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Imagination Factor versus Numbers in Games
by Talha Kaya on 05/22/14 10:00:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



There's a specific day in my childhood where Fifa 99 lost its magic. I was a huge fan of Fifa 99 and I was playing it all the time. It is the most fun I had with games as a child. I was choosing my home team Besiktas and mostly playing with my forward player Amokachi from Nigeria. He was the best, he could reverse shot and run fast. He could do anything.

And then there was Ertugrul. He was in the bench, but I always included him in the game, because boys obsess with specific athletes for some reason. I don't know, I just liked him. He wasn't as good as the other players, yet I believed in him and put him in the game.


With Ozan, my childhood friend, we would get together to make teams with superstars and beat the most powerful national teams. We were creating teams that were way overpowered. It was so much fun.

When you tried to make Besiktas a super team, you would have some trouble, since Besiktas didn't have that much money. You just couldn't buy Zidane, you coudn't have Beckham. But that was a nice limitation, since I'd then heavily consider who I'm buying for the team, and try to get only the football players who are cheap and good. But what if I found out that there are no players who are both cheap and good? The price of a player is maybe just a combination of adding and multiplying stats of a player. Wouldn't that be a disappointment?

As I mentioned, I was a child, and I had no idea how games worked. Now I know that games (and computers) work with numbers. They are machines that add and multiply bytes. But back then, Fifa 99 was pure magic. Those players were real, the same players that I saw every week on television. Except Amokachi wasn't playing with Besiktas any more. And I have no idea what happened to him.


One day I found out that I could look up the stat numbers of Fifa 99 players. I have no idea what took so long for me to find out this fact, but when I saw that these Besiktas players were worse than most players in the better teams, it was a huge disappointment. Ertugrul will never play as good as Scholes. He is, indeed, just a number. It was the disappointment when you find out that your toys will never become alive and be friends with you. You were just talking with a monkey that's filled with cheap cotton. His eyes are fucking buttons, man.

Even if you wanted to make the players better in Besiktas by playing more matches, you couldn't. You could change the stats, but that's just cheating. Modern football games have career modes that change players' stats with time passing and experience, and that is a better way for the player to invest more feelings into the athlete. But even then, the player is just a number. If you're showing the numbers to the player, then your athlete is just a number. Even if you are a ten year old with no way to understand how games work.


Imagination is a strong thing. Children can be at anywhere at any moment, thanks to their gift of imagination. I don't know why grown ups are less imaginative. They are more plain creatures. Their eyes are blank compared to how children look. Children love games. Let's make games better for children. Let's not crush dreams, let's hide unnecessary information like more numbers than needed, because for them, games are not just numbers. You'll never get that kind of immersion in games if you've grown up. And it sucks. But let's not do that to the children yet.

My point is, the amount of numerical detail you'll show in your game hurts the imagination. In real life, there aren't that many numbers. Sometimes Ertugrul shoots better than Beckham. Sometimes he does. And games should clearly state that.

When I found out that all players have stats that are simply numbers (Shooting: 9. WTF Ertugrul? I expected much better from you.), I didn't want to include Ertugrul in game anymore. Ertugrul started sitting in bench more, next to him, some of my imagination that the game killed with numbers. Amokachi was the best shooter of Besiktas, and I just didn't shoot with anybody else anymore.


Edmund Mcmillen said in an interview that he specifically left out stat numbers in The Binding Of Isaac, because of the same reason. It gives place to more imagination; and actually in this case, the lack of numbers make The Binding Of Isaac a game that has more depth. The lack of numbers can lead the player to second guess his/her decisions and make him/her observe what's happening in the game more.

It won't always work, sometimes you really need to show numbers, or you're just making things harder for the player. I don't know how some games would work without numbers, but I'd like to see. I'd like to see a football manager game without stat numbers, just pure observation. I'd like to see an action RPG without comparing a dozen numbers when getting a new item or armor. Wouldn't that be nice or interesting?

I'd like you, the next time you're putting in numbers in your UI, to consider how much the game needs them. Maybe you can simply put a health bar instead of actually showing how many HP the character has. Just leave more things to the imagination, and let the children fill the gap.

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Deniz Opal
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I disagree with this. Pictures are a medium to communicate information, just like numbers.

On the subject of football. One of the first football management games I played was "Football Crazy" on the old 16 bit machines. It was essentially a text based spread sheet, and we were glued to it for hours on end.

You have a point that information overload makes entering a game difficult, but there are ways to do this well, depending on your target market.

The example I always mention is Pokemon. That game balances the casual game play against the nerdy number crunching so well, you get to play it exactly as you want to.

The crux here is not getting rid of the information, but allowing the player to dictate how much they care about that the nitty gritty of the game, and making sure the experience is just as enjoyable for the five year old that just wants to burn everything with a Charizard.

Well written article by the way.

Talha Kaya
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I see your point. Most of the gamers like number crunching, but I don't. I'd prefer to say "Remember that time my Charizard one-hitted that Poliwrath?" instead of "I've got the best Charizard, he hits 300 HPs!" I know they are both cool in their own way, so I'm going to guess it's personal preference.

As I mentioned earlier, just deleting numbers from the game won't work. Numbers are necessary in some cases, but not all. You showed a few examples where numbers are still cool.

I agree that there is a good way of doing things with numbers, Pokemon being an example, but I'd like to see more games with less numbers. I just think that's more magical.

CE Sullivan
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I think this brings up a good point. In RPG's, there's usually that one weapon or piece of armor that once you get, there's no point in using anything else. You can tell right away that that's the way it is, because you can see all of the stats. Which is really kind of boring.

Daneel Filimonov
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This right here. I was playing Diablo 3 a few weeks ago with my level 70 monk. Without checking any guides or following a "meta", I deduced that stacking/having skills oriented in "white damage" (your total damage output which is shown in your character sheet/stats) or skills that concentrated on increasing the output of my damage was the way to go. I had a definite number I could rely on and know how much damage it was that I'd deal based on the stats on my character sheet. Later, I found out (from a website) that stacking "+X% elemental damage increase" on my gear (ie. +20% more lightening damage, etc.) did a lot more for me if I oriented my skills to do that particular element than if I was to simply stack damage output (ie. primary stats, critical chance/damage, etc.). The designers chose not to have this damage calculated and be shown on the character sheet (probably due to the complexity, although it can still be done), leaving me to either calculate it manually or simply enjoy the increased damage output (while seeing a slight drop in sheet damage with change of gear).

I found it was fun getting those upgrades and focusing on "doing more damage" rather than "seeing more damage" (on my character sheet). I enjoyed the game more in that perspective due to the lack of focus on numbers (min/maxing) and more on seeing monsters fall faster from my attacks.

CE Sullivan
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I think this brings up a good point. In RPG's, there's usually that one weapon or piece of armor that once you get, there's no point in using anything else. You can tell right away that that's the way it is, because you can see all of the stats. Which is really kind of boring.

Nick Harris
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I think Borderlands is guilty of this too as every video I see of it is full of players comparing the stats of randomly generated weapons. Halo 3 by contrast ensures that every weapon has strengths and weaknesses, with the power weapons being increasingly hard to master. It isn't like Call of Duty where you know, going into a match, that the game is fundamentally unfair as someone on the other team has unlocked a loadout that gives them a superior weapon to you every time they spawn and "camp" with it at their previously deployed "Tactical Insertion", without requiring them to run around the map all vunerable trying to collect it. The game may think it is doing enough to balance one mixed ability / equipment team against each other by counterbalancing this seriously equipped player with one on your team, but those neophytes in both teams that have yet to unlock much of any worth or learn the map's sightlines just end up having an unnecessarily miserable time, despite the short respawn times. Some way of having the equivalent of a Premier League would benefit every player as the experienced ones would only ever play equally well equipped masters of the game and the neophytes would be free to enjoy their "kick-about in the park" without Ronaldo turning up and ruining their Saturday morning.

Thank you for writing this article, I will be careful to avoid doing this in my game.

Jennis Kartens
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Great approach on that thought! I do agree really and seeing it from this perspecive, I realize it is often exactly that what still destroys my imagination, or "immersion" as it's called today.

Many games today destroy the last breath of thinking and imagination through numbers and "statistics". FarCry 3, Tomb Raider... you are thrown in a world you're set to be new in, but then you get that huge list of stats what to gather and even where to find it.

Additionally, it takes out most forms of communication outside of the game.

Alfa Etizado
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Something else that's popped up recently, and at first I liked, was how people started coming up with more interesting bonuses, skills, etc, in games.

Like, instead of just Fireball: Does 100 damage, it became Fireball: Spell damage increased by 5% for every yard the projectile travels. Or Fireball, it disables 33% of enemy defense upon hitting but puts all fire elemental skills on cooldown. It's something small but it makes everything feel sterile.

It's nice to have these imaginative effects in the player's arsenal, to give clear information of what everything does. I liked it. But I don't know, after a while I just sorta missed reading "Fireball: Shoots out a deadly fire projectile".

I'm sure there's a way to avoid making things lifeless while providing players with reasonable information.

Fabian Fischer
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It really depends on the kind of interactive system you're looking at. In a fantasy simulation (which includes FIFA), you would probably not want to have everything clerly expressed in numbers, because it's a SIMULATION and in reality you wouldn't just compare numbers when playing soccer.

However, in any kind of strategy game involving resources, decisions etc. (which includes The Binding of Isaac), it's of severe importance that you know everything. It should not be the rules themselves that are ambiguous, but the situations you're facing as an instance of the interplay of these rules. It shouldn't be clear what the best option is, but it should be 100 % clear how the game even operates. It's totally ludicrous, in a strategy game, to e.g. hide what items do from players until they tried them (and probably died due to that). Especially in the age of wikis. It's even worse with stats and obscure background calculations.

"in this case, the lack of numbers make The Binding Of Isaac a game that has more depth. The lack of numbers can lead the player to second guess his/her decisions and make him/her observe what's happening in the game more."

That's a really cheap and easily exhaustible form of depth, though. I wouldn't even call it "depth" at all. Once you know what stuff does, you know it. Or maybe you forgot it, because it's been a while since you last saw that specific item. But that's also lame, since you're not playing a game of memory, but of skillful reactions and decision-making. Or, if you're talking about specific stats, something like monster HP numbers, it's equally bad. The fact that they're hidden actually reduces the depth there is, because the only thing you can do is take a guess. You're facing a lowered skill ceiling.

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"It's totally ludicrous, in a strategy game, to e.g. hide what items do from players until they tried them (and probably died due to that)"

The item identification metagame is a staple of roguelikes that some people actually enjoy, believe it or not.

Yes, drinking an unidentified potion that ultimately kills you is very unfortunate, but a good design should provide quantifiable ways to narrow down what the item might be.

I'm thinking of Shiren the Wanderer here in that you could approximate what an unidentified item might be by trying to sell it. The selling prices were always fixed, even if the item was unidentified. Naturally of course, they set it up so that something that sells for $750 could either be a good item, or a bad item, but you could at least deduce from the selling price that it was 1 of 2 items, and not 1 of 50 items. This leads to stressful (read: fun!) calculated decision making when consuming an unidentified potion.

They could have just as easily instead written in the item description "50% chance of invisibility, 50% chance of paralysis", but then you miss out on deciding whether to hoard the item until you can safely appraise its value, or just blindly drinking it when you're in a total bind.

Personally, I think being saved by drinking an unidentified potion when you're in a total bind makes for a great story to talk about later. As does drinking a potion when you think you're in the clear, only to find out it turns you into a chicken or something and now you have to improvise with that.

I guess the bottom line is that it really depends on what feelings you're trying to stir in the player. Randomness is an opportunity to inject dynamic situations into a simulation, whereas concrete rules and omniscient knowledge lend itself more to a chess-like level of strategy.

Not everyone likes chess. Just something to keep in mind.

Fabian Fischer
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In most cases this "identification minigame" is just what you described, though: the solved bits are a boring chore to calculate and/or look up on a wiki, and the rest comes down to rolling the dice. It's not interesting decision making because there is no systemic depth there but just a lot of "stuff" and numbers, it's just what you said: mere calculation. It's a pure puzzle inside an actual strategy game. (relevant Roguelike Radio episode:

I also don't see how you "miss out" on anything if the probabilities were just given to you? I mean, if anything, this raises the importance of decision-making by not hiding it behind the calculation work barrier.

Oh, and for the record, I dislike Chess. Whereas I really like Shiren. Definitely not because of item identification, though.

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I'll admit, Shiren could have been more streamlined in this way. Rather than requiring you to figure out what selling prices map to which items (by looking it up on a wiki or whatever), it could be more simple: As soon as you talk to a shop keep, it could list what items it could be. Seems like a more sensible, modern approach.

What I meant by saying you miss out on something if the possibilities were just straight up given to you - consider that you don't know what an item is until you have it appraised. So, until it's appraised, it may as well have a 10% chance of paralysis, 10% chance of confusion, 10% chance of invisibility, 10% chance of heal, 10% chance of chicken-making, etc. That unknown makes for a unique gameplay situation that you would miss out on if you knew for certain from the start that it was 50/50 paralysis or invisibility.

I understand what you're getting at by saying there's no systemic depth to the item identification minigame - it is indeed a fairly shallow little thing on its own. But it's usually bolted onto a larger gameplay system and it helps to make that system be more emergent, which is just awesome in my book (especially considering how simple it is to implement from a development standpoint).

Talha Kaya
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Your main point is, what's more fun in games is decision making more than trial-error type of stuff. That's a totally valid point, as it is of personal preference. But do keep in mind that a big part of today's indie rouge-like inspired action game popularity is this trial-error and its funny/interesting consequences. People like to tell stories to each other about how the game turned them into a chicken. Trial-error is not strategical, I know. I played 110 hours of Spelunky and I'm at a point where I feel most trial-error situations games throw at me are a waste of my time. So I'm with you there. But for a lot of players, the joy of exploration is stronger than the feeling of wasting time you and I are getting.

Also, in my defense, I didn't say "delete all numbers from games, don't explain anything" or what ever. I said "check if you really need to put numbers in your game, sometimes you won't need to." And if you think this is unreasonable too, then you and I are just different kind of people.

Ian Richard
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Numbers are just a tool for conveying information to the player. They serve a valid purpose that allows a player to see that sword A does more damage than sword B. Numbers are used because they are a widely known form of comparing things.

If you pick up a new sword and don't see numbers... how do you know what it's doing? Is it better than your last one or worse? Are you really going to notice the +1 damage bonus or the fact that you now have increased lightning defense? Without feedback or status updates you won't know.

By removing the numbers you obscure the information and make decisions less clear to the player. This CAN be your intention in making it less game-y, but it can also lead to feeling of frustration because the player doesn't have the information to make a decision.

Numbers are only a tool. Some game's benefit from having the information clear and understandable, while others hide the numbers for immersion. Each side has a valid purpose.

Jordan Carr
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Number obfuscation is a poor tool to create "imagination." Make a good game world, and it will spark their imagination. Not displaying how much damage a gun deals does nothing but create unnecessary confusion and frustration as players attempt to make decisions.

I hated how hidden mechanics were in BioShock, wasting precious resources on abilities that were sub-par was not fun. In a perfect world, every ability would be balanced, I'm sure.

Diablo 3 and Borderlands are terrible examples, the whole point of those game is bigger, better numbers.

A lack of numbers is okay in some settings, sure. Take Left for Dead. You don't have numbers for the pistol/rifle/shotgun. But their roles are still clearly designated by game-design and intuitive to players. But this only works because players have so few choices for weapons.

Not every game needs numbers, but hiding numbers for the sake of "imagination" I find a not very great philosophy.

Stephen Corwin
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On a side note.... I think that a lot of games can do away with certain arbitrary numbers. For example, I don't have enough fingers to count the number of games that I have seen attack range or movement speed using a weird arbitrary 300-500 units measurement. What does this mean? As a player, I don't really know until I increase it a little bit. In the end, I still don't really know what it means, I just have an idea. The same goes for armor and magic resistance. I'll see 200 armor and it isn't until I hover over it that I see 67% physical damage reduction. Why is there this extra step? Why not just make it 67 armor = 67%? Sure, I guess you can argue for diminished returns on stacking the same stat, but there are other ways around this. I think removing some of these arbitrary numbers and replacing them with numbers that the player is already familiar with (meters, feet, percentages) would give quicker response times.

Abby Friesen
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I can totally relate to your article. I'm a designer at a learning games company, and we do struggle with the use of numbers in our games, for many reasons including the removal of some imagination.

Numbers can be distracting, or lead to information overload. Having worked on lots of games for young audiences, we know that the more numerical values our games have, the more confusing they are. Yet we still need to convey that information to the player sometimes.

We try and come up with alternatives to numbers that aren't distracting or boring, but still help the player understand. Simply changing the number to a fillbar can really help. Or giving the player visual feedback that does the job of the number. Example: instead of bogging players down with weapon stats, they can get an idea of how powerful a weapon is by how big / ornate its design is. A more complicated, fancy machine = better than the simple, plain one.

It's obvious you're not saying to banish numbers from all games to improve them, or that games should give players no info whatsoever about anything. I don't understand how people can disagree with the idea that certain games might be better if they avoided using numbers for everything and went with an alternative.

Jordan Carr
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Because as a gamer nothing is more frustrating than needing information and not having it.

Make it a toggle, but please, give the player information, or work extremely diligently to make sure that everything is clear without numbers.

Again, I like to point of BioShock as an example of a game that needed information, but they refused to provide it, and it broke my immersion in an otherwise very visually and aurally compelling game.