We've established why goals are so important for video games and for fun. Games need goals to qualify as games. And goals are important for defining player agency (DKART skills) including the knowledge needed to win. Thus goals are a key design element for appealing to the intrinsic needs of power and curiosity, the two most prevalent, fundamental, and important motivators we consider with fun game design. Though goal-setting theory is great for helping us understand what makes good goals that motivate, applying these ideas to game design isn't so straightforward.
Goals: Specificity and Proximity
Video game goals come in all varieties and combinations. Yes, specificity, difficulty, and proximity are important qualities to have when designing fun goals. However, there's a lot of leeway within these parameters. Most video games only feature a single goal. In my article Mulling Over Multiple Goals I explain how games with multiple goals can significantly complicate our value scales for analyzing gameplay interactions and strategies. But practically speaking, just because a game has multiple goals doesn't mean the player has to embrace this increased level of complexity. You can just pick one of the goals and focus solely on it to get the job done. Out of the three goal-setting theory parameters having multiple goals has the potential to most affect difficulty.
Asymmetric goals are about as simple as games with singular goals in terms of the three goal-setting theory features. With an asymmetric game, there are at least 2 competing sides that have different objectives. Recall the classic plant the bomb/defend the bomb-site FPS game type. The asymmetric quality doesn't affect the goal's specificity, difficulty, or proximity.
What about the goal structures of larger more open world type games? In an action-adventure game like Zelda, a JRPG like Radiant Historia, or an open world game like Oblivion, the player can accept and juggle more than one goal at a time. Keep in mind that questing to defeat Ganon, looking for empty bottles to collect, and getting out of a dungeon alive are different goals, but they're not multiple goals. Finding a bottle doesn't beat the game, nor does escaping a dungeon. The fact of the matter is that games like Zelda are designed around many goals of optional, linear, or branching objectives.
Some goals are hidden, vague, or partially defined. Defeating Ganon is the ultimate goal of many Zelda games, yet you're not actively battling Ganon throughout. This is an example of a goal that isn't very specific. You know Ganon is out there somewhere with the triforce of power. Yet you don't know the exact steps you need to take to get there. In this way large, suspended goals generally lack specificity and proximity. Do goals like this count as gameplay goals or are they more of a story/thematic element meant to give the gameplay context? Either way, such vaguely defined goals seem like a necessary part of adventuring, at least how I define it.
Adventuring is any combination of the following: Having a goal (clear or vague) to achieve without knowing the exact steps you need to take to get there. Exploring the unknown motivated by curiosity. Dealing with the unplanned and the unexpected on your way to your destination. Getting lost, distracted, or following a hunch that ultimately leads you to the main goal. Being transformed along the way. (For more examples of adventure, listen to this This American Life episode).
Designing goals that lack some measure of specificity and proximity isn't automatically bad for fun. As long as you know enough to make an informed decision that gets you to the next step, then it is still possible to be intrinsically motivating with power, curiosity, and according to goal-setting theory. After all, trial-and-error is a natural part of learning which is the intrinsic need that curiosity stresses. This method of learning can be done blindly, i.e. from a state of no knowledge of the subject. Being such a common learning method, I think it's safe to say that we're all willing to give any learning experience a bit of leeway. In other words, we put up with a bit of uncertainly, unknowing, learning, and testing before we give up on something completely. This grace period also works to sustain fun. So even when the goal-setting features are lacking, we can continue to be motivated in the pursuit of a clear goal.
For most video game experiences, the intrinsic motivators of power and curiosity are at odds with each other. They also feed into each other. When you lack knowledge, you'll probably be motivated to learn (curiosity). After all, before you can exert your will/agency (power) in an effective or meaningful way you have to learn the rules. The more you learn the more powerful you can be. Never forget that knowledge is power. At some point, the motivation behind one's learning (curiosity) transfers into power and vengeance. Put simply, we naturally seek opportunities to test what we know. Though testing or trials are a part of the trial-and-error learning process, there is a difference between our attitudes and experiences when we're experimenting to learn and executing to see what we're made of. The more we learn, the more motivated we are to put the knowledge to work. The more we fail, fall short, question, or get inspired while executing the more we want to learn.
In one sense, a goal is just a rule, which is just another gameplay complexity. A game's goal and the rest of the rules/complexities define the skills necessary to win, set the challenges, and set the potential challenges. Therefore the goal is a key part of a game's difficulty, a highly emergent quality of its gameplay. Some games are very linear and therefore the range of gameplay possibilities and challenge is relatively small. Rhythm Heaven, Guitar Hero, Linear RPG, and Super PSTW are good examples. Most games allow for many different emergent possibilities. And within these possibilities are optional challenges, objectives, and goals. Now the question is, how do optional goals affect fun in terms of gameplay difficulty?
In Super Mario Brothers (NES) players have alternate paths they can take through many levels and through the entire game. The ultimate goal to beat the game requires players to get through 8-4 and past Bowser. While you're pursuing this ultimate goal you can adjust the challenge or difficulty of your gameplay experience by collecting coins, uncovering secrets, taking on more enemies at once, or simply playing like a pro. Whether you call these options scalable, variable, player controlled, or organic difficulty, it's this type of difficulty design that helps facilitate flow in games and the kind of fun that comes from challenging situations. If SMB is too easy for you, you're free to pick any number of optional goals/challenges to make things more interesting. If you ever take on more than you can handle, feel free to drop the extra goals/challenges. We adjust the difficulty of our experiences like this naturally to maintain the fun (goal-setting difficulty and power).
This leads us into an analysis of external rules (external goals). External rules are conditions or objectives that a player subjects him/herself to that are not monitored, enforced, or acknowledged by the game system. Examples include speed runs, score runs, completion runs (0-100%) (Metroid Zero Mission 10% hard mode run), playing multiple games at once (Rhythm Heaven, Mega Man), controlling two players at once (Ikaruga), one handed play (street fighter), and Nuzlock (Pokemon). A good way of thinking about external goals is making a game out of a game with you as the referee. Traditionally, speed runs, high score runs, and completion runs are common personal goals that gamers challenge themselves with. Some games have built these kinds of goals into the game itself as optional goals, challenges, and modes.
Many gamers don't consider the use of external rules to increase the difficulty of their gameplay experiences as a legitimate part of a game's design. The idea is anyone can make a video game harder by tacking on external conditions. When we say that a game is too easy, we're specially talking about the challenges within the gameplay rules not the conditions of one's overall experience playing the game. With that said, for a single player experience, I don't see a difference between increasing a game's difficulty by accepting optional challenges (like going after coins in SMB) and not using optional moves (like overpowered attacks in an RPG, or a strategy that abuses an AI weakness). If fun is what you're after, then you shouldn't have a problem making a few adjustments to find it. The biggest difference between increasing difficulty by accepting optional challenges and restricting one's own options is that the game creators have more control over the former than the later. In other words, you're more likely to get a tight, well-crafted, and balanced gameplay experience by trusting the developers options rather than relying on your own ability to practically create a game within a game by restricting your own options in an emergent system.
In part 5 we'll look at rewards and punishments before wrapping it all up.