"The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, discoverer of the flow concept
I've been thinking about flow a lot lately. It's that nebulous but beautiful concept of a perfect space in game design, one where players feel completely at ease with the level of challenge, where a game has so completely enveloped a player that even when they've left the game a part of them remains playing. It is the point where the game design breaks down the intrinsic barrier of the screen and the player.
Flow is what lends a game its quality of timelessness. A game that has perfect flow is a game that will be played for years, if not decades. If there was ever a quality of games that made them stick in people's minds, that inspired obsession to the point of dreams, it's the quality of flow. A game with flow is a game that has been made with true consideration for the player, and it shows in every design decision. Nothing is unneeded, everything is perfectly congruent within the framework of the game's design. The difference between a game designed without flow in mind and a game designed with flow in mind can also be the difference between one license floundering and one license rising to be a multi-billion dollar franchise. A deeper explanation of flow in games can be found here.
Now, there's been a spate of research on the idea of the flow state, particularly when it comes to musical and athletic performance, but there is a lack of understanding of extrinsic methods to elicit the flow state, with nearly all attention given to the phenomena of the flow state itself. This is a problem for designers, who would benefit tremendously from.
Csikszentmihalyi's 10 points have no doubt been mentioned countless times in lectures and game theory talks, but I'm going to reiterate them one more time. Generally, 4 or 3 of his points are usually used when desicribing flow in a gameplay sense, but I like to look at all 10 of them as he gave in his TED talk. The ten points of flow, as defined by Csikszentmihalyi are:
Just because we understand the elements that indicate flow does not mean that we really understand how to elicit flow. Half of these could be a part of any top 10 list on how to make your game better, or things to focus on when designing a fun game. Clear goals and a good balance between challenge and ease? Sound advice no matter what you're designing. But some of the points are vague and lack any kind of easy answer. Making an activity intrinsically rewarding? Loss of feelings of self-consciousness? Fulfilling all 10 aspects of flow is not an easy goal, but it is one that I believe game designers are particularly gifted at.
Games, as far as I can tell, represent the only form in the world where extrinsic study of people enter flow is of interest. Flow in music, sports, art, anything else is all centered around the qualities of people actually entering the flow state, the physiological effects and performance effects rather than the factors that might be allowing them to slip into that state.
It should also be noted that this is specific to games rather than any other kind of media. A brilliant, compelling film can enthrall its audience, but it is still a passive activity and thus cannot fulfill every requirement for entering flow state.
So, sitting down to think about this, we can look at flow from an analytic perspective. What are the games that embody flow? Who are the developers that have shown a mastery flow? These are not easy questions because flow itself is not a precise metric. You can observe it, you can know when mechanics are just working and people are falling into flow, but you can't really measure it. You either have it or you don't.
Flow is not the use of psychological techniques to develop addictive systems. Flow is not World of Warcraft's appeal to the reptilian brain as a way to eke out a few more months' playtime. Flow is not the use of shiny things and a shallow sense of accomplishment to entice players to spend a few more dollars on a monthly subscription or on a powerup in the in-game store. Flow is not tied to any sort of endogenous value within the game and the player's motivations are simply to keep playing for the sake and joy of playing in and of itself.
A few People, Companies, and the Games they made that exemplify the Flow State.
While there are no doubt hundreds of games and developers that could be pointed to as having amazing, elegant flow, here are a few recent ones that have stood out to me as being particularly exceptional.
Terry Cavanagh, VVVVVV, Super Hexagon- The creator of VVVVVV and Super Hexagon has spoken at length on his process of making games. A prolific indie developer, his methodology is a living example of what it means to 'follow the fun' in games, be it in the form of an MMO where every plays as cats, or an abstract game of dodging ever encroaching walls. They are case studies of minimalist game design that show how the simplest games can be elevated by extreme consideration for flow.
Cactus, Hotline Miami - There hasn't been a game quite like Hotline in a long time, a game that pushes you to play very smart until you've failed enough times to start playing stupidly, which usually leads to a successful completion. Hotline Miami is an extremely elegant game, in its own sick, bloody way. So many things are done right, from the controls to the satisfying feel in executing an enemy, to the whirlwind pace that never lets up.
Gaijin Games, Bit.Trip.Beat, Bit.Trip.Runner - Creators of the Bit.Trip series, their games are all noted for their simple, almost rhythm based gameplay and clean, hypnotic aesthetics.
Team Meat, Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac - Edmund Mcmillen and Tommy Refenes, like Terry Cavanagh, have written on the process of making games as well as difficulty in games and how it contributes to flow. Super Meat Boy is a textbook example of a game that does everything in its power to alleviate the frustration of its intense difficulty curve.
Valve, Portal 2, Half-Life 2 - No list would be complete without Valve. The gaming titan has been known to spend months working and reworking levels with the express intention of making sure that they get their flow absolutely right, working to make sure that players never feel lost, never feel helpless, and never feel bored.
Derek Yu, Spelunky - Spelunky is, in my opinion, one of best designed 'cruel' games of all time. It's a difficult game, but one that, like many other of the games mentioned in this list, pulls off the amazing feat of never making it feel like it was the game's fault. Every death in Spelunky rests firmly on your shoulders, on your miscalculation, on your impatience, which only makes you want to jump right back even after your 20th death. The kind of risk assessment you make as you run through a level of Spelunky rivals that of Dark Souls.
That Game Company, Flow, Flower, Journey - Considering they actually had a game called Flow, it would be ludicrous to not include them on this list. TGC's games have always tried to hit that sweet spot where players can fall into the game, to varying degrees of success. One cannot fault their well thought out art design, gameplay, and music or the nobility of their design philosophy and Journey stands as on the great achievements in the art of making games.
Tom Sennet and Matt Thorson, Runman: Race Around the World - Runman is a great example of how flow can emerge from the weirdest combinations. The game looks like it was made with Microsoft Paint and a soundtrack made up of 1920s jazz and blues, but they both work so perfectly with the pace of the game, especially during the boss fights. It's a wonderful example of how even disparate elements, as long as they are in balance with one another, can create an amazing flow experience.
The list could go on and on, and I offer apology to every developer I couldn't mention. What would a list like this be without other greats like Everyday Shooter, Noitu Love 2, Tetris, Mr.Pac-Man, Plants vs. Zombies, Canabalt, Geometry Wars, Smash Brothers, Street Fighter 2, DDR, and countless others? What I do hope this list articulates is that flow comes in many forms, and that while every game is different, there are recurring elements that nearly every game could benefit from.
Smart Recurring Design Choices
Here we are, the meat of this whole article. These are some of the elements that I have seen recur over and over and over again and the ones that I've tried to internalize whenever I think about designing games. I also try to keep in mind games that bothered me, or did things that particularly broke the feeling of flow, to make sure that I never repeat their same mistake. I should also say that some of these will not work for everyone. Because these are the games that stuck out to me and mean something special to me, they are roughly the kind of games that I would like to design. No game will ever be the perfect balance of flow for every player.
1. Making it Clear and Colorful
What most of the games so far mentioned have in common is a sense of complementary audio and visual design. These games are both easy to understand visually, which means clear communication, which means less frustration.
Visual simplicity also plays a part in flow. The brain is limited in its ability to process information, which means that an economy of how much you're showing on screen is necessary to making sure the players never get frustrated with the information presented to them. This applies to both the HUD and the actual stuff happening in the game. This can be exceptionally annoying in strategy games and RTSs, where sometimes an entire cluster of units can be lost simply because the alert was buried under a pile of competing information.
In a game like Super Meat Boy or Spelunky, everything in the game is clear and distinguishable. There's not a single enemy or obstacle you can point to and say, "Well, I just died because I couldn't see it." What we know, we can prepare for, and when we are given the chance to prepare for something, we feel in control.
2. Strategic Music
While it depends heavily on the game, some games can be made lesser or greater by the music employed. Hotline Miami would not be the game it is if it weren't for its amazing soundtrack. Runman wouldn't nearly be as fun and happy a game as it is without Blind Blake and Django Reinhardt crooning at you. Obviously, the use of music in a game is as much an artistic choice as any other, and doesn't necessarily need to be chosen in the service of flow, but there is something to be said about tactfully chosen music.
Remember what I said about trancing out to an amazing album? There's really something to that, and to ignore the effects of music on flow, specifically the timelessness and serenity aspects of flow would be short-sighted, at best.
3. Low Entry, High Ceiling
Many of the games I mentioned have a low barrier of entry, but a very high mastery ceiling. Many of them, in fact, could be beaten on a player's first try. A player with superhuman reflexes could theoretically breeze through Super Hexagon and Super Meat Boy, while a player with extreme self-control could beat Spelunky or Bit.Trip.Runner without dying. The players have a remarkable amount of control, and movement can be precision controlled down to the pixel (Again, control alleviates frustration).
This is nearly impossible, of course, but the point still stands that many of these games are built on mechanics that are simple to grasp but with high ceilings for what the player can accomplish with those mechanics. Everyone can play, but mastery will take time. That time, of course, will be
Competitive games occupy an odd zone here because it's hard to get into flow unless you're competing against people who are roughly your equal in terms of skills, which is why having accurate matchmaking can make or break any online multiplayer;no matter how well you've designed the actual fighting engine, it's never fun to wait in queue only to be demolished a by a player with 10 times your experience and no chance to really learn or improve.
Games like Dwarf Fortress, Paradox Games, and some competitive games like DOTA 2 and Third Strike all have the problem of requiring an extremely high amount of foreknowledge in order to play effectively. While immensely satisfying once players reach a certain level, it takes far too long for the flow state to be reached for the average player. Flow state should become constant after a certain period of time, all the way up until the game is over.
4. Rewards and Encouragement - Better the Carrot than the Stick
Many of the games mentioned employ the strategy of only giving you immediate, short term goals to overcome, which keeps a steady trickle of challenge/reward flowing throughout the entire game. In a game like Super Hexagon, surviving for even a few seconds longer than your last best time is an accomplishment in and of itself. A crucial component of flow, is maintaining the player's confidence in their own ability to do something.
A game like Street Fighter, for example, is predicated on breaking your opponent's confidence and flow, forcing them to guess themselves, making them break under the pressure. Pro fighting gamers will often talk about being mauled when up against an opponent with an almost preternatural sense of prediction not because of their opponents actual skill, but because they'd been mentally shattered.
It's also important to not prolong the sense of failure a player experiences. If they lose, the fact that they lost at all is punishment enough. The last thing anyone wants to do is sit through a 60 second cutscene (I'm looking at you, Too Human) just to get back into the action. Failure is immediately forgotten in favor of trying again. We see this in Hotline Miami, Super Meat Boy, Super Hexagon, Street Fighter and other games because they know that if their death was drawn out any longer the frustration would mount to levels where players would simply stop playing the game. TGC's games ignore failure completely, instead punishing the player with a reduction of petals/scarf pieces, which feels almost as bad as actually dying.
Call of Duty, particularly Modern Warfare II, is probably the apex of using encouragement and rewards to make people continue playing. When nearly everything you do in CoD gives you a few points, you always feel like you're advancing in level, even when you're losing horribly. Sure, you might not be getting hundreds of points and 100 kill long streaks, but getting points for assists, bomb disarms, taking out UAVs, and the dozens of other things you can do.
Some action games have also taken an interesting perspective on the rewards and punishment system. Metal Gear Solid Rising and Space Marine both have health systems that encourage you to be more violent and brutal as you lose health. In both games, health is only replaced by killing your enemies with an execution animation. I can't even think of a health system more congruent for a follower of the Codex Astartes. It works so well because whereas many games would force you to back off to let your health recharge or to grab a health pack, both of these games actually work to make you fight harder and more aggressively the less health you have.
Interestingly enough, in terms of punishment, many of the games mentioned also have very absolute levels of feedback. In the games where you can die, death is usually immediate. Even in Spelunky and CoD, where you have a health bar, death is usually swift and overwhelming.
5. Reducing game fatigue - A Series of Sprints rather than Marathons
Flow is difficult to maintain for long periods of time. Boredom and fatigue will eventually set in, even when the game in question is incredibly fun. A game of Call of Duty that stretches on too long becomes a chore, a League of Legends match that runs past 40 minutes, a slog. Games that have naturally shorter turnover tend to have better flow than those whose gameplay is based on long sessions. True, the average League game only runs between 20 and 30 extremely tense, fun minutes, but compare that to the minutes it takes to play a game of any of the Bit.Trip series, or the seconds it can take to play a match in Darkstalkers. You could have your fill of satisfying gameplay in the time it takes to play one game of Call of Duty.
It's part of the reasons why many of the games mentioned are so segmented, it helps in pacing, respects the time of the players, and because it gives players plenty of chances to take breaks.
6. One Last Thing, Where do Stories fit in Flow?
This is a tough one. A compelling, amazing story can have a dramatic impact on how flow. My house could have been on fire during the microwave corridor scene from Metal Gear Solid 4 and I wouldn't have noticed. Story is much like music in that you need to know when to have it and when not to have it. In some cases, a game really needs a story, and I love thinking about stories to that could work in game form, but then there are games that, try as I might to get it to work, just don't need it. This could lead into a whole discussion about the nature of building games around stories or fitting the story to the game or birthing both at the same time, but that's a discussion for another time.
Super Hexagon didn't need a story, nor did Bit.Trip.Beat or Geometry Wars or Tetris. Some have the vaguest inkling of a story, the invasion/war in the background of Canabalt, the opening lines of Spelunky, the bare justifications for the Street Fighters. Other times a story can make a game all the more fun, as Super Meat Boy and VVVVV can attest to.
Suffice to say, do not under any circumstances underestimate the power of a good story to get people to play your game into the wee hours of the morning while feeling that only 30 minutes have passed.
So what does this all mean to us? Well, flow is extremely difficult to design towards and needs to be fine-tuned towards players. I do not believe that there is one true flow region in every game. A game like League of Legends has reached the near perfect level of flow for the kinds of players Riot is trying to reach out to. There are things they could do to increase the overall flow of the game, but they would no doubt lose a part of the flow experience that keeps their millions of players logging in every month.
I don't believe I've even scratched the surface of what makes flow work in games, but I do believe that this is a start, at least for crystallizing these thoughts for further refinement.
As part of my own initiative to stop talking about games and start actually making them, I've tried to keep some these things in mind as I plug away at ideas. This isn't a complete list, but rather a growing one, one that hopefully I'll be able to refine and further break down as I become a more experienced designer and writer.