Common sense is wonderful. It only ever gets applied in hindsight or the third person.
So when I tell you that games are at their most fun when your skills are in equilibrium with the Challenge you face you’ll scoff and claim that it’s just Common Sense.
Well that is the basics behind what is known as “Flow” in Psychology; the state of mind where you are no longer aware of your concious self and become entirely absorbed in what you are doing. Being aware of the concept alone changes how you think about Games Design.
Game Designers are ussually locked into a battle of trying to obtain “Balance” within their game. This is typically a game of tuning numbers, spreadsheets, damage-per-second, damage mitigation and long complex formulas.
Flow changes that. Being focussed on maximising a Players “Optimal Experience” (The other term for Flow) is about moment-to-moment interactions not just raw numbers. It’s all very good if your game is Balanced by the numbers but it doesn’t count for anything if your players are Bored or Frustrated.
Boredom and Frustration tend to occur when Challenge and Skill are greatly out of balance for a considerable period of time. From my own personal experience I find it takes longer to become bored than it does to become Frustrated. This is largely down to the fact that when your skill outweighs the challenge significantly you are being rewarded more frequently and these extrinsic rewards delay the on-set of boredom. However when the Challenge exceeds your Skill you are often only ever punished and as such lack the sugar coating.
One of the problems with trying to balance a Players experience is that it’s incredibly difficult to accurately and objectively grade player skill. It’s not something that is particularly easy to plot on a graph and is generally most useful for abstract thinking. It’s easy to sketch a Flow graph on a whiteboard but very difficult to quantify in a spreadsheet.
One of the things you can plot with at least a semblance of accuracy is how your game is modifying the Players skill.
Above we have an overly simplified example of an MMO’s challenge as the Player progresses through the levels. At each Level the players skill is artifically increased by receiving new abilities or increases in statistics. When you factor in how the Players Skill is increased over time relative to the change in the Challenges faced you might end up with a graph a little bit like the one below…
After each new Level is achieved the Difficulty faced by the Player is actually reduced. This is good for a few reasons:
- It gives the Player an opportunity to learn how to use their new abilities which is itself a Challenge.
- It gives the Player a rewarding period where they feel much more powerful.
- It gives the Player a break within which to reflect on their achievement.
All of these factors are not specifically related to theories on Flow but result from other elements of Psychology and are proven to all improve a Persons experience so it is worthwhile building these into your game.
As the Player progresses through the Level towards their next jump in Skill the Challenges are increased so the Player has to push themselves harder and they become more engaged and re-enter the Flow state.
The above example is drastically simplyfied compared to a real-mmo and is only intended to deomonstrate how Skill and Challenge relate.
Crowd Control in MMO’s is often the most frustrating experience to a Player. I commented on the effect of “Waiting to Die” last week in regard to the effects of The Sandman on Team Fortress 2. Lets look at how removing a Players ability to interact with your game looks on a Flow Graph.
The above graph represents 5 seconds of gameplay. The player is enjoying themselves and the difficulty is shifting around as the game changes. Then at 2 seconds in they get Disabled removing their ability to interact and artificially reducing their Skill to 0. The result? A massive difficulty spike and an associated increase in Frustration knocking the Player out of the Flow state and into reality (Where they throw their mouse accross the room).
Originally I had a theory that reducing the Players Skill to 0 effectively increases the Difficulty to Infinity as it is impossible for them to respond to the game. This sounded good in my head (it makes a good soundbite) but when I plotted the graph I realised that it’s not strictly true. A model that fits better with my own experiences is that if the Difficulty faced is very low (IE your skill exceeds the Challenge significantly) then being Disabled is not quite as frustrating. If however you are in a Flow State (IE The Challenge is roughly equal to your own Skill) the Frustration is significantly greater.
You may be wondering why I’ve taken the time to point out something that appears so obvious and Common Sense. I ask you this in return…
If it’s so Obvious why do Games Designers still do it?