How sports psychology influenced Golf Story’s design philosophy

Golf Story did a psychology on you, and you didn't even notice

Golf Story, the acclaimed golf RPG from Sidebar Games, does something that I didn’t expect from a sports game. Typically, the AI opponents are affected by the same conditions the player is affected by, and those conditions change how the AI scores in a match. A part of the terrain gives their ball a weird bounce, for example. What’s different about Golf Story is that the AI opponents play the exact same way every time. Each play through of Golf Story will always have your opponents score the same as a previous play through on each hole.

Controlling the opponent’s score throughout the match gives the developers a way to control whether the player starts out ahead or behind or when they could gain an advantage. Early on, it’s common for your opponents to mess up their opening shots. The first time you play against Teddy, he’ll always bunker on the second hole. Max Yards, a golfer famous for his long drive, will frequently overshoot his target. The opposite situations also exist. There is a doubles match with a partner player that has a pitiful opening drive which starts you out essentially one stroke behind. Your rival through-out the game, Lara, will always score a hole-in-one on the first hole in the last match you play against her.

These situations are surprisingly visceral. Every time I see Lara’s hole-in-one, I feel intimidated and have a sinking feeling in my stomach. Watching an AI opponent hit a water trap or land in the rough makes me feel calmer and more relaxed. The knock-on effect of being able to control the player’s advantage or disadvantage means that the developers could also somewhat control the psychological response of the player. If Sidebar Games wanted me to feel intimidated by an opponent, having them score a hole-in-one is a good way to accomplish that.

To get a better idea of how players might react to being behind or ahead and how that might have led to the decisions made by Sidebar Games, I talked to Golf Mental Coach Jon Stabler of Stabler writes, “If they are ahead early or behind early, most players’ thoughts change due to the score situation.” They add, “The classic response is to get more careful and try not to make mistakes because they now have something to lose.” When a player is behind they have this to say, “When the player is suddenly or a lot behind, then they are likely to give up and relax and play better in the real game.” They noted that some players could become more aggressive in trying to catch up as everyone will react differently.

When I asked Sidebar Games if psychological response was a factor in designing how AI opponents worked, they responded that it was a factor, but not in the way I expected. “I think the psychological effect of starting ahead or behind works a bit different in games. Being behind usually results in anger or eagerness more than fear,” said Andrew Newey. “The thing we thought of more was the anger side of it. In golf games the match play parts are typically something to dread as you have to watch the other player take their shot. If somebody is behind they will be thinking about the prospect of having to go through the ordeal of watching their rival hit all of their shots again rather than the cost to reputation and loss of opportunity that people might experience in real life.”

The real goal of designing AI opponents to behave that way was to add character work and story into match play. The way that each character plays the game is a reflection on them as a person. “Coach’s poor play can be explained by short drives due to his shoulder injury. The long hitter hits it too far and ends up in the water, and has no putting skill,” Newey adds. “As you mentioned, your friendly rival (Lara) returns after receiving golf lessons and gets a hole in one on the first hole in your rematch against her. This is surprising and a bit threatening, but she makes a few mistakes and gets unlucky afterwards. The overall theme is that they play well at the start but then do poorly due to their personal flaws.”

Any reaction that a player has mentally to how well or poorly an opponent is playing it seems is just a happy accident. Feeling intimidated by Lara’s hole-in-one is an understood outcome from Sidebar Games, but the real goal was showing her growth as a golfer. As for real-life advice in these kinds of situations, Stabler says, “In all cases we would coach to control what they can and let go of the rest. Focus on this shot and not what it all means or how important the outcome is.”

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