Studying Gamers Gaming, Not the Games (GoldenEye 007 Examples)

May 30, 2011

No amount of studying a hurdle can reveal to us everything about hurdling. A hurdle is only one piece of the activity. The activity has much more to do with the workings of people and physical forces than with artifact’s construction. By the workings of people, I am referring to joints, respiration, perception, and dexterity, but also so how these lead to higher level patterns like practice or rising and falling hope. By physical forces affecting movement, I am referring to gravity, friction, mechanics of collision, and so on.

Studying a hurdle amounts to either studying human thinking and action in response to it, and the forces affecting the hurdler, or getting lost in the comparatively irrelevant details of the hurdle’s form and construction.

The hurdle is an artifact that leads people to find within themselves the skill of jumping in a very particular way. It favors jumping while running in a way that loses minimal speed, expends minimal energy, and best preserves balance. The hurdle acts as a consistent, unforgiving, and objective measure for the athlete to discover and refine this skill.


Likewise, for many videogames, the artifact is a constructed framework guiding the player to discover and refine some particular set of skills and mental models.

The momentary thoughts and actions of a player reveal more about the videogame than its programming.

[Of course, unlike the physical example of human bodies jumping hurdles, in a videogame the ‘workings’ of people (input, sight) and ‘physical’ forces (incremental logic dictating space, objects, time) have to be reconstructed. There is considerable wiggle room in how they are reconstructed. However I have explored the nature of that flexibility already at length in other entries, and for today we’ll focus more on how the hurdler hurdles.]

Out of the millions of calculations happening every second, most will be drowned out as insignificant details, with the player focusing instead on finding rationale for which maneuvers to execute and then executing those maneuvers.

The gameplay isn’t in the environment, characters, story, or art – though those clearly have value, are likely what draw and perhaps hold someone’s attention to the game, and are more likely to play out in the imagination afterward. Nor is the gameplay in the videogame’s programming and designed content. Gameplay exists as the player’s approach to navigating the designed content within means afforded by the programming, in the manner implied or primed by setting, characters, story, and art.

Goldeneye 007 Examples

Because the AI sees the player based on a trace from the center of the head, but a headshot can be done by trace to any part of the head, most encounters begin by advancing slowly against a corner until just enough of each enemy is exposed for a headshot, before the center of the head is exposed to set off guard attention.

AI’s general response to being alerted, except where flagged to hold position and fire over destroyable cover, is to move toward the player until completely exposed, then stop moving to initiate a firing animation. In response to this, a successful technique emerges to retreat then focus sights on a nearby corner, where enemies can be serially defeated with ease as they come around a predictable distance then pause to fire.

Enemy bullets are stopped by most level structures that NPCs cannot destroy or navigate over. Player bullets, on the other hand, can reach any point within line-of-sight. This leads to gunfights that focus on maneuvering to maintain a position from which the player can harm enemies yet those enemies must run past player line-of-fire to harm the player.

The animation system inhibits other action events, so that the player can stun an alerted enemy by using a quick shot from the hip before lining up a fatal headshot during the enemy’s hurt response animation. That technique is common during gameplay.

NPCs in many levels follow consistent paths at consistent speeds with consistent starting positions, leading to rehearsing the action as part of rehearsing level navigation. (Observe that this is unlike internalizing the patrols, since the only detail that needs to be learned here is where an enemy will be at the moment the player reaches each position on time.)

If one player has a vastly superior weapon from the set, or if one player has body armor and the other does not, an otherwise even skill match in multiplayer will be uneven in a firefight. This produces behavior of racing to these objects then controlling access to them.

Given a map of the level or compass guide as navigational aid, or restricting movement to a tunnel of forward progress, either case removes the need to learn navigation by landmark. By skipping on those elements, GoldenEye emphasized navigation by landmark. Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom had already made maps of past-traveled territory the standard. Even though the addition of such a feature to GoldenEye would have no impact on what the player could do in the world, what decisions the player could make, or what information was surfaced (map of traversed space is technically redundant with first-person traversal of that space), its inclusion might have taken attention away from landmark navigation and instead reallocated time to map reading.

The 12.6 MB videogame is a hurdle, and as videogame designers it’s what people think and do in response to it that we do well to notice, reconsider, or derive patterns from. The artifact itself is an imaginatively dressed up, learnable, and marketable means acting as a consistent, unforgiving, and objective measure for the player to discover and refine some skills.

Note, however, that though I have framed each of the above in terms of the algorithm or engine code that yields that behavior, the behaviors were identified first through play and observation of play, and only then reverse-engineered (reverse-designed?) to identify what supports each rewarded behavior.

The play studied in this case is specifically grounded in implementation, rather than instruction, impression, or interface, i.e. these reflect expert rather than novice play of GE007. Put another way: I sought to understand what players who have had time to adapt do in the game before I looked to the game in search of understanding why those adaptions emerged.


Rather than trying to determine player action by studying of the game, determine the game by studying player action. Pay careful attention to the tactical patterns of thought and action that expert players discover and repeatedly execute during play. That’s the gameplay. That exists within players, not within the videogame. The software serves only to isolate and refine those tactics within each player.

Related Entries – More Detail

Real-Time Play: Tactical Patterns

Are Complex Systems Learned by Interacting with Complex Systems?

Diagram: Player Actions and Memory

Reading Between the Lines: Learning by Experience

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