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Games Have An Attention Problem
by Kevin Gliner on 03/19/13 12:57:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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


This post originally appeared in two parts on Point Line Square.

It’s been several years since I first talked about games and attention.  At the time, I noted that games compete for our attention with other games, other media, and interruptions from friends, family and work.  Despite all the advances in friction reduction over the past decade, games are hard pressed to thrive — nevermind get noticed — in this noisy media environment.

Looking ahead, the trendline is not positive.  Content creation costs keep dropping, so the amount of content available keeps rising.  Our choices are unlimited but our time is not.

Traditional solutions to the attention problem fall into two buckets:

  • Reduce friction (a.k.a. the casual solution)
  • Add depth (a.k.a. the hardcore solution)

In general, good casual design affects a player’s willingness to play, while good hardcore design affects their desire to play.


The Casual Solution

The friction reduction method requires games to:

  • Have few barriers to entry
  • Be commitment friendly
  • Be attention span agnostic
  • Have a short build-try-fail loop

That’s all good.  However, while these characteristics reduce friction and increase a player’s willingness to play, they don’t actually generate a desire to play (or to keep playing).  In an effort to meet the requirements above and make the game more accessible, most designers simplify the game’s mechanics and the way those mechanics combine, effectively reducing the play dynamics as well (in the MDA sense).  The result is a shallow product with a small possibility space and little long term retention.

Casual games succeed by demanding less from the consumer — they don’t ask you to sacrifice attention you might prefer to devote to other things, complementing rather than competing with other media.  The best of these products tend to have large audiences with low unit economics and short user life cycles.


The Hardcore Solution

The depth approach, on the other hand, means the game:

  • Has extensive and varied play dynamics
  • Has a lot of content to consume
  • Gives the player a reason to make a deep personal investment (often through persistence, identity and relationships).

Again, a good list.  Games of this type tend to create a strong desire to play.  Unfortunately, they also erect a lot of barriers to someone’s willingness to play.  To create a wide range of play dynamics, many designers simply pile on the game mechanics (i.e. they keep layering on the rules and systems).  That’s a lot for someone to learn and then remember from session to session, and with a lot of mechanics to comprehend, 100% focus is required.  The only players willing to do that are the few that will make a large personal investment in the product.   The result is a deep product with a large possibility space and great long term retention, but it bounces most consumers at the start.

Hardcore products succeed by being more compelling than other media — they ask for your undivided attention and tell you it’s better spent on them than competing options.  High quality hardcore products tend to have small audiences with high unit economics and long user life cycles.


Hardcore + Casual

There’s nothing inherent to these two approaches that makes them incompatible, but you can see how solving for one can easily lead to problems with the other (it doesn’t help that, as an industry, we’ve set up a false dichotomy that places casual and hardcore products at opposite ends of the same spectrum;  mid-core is the latest iteration along these lines).

Much of the problem starts with the game’s mechanics, where most casual games have simple mechanics and simple dynamics, and most hardcore games have complex mechanics and complex dynamics.  There’s a reason for that:  they’re much easier to design and balance (simple dynamics imply a small possibility space, which presents fewer outcomes to balance;  complex mechanics make it easier to isolate systems for independent tuning, particularly when dealing with the large possibility spaces associated with complex dynamics).

What we really want are games with simple mechanics and complex dynamics, because simple mechanics are easy to learn and remember, while complex dynamics are deep and engaging. 

How?  Make better use of emergence in our designs. 


Attention and Emergence

To enable emergent play, a small set of core components are recombined to produce an unlimited number of novel play dynamics.  Here’s what we get with this approach:

  • Simple and easy to understand game mechanics (ideal for casual play)
  • A massive possibility space, with complex dynamics (ideal for hardcore play)

Games of this type avoid rule complexity (and burdensome learning curves/commitment) by working with only a few mechanics.  The rich output gives the game legs and enables deep, engaging play.

The classic example is Go, a game with only two rules but an incredibly varied output in terms of games and play styles.  A modern example would be Magic:  The Gathering and other CCGs.  More recent:  Little Big Planet, Minecraft, The Sims.

Examples of games that are minimally emergent, if at all:  Pac-man, Heavy Rain, the board game Life.

Most game designers are already familiar with emergent concepts, and indeed, all games have some degree of emergent play.  But we tend to shy away from designing heavily emergent systems because the large possibility space is difficult to balance (many designs introduce top-down constraints to control this, like classes in RPGs, but that simply reduces the possibility space and undermines the benefits of an emergent system).

It’s also important to recognize that emergence by itself will not help a game attract players interested in both casual and hardcore play.  To be effective:

  • You really have to constrain the number of core elements and their respective functions.  Many games are deeply emergent but they get there with a crazy amount of rules and systems that undermine any potential for casual play.
  • More output doesn’t mean more choice.  Farmville has great emergence in terms of user expression, but it’s functionally meaningless.  Backyard Monsters’ non-orthogonal design elements lead to a relatively small set of strategic choices (a few dominant play strategies).
  • Emergence doesn’t automatically mean accessible and deeply engaging.  You still have to avoid other annoying frictions (like bad UI design), and a large possibility space isn’t much good if it’s boring.

Ultimately, making stronger use of emergence won’t expand the potential audience for your game:  a player still has to like abstract strategy games if they’re going to play Go.  But it will increase how many of those potential players choose your game over all the other media choices they have at their disposal.

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Chris Clogg
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I'd be interested to know what people think of Diablo 2 vs Diablo 3 with regards to this article. I think Diablo 3 was more accessible and friendly, but many would say that it doesn't have the capacity to be as long-lasting for its players.

Well, I think some parts of Diablo 2 did a great job with the article's premise. An example I would put forth is the horadric cube. It is easy to use and initially you learn some basics about it (through quests and gem-combining). But then for those who care (ie read, you could learn about combining runes, changing item qualities, cow level, tomes, sockets, etc... basically a "large possibility space".

With that in mind though, Diablo 2 has a very slow and unforgiving starting pace compared to modern games (don't even look at Diablo 1 lol). It also throws you into permanent skill selections and stat selections when you may not fully understand the scope of what you are doing. Yet, later on this will lead you to restart and replay; some like this, some don't.

Jimmy Albright
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I don't know what people expected with Diablo 3 honestly. I think they made a mistake by putting the level cap so low, but from an initial design standpoint they were looking at implementing arenas and pvp so it sort of makes sense from that perspective. I ONLY play hardcore in diablo 3, and it's plenty hard enough. I've lost 3 characters in act 4 nightmare. (I play solo on hardcore, generally)

Kevin Gliner
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I didn't play Diablo 3, but the way levels were procedurally generated in the first two games present a good example of "more output doesn't mean more choice". Sure, they were different every time, but they rarely had any meaningful impact on play. Technically emergent, but not usefully so.

Chris Clogg
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Well, I think it does help make the world feel less repetitive (or less hand-drawn), for subsequent replays. But like you said, if the outcome is the same, then it really doesn't help that much other than giving you a slightly different visual path to the same checkpoint.

If each randomly-generated level actually resulted in meaningful change to the game, I wonder if that would be insanely hard for a developer to actually produce? Many games that try to give the player choices end up usually weaving around to 1-2 pre-planned endings. Maybe one day, games will define AI/levels that have certain properties (rather than hard-coded behaviors), and then procedurally let it unfold in front of the player, in whatever way the player goes through it. Or maybe that'll suck compared to a well-written narrative ><

Robert Boyd
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Add a Save Anywhere feature and a lot of classic console-style RPGs fit both the Casual & Hardcore requirements nicely.

Darren Tomlyn
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There is another way...

There is one thing you (and everyone else) is failing to recognise and understand to its full potential, for a very simple reason - you still do not fully understand games in relation to the power and flexibility of a computer as its medium.

Unfortunately, since it's a simple extrapolation of what games are in relation to the capability of computers, since people don't fully understand games, (especially in relation to art, puzzles, competitions, work and play), for a very basic and fundamental reason that I'm working on a blog post about, we're having "problems".

The OP demonstrates one main symptom that I want to point out, though, since it's so widespread - using a word that, which at the level we need to discuss and understand games and their functionality, has no place whatsoever:


This is not the word you are looking for. The reason for that is simple - it's much too general of an effect that makes no distinction between both the types of behaviour we need to understand, and also WHOSE behaviour we need to recognise and understand - ALL of which have to have, or enable, this property in order for a game (as an activity) to exist.

Games, competitions and play (non-productive behaviour), by their very nature are ALWAYS emergent, whereas puzzles, art and work CAN be emergent, though it then depends on WHOSE behaviour you are trying to describe in relation to such a thing, activity and/or state, aswell as each other.

Recognising the difference (for games) between the actions of the player(s), (which must be emergent) and the game/and or it's creator(s) when applicable, (since emergence is then optional), is a MUST.

(Note: there is a difference between play (non-productive behaviour) and play (using an object - (e.g. a musical instrument) - or taking part in an activity (playing music/a game)), and the latter is all that matters here, not the former. (We can (and often do) play (use/take part in) games/music/musical instruments for work (productive reasons.)))

Saying a game is emergent, is like saying an oak table is wood or furniture, when we need to understand the nature of oak and tables in relation to other types of wood and items of furniture in order to understand how and why to design and create them as best and consistently as possible.

Emergence is an effect - a property. What we need to be discussing is its cause - the behaviour (things that happen) that the word game represents an application of in relation to both who and what is behaving and what with and with what specific effects. (The language separates properties and things that happen for a very good reason - games are defined as and by (or should be) the latter, not the former.)

But as I said - there is another way - a way that is based upon one of the main elements (there are three) that defines a game for what it is, that computers (as a medium for games) have the most power and potential to affect and define, (and which we're merely scratching the surface of atm.). This element is what allows us to have the power and flexibility over the game that we and the players (especially), need, in order to offer what you are looking for.

Unfortunately for you, that is what I'm writing my blog for - to lead up to, because without the in-depth understanding and descriptions of games, competitions, art, work and play in relation to each other that I need to share (and much, much more to fully support that), it will never be fully recognised for what is truly possible, and never (well, for a very long time) reach it's full potential. And so I'll have to leave it there...

Well I could - I mean I could just as easily leave you with one simple sentence that explains everything, (or nothing), depending on your understanding and perception of games...

But I'm not sure I should... I think it's too soon - people need to understand the frameworks within which such a thing needs to exist, first - which means understanding the differences of games, puzzles, competitions, (and work and play), in relation to each other...

But it's also really, really tempting - especially since I'm getting bogged down so much with my blog post - I feel the need to try and make some progress, you know? :-/

Nope - I think I'll pass for now... Sorry. I don't think people are ready for it, yet.

Scott Sheppard
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While I appreciate the idea of trying to explain your theories on game design in depth... this reply only came across as arrogant, especially since you ended it with a general insult about the entire world's intelligence. Was that your goal?

Curtiss Murphy
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Really bro? Step off dat horse. It's too high for you.

@OP - Clear, easily consumed ideas that gave me some things to ponder.

Scott Sheppard
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grr... accidental Double Post.

Darren Tomlyn
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Just wait and see what I've figured out...

Things have to be done in a particular order that is consistent with how things function - teaching based on the effect, or dealing with such effects in isolation of the cause is a recipe for the problems we already have.

Sorry about the bit at the end, but I was seriously thinking about it, and still am. Your replies, however, merely confirm why I feel people simply are not ready for it when designing and creating games (especially for and using computers.)

The problem with emergence, however, is true. If you don't understand why, then you've got far bigger problems - which, of course, is where my next blog-post comes in.

Hint: (Probably/almost certainly) EVERY dictionary, encyclopedia, language textbook and most language lessons/courses in existence will have to be re-written/created from scratch. (What I have is a nuke: flatten almost everything and start again - merely making a few tweaks here and there will not work.)

Yep - humanity has really screwed up for it's entire existence so far in its understanding of language.

The problem that we consider words such as game, art, puzzle, competition, work and play, (along with probably many, many others, (without us realising it)), exist as symptoms of, (especially in relation to each other, (which is a big hint as to the nature of the underlying problem)), is as basic, simple, fundamental, and blindingly obvious (once you see it) as it gets.

And such relationships, in combination with their basic definitions and the basic rules of grammar (hint), underpin the problems with using the word emergence in the post above.

But this is all why, sans help, I have to do my best to describe both the problem and (at least) it's basic, fundamental symptoms (both in general and for the English language) as best as I possibly can - which is taking time. (Months.) (The last professor of linguistics (from Cambridge) I talked to, told me to write it up, and didn't argue with what I had - (Neil Mercer) - even though he's not really in a position to offer much in the way of help (yet), though since I'm (trying) to write it up, anyway...).

I feel it's much better to do this right/as best as I possibly can, than do it quickly. But it's also hard for some very specific reasons that are linked to the nature of the problem itself - describing things/information we don't have words to represent (but should).

It's taken me ~8 years to fully figure all this out - and I now know that many of the opinions people have had of what I've been describing, are not just wrong, but blatantly wrong - i.e. if they were right, English (and language in general) wouldn't exist, because the definition doesn't match what they're describing - which is not a good place to be, especially if you're involved in the teaching of language at all...

I feel like Einstein looking at the universe after realising his basic theory of relativity - except this is for language, and unlike Einstein, (apart from the fact I'm not a genius), I had to do this all by myself, without any previous studies and information or resources to go on, other than my basic language teaching, perception and experience of its use. Thankfully, such is the nature of the problem(s), that that is pretty much all that is required to recognise and understand them - people just need to be informed...

I wouldn't like to say that it's intelligence that's the problem with this - but the basic perception and understanding of language that such intelligence is being applied to, because it 'feels' natural, and is also being taught in such a manner. (Everything is currently caught in a negative feedback loop, which is why it all needs to be fixed asap.) What I did have a problem with is when I described something basic and obvious and people still didn't understand - but what I have now underpins all that, anyway, and so everything can now be built up in a complete and consistent manner.

And if they don't understand what I have now, then they can *never* understand language. (Note: know and understand are two different things, here.)

This is all about cause and effect. If I don't start with the cause, nothing else will ever make full sense.

Though it's still really tempting to see how limited people's perceptions of such a thing would be if I did, at this time - (especially for games). And limited they would be, which is a problem, because I see something you all do not, that is required to understand how and why it is possible to do so much more for (especially computer) games than we currently are:

The big picture.

But none of you seemed to be very curious about that, anyway, so obviously you don't care... And if you don't care about things such as this, then you obviously don't deserve to know (right now) in the first place.

Kevin Gliner
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@Darren Tomlyn: You are correct that emergence is a property of all games (as noted in the original post). My point, however, was not its presence but its prevalence. We tend to build games that are minimally emergent due to the way we design the underlying mechanics, or when we do build heavily emergent games we get there only by going overboard on those mechanics.

As for theories about games: while there's no universally accepted explanation for how games work (or how we should talk about them), there have been some excellent contributions to the field over the years (the MDA Framework referenced in the original post is one of my favorites, but everyone from Crawford to Koster has had something useful to say). I look forward to reading what you have to offer when its ready.

@Robert Boyd: that's a good feature that would help, but it doesn't speak to complexity issues (i.e. too complex to play casually, even if you can save at any time).

Darren Tomlyn
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But emergence is still not precise enough. I just want you to understand WHY... Once you do that, you'll be in a much better position to examine and understand exactly what is HAPPENING, how, and why - regardless of what property it happens to have, as an effect, which is incidental.

As far as current theories for games are concerned - again, they're either far too specific, or inconsistent as a matter of language, for what we require. But until people understand what it is we truly need, nothing will improve to the point where everything makes sense.

Which is why the basic problem we have with games, is a matter of linguistics, nothing more.

How we use the language to describe itself, is one of the biggest problems we currently have, and the word game is a direct symptom of this. Unfortunately, the word game has become affected by, and confused for, many other words, such as art, competition, puzzle and play - (work is more of an effect of the problem with play, than related directly to game etc.), which helps makes people's more general perceptions of games inconsistent in relation to such things, (and the rest of the language).

The problem with games, and our current perception, is that confusing them with and for puzzles, competitions, works of art, and play (non-productive), dramatically limits our understanding and potential of what they can be and achieve, especially in relation to the use of computers.

The additional manner by which what you want can be achieved, already exists, but in such a limited manner, for some of these reasons - even though its potential and scope for computer games, is vast. (People truly don't understand it's basic premise and role). Which is why I'm loathe to describe it now, as basic and simple, (and unlimited (in isolation)), as it is, and can be.

Which is also why I'm tempted - just as an experiment - to see just how limited other people's perceptions and understanding of it, truly is at this time.