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Seven Questions

September 3rd, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Me, Podcast

Why seven? Who knows. It’s one of those magic things, I guess. But the latest Gamers With Jobs conference call had a discussion about what seven questions gamers consider when they decide whether or not to keep playing a game. You have to skip past the as-usual interminable but part-of-deal talk about what everyone is playing to get to the topic, but it’s worth a listen.

In many ways the topic is a little silly. The things that bring me back to a game are usually idiosyncratic and heavily dependent on what else I’m playing, what books I’m reading, what blogs or forum posts I’ve read that day, etc. Yesterday, I was chatting with a friend who was in the middle of playing Imperialism 2; guess what I’ve had an urge to return to?

The questions they came up with were:

1) What are the goals of the game? Are they compelling and sustainable?
2) Does the game consistently “pay off”?
3) Does the game avoid impeding progress with pointless obstacles in the game or the interface?
4) Does the game flow to the point that you lose track of time?
5) Does the game give you sufficient context?
6) Is the presentation engaging?
7) Write in your question! call AT gamerswithjobs.com

So six questions and a punt to users – reply there to help them fill out their list. Question 4 doesn’t work for me since that’s less an issue about the game design than it is an issue about how well the design works – if the game has clear goals, consistently pays off and has an engaging presentation then a flow may develop. It’s more a consequence than a criteria.

If I were to rewrite this as Seven Questions That Help You Decide A Strategy Game is Good, it would probably go something like this:

1) Are there variable paths to victory or is this a puzzle game?
2) Are there clear consequences for taking a particular action?
3) Does the game avoid impeding progress with pointless obstacles in the game or the interface? (stealing GWJ’s because it works.)
4) How long before the game has shown me everything it has to show?
5) If the game represents an historic or future world, is it a convincing representation? (Note: convincing, not accurate. These can be synonyms, but don’t have to be.)
6) Does the game hide important information from the player? If so, is there a good reason for it?
7) Write in your question! call AT flashofsteel.com (That’s what readers are for, right?)

The thing is, whether or not I go back to a role playing game or a shooter or a roguelike means entirely different questions because I have different expectations from the genre. In an RPG, I want the story to give me a reason to care that I am leveling up another hobbit bard, whereas I mostly ignore the story campaign in an RTS. My expectations of shooters have changed a lot, too. And don’t get me started on rhythm or arcade games – where does one even begin to discuss “context” in Peggle?

This discussion is a little different for everyone I suspect. The GWJ chat spun off from something Warren Spector wrote about questions game designers should ask, and I bet that Spector’s list would find wider agreement than the GWJ one or even mine.

So fill the comments here and forum there.


8 Comments so far ↓

  • David

    I hate this, especially in multiplayer games, whether I’m playing at a fairly competitive or just a friendly level.

    8) Is the easiest way to victory min-maxing or are there systems in place that force/promote/makes worthwhile an even distribution of forces?

    This could be reduced further probably, but I feel min-maxing ruined Sins of a Solar Empire (LRM Spam) and countless other games that, otherwise, were quite amazing and fun.

  • David

    haha I got the sunglasses guy by continuing Troy’s numbering system. Good thing you didn’t put eight things on your own list.

  • Quinten

    7. Does the game reward you for time spent playing?

    By this it could be the leveling up in DoW2, or learning the tech tree or unit progression in Civ4. Plants Vs. Zombies has my favorite reward for playing the game for a long period of time: More content. It continually challenges the player and gives them cool minigames to play that unlock more minigames. Wii owners complain about minigame collections, but Plants Vs. Zombies tricks you by not letting you know that your playing a minigame collection.
    I like my strategy games to reward the meager hours I have to play them every week; whether that is an intellectual reward or in game.

  • MalcolmM

    4) How long before the game has shown me everything it has to show?

    This is a the most important one for me. Once I’ve seen everything as game has, unless I’m near the end, I will lose interest.

  • Erez

    Most important for me it time slices. If a game demands 2-hours long sessions to do anything, and doesn’t allow you to play it for 5-10 minutes and get a satisfying experience, it might be relegated to a “weekends only” status.

    Question 3 is good, but I’d add, which major hurdles do I need to jump over to reach the point I left in. Really bad save system or unskippable cutscenes are good examples here.

  • Rob Zacny

    Question 7: Can I lose and still have a rewarding experience?

    This is important for me. If I’m playing a game and keep saving before every major and minor decision, that’s an indication to me that the journey itself isn’t enough. Strategy games are at their best when you have to roll with the punches and improvise when a plan falls apart.

    This isn’t a deal-breaker question, but it’s one that has to be asked. I quit Civ IV games when it becomes evident that I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. There’s not really a point in continuing when you’re mired in the middle of the pack. Jagged Alliance 2 posed a similar problem: a lost skirmish cost you irreplaceable mercs, and would force you to fall back on second stringers who weren’t good enough to continue the fight. You could continue playing, but it was less annoying to reload.

    EU3, by contrast, can deal devastating setbacks and I keep going. Picking up the pieces is as tense and enjoyable as winning an empire, just in a different way. Early Total War games had this going for them as well. Even if it ended with your side getting snuffed out, it was probably a memorable experience.

  • steve

    “4) How long before the game has shown me everything it has to show?

    This is a the most important one for me. Once I’ve seen everything as game has, unless I’m near the end, I will lose interest.”

    And this is why single-player campaigns have gotten shorter and shorter. “New” content costs too much money and takes too much time to sustain over a longer game. (Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on how you choose to value a game; quality versus quantity and all.)

    You could argue that it’s a failing on the part of gameplay, that you shouldn’t need “new” maps or levels or units or monsters to sustain interest, that the mechanics alone should be all you need. But people’s expectations are set by the few huge-budget games that are able to continuously deliver new visual boosts over X hours of gameplay.

    This is a more recent phenomenon, because lord knows older games didn’t actually have new content throughout, or the changes were more subtle than people require today.

    It’s also the flipside of multiplayer, where the mechanics and competition are all that’s needed. Even if a company gives new content via DLC, people typically play the original content over and over again.

  • Troy

    A game can show me new things even if it has little new content. Diplomatic surprises, combinations of variety, different maps…Civ, Demigod and Children of the Nile have shown me everything insofar as content is concerned but they never fail to surprise me.

    Other games, especially RTSes, eventually repeat themsevles in ways that stop being surprising or interesting.