In my previous post ‘Decisions, decisions‘, I talked about… decisions, and how important they are are to a game. But thats a bit like saying “The most important thing about wine is what it tastes like”. Yes, thank you, Sherlock Holmes, but how do I make it taste good? What factors affect the taste?
One of the most important contexts for making a decision is in pursuit of a goal. Once a player commits to attaining a goal they will eagerly play your little game to achieve that outcome. It’s a ‘human’ thing, I suppose. Anyone who has played Civilization can attest to the siren song of ‘I’ll just keep playing until I…” Build that thing. Conquer that city. Discover that stuff. And the fiendish game keeps tempting you with new goals before you have managed to complete your current ones, and suddenly it’s three o’clock in the morning.
As with decisions, balance is key for goals. It must be the decisions the player makes that are the biggest factor in whether or not they achieve their goal. If the goal is too easy, or too hard, or too random, then the decisions the player makes won’t matter, and you will be cursed for your “stupid game”.
And again, its best that the goals be consequential within the context of the game. Sure, players might have all sorts of reasons for setting a goal that doesn’t have consequences within the game itself — one example is the concept of a score. Getting a high score is a valid goal and can drive some players. They get to be at the top of the score table. Not only did they beat a game, but the score gives a quantifiable measure of how well they beat it. But its not as good a goal as the consequential type that Civilization is littered with: if I build that farmer, then I can grow my population. If I conquer that port city, then my coast will be safe from raids. These types of goals are more likely to keep you up until 3am than trying to beat the current high score. Spelunky is a brilliant game. In Spelunky, the money you exit the cave with is your score, yet money is useful for buying things that help you exit the cave.
Which brings us to the most delicious decision of all – choosing between mutually exclusive goals. In story-telling, that is the seed of all drama. If you can consistently offer your player mutually-exclusive, consequential goals, then you have hit game-design gold. Do I spend these resources on building farmers to get more population or on military units to protect my coast from raids? Purest gold.
So maybe goals are the most important factor in game design? No. Only insofar as they provide a context for players to make decisions. Goals can be achieved in a mindless, un-fun fashion. Want that shiny new magic sword? You can grind for pennies a throw until you save up enough to buy it. Goals are powerful enough that players will do that sort of thing. It is far better to offer a way to get the sword that involves consequential decision making on the part of the player. Or in other words – fun. Imagine an RPG that didn’t have money. You couldn’t grind to save up to buy a shiny new sword from an impersonal shop. You could only get stuff by performing quests, or taking or trading it from someone who already had it.
In summary, another weapon in your game’s arsenal is laying out “goal mines” for the player to step on or avoid. Consistently offer your player the choice between mutually-exclusive, consequential goals.