Engaging Design
Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 4:04PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Bangai-O Spirits, Controller Design, Difficulty Design, Dynamics, Mechanics, Misc Design & Theory, Neo*RPG, Rhythm Heaven, Street Fighter, Super Monkey Ball, Super Smash Brothers, Wario Ware, Wii Sports, Zelda

Most video games are designed in layers that stack up to create various and/or dynamic challenges. Overcoming these challenges requires a level of engagement from the player. Typically, the harder, more layered, and more dynamic the challenge, the more engaging the gameplay. However, the key to engaging design whether in mechanics, input devices, or features is understanding a bit of human psychology.

These kids are engaged to the max!

Let's start by looking at the definition of engaging from dictionary.com:

We can see that the act of engaging both takes up our focus and/or actions. Technically, any video game element including sound effects, musical selections, images, animation, story, or other conceptual elements can engage or immerse us. But fully understanding how these various elements engage us requires knowledge and theory from other disciplines. For our purposes, we'll focus on how video games create engaging interactive systems. Because video games are so complex, we must consider the different ways a game can be engaging and interactive. The first method is through challenges. 



If a challenge isn't challenging for a player, the level of engagement drops. Think about playing a random battle in a traditional JRPG like Pokemon for the 20th time. You know you can win the battle, and you've already worked out the winning strategy. And because the game is turn based, you don't have to worry about inputting commands in time. With repetitive battles or when grinding, it is not uncommon for gamers to find additional activities to occupy their attention. 

According to more common observations of human psychology we learn by making mistakes, and we really don't like to lose. Avoiding a potential loss is enough for many gamers to engage with a video game challenge. But when the challenge is too easy or when the penalties for making mistakes are too light, losing no longer "feels" like losing. Because engagement and immersion are the topics at hand, considering our feelings is apt. When there are no significant consequences the player doesn't' have to focus or worry about making mistakes. This lowers the level of engagement. 

It's the same for moments of static space. Whenever a game is at a functional standstill where the challenge isn't getting any closer to being completed no matter what you do, the engagement level can diminish. Whenever I get hit by an Ultra combo in Street Fighter 4 my focus/engagement takes a nap. During the animated sequence, there's nothing for me to do but regret my mistake. On a smaller scale, the way combos are designed in SF4, when I'm being combo my engagement level can also drop. Taking away the interactivity, agency, and challenge of a game can lower player engagement far more effectively then a challenge that's too easy. Games that feature too many non interactive cut scenes have this issue as well. 

On the other hand if a game is too difficult for a player, the engagement level can drop too. Playing Guitar Hero involves carefully reading the screen and timing inputs to the music. During more difficult solo sections, or when you simply get off the beat, if you resort to randomly mashing buttons hoping for the best, you're no longer engaging with the specific game challenge. Instead, you're ignoring the level and committing to the strategy of possibly hitting a few correct buttons and surviving to an easier section. People have limited attention spans and focus. This means we can be overloaded and overwhelmed. Under high levels of stress, if the player doesn't feel like he/she can win, letting the sting of losing go is a method of reducing the stress of the situation. It's a defensive response to stress. Designing a game so that the conditions of a challenge are clear means that the player is more likely to understand why they failed. When the player realizes they made a mistake and how to possibly correct it, that player is much less likely to disengage with the challenge/game. 

When games are designed to give players some control over the difficulty of their experience, a single challenge can be more engaging to a wider range of skillful players. As I've explained many times before, the RUN mechanic in the Super Mario Bros. 2D platforming games give players a way to speed up level progression. If WALKing with Mario is just too slow for you, then RUN. Mario's increased speed makes the screen scroll faster, which also gives the player less time to react to upcoming elements. This inherently makes enemies harder to avoid and jumps trickier. Mario also has momentum. So running faster makes it harder to stop quickly. If the game is still not hard enough for you, go after every coin and every secret without getting hit once. This layered design of organically controlled player difficulty makes the Mario games an engaging challenge for new gamers and for highly skilled veterans. Mario is an excellent example for difficulty design

When players elect to make challenges harder for themselves, the action-reaction pair usually comes in the form of risk-reward. In other words, players make things harder for themselves to achieve or obtain a greater reward. Examples of greater rewards are additional points, coins, experience, faster times, or a higher rank/score. For our purposes, we're only concerned with ways to make a game more challenging through game mechanics and player choices. After all, we can always make a game harder by playing with our eyes closed or with our feet. 

We all have some kind of personal criteria for what makes a game interesting, challenging, or engaging. Still, games are designed around core challenges that are made up of different layers of design. To me, Mario isn't interesting without level elements (pipes, bricks, pits) and enemy elements (Goomba, Koopa, Bowser). Coins and secret elements make the game richer, but their optional design keeps them separate from the core challenge. Mario's core challenges are made up of three layers that work together; player mechanics, level elements, and enemy elements. By core challenge I mean most mandatory challenges that must be overcome to progress through and/or beat the game.

Other games can create highly engaging gameplay in fewer layers than Mario. Some games get it done with just one layer. Simply moving an avatar in a game can be all you need, which brings us to the next topic.



I often exclude MOVE when listing mechanics in avatar based games because navigating a character is usually very straightforward. But design features like momentum, friction, and gravity can turn the simple act of moving an avatar into a highly engaging experience. If games like Pac-Man and Pong have the simplest MOVE mechanics, then the following games represent the opposite end of the spectrum. 




There are countless ways to make mechanics engaging. The following are some highly effect and common methods. 


With mechanics risk-reward design can make a mechanic more engaging. Bringing yourself closer to danger for a greater reward/advantage can create incredibly tense and engaging experiences. Take the following mechanics for example.



Motion controls can mechanics more engaging on a physical level. The simplest type of motion control design replaces on/off button states with motions. The most advanced controls offer some kind of 1:1 relationship between the controller and the game state. In such games every motion, breath, and heart beat you make changes the game. 

From the low end of the spectrum to the high end.



Some games are designed to be engaging by giving the player control of two systems, objects, or characters at once. Dual analog controls in shooters and games like Geometry Wars/Everyday Shooter give players the ability to move and aim independently. In these examples, moving and aiming aren't very engaging or challenging mechanics in themselves, but when put together create an engaging experience. The following are examples of games with more complex dual system controls. 



The physical act of pressing, holding, and then releasing a button for a charge mechanic tends to be more engaging than simply tapping a button.  For more on charge mechanics and examples look here


Aiming in 2D games tends to be more engaging than aiming in 3D games (whether 1st or 3rd person). In a 3D shooter, there's typically an aiming reticle that approximates where the shot will land. All players have to do is line up the reticle on the desired target and fire away. With 2D games players have to visualize where their shots will land. Visualizing lines in 2D space is what artists refer to as seeing implied lines.

 Because implied lines simply suggest connections, the viewer must become actively involved in compositions... (6, Launching The Imagination 3rd ed.)

In a 2D game players visualize lines between their avatar (or shooting point) and the target. Doing so is inherently easier and more effective in 2D games because the perspective is locked in 2 dimensions. By adding the 3rd, a simple 2D visualized line becomes a 3D volumetric shape. Moving or launching any object in 3D space from any perspective introduces the issue of ba3D, which adds a degree of unknown to the visualization calculations. Examples include...




Going hand in hand with engaging motion controls, sometimes all it takes to highly engage a player is a unique controller. Even if the actual gameplay rules and interactions are the same as another games, the right controller can completely change the engagement level. Arcade games used to be kings of such games, but now games like Guitar Hero have proven that gamers will pay more to bring the experience home. The following are examples of games that are made more engaging because of controller hardware. 



Finally, we come to the conclusion of this investigation. What better way to leave things off than with a discussion on engaging credits in video games. The following games have successfully turned a non-interactive and possibly "go make a sandwich" moment into an interactive, engaging, and fun experience that also increases the likelihood of the player actually reading the credits. 


In the end, after a game achieves highly engaging interactivity it's well on its way to becoming a successful game design wise. Shigeru Miyamoto has expressed a similar idea when guiding the development of Super Mario Galaxy. He explained that if they could make just moving around a planetoid fun, then the game will me much easier to visualize and create. To be clear, a highly engaging game isn't necessarily deep, complex, or well designed. But it's a great way to start and finish. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
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