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Juicy: a useful game design term?

"Juicy" is a game design term that I found irritating when it became popular in the 00's, but, I argue here, the word is useful in today's game design practice. This post is aimed at the beginning game designer, in a FAQ format.

Josh Whitkin, Blogger

January 31, 2014

5 Min Read

Juicy is an irritating adjective to me. It cropped up in the casual game boom of the 00's, and then seemed to be covered by more recent layers of trendy buzzwords. However, I found myself needing it in design discussions recently, helping an engineer understand my reasoning for wanting a certain trivial-sounding (to an engineer) features.  After a brief pause, during which I racked my brain for a less annoying word, I realized "juicy" was, indeed, a useful term.  In this post I dust the term off, and argue that it has matured and seasoned nicely. In this post I define a specific meaning in today's game design practice.

What is juicy design?  The general idea was poetically stated by Morgan and Brown here: “the satisfying feeling we get when potential energy is converted to kinetic energy. That point where we release energy from a design in a way that creates surprise, delight,…”. 

Most hit casual games are loaded with examples, but Popcap’s games are commonly cited with good reason. Plants vs Zombies, Peggle, and earlier games all exhibit great examples. So many of their tiny actions, whose meaning is vanishingly small, satisfying and building holistic player satisfaction.  Among the many reasons Popcap has given for their success, juicy design ideas were in there. Producer Matthew Johnson explained it like this:

"...it's about that thing that happens right now, that feels great and sounds awesome – that's always been in the DNA of Popcap games."

Let’s find where "juicy" fits in other design ideas (aimed at the beginning game designer, as a FAQ).

Q: How is Juicy different from basic good software interface design practice?

A: Most designers are comfortable with logical or factual design lenses: e.g. a “click” sound helps the user realize they clicked a button. Simplify  the screen so the important ideas pop out. These make sense.   By contrast, Juiciness is not as logical. Juiciness is an emotional lens on design.  A well-designed juicy game matches the players subconscious feelings of fairness and reward/punishment “I did that well, so something good should happen.”

Q: So, Juicy is a description of reward / punishment, Skinner Box type game design?
A: Juicy is not that coldly logical. It is about tiny player actions than overall scoring or rewards.  When you collect a coin in Plants vs Zombies, after doing a successful move, notice your feeling of expectation of “good stuff”.  Notice the satisfaction of the coin appearing. Then, before you click, imagine the coin just vanishing when you clicked it.  Now, click it. That little flash and spinning of the coin, traveling to your points? That’s juiciness. It’s all the small stuff.

Q: So, Add fancy animation and your game is juicy?
A: Maybe.  A failed attempt at adding juiciness to a game will add fancy animations that don’t relate to the player’s experience. It will feel ‘tacked on’, or unrelated to the game activity.  It's also possible to overdo it: Hearing "crowd goes wild" sounds for every tiny decision will feel false to the player, who knows that a minor action shouldn't generate major cheering.

Q: Does juicy relate to the big picture – the game’s purpose – or is it only about small picture - the UI, in the moment, tiny things?
A: It’s small picture, but it can add up to the big picture.  Popcap's Johnson explained how early arcade games had juiciness as the key reward:

"... with Pac-Man. Partly, the reward was the high score table, but primarily, it was the emotional feedback - it had to be immediate.

"If you think about the voice in Bejeweled that rewards you when you make a match or the 'extreme fever' in Peggle, or the little things in PvsZ that make you connect with the characters, it's not about the player building up stats over a long period of time, it's about that thing that happens right now, that feels great and sounds awesome – that's always been in the DNA of Popcap games."

Q: Is juicy a design approach? Is it better than other ways of designing games?
A: No to both. “Juicy” is a narrow but useful lens to view a game’s design.  One cannot simply “make a game juicy” and be certain it’s better. 

For example, consider characters in a casual game.  A mascot game character, like the Bookworm worm, reacts to player choices and personified game outcomes. I feel Bookworm's primary function is to mirror and validate the player’s internal, emotional state (it also gives hints and instructions, but as a secondary function).  This is a “juicy” character.

Now consider the player character in a serious first-person immersive war simulation game (e.g. WWII Online).    Can the enemy see the player’s head above the barrel?  This is not an emotional, “juicy” design decision. This decision requires rational thinking.  The primary purpose of such a 3D game player characters is not to reflect the player’s emotional state (though it is part of the purpose – for a richer discussion see Gee).  Imagine “improving” the game by having player character thinking snarky comments, celebrating head shots or wiping tears away, when the game is primarily strategic.  Hopefully it’s obvious that making this character more “juicy” could easily hurt the player’s overall satisfaction.

In short, I find the term "juicy" to be useful, if irritatingly catchy, and hope you do too. I would be delighted to hear that there is another word that other designers already use with substantially the same meaning, but I fear that we are stuck with "juicy".  I look forward discussing with you in the comments.


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