Compelling Game Design

Recently, I was asked to give my opinion on what makes a game compelling. There was a good amount of variety in the responses that followed, below are my own thoughts on the subject.

Evolution of the Mind

  • This is more from my background in psychology, so bear with me; at a very fundamental level, I believe games need to encourage your mind to think differently, to learn, to grow. They need to stimulate the player.
    • I read a fascinating article a year or so ago that analyzed the behavior of children. The author observed that a child will play with a toy until it has been mastered. Once there is no more to learn from that toy, the child loses interest and moves on to a new toy. Our minds are designed to encourage us to continually seek new stimuli, to continually grow; I believe this to be instinctual.
    • When I consider my own thought processes in the games I choose to play, I realized this is a large part of what compels me to play a game. If I game doesn’t challenge me, I often lose interest. There has to be something left to learn or explore.

How does a game stimulate the player?

A dynamic game-loop

  • The game has to evolve as I play. As gamers become more experienced with what has been offered, they become quicker at mastering similar content and therefore predisposed to lose interest.
    • I enjoy games that evolve temporally, that offer me meaningful choices, and that offer layers of mastery though simple and understandable mechanics.
      • Evolving Temporally
        • Define and control the duration of a game.
          • Monopoly is a great example, the systems are engineered to constantly remove money from the economy over time. Unless you add house rules, the game is designed to be over in a fairly consistent time frame each play through. This allows me to better understand and weigh my decisions.
            • Time is critical to the way our mind contextualizes the decisions we make relative to the game.
              • DOTA does an amazing job at establishing this framework, weaving it into their core framework, and enabling their players to understand and react based on it.
        • Create variance through the timing of my decisions.
          • vCOH does this extremely well through the use of vertical tech. The timing of global upgrades will greatly impact other decisions the player will make in the future. This enables them to plan, analyze their plan, and re-adjust from play through to play through. They must learn what is best, why it is best, and when it is best.
      • Meaningful Choices
        • This implies that the decision is compelling BUT more importantly that the decisions all have equal weight. If a certain set of decisions are the BEST decisions then there are in fact no decisions. Make it difficult for me to determine what course is the best course and you stimulate my mind.
      • Layers of Mastery
        • Street Fighter does this so eloquently; very simple rules of play that ultimately require a high degree of fidelity NOT in executing so much as in understand what and why to execute. (Great article on this by Mark Birkhead located here)
          • There are 2-3 archetypes to master in SF; once you learn how to use Ryu for example, you can pick up any other character in that archetype and play. The execution of actions has been simplified since the complexity is in knowing the why; the read and react aspect of the game.
          • The beauty is that I then spend time trying to understand how each character functions, when and why to use certain attacks/combos, and how this all relates/connects to every other element/character within the game.
        • Which boils down to the real point, the mind does not find memorization stimulating. Instead, challenge the player to think deeper and you create this all-allusive depth that everyone speaks of.

Jenova Chen’s presentation on Designing Journey also highlights another aspect of what compels players. My take away from his presentation was the impact of emotional exploration on the player and how that influences or compels their behavior. That said, I think the question of a compelling game experience is quite complex; its likely a number of other factors come into play. These factors probably vary depending on the users own dispositions.

I recently completed The Last of Us. Even though I did not necessarily feel the gameplay was stellar, I was compelled to play. I believe much of the compulsion came from the games story rather than its gameplay. The story was extremely well written and I found myself playing to find out how it ends. This points to the value of emotional exploration, as most narratives play off of this element, and provides some insight into the original question of what is compelling game design.

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