When the subject of managing expectations arises, it’s usually related to community management. I haven’t heard a lot of discussion about managing expectations in the field of game design.
Just as the community team communicates to the players, so does every element of the design. Each system sends a message that triggers a reaction in the player. Elegantly interwoven systems are like a well-written book, where each chapter is a sum of the complete experience. Many common writing techniques have their corresponding elements in game design. For the purposes of this post, I’m just going to mention foreshadowing.
Accumulating events in a book provide the reader with a picture of where the story is going, and tells you what is going to happen in between the lines. Poorly constructed books turn foreshadowing into complete predictability. Masterfully written books use foreshadowing as a way to create that epiphany where everything comes together. In those cases, re-reading the book often provides new insights, and you can see the little hints that are threaded throughout the entire book.
Game systems are similar, but it’s usually a much different approach. Each system gives the player an impression about what is going to happen, and about what is possible within your game. This is one of the problems that cross-genre games face, as they must deal with the expectations of two different audiences. If the systems aren’t handled with care, it’s likely the product will end up creating misleading expectations. It’s what happens if you give the player a first person perspective but don’t allow them to aim their gun. Or if you create an RTS mechanic with army management but no way to control units. Each system creates a response, and that response has an expected followup. Games like Puzzle Quest and Deus Ex are great at least partially due to their ability to manage expectations. When this is handled masterfully, it’s completely invisible to the player. Managing expectations only becomes a problem when there’s a flaw in the system. Those flaws lead to players wanting to do things that aren’t possible, which leads to disappointment.
As an aside, this also works in our favor. As each system begets an expectation, it also serves as a tool that helps us build increasingly deep and complex games without creating insurmountable learning curves. It’s critical that these silent messages are intuitive, as we can’t rely solely on customers who have heard them from previous games.
The games that fail to manage player expectations create disappointment, but what about the games that exploit those expectations? They’re the ones that help create some of the most memorable experiences games provide. They deliver the joy of discovery. We can also utilize the players’ expectations as a way to reward specific behavior and improve their experiences. Even the most novice designers know that the interactions between systems are critical, and expectations are just another extension of how systems communicate with the player.