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June 17, 2019
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"What, not How" - A goal centered approach to player motivation

by Asher Einhorn on 05/29/15 03:03:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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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.


How often have we played games lamenting how linear they are, frustrated by how bluntly we are lead by the nose down a path with little opportunity to explore or forge our own path.


The interesting thing is that many games don't start out this way, often designers have all the best intentions of letting the player explore, but unfortunately this is the first thing to go when deadlines loom and playtesters are lost wondering where to head next.


The reason for this however is often more low-level and more fundamental than we think, and often boils down to three things:

  1. The lack of a clearly communicated, overarching goal

  2. A failing in communication of how each sub-objective will lead to that goal

  3. Misunderstanding playtest data


In the Disney Infinity: Pirates of the Caribbean adventure, the very first island you reach has you carving a very linear path towards a goal which is eventually to rescue Mr. Gibbs, your sidekick for the rest of the game. The game leads you from mission start to mission end with no deviation and while in many ways the sequence is quite successful, it does rob you of some very fundamental things - namely exploration and agency.


This is the flow of the aforementioned flow, again the problem being less that it is linear, and more that the player is never being asked what they want to do, or told why they are doing it.


The fix for this example is relatively simple - the first mission we give should not be the first that gets completed but the LAST. We tell the player upon arriving that the goal is to rescue Gibbs and we show them his place locked in the tower. After that the player is free to explore and find all the elements that block them from getting to that objective before attempting to overcome them.


This flow is supposed to represent three missions which each unlock part of the way to the main objective, but remember these don’t need to be literal gates, nor do they need to be sequential. The unlock might be a tool or even a piece of knowledge the player needs to progress.


This simple change gives us so much:

  • We give the player agency - they are deciding what they need to do to solve the puzzle. It may be they only need some of the required components to progress.

  • We allow the player the freedom to explore - a fundamental part of games as a medium.

  • The player can tackle each task in their preferred order.

  • Gives them satisfaction that they have observed a problem and divined a solution, and not simply been lead to it.

  • It is easier to playtest each mission without having to first unlock the others.


We as designers may know that completing one mission will trigger an event that allows us to take on the next and that eventually at the end of this chain of missions we will reach our goal - but the player does not have access to our brains or our design documents. There must be a clear reason why the player should even attempt a mission. In actual fact as players we expect this too, and it’s easy to forget that this is actually bad design. Very simply - we should have motivation to be doing what they game is asking of us.


In linear games this is the difference between feeling like a true protagonist and simply feeling we are along for the ride, dutifully performing each task as they are presented without really understanding why.


In open world games it is downright fundamental - you want the player to take on the tasks that will help them achieve their goal, and not simply blindly attempt missions until one happens to unlock the next mainline story beat, seemingly at random.


Lacking these, games often fall back on brute force techniques like simply showing the player where to go with a HUD element or heavily gating each section when the real root of the problem is that players simply don't understand their overall goal.


From the macro to the micro - don't rob the player of the joy of exploration and discovery, whether this is which mission to attempt next or something as simple as which route to take when climbing up a tower. Don't point them to the next ledge, point them to the very top and have them try and work out how to get there.

What, not How. You tell the player what to do, but not how to do it.

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