Although I work for Blizzard Entertainment, the opinions expressed here are my own and not representative of Blizzard’s policy or conduct in any way, shape or form.
A little over 10 years ago, I completed my masters thesis on video games entitled "The Gamer: Marionette or Puppeteer?", which was essentially just an excuse for me to play a ton of videogames and write about why they were so cool. During my..."research", I thought a lot about what made games fundamentally different from film, and I concluded that it had to do with interaction and manipulation; being active rather than passive; creating rather can simply consuming. And so I devoted a chapter on 'Gameplay'. I am not a designer, and therefore I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I recently had an experience that made me think about my old thesis, so I decided to write this article and share my thoughts.
‘Gameplay’ is an ambiguous term that gets flung around a lot. From talking to almost anyone in the business, it’s clear that everyone has a slightly different definition, usually revolving around the actions a player needs to undertake or the experience a player undergoes. I like how Wikipedia describes it:
“Gameplay is the specific way in which players interact with a game, and in particular with video games. Gameplay is the pattern defined through the game rules, connection between player and the game, challenges and overcoming them, plot and player's connection with it.”
In more pragmatic terms, it could mean different things to different people. To an engineer it may mean the nuts and bolts of programming, to a designer it may be all about how we guide the player through a quest line and to a player it may simply mean the controls he has at his disposal to kill more monsters. More often than not, it’s used as a category in game reviews to give a rating. But that doesn’t do the word justice.
I’d like to approach it from a more deductive perspective. As a producer, it is my job to keep the end-goal ever in my sights, and equip my team and flock with the tools necessary to achieve it. I will attempt to do the same here. The goal with this article is to equip the readers with a tool to help understand what makes some games so tantalizingly seductive as a means of granting players control and influence. To do this, I intend simply to identify three key elements that make up Gameplay and, by the simple process of identifying their virtues and merits, establish a methodology that will create common ground and a mutual understanding whenever we talk about Gameplay. And as I said at the beginning, I am open to the idea that there may be more than three, or perhaps the three I talk about are bogus, which is why I've phrased the title of this article as a question. So I invite anyone to put their case forward and freely disagree.
But why focus on Gameplay, when that is only one of many factors that make great games? The answer is simple; you can have a great game if the Gameplay is great. If the Gameplay is good enough, you won’t need good graphics, famous voice actors or even a good story. Gameplay is the key factor that determines whether a game will stand the test of time. Unlike a great plot, photo-realistic graphics, or simply owning the rights to a popular franchise, Gameplay is the heart and soul of this new and fabulous medium. By adding the element of interactivity, it separates us (games and gamers) from all other ‘old’ media, like books, theatre and even film. By incorporating storytelling devices like narrative and immersion, it separates us from other ‘new’ media like the internet and mobile telephony. We aren’t just creating a world; we are creating a world and allowing you to enter it. The degree to which that either succeeds or fails depends overwhelmingly on the Gameplay. Without good Gameplay, you might as well go watch a movie or read a book. Or F/facebook.
But even within the realm of videogame development, Gameplay has undergone an evolution that is still in the process of maturing. Today, anno 2013, Gameplay is to Pong what color and sound was to film in the 1930’s; not just new tech, but the promise of a broader horizon; a vast new realm of possibilities, uncharted lands and unpaddled creeks. In the hands of the right person, getting gameplay right brings us one step closer to achieving that elusive goal mankind has been pursuing for centuries: ultimate immersive entertainment.
As I mentioned earlier, I will start by identifying the main elements, three to be exact, that together form the pillars on which rests the effective execution and implementation of gameplay, at least in my opinion. They are Chance, Choice and Persistency. I call it the Gameplay Trifecta. The way to use them, or apply them, is to imagine applying seasoning to a dish you are preparing: add too little, and the result is bland and uninviting; add too much and it overwhelms the other tastes, whereas add the right amount, and the end result rises above expectations and becomes more than the sum of its parts.
The Trifecta: Chance
You always want an element of randomness in a game; the idea that something unpredictable or unexpected can happen. If nothing else, this creates excitement and anticipation, born out of the thrill of the unknown. And all the more so if the ‘unknown’ is potentially something that will give you a tactical advantage in the game.
One good example that comes to mind, from many, are the power-ups you get Mario Kart, in the form of giant colorful cubes that appear on the track in front of you and you pick up by driving through them. Once picked up, a wheel starts spinning in the top left corner, as if from a slot machine, and slows down until it comes to a stop. The power-up you receive depends heavily on the position you occupy at that moment in the race; the power-ups you receive when you are number one revolve mostly around defending yourself against the other racers, while the power-ups you get when you are last generally help you catch up. Nevertheless, you can never know exactly which one you’ll get, but it can always be a game changer, making it even more exiting.
Another example, and one of my personal favorites, is the process of exploring and uncovering the land around your starting city in Civilization. The way I play Civ is by having the game generate a random world for me. That way I have no idea if I will be close to water, mountains, deserts, another civilization or any worthwhile natural resources, like horses, iron, saltpeter or any one of dozens more. Every time my Warrior or Scout moves over to the next square, a new wave of hidden land is revealed, and the promise of great riches, inconsequence or pending doom is revealed. It is truly a most exhilarating phase of the game. I have honestly never understood why random-world generation doesn’t feature more prominently in the other video-games (other than that it's hard to develop).
A third and rather prevalent example of the effect chance can have on gameplay, has to do with the notion of “loot”: virtual items left behind, or “dropped”, by the unfortunate demise of an enemy. What happens in those games is that every time you kill a monster (or whatever the foe is in a particular game: zombies, animals, other humans, etc.), he drops one or several items that, depending on how it is implemented, will either play only a small, cosmetic role, or a profound and game changing one. For instance in FarCry 3, looting is the way to gather additional ammunition, money, resources for crafting and even quest items. Although at first glance it appears to play a major role in the game, ultimately it’s really just a little bit of added fun, and generally not too impactful (at least in my opinion). But the situation is different when there’s a chance of obtaining a potentially game-changing article, which can lead to players spending hours and hours doing nothing else but “farming” for loot, just on the off-chance that a rare and valuable item might drop. This is a common phenomenon in massive online games, where you’ll often find an expansive trade in rare items, usually gold, both within the game and outside of it. In those cases, the value of the item is often directly linked to the chance of obtaining it; the rarest ones obviously being the most pricy.
The chance that something unexpected might happen, whether it’s finding rare items or playing on a randomly generated map, doesn’t just create excitement: it also forces the game to be played in a certain way, especially if the consequences are severe. The trick is to mitigate as much as possible the potential negative effects of this force majeure, or better yet, to make it work in your favor. For instance, in Shogun 2 Total War, some of your key units, like generals and emissaries, can increase in rank and gain traits and retainers that will help your army in one way or another. In one case, a retainer might give the general a bonus in defense, while another retainer might increase the travel range of the army a general is embedded in, or increase the speed with which the soldiers reload their rifles. In any case, since you will always need generals to perform different tasks, some to defend, some to attack, these traits/retainers, that are essentially randomly chosen, allow the player to play to the strengths of his army. Of course, sometimes he will not get what he most wants, but making the best of this element of chance is what separates a good leader from a bad one.
Chance also translates to replayability. Think again of Sid Meier’s Civilization, where a random world is generated at the start of every game; every time you restart, you have a new opportunity to uncover a hidden treasure trove of possibilities and options. The random aspect of this makes it exciting for the player to go out and discover. Who knows what may lie around the corner, or just beyond the field of vision? And if you don’t like what you got, you can just start over and see if the next batch of options is more to your liking. I have never restarted a game more often than Sid Meier’s Civilization.
But the most satisfying experience of unpredictability, according to some, is when it is not imbedded in the programming of the game (which can usually be deciphered over time) but instead constitutes the complex and varying behavior of other, human players. Human players generally have more variety in their pallet of behavior than a programmed AI, although obviously subjected to the limitations of the game in question. And even if a player of a popular multi-player game like Street Fighter or Black Ops 2 will be able to discern patterns of behavior, telltale habits and tendencies of his adversaries, (almost a form of cold reading), he can never fully know what the other guy will do next.
The whole point of playing a videogame is to respond to what’s happening, and the less you know about what’s going to happen, the more exciting it is, the more you need to be smart, prepared and skilled, and all the more thrilling the outcome. Taken too far however, and chance becomes a make-or-break element over which you as a player have no influence whatsoever. If your game can end at any time, your avatar randomly dies, one act of god destroys your entire army etc., why bother even continuing? Or starting at all, for that matter? Even if you did win, it would mean you were just lucky, rather than deserving. As with all three elements of game, the purpose of the element of Chance is to add flavor, not to overwhelm or dominate the gameplay.
The Trifecta: Choice
The second key element to effective game play is Choice. The element of Choice works on three levels that, it should be noted, are not mutually exclusive. First of all, it adds a cosmetic element, as in any game in which you create your avatar before the game starts. In terms of gameplay, these choices really do nothing more than add a little flavor to the players experience, which some people find profoundly important, but for the purposes of analyzing gameplay, is rather negligible. And let’s not forget, many games use as a selling point the ability to customize the look of your avatar, whether it’s to make him look like you do in real life, or like some other crazy, outlandish persona you identify with or with which your aim is to shock other players. Even in multi-player environments, where all participants need to be given the same options from which to choose in order to create a level playing field, players find ways to be different and noticeable from one another. Just look at the decals, badges and, most importantly, names players choose for their virtual representation in a game like Black Ops 2; I dare say the notions of modesty or even common decency elude many of them.
The second kind of choices are the pivotal choices, by which I mean choices that open up one subsequent set of options to the player, while simultaneously making another set unavailable. These are key moments in the game, usually even before the game starts, that limit the number paths a player can chose from. The clearest example of this are RPGs that, in a tradition pre-dating videogames and since adopted by many other genres, allow you to customize your characters abilities and powers before setting off on your adventure. The choices you make before the game starts, will determine to a large extent the experience the player will have. Choosing a mage (or magic user), will generally mean you will have to focus on using cloth armor, fighting from a distance and emphasizing mana (or equivalent) over health. I say ‘generally’, because there are games that deviate from this recipe, like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, in which you are theoretically not limited to any one set of choices, even if in practice it will certainly be beneficial to the players to focus on one specialization rather than try to become the master of all.
Another example of pivotal choices†are those advertised in games like Mass Effect or The Witcher.†Those games will assert that the choices a player makes determine his fate later on in the game. And to a degree that is true, although it's more like a series of fork-in-the-road options, rather than a fully customizable and unique gaming experience. This type of choice-making has little impact on the gameplay as I define it, because these choices rarely result in a personalized strategy or experience tailored to the whims and desires of the player. They are more about knowing that the developers made more than one end-cutscene, and you want to unlock them all.
The third level takes place during the game; in other words, while the player is engaged in the real-time action portion of the game. Imagine playing a map in Starcraft 2. The moment the map pops up and you start assigning your workers to their harvesting duties, the stage is set: you’ve chosen your race and the map has been determined. Now, with those conditions set, it’s up to the player to use the options at his disposal to make the decisions that will lead him either to victory or defeat. Do you scout at 9, or sooner? Do you fast expand, or is the map too small for that? Will you prepare defenses for a rush or a timing push, or will you initiate the attack yourself? And which tech path will you choose: air or ground, bio or mech? And while you struggle with these choices, you have to keep your timing in mind and make sure you follow your ‘To Do’ list of best practices: don’t get supply blocked, send a scout, keep building drones/SCVs/probes.
As I mentioned, all of these kinds of choices are present in most games, to some degree. Choosing which units to build in Shogun 2, whether to walk, sprint, jump or crouch in Black Ops 2, or which syringe to inject in FarCry 3, are all choices that determine one thing: the strategy of the player. Being able to conceive of, adopt and execute a strategy is what great gameplay is all about. If it turns out that, through a process of trial and error, there is really only one way to complete a game, then there is little talk of strategy or meaningful decision making (although some might argue that the process of trial and error is a form of strategy in and of itself, like being good at putting a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle together. I would argue that has more to do with lifting the veil, rather than using game mechanics like a tool, which is what good gameplay ought to be about. More on that in the section about ‘learning’ to play).
Mind you, it’s not about giving players all the choices in the world; just a selection suitable and expansive enough for them to reach their goals via alternative routes. This can be as expansive as the hundreds of options in a game like Civilization, or as simple as the drag and drop physics in an iPad game like Be Together.
Giving the player the choices necessary to develop and implement a strategy, not only helps him achieve his goals, but also puts a stamp on his style and his own, personally adopted approach to completing the game. A player can think: “I am making choices that another player wouldn’t. I do things my way. I am applying my own strategy that (because of how many variables there are) is different from anyone else.” Giving players options from which to choose, creates the impression that the experience is unique and special. And we all want to be special. And in doing so, we’ve upped the ante; the game has reached a whole new level. Henceforth, pride becomes a factor. Winning is all the more satisfying, losing all the more painful. It is no longer merely a game; it’s life.
The Trifecta: Persistency
The third and last element that plays a pivotal role in establishing effective gameplay is Persistency, by which I mean that progress you’ve made is retained and persists as the players gaming experience progresses. This happens on two levels: within the realm of the game, and outside the realm of the game.
The first one has to do with not having to re-play or re-do parts of the game you’ve already gone through. For instance in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, any tech you’ve researched once, doesn’t need to be researched again; in Shogun 2 – Total War, armies you’ve built don’t just vanish at the end of a fight; you get to use them in subsequent battles; in Jagged Alliance – Back in Action, weapons and items you’ve picked can be centrally stored for later use.
Examples like these give a sense of progression and growth; a sense that choices you’ve made early on in the game have substance and are worth spending time on. This in turn, by mimicking the classic storyline format of a beginning, middle and ending, creates a sense of immersion. I know many Civ 5 players who will recount their play experience as if they were narrating a history: “In the early days I was just roaming the countryside looting gold and stealing knowledge from small tribes. In the middle ages I was pushed against the ropes when the Romans betrayed our alliance and the Germans invaded from the south. I was forced to pay-off city-states just to get the units I needed to defend my harbors. Then in the twentieth century I controlled my entire continent and started building a ginormous invasion fleet to attack the Iroquois who had control of the large landmass to the West”.
Even in multi-player focused games, persistency can play a critical role. Imagine Black Ops II, but without the feature that lets you unlock new weapons and perks as you level up. If you merely had the same, pre-assembled classes to choose from, it would be far less engaging to play. Without this rewarding progression, there would be a lot less reason to play. The flip side is also true; imagine Black Ops II with all the weapons and perks already unlocked. First of all, the sheer number of options would be overwhelming and it would take a player a long and difficult process of trial and error to know how to use it all and get to the weapon/perk composition that fits his preferred play style. Secondly, he wouldn’t have the satisfactory of feeling like he earned the right to access those weapons and perks. If you didn’t have to work for it, you won’t get the feeling that you were the one who made it happen, and feeling like you are the one who makes things happen is key to enjoying any game.
The second level on which persistency impacts the gaming experience, has to do with the proficiency of the player. As you play a videogame, you gain insight, familiarity and skill in achieving the goals of the game. In short, you learn. And what you learn says a lot about the quality of the gameplay. In this regard, persistency is not just an aspect of the game’s design, but also the residue of *good* game design, even though the process of ‘learning’ can take on different forms.
In some cases, events that happen in a game are simply programmed to occur at a certain time or with a certain trigger. In The Fall of the Samurai expansion for Shogun 2, Total War for instance, your clan will gain the status of being ‘Noted’ by the Emperor the moment you’ve conquered your fourth province, and upon conquering your 14th province, the player will need to decide whether he stays with his faction, or starts his own faction. Both of these occurrences have profound consequences that the player will need to prepare for, so it’s in his best interest to know when they will happen. Knowing this is not so much a question of gaining skill or proficiency, but simply just knowing what happens next. This kind of knowledge of a game can already be acquired by playing a game only a few times.
Now imagine playing a multi-player first person shooter, like Black Ops II. The first time you enter a map, you don’t know where the paths lead, from which direction the enemy might attack, the lay of the land surrounding the flags, the good spots to hide as a sniper or the dark corners to lay an ambush. Knowing those things is also not driven by skill per se, but simply the result of playing those maps over and over. In short, it’s experience and familiarity. I don’t mean to downplay the accomplishment of guys who consistently get ranked top of the ladder in Black Ops II Multiplayer. It takes a lot of time and commitment to get to that level. Furthermore, this kind of experience caries over from one shooter to the next as well; an experienced gamer playing an entirely new first person-shooter, will much more quickly adapt to unknown surroundings, instinctively revert to good habits like going prone, jumping to avoid getting hit and equipping the right weapon for the right moment, than an inexperienced player would. Again, experience persists even outside the realm of the game.
The third and final kind of ‘learning’ that a player can experience has to do with skill. Take a fighting game like Street Fighter. Knowing the basic controls and combos and being able to execute them at will, is only the absolute minimum of what you need to be able to do on the long and frustrating path to becoming even an adequate player, let alone a master. To win, you need to be faster than the other guy, have better hand-eye coordination, know all of your combos as well as their combos, play mind games, apply reverse psychology and triumph against your own demons of insecurity and doubt. These are qualities that a player can hone and master by practice, trial and error and good coaching. It’s not about knowing what happens next or uncovering how the game was programmed; it’s about developing your own skill.
Of course, all the kinds of learning I talk about above are present in almost every game, to a certain degree. I can think of few games that don’t have any purely predictable events that are simply triggered at certain moments or by certain actions; and we all know that there is a very thin line between experience, skill and talent; practicing excessively will make you better at almost every game, even the ones that aren’t necessarily skill based. The main point I’m trying to make here is that persistency plays an important part in the gameplay because gaining familiarity with a game and getting better at it, generally make†it more fun to play.
So now that we have the ingredients, how do we go about preparing the meal? I don’t want to talk about which games are bad and which ones are good. Just as you have a right to add salt and pepper to your food, so you are entitled to your opinion on which games you like and why. But just as a master chef can awaken the gastronomical connoisseur lying dormant inside you, so can the right tools and insight make you uncover the beauty and brilliance of games that might otherwise have passed you by like a shadow in the night.
I recently had a personal experience with this when I started playing, for the second time, a superb little game called FTL. For those of you who don’t know, FTL is a space sim developed by Subset Games and released in September 2012. By making critical decisions about managing your vessel and fighting battles, you captain a ship through the galaxy with a fleet of enemy vessels on your heels. It is not about using WASD to fly through asteroids or even to aim through a reticle to shoot down enemy ships. The game is about making decisions, choosing your priorities and weighing the pros against cons. The graphics are basic and 2D; simple yet clear and effective; appealing, even though they aren’t high-end or cutting edge. I know of few better examples of games that so easily outline the effectiveness of the Trifecta in establishing great gameplay.
Chance comes into play from the very beginning; with every next battle you fight, you don’t know what kind of enemy unit you’ll be facing or what loot you’ll receive, should you be victorious. In every new map (of the quadrant of the galaxy you’re in), you don’t know if and where there will be a supply station, which atmospheric conditions you’ll encounter that will either hinder you or play in your favor, or how many jumps you’ll need to make to get to the next exit. So much is left to chance (within a limited range of course), that no matter how often you start a new game, there is a perpetual sense of exploration and excitement about what might lie ahead.
The Choices you need to make in the game are consistently imperative and almost always have a longer term impact that you will either regret or celebrate later in the game. Whether you’re outfitting your space ship, choosing the assignments for your crew or deciding which enemy ship’s systems to attack (it’s a good thing you can pause and issue orders in battle!), it always pays to view everything from several angles and keep the consequences of your actions in mind at all times. This plethora of meaningful choices will also evolve into a person’s preferred play style; some players will want to focus on lasers, while others will prefer rockets; some will send out boarding parties while still others will want more layers of shielding for protection. Even though the game becomes pretty tough at some point, and you will notice that some strategies simply won’t work, the game offers so many variables, that any players will automatically and intuitively make the play experience “his own”. This, in turn, not only creates a bond between the immersed player and his virtual crew, but also makes you want to go back and try some of the other options next time you start a new game. As a result, together with the randomness aspect I talked about above, the replay factor of this game is immense.
Persistency is manifested in that you take your spaceship along with you during your journey, and any upgrades you buy and install early in the game, stay with you later in the game. You don’t need to reinvent tech you’ve already discovered, and once you’ve unlocked new ships, you keep those even if you lose a game and decide to restart. So there is definitely a sense of progression in FTL. Despite that, this is the only area in which I feel an improvement might have been warranted. The difficulty of the game in ‘Normal’ mode made me have to start over many times, and there were moments where I wanted to skip the early game and be able to start at a later stage, closer to where I had last left off (there is no saving and loading in FTL). And even though I felt like I was learning, especially after the first 5 or 6 attempts, I finally concluded that there was always going to be that one thing I could not have predicted or prepared for. I didn’t feel like I needed to get better; I felt like I just needed to get lucky, or uncover the secret sauce to completing the game, both of which have little to do with skill.
Getting it right
Let’s take a few steps back. The purpose of this exercise is twofold:
For all our talk about what gameplay is, how to break it down into its components and how to use our understanding of those components to get the most out of a game’s potential, how do we know if we got it right? How do we know if our efforts have, in fact, elevated our experience above that of just an agreeable pastime or engaging activity? If we wanted to simply be entertained, we could watch a movie or read a book (not that those things are a less worthwhile; but they aren’t what we’re pursuing here). What we want is to participate: to be part of the action and to take action ourselves. And not just inter-action. As I mentioned before, we also interact with our iPad when we browse Safari or iTunes, and those actions obviously don’t constitute gameplay. So how do we know if the gameplay was any good?
The trick I use is simple, and that is to ask myself the follwoing questions: Do I need to think, or do I need to remember? Do I need to understand, or do I need to know? Do I need to concentrate and focus, or do I just need to be lucky? If the answer, to any of those questions, is the clearly the former, the then the game has successfully achieved a grand form of interaction: Gameplay. When that happens, playing a game is no longer just a form of escapism or passive entertainment. It has become a true, real-world activity, on par with practicing a sport, cooking or learning a new language. That is what we should be aiming for.
There are many good games out there; far more than I have time to sample. And yet, even as the industry matures, the landscape is still heavily dotted with sequels and popular franchises, many of which can be very fun, but few of which are groundbreaking or will be remembered years after their initial hype dies down. But that is not surprising. Making a game costs a lot of money and there is a lot of competition, so naturally people would rather bend with the breeze of acquiescence, than break in the tempest of revolution.
But what convinces me that there is a midway, is the knowledge that both game developers and players are constantly on the lookout for the next Super Game; the next Half-Life, Civilization or World of Warcraft. Everyone has the same goal, which is to make and play great games that are fun not because they are named after a popular movie, but because they deliver on the promise to which every video game ought to aspire: it’s fun to play. Educating oneself by playing a lot of videogames, talking to and sharing ideas with fellow players and industry professionals will slowly bring us closer to that goal. Perhaps one day, substance will take the place of style in the debate over what’s considered a safe or risky investment. But to reach that point, we need to never stop thinking critically, never rest on our laurels and never stop raising the bar, both in how we work or the videogames on which we choose to spend our hard earned money and free time. My hope is that this article nudges the reader in that direction, even if only a little.