To finish this article series I want to touch on two topics that are important to interesting gameplay (whether the gameplay is of interesting choices or not). One is of development, specifically how games can stretch their content to last longer or create the illusion of a fuller experience. For the other topic we'll look how a player might deal with lots of incomprehensible gameplay complexities. On the one hand, we need to know the game rules for interesting choices to emerge (and to develop strategies in general). On the other, learning these complexities can be slow and arduous. At what point do we take the plunge and embrace the minutiae complex games have to offer?
The Illusion of Content
What's in the bag? Its content is a mystery.
For one reason or another the industry has trended toward evaluating the worth of a game in hours. Gamers and PR/community managers alike have begun describing games largely in terms of how many hours of content they provide. While I don't blame anyone for trying to find a suitable criteria to describe video games, it takes little effort to show why game hours is an inaccurate way to describe game quality.
- Games are so emergent it can be unclear if game hours refers to the minimum progression, maximum, or something in between (like the average play time). It's hard to define any of these types anyway.
- Game time doesn't take into account replayability especially with multiplayer modes.
- Game time doesn't take into account a player's skill level that makes a challenge easier/quicker or when a player practices to increase their skill (sometimes by researching the game via external means).
- Game time doesn't distinguish between blatantly repetitive, uninspired, or time consuming challenges.
Game hours isn't a completely useless evaluative unit. It mostly needs additional descriptions to contextualize the values. But this is not the focus of the article.
We've all played games that go on too long. If you haven't, keep playing single player games. Even when I really like a game there can come point where I'm forced to play too many challenges with too few differences between them. Naturally, understanding how much content a game has requires understanding its genre, design space, and development in addition to considering one's personal tastes and other perceptual/execution limitations. This article will focus on development.
Lacking content isn't just an issue of having enough different types of content in a game, but also how this content is presented or developed. Some games have lots of potential for content in that they feature a variety of mechanics, level elements, enemies, etc. But for these games the free, sandbox, open world, customisable design holds the game back somewhat. In games where there is little to no progression, the game content can be difficult to contextualize. When we have control over our exposure to game content, there's a chance we'll overlook content or worse, spoil the experience for ourselves. For an analogy, if we have dessert before eating our dinner or play video game before doing our homework, we are likely to miss out on more than vegetables and math problems. By not doing the work the right way and in the right order, we miss the build up, struggle, of the work-reward system.
The freedom to choose and explore a game's content can also mean developing strong habits. If you could use any gun you wanted throughout an FPS campaign, you might find the most powerful weapons or the gun that works best for you and never use any of the other guns. One of the worst ways to spoil the content of a game is give the player access to the dominant gun or mechanic early on. When this happens, the gameplay can be greatly reduced. If you're going to have such a dominant mechanic in the game, you might as well prevent the player from accessing it too early. This will force the player to spend more time on the less dominant weapons so that there's more variety to the challenges. This may seem obvious. Still, I think it's important to be aware of when and how a game sustains different types of gameplay through the development or release of it content to the player.
The following are a few design techniques that games use to extend the life of their content. Notice how each technique isn't about adding new content (gameplay modes or elements) but arranging the existing elements in a particular way.
Switching modes. Zelda is a perfect example. In just about every Zelda game, the gameplay challenges are broken up between 3 main types that occur across 3 main areas: explore, battle, puzzle across overworld, town, and dungeon. Nintendo has always paid careful attention to how much time players are required to spend in each location and what kind of activities are necessary. By mixing up the challenges, players are less likely to get burned out on doing the same thing. Simply shuffling around the types of challenges or modes in this way is a highly effective way of extending content. Such a design creates less opportunities for the player to develop those strong habits that can reduse the way they see and play the game.
Variable Difficulty/Optional Challenges. Recently, after playing Donkey Kong Country Returns and Super Meat Boy, my brother realized how important variable difficulty was to his enjoyment of platformers. In a linear or very strict challenge, like many of the levels in Super Meat Boy, there is just one challenge and a very limited number of ways to overcome it. On harder levels, he died many times trying succeed. So, he progressed through the challenges predictably in a developer intended way. Without variable difficultly it's much harder for a player to enter their flow zone; that perfect sweet spot between player competency and gameplay difficulty. At any time in Donkey Kong my brother can focus on just beating the level, or he can take on a number of optional challenges. There are bananas to collect, KONGs to find, and puzzle pieces to grab. Every time he plays a level he can adjust how much he wants to take on, which changes his experience. Even replaying the same level, by mixing things up repetitiveness is diminished thus creating the illusion of more content.
Increasing Tempo. Steadily increasing the speed of a game is a surprisingly effective way to keep things interesting. As the game speed increases the way the skill spectrum is stressed subtly and gradually changes (read more about it here). This change can be enough to keep players engaged without creating a sense of heavy repetition. Thus, increasing game speed can stretch a challenge over a longer period of time. The Wario Ware series has mastered this technique. When going for a high score or earning a medal on any micro game, you have to replay the same challenge over and over as the tempo increases. I once played a silhouette stretching micro game on Wario Ware Touched for over 30 minutes trying and max out the score. The game might have gotten old after 6 repetitions if it weren't for the tempo increase. Slowly ramping up the difficulty has a similar effect.
Increasing Layers. Like tempo, upping the complexity of a repetitive challenge by gradually layering additional elements can stretch the content. Even if the additions are remixes of existing content, the gradual change can be very effective. After all, this is basically how layered and folded level design works. Play Defeat Me, Cursor*10, or Multitask to see what I mean.
A New Gameplay Element. Give the player some new gameplay element (that hasn't been available in the game previously) and they get new content right? This may seem like the definition of presenting content not stretching it. However, consider what happens to the player in a game of interesting choices when something new is added. The player might want to figure out if the new content alters the balance of the existing gameplay. Doing so involves running through many emergent scenarios either mentally or by playing the game. This rippling-double-checking process can take much longer than merely learning how the new element works. The slower you drop in new elements like this in games of or attempting to be "interesting," the more time is spent adjusting to them. Dropping in new gameplay elements into unbalanced games can also have this effect. After all, you never know if the new content will be the piece that clicks into place and allows interesting choices to emerge.
When games are designed around gameplay rather than story or some abstract industry "standard," the game content generally only goes as far as it can remain interesting. In general, I find that most puzzle games are spot on in their content-challenge ratio. Shooters and RPGs don't fare as well.
Embrace the cube! It's so tiny!
In our quest to understand what interesting choices are and the effect such a design has both on development and on the player, one thing that we've learned is that complexities are necessary. Many complexites are required for interesting choices to emerge in non-real-time games of perfect information. When a player encounters an "interesting game" for the first time, he/she starts a long process of learning. To learn more effectively players simplify the gameplay or focus on as few elements as possible (see article here and here for more). From there players work in additional rules and complexities in an ever widening understanding of the game. As our understanding grows we pick up increasingly nuanced information when before these nuanced complexities were not relevant or contentualized.
When does the minutiae of a game stop becoming nonsense and become a functional "story?" This is an important question for gamers and developers to ask. After all, the ability to see and understand the complexities of a game can be the difference between a game of interesting choices and a shallow game. It can be the difference between loving a game because it all clicks or being overwhelmed and put off by all the "junk."
Looking to my own history, I considered if the switch happens the moment I grasp a game's design space. After all, it's hard for me to know how to fit a seemingly insignificant detail into the bigger picture if I don't have any idea of what this bigger picture is. The problem with this theory is the big picture is made up of many connected individual elements. So while it's easy to understand the general big picture of most games, figuring out how an individual complexities fit in and weigh against the whole doesn't come so easily.
Then I thought that minutiae turns into music, so to speak, when the player stumbles across the information driven by a sense of discovery and curiosity. But surely curiosity doesn't mean much here. If I don't know how to make sense of the nuanced complexities, then I won't understand it and therefore embrace it. If I don't see how the nuanced information will help or hurt me, then it's not worth learning. Rather, my brain will probably focus on something more relevant. Just being curious isn't enough.
Perhaps the nuanced gameplay complexities click when there's an absence of threat or punishment. It's commonly known among educational psychologists that if a student's basic needs aren't met they will have increased difficulty in any kind of self-motivated learning. In other words if a child is hungry or feels threatened, higher level cognitive processes are restricted. So maybe when a game has a very sharp punishment design, the unease and tension of normal play holds back my mind from embracing any nuances. So, when I finally learn enough so that the threatening elements are not so dangerous to me, my mind is then free to consider the next, possibly nuanced, level of complexity. In my gut, though, I have a hard time equating the kind of life unrest a hungry child might experience to my apprehension of replaying a level over again.
Maybe it's not any of these ideas but all. And the glue that binds them together is the intrinsic motivation video games foster through relevant challenges and functional needs. One reason why video games create such effective learning environments is because of their accessibility, effective feedback, and contextual learning centered around problem solving. James Paul Gee calls it situated meaning. Why do you need to learn how to JUMP in Super Mario Bros? Because that first Goomba on 1-1 is going ot kill you. In public education there may be a disconnect between the information you learn from text books and the real world application. Video games start with the application. When players run up against a challenge they cannot overcome, they experiment. Experimentation, in this case probably trial and error, is a search for answers, patterns, and correlations. When experimenting I look for an answer in all the details no matter how small. This is how some of the smallest details and nuances are put into focus, and how I can learn them more easily.
Like the development of a metagame, learning is a detailed, complex, and largely unpredictable process. Complex games face a considerable delimma. To be interesting they need lots of complexities. And yet, being highly complex means creating a more difficult learning challenge for the player. Will you make a game that guides the player well enough? Will the emergent gameplay be too much to limit in this way? Will you build strong community features into your game to help the learning process? At the end of the day, we, the gamers, have to commit ourselves to more learning to have a wider range of gameplay experiences. It might not always be fun in the same ways as the more instantly accessible FPSs of today, but it's worth it.