Ever since the days of Pitfall and Centipede on Atari’s gaming system, it has been fascinating for me to understand what is so compelling about games. What is it about games that invites us and seduces us to divorce our realities and immerse ourselves in an alternate reality and invest into what appears to be a total waste of time.
What exactly about a game that makes it so compelling? What is it about World of Warcraft that would make a kid spend 5 years playing it? To explore those ideas and more, a little background in game theory would be helpful.
There are many ingredients to a great and compelling game, you might be fascinated by the graphics or the story but that wouldn’t be the reason that will keep on bringing you back to a game. To be a successful game you need to exhibit several qualities.
Every game needs to posit a challenge to its player, that would be the main reason why they are playing this game in specific. There are 3 types of challenges.
i. Completion: These are the games that dare you to finish them, where the challenge is to be able to resolve a problem completely. You will be faced by a challenge and the aim is to resolve it, for example games like Crimson Room challenge you to get out of the room, and once you are “out” you complete the game.
ii. Compounding: The challenge becomes more and more complex as the user progresses further into the game. Games like Farmville and the Sims are examples of this type. While the challenge might not typically be more complex, you will still be offered more and more things to do in the game’s world.
iii. Ultimatum: These are games that set you on the path to achieve a goal by learning. The initial challenge is so great that the player needs to invest time and gain the ability to beat the game. Games like World of Warcraft set you on a collision course with a challenge which you will need to conquer as you learn the game.
But for any challenge to be meaningful failure should be punished and hence…
Without the negative consequences of losing, the rewards for winning don’t really taste as sweet. Hence, a good game will balance the rewards and losses and the totality of both is called risk. Losing a life in Super Mario because you lost to Bowser makes beating him and finding Peach meaningful. Rewards come in different flavors. Players could be rewarded by a cut scene or a new game mode, that is called a Tangential Reward. Other games allow players to earn levels or attain scores, this type of reward is called Compounding. The third and final type is a Calculating reward, where the reward is based on the difficulty of the challenge.
Just like rewards, there are tangential, calculating and compounding loses. There is also a fourth kind of loss in which if you lose a certain challenge, you will fail to overcome the ultimate challenge. This is called the Ultimatum Loss and it can be quite frustrating. There is nothing a player dreads more than a game over screen.
By mixing those various elements of the game, and gauging the difficulty of the challenge a game can be successful and make a gamer come back for more playtime.
Even though games have been part of the cultural heritage from time long forgotten, there has been little to no effort put into understanding them. They have been constantly overlooked for being childish and time wasters and only recently has there been some effort to understand games, why people do get attached to them and what kind of reason we are all too willing to play a game.
So hopefully in the near future I’ll get a chance to delve a bit deeper into this topic and share with you a bit more about Video Game theory.
For more information about Video Game Design Theory you can check this WikiBooks entry.
How often do you play games? Do you prefer easy games? What kind of games do you find yourself playing the most? Share with us your views about gaming down below.