Thursday, February 24, 2011

What Keeps a Player Playing

I’m back this week to give my take what keeps a player playing a game. This is an important question when you’re trying to make a game yourself. Now, I have yet to really delve into making a game, but I do play a lot of games. I’d like to think that I have an idea why someone would want to keep pushing their way right to the end of a title.

It’s rarely the case today (especially with large AAA titles) that there is a single factor that keeps a player enthralled in a gaming experience.  However, I can think of several things that have kept me, personally, playing a game. The biggest of these things are challenge, storyline, and engagement.

I’ll speak on challenge first. Before I get into my opinions on it, I’d like to direct your attention to another Extra Credits video. These guys spoke on “easy” games, and they make a lot of really great points. If you don’t feel like watching it, the long and the short of it is challenge is best achieved by depth. As I’ve heard time and time again from fellow children of the Nintendo Entertainment System era, people feel that games have gotten way to easy.

I collect NES games, and I've gotten quite a few under my belt. I’ve gone back and replayed some games that I remember being crazy challenging, such as Karate Kid and Silver Surfer. Turns out they are not actually what I would call a challenge....they’re what I would just call crazy and stupidly hard. What’s the difference you ask? A game which provides a good challenge supplies resources in it’s mechanics to overcome the obstacle. Those old school NES games I mentioned however, give their challenge though poor design and the need to memorize everything that comes in the areas to follow. Karate Kid had nasty control and enemies that popped out faster then you can react, thus being maddeningly hard. Silver Surfer, while having it’s share of design flaws just had so much projectiles firing at you the player needed to know exactly what was coming to have any chance of survival. In other words...these old games are great examples of a challenge based around being just plain hard versus providing a challenge though depth.

Grand Theft Auto IV has some examples of good challenges (at least the way I experienced it). For instance, I can think of a few shootouts that occur in warehouse settings that are really, really hard if you just run around with your guns blazing. However, if you use what you’ve learned in previous missions the challenge becomes manageable. A well thrown grenade, a few good shots of a sniper riffle, hi-jacking a car and running everyone on the first floor over; these are all examples of how the player can use the game mechanics to beat the challenge and feel like they’ve accomplished something.

Moving on from challenge, I’ll now touch on storytelling. Mystery is a key storytelling component that helps to draw a player into a game, and keeps them playing. Bioshock, for me, was a great example of not only a wonderful story, but had a constant air of mystery about it that keep me wanting more. After I had played Bioshock for a hour, I couldn't stop. All other games I was playing at the time were shoved to the wayside, because I could not and would not rest until I had unraveled the entire plot. Keep a player guessing, and they’ll keep playing.

That being said, you can’t just have things the player doesn’t know, call that “mystery” and expect the player to be drawn in. You need to make sure the player actually cares enough about the character their controlling, the environment that they are traversing, and the question that they seek an answer to. The way you deliver the mystery is important as well. Give the player too much and they’ll become overwhelmed or just not care, and give them too little and they’ll get bored.

In playing Final Fantasy XII, I found that there was a great deal of mystery in the game, especially near the beginning. However, the story writers began to revel that mystery by allowing the player access to giant blobs of explanatory text describing characters, areas, etc. Frankly, after reading a few of these glossary entries, I stopped caring because breaking up the action (not that there is much action in FFXII) to read a novel’s worth of explanation is just not fun...not when you’re trying to play a game at least. This is a very good example of very bad storytelling.

Finally, I’ll talk about player engagement. Granted, this is quite a broad term when you’re talking about designing games, and both challenge and storytelling can play a huge part in keeping a player engaged. What I’m going to touch on in this post are game mechanics that keep the player playing. For example, what is it about World of Warcraft that have so many people hooked? I’ve plugged some time in the lands of WoW, so I have a pretty good idea. If you think about the concept of WoW, it just seems like a giant grind-fest up to max level, and few people would disagree with that statement. Despite the fact that the player has just accepted their fortieth “kill x of this monster” quest, they continue to pay 15 bucks a month to play it. Why? The goal of hitting the next level, unlocking that next ability, getting those new stat points keeps the player glued to their keyboard. The player feels rewarded by hitting that next milestone, and has a record of their accomplishments via their character and the gear that the character possesses.

Is this sort of engagement actually good? Blizzard Entertainment’s bank account would certainly think so, but is this true engagement? As I’ve said, I’ve played Wow...I’ve also quit WoW, wondering why in the world I spent so many hours of my life playing it. At the time, reaching that next level was the most important accomplishment in the world, but now looking back on it, it feels like I didn’t achieve anything at all. I feel that a game which is truly engaging feels satisfying after you’re done with it.

Whew...well, I’ve typed quite a bit for this post and haven’t really said that much at all. Perhaps talking about something so large requires more detailed posts. I’ll have to look at breaking down how to make good challenges, intriguing storytelling, and engaging game mechanics in future posts...just as soon as I learn how to do that myself...

gl hf!

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