Why Gamers Make the Best Designers
An Acquired Understanding of Matching Challenge Level to Player Ability Level
At the core a game designer is the advocate for the player. That means the designer makes decisions in order to deliver the best play experience as possible for the player. Judgments about what makes a good play experience come firstly from: playing lots of games across many genres and secondly from systematically playtesting and iterating.
This article describes how game designers can balance the challenge level of their game with the ability of their players in order to deliver a satisfying “flow” experience.
Matching Challenge to Ability: Gamers Have An Inherent Advantage
There’s one thing that unites us across race, age, gender and culture: we all love a challenge.
In fact, according to the research of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, challenge it’s so fundamental to human nature that the very notion of ‘enjoyability’ of task completion is deeply linked to how close the challenge level matches one’s ability. This applies to learning an instrument, playing sports, picking up a new language, your entire career – just about everything, and definitely playing video games.
However, there’s a balancing act when it comes to the question of “how much of a challenge is the right amount?” and it’s a concept gamers are intimately familiar with.
To use a well-known example, Minecraft has exploded in popularity since its release for a number of reasons. Chief among them is that Minecraft matches the gameplay difficulty with the player’s ability. Minecraft’s open world mechanics meansplayers set their own challenge level and are rewarded in a commensurate manner.
By its nature, Minecraft does not become too difficult (which would deliver a frustrating experience) nor does it become too easy (which would be become boring).
This matching of challenge level to ability level was conceived by Csikszentmihalyi, who dubbed his findings ‘flow theory’. Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow theory can be summed up with the following diagram.
The diagram elegantly illustrates what good game designers deliver for their players. That is:
- When your player’s ability is low then the challenge level of the game needs to be commensurately low.
- As your player’s ability steps up the challenge level needs to step up commensurately
- When ability and challenge are commensurate your player has a highly satisfying experience (what Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” and what is shown as the upward diagonal slope in the middle of the diagram.)
- If the challenge level is too high relative to the player’s ability then the experience is too hard (frustrating)
- If the challenge level is too low relative to the player’s ability then the experience is too easy (boredom)
It is simple in concept but executing to deliver flow via your game is a huge part of the art of game design.
How to Deliver Flow to Your Players
Step 1: Play and Deconstruct Lots of Games
Game design is more of an art than a science. Delivering flow to your players requires multidimensional creative and technical judgements and the skilled hands of an artist. In this case “artist” means playable system designer.
The foundation for this skill is to have knowledge of lots and lots of games. Play all kinds of games – console games, browser games, casual games, hard core games, smart phone games, board games, card games, luck games, skill games, alternate reality games, and everything else. Talk about what makes these games work with your fellow players and with people online. Deconstruct their rules and procedures to demystify how the game designers constructed the challenge level of the game so that it steps up in coordination with the ability level of the player. Here are deconstruction examples from two very different games. Each delivers a world-class flow experience.
Example Flow Deconstruction 1: Tetris.
If you haven’t played Tetris yet – you need to drop and give me 20 pushups, then go play it online immediately. When Tetris starts the shapes are dropping very slowly. Why? It’s because the player has low ability and slow moving shapes are less challenging than fast moving shapes. At the beginning she is just learning how the controls work. Then as she starts to master the controls and the concepts of how the shapes fit together the game increases in difficulty. In Tetris the only variable that changes to increase difficulty is the speed at which the shapes drop. The speed increases as the player’s score increases. Player score is an accurate reflection of player ability in Tetris. That, my friends, is elegant game design. Tetris delivers such a powerful flow experience that people get lost for long periods of time in the rhythm of it. It is common for players to have Tetris dreams. Tetris creates this flow experience because the difficulty level (speed) steps up elegantly in step with player ability (score).
Example Flow Deconstruction 2: StarCraft.
This is another must play game for anyone serious about game design. Starcraft has a much more elaborate playable system than Tetris and so the designers had to do a huge amount of work to craft a flow experience for their Starcraft players. Starcraft creates flow starting with the tutorial, which is called “Boot Camp”. Boot Camp presents the player with one basic interface concept and one basic game mechanic concept at a time. The concepts are carefully sequenced to build on one another – e.g. build two SCVs; have them harvest the nearby Crystals; when you have 100 build a second Supply Depot. It’s super easy because the new player has super low ability. After completing the tutorial the player chooses to play a campaign as Terran, Zerg, or Protoss. The structure of the subsequent missions follows the same scaffolded, step-by-step process as the tutorial – e.g each introduces progressively more advanced concepts and more difficult dexterity-based gameplay. Starcraft’s entire single player system is essentially a training ground for the real challenge in the game – multiplayer. By structuring the single player missions to create a satisfying flow experience for players the designers create competent and challenge seeking multiplayer players who are capable of playing on Battle.net. In contrast, imagine if Starcraft players had to start by being dropped straight into multiplayer play. They would have dozens of concepts thrust on them at once. The difficulty level would far exceed the new player’s ability level and he would experience extreme frustration. It would be so much frustration that the player would likely not play Starcraft at all.
Step 2: Learn How to Playtest and Iterate
There is a sure fire way to know if your game creates flow - measure it through testing. The way to measure is simple:
- Build a prototype
- Playtest with real players (not someone from your team)
- Measure if new players can complete the level within X minutes, 90%+ of the time.
- Also you will know if the level is not delivering flow because you will see playtesters do things like throw controllers (too hard) or yawn (too easy).
- Iterate to make the level easier or more difficult
- Repeat process until 90%+ of new players can complete as desired
Those are the basics. They work. There are a great many details on how to create playable systems, how to conduct playtests, and how to iterate. But those details are for later articles.
This article has been written to help you understand the importance of delivering a flow experience to your players and the basics on how to do it. Heavy gamers have an inherent advantage over light gamers in achieving world-class design skill because they have a deeper foundation of knowledge about what creates flow and what does not.
Chris Swain is a leader in the game industry having co-founded the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at USC and leading over 50 products in industry including games for Disney, Microsoft, Sony, MTV, and Activision, among others. His USC thesis student, Jenova Chen’s masters project was the game Flow. Serious games that Chris has created include Ecotopia, Play the Game Save the Planet, a cinematic, story-driven game focused on environmental protection, and The Redistricting Game, which educates citizens on how the U.S. congressional redistricting process leads to polarization in government. He is the creative director in the Game Design program at the New York Film Academy.