August 12, 2009

Beyond Player Tailoring: A Tomb Raider as Unique as You Are

I considered titling this post "Big Brother is Watching You...Game" but that seemed a bit too sensational. It also trivializes the achievements of the IT geniuses whose work I want to tell you about. These researchers are using Tomb Raider: Underworld to study exactly how gamers play in order to improve the gaming experience.

Anders Drachen, Alessandro Canossa and Georgios Yannakakis of the IT University of Copenhagen will be presenting their paper, "Player Modeling using Self-Organization in Tomb Raider: Underworld" at the 2009 IEEE Symposium on Computation Intelligence and Games in Milan next month.

They investigated the gaming behavior of more than 1300 players who completed Underworld in November 2008. According to the paper,

"Data was collected via the EIDOS Metrics Suite (a game metrics logging system utilized by EIDOS). The data collection process is completely unobtrusive since data was gathered directly from the game engines of subjects playing TRU in their natural habitat (via the Xbox Live! web service) rather than in a laboratory [setting]."

Vast amounts of data were collected ("1 million recorded gameplay sessions of TRU which will form the basis for future research," according to the paper), but for this particular study, the researchers whittled that down to 1365 Underworld players' data in three particular areas:
  • Number of in-game deaths and their causes (enemies, environment, falling)
  • Time taken to complete the game
  • How and when each player accessed the help-on-demand (HOD) feature
The paper details the methods used to crunch the numbers. Most of that sailed right over my head. (Hey, I was an English major.) But by analyzing all this information, the researchers were able to sort the players into four major clusters or types:

Veterans – Players who complete the game very quickly; who die very few times and whose deaths are mostly caused by the environment (traps, fire, drowning); and whose HOD requests vary from low to average.

Solvers – Players who take their time; who die quite often, mainly due to falling; and who rarely use HOD. According to the study, "Players of this cluster…are adept at solving the puzzles of TRU. Their long completion times, low number of deaths by enemies or environment effects indicate a slow-moving, careful style of play."

Pacifists – Players who die primarily in combat, whose completion times are below average, and who rarely use HOD. According to the researchers, pacifists form the largest group.

Runners – Players who die quite often, mainly by opponents and the environment, but who complete the game very quickly. Runners' reliance on HOD varies across the spectrum.

So what does this information tell us about game design and gameplay? According to the Danish researchers, "…the existence of four clusters of behavior, even in a fairly linear and restricted game like TRU, shows that players utilize the…space and flexibility offered by the design of the game, rather than simply using one specific strategy to get through the game." So basically the numbers confirm what we already knew intuitively: different types of gamers use different methods to get Lara from A to B.

In the past, smaller-scale player-modeling studies have been used to design more realistic AI for non-player characters (NPCs or "bots") in sports games and shooters, as well as creating interactive stories that change based on player interaction.

So how will game designers use this information to build a better Tomb Raider? I guess we'll have to wait and see, but these researchers envision on-the-fly player tailoring in which "information about the different player types can be used during play to dynamically alter in-game controllable parameters (e.g., help on demand accessibility, difficulty of jumps) to adjust to the needs and skills of the player type identified in real-time and ensure variation in gameplay."

Can't make a jump? Next time, Lara can go a little farther. Can't defeat that boss? Next time its health bar is a little shorter and its attacks do a little less damage. Spending too long on that puzzle? Suddenly the camera pans to show that elusive switch.

Now that would be cool indeed, though I suppose it could eventually put walkthrough writers like me out of a job.



  1. If this gets in a game someday, I hope you can switch it off. I always like the challenge and I feel this is kind of like cheating. If you can't make a jump, Lara will go farther is not so much different from using the fly cheat any more, is it?

  2. I agree, qwert. I'm a 'Solver' who likes a challenge. ;) If they really want to make games that appeal to a wide audience, that should include hard-core raiders. I want the option to turn off help, disable those panning camera cut scenes that show exactly how to solve a puzzle, and push Lara's already super-human skill set to the limit.

  3. I've been playing Tomb Raider since TR1 when I was in high school, although I've always been a casual player. Even with the way the camera pans to show the key switches, I still need the walkthroughs to help me. Turning the help functions off certainly would make things more challenging, but I quite enjoy the cut scenes. At least for the first few times.

  4. what can i say?the midgard serpent level really exhausted me & i abbondoned the game for a couple of days...untill the xibalba level,everything was nice & easy but now,as i descend deeper & deeper into the underworld everything turns into a nitghmare!

  5. Hi, Stella (your classical singer friend here):

    This will touch on a few of your posts, actually.

    I just happened to finish Underworld (with some help from your labor of course). This post was very interesting to me. I suppose I end up in the Solver category, and I appreciated the much lower number of enemies to slog through, so I could spend my energy and time on figuring out the puzzles (even though they weren't too hard). I also always love it when a Tomb Raider allows you to enjoy the scenery along your journey.

    The fact that the story involved Norse mythology (my favorite pantheon) and the A+ soundtrack kept the game interesting for me, but I felt that even the original TR was a better use of processing power and game engine (I suppose the use of Buzz Monkey was to blame here?)

    What I missed from this outing was the ability to get yourself to places that "one isn't supposed to" on the map. The linear quality of both Legend and Underworld left me with a bit of disillusionment. The fact I was playing the pitiful PS2 port of this game apparently made it even worse, with even fewer puzzles and areas to solve.

    I'm intrigued by the potential that the "leaked information" holds. being able to go EVERYWHERE is very appealing, and if they are going to use adaptive technology to fit varying styles of play, fantastic! I wish they had taken into account even more parameters, like use of the camera, or how Lara took damage, for example.

    The mention of a "young and inexperienced" protagonist has fed the rumor mill a bit, and I hope that they don't try to reboot the franchise. What I wish the developers understood is that so many of us don't care about changing Lara's facial features, or even game mechanics, so much as being able to participate in compelling stories and solve interesting puzzles as a character that we have grown to love. (Though I am glad that she is more realistically proportioned now--I think it had been a little demeaning).

    I think getting into Lara's head and emotional character has helped the franchise, not the fact that she can do chimney jumps now, or whether she carries a Desert Eagle versus Uzis. Customization is quite a big deal though, from the camera's x and y axes to the outfits that Lara wears, to the modders able to invest time and effort into homemade adventures. Had I been able to even adjust the camera controls would have made my experience with Underworld much more tolerable (shame on them for axing so much in the port).

    It fires the imagination to play as a character in a dramatic situation, and to have new adventures. That's how I want to play, and not in a linear way either. I urge developers to come up with interesting stories, and different ways for us to solve a problem. That's compelling gaming. Keep the mechanics the way they were for Anniversary, and just give us more adventures to play!

    Thanks Stella, for all your hard work, and for building a nice, new, blog :)

  6. Hey, Gary. You're very welcome, and thank you for sharing your thoughts. I'm pretty much in agreement about what makes a great Tomb Raider game and why the older games are still the best.

    I did enjoy the new ones--mostly because of the scenery and Lara's expanded range of movement (and emotions)--but I like a game I can get lost in. Lara-on-rails going from point A to point B just isn't Tomb Raider, as far as I'm concerned.

    I was talking to some TR speedrunners recently (for an article that will soon appear in this blog) and every single one of them prefers the old games to the new for just those reasons: being able to go off the beaten path in order to find your own way, discover areas and methods that perhaps even the designers didn't know about, etc.

    For me, it's like being Lara on a meta-level. Lara would not be content to run through a maze like a lab rat; she'd climb on top of the walls and look for an alternate path.

    There are plenty of shooters out there for people who want to shoot, plenty of racing games for people who want to ride motorcycles, etc. For me, Tomb Raider is about a type of exploration, discovery and puzzle solving that no other series has, and it's about the character of Lara--her trials and achievements, her anger at being double-crossed, her grief over losing her mother, etc. The designers should focus on the unique aspects of the game understanding that this is what drew players to them in the first place.

    Having read some interviews with Toby Gard and Eric Lindstrom (who, alas, no longer with Crystal Dynamics), I felt like this was the direction they were starting to take. But now, who knows? I guess we'll have to wait and see....