My Chat with Patrick Plourde about Far Cry 3 and the Skinner Box

Still from Far Cry 3

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Patrick Plourde, Creative Director at Ubisoft, about his work on Far Cry 3, which is an amazingly fun game. The fun of the game was the muse of my inquiring mind when talking with Patrick. Being that I am an aspiring designer myself, I wanted to know what the Ubisoft/Patrick Plourde secret recipe for fun is. In other words, what’s “under the hood” of Far Cry 3?

Patrick was a pleasure to talk to. He’s very animated and not shy about spilling the beans on the Far Cry 3 ingredients. I asked him what were some of the challenges in creating the world of Far Cry 3? The question lead to a funny story about how it was difficult to make two pirates patrolling a tropical beach at sunset not look romantic: “Not that there’s anything wrong with romantic beach pirates, that just wasn’t our vision for the game.” Patrick said, laughing.

Besides humorous anecdotes from the Far Cry 3 creative process, he revealed an eye opening and somewhat unsettling truth about the game I was pouring so much praise over and spending so much of my time playing. I asked, “What’s making this game so fun — why is it so addictive?” Patrick responded, “It’s a Skinner box …” (referring to the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner‘s popular invention, the operant conditioning chamber — aka, a Skinner box). The Skinner box is a closed environment in which a creature’s behaviour is observed while undergoing a variety of positive and negative reinforcements for a variety of actions.

One way of imagining a Skinner Box

Although players of FC3 are not being observed while playing, they are being conditioned to expect certain results from a variety of actions at certain times. The game becomes addictive when the expected result of an action doesn’t happen or when players are surprised by the results of actions that they did not expect. In the game development process these expectation/result gaps are just one of many powerful tools at the hands of a designer.

So, as players play through FC3 they develop behavioural schema and will play the game in a unique fashion based on these seemingly random results for actions. For example, the first time I perform an action, I am rewarded — I feel like a boss. The next time I perform the same action, I am punished, but I manage to escape the situation, so I still feel like a boss. And so the pattern goes, with all the actions in the game. In conclusion, I learned that any way you slice it, when you play Far Cry 3, you feel like a boss. That’s why it’s fun, and that’s why it feels so addictive.

As a player, I’m always learning about the game world through my own choices, and as a result, I get better at using each situation to my advantage. The game just gets more and more fun.