The Lazy Designer: The Next Game
Chapter 5 (Part 4)
Over the years I have tried several task management solutions... from Excel to Outlook to Google Tasks and many more. Currently I am back to using Excel sheets to keep track of which blog posts need writing and which writing projects I want to tackle next. But tasks written there continually accumulate.
Beside my laptop I also have a pile of sticky notes. If I am away from the computer when a task presents itself I usually jot it down on a note. And I have discovered something. Those paper tasks are generally completed faster than digitally-tracked tasks. Likewise I have hundreds of unread books stored digitally... and while I do read them my progress through digital copy is significantly slower than my progress through the variety of paper books and magazines I own.
While reading one of those magazines (Neo-Opsis #20), Karl Johanson, the editor (who also works in the game industry) commented that game designers should add just enough frustration to a game to keep the player playing. This got me thinking.
These three seemingly separate ideas — task management with sticky notes, reading paper versus digital books, and frustration designing — are not separate at all. Frustration management is vital to game design... and real life.
Basically the reason I tackle my sticky note tasks before I look at my task list in Excel is because the sticky notes are frustrating. They linger on my desk, my monitor, my wall. They take up space. They annoy me. They frustrate me. I want to complete them so that I can crumple them up and toss them to the floor.
Likewise the books... those stacks of unread material stare at me every time I enter or leave my office. They beg to be read. Digital devices have convenient features that allow me to suppress their notifications and ignore them when I want... notes and books do not allow that luxury. Their sheer presence demands attention.
Digital reminders and eBooks do not frustrate (most of) us with their presence. Neither do many games. Anybody designing product for a digital environment should seriously consider that some frustrations are necessary... frustrations force a user to pay attention, to engage.
Game Design Frustrations
Game design frustrations should lead to in-game player choices (frustrations that the player cannot remove are poor design.)
I think an example might illustrate effective use of game frustrations.
A common feature of old RPGs is the idea of a limited inventory. Basically the player is allowed to carry a limited amount of equipment. Certain RPG designers, in an attempt to make their games appeal to mainstream crowds (or simply to be simpler) have removed the system.
One simplification has been to expand the inventory available to the player (sometimes so much so that the inventory becomes infinite). The solution works, to a degree, but an infinite inventory introduce new problems... larger inventories become difficult for a player to navigate, for example.
Worse... the designer has now lost an opportunity to make a system enhance gameplay. Sure a frustration has been removed but the player was not active in removing the frustration (lost gameplay) and the replacement simply introduces a new frustration (which also adds no new gameplay).
Sometimes frustrations must be removed to fit into the overall design of a game but I think it is a design oversight to make too many simplifications simply for the sake of simplification. Inventory is an easy concept for non-RPG players to understand. A limited inventory makes sense. The more a game mechanic models a real life situation (i.e., I can only carry so much in my backpack/briefcase/whatever) the easier it is for a player to understand how it should work. When a player encounters a full inventory (a frustration) it is simple for them to think of solutions to their frustration.
They know they can:
Basically a game system (inventory) has the power to encourage exploration and heighten the player's sense of control over their game experience.
- Return to a Previous Area There they can sell excess equipment — which encourages exploring existing areas and creates an opportunity for a game designer to add simple dialog and other cues to reinforce the player's influence on the world.
- Expand or Organize Their Inventory This might encourage the player to undertake subplots or find specialist merchants who will sell them expensive methods to upgrade their inventory (magical backpacks, houses, starships — whatever makes sense in the context of the world being explored).
Other examples abound — perhaps fighting mobs of weak opponents becomes boring at higher levels. Why not encourage the player to take a side route (or a series of ever more dangerous side routes) to obtain an artifact that gives the player the ability to destroy those mobs more quickly? If a particular opponent is difficult to defeat maybe there is a weapon that can be bought at high cost that will vanquish it more efficiently — the expense requiring the player to undertake several subplots to raise the funds required.
Even if these subplots are simple, if done correctly, they make the player feel like they are making decisions and are not being forced down a singular path. Encourage exploration of the world, and revisiting existing areas... but do not make it tedious. It is a balancing act. The player needs to be encouraged to reduce the frustration but in most cases the game should still be playable without the player spending all of their time reducing the frustration.
When Frustration is Frustrating
Frustration does not mean difficult or awkward to play. If the gameplay is extremely obtuse it is likely that some players will quit playing the game — or not play it in the first place if negative word of mouth reaches them before they purchase. Many designers will say systems like limited inventory, party management, and games with too many choices are the frustrations that stop mainstream players from enjoying more complicated titles.
I am not so sure. Bad design stops mainstream players from enjoying these games. You cannot recycle gameplay elements and throw them together in a jumbled design and expect players to embrace the game. As a lead designer I've fallen prey to this trap many times myself, assuming every player would just get it.
Beware of murkiness. These are places in the design where a player hits a frustration and does not understand how to minimize that frustration. This is not a problem with the feature itself. It is a problem of presentation.
This is a very real issue with designing traditional role playing games. Designers assume the audience understands all the terms, the history, and the expectations that come from this style of game. These game features will work for modern players but only if incorporated into a strong design framework. This will take time, effort, play testing and iteration. You might ask: to save time and energy why not remove the frustration in the first place?
If you take out all the frustrations you diminish the player's experience. There becomes fewer opportunities for them to take an active role in their experience. Lose all frustrations and you do not have a game.