Most video games are designed in layers that stack up to create various and/or dynamic challenges. Overcoming these challenges requires a level of engagement from the player. Typically, the harder, more layered, and more dynamic the challenge, the more engaging the gameplay. However, the key to engaging design whether in mechanics, input devices, or features is understanding a bit of human psychology.
These kids are engaged to the max!
Let's start by looking at the definition of engaging from dictionary.com:
- 1. to occupy the attention or efforts of (a person or persons)
- 8. Mechanics. to cause (gears or the like) to become interlocked; interlock with.
We can see that the act of engaging both takes up our focus and/or actions. Technically, any video game element including sound effects, musical selections, images, animation, story, or other conceptual elements can engage or immerse us. But fully understanding how these various elements engage us requires knowledge and theory from other disciplines. For our purposes, we'll focus on how video games create engaging interactive systems. Because video games are so complex, we must consider the different ways a game can be engaging and interactive. The first method is through challenges.
CHALLENGE & DIFFICULTY
If a challenge isn't challenging for a player, the level of engagement drops. Think about playing a random battle in a traditional JRPG like Pokemon for the 20th time. You know you can win the battle, and you've already worked out the winning strategy. And because the game is turn based, you don't have to worry about inputting commands in time. With repetitive battles or when grinding, it is not uncommon for gamers to find additional activities to occupy their attention.
According to more common observations of human psychology we learn by making mistakes, and we really don't like to lose. Avoiding a potential loss is enough for many gamers to engage with a video game challenge. But when the challenge is too easy or when the penalties for making mistakes are too light, losing no longer "feels" like losing. Because engagement and immersion are the topics at hand, considering our feelings is apt. When there are no significant consequences the player doesn't' have to focus or worry about making mistakes. This lowers the level of engagement.
It's the same for moments of static space. Whenever a game is at a functional standstill where the challenge isn't getting any closer to being completed no matter what you do, the engagement level can diminish. Whenever I get hit by an Ultra combo in Street Fighter 4 my focus/engagement takes a nap. During the animated sequence, there's nothing for me to do but regret my mistake. On a smaller scale, the way combos are designed in SF4, when I'm being combo my engagement level can also drop. Taking away the interactivity, agency, and challenge of a game can lower player engagement far more effectively then a challenge that's too easy. Games that feature too many non interactive cut scenes have this issue as well.
On the other hand if a game is too difficult for a player, the engagement level can drop too. Playing Guitar Hero involves carefully reading the screen and timing inputs to the music. During more difficult solo sections, or when you simply get off the beat, if you resort to randomly mashing buttons hoping for the best, you're no longer engaging with the specific game challenge. Instead, you're ignoring the level and committing to the strategy of possibly hitting a few correct buttons and surviving to an easier section. People have limited attention spans and focus. This means we can be overloaded and overwhelmed. Under high levels of stress, if the player doesn't feel like he/she can win, letting the sting of losing go is a method of reducing the stress of the situation. It's a defensive response to stress. Designing a game so that the conditions of a challenge are clear means that the player is more likely to understand why they failed. When the player realizes they made a mistake and how to possibly correct it, that player is much less likely to disengage with the challenge/game.
When games are designed to give players some control over the difficulty of their experience, a single challenge can be more engaging to a wider range of skillful players. As I've explained many times before, the RUN mechanic in the Super Mario Bros. 2D platforming games give players a way to speed up level progression. If WALKing with Mario is just too slow for you, then RUN. Mario's increased speed makes the screen scroll faster, which also gives the player less time to react to upcoming elements. This inherently makes enemies harder to avoid and jumps trickier. Mario also has momentum. So running faster makes it harder to stop quickly. If the game is still not hard enough for you, go after every coin and every secret without getting hit once. This layered design of organically controlled player difficulty makes the Mario games an engaging challenge for new gamers and for highly skilled veterans. Mario is an excellent example for difficulty design.
When players elect to make challenges harder for themselves, the action-reaction pair usually comes in the form of risk-reward. In other words, players make things harder for themselves to achieve or obtain a greater reward. Examples of greater rewards are additional points, coins, experience, faster times, or a higher rank/score. For our purposes, we're only concerned with ways to make a game more challenging through game mechanics and player choices. After all, we can always make a game harder by playing with our eyes closed or with our feet.
We all have some kind of personal criteria for what makes a game interesting, challenging, or engaging. Still, games are designed around core challenges that are made up of different layers of design. To me, Mario isn't interesting without level elements (pipes, bricks, pits) and enemy elements (Goomba, Koopa, Bowser). Coins and secret elements make the game richer, but their optional design keeps them separate from the core challenge. Mario's core challenges are made up of three layers that work together; player mechanics, level elements, and enemy elements. By core challenge I mean most mandatory challenges that must be overcome to progress through and/or beat the game.
Other games can create highly engaging gameplay in fewer layers than Mario. Some games get it done with just one layer. Simply moving an avatar in a game can be all you need, which brings us to the next topic.
I often exclude MOVE when listing mechanics in avatar based games because navigating a character is usually very straightforward. But design features like momentum, friction, and gravity can turn the simple act of moving an avatar into a highly engaging experience. If games like Pac-Man and Pong have the simplest MOVE mechanics, then the following games represent the opposite end of the spectrum.
- Maboshi's Arcade. Just moving in any of these arcade games is highly engaging. Circle and Stick's movement features gravity, momentum, and rotational forces. Instead of thinking about moving in straight lines, you must think in curves, swoops, and arcs. Contrastly, Square's movement is simple and set in a turn based grid. However, like in the classic Snake game, you leave behind a trail as you move that takes up space and limits your options.
- Kirby Canvas Curse. Kirby, the player avatar, is now a ball. Tap him to dash. Draw lines through the air to have him follow the track like a roller coaster. Gravity and momentum are involved as Kirby rides lines and careens through the game.
- Gravity Crash/Asteroids. Players navigate a space ship in this game via a rear mounted propulsion system. Independent of the propulsion system is the left to right relative steering. Factor in momentum and simply moving around in these games becomes an action that requires a lot of focus and careful timing.
- Wii Fit Games (Snowboarding, Skiing, etc.). Many of the games in Wii Fit are avatar based and are completely controlled with the balance board. Playing turns your whole body into a controller. Stick out your arms, bend your knees, suck in you gut, or do whatever you can to shift your weight around.
- Balloon Fight/2D Mario Platformer Swimming. These examples feature unique movement design. The floaty gravity, momentum, slow walking speed, and an upward flapping FLAP/SWIM mechanic makes moving very engaging.
- Super Mario Galaxy. In this 3D playformer gravity and momentum have been reimagined. Gravity is no longer unidirectional, but spherical and localized. One good JUMP and players can practically swim through space without touching the ground for a long time. This is one of the most engaging and interactive 3D games ever where the air is thick with an interesting, invisible force that players can interact with through the MOVE and JUMP mechanics of Mario.
- Katamari. Players start off with a relatively small ball and roll up objects in the environment to become bigger. The bigger you are, the bigger the objects you can roll up. Rolling up, bumping, and being stopped by differently sized objects allows players to touch and test the game world. With each object rolled up, the way the ball rolls/player moves changes. Roll up something ob-longed and you'll see it and feel it.
- Super Monkey Ball Series. In this game, you don't control they monkey in the ball. Instead, you control the tilt angle of the stage. Taking full advantage of the fine degree of control from the Gamecube analog stick, in Super Monkey Ball players can roll, slide, and pop the ball across the map.
- QWOP. Like in Super Monkey Ball, in QWOP moving is the only mechanic, and getting to the end of the course is the only objective. This game is very difficult, yet very fun to watch others play. Try it for yourself.
There are countless ways to make mechanics engaging. The following are some highly effect and common methods.
With mechanics risk-reward design can make a mechanic more engaging. Bringing yourself closer to danger for a greater reward/advantage can create incredibly tense and engaging experiences. Take the following mechanics for example.
- Bangai-O Series EX MISSILES. The more incoming missiles/bullets there are surrounding you when you unleash your EX MISSILE attack, the more missiles you'll launch in retaliation. In other words, to fight a massive force, you must bring yourself within an inch of death and explode!
- Street Fighter 3rd Strike PARRY. Tap forward just before getting hit by a standing attack or tap down before a low attack to parry it. If the parry is successful, you take no damage and recover fast enough to launch an effective counter attack. If your timing is off in the slightest, you'll get hit.
- Super Smash Brothers Melee/Brawl POWER/PERFECT SHIELDING. Like the PARRY in Street Fighter 3rd Strike, if you activate your shield just before the impact of an attack, you can recover more quickly to launch a counter attack. In this case, if you're timing to too early, you'll simply shield the attack. If the timing is late, you'll be hit.
- Neo*RPG POWER SHIELDING. This technique is about the same as PERFECT SHIELDING in Brawl. Time your shield just before getting hit, and the enemy will slide back a shorter distance allowing players to retaliate even more quickly.
- Gravity Hook SWING MECHANIC. In this indie flash game players can hook onto floating objects to pull themselves higher and swing around. Gravity, weight, and momentum all affect movement. On top of this design, the objects players must hook onto to platform become dangerous enemy elements when hooked. Completing the risk-reward relationship, the closer you draw to the dangerous elements, the stronger the pull strength. The stronger the strength the higher up you can fling yourself. Some areas can only be accessed when you embrace the risk and cut your timing extremely close.
- Ikaruga ABSORB. Normally in a shoot 'em up players avoid running into bullets. In Ikaruga, players can absorb bullets and convert the energy into homing missiles. There's a catch, bullets come in two types; black or white. Likewise, you can change your ship color between black and white. When black, you can shoot black bullets and ABSORB black bullets and visa versa for the white ship. When the screen is filled with a tapestry of colored bullets, you have to keep track of the intersecting paths, the bullet color, and your ship color. To make things even more interesting, you do double damage to enemies when you fire on them with the opposite color. Simply being the opposite color makes you susceptible to taking damage.
Motion controls can mechanics more engaging on a physical level. The simplest type of motion control design replaces on/off button states with motions. The most advanced controls offer some kind of 1:1 relationship between the controller and the game state. In such games every motion, breath, and heart beat you make changes the game.
From the low end of the spectrum to the high end.
- The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: Swing wiimote to swing sword.
- Super Mario Galaxy/NSMB Wii: Shake to SPIN.
- Boom Blox: Throwing motion results in 1 of 3 speeds.
- Mario Kart Wii: 1:1 2D steering.
- Wii Sports (Tennis, Bowling, Baseball, Golf, etc): Different combinations of 1:1 visuals, accurate 1:1 controls, and set animations.
- Excite Truck: 1:1 full 3D truck steering.
- Wii Sports Resort: More accurate 1:1 controls and design than in Wii Sports.
DUAL SYSTEM CONTROL
Some games are designed to be engaging by giving the player control of two systems, objects, or characters at once. Dual analog controls in shooters and games like Geometry Wars/Everyday Shooter give players the ability to move and aim independently. In these examples, moving and aiming aren't very engaging or challenging mechanics in themselves, but when put together create an engaging experience. The following are examples of games with more complex dual system controls.
- Breakris. Play Tetris and Breakout at the same time in this hybrid game.
- Pit in Super Smash Brothers Brawl. Players can control and continuously loop 4 flying arrows around the screen while retaining full control of Pit. Doing so is very difficult and requires a lot of coordination and dexterity skill.
- Ice Climbers in Super Smash Brothers Melee/Brawl. This character is actually two in one. When synchronized, both attack together. With advanced techniques and a lot of skill, it's possible to desync the Ice Climbers so that they attack more independently. The results can be devastatingly powerful.
- The World Ends With You. In this game players can control the bottom screen battle with the touch screen and the top screen battle with the D-pad. In this case, the end result is a game design mess.
CHARGE & HOLD MECHANICS
The physical act of pressing, holding, and then releasing a button for a charge mechanic tends to be more engaging than simply tapping a button. For more on charge mechanics and examples look here.
Aiming in 2D games tends to be more engaging than aiming in 3D games (whether 1st or 3rd person). In a 3D shooter, there's typically an aiming reticle that approximates where the shot will land. All players have to do is line up the reticle on the desired target and fire away. With 2D games players have to visualize where their shots will land. Visualizing lines in 2D space is what artists refer to as seeing implied lines.
Because implied lines simply suggest connections, the viewer must become actively involved in compositions... (6, Launching The Imagination 3rd ed.)
In a 2D game players visualize lines between their avatar (or shooting point) and the target. Doing so is inherently easier and more effective in 2D games because the perspective is locked in 2 dimensions. By adding the 3rd, a simple 2D visualized line becomes a 3D volumetric shape. Moving or launching any object in 3D space from any perspective introduces the issue of ba3D, which adds a degree of unknown to the visualization calculations. Examples include...
- Super Mario Brother Series Fire Balls.
- 2D Mega Man Series projectiles.
- 2D Metroid Series
- Trine: arrow aiming.
Going hand in hand with engaging motion controls, sometimes all it takes to highly engage a player is a unique controller. Even if the actual gameplay rules and interactions are the same as another games, the right controller can completely change the engagement level. Arcade games used to be kings of such games, but now games like Guitar Hero have proven that gamers will pay more to bring the experience home. The following are examples of games that are made more engaging because of controller hardware.
- Silent Scope
- Guitar Hero
- Dj Hero
- Rock Band
- Tyco Drum Master
- Donkey Konga
- Donkey Kong Jungle Beat
- Kirby Tilt & Tumble
- Wario Ware Twisted/Snapped
- Dance Dance Revolution
- Novint Falcon
- Rhythm Heaven: FLICK.
- Eliss for the iphone
- The Typing of the Dead
- Exclamation Warriors
Finally, we come to the conclusion of this investigation. What better way to leave things off than with a discussion on engaging credits in video games. The following games have successfully turned a non-interactive and possibly "go make a sandwich" moment into an interactive, engaging, and fun experience that also increases the likelihood of the player actually reading the credits.
- Super Monkey Ball
- NSMB DS & Wii
- Super Smash Brothers Series
- Rhythm Heaven
- Wario Ware: Smooth Moves
- The Typing Of The Dead
- Kirby: Canvas Curse
In the end, after a game achieves highly engaging interactivity it's well on its way to becoming a successful game design wise. Shigeru Miyamoto has expressed a similar idea when guiding the development of Super Mario Galaxy. He explained that if they could make just moving around a planetoid fun, then the game will me much easier to visualize and create. To be clear, a highly engaging game isn't necessarily deep, complex, or well designed. But it's a great way to start and finish.