Feel & Flow

Game loops are an interesting psychological topic. The rhythm at which a player experiences a game, experiences trials, has breaks, and is issued decisions. Today, I'd like to talk about some concepts of gameplay loops, that of feel and flow.

I'll define feel as the emotional reaction to participating in a certain part of a gameplay loop. For an action game, feel would be the reaction a player has from successfully connecting an attack with an opponent, executing a combo, or simply hitting a desctructible portion of the environment. The environment around the player reacts to the player's actions in some way, feedback is provided (visually and auditory) and the player has a reaction to it. This is the feel we all talk about when we are discussing how it feels to play a game: what is the player's base reaction to making a decision and executing an input successfully or unsuccessfully.

Flow I'll define as the rhythm of choices. Most game can be boiled down to a series of interesting decisions, says Sid Meier. Flow is the rate at which those decisions are presented.

I'll give an example. Let's say you are playing a level of Mario, one with a series of platforms, each incrementally higher than the last, followed by two parallel walls at which the player must execute multiple wall jumps to reach the goal at the top. Now, this may not seem like a series of decisions, but in reality, it is. Each jump is a timing choice, executed by the player, and interpreted by the game. A poorly timed jump results in failure whereas a well-time jump results in success. The flow here, then, is the rate at which these decisions are presented. In this level for example, let's say if the player ran at top speed towards the platforms, they'd have to jump every half second to scale the platforming challenge. The player is presented with a rhythm at which their choices are made. The choice here, however, is very simple: jump or don't jump. However, this serves as a good example of flow. Note that we cannot comment on whether or not this is good or bad flow, because that is a question that is hard to answer without feedback from the player. Some games may require faster flow (more frequent decisions), while others would be better served with a slower pace. It all depends on the feel of the player tapping into the flow.

Let's take another, more complex, example. Character action games are probably the most obvious examples of a game with strong feel and flow. Each action the player character makes has a very noticeable impact on the environment and the world around them, gained from the visual and auditory feedback given back to the player on execution. Hit an enemy with an attack and they reel backwards while the player character digs in, producing a sound effect. Another enemy looms, and the player is now forced to make a decision on what to do next. Here, in the character action genre, the player has a multitude of decisions. The player can attack that enemy with any number of possible abilities, dodge away, keep fighting the enemy they are already engaged to, or simple run away, among a number of other possibilities.

One of the keys that separates a good action game with a poor one is that sense of rhythm or flow. Flow is the rate at which meaningful choices are presented to the player. Too many at once, and the player is overwhelmed. Too few, and the player becomes bored and disengaged. In a character action game, enemies attack the player at a predictable, rhythmic pace. This allows the player to form a rhythm of combat in their head, providing them the opportunity to understand when their next decision point will be, and reacting appropriately. Have you ever been frustrated by a game that very quickly and cheaply made quick work of your player character? It's likely because whatever happened was unexpected. Most of the time, unexpected outcomes come from actions the game takes towards the player that do not fall in line with a pre-established flow. A cheap shot, if you will. A combat action taken by the enemy that is out of the rhythm pre-established by the game. Tetris would never drop a block that falls immediately out of the blue. The player knows the decision points in Tetris, it's a predictable game. This allows the player to play to the flow, become locked in their engagement, and be awarded appropriately.

In these games we have decision points, defined by the flow, and we have those decisions, whose feedback and effect inform the feel. Both of these are inextricably linked, as they both affect a player's moment-to-moment perception of a game, and, I'd argue, a game's "fun factor".

Upending expectations can be fun, but meeting expectations is a very important to defining a clear and fun moment-to-moment experience. Once a game establishes a flow, however, it might be fun and interesting to mess with it.


Rules and Fun

I love rules. If I had to define an atomic unit of what makes a game a game, I'd offer up the concept of rules. Rules are the building blocks which developers use to create unique games. Rules are integral to each and every game, even when not as obviously defined to the player.

The interesting thing about rules is they don't make a game fun. You don't look at a bunch of rules and think "Yes, this looks fun." No, instead you would contemplate what interactions come from these rules and analyze a game from there. What is the player doing? Is that fun? Rules are the medium from which fun is drawn from: they help create the fun interactions inside the game.

The cool thing about rules is that at the end of the day, they are unnecessary for fun. Humans can have fun without rules. But constraints frequently make things easier. And it's the same for interactive entertainment. Rules are like a guide for how to get to a fun experience more easily. Here's a great analogy from Improv Comedy, that I think beautifully applies to video games as well.

Rules are like landing gear: you need them to take off. You need them to land. But you don’t need them to fly.
— Unknown

A perfect example of this in effect is an sandbox game like Grand Theft Auto. As in all games, GTA has rules. A weapon does this, a car drives likes this, cops chase you if you break the law, and so on. Simple, obvious rules that mimic real life. At the beginning of the game, players pay attention to these rules. They learn them and it influences their play. But what video games offer apart from any other rule-based game medium (like board games) is that players don't have to consider the rules. They don't even have to remember them. As long as they are aware that they exist, a player may play the game implicitly. Once a player understands this, from that point on, a game like GTA still has rules, they just don't need to be considered by the player anymore. And why should they? If the rules get the player to have fun, it's unnecessary for the player to keep them all in mind.

Granted, plenty of games require players to consider and analyze rules constantly. Strategy games, for example. But the beauty of rules in video games is they are always there, with or without player consideration. Which can lead players to two different wonderful places: discovering new rules by experimentation, and forgetting about the rules and just having fun.  This is one of the many unique aspects of this medium.

Metagaming and Metagames

In my last post I very briefly mentioned the idea of "Metagame". It's an interesting concept, to be sure, and one that many of you have probably heard. But what exactly is a metagame? What does meta-game even mean? Well, I hope to shed some light on that in today's post.

"Meta" is a Greek root meaning "beyond". I can probably devote an entire post to the strange, evolving history of the word "meta" and what it means today, but I'll just stick with "beyond" for now. Meta-game, then, yields "beyond game". A metagame is a game played during or within a game that lives outsides (or beyond) the rules and environment of the game. And when we talk about "metagaming" we're talking about playing some game outside the bounds of it's rulesets.

Let's take, for example, one of the very first (at least to me) historical usage of the term. The time: the mid nighties; the game: Magic: The Gathering. For a very, very brief explanation of MTG, just know that it's a trading card game where players collect cards and build decks with them. Each card can do different things and there are literally thousands of them. Well, in MTG there are and always have been dominant strategies and popular deck types. These are the decks that dominate tournaments, and every year MTG has a different set of power decks that many people use because of their strength.

Magic is a game of rules where players play cards in turn until the winner defeats his or her opponent. Metagaming in Magic would be knowing full well what decks and cards are in popular use and devising strategies and decks for the very purpose of countering and defending against the common decks types. By doing so, one is playing the game of Magic without playing the game of Magic. The player is playing a game outside of the rules of Magic: The Gathering that still involves the playing of Magic: The Gathering. That's metagaming.

And while other players are watching game tape, he’s watching game tape of those other players watching game tape.
— ESPN Baseball Promo 2013

So, why is metagaming and meta-games and important concept? Well, the term has popped up a lot over the years in regards to playing games with knowledge of current dominant strategies. Knowing what an opponent's likely to do before even playing a game them has commonly been cited as metagaming, which of course it is. But that is not all metagaming is. A metagame is any game that is played outside of the bounds of established rules.

Take the example I used in a previous post. Making under-the-table deals in Monopoly for leniency is another example. Anything that isn't part of the rules or environment of the game but affects the outcome of the game can be classified as metagaming. Similarly, analyzing the level designer's intention to find the solution to a puzzle or the fastest route would also qualify, as the player is using their knowledge of game development, design, history, and more to solve problems inside the game without using the rules or knowledge from inside the game.

So why is meta-gaming an important concept to consider? Well, as the line between games and reality blurs, games become a meta-game upon themselves. League of Legends is not a game but a lifestyle for many people, and metagaming is part of the game. Discussing popular strategies, reading up on successful players and the champions they use, finding and exploring new tactics within the community: all done outside of game of League of Legends. The developers consider this in designing updates the game now. It's part of the experience playing League of Legends. Future game developers must account for this bizarre but familiar concept.

The "Social Game": The History and Future of Games?

What comes to mind when I say "Social Game"? Is it a game on Facebook or Mobile that has you building a virtual empire using some virtual currency that encourages you to invite friends to join in order to be rewarded with more virtual currency? Most of you probably arrive there. But how did we get there? How is that social? At all? Well, that's maybe the subject for another post. I'm going to talk today about my opinion of true Social Games. Games where social interactions are not just a side-effect, but the entire point.

I've been ruminating on my favorite interactions in games and why I fell in love with games in the first place (video, board, etc.) and I've come to a really interesting conclusion: my favorite part of multiplayer games is almost never the game itself. No, it's almost always experiencing that game with others. The real interesting part? The best, most fun I've had in games is when the rules and mechanics promoted me to interact with others, directly or indirectly.

So what is a Social Game, by my definition? A Social Game is that meta-game you play in Monopoly where you promise your brother leniency when he lands on Park Place in exchange for him paying off all your mortgages. In Mario Party, it's when you make a deal with your best friend to pass up that next star in return for you stealing all of Joe's coins. These are miniature Social Games within regular games, and they are so much fun. The beauty of these social games is they come naturally out of the mechanics. In Monopoly, it's never stated in the rules players can make deals under the table, but since the game is so intertwined with the concepts of property and money, players just play that way. Frequently in Mario Party, it's mutually beneficial to work together to impede the progress of someone else, so alliances are formed, however briefly. Social Games been around forever, in miniature form.

A Social Game is that meta-game you play in Monopoly where you promise your brother leniency when he lands on Park Place in exchange for him paying off all your mortgages.

So what about whole Social Games? Let's take the classic party game Mafia as an example. You'll hear me talk about this game a lot because it's one of my favorite games of all time and really encapsulates where I think gaming's future is headed. Mafia is a really, really simple game. You've got a group of people, some of them are bad guys (Mafia), some of them are good guys (Townspeople). The bad guys know who the other bad guys are, but the good guys have no idea who the bad guys are. The good guys' goal is to out all the bad guys by killing them off by way of voting each round. The bad guys' goal is to off all the good guys by killing them off in secret at the end of each round. There's some extra rules for spice, but at it's heart, that's it.

So why is this game so fun? Well, it's because the mechanics of the game promote, nay, force the players to interact with each other in ways that just aren't all that common in the real world. You see, in Mafia you must decide if a friend you've known for years is lying to your face and is really a member of the Mafia killing off your allies one by one. It's an exercise in social deduction and engineering. And, on top of that, it can get zany. Deciding someone is guilty or innocent based on nonsensical posturing is a par for the course. Really, Mafia isn't really about finding who Mafia is and who Town is. It's about interacting with a bunch of people in fun ways that often aren't possible in real life. Who can say they often get to con their friends and have fun doing it

Well, it’s [fun] because the mechanics of the game promote, nay, force the players to interact with each other in ways that just aren’t all that common in the real world.

Social Games have been, without us even having a name for them, growing all around us lately: card games like Cards Against Humanity, board games like Resistance and Coup, and classic party games like Mafia and Werewolf are all gaining popularity. These games are taking the meta-game/social game side-effects of larger games and condensing them into almost purely socially interactive experiences. And that's really exciting. And it's because of that I propose a new genre of game for your consideration: Social Interaction Games. And no, not those kind of social games.

The Power of Failure

It's been a while -- but have no fear. I have a topic for this week. And some for the weeks to come as well.

The topic today is one we are all most certainly accustomed to: Failure. Failure, quite simply, is the state at which one does not succeed in their goals. In games, that can mean many things. The goal can be defined by the game or by the player, and can be an overall goal (beat the level, beat the game) or a momentary goal (get to that platform without falling). In games, a failure state almost always yields some sort of punishment imposed by the development. The player must start the level over, start from the last checkpoint, complete an objective they have already completed, lose some rewards, or the like. The most familiar and iconic failure state in video games is of course the Game Over screen. Today, the most common failure state is the process of reloading back to the last checkpoint and losing any in-between progress (a Game Over screen may or may not be part of this).

Some games experiment with failure. Many have opted to remove the concept of the failure state altogether, replacing it with temporary or irreversible penalties. The Walking Dead game, for example, rarely gives the player a Game Over. Instead, it "fails" the player by causing unwanted consequences and forcing the player to live with them. The player does not enter a "failure state" (Game Over screen, checkpoint reload) and does not lose progress, but instead fails more organically: it happens, and the game moves on. It's still a failure, of course, and one could say still punishment. If the player's goal was to limit death and bad consequences, failure still happens in The Walking Dead. In fact, it happens all the time. But it rarely leads to the classic game failure state. Still other games eliminate failure altogether. Many puzzle games, for example, remove failure altogether. Journey has no failure state -- and why should it? The game is not a test of skill or wits, and was not designed in such a way.

Failure may seem unwanted or confusing to the player, looking inward. Why must I be punished? Why must I fail? Aren't games supposed to be fun? But the concept of failure has it's uses. In fact, it has a lot of uses. Failure, for all the frustrated hate from players, makes certain games a lot more fun. Many challenging games without failure states are by definition, no longer challenging, as the risk to fail does not exist, the challenge does not exist either. One might contend that puzzle games have no failure state -- but I'd argue they do. Being stuck on a puzzle with no solution is a form of failure. Failure does not have a time limit or strict rule for what it must be.

Failure can be many game's greatest strength. Take the example of Dark Souls, a game celebrated for it's difficulty and the player's constant failure. Many players find it fun simply because failure is so common, it's all part of the game. Failure is something that happens to each player who plays the game on a very frequent basis. Learning from that failure and applying the knowledge gained is what make Dark Souls an excellent game. Whereby player's do not celebrate their failure, but their triumph over it.

But, failure is just one part of the equation. Any game can fail the player, but how a game deals with failure is something else altogether. That's where punishment comes in. What is the cost of failure? If the cost is low, failure matters less. In Dark Souls, the cost of failure is high -- possibly loosing one's experience completely, and forcing the player to fight their way back to where death took place. No small task. But in the failure and the strict punishment comes a concept that very few other mediums can provide to such a degree: stakes.

Stakes are to games what tension is to film. Stakes are what make player's stress and worry, but also what makes them cheer and celebrate when challenges are overcome. Without stakes, victory is not as meaningful: victory becomes an exercise of progressing the game, not conquering a challenge. Victory without stakes becomes the equivalent of watching an action hero defeat the bad guy in a movie. Sure, you can cheer for the hero, but you are not the hero.

But when is failure too much? When is punishing failure too much? Some would argue failure is an outdated concept from games of the past. That it is an old, ancient, tradition of game design that is not necessary to games today. While that may be true for many titles, it is not true for all. Games that challenge must have some form of failure to work. And while failure is not fun in the moment of failure, it yields fun in the moment failure is defeated. That form of fun could not exist without failure -- without stakes.

Punishing failure is a balancing act that requires one to examine the constitution of the game's target audience with the difficulty and frustration that players will experience in overcoming failure and reaching their goal. Certainly, punishing a player too much is not fun. And fun, in most cases, should be a designer's top priority. But it's important to remember failure can be fun, too.

Depth vs. Complexity

Depth and Complexity are often brought up subjects in the world of game development. Usually defined through a set of a examples, depth and complexity are concepts very similar, yet also very different. Let's attempt to define what it means for something to be deep and what it means for something to be complex. Then, we'll try to identify what affect depth and complexity have on games. Ironically enough, defining complexity is often simple, while defining depth is often complex.

First, I'll start with complexity. Complexity, in terms of game design, is the state of having an abundant amount of things within a game that can be interacted with or which interact with each other. At it's most basic form, something is complex when it has a large (and often intricate) set of rules which the player (or players) interact with. Furthermore, complexity is further created through anything that alters the interactions the player has with the game through extraneous rules that aren't immediately obvious to the player. To a player, complexity is hard to grasp, and not readily apparent. The amount of variables that a player must account for or learn in order to grasp the mechanics of the game add to it's complexity. The perfect example of a complex game is the Civilization series.

Depth, on the other hand, is the state at which a set of a few singular rules or things affect the way players interact with the game on a whole. Essentially, depth is the state in which a small subset of rules and/or players interact with each other in a multitude of ways. Many different interactions and outcomes can arise with a limited set of things (in the games space, these things are rules or other player agents). Many fighting games are great examples of depth in gameplay.

Before we proceed further, it's worth noting that complex games can be deep, and deep games can be complex. They are in no way mutually exclusive, nor is one required for the other.

In this example, Ken has a variety of options he can use to respond to Ryu's Hadoken.

Let's take Street Fighter II as a perennial example of depth. Now, you may protest "But Street Fighter has many characters and movesets!" And you'd be right. But remember, depth isn't defined by it's lack of elements, just how these elements interact with one another. In Street Fighter II, for example, the entire game can be played with just Ryu and Ken, and the game will still be exceptionally deep.

Why is that? Because the amount of possible interactions that arise from a two character's movesets (honestly, one and a half characters, considering Ken is very similar to Ryu) and outcomes are exponentially large. This is the definition of depth. Even though the game in a Ryu vs Ken fight is not overly complex, it still yields an incredible amount of possible outcomes and interactions.

In the image above, for example Ryu throws a Hadoken while Ken decides on what do do next. Ken's options are limited, but any choice he makes will affect Ryu's next move as well. He can jump, for example, but then Ryu may read it and follow up with an aerial attack. He could block it, but Ryu may see that and decide to close the gap. Alternately, Ken can throw his own Hadoken to cancel out Ryu's. Each one of these choices creates another choice for the Ryu player. Each choice a player makes informs another choice another player makes, and the chain of possibilities and interactions grows exponentially. We can see, although this match contains only two characters (who are very similar) and a dozen or so moves each (again, mostly similar) a vast amount of interactions come out of it. It's worth noting here that this match is not overly complex. It's actual very minimal in it's complexity, as each player already knows the other player's potential actions and simply must account for which choices the other player may make. Through this, one can see the depth of such a small subset of rules.

Complexity, on the other hand, is the abundance of rules. To some, Street Fighter II may be seen as a complex game (for it's time) for the amount of characters it had. Each character had their own set of moves with their own set of rules for how these moves functioned. A player may need to internalize these rules in order to better understand his or her opponent and what said opponent can do. This is complexity. However, one must note that while some may consider this complex, a player does not have to consider each set of rules (read: movesets) each time they play a match. No, they only must consider their own character's rules and their opponent's character's rules. Because of this, although complex in the amount of rules in Street Fighter II, in the moment to moment, the choices a player and their opponent can make are always limited to the character they have selected. A single match is deep, but not all that complex.

Can you tell what's going on at-a-glance? Probably not unless you are a experienced Civilization player, but that's because Civilization is very complex.

As I mentioned, Civilization is a great example of a complex game. The series is known for it's complexity, it's abundance of mechanics and variables and rules. On a single turn a player must consider a vast amount of things. The task of internalizing each thing and taking it into in consideration is complex. It functions as a web of rules and structures that all affect each other and affect themselves. The more a player considers these things, the better they play.

Complexity, when implemented properly in a game in which players want to do mental heavy-lifting, is fantastic. It forces players to think critically, tactically, and strategically. It gives players a great sense of discovery in uncovering how different rules and mechanics interact with one another. And, above all, when done right, it makes a game lasting. The drawback to complexity, of course, is it's hefty mental weight and it's sometimes frightening learning curve.

Depth, however, can achieve similar results to complexity: critical thinking, problem solving, tactical and strategic maneuvering and lasting gameplay experiences. The difficulty with depth is it's something much harder to design. The rules that are defined must create new interactions and implicit complexity that the player discovers through play. These rules themselves are not complex. They are not abundant or vast or complicated. But they interact with each other in ways players discover that shapes how they play the game. In essence, a deep game can go from a simple experience at the start, to a high-level experience at the end. In Street Fighter II, for example, two new players can immediately grasp the mechanics of the fight and play at a low level, punching and kicking to their heart's content. But, as they play more, they will reveal new strategies and interactions that  come from uncovering the depth of the mechanics. Designing these "hidden mechanics", however, is the challenge. How does one define a simple set of rules that start obvious but seemingly grow in possibilities as a player progresses? This is why most games fall back onto complexity.

Go is an example of a game with very little explicit complexity but an astounding amount of depth.

There is nothing inherently wrong with complexity. Complexity can be a great thing for many games. Adding more interesting interactions for players is usually a good thing, and gives players more ways to interact with the game. Games with lots of depth, however, can achieve a similar result to games that are complex. The advantages of depth over complexity should be obvious: an easier learning curve, less moment-to-moment mental heavy lifting by the player, and the experiential joy that comes from discovering interactions between simple mechanics. So when looking to design a game that challenges a player to tactical or strategic thinking and problem solving, aim first to make a small set of rules or mechanics deep. If that is not enough, complexity can always be added.


Challenging, Interesting or Fun Part II: Dissecting Modern Game Design

In my previous post I defined three elemental features of modern game design I feel can categorize many mechanics and features found in most games today.  They serve, in essence, to justify the existence of a gameplay system, mechanic or feature. As a refresher, here they are defined again:

  1. Challenging  Does such a mechanic or feature offer the player a legitimate but fair challenge to overcome? And does completing that challenge offer a worthwhile reward (psychological or otherwise)?
  2. Interesting — Does the mechanic or feature offer the player a compelling reason to keep playing out of interest, intrigue or curiosity? Does the mechanic or feature compel the player to press on, unravel a story, solve a puzzle, or dive into a deep or complex system?
  3. Fun — Does the mechanic or feature offer players the opportunity to have fun. Is the act of partaking in said feature or mechanic fun in and of itself?

Finally, I defined a fourth elemental feature of game design I feel is used to justify feature inclusion. This is the element of necessity. Necessary features are ones that aren't necessarily challenging, interesting or fun and yet are important to be included for other reasons — be it to alleviate issues, justify other features, or tie together a system.

The famous Mario Power-Up shows it's face for the first time.

Today, let's look at a few famous gameplay mechanics and features and see if we can't define them through the lens of Challenging, Interesting or Fun. Let's start with one of the most famous examples in game design — the powerup And, of course, we cannot talk about the power-up without talking about Mario. Specifically, World 1-1, where the Mushroom is first introduced.

So what's so great about power-ups, anyway? Well, let's look at this specific example, the mushroom.

  1. Is it Challenging? — At first glance, no. But if we examine the design decision behind the power-up, in that Mario begins the game small (the equivalent of only having "1 Hit Point"), you can see that adding a Power-Up such as the Mushroom makes the game harder without it. In essence, the Mushroom Mario becomes Mario's "ideal state", and the player, once he or she recognizes the effect of said power-up, will always seek it out. It's challenging to play without the mushroom and it's a challenge to find mushrooms.
  2. Is it Interesting? — Again, not at first glance. But consider how Mario's health system works.. Mario has no life bar, no heart bar, no indication that he can take additional damage apart from his size, or (later) the color of his overalls. The mushroom allows Mario to grow in size and, once the player takes damage, shrink down again. The player discovers that the mushroom serves two purposes: it allows Mario to destroy brick blocks (which is discovered immediately) and it gives the player an additional "chance" if they make a mistake and are hit by an enemy. It may not seem interesting to us now, 30 years later, but if we consider player's of the day, the power-up mechanics of Mario and how they effected the gameplay were a constant discovery to new players. That is the definition of interesting.
  3. Is it Fun? — Subjective as it may be, I am going to go out on a limb and say people absolutely enjoy growing in size and destroying brick blocks. The joy of finding hidden mushrooms and being rewarded with an obvious visual boost (and catchy sound effect!) is a tried and true enjoyable game mechanic.

So you can see, such a simple mechanic as the mushroom is, when you think about it, vast and deep. And it hits all those points quite easily, without much of a stretch!

Now that we looked at one clearly great game mechanic that's been copied and used over and over and over in game design (truly it's great!), let's look at a game mechanic that I feel slightly less inspired by. Heck, I'll say it bothers me beyond reason, but that's because I enjoy analyzing things to oblivion.

I'm going to talk about two mechanics, that we'll try to classify. Remember, if it doesn't fit into the three elemental properties described above, I'll try to make the case for it being necessary.

First up is everyone's favorite annoyance from open-world games (if you continue to follow this blog you'll come across many issues I have with open-world games): you are over encumbered and cannot run. If you don't know what it means to be over encumbered I count you very lucky, as it's truly one of the most aggravating experiences in modern gaming. Essentially, your character has picked up too much "stuff" and now moves ridiculously slow on account of the excessive amount of weight on his or her person. The player can, however, dump some of his or her "stuff" and be allowed to walk at a regular pace again. So let's examine the mechanic that is "over encumbered" through the lens of CIF:

  1. Is it Challenging? — Maybe? Is it challenging to have to move really, really slowly or decide what stuff to dump to move at speed again? I suppose. But then again, the challenge is more in the deciding of what exactly you are going to part with than it is in the gruelingly slow movement speed. Notice that the act of parting with items has really nothing to do with being ridiculously slow. Developers could very well remove the slowing effect and have a hard item cap. Or better yet, give an easy way to sell off the items when the player gets over-burdened. There are plenty of solutions to this that retain the challenge of making the tough decisions of what items to keep and what to let go of without sacrificing player movement.
  2. Is it Interesting? — I don't know if anyone can make a legitimate argument for why a system like this might be interesting, but I'd be very happy to hear it.
  3. Is it Fun? — Is it fun to move slowly or be forced to throw away items? No.

Ah, inventory management. Truly gaming's most enjoyable past-time.

OK, so it's not challenging, interesting or fun. So...is it necessary? Well, some may claim that yes, it is necessary. And that is because we can't have our players running around with infinite items in their pockets at all times. That would just make for a severely unbalanced game world. That is true. But that, to me, is no justification for including a feature that hurts the fun factor of a game.

I posit that having a state of over encumbered is worse than having a hard item cap. Aggravating the players with a needless weighting system just distracts them from the core experience and forces them to do something they don't want to do when they pick up too much. With an item cap, however, the player just isn't  able to pick up an item and they move on. They are not forced to do anything if they don't want to. As I said before, I believe there are much better solutions to the problem that players should not be allowed to have infinitely deep pockets. Over encumbered states merely fix a problem by adding another one. So, no, it's not necessary.

The last mechanic I want to bring up is Weapon and Armor Durability and Degradation. Ah, another open world RPG mechanic? Why yes! Let's examine!

  1. Is it Challenging? — Sometimes! In certain games, having weapon durability can add a lot to the challenge. What weapon do I use on this enemy? Should I save resources to repair it? These are all questions that pose a challenge to players. But not always.
  2. Is it Interesting? — Not particularly, but again it depends on the depth of the weapon degradation system. Most of the time it's simply "this weapon is almost broken" or "this weapon isn't broken". Not particularly interesting.
  3. Is it Fun? — It's not inherently fun to repair weapons.

So what makes a degradation system challenging? When it's implemented in a way that is fair to players. In effect, the player isn't ever taken out of the main game loop and forced to make repairs unless they've consciously ignored it. They  must be cognizant of their weapon durability levels and alternate options when coming up on enemies, and decide when to spend their hard-earned resources on a repair. In such a system, repairs are relatively cheap and easy to do. As in, players don't have to travel too far repair their gear. Dark Souls and Bloodborne are great examples of weapon degradation systems done right. They add a challenge, but rarely become aggravating.

Unfortunately for us, most games don't balance degradation in any great way. Degradation serves as a mechanic to force players back into town to repair their gear. Degradation isn't a challenge, just an annoyance, another "to-do" on a giant list of to-dos. And if put off long enough (which many players do because of the inconvenience), weapons break or severely weaken, frustrating the player more.

So, the final question: is this type of gear degradation necessary? Well, one might need to justify realism in their game. Degradation adds a level of realism to a game. It adds another system for the player to think about. However, in it's most common form, I'd argue it's not necessary at all. Games would not become less challenging, interesting or fun if most games removed gear durability systems. And I cannot fathom a necessary reason other than realism to include such a degradation system in a game. Because of this, I posit that most degradation systems are needless and unnecessary.

To summarize, I think it's great to examine game mechanics through the lens of CIF. It's really quite revealing looking at modern games and question why certain design decisions were made. It is my opinion that simplicity is king in game design. If one can avoid adding an unnecessary system or mechanic to the game, I think one owes it to the game to try. If a feature is necessary, yet not challenging or interesting or fun, I believe it's very important to ask why.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Challenging, Interesting, or Fun: The Elements of Modern Game Design

Finding ways to categorize and determine what makes a game compelling or worthwhile may well be a fools errand, but considering academia has attempted to analyze the highs and lows of gameplay through the psychology of rewards and flow, I thought it might be interesting to come at it from a purely classic game theory perspective.

After ruminating long and hard about what factors determine whether a game offers a compelling experience and a metric to weight the pros and cons of including specific features or mechanics in a game, I arrived at three elemental properties. These are:

  1. Challenging  Does such a mechanic or feature offer the player a legitimate but fair challenge to overcome? And does completing that challenge offer a worthwhile reward (psychological or otherwise)?
  2. Interesting — Does the mechanic or feature offer the player a compelling reason to keep playing out of interest, intrigue or curiosity? Does the mechanic or feature compel the player to press on, unravel a story, solve a puzzle, or dive into a deep or complex system?
  3. Fun — Does the mechanic or feature offer players the opportunity to have fun. Is the act of partaking in said feature or mechanic fun in and of itself?

Of course, these are hard to define. Definitions by example go a long way in game design theory, and it serves me well to include them here. Fun, for example, is ill-defined no matter where you look, but I think we can all agree that things like running and jumping through a game world have been proven time and again to be fun if executed well.

As for challenge, well, that is up to the player for the most part. Many games offer too much challenge, others too little. Yet some player's relish these experiences like no other and the thrill of the challenge and the reward of victory is a feeling players are hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

The concept of "interesting" features is a relatively new one to games. It covers varied topics like intriguing stories or deep or complex game systems that promote a player's curiosity — whether they want to see what happens next, or want to understand the system or world around them more fully. Many of the features of story-driven games fall into this category. And yet, complex systems in RPGs fall into the category as well. Anything that sparks the player's curiosity and urges them to discover something, anything, could be classified as interesting. Even discovering a new technique or strategy in a fighting game, for example, could be argued to be interesting.

With these three elemental properties of games, I find myself analyzing mechanics and features constantly using this rubric. Is X addition to game Y challenging, interesting or fun? If not, why is it included in the game? If you've been paying attention, by now you've likely realized I've been missing an essential property. A final element of features in games. Something not as exciting to players or as dear to developers. And that is: Necessary.

Necessary features or mechanics are those that are required, for some reason or another, in a game. Why? Well, again, it's hard to define, but a perfect example of a necessary gameplay system would be Fast-Travel. In many open-world games, a fast-travel system becomes almost necessary. If i did not exist, players would be forced to make extended journeys every time they wanted to make their way towards areas they've previously visited. For many players, this impedes on the fun, challenge or interest in the game. For this reason, developers add fast-travel options as a way to alleviate those issues and allow players to immediately skip from one destination to the next. Though never required to be used, fast-travel allows the players some freedom who wish to use the option.

There are, however, "necessary" features that aren't all that necessary after all. It is of utmost importance, in my mind, to question why a necessary feature must actually be necessary. If a something is working against player fun and a feature is required to alleviate that, in my mind that seems necessary. But a feature or mechanic that stands on it's own, is not a remedy to other problems, and does not promote fun, challenge or interest seems like one that, too me, more developers should willingly question it's inclusion in the game.

In a future post, I'll look at common game mechanics and features through these metrics I've drawn up, and see what categories (if any) they fall into. I'll also analyze features and mechanics that some feel drag some games down, and question whether or not they are truly necessary.

New Site On-line

This is the inaugural first post of my new website. I was in desperate need of a new look and some content updates, so I hope you find the new site more user friendly and accessible. I've updated my portfolio section to better reflect more recent projects as well as have a much more easily accessible resume embedded into the page.

Above all, this blog will serve to convey my thoughts about a variety of topics, mostly geared towards the game industry and game design in general.

I hope you find my new site to your liking and thank you so much for stoping by!