1. How a player perceives the structure of a game, concerning its game design, level design, and art design.
You may not know it, but every game has a "gameplay groove". Interestingly, it isn't something a game designer explicitly designs. It's something the players themselves create within their own minds as they go through the experience.
I'll give you an example, to start this article off with a bang. In Metroid games, a player understands that any wall could mean Morph Ball passages. They then go to each room in the game and Bomb every available inch, in search of those rare secret passages. Now, fast forward to the 5-hour mark. Finding the secret passages has now become a mechanical task within the player's mind, scanning and bombing every wall in the game in hopes of finding a new secret passage. However, there's not much thought behind the whole process. In many ways, it's a soulless task, taking away any immersion the game might have had. The player then tries to decipher the game's level design techniques, making the experience even more mechanical.
But oddly, this is not what a player thinks about when first starting the game. Most players are absorbed into the game, taking anything it throws at them, in part because it lacks any kind of definable structure. The possibilities are endless at the very beginning of the game. Players won't know what to expect from it, as they have not been given its definition. It's a far wondrous experience when its existence is ethereal, lacking any semblance of a gameplay structure. When I played Cave Story, I felt that feeling when starting the game for the first time. I knew nothing about Cave Story before playing the WiiWare version, and I was excited to experience it in a fresh way.
However, there's a clear distinction between learning the game and performing within the game's ruleset after they're established. At the beginning, most narrative-based games like Metroid or Halo start off with simple interactions, introducing the game's rules and design as the player interacts within its universe. Metroid Prime's Space Frigate level explains how to use the Scan Visor, how to lock onto enemies, and how to turn into a Morph Ball to solve puzzles and get Samus through tight spaces. When a player first learns this stuff, it feels very organic. They're experiencing something interesting for the first time. They don't really say to themselves "That's going to be something I need to think about for the next 20-30 hours." It just feels cool.
However, play the game for 5 more hours, and you'll find yourself in what I call the "gameplay groove." The player knows exactly what must be done to progress in the game. Continuing with the example of Metroid Prime, a player learns that the game's level design is broken up into rooms, with certain sections blocked off. To overcome these obstacles, the player must search for the power-up that opens the way. New areas lead to new blocked-off areas, which again lead to new power-ups. This happens throughout the entire game's experience, and this is what the player expects to happen. Each section and power-up is different, but the core structure of the game is set in stone for most of the game's length. The player is taught this in the first few hours of the game, and then expects it to continue until the end. Players willingly put themselves into the gameplay groove. But why?
Well, the gameplay groove is a very comfortable place for the player. What they expect is then given to them. They can then plan their attack when they know a Boss Battle is right around the corner. Another example is The Legend of Zelda. Each dungeon consists of retrieving small keys, a map, a compass, a new item, and the boss key. It's been that structure since the original NES title. We all feel comfortable when earning these items, as it's something we know. Knowing is a very powerful motivator. Think about Super Mario Bros.: 8 worlds, each with 4 levels, with the last level in each world a battle against Bowser. At this point it's an iconic representation of a Mario game, and we feel hugely comfortable in knowing how the game is structured. We KNOW what makes a Mario game, and that's half the enjoyment for some players.
Now, this is the macro view of the gameplay groove. This concerns what the player expects and perceives the game to be on a broader level. Zelda is traversing a giant land, finding a dungeon, earning a new item, defeating a Boss, and then doing it all over again until you defeat Ganon. That's the bare essentials the player is thinking about. It's something I used to call "list games." Ocarina of Time tells you that you first must find three Gems to open the Temple of Time's door to earn the Master Sword. After that, they tell you that you must awaken the 5 Sages to defeat Ganondorf. A more recent example is BioShock 2. At the very beginning of the game, the player learns about the Subway system. Each level is a stop on the map, with each stop creating some reason as to why the player can't go to the next one yet. The player essentially assumes the rest of the game from the very beginning with this kind of macro-level gameplay groove.
This is how level design makes its way into the definition of gameplay groove. A level designer had to sit down and plot that scenario out, and commit it to paper. In the example of BioShock 2, the level designers even went as far as to explain the system visually with the Subway map, where each dot is a stop on the line. You can then count how many levels a player has to beat in order to complete the game. This is then the form the player computes in his or her mind. Get to a stop, defeat the area by retrieving the key, go back to the subway station, open the next area with the key, proceed to the next area, repeat. As you can see, it's a simple structure to decipher.
The macro-gameplay groove is the bare essentials the player has to compute within his or her mind to define the game, and that's what they involuntarily think about when they go through the game. Now, the examples given define their macro-gameplay groove quite blatantly, but not every game does that. Some games are a bit more organic with their macro-gameplay grooves. One example is Half-Life, where the game doesn't have an easily-definable structure. The player goes from area to area, defeating the enemies he encounters. Sometimes there's a puzzle he has to solve, but it's nothing consistent, especially when the level design varies greatly from area to area. The fact that they go from area to area is a macro-gameplay groove, but the pacing is much more organic, to the point where the macro-gameplay groove is transparent.
However, this game has another gameplay groove: the micro-level gameplay groove. This is the core system a player thinks about when playing the game, the nitty-gritty as it were. This involves low-level brain interpretation, where the player takes the forms the game throws at him/her through level, art, and game design. One example is Gears of War. When Marcus Fenix reaches certain sections of the game, waves of enemies come out and attack him. Now, the way the player interacts is by finding cover and attacking back. So, what the player must do is find what constitutes as cover and get behind it. Cover is defined as walls, tables, burnt-out cars, etc. As I said before, when a player first learns this, it's a great experience, feeling very organic and fresh. But do this activity for hours on end, and a player's brain boils it down to the bare essentials. Take a look at this picture:
Before a player actually plays Gears of War, they're coming up with different emotions based on the ensuing action provided by this picture (which are usually supplied to gamers through the press, to get them interested in the game). They'll come up with their own version of the game's narrative, they'll come up with their own game designs, but all that will change when they get into Gears of War's micro-gameplay groove, when they actually play the game. It then boils down to what constitutes as cover and the player acts solely on that fact. If you look at the picture now, with that in mind, you specifically see the walls, the couch, the pillars and the enemies. That's it. You're generally not caring about the overall experience of Gears of War when this happens, or even things like graphical presentation. You're acting on the game design solely, in a very mechanical/binary fashion.
Everything is reduced to its simplest form in your brain. Beautiful walls with years of history become cover spots 1-7. It doesn't matter what the context of these walls are; they're there for you to act upon the game's mechanics, nothing more. As I've reiterated before, this is not at all what the player thinks about when first starting the game. There's far more context and simple awe to the game when the player learns the game's ruleset and interacts with the game's universe for the first time. Once that's done with and the player needs to beat the game's challenges, the gameplay groove takes over, and this is where the organic/fresh feeling disappears completely.
Here's another picture:
This is THQ/Vigil Games' Darksiders. I've only played the demo, so I have not been accustomed to its gameplay groove just yet, so this picture is a bit mysterious to me. But what about you? What are you thinking about when you see this picture? It looks typically epic for a PR-supplied screenshot, with War riding on a bad-ass looking horse while firing at an enemy. Now, play the game for 5 hours. When you're up to that point, come back and look at this photo again, and I'm sure your interpretation of this screen will change dramatically, directly based on you getting into Darksiders' gameplay groove.
Why is this something to talk about? Because it's what the player is actually doing, in a mental sense. His/her eyes are taking the information on the screen and reducing it to its core components. A game designer defines the rules the player must follow, their interactions, but I don't think designers have considered the effects of their designs on a more intimate level when the game turns into a 20-30 hour experience. They assume a 3rd-person shooter with cover mechanics will be a fun interaction for a player, but what happens to the player when that simple interaction is repeated over and over again? Is that fun? And is there some way to extend the initial feeling a player has, with minimizing the inevitable, soulless gameplay groove?
Now, I will say that most game designers are demanded to supply a marketable number of gameplay hours for their game, to help with sales, so they don't really have the ability to ask themselves such a question. But it's something that should always be in their minds regardless, to really know what a player is thinking about when he/she plays their games.
And this also affects how players appreciate the other parts of the game, like art and narrative. Think of those previous screens. When deep into the gameplay-groove, little details like the couch and the fire coming from War's horse get pushed aside in the player's mind. It's not something he/she needs to worry about when entrenched in the gameplay groove, which is unfortunate, because artists/writers/designers/coders put a good amount of time into creating those little details, and it's troublesome to see how the gameplay groove can divert a player's attention away from these special additions.
But let me just say that this idea is something new to me, and from what I've read, for most people in the games industry as well. I'm still learning the effects the gameplay groove has on player experiences. For example, games like GTA and Just Cause supply user-defined gameplay grooves, where the players themselves get to decide what to think about when playing the game. Are you a car-combat player or an on-foot player? Think of Deus Ex especially, where the core message of the game was to give players the tools to complete the game in their own way. Depending on which style you choose, you'll get into a different gameplay groove, which is probably why these games are so liberating and enjoyable for so many players. They can be whatever the player wants them to be, with micro-level gameplay grooves defined by the players themselves. Of course there's a finite number of gameplay grooves a sandbox game can create, but it's more than the one the majority of games create.
Another interesting side effect of the gameplay groove is when going back to older games. Most players want to experience the game fresh all over again, with the same feelings they first had when experiencing the game those many years ago. But that can never happen, as they've beaten the game already (possibly more than once), so all they're going to see are the forms and structures their brain created when first getting into its gameplay groove. However, it's even less fresh now, where even the beginning of the game is reduced down to its bare essentials. That's one of the reasons why people say older games are never as entertaining as newer ones. New games supply a gameplay groove to learn and experience, whereas old games have their gameplay groove known and experienced to its fullest. There's very little incentive in playing older games with that fact known.
The only way old games can be as entertaining is if they introduce something a player didn't experience before, like an unknown difficulty with new techniques and strategies to learn. One example is the Devil May Cry series, with their various difficulties that up the ante considerably in terms of enemy AI. Another example would be Goldeneye, with its 00 Agent difficulty, where it adds new objectives to complete. The player has to possibly find new gameplay grooves to complete these difficulties.
Another interesting aspect of gameplay groove is when there is no noticeable gameplay groove, even though the player has been playing the game for several hours. I had trouble getting into Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion because there didn't seem to be any structure to latch onto. I have all these stats, but do I need them all to be maxed out to beat and enjoy the game? I have 3 Guilds to join, but what's the reasoning behind choosing one over the other? There were too many questions with very few answers in Oblivion for me. There was a gameplay groove in that game, but its existence was something I had to search for, and I was unwilling to do so.
And that's another part to this equation. It sounds like the gameplay groove is something that takes the game's soul away, but if there was no gameplay groove at all, then it would be too open-ended for a player to define, leaving them a bit bewildered. Of course, that was my experience with Oblivion. I'm sure many others had better experiences, where they grasped onto a gameplay groove that helped carry them through the rest of the game. But it's interesting to see that gameplay grooves are something that enhance the experience, or at the very least make it a cohesive one.
My hypothesis is that the less blatant the macro-gameplay groove, the more immersive the experience becomes, as it masks any designed structure the player may pick up on. However, there needs to be some form of gameplay groove, to give players control over the experience as a whole, which was something Oblivion lacked (again, for me). Best advice is to design a structure, but not to make it a blatant one. One example: there shouldn't have been a Subway map in BioShock 2, to hide the gameplay groove from the player. Keep the system, but reduce its visibility.
As for the micro-gameplay groove, it would be hard to reduce its effects, seeing as how it's basically "the game". One suggestion would be to continue to introduce new mechanics, where the gameplay groove takes on different forms at certain points in the game. One recent example is Final Fantasy XIII. Square-Enix chopped up the battle system into smaller chunks when explaining it to the player, and only fully explained the entire system maybe 5 hours into the game. Before knowing the full system, the player assumed what they knew WAS the full system, creating their desired gameplay grooves in the process. However, after learning a new aspect of the battle system (like Paradigm Shifts), the player would get the chance to create a new gameplay groove, possibly feeling that fresh/organic feeling he felt earlier in the game.
But, of course, a game needs to define its micro-gameplay groove at some point, otherwise the entire game is just one big tutorial. I'm sure most players will get annoyed at constantly needing to learn a new mechanic, so a designer must balance out both aspects.
But the fact is that video games are designed to be beaten, and the player can only do that by following its rules. The game is essentially an exercise in following these rules, with a few of them being elaborated upon for variety's sake. The game can't supply something that doesn't follow its own rules, otherwise the player will become confused and simply give up. This makes it seem that gameplay grooves are inevitable, it's just what happens to a game when the brain experiences it for a given length of time. It's probably true, but as I've talked about earlier, designers can at the very least reduce the visibility of these mechanical aspects, to give the player the ability to immerse themselves in the game's universe just a little bit more.
Anyway, those are my ideas on the interestingly-named “gameplay groove”. Hopefully this was something new to you as well, and I'm not just reiterating a gameplay groove someone already defined:)
I actually have another piece of advice: cherish the time you're not in the gameplay groove.