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Defining The Essence Of True Gaming

I did quite a bit of thinking today (but then, I tend to overthink everything on most days), and I decided what's really holding me back in my game development endeavors comes down to a lack of clear vision.  I want to make a good game, but I don't really know what makes a good game.

Join the club.  If most game developers knew what makes a good game, they'd probably not be making the same game over and over again.  But I thought I'd reveal a bit of what I came up with, which I refer to as the essence of true gaming.

Thank Blizzard for this, I suppose.  As much as I resent their recipe for success being, "take what's popular and make a really high quality version of it that the fans can find no reason to fault (but some will anyway because that's what fans do)" Blizzard nevertheless successfully enticed me to play Overwatch during its open beta, and in doing so, realizing I had sampled an example of the essence of true gaming...

...which Overwatch obviously is because, lets face it, how often do you play a game for a few days and then chomp at the bit for several weeks for the chance to play it again?  Usually the hype dies the day you get a chance to play it, but not here.  Overwatch endured.  There's something going on here, and I think I know what it is.

So lets stop beating around the bush and spill the beans right here: "Gamers will seek games that they are interested in which are capable of engaging their mind to maximum effectiveness."  That's the essence of true gaming.

It's a very carefully phrased term.  Let me explain the parts:
  • "Gamers will seek games" - Truth of the matter is, not everybody is a gamer.  Maybe it's a phenomenon of the physical brain, maybe it's a manifestation of one's environment, it's probably both.  But the important takeaway here is not all people want to play games, and that's fine.  Don't waste your time trying to entice people who aren't gamers, they're not "the casual demographic," they're just not interested in gaming.  Again, that's fine.
  • "that they are interested in" - This is where window dressing comes into play.  The setting, where it be sci-fi or fantasy, western or post-modern.  The graphics.  Things you believe you will like.  It's an important part of the definition of the essence of true gaming because people will rarely ever even try a game that they do not feel they are interested in, in which case the opportunity to play it will rarely manifest.  In terms of the actual game, the dressing is not important, but it's the hook: what people believe they are actually interested in is what gets them to bite.  However, there's more to this aspect, because if they're not interested in something then they're naturally resistant to being mentally engaged by it due to their own prejudice against it.
  • "which are capable of engaging their mind to maximum effectiveness" - This is the most important part.  The rest of the blog entry will be about this.  But let me first define that, by "fully engaged," I mean having a great interest and involvement in, and that your mind is what's engaged, you can write off whether that mind as a manifestation of nature versus nurture as overthinking it.  A good game does more than occupy a person, it engages them.  It captivates them.  The better it does this, the better the game, hence "maximum effectiveness" is the goal.
Before we launch into what it means to engage one's mind to maximum effectiveness, lets do a quick rundown of three different models by prominent game developers who have theorized the essence of fun, and see where "engaging your mind to maximum effectiveness" plays a part.
  1. Flow theory is a major tool used by game developers which (greatly simplified) states that a person is completely energized, focused, and motivated on a task that has just the right level of challenge: not too hard, and not too easy.   Flow psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is well known to forward this theory. 

    By my definition of the essence of true gaming, the supporting aspect of flow theory is that it recognizes the goal is to fully engage the player.  However, the problem with this theory is that it gets too focused on difficulty and not that the real goal is to have a mind fully engaged by the game. 

    Difficulty is indeed an effective means to find flow in many situations, but not all situations.  In some cases, flow can be found where there is no true difficulty at all, such as watching a riveting movie.  Because difficulty tweaking works in some cases, but not all, it suggests to me that basic flow theory is off-target.
  2. Raph Koster's Theory Of Fun For Game Design states that the "fun" to be found in games is when you are successfully learning.  This advances the flow theory by stating the reason why you feel engaged is because when, the right conditions hit, the brain is learning.  When the player has learned all there is for the game, they get bored, and therefore burnout is inevitable.

    By my definition of the essence of true gaming, the supporting aspect of Raph Koster's theory is that he, too, recognizes that the goal is to fully engage the player.  However, the trouble with this theory is that you are not necessarily learning when your mind is fully engaged by something

    For example, there's players who still feel pretty engaged by Counterstrike and DOTA 2 who have spent TENS OF THOUSANDS OF HOURS playing the game.  After all that time playing those games, they're probably not learning anything, but I bet many of them still feel engaged by playing.
  3. Jesse Schell's The Art Of Game Design would is the first to admit that "our Mendeleev hasn't come," meaning there's no proven theory of game design.   However, he nevertheless forwards his theory about games is that they are there to provide experiences, and so it is up to the developer to decide on an experience to provide.  From there, he suggests over a hundred different "lenses" to increase the fidelity of that experience.

    By my definition of the essence of true gaming, Schell also recognizes that the goal is to engage the player, but he approaches the idea of engaging the mind from a hundred different directions at once.  It is difficult to find clarity in a gaming vision when you have so many paths to follow.  Schell knows the game is all about the experience, but does he agree that the reason why the experience is important to the player is only because of how mentally engaging it is?
So we land at the central fixture of my "essence of true gaming" theory: it's basically all about engaging the mind, so lets focus on that.  The above theories have attempted to extrapolate from there, reaching for how or why.  I say don't: you're getting off target.  It will probably change from situation to situation, game to game.

As if that wasn't tough enough, different minds like different things.  In other words, what people will find mentally engaging will vary from person to person!  That's probably the biggest reason why building a reliable method of maximum effective mental engagement has been so hard!  There will never be a singular way to mentally engage a player, because all players are different. 

My solution is to recommend developing what you know is good (mentally engaging) rather than trying to imagine what other people think is good.  You will always know yourself better than you will an imaginary player.  But I will acknowledge that this is a solution that won't satisfy a lot of developers who have to develop for an audience other than themselves.

So what's a game developer to do, from a practical standpoint of having to develop outside of their own interests?  Well, you could go after a specific audience of a specific kind of game that you know people already like.  That's a proven model of something you know gamers are interested in, so now you just need to ratchet up the mental engagement as far as you can.
Though I mention DOTA 2 a lot, and it's generally more popular, I think League of Legends pulls of mental engagement at least as well, and is generally more interesting to watch being played.  This may be why it is such a strong pioneer of eSports.
I think my dislike of clones is proof that there's such a thing as too much imitation.  However, I suspect the reason why I've grown to hate clones is because most of those developers making clones had no intention of focusing entirely on mental engagement.  Instead, they were just riding a trend for the money.

It is a problem further aggravated by that developer not knowing anything about why the kind of game they've been tasked with copying is mentally engaging.  A bit like a movie director trying to create a movie without any knowledge of why the source material in which it is based is popular.

That's why I recommend you develop for what you know is good, because you should have some idea of what's engaging about it.  So play it.  Become a fan of the game.  Dissect it.  Learn why it's engaging to its players.  Only then will you understand how that particular kind of game can be improved.  It's going to vary from game to game as much as it will from player to player.

However, if the true focus is just to create something gamers would be interested in that possesses maximum mental engagement, whether it's a clone or not is irrelevant.  You can also go ahead and make a brand new kind of game and see if it interests enough people to catch on.  You could well experience just as much success as a game that stands on the shoulders of giants, isn't that right, Angry Birds, Minecraft?
Looked at from a perspective of having the least barriers for mental engagement, Angry Birds focus is almost absolute.  The aiming of the slingshot is a delicate but easy-to-access tactile exercise, and to attempt to imagine what the different birds will do to different pig structures is an easy, strong fixation with immediate feedback, establishing an effective cycle.
If I look at recent successes and failures at being entertained over the past few entries, I feel it validates my theory because my enjoyment seems to closely mirror how effective the game was at achieving maximum mental engagement:
  • The problem with Stellaris is that it's not particularly engaging because the combat and planetary tile management is too shallow to be particularly engaging.  In Crusader Kings 2, which I hoped Stellaris would be in space, Paradox Interactive managed to create something engaging in the interplay between the various royal families in the simulator.  Stellaris removed all gameplay aspects of the political players, they now only existed in name only, so there was really nothing to engage me in the game.  I was strung along by a lot of busywork for 28 hours, seeking out the fun, but being disappointed because the level of engagement was just minor busywork.
  • The difference between Battleborn and Overwatch ended up killing Battleborn for me because when I played them both side by side it was the less engaging game.  I describe Battleborn as feeling "floaty, like an MMORPG boss battle" and Overwatch as having "faster reactions [...] much of the floatiness is gone [...] your character's actions have more weight to them."  In the mindset of this theory, the reason why is obvious: because Overwatch had a more direct connection to the action in the game, it was that much easier for the mind to feel engaged by it.  Battleborn, by necessity of its additional MOBA and RPG game mechanics, created an insulative barrier of number crunching that blocked some degree of mental engagement.  I like depth, but Battleborn's MOBA/RPG mechanics didn't feel like it was giving me true depth (the kind that is mentally engaging) instead it felt more like busywork, repellent to engagement.
  • I find myself enjoying watching Danganronpa because it had a pretty engaging story.  Lots was going on, "a murder mystery and a thought experiment wrapped up in one."  I went to play Danganronpa 2, and I have to say that it's not been quite as engaging because the mini-games and dialogue is a little too long winded in execution and the story is comparatively disjointed versus the first game, which was more laser focused on the escape scenario.  The murder scenarios are actually a distraction from the elephant in the room, the mysterious organization that kidnapped everybody and wiped their memories, but Danganronpa 2 is a little too heavy handed in forcing the players into more murder scenarios.  With less focus comes less engagement of the mind, less essence of true gaming.
  • Fortresscraft really got my attention for awhile because playing around with the power systems and the ore collection systems was pretty engaging for awhile.  But I eventually reached a point where I stopped caring about collecting ore and I felt like I had nothing to look forward to.  The game did not become any more or less difficult, nor did I have nothing left to learn (as I did not quite get into minecarts), but my mind simply didn't find a reason to feel engaged with a game that was obviously going nowhere, no matter how cool its parts were.  The same could be said for Stardew Valley, a cool game of many engaging parts at first, quickly fizzling out when the mind realized the game wasn't going anywhere with this and so there was no reason to be engaged with it.
  • In Dragon's Dogma's case, I lost interest in the game at about the point where it stopped being challenging for me.  (Score one for Flow Theory.)  But the true reason why?  Button mashing your way to success is not particularly engaging.   When that became possible, the effectiveness of this game to engage my mind fell dramatically.  I found myself suddenly craving Dark Souls II, a game where mandatory player involvement does a far better job of maximizing my mental engagement.
Again, this is just a basic recollection of recent games I played and how I can see where my mental engagement factored largely into how much I ended up enjoying them.

Maybe everything I've said so far seems overly vague to you, too lacking in practical advice about how to make a game.  In that case, what good is this whole, "Essence of True Gaming" spiel, really?  

Well, I were to give myself something to do in order to develop a compelling game, this is basically just an important mantra:  "Gamers will seek games that they are interested in which are capable of engaging their mind to maximum effectiveness."  Oh, right, so I ought to make my next step in development accordingly.

But there's more to that, I think, and it comes down to gaming history.  In the beginning, in the arcades, all games were pretty much dedicated to doing this.  Sure, it was just simple twitch reflexes for the most part, but this was a quick and effective means to maximize the player's involvement in games.
Pacman: digital gaming's first smash hit.  With an entire maze of pills to chomp and four ghosts of varying navigation algorithms to avoid, it was a formula built for mental engagement above all else.
Somewhere, between virtual worlds, simulators, and 3D innovation, I believe many game developers have lost their way.  They have forgotten that the goal is to engage the player, instead getting focused on technological gimmicks and following trends.

That's not gaming; that's not what gaming is about.  Give the players something truly engaging.  We need to remember this is the true goal.  That's perhaps the best value of this spiel.

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