated these levels, and removed the animations from the cover. 20 playtesters of varying levels of skills then participated in the actual test. 10 of them played through the levels with animated cover, and 10 of them played through the levels with static cover. Using the Source Engine’s demo system, I was able to replay all gameplay at will and look at how players behaved.
Players who played with animated cover tended to move more, even in situations where they encountered static cover after having used animated cover. During playtesting these animated cover players also seemed to enjoy playing a lot more.
Players were forced to move due to the animation of the cover. By forcing players out of their comfort zone, and making the most statistically efficient gameplay also the most fun, players were more engaged while playing through the levels.
This animated cover can be applied to other FPS games as well, and it was implemented by just one level designer. Obvious caveat: if the game takes place in a realistic setting, it may be difficult to find reasons for the cover to move.
While this test and solution may not be perfect, and more research can be done to improve this system, I hope it shows how the scientific method can be used for game design purposes.
( If you’d like to read more about animated cover, you can do so on Gamasutra. If you’d like to try these animated cover systems yourself, then please contact me by e-mail or on twitter )