One of the big challenges in designing a game in the current “games as a service” paradigm is pacing and extending content. Content generally falls into two categories: Procedural and Authored. In part 1 I’ll explain these types of content and how they’ve shifted around over time, and in part 2 I’ll show you 10 ways to take advantage of both to extend the lifetime of your game.
Procedural content most often applies to Rogue-like RPGs, Puzzle games, and Sandbox building games. It involves using sometimes complex algorithms to create levels/worlds/puzzles rather than the designers building them by hand. Done right, this type of content can be playable for a very long time, especially when the developers continue to inject new functionality/content pieces into the game to keep it feeling fresh. The best example of a procedural game living on for quite a long time without new content is Tetris. The best example of one living on with new content injections is Minecraft. While procedural usually seems to be the way to go with puzzle and sandbox games, Candy Crush Saga (other saga games, and Angry Birds) have gotten a lot of companies rethinking that model, and moving to a long series of single player puzzles.
Hand designing content was pretty much the way all games were done from the arcade era on up into the Nintendo era. This method of development can require a lot of manpower, but allows the designer to better craft the players experience over time. As higher fidelity has become more of a standard in games, the cost of developing content has steadily risen. This has led to an increasing focus on the cost and time savings of developing good systemic/procedural content, especially on mobile where memory resources are much lower. The more modern equivalent to Tetris was Popcap’s Bejeweled series and their foray into Facebook/iOS took the form of Bejeweled Blitz, a 60 second procedural puzzle game. While I believe it was successful to an extent, it was eventually greatly overshadowed by the evolution/cloning of its design into a “social” single player experience in Candy Crush Saga. This has led a huge switch of puzzle games from procedural to “adventures”, bringing back authored content.
Candy Crush Saga influence
One of the key differences between a normal procedural puzzle game and something like Candy Crush Saga is the way the mechanics are layered in. In a normal procedural puzzle game, all of the mechanics of the game are generally available all the time, but designed in a way that some of the mechanics require more advanced or deeper play to reward skill progress. In an adventure puzzle, the mechanics are gradually introduced across levels, both mixing up play, and layering on additional complexity. This has a number of positive effects that have led to such widespread adoption.
The biggest difficulty in developing free to play games after getting players to try your game, is getting them to keep playing it. Getting players to go from newbies to addicts is known as on-boarding. It’s the process of teaching the player how to play the game, how to go further, and of course how to spend money. A straight procedural puzzle game (Bejeweled aside) often has difficulty with both initial tutorial and advanced play teaching. This is a side effect of having all options on the table at once. Spreading mechanics out over levels that progress in a fixed fashion mitigates the teaching issue, not allowing progress until a mechanic is at least learned, if not mastered. This leads to much better retention without some of the long annoying tutorial funnels many social games adopted by instead simply breaking it into “level goals” instead of “quests”.
2. Sense of Progress
In a procedural puzzle game, your sense of progress is mostly tied to a high score. Seeing as a procedural game is based on using algorithms and math to create content, the way of measuring your progress on that content has to be as well. While using social leader boards, like Bejeweled Blitz did, adds some sense of relative progress, it eventually loses a lot of its meaning. Contrast this of course with seeing your progress through levels on an adventure map, where it’s always clear when you make progress. This is combined with the social leader board method by showing your friends locations as a competitive marker. This sense of progress is often further denoted by breaking up the content into different “worlds” or “islands” to provide medium term progress goals.
3. Difficulty pacing
Having the ability to ramp up the mechanics almost means the ability to ramp up the difficulty as players master mechanics. While this has always been present in games going back to Pac-Man and earlier, the Candy Crush Saga developers have evolved the concept into a pacing controller. In one of the talks given by King at GDC, they explained their methodology of mixing easy levels with much harder levels in a way that not only periodically ramps up and down the difficulty, but also drives purchases of lives. Many players suspected the existence of some levels as soft “pay walls” that were difficult to get past without spending money, but in their talk, King made much clearer the purpose of these difficulty jumps. Positive frustration is an area of game design starting to see a lot more research, because its one of the few domains that have figured out how to manage to get someone to enjoy spending 90% of their time failing. King explains the power of building up tension, release, and positive frustration by making the level difficulty more of a sine wave than a simple ramp. This makes sense in a game that doesn’t have a definitive end to build towards. We’ve always had some sense of this sine wave design in the way games usually had a series of drills on a skill, then a boss to fight as a really hard test of your new skills, before the next series of teaching levels. By not clearly delineating these hard levels as “boss levels”, instead disguising them as just another level, they trick players sense of fairness into thinking “I beat the last level easily, I must just be doing something wrong”, instead of “they clearly designed this boss to take my money”.
4. Inject new mechanics
In a typical procedural game, everything must be tightly integrated and balanced so that each mechanic works together with the others to create a game with a high amount of re-playability. This creates a pretty big roadblock to adding any new content or mechanics to the game later on, as they must be heavily balanced and tested against the existing content. Using a level based design on the other hand, allows you to pick and choose which mechanics are available on any given level, allowing you to only balance new mechanics against those it works well with. This also allows you to take mechanics in and out for variety sake even without introducing new mechanics, simply mixing level design with mechanic combinations to build out a large amount of content with minimal risk.
5. The Big Downside
Those advantages mentioned above are great for evolving the puzzle game genre on social and mobile platforms, but they lead to the big problem of authored content, running out. Single player games with IAP generally don’t promote further spending on the game once the end of the current content has been reached. This is somewhat ironically balanced by the fact that the biggest spenders often reach the end of the content much faster due to their paid advantage. The upside to all the free players, is the players spending on beating existing content, are essentially funding the development of more content in the games as a service model. Of course you don’t want these long lulls in spending and thankfully not all the spending players hit the wall at the same time, spreading the spending out a bit. This begs the question though, what can you do to extend the life of a game without just constant content injections?