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.


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.