Wednesday, August 31, 2011


I originally intended this to be an introduction to analyzing Deus Ex: HR missions. But it turned out to be too long ...

Games consist of a simulation, goals, rules and players. That's an iteration of what I have said before on this blog. As a developer we have to focus on the simulation, goals and rules. The rules, in combination with the goals, generate the journeys. If you are confused now, go read my last 15 posts before continue reading *grin*.

The simulation is arbitrary. You can make a game about cows milking each other or worms killing each other or about a guy surviving a nuclear wasteland. Anything, really. Point is that the simulation is very important for selling the game to customers who don't know the game yet (e.g. haven't read reviews). But once the player is in the game, the simulation becomes less and less important. Eventually it is replaced by the meta game, where players reduce the game to its abstract gameplay. You can fight that for a while (and often you should); but you can't win that fight.

For the medium- and long-term success of the game, the goals and associated journeys are important. Goals are rather easy to come by. Most come naturally out of the simulation. Others can be induced by rewards, like experience points. I'll have to make a post on goals eventually.

This post is about the journeys. Journeys need to be 'fun'. Everybody agrees. But what does that mean? Should journeys allow the players to reach the goals as fast as possible? No, they should not. Because the fastest way is to remove the journey and just give the player what he wants.
"Press X to kill all enemies on the map and receive your reward". That's the (almost) fastest journey. It's not fun. (But really cheap to code).

Journeys should be as long as possible. The longer you can make them, the more meat your game has. The better your game is. But how long is 'as long as possible'?

Well, journeys need to be not-boring (the industry calls this 'engaging'). They need to keep the player from giving up. For that, there are three requirements:

(a) The goal needs to be worth the journey.
(b) The journey must not be frustrating.
(c) The journey must keep the player's mind busy.

A journey (or part of a journey) is frustrating, if a player thinks that he shouldn't have to do that. Which journeys are frustrating changes with time and zeitgeist.

(a) is rather easy to accomplish. (c) in combination with (b) is the tricky part.

To keep the player's mind busy, you need to engage it. Possible ways to do this are

- planning (usually exploring all options + decision)
- learning/exploring/searching
- decisions
- educated guesses
- optimization/management under constrains
- interacting with other humans (that's a category in it's own right)
- relaxing/climaxes/tension/adrenaline
- anticipation of future rewards / penalties
- gaining/growing and rewards from nested J&D
- pressing buttons/moving the mouse, the actual execution

That's a copy/paste from the last post. The next posts will be about analyzing different games / journeys by checking how much they keep the player's mind busy. If everything goes as planned, we will find that the successful games / journeys excel at keeping the player's mind busy, while the unsuccessful games fail.


  1. Good post. A couple thoughts:

    - On point (b), I'm wondering if you can say more than that frustration depends on expectations. I think that's true, but in the long run it's a recipe for stagnation (developers make games that are exactly like earlier games in order to satisfy player expectations).

    In particular, it seems like frustration depends a lot on playstyle. For example, some people find sandbox-style games frustrating because they aren't certain what they're supposed to do next. I enjoy them because I like setting my own goals and exploring the world on my own. Is that a matter of expectations or playstyle?

    - On point (c), WoW doesn't seem like a particularly mind-intensive game as MMOs go. Why is it so much more popular than Guild Wars, City of Heroes, Vanguard, EvE, Rift, and so on? Why is it more popular than online chess or bridge? I think occupying the mind is a piece of the puzzle, but it seems like immersion, power progression, socializing, and so on are also important. Or are those included in "occupying the mind"?

  2. Tolthir, (b) doesn't lead to stagnation, but rather a race to the bottom, as developers try to appeal to players by making journeys ever more convenient. And this changes the players' expectations and makes other games feel frustrating.
    In some respect you could probably argue that this drives innovation, but as you can see, I am skeptical about the value of this.

    Frustration is highly subjective - just like fun is. I agree that not everything I would like, can be addressed by the word 'frustrating'. There are player expectations and player attitudes and player mindsets. And all of them play a very important role when it comes to whether a game is fun. A lot of this can be summed up with 'frustrating'. But not all of it. I need to think on this more.

    Don't confuse 'keeping the mind busy' with 'challenging'. I would like to treat the things you mentioned as properties of the journey and judge them depending on how they keep the mind busy. My guess is that it's better to address several different 'regions of the brain' than just one. Also, the most popular journeys are not exhausting. They feel 'light', like you could do this forever and yet don't become boring, because the game constantly changes between 'decisions', 'learning' , ...
    e.g. questing is more popular than playing chess professionally, because it keeps the mind busy without being exhausting.

  3. Don't confuse 'keeping the mind busy' with 'challenging'.

    Ah, you seem to be using the term more loosely than I'd thought. ;) For example, casino slot machines are popular. Does that mean they keep the mind busy? I suppose they do in the sense of being a Skinner box; it just sounds strange to describe them that way.

    In other words, if I were to define the key differences between Go and slot machines, I wouldn't say that slot machines are more popular because they "keep the mind busier" than Go does.

  4. Semantics .. ;)

    I deliberate use the term 'keep mind busy' to make clear that it can really be anything. Slot machines are a wonderful example for an activity that keeps the mind busy without being exhausting or even challenging at all. They just make you forget everything around you - especially time and money.

    The lesson is that some things are especially good at keeping minds busy.

  5. About the comparision with go.

    Different ways of keeping minds busy appeal to different people. Some prefer gambling to thinking and vice versa.

    Don't ask about which is the better game. You can only ask whether one person (in specific circumstances) likes one game more than the other.

    Definition of 'objective fun' 'objective quality of a game' is a completely different topic.