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I've launched my first Kickstarter and it is almost funded! I would appreciate you checking out my Norse-inspired 5e campaign setting -- Raiders of the Serpent Sea!
This is the second part of the chapter on designing the user experience. If you have any questions please just reply to this campaign and let me know. Would enjoy a discussion around this.

The Lazy Designer: The Next Game

Chapter 5 (Part 2)


Player Flow

 

Overview

"Flow tends to occur when a person faces a clear set of goals that require appropriate responses" (Finding Flow, Csikszenthmihalyi, pg. 29 ).

Flow is a general concept that applies to a variety of activities. 'Being in the zone' or 'in the moment' are phrases that have been used to describe this process. What is fascinating is that a strong game design elicits this flow response. Flow is sometimes described as immersion or an immersive experience but I will split hairs and keep the two topics separate. I believe you can have a flow experience, that is, really be in tune with the game, while still not being immersed in a game to the exclusion of the outside world. That is, a game can still be a powerful (flow) experience without being an immersive experience. The outside world and the inside world of the game can (and should) exist at the same time.
The experience is more than just the player's use of the interface and their interaction with non-player characters. It is also how they describe the game to others and how others react to the experience when watching but not playing. The more pleasurable each individual step in the game — how much fun the player has doing the activities, describing the activities, and sharing the activities — the better the overall game. If individual activities in the game are not fun, whether due to cumbersome game mechanics, a poor interface, terrible lag in a multiplayer game, or something else the game's overall enjoyment is reduced.

As much as possible flow should be a variety of exciting experiences punctuated by periods of calm. Too much excitement causes anxiety, too little boredom. A balance needs to be found and the balance will vary depending on the type of game being played and the player. Few games actually achieve perfect flow for a large audience of players which is why designing games for a very broad player base is difficult. But a designer should always think about how their activities are flowing together.

If there are sections of the game where the player is removed from the core gameplay experience for extended periods of time (say a cumbersome inventory system or excessive dialog) players may have a harder time finding flow. Tutorials, dialog, combat, exploration, shopkeeping, resource management... all these issues need to be balanced, both in how they are presented and how often they are presented.

Sometimes you will jar the user with an unexpected narrative twist or a surprise encounter and these create memorable moments in your game. But sometimes you also unintentionally disrupt the player, creating negative emotions towards the game and often this happens due to a poorly tested interface or a lack of smoothing out the variety of player activities so that no single activity happens for an extended period of time. Inappropriate hiccups add up to create an overall unpleasant experience.

Change the Way the Game is Played

In a point-and-click adventure game the player is able to click on certain hotspots on a painted background (i.e., click on a bucket to pour water). By clicking in different locations outcomes are triggered to help progress the adventure forward.

Or not.

A fun game Samorost 2 (play online for free) is a solid example of this system. In that game you play a man searching for his dog (aliens have kidnapped it). You click on various locations to progress across multiple, beautifully painted maps. Yet at times some of the puzzles are frustrating — as they are in most games of this nature.

One of the difficulties is that you might click on an object early on in the puzzle — as you experiment with trying to figure out how to solve the obstacle — and nothing happens, no user feedback occurs. And then later after you do the first few steps that previously inactive location is now where you have to click next.

So a feature that was not there before gets revealed. This really leads to two schools of thought in regards to feature revealing — Hidden Features versus Growing Features.

Hidden Features

Hidden features are those that appear in areas that the player has already explored (whether it be the user interface, or the actual level).
When the user interface does this it can be a useful design tactic — new buttons appearing when the player increases their skill or gains new powers. If there is a visual indicator when the new feature appears this becomes a progression tool to increase player interest in building their gameplay experience.
When the level itself does it, as in puzzle games, it makes the game more difficult. This, when intentional, is a valid design decision. But sometimes designers make their games work this way simply accidentally or because this is how they've always worked. If so, that's a bad habit.
What I mean by this is that if the player undertakes an action that logically should do something and it does nothing simply because the player has not done some other arbitrary action earlier, the frustration the game creates is unnatural.
Not only does it make the game more difficult but it also makes the designer miss out on improving the gameplay experience for the player. If there is a lever that cannot do what it should do until the player performs another action elsewhere then make the cause and effect logical to the player. Make the lever usable but accompany the action with sound effects and visuals emphasizing that the lever is broken or that a gameplay action elsewhere is required. As much as possible these kinds of failing should be systemic, that is, part of your gameplay system so that players learn to understand that broken levers are fixed in particular ways. After solving the first occurrence they know how to solve recurrent occurrences or similar events. Adding these problem->solution circles creates gameplay.
Trying an action and failing is more fun than pixel-hunting a background for a second time to see if an object that was not usable previously can now be used. You punish players if you make them undertake mundane tasks. You punish them doubly when you make them do it more than once.

 

Growing Features

An advantage of allowing a player to do everything even before they can actually succeed is that it helps inform the player what can and cannot be done.
Take this example:
Imagine you have a room and there are two levers in it and a small wheel in between them and there is a door that won't open. The first lever can be clicked and goes up and down. The second lever can be clicked and goes up and down. But the wheel cannot be turned until both levers are in the up position. Clicking on it does nothing but once it can be turned the door would open.
In this simple example some players are going to enter the room and then click the first lever, the wheel (and nothing happens), and the second lever. Because the levers animated and the wheel did not, it is perfectly reasonable for that player to assume the wheel is not something that can be used — i.e., it is part of the background and not a usable object. In such a simple example the player is likely to figure out that they can indeed click the wheel eventually but imagine a more complicated game, with more areas to interact with and where the wheel maybe is not even in the same room as the other objects. Difficulty increases but not in a good way... difficulty is okay when the difficulty is a challenge of some kind. Difficulties that are simple difficult are annoying.

Instead of the first example, consider this:
Again we have two levers with a wheel in the middle. But even before both levers are in the upright position the player is allowed to click on the wheel. And it starts to turn but gives a groaning noise indicating failure and maybe a visual of sparks.
But it does move a little. There is hope!
The advantage here is that the player is told that they are capable of making the wheel move... eventually. So their goal is now to make the wheel move (as opposed to the previous scenario where their goal was a less tangible figure out what to do next.) If their end goal is to open a door, there is now an intermediate goal of enabling the wheel to turn. This puzzle is a richer experience.
And as a bonus the failure experience allows for design cleverness, possibly humorous failure animation or sound.

 

Conclusion

Learning by failure is an important design element that should be leveraged as often as possible. I prefer games that allow me to do everything from the start (at least past the tutorial). I accept that I will not actually be able to succeed at everything but knowing I can try makes me remember actions I failed at performing earlier. And I'll try again later once I unblock that action.
In the next newsletter, we will look at the intersection of gameplay and the cinematic experience. Thanks for reading, please let me know if you have any feedback!
Brent Knowles, Game Designer
Brent Knowles, Game Designer
Brent Knowles, Game Designer
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