GAME DESIGN: The Long and Short of It
When is one game two games? Almost all the time, claims James Portnow in this week’s latest game design column. But which of those games is more important?
Almost every game is actually two games, one being the minute-to-minute game and the other being the broader overall game. I’ve heard so much debate about which one is “more important” and which should be a designer’s “main focus”, that I’ve decided to put my two cents in.
Remember, there’s no fact in this article, just opinion supported by what passes for reason around here… In the end you’ll have to make up your own mind.
Most games can be viewed as a series of smaller interconnected games that are tied together to make one unified whole. Consider, for example, American football: each play is a game, each “game” is a game and each season is a game. Now consider, if you will, your standard digital role-playing game: combat is a game, questing (1) is a game and leveling/character building is a game.
There is no limit to how many nested games any given game may contain. It’s largely a matter of perception anyway – and of how you define “game”. The important thing is that no matter how many unique games you’ve identified within a game, only two really matter: the action and the arc.
The action is easy to define: it’s what you’re doing most of the time. Usually you will start experiencing the action within five minutes of picking up a game (In fact, I’ve heard arguments that it’s bad game design if you don’t… I can think of arguments to the contrary though). The action is usually slightly less cerebral than the arc, engaging you in a more visceral way. The action is also brief in duration but often repeated. You can fully experience one iteration of the action in a matter of minutes, if not seconds (2).
The arc is a little harder to define. It’s what the player understands to be “the game”. Often the arc is the reason a player continues playing a game. It takes place over a much longer span of time and, once completed, usually the signals the end of the player’s engagement with that particular game (when we feel the arc is complete we let our accounts go inactive or put the game back on the shelf). The arc is typically the headier portion of the game – in really good games it’s the section we think about when we aren’t actually playing the game.
The arc can be vaguely defined as “what the player views the point of a game to be”.
So, Mr. Portnow, Which is More Important?
I’m going to argue that the action is definitively the more important of the two. Were I working on a game and someone said to me, “We can perfect the action or the the arc. Which should we perfect?”, I would quickly answer, “The action.”
moscallout”Were I working on a game and someone said to me, ‘We can perfect the action or the the arc. Which should we perfect?’, I would quickly answer, ‘The action.’”/moscalloutWhy?
After all, the arc is really what holds our interest. It’s what makes a game sustainable. It’s why we continue to play… The problem is that there can be no arc if there is no action.
If the action is bad no one will ever experience the arc. Imagine an MMORPG with a fantastic character system and leveling tree. Now imagine that the combat in that MMO is mind-numbingly, nay, painfully boring. No one’s going to grind through sixty levels of an MMO just to complete the arc in the way it was intended.
Now let’s take the opposite case: let’s examine games like Pac-Man or Galaga or chess. It’s easy to see these games as “all action”, but that does an injustice to our players and to our species. Humans have a remarkable capacity for contextualizing things. Often we can rely on our players to invent their own arc.
Very few people play any of the above-mentioned games once. Rather they play them again and again with the object of improving at them. They devise ways to do better than the last time.
They come up with new strategies, observing the game as they play it in order to better their skills. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find people dissecting an individual game long after it’s been completed in order to fit it into their arc. If the action is good enough we make learning its own meta-game.
Should we do this often? No. Not at all. It is far far better to have a well crafted arc to lay on top of your action than to force the player to invent an arc for themselves. I’m simply saying it’s impossible to go the other way, hoping to get away with mediocre action to underpin your brilliant arc.
Back to the Beginning
Before we conclude, I want to just touch on the topic of designing a game as a composite of multiple interlocking games. To me this is always a good thing, assuming that you have the time and the resources to execute all of your sub-games well. The larger your pool of interesting sub-games, the more likely the player is to be able to find the arc which most engages them.
Note that sub-games are very different than mini-games. Mini-games are distinct from the main game whereas these sub-games are an integral part of it. Mini-games become something for the player to do when they are bored of playing the game; sub-games are different games for the player to focus on while playing the game.
Of course it’s always better to have two well connected sub-games rather than a ton of loosely joined or, worse yet, unconnected sub-games.
And the End
The action is what we play, the arc is why. Both are vital to make a great game. These are not static entities. They can evolve over the course of play—the arc can even change entirely for a player—but they are always present in any game we partake in.
moscallout”The action is what we play, the arc is why.”/moscalloutOne of the key differences between a good game and a bad game is the quality of the action and the arc. The player can invent a perfectly satisfying and rich arc for themselves. They cannot do this with the action. Ergo I argue that the action should be the principle focus of the designer.
That said, I’ll leave you with a personal conceit: it is much harder to create something meaningful within the limited scope of the action. Many of you who have read my column before know that I am personally interested in conveying meaningful, lasting experiences through video games. This involves finding ways of putting emotion into the action while contextualizing that emotion within the arc. This is a monumental task that requires that the designer view the arc and the action as fundamentally the same. So, if we are ever going to create truly meaningful games, we must be willing to put aside the question of which is more important and devote ourselves to both.（source：edge-online）