Evolution, Gaming, and Those F#%&?ing Orbs

Hey party people! It’s (unfortunately) Monday. Our country’s political climate is in an…interesting place, work was hard but super rewarding, and I enjoyed another awesome game mechanics class at SMC this last Thursday. One of the really fascinating points our professor keeps making is that games are instinctual; evolutionary. As someone with a degree in anthropology, I can’t help but agree (and be fascinated in the nerdiest of ways).  Look at how other animals play games- play is learning and modeling adult behaviors in a safe space. These behaviors- survival, competition, coordination, ingenuity, life skills- all have built-in imperatives that demonstrate genetic fitness. We are built to play. That’s why games need to have a “point” to game actions. If we don’t see a point- like finding one specific item that doesn’t have any particular use or navigating from one side of a maze to another with no reward- then we won’t want to do it. Play is tied to reward. Whether that reward is winning, collecting, discovering- it doesn’t matter. They all have evolutionary equivalents. Competition for a mate, collecting food or resources, discovering shelter, etc. And that’s also the crux of why games fail. For example, I’m playing Fire Emblem Heroes on iOS right now. At the beginning, there’s a lot of winning and collecting and leveling up. Even as someone who isn’t super familiar with the franchise (except for Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, which I loved), I really enjoyed it. But having completed the story sections, the game now only presents me endless grinding with the promise of very few rewards. In fact, I get more rewards for just simply logging in for the day than by actually playing it. Want to know why? Because they want you to spend as much real-world money, as it would cost to buy Destiny 2 a few times over, to purchase the all-important orbs that are used as in-game-currency. You exchange them for items and stamina, and they are necessary for adding new characters to your collection- the main mechanic of the game. 

As game designers, we have to consider why people are playing our game. Whether our players are competitors, explorers, collectors, achievers, artists, directors, storytellers, performers, or craftsman- we need to stay true to that core concept that drives their desire to play. It’s why games like Skyrim and Destiny are so successful- they include multiple driving mechanics that appeal to a wide number of player types and merge them all into a cohesive game. It’s also why games are “indie” hits- when the core concept is unique and appeals to a select, but passionate, fan base of a specific player type. Interestingly, it is also behind why simple but fun games are also the most lucrative- the mechanic is consistent and people are willing to pay money for something they feel is a rewarding trade-off. 

How do we advance the game while not deviating from these enjoyable mechanics? How do we add variety and avoid monotony? Most importantly, how do we find that balance of a successful business venture and an enjoyable game for consumers? When games focus on ways to make money as the primary rather than secondary objective, that’s when fun grinds to a halt (eh…ehhh…see what I did there?). We’ve evolved to play games, so let us play damn it.

So how do we go about doing this? I believe the first step is consistent and evolving goals. For example, let's examine a basic game mechanic- collecting rupees. First, we need to create a why: collect enough rupees and you can buy a new sword. Why do you want a new sword? So you can beat the next boss. Now, a lot of games (still looking at you Fire emblem Heroes) will stop there. But that will only take you so far. Why do you want to beat the next boss? What makes all of that rupee collecting worth it? Well I know for me, THAT'S where story comes in. The dramatic narrative that overlays the mechanics. In my opinion, good games combine those evolution-driven mechanics with a deep and compelling story. As a designer, you need to make the final objective important. Is your protagonist a young heroine fighting to protect her family? A traveling merchant who finds himself on an epic quest? Whatever your story, it has to make your player care enough to spend their time cutting grass to discover hidden rupees.

There's one problem to that: games that have no/little story but are wildly successful. Let's look at Angry Birds. Up until recently, this game has operated on a basic principle: pigs steal bird's eggs, bird gets eggs back by attacking pigs. Where this game shines, and where its developers rake in the money, are in two areas: game mechanics and updates. Let's look at game mechanics:

A basic example of a level layout you may encounter while playing Angry Birds.

You pull back on the slingshot to launch a bird into the dominoes-like pyramidal piggy palaces. Variety is added by having different birds with different functions- one shoots forward and destroys wooden blocks, another splits apart and crashes through glass blocks, etc.  It's a fun mechanic. But how does that one mechanic span so many levels and still stay fun? Challenge. Challenge is that elusive goal that everyone wants to beat. They can see what they want and they just have to aim...BAM. There it is, the perfect shot. You watch gleefully as an elaborate stack of baconated building comes crashing down. You pat yourself on the back as you receive...one out of three stars. Not only does each level get progressively harder, but the player can try and earn a higher and higher score as they replay those levels. This allows players to move from level to level in two ways: just focus on clearing the level before you run out of birds OR only progress to the next level after receiving three stars. I have to admit, I am definitely the later player type. 

The second area we can find success in is a consistent stream of game updates that include level after level of unkosher fun. Not only that, the franchise also gives players a multitude of themes and mechanics they can choose from by releasing a ridiculous number of games.  

There are so many ways we can make games enjoyable. We as consumers know this. Whether we're playing solitaire next to our cat or hosting an epic three-day D&D adventure, we know what gets our Pac-Man chomping.  So tell me, what's yours?