Just One More Go

You know how it goes. You sit down for a quick bash on that new game. Just a swift one before bed - after all you have work in the morning. The next thing you know, the sun's coming up, you haven't slept a wink and your hand is but a withered claw, resting on the controller or keyboard. What the hell happened there?

Some games are simply Time Vampires - they slowly suck hours upon hours away from you without you noticing. How do they manage it? Read on and hopefully I can give you a couple of ideas.

What happens next?

The vast majority of Just-One-More-Go-ness is down to a single factor - What Happens Next? Here, the player has a burning desire to find out what's coming up. This can be achieved in terms of a riveting narrative or a gameplay carrot.

It's obvious to see how the riveting narrative method works - no-one would even think of leaving in the middle of a story and we all know how hard it can be to put down a book. Normally, physical constraints (such as the overwhelming desire to sleep) dictate the stopping point.

Plasma Sniper? Only 6 days away? Okay, why not!
The gameplay method is slightly different although some certainly follow a similar path - some kind of reveal, for example. A classic example is the Civilization or XCom series of games. Players will often reach a point at which they wish to stop playing and save their game. Now, instead of walking away like they should, they insist on winding the turn on a couple of times to find out what their scientists are about to research or to check out that new unit type that's about to be built. Then, almost invariably, something else interesting will happen during those turns, prompting the player to continue playing for a bit. Then he'll save his game again and try to quit, but that enemy city is very close to falling and the scientists have promised him a new superweapon...

As well as the promise of the Shiny New Thing to play with, the player may also be subject to the Carrot of the Easily Attainable Goal. A lot of games these days include some kind of leveling-up system in their metagame. Most of these are represented by some kind of bar that gradually fills up. Bars are so much better than numbers for this as it gives the player a very visceral and immediate method of seeing how close they are to their target without resorting to the tedium of maths or revealing the inner workings of the game too much. If the bar is close enough that the player thinks he'll be able to fulfill that requirement in a single game's time, he'll surely go around one more time. I mean, you'd never consider logging out of World Of Warcraft or Everquest if your main was about to ding, right?

We can probably assume that there's a Threshold of Close-To-Leveling-Up-ness that makes it hard for a player to quit. So what if we ensure that the player is always within that threshold? He'll be unable to quit and will be forced to play the game until the heat-death of the universe!

The main method of achieving that is relatively simple and is the approach adopted by classics such as CoD: Modern Warfare or Jetpack Joyride. Give the player multiple objectives to be heading towards. With enough objectives on the go at once, at least one of them should be within the ToCTLU. As an aside, these multiple objective systems also do a decent job of getting a player to play the game in different ways, which can also help reduce the chance of them getting bored.

It's not enough for the player to simply be within the ToCTLU - he has to know that he's within the ToCTLU. That means whenever he has increased a particular bar, he must be shown the increase in a nifty fashion. The more the player sees progress, the happier he feels. If it looks like the next go with be enough to attain the next level, it is a gamer with a will wrought from the strongest steel that will put the game down without having that extra go.

The ToCTLU has been around long before someone even coined the term 'metagame'. We used to call them high scores or leaderboards. For some people, these represent an irresistable force, constantly pulling them back until they are ahead of all of their friends. The joy of an old arcade machine which still has your three initials proudly displayed at the top of the screen a couple of weeks later is a powerful feeling. These days, it's all online and with plenty of fancy filters. You can build an entire game around highscore chasing and layer on plenty of nifty touches to make the whole thing as frictionless as possible. Start with Geometry Wars and it's Next Highscore To Beat display. Move on to Trials or Temple Run with in-world markers showing you your friend's best efforts. Throw down the gauntlet with Need For Speed's Autolog and it's viral gloating mechanisms. In short, let the player know that it'd only take one more go and both progress and bragging rights will be his.

Minute To Minute

Enticing the player back to the game by using the metagame is all well and good. In fact, a decent metagame can often do a bang up job of papering over the cracks of an otherwise average game. Surely though, a decent game shouldn't have to rely on a contrived progression system to pull a player back in? Of course not - that's just silly.

This is where the minute to minute thing comes in. What is the player doing whilst he's playing the game? How is he using the interface? Is that fun or does it rely on certain other things happening for the player to get his payoff?

Just... one... more... game
A game that doesn't feature a strong narrative, if any at all, relies on the actual interface being fun. Consider a puzzle game like Bejeweled or Tetris. They keep you playing because the act of moving blocks around to form specific patterns is very compelling. They live or die based on the combination of their fundamental ruleset and interface. They also translate very well into the modern day time constraints for gaming with the promise of immediate returns in a bite-sized chunk of play. At least, that's what you're supposed to think. How many of you have sat down for a quick game of Bejeweled Blitz thinking that it'll literally take a minute due to the timer and ended up wasting a good hour or two?

Consider Populous and Powermonger - seen by many as very similar titles when they came out. The vast majority of people prefer the former over the latter and I think it's the minute to minute gameplay that is the root cause of this. In Populous there was always something you could be doing - altering the terrain mostly. In Powermonger, your inputs were fewer and more spaced out. In addition, the feedback from your actions took a lot longer to appear, making the game feel unresponsive - even before you start considering the well-intentioned but incredibly flawed carrier pigeon simulation. As such, each click in Populous was rewarded instantly. Couple that with the OCD tendencies of people converting the disordered mess of mountains into nice, neat flat land and Populous comes out a deserved winner.

As an aside, that's not to say that a game that features a more observational style should suffer. Watching the world go about its business and throwing in the occasional input can also work very well indeed. Theme Park or one of the Tycoon games, for example. Dungeon Keeper is a decent blend of input bursts (tagging areas of land or slapping imps) and observations (watching creatures dig out the terrain, make use of the facilities or fight invaders).

On the flip side, a typical game that features a strong narrative will normally have an interface that is designed to feed the player through the story arc at an acceptable pace. Look at the first Mass Effect - a great narrative interspersed with some truly clunky gameplay bits. The thing that keeps the player playing is the desire to find out what happens next in the story and the interface will generally be a much less intense experience. Either that or one thing will get in the way of the other - you'll resent the bits of gameplay being interrupted by exposition or you'll get upset that you've got to experience a tedious bit of gameplay before the story will move on.

Interface

It may seem like I'm banging on about interface a lot and I suppose that might be the case. But the it's arguably one of the most important pieces of any game design and, quite often, the bit that's just left to chance while people concentrate on flooding the game with content. I see many games that have a ton of potential and would actually be great fun to play... if someone had only gotten the interface right.

Dwarf Fortress
Yeah, I don't know what's going on either
I'm looking at you, Dwarf Fortress. What lets you down isn't the graphical, er... style or the complexity of the simulation. No, it's the seven different ways of moving up and down through the menus and thirty different ways of marking out the terrain for building. You could be the next Sim City or Minecraft with Dwarves, but you're simply impossible to play. There are many people who have realised this and are trying to capitalise on Bay 12's indifference to this, but a winner has yet to emerge.

I'm also giving out the stink eye to the lazy designers intent on developing mobile games for smartphones that insist on throwing a virtual joystick right over the action. I put it to you that you're either making the wrong game or you're making the right game on the wrong platform. Sort it out!
Now I'm thinking about joysticks and haptics and constraints and I can feel myself getting all worked up about it. I can see that perhaps I should let it slide for now and save up the bile for a decent crack at it in a future post.

Instead, I'm off for some Rock Band Blitz and the reclaiming of some high scores in what I like to refer to as The Reckoning.

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