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Rules of engagement

A recap  — in all of my posts so far I’ve been banging on about decisions and goals as a way to understand and design games.  What separates a game from other activities is consequential decision making in pursuit of a goal, whether that goal be explicit in the game itself — even just ‘survival’, or a goal imposed by the player on the game, such as high-score or the innate goal of continuous improvement.   (see Building little empires)

If an activity doesn’t offer any opportunity for the player to make significant decisions in pursuit of a goal, then it isn’t a game.  I guess it could be called a ‘toy’ or an ‘experience’ depending on the intentions of the creator.

After more consideration, I have pinned down the problem I attributed to RTS games and Civilization, which I labelled ‘micro-management’.  To be more precise, I think the basic problem is a lack of engagement, which I see as the player experiencing a period in the game where they aren’t making consequential decisions in pursuit of their current goals.

I highlight current, because players goals can change during a game.  They can change in nature and they can change in scope.   For the player to stay engaged, the game has to allow them to make consequential decisions in pursuit of their currently favoured goals or they will get frustrated.  They may still keep playing if the pain of giving up is more than the pain of getting through the rough patch.  But the job of the designer is to try to keep the player engaged as much as possible.

So ‘micro-management’.  Something can only be termed micro-management if its in the context of there also being a macro.  If there isn’t also a macro to consider, then its just management 🙂   In games where the scope of play goes from small to large, as it does in any game where the goal is to make the players position larger and more influential, then the scope of the player’s goals are very likely to change from the micro to the macro as the game progresses.

Micro-management becomes unfun when it isn’t in-line with your current goals. Players want to be making decisions that are consequential to the goals that they have prioritised *right now*. When the players goals are in-line with manipulating single units, micro-management is fun, like at the start of most empire-building games, RTS games included. But if the game basically forces you to pay attention to other stuff that is not directly important to your currently prioritised goals, it feels like being asked to take out the garbage while you are watching TV.  Sure, the garbages needs to be taken out, but does it have to be done right now?  Can’t somebody else do it?  Im busy!

This is the reason that games such as these have ‘AI’ that you can delegate micro-management tasks to, but unless these are as reliable and efficient as a real player, they won’t be used.  In Dungeon Bash, it can get tedious to to guide a team of three through a cleared section, one team member at a time, so there is a ‘Leader mode’ where the rest of the team falls in line behind a designated leader as they travel automatically to a waypoint.  This is only going to be used if the player can rely on it.  So in Dungeon Bash, if any team member sees any monster at any point along the way, it instantly returns to manual control so you can’t get ambushed.

So the take-away is that the game design should facilitate the player being able to focus on whatever their currently prioritised goals are, with as little distraction as possible. Easy to say, harder to do, particularly for real-time games where the scope of the players goals necessarily must change from micro to macro as the game progresses.

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Building little empires of out of some crazy garbage

Why does a multi-millionaire strive to make yet more money?  How could a teenager derive more satisfaction from the purchase of a second-hand jalopy than a middle-aged executive acquiring their third luxury sports car?  Because happiness and satisfaction are associated with relative improvement, not absolute achievement.  As long as you are better off today than you were yesterday, by whatever measurement floats your particular boat, you’ll feel good.

No, I haven’t decided to branch out into a self-help blog.  I was just setting up being able to use a quote – ‘In games, as in life‘.

An innate goal that players set for themselves in any game that allows it is to continually improve their situation.  Many games tap into this powerful urge by starting the player in a relatively uniform, weak or barely adequate state, and then offer opportunities for the player to make it more personalized, powerful or capable.  In Civilization, the aim of the game is to turn your little empire into a great one.  In Spelunky and Dungeon Bash, the player constantly strives to make their character or team more capable.

Look at Farmville.  A quick google, and many of the top results are articles sniffing that because its such a ‘dumb game’, it must be the ‘power of social-networking’ that is responsible for its phenomenal success.  Well sure, social-networking is a great way to promote awareness of the game and get people to give it a test-run, but the game itself must be doing something right to hold on to players for any significant time.  If you aren’t familiar with Farmville, its basically Sim City lite.  The same basic gameplay as Sim City is going on, except the game itself is less complicated and very accessible to new players.  The thing that is going on is resource management decisions in pursuit of the goal of building the player’s own little farm.  You start off with a certain amount of money, and you decide which crops to grow, and harvesting your crops gives you more money.  You can buy other stuff to personalize your farm, and tractors and things to make harvesting easier, etc…  As games go, it’s fairly shallow – the variety and depth of the decisions the player makes is limited.  As long as the player tends to their farm frequently enough, it’s existence is never threatened.  But regardless, it does allow the player to make decisions in pursuit of the goal of continual improvement and that’s enough.  Without that basic thing going on, no other amount of social-networking stuff laid on top would get anyone to play it for very long.

Minecraft is an example of this goal used in it’s purest form.  In this game you start with a pick-axe and a few other resources, and you can literally end up building the Taj Mahal.  This game has two modes: survival mode in which your resources are limited and the existence of your character is threatened by monsters and environmental hazards, and creative mode, where you have infinite resources, super powers, and nothing to worry about except what to build.  My exhaustive research (I googled it and clicked on the first three links) shows that survival mode is more popular.  Survival mode takes the improvement goal and combines it with some consequential decision making and thus makes a game of it.  Creative mode does not.

So.  The pursuit of improvement is probably the most important goal a game can facilitate.  Many successful games don’t use it, but many, many, many successful games do, and for good reason.