The discussion of what’s fun and interesting in games is necessarily also a discussion of what’s boring and tedious. Finding the points where a design begins to work against itself, begins to push the player down paths of rote task and mind-numbing chore, and understanding what exactly leads to these problems, is fundamental to designing an experience that is interesting and exciting.
One of the most important decisions to make as a designer is: What is the best way to play the game? Or, perhaps, to be more precise, what is the most successful strategy for doing well at the game? If you don’t know what it is, then that may be a serious problem, since someone will find out – and, if you don’t know what it is, you have no control over whether it’s actually an interesting way to play the game or not. Once a player identifies an optimal strategy, they will probably keep using it even if it’s tedious and frustrating – simply because, as we generally understand games, the correct way to play is the way that makes you win.
I call this the Tyranny of Optimal Play. Once I have identified the most successful strategy, if I don’t use it I am hampering my chance to succeed – and, in many cases, if I do then I have to perform the tedious tasks the optimal strategy requires. Either way, I’m doomed to frustration, and otherwise enjoyable elements of the game start to ring hollow.
You don’t have to look far to see examples of this. For instance, almost every game with a regenerating health or energy system has this problem to some degree, since it gives the player incentive to hide or wait instead of pushing ahead or strategizing. In games like Call of Duty, the player finds themselves alternating between shooting and hiding with their screen smeared with raspberry jam, instead of either tactically avoiding taking fire or aggressively maneuvering, as they would in many games designed around non-regenerating health. ‘Streamlining’ the game systems, in terms of removing interactive objects like medkits and armor, in this case has the exact opposite effect on the action of playing the game, adding weird and counter-intuitive friction to the experience. In practice, to mitigate this effect, they make health regenerate rapidly once the player stops taking damage, but it still serves little purpose within the flow of the game except to have an intuitive system for punishing the player should they overextend themselves, but not too harshly. Damage is the warning sign before the player fails: Rather than something to be avoiding because of its own dangers, it’s merely an indication that the current path could lead to failure.
You’ll be fine, just smear this jam over your eyes and hide behind this knee-high brick wall for a few seconds
Another, perhaps more interesting, example is in Diablo 2. One of the early quest rewards in the game is being allowed to choose one item to receive a randomized enchantment — however, because this enchantment scales with your character level and can be applied to any standard item, the most optimal use of it is to wait until your character is very high level and use it on a powerful base item. This means that you’ll probably end up playing through the entire game several times before even considering enchanting an item if you’re trying to maximize value. In much the same manner, if you want to optimize the power of your character you almost certainly want to save skill points for the first 10-20 levels until you unlock the skills you really want your character to use, rather than wasting points on useless low level skills, and until that point play the game using the few weak level 1 skills that you can use without being wasteful. Neither of these are really a fun way to approach the game, but most experienced players find themselves warping their playstyle to accommodate these awkward optimizations.
In The Binding of Isaac, you occasionally encounter an ‘Arcade’ room, which has a few different ‘games’ which are really just a way to exchange resources for a random chance at other resources. However, because the machines there produce items which can be used on the other machines, it means that the optimal approach is frequently to bounce back and forth between them, either until you manage to run out of all of your spare resources or until the machines pay out with something valuable. This can take as much as a half hour or so spread between a few arcades over the course of the game, sometimes doubling the total amount of time it takes to complete the game but increasing the player’s chances of success substantially. It’s also incredibly boring, bouncing between a couple of machines and playing them for minutes on end.
Rebirth, the remake/expansion of The Binding of Isaac, addresses this problem in a few subtle ways. First, if you complete the first few areas of the game quickly enough you are rewarded with a special challenge room, which can be difficult but is quite rewarding. This reduces the incentive to exploit the arcade, since you often can’t spare the time if you want a chance at the challenge. Rebirth’s limit on how much health the player can have also helps to balance arcades, since the most consistent reward of gaming the system, aside from money, is extra health. This makes it nearly pointless in many circumstances to try to exploit arcades after the first three areas, where money becomes drastically less useful and the health rewards become inconsistent or inconsequential. These changes resolve Isaac’s original tyrannical system in a very subtle and clever way, since they also add other interesting choices and balances for the player to deal with.
What do we talk about when we talk about engaging gameplay?
RPGs in general are an interesting case: In any game with experience points and leveling, optimal play would, if we disregard time investment completely, involve grinding the early monsters until the player reaches maximum level, and then breezing through the rest of the game. Almost no one actually plays this way, preferring to instead grind in each area until they’ve satisfied themselves that they’ve experienced the area fully or until the next area’s challenge becomes manageable, but the specter of this implicit optimal play hovers over the gameplay experience. Many people avoid the genre completely because of this understanding that the game could easily be turned into a pure rote exercise of number-increasing, even if, pragmatically, few people actually play that way.
There’s a common thread between the last few examples: Time. Time pressure is one of the fundamental changes that fixed Isaac’s broken arcades, and the lack of time pressure is what presents the idea that indefinite grinding is the best way to play RPGs. Often, the difference is entirely perceptual. At one point I was engrossed in an early MMORPG, and would go out and kill enemies until my health got low, sit and wait to regenerate hp, and grind out a few more. I kept doing this because potions were extremely expensive, and would cut my profit margin on each excursion to almost nothing. And yet, as I eventually realized, making that investment would mean that I could perform each excursion more quickly, against more powerful enemies, so that even though my profits per-expedition were slimmer I was overall making money (and, more importantly, experience) a lot faster. Nothing changed in the underlying system, but my understanding – that my time was a resource to be managed, and that if I factored that in that potions easily paid for themselves – shifted, and thereby made the game a lot more interesting.
What’s odd about this realization, that time pressure is an easy way to relieve a fundamental conflict with a lot of game designs, is that it used to be the case that time pressure was omnipresent. Super Mario Brothers always had a time limit, likely to solve this very problem and prevent players from trying to scour every level, block by block, for coins and secrets. Spelunky’s design took this and ran with it, justifying the pressure by way of a in-game ghost which will hunt you down and instantly kill you if you take too long. Now, they then made the decision to make the ghost convert gems into ultra-valuable diamonds by floating over them, which makes a top-scoring run take ~8 hours and runs face-first into the problem I’m describing, but I guess no one’s perfect.
We’re all just trying our best
Wasting the player’s time is the most tedious and common tyranny of optimal play, but it is by no means the only sort. Any form of dominant strategy, no matter the initial trickiness, will quickly become onerous, as the player masters the necessary inputs and then finds all challenges trivial. The only way for them to make a game enjoyable once the dominant strategy is discovered is to hamstring themselves by refusing to use it – but it’s never quite as satisfying to pull one’s punches as it is to truly invest oneself, to try as hard as possible to succeed. Once that intensity of personal investment is lost, it can’t be recovered, and the game becomes lesser, more of a toy and less of an experience.
Of course, it must be mentioned that there are some companies who don’t care whether an experience is fun or rewarding or even interesting, only that it be engrossing. Mobile and Facebook games are frequently tyrannical by design, rather than accident, asking you for your time and giving you nothing, asking you for your attention and giving you nothing, but ensuring that you keep coming back by telling you over and over again, in so many little ways, that this is the right way to play, that by going slow and steady you’re winning – though, of course, you could be winning faster if you were willing to spend a bit of money. After all, isn’t your time valuable?
This is the terror of artistry. Art is, fundamentally, the ability to manipulate the emotions and thoughts of others. Perhaps there is an intrinsic value to truth or beauty that elevates Capital-A ‘Art’ above advertising or propaganda, or perhaps it’s merely a matter of technique and of what the audience is primed to receive. Thus, in many cases, avoiding tyrannical design becomes an exercise and good and bad design – not in terms of engineering, but of morality. Respect your players’ time and intelligence, and follow the line through your design to each moment of play to understand the ways which, intentionally or not, you might carelessly abuse their trust.