This post originally appeared in two parts on Point Line Square.
It’s been several years since I first talked about games and attention. At the time, I noted that games compete for our attention with other games, other media, and interruptions from friends, family and work. Despite all the advances in friction reduction over the past decade, games are hard pressed to thrive — nevermind get noticed — in this noisy media environment.
Looking ahead, the trendline is not positive. Content creation costs keep dropping, so the amount of content available keeps rising. Our choices are unlimited but our time is not.
Traditional solutions to the attention problem fall into two buckets:
- Reduce friction (a.k.a. the casual solution)
- Add depth (a.k.a. the hardcore solution)
In general, good casual design affects a player’s willingness to play, while good hardcore design affects their desire to play.
The Casual Solution
The friction reduction method requires games to:
- Have few barriers to entry
- Be commitment friendly
- Be attention span agnostic
- Have a short build-try-fail loop
That’s all good. However, while these characteristics reduce friction and increase a player’s willingness to play, they don’t actually generate a desire to play (or to keep playing). In an effort to meet the requirements above and make the game more accessible, most designers simplify the game’s mechanics and the way those mechanics combine, effectively reducing the play dynamics as well (in the MDA sense). The result is a shallow product with a small possibility space and little long term retention.
Casual games succeed by demanding less from the consumer — they don’t ask you to sacrifice attention you might prefer to devote to other things, complementing rather than competing with other media. The best of these products tend to have large audiences with low unit economics and short user life cycles.
The Hardcore Solution
The depth approach, on the other hand, means the game:
- Has extensive and varied play dynamics
- Has a lot of content to consume
- Gives the player a reason to make a deep personal investment (often through persistence, identity and relationships).
Again, a good list. Games of this type tend to create a strong desire to play. Unfortunately, they also erect a lot of barriers to someone’s willingness to play. To create a wide range of play dynamics, many designers simply pile on the game mechanics (i.e. they keep layering on the rules and systems). That’s a lot for someone to learn and then remember from session to session, and with a lot of mechanics to comprehend, 100% focus is required. The only players willing to do that are the few that will make a large personal investment in the product. The result is a deep product with a large possibility space and great long term retention, but it bounces most consumers at the start.
Hardcore products succeed by being more compelling than other media — they ask for your undivided attention and tell you it’s better spent on them than competing options. High quality hardcore products tend to have small audiences with high unit economics and long user life cycles.
Hardcore + Casual
There’s nothing inherent to these two approaches that makes them incompatible, but you can see how solving for one can easily lead to problems with the other (it doesn’t help that, as an industry, we’ve set up a false dichotomy that places casual and hardcore products at opposite ends of the same spectrum; mid-core is the latest iteration along these lines).
Much of the problem starts with the game’s mechanics, where most casual games have simple mechanics and simple dynamics, and most hardcore games have complex mechanics and complex dynamics. There’s a reason for that: they’re much easier to design and balance (simple dynamics imply a small possibility space, which presents fewer outcomes to balance; complex mechanics make it easier to isolate systems for independent tuning, particularly when dealing with the large possibility spaces associated with complex dynamics).
What we really want are games with simple mechanics and complex dynamics, because simple mechanics are easy to learn and remember, while complex dynamics are deep and engaging.
How? Make better use of emergence in our designs.
Attention and Emergence
To enable emergent play, a small set of core components are recombined to produce an unlimited number of novel play dynamics. Here’s what we get with this approach:
- Simple and easy to understand game mechanics (ideal for casual play)
- A massive possibility space, with complex dynamics (ideal for hardcore play)
Games of this type avoid rule complexity (and burdensome learning curves/commitment) by working with only a few mechanics. The rich output gives the game legs and enables deep, engaging play.
The classic example is Go, a game with only two rules but an incredibly varied output in terms of games and play styles. A modern example would be Magic: The Gathering and other CCGs. More recent: Little Big Planet, Minecraft, The Sims.
Examples of games that are minimally emergent, if at all: Pac-man, Heavy Rain, the board game Life.
Most game designers are already familiar with emergent concepts, and indeed, all games have some degree of emergent play. But we tend to shy away from designing heavily emergent systems because the large possibility space is difficult to balance (many designs introduce top-down constraints to control this, like classes in RPGs, but that simply reduces the possibility space and undermines the benefits of an emergent system).
It’s also important to recognize that emergence by itself will not help a game attract players interested in both casual and hardcore play. To be effective:
- You really have to constrain the number of core elements and their respective functions. Many games are deeply emergent but they get there with a crazy amount of rules and systems that undermine any potential for casual play.
- Emergence doesn’t automatically mean accessible and deeply engaging. You still have to avoid other annoying frictions (like bad UI design), and a large possibility space isn’t much good if it’s boring.
Ultimately, making stronger use of emergence won’t expand the potential audience for your game: a player still has to like abstract strategy games if they’re going to play Go. But it will increase how many of those potential players choose your game over all the other media choices they have at their disposal.