Flow is a mental state proposed by psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in which the person is at one with themselves and the task they are performing. They seemingly transcend time and space and effortlessly succeed in a state of peacefulness and serenity. This state of flow undoubtedly is extremely relevant to game design, and one might even go so far as to say it is the closest we can get to objectively defining the term "fun". Csikszentmihalyi breaks down how it feels to be in a state of flow:
1. Completely involved in what we are doing - focused, concentrated
2. A sense of ecstasy - of being outside everyday reality
3. Great inner clarity - knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing
4. Knowing that the activity is doable - that our skills are adequate to the task
5. A sense of serenity - no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego
6. Timelessness - thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes
7. Intrinsic motivation - whatever produces flow becomes its own reward"
Csikszentmihalyi suggests that a human brain is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information in a second, and to listen to a person speaking and process what is being said, it requires about 60 bits per second already. When a person is in a state of extreme concentration and flow, he is devoting all of his brain power to the task at hand, leaving himself without the processing power to think about how he feels at the given time. Csikszentmihalyi even suggests that the person's existence is temporarily suspended during the true state of flow.
In this sequence, the harmful roots are undulating, closing and re-opening the path for a short window. The player usually has all the time in the world to wait for the proper timing, but once the King Lum is in effect, they must move speedily through, risking the possible death due to bad timing.
In the realm of games, there are a number of things a designer can keep in mind so as to help catalyze the process of reaching a state of flow. By providing challenges that constantly adapt to the increased skill level of the player, they are always kept on their toes, but understand that they have the tools to overcome the challenge.
For this to happen, it is necessary to provide clear goals for everything; if the player loses sight of the purpose of a sequence, they might get confused, lost or even bored. With clear and immediate feedback for success and failure, a player can very easily perceive the consequences of their actions and adapt their play strategy accordingly. Good signs and feedback will be subconsciously understood, requiring less active brain power from the player, leaving more for concentration on the challenge itself. This process of maintaining difficulty and interest is known as the macro flow.
A diagram depicting the relationship between skill, challenge and the state of flow based on the original by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Macro flow is the constant rise in difficulty to compete with the player's increasing skill level, maintaining the balance between boredom and anxiety. Macro flow refers to the entire gameplay experience from the beginning of the game until the end, and having a good macro flow will likely result in constant interest and intrinsic motivation on the part of the player throughout the course of the game. Maintaining a good macro flow requires proper management of a number of important factors:
1. Learning - how the player is introduced to the gameplay elements and mechanics, and how a designer ensures that the player understands enough to be challenged.
2. Difficulty - maintaining the level of challenge based on the rationalized minimal required skill level at a given point in the game.
3. Pacing - managing the ebb and flow of the game, creating moments of tension as well as moments of relief and calm progression; proper pacing aids in avoiding boredom, and exposes the player to different emotional experiences every step of the way.
4. Variety - breaking away from the game's norms and allowing the player to experience something fresh and exciting, as well as challenging their understanding of new inputs and challenge types.
5. Motivation - understanding different player types and what motivates them, and implementing numerous motivators in the environment that will lead the player to an eventual state of flow and intrinsic motivation.
The rational level design process allows for intelligent distribution of gameplay elements to keep all of these factors in constant balance so as not to upset the macro flow. A more in-depth breakdown of the rational learning process and managing difficulty will be discussed in a later section, as well as the concepts of variety and player motivation.
The article Darwinian Difficulty: How Throwing Players In Headfirst Can Work proposes a contrasting method of teaching and in the process, a different macro flow structure. In it the author describes the technique of throwing the player into the game with the full level of difficulty presented at the start; through constant attempts to overcome these ridiculously demanding challenges, the player slowly gains strength and understanding of the mechanics at his disposal, and learns to better cope with the dangers of the wild he has been thrown headfirst into.
What this results in is a constant level of difficulty throughout the experience, and as the player becomes more and more skilled, the difficulty level starts to decrease slightly in relation to the player's obtained skill level.
The player must deal with constantly sliding downwards on the flowers as well as the walls, and try to do it in sequence to collect all the Lums before the King Lum timer is up.
Micro flow is short intense periods of flow that happen frequently, as well as the constant adaptation of the game's challenges to the player's increase in skill level. It is perpetuated by repeated successes in rapid succession, which provides positive emotional and tangible feedback encouraging the player to continue in the micro flow; this is known as a virtuous cycle. Through positive reinforcement they become more intrinsically motivated to play the game, and by playing well they are rewarded with more positive reinforcement.
Micro flow is short intentionally, so that the player can experience it more frequently and easily recognize it as a strongly rewarding experience. By doing so, the designer can use similar signs and feedback among the many varied challenges in the game and help promote micro flow more frequently and easily.
In many game systems, difficulty tolerance is increased when entering a successful chaining of inputs, so as to promote flow and help the player to maintain their flow more easily. Another way of inducing flow is by making the series of inputs required form a rhythmic tempo; this helps to condition their reflexes, as humans can feel rhythm quite easily and apply it with little effort.
In his article, How to Make Difficult Fun: Donkey Kong Country Returns, Matt Arnold raises an interesting point about what he calls "conquerable mini challenges", which are small but satisfying challenges along the critical path separate from the macro challenge of reaching the end of the level. These micro challenges can be likened to the aforementioned definition of micro flow.
In Rayman Origins, catching a King Lum and successfully collecting a full series Lums before the song stops can be seen as a mini challenge. What is interesting about these mini challenges is that they provide the player with frequent opportunities to demonstrate their skill in varying situations, and receive very satisfying positive feedback in doing so, potentially reducing the impact of failing the macro challenge and being forced to start over.
Also interesting is the fact that while the player might have to repeat a large part of the level when he dies, he is given a second chance to master the mini challenges along the way that he might have failed in his first run. This provides him with time to practice useful moves, demonstrate his skill level and ultimately, reap greater rewards and positive feedback before the final satisfaction of finishing the level. These mini challenges are essential for giving the player a sense of accomplishment every step of the way.
Games such as Super Meat Boy, which, in comparison to Rayman Origins or Donkey Kong Country Returns, have little to no mini challenges, provide the player with very small levels, making each one feel like its own mini challenge. The experiences are short and difficult, but the controls in Super Meat Boy are so tight that the player is constantly perfecting their ability to complete the level, which is rewarding in its own right.