Yesterday, while driving hundreds and hundreds of miles from Las Vegas, Nevada back home to Berkeley, California, I talked game mechanics with my patient, intelligent non-gamer girlfriend. I struggle to debate from beliefs that are largely rooted in intuition. When I'm in situations with perceptive adversaries (such as my girlfriend), I find myself forced to narrow down my broad abstract answers, tearing apart my definitions and revising them until I always find that, no matter what part of the universe we're talking about, everything is always grey.
I argued with my sparring partner for awhile with a new term I had devised in my head: game calories, or galories, or gCals. (Yes, all of these names are bad.) This term was rooted in my frustration with shifting meaning and importance of what we as developers are striving to create. I had this idea in my head that we have entered this phase of giving the player everything the player wants without that actually being good. We're feeding players empty calories, I declared. I had been hearing the ominous words of Jon Blow warning against achievements. Such true words they were to a designer such as myself. Mechanics are everything! Scew achievements.
Farmville, I strained to argue, was successful, but not healthy. It was like drinking Coke or Pepsi. Sugary, feeding us, and pulling in new gamers to all of our detriment. The game industry has confidently asserted the beauty of metrics at the heart of such successes as Farmville. Every dialog box and daily lottery is tested and refined. But cereal companies use focus-testing and metrics in their marketing of crap. (Admittedly, I have Cocoa Puffs and Cocoa Krispies waiting for me in my apartment.)
The mechanics of giving people just what they want was not healthy, I told my skeptical girlfriend. Players were being fed shallow meaningless mechanics that addicted them without being good for them. Without meaningful reward, or perhaps with too much reward. We need to stop giving players Big Macs, I said, and strive, as an industry, to feed people their vegetables for long-term health.
She spoke then, and demanded clarification for how I could call a mechanic rewarding or not rewarding. She liked mindless fun at times. How could I declare one mechanic or another meaningless or not rewarding or anything of the sort? What made a game of mindless fun bad? I thought for a moment.
In Vegas, we had played slots, video poker, real roulette, and real blackjack. She had never been to Vegas before. (We didn't touch craps because I had forgotten all of the rules.) Farmville, I declared, was like slots. With slot machines, you pull the lever, and wait to find out if you've won. In Farmville you plant seeds and wait for stuff to grow so you can rack up points. And the game rewards you constantly. You get coins, you're encouraged and rewarded for friends playing, you're rewarded for adding stuff to your farm. Reward, reward, reward for pushing the plant/harvest seed button. Something like Thief, on the other hand, was blackjack. A subtle game of player vs. chance. Your decisions are central. Blackjack at a casino has this incredible social tension because if you take or don't draw a card, you are affecting the next players and, even more importantly, the dealer, who determines whether everyone wins or not. Strong dynamic play; like Thief and its nuanced gameplay.
But even as I successfully convinced my girlfriend of the sameness of Farmville and slot machines, I began to second-guess myself. Players do have choice in Farmville. And though that choice is just which crops to plant or what hay-bale to place where, I do not know that I can say Farmville is as simple as a slot machine. So I rescinded my declaration and I withdrew as much as I could in the drivers seat a foot away from my girlfriend as she graded papers in the passenger seat.
It was then that I arrived at the same conclusion I always arrive at with any subject: the mechanics and methods within Farmville are not bad in of themselves, they are grey with possibility. The problem I have, instead, is that, in all types of games, including Farmville, we are seeing a trend toward unhealthy mechanics. Much of our core interactions with the game are sugary and addictive, most are not productive.
So when I say good and bad calories, or fatty games or healthy ones, what do I mean?
A healthy mechanic engages us on a physical and/or mental level. Playing Tetris, the dual element of analysis of the board with the timer of each piece dropping to take its place. In Farmville, the planting of crops that are most effective in generating income and being done when you'll next play the game while balancing looks and personality in your gamespace. The slow mental discovery of what your actions mean in Every Day the Same Dream. In Asassin's Creed, the mental freedom and urge to explore when you stand on a minaret with a whole world ready to respond to your pokes and prods. These engage us, in what I believe to contain meaningful play.
On the other hand, are you handing your players unhealthy reward for just playing your game? Are there achievements every five minutes? I did some quick research and found this three-year-old article discussing that achievements sell games. The article also contends that the games are better productions as well. But then everyone joined the wagon. Rewarding your player just for playing your game can become unhealthy. I don't play many achievement-heavy games, but I'm sure you can tell me of some that have bothered you. And what about handing coins to your player just for starting the game? I find that unhealthy. That's what bothers me about Farmville. Not planting a farm, the fact that I'm not rewarded for how I run my farm, just rewarded for running it at all.
Other games stand on the razor's edge. In The World Ends With You they actually support your not playing the game. When you don't play for several hours or days, the game starts to accrue experience, and when you return you're given a reward directly related to how long you've been away. Please come back eventually, but no hurry. It's a clever mechanic that I think successfully skirts the line of healthy and unhealthy.
When making a game, when you are thinking about the moment to moment joys of the game, are you thinking about core or fluff? Are you just frosting a tasteless cake? (Oh this metaphor. But seriously.) The most important part of any game is the core loop, and how you give the player opportunity and choice to interact with the system you've made. Are you thinking about that? Are you providing depth or meaning to your gameworld? Are you giving the player power or limiting it for a purpose? And how are you framing the moments outside of the main loop? Are you rewarding every new crate opened with five minutes of joyful exposition? Or are you getting back to the game itself and challenging the player? Does your daily lottery really matter to the player or is it just a meaningless reward that drops a spoonful of sugar into your yogurt?
My girlfriend said that donuts will always exist, and to just deny their existence will bring no absolution. I agree, give a player a donut, but I also want to encourage you as developers, don't be afraid to cut up some fruit, scramble some eggs, and maybe add a glass of milk to the breakfast before you serve it to your players.
*Edited Sunday, March 27th, 11am
Randy works on games and games and games, tweets, and has a website that he has neglected to update lately.