Agency, Intent, and the Psychology of Need Satisfaction in OnRush
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
PlayStation Plus has been serving up a varied assortment of titles over the last few months, many of which I probably wouldn't have played otherwise. OnRush was one such title that I was on the fence about. An arcade racer is a great thing to drop-in and drop-out of between other, heavier games; a palate-cleansing activity that requires minimal thought beyond 'go fast, don't hit the things'. On the surface, OnRush seemed to fulfill the brief but hadn't enticed me enough to warrant a purchase.
Therefore, when it popped up on PlayStation Plus, I took the opportunity to give it a go. And I think I had fun. In fact, I know I had some fun, although with protracted periods of frustration in between. It took me a while to work out exactly what was bugging me though - I completed the single-player campaign races whilst having some fun and only near the end of that process did the reasons start to properly crystallize.
There are a number of design choices that produce disconnects between what the game is about at a high-level, and what it is about in the moment-to-moment gameplay. Broadly speaking, the problems fall into two major categories - those affecting player agency, and those affecting player intent.
Agency, Intent, and the PENS Model: A Brief Primer
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of analysis, let me very briefly lay out what I mean when I say player agency and player intent, as they are closely connected but notably different.
Player agency, or simply agency, is a common term in game studies and, along with its co-conspirators 'presence' and 'immersion', is the subject of often heated debate. Mateas (2001, p.142) defines it directly in relation to player intent:
Agency is the feeling of empowerment that comes from being able to take actions in the world whose effects relate to a player’s intention. (Mateas, 2001)
This is a useful general definition and one that can be readily adapted for individual use cases. For example, Josh Bycer (2015) defines player agency specifically in terms of a game's story to facilitate a critique of TellTale's The Wolf Among Us:
[Player Agency refers to] the player's ability to impact the story through the game design or gameplay. (Bycer, 2015)
Indeed, one can substitute 'story' in Bycer's definition for whichever game component is considered most important in a particular context. In a narrative-driven game, that may be the story, in a sandbox, that may be the game world itself. Generally though, this notion of agency applies to actions taken that affect the diegetic game components - those within the fictive reality of the game.
However, there is a problem both with linking agency directly to intention, and also with only specifying a one-way relationship of a player having an impact on the game world.
Firstly, player intent can relate to activities in a game that do not relate to the diegetic components of the game at all. Other aspects of the player experience, particularly in terms of how they engage with abstract game systems such as menus, inventories, chat systems and the like, are all effected by how a player's intentions align with what happens on-screen. For example, icons in a mobile game that are tightly packed together may lead to the player accidentally tapping on an icon other than the one they were intending to tap on. This is a failure to translate player intent to game-based action but has very little to do with the player's agency in the game world itself.
Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, agency is not just a one-way dynamic. Yes, it is important for the player to have the ability to affect the game world but it is equally important for that impact to be recognised by the game world and communicated back to the player in an interesting and useful way. It is important for those player-driven changes to be significant, even potentially permanent, changes to the game's internal state. For example, permanently changing the attitude of a particular faction towards the player character by behaving in particular ways or choosing particular dialogue options.
In the context of this article, my definitions are thus:
Player Agency: The sense of meaningful, significant, impact on the game world, game objectives, and other players as communicated by the game to the player.
Player Intent: The ability of the player to identify an in-game action they would like to take and then perform that action as intended.
This may seem like splitting hairs and arguing definitions for the sake of argument. However, my analysis of OnRush can be divided into factors primarily based on agency, and factors primarily based on intent as defined above and so it is an important distinction to make.
In splitting agency and intent in this way, it is furthermore possible to describe them in relation to psychological elements of the player experience. In their book Glued to Games, Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan present the results of many years of empirical investigation of player experience in their PENS (Player Experience of Need Satisfaction) Model. They identify three key psychological needs that games are able to satisfy.
Competence: Our innate desire to grow our abilities and master new skills. Autonomy: Our innate desire to take actions because we want to not because we have to. Relatedness: Our need to feel we have meaningful connections and relationships with others. (Rigby & Ryan, 2011)
There are some clear connections that can be drawn here. Player agency can be linked to relatedness primarily (having meaningful impacts on others, either directly or via some other medium, such as the game world). Player intent meanwhile can be linked to competence - acting intentionally and getting the results we anticipate can help us feel a sense of competence and eventual mastery, while being unable to reliably act with intent damages that sense. Autonomy is less directly linked but is nevertheless discussed briefly in the following analysis.
Some games are better suited to fulfilling these needs than others. For example, fast-paced arcade 'twitch' shooters primarily support a player's need for competence, whilst games reliant on connections with other players, such as Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes may support the need for relatedness primarily. OnRush, being a fast-paced driving game of skill taking place in teams, would appear to support both competence and relatedness needs. Yet as I explain in the following analysis, this isn't always the case.
Intentional Play Requires Information Clarity
OnRush is not a typical racing game. There are no laps, and no finish line. Instead, a number of game modes are available, all of which are team-based affairs that have much in common with the likes of Overwatch or Warframe. Playing as part of a team requires you to have access to useful information about your teammates, your opponents, and the current game state to inform your decision-making. The different game modes in OnRush theoretically should require players to think in slightly different ways and prioritise different types of play. However, the lack of information in many cases makes this difficult to turn into a reality.
The game's first mode, Overdrive, offers a good opportunity to talk about the availability and presentation of information. In Overdrive, the objective is to boost as much as possible as quickly as possible to hit a winning score (10,000 in the example above) before the opposing team. Boost is a resource that must be earned through actions such as getting air or destroying 'fodder' cars (AI-controlled cars that materialise ahead of you as you drive). Boosting alone will likely not be enough to win in Overdrive though - a second resource, called RUSH, can be used to open up opportunities for big point scoring. RUSH is earned by boosting, or in specific unique ways tied to the vehicle type you are using. It is some of these unique methods that present an informational problem.
Do A Barrel Roll!
For example, the Vortex buggy can earn RUSH directly by performing barrel rolls. In the vehicle's intro animation, this is made to seem like a reasonably manageable feat to execute. In reality, pulling off barrel rolls intentionally during a match is near enough impossible. A combination of poor instructions, fast-paced gameplay, inconsistent physics, and constant battering from opposing racers makes hitting the edge of a ramp in such a way as to produce a barrel roll take-off (and not an anticlimactic half-flip onto your roof) an almighty effort. Any successful barrel rolls are often the result of luck rather than intentional play which in turn, does not support the player in feeling competent or skilled. Perhaps I am missing a particular trick or method for producing barrel roll take-offs that other players have mastered. However, this underscores the issue around information availability. The game does not explain how to achieve this particular goal in live gameplay.
Yet, this could seemingly be solved with some minor adjustments to the design of the game's ramps. Rather than a reliance on straight ramps throughout the game's 12 tracks, the inclusion of angled, or otherwise visually differentiated ramps that are more likely to produce barrel roll take-offs akin to that demonstrated in The Man with the Golden Gun may have had a few beneficial effects. Principally, it would have given players more obviously useful information during gameplay about how to perform this particular goal. Secondly, it would have offered a more differentiated driving experience, as the positioning of different ramp types would have required a trade-off; do I move away from the racing pack to hit a few of these 'barrel roll ramps' and gain extra RUSH, or do I stay with the pack and help my teammates more directly?
Bizarrely, in the game's introductory video outlining the Overdrive gamemode, this exact setup using slightly angled ramps is demonstrated, yet this isn't something that players will ever encounter during live gameplay. Indeed, in this same clip, the blue vehicle is shown side-swiping another vehicle and taking it out with ease, a manoeuvre that isn't possible in the game as the vehicle handling is nowhere near as tightly responsive as it appears in this video.
That's Close Enough! I Think...
The Charger and the Dynamo can earn RUSH directly from driving close to enemies and allies respectively. Both of these tasks are pretty self-explanatory but the issue in this case relates to the useful feedback, or near lack thereof, from the game about the player's actions and subsequent effects on the game objectives.
Some abilities, such as the Dynamo's Energize ability to supply nearby teammates with extra boost, provide a clear visual metaphor; Energize forms a beam of energy flowing between the vehicles. However, there is no feedback to the player that you are performing the 'driving near...' goals correctly apart from a tiny line of text in the lower left of the HUD that is on-screen for a few seconds at most. This section of the HUD provides a read-out of any 'callouts' (driving feats) that the player achieves that add boost or RUSH.
The presence of these callouts on the HUD and indeed, the fact that they are called 'callouts', was a mystery to me until after I had completed the single-player campaign. For the most part, these are not that important but for activities such as the 'drive near...' goals and indeed, the specific objectives that ask you to achieve a certain number of callouts, knowing what they are and where they are on-screen seems pretty crucial. Yet these are never explained in the early stages of the game.
The result is that not only is the player left wondering if what they're doing is having any meaningful impact on play (i.e. do they have agency in the world) but also, they are unable to play with any specific intent with relation to these goals, as the rules and feedback surrounding them are unclear. This has a detrimental effect once again on the player's sense of competence and mastery. It also prevents players from clearly seeing the relationship between their actions and the success of their team, which has a negative effect on any developing sense of relatedness to teammates.
Shallow Praise is Frustrating and Unfulfilling
When an OnRush match finishes, a sequence plays out called the 'player spotlight' that highlights the MVP on your team, along with two additional players that have achieved the highest in a semi-random selection of game stats, such as most enemy takedowns, or largest-scoring combo. There are again some issues with this process and some odd design choices.
Despite my struggling to fully grasp the finer details of how to score points and play tactically, I was MVP a surprising number of times. This was the case even in some scenarios where I was sure I'd spent the majority of the race either crashing, or watching replays of myself crashing.
Once you start to notice this, it is hard not to question what your presence in the game is really achieving, or rather, why the game seems to think you're hot stuff even when it is obvious to you, the player, that you're flailing around without much of a clue. Receiving praise for what you know wasn't a good performance is neither rewarding nor satisfying and undermines confidence in the broader scoring systems in the game.
The individual stat highlights should provide players with additional opportunities to be recognised for their contribution to their team. In most cases, this works reasonably well, although the semi-random selection of which stats are highlighted in this post-race screen can sometimes pull out some rather unimpressive figures. A common occurrence is the 'most assists' stat that highlights players that have provided assists with takedowns on opponent vehicles. More often than not though, the highest scorer for this stat was being praised for three, two, or even just one assist in an entire match - more shallow praise that does very little to make the player concerned feel good about their achievement. Coupled with the overarching style and tone of the game, it can even feel like players highlighted in this way are being mocked, rather than genuinely praised.
The combination of MVP selection and gameplay stat highlighting also limits players to appearing in the spotlight once per match, even if they were the top scorer for multiple stats. In the above screenshot, the small 'comparison' underneath the blue and orange scores shows the player's own score for this stat. If the player was the MVP or has been highlighted via another stat then they won't appear again. While this is clearly an effort to spread praise around the team, if you are the player with the highest score but you aren't being highlighted, again it can send the wrong message. Extremely high-performing players aren't given the degree of recognition they may deserve (by being highlighted for multiple achievements) while less highly-performing players are given the impression that they're better than they may actually be. In particular, those high-performing players may experience a diminished sense of agency as it feels the game is not providing an honest reflection of their in-game efforts - they are having a substantial impact on their team but the game isn't recognising that and in turn, neither may their teammates.
This is a difficult thing to get right and there are arguments both for and against different approaches to praise, reward, and motivation more generally. Jamie Madigan (2019) has recently written an interesting article over at Psychology of Games focusing on the squad elimination screens in Apex Legends, drawing on the 'big fish, little pond' effect. This effect essentially describes how we feel better about being the best performer on a low-performing team than we feel about being the lowest performer on a high-performing team: " You’d rather be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big one" (Madigan, 2019, para.3). In Apex Legends, much like in OnRush, player stats are displayed post-game alongside those of teammates, although it is up to the player to interpret specifics like MVP or top scorers for individual stats. Concluding the article, Madigan suggests that a cunning developer could further manipulate these stat screens, ranking players by different metrics on each individual player's screen in order to put that player top of the rankings and in turn, make every player almost always feel they've ranked highest in their squad.
Madigan's suggestion would certainly make for an interesting experiment. However, OnRush does this to an extent already by limiting player spotlight appearances - there will always be three players highlighted post-match, even if the team was carried by one or two individuals. The risk of giving praise where it hasn't been earned is that it encourages lazy behaviour and diminishes motivation to try to improve. If a poor performance is rewarded with a statistics-based "Good Job!" then there is little need to try and improve.
In a single-player context, this turns the later game into a grind. The final few races demonstrate a particularly notable difficulty spike. This in itself isn't a problem but because the preceding races had trained me to think that even mediocre performances were MVP-worthy, I had no particular drive to get objectively better at these final races. Instead, I fought through a succession of restarts and losses until an eventual run of luck handed me victory. I was glad to finish, but it didn't feel like an achievement.
Vehicle Strategy and Driving Tactics: The Gaps between Knowing, Intending, and Executing
The different vehicle classes in OnRush have plenty of similarities to typical classes in comparable arena shooters. There are vehicles with 'healing' and support abilities, heavy trucks for doing big damage, and lighter bikes for nimble dodging through the pack and causing chaos with big damage, short-lived attacks. On the surface, the game's strategic level is clear, mostly well-balanced, and with a lot of potential for emergent lower-level gameplay strategy and tactical play once the driving starts. In other words, it is fairly easy to know what you are supposed to be thinking and doing whilst playing different game modes, using different vehicles.
The problems start to appear once you try to start executing those things intentionally in the heat of the individual matches. The game's Lockdown mode, which is King of the Hill but with a zone that moves round the track, offers a good example of this issue. In Lockdown, the goal is to score points by holding this moving zone for five seconds uninterrupted. This is achieved by having more members of your team in the zone than members of the opposing team. A seemingly logical choice in this mode is to run with one of the big, heavy trucks, both to facilitate eliminating opponents and also, to make it less likely you'll be taken down whilst in the zone. At a tactical level, once inside the zone, the player's main focus should be preventing the opposition entering the zone whilst maintaining speed with the zone in order to remain inside it and score points.
However once the player is inside the zone, the limited camera angle and miriad of track-based obstacles makes playing tactically or being intentionally defensive very difficult. There's minimal opportunity to purposefully block opponents or to accurately line up a takedown. It becomes a matter of reaching the zone as quickly as possible and then sitting in it hoping not to be outnumbered or taken out from behind for five seconds at a time. Most point scoring feels lucky rather than skillful and as per previous examples, this does not support strong feelings of agency during play - my presence in the zone is having an effect, but my tactical choices, my gameplay decisions, are making minimal meaningful difference to whether my team win or lose each round.
Playing aggresively and specifically targeting opponent vehicles for takedowns is not a core focus in every game mode but it certainly helps - takedowns award boost and also stop that opponent from scoring for their team for approximately ten seconds while they respawn. In the game's Switch mode, each player has three 'switches' (lives) and they change vehicle class each time they are taken out, from bikes, to buggies, to cars, and finally trucks. This mode is very much about targeting and taking down opposition vehicles as ruthlessly as possible and again, because of the way the switching system works, there are some strategies that are readily identifiable.
For example, it is very easy to get taken down when on a bike - the longer you stay on a bike (i.e. the longer you manage to survive without losing your first life) the harder it gets as other players are switched into bigger, heavier vehicles. Thus, sensible strategy would be in such a situation to either hang back from the pack slightly or to speed ahead of the pack to stay away from danger. Yet both options are untenable, as hanging back leaves you with limited opportunities to gather boost, a lack of boost pushes you further behind, and if you fall too far behind you are automatically taken down and you lose a life. Likewise, staying ahead of the pack produces similar problems, although instead of falling too far behind when you run out of opportunities for boost, you simply fall back into the pack ready to be taken out by something bigger and heavier. It is impossible to stay alive on a bike beyond a certain point in a match even if you are highly skilled - the game system forces you back into the pack (if you're out in front) or out of the game (if you're too far behind).
But this is by design. In an article published on Gamasutra, game director Paul Rustchynsky talks about 'the stampede':
. . . a contained bubble of action which holds every player and rolls along the track. Drop too far behind and the game will pick you up and drop you back inside it; go out too far ahead and everyone behind you will catch up. (Wiltshire, 2018, para.6)
The justification for the stampede makes sense. Rustchynsky talks about wanting to make the action and chaos of the game manageable and readable for players, and wanting to avoid areas of the racing pack that lack opportunities for scoring boost. Yet this doesn't seem to be the end result.
If a player is strategically hanging back from the pack, this should be supported by the game. That strategy is a viable one and it doesn't come without risk - a lone bike is an easy target for an opponent but that opponent must themselves move away from the pack in order to attack. It is a strategy with risks as well as benefits. But the game prevents this from working, instead starving the player of boost and eventually killing them anyway, forcing them to play in a particular way - namely, drive in the middle of the stampede whether it makes strategic sense or not, and hope to get lucky with your survival times. In this case, players can know what they might be able to do, strategically. They can also intentionally execute those strategies for a short time, but only for the game to prevent them doing so beyond a particular point.
This is not only damaging to a player's sense of agency but also, to their sense of autonomy, another core aspect of the PENS model. When players take actions in a game, ideally those actions should be volitional - the player is doing them because they want to do them at that time, and in that way. When players are coerced or forced into particular routes of action against their wishes or against their better judgement, that volitional engagement is removed. They are no longer in control of their experience or, at least, a portion of that control has been taken from them. This leads to gaming-by-the-numbers experiences - doing what the game wants, not what the player wants.
The final aspect of OnRush to discuss are its cosmetic items - in particular, the range of vehicle skins. Ignoring the strange decision to make players open loot boxes in a game that doesn't monetise loot boxes, this further links to intentional play and information clarity.
In the GIF above, some of the Enforcer skins can be seen. The Enforcer is one of the two vehicles in the heavy truck class and thus, is not something you want to tangle with on the track, particularly when driving one of the lighter classes. Yet some of the cosmetic changes available for the vehicle significantly change the size and shape of the bodywork (even though the chassis doesn't change), in some cases making it look much more like a buggy class vehicle.
On the track, having an idea of the class of vehicle an enemy is driving is useful information in deciding how to drive - particularly, in deciding whether to try and take them down or let them be. A buggy is a much softer target than a truck, but the Enforcer dressed up in buggy clothing is still carrying all the weight and power of an Enforcer, leading to some frustrating scenarios where the aggressor ends up being taken down themselves when colliding with an opposing vehicle.
During a match, all vehicles have their respective class icon floating above them. This is useful if you have memorised the class icons although seems an unnecessary addition to the already busy visuals. The base vehicle skins are all fairly well differentiated, so having players identify vehicle types and make decisions based on their diegetic qualities (i.e. their model) rather than non-diegetic qualities (i.e. a floating icon) wouldn't be out of the question. Indeed, reskins would still be fine in this case if they didn't change the profile of the vehicle itself and just altered paint jobs or minor accessories.
The importance of profiles and silhouettes has been outlined in the context of game characters plenty of times - the above image of the red team in Team Fortress 2 is probably one of the more oft used to make this point. The silhouettes for each character can be read by players to quickly understand the character's role and abilities. This is something that is obscured by cosmetic alterations to vehicles in OnRush and adds to the already mentioned clarity problems around certain game rules and vehicle abilities, which link to the capacity of the player to act with intent, and develop feelings of agency, competence, and autonomy.
There's Fun to be had Though
As I said in the opening of the article, I did have some fun with OnRush. I had enough fun to see the single-player campaign through, even if the closing stages were a bit of a grind. Occasionally, a situation comes along in which nothing that I have mentioned in this article gets in the way - I understand my vehicle abilities, choose to use them at a particular moment in a particular way, get the outcome I expected and score a few takedowns or points, and speed away from the carnage unscathed. Those moments make you feel in complete control and are thoroughly enjoyable, it's just a shame that they are so few and far between.
Bycer, J. (2015). Player Agency: How Game Design Affects Narrative. Available on Gamasutra.com
Madigan, J. (2019). Apex Fish in a Small Pond. Retrieved from https://www.psychologyofgames.com/2019/02/apex-fish-in-a-small-pond/
Mateas, M. (2001). A Preliminary Poetics for Interactive Drama and Games. Digital Creativity, 12 (3), pp.140-152.
Rigby, S. & Ryan, R. (2011). Glued to Games: How Videogames Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
Wilshire, A. (2018). The Stampede: How Onrush harnesses the chaos of a racing battle. Retrieved from https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/320709/The_Stampede_How_Onrush_harnesses_the_chaos_of_a_racing_battle.php