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On the Thought of Flow Theory

Through this article, I try to describe what pattern of challenge that game should create. By providing expectation, doubt, reality, and relief, I believe game could create maximum engagement as stated in flow theory.

Rizky Winanda

October 24, 2014

11 Min Read

Every game designer must have already known about flow theory. First coined by Mihalyi Csikszenmihalyi, it becomes a guidance to produce an engagement toward playing (and also other activities). Based on Flow theory, we can create an immerse game by providing a challenge that suitable for player’s current skill in every part of the game. Also, not only must fit with player’s skill, the challenge should also encourage the player to improve his/her skill. It is a great concept, but the question is, how we can provide this kind of challenge?

One thing that can be done is by seeing what happened inside player mind when they confront a challenge. Through my little research, I found there is a pattern that always appears when people are facing a challenge. In short, there are four important components that create the pattern: expectation, doubt, reality, and relief. Expectation will lead the player to do specific curiosity, where they only use one solution that they thing as the right. However, when they are confronted with a doubt, they will see the reality and do novelty seeking, looking all available solutions. When they found what they thought as the answer, they got the relief, and will start creating the expectation again (more about it, can be read in my article, here).


From the graph, we can see there are two types of trend. First, an upward trend that starts from relief and ends with doubt. This trend is composed of expectation that leads the player to do specific curiosity. The other is the downward trend, which starts with doubt and ends with relief. In this trend, player will do novelty seeking by looking at the reality. As stated previously, in upward trend, player only focus on one solution because player believes the solution is the answer to what s/he confronts. It means in this trend player’s skill is higher than the challenge that the game provides.  The opposite happens in the downward trend. In this state, player looks for all available solutions because the previous solution is not good enough. It means the challenge is greater than player’s skill.

So, I believe this pattern is what has happened in every point in flow theory. By continuously interchanging between two situations that are depicted in those two trends, it will help the player to become better (by giving a greater challenge than player’s current skill). Also, it provides feeling of achievement and empowerment (by giving a challenge that player can finish by player’s current skill).

Actually, this is what we found in almost every game. The best example is from RPG games. In RPG, we always encounter those two trends.  When we fight with some weak monsters, we tend just to do the same thing again and again (even in some RPG games they provide customable auto battle). However, when we reach a new place, with new stronger enemies, we cannot rely anymore on our previous strategy. When previously what we did was just attack, in here, we need to try all different things : defend, use a different ability, or search for enemy weakness (the best example is from Shin Megami Tensei series). This condition will go on until our characters level up, understanding enemy action pattern, or getting new abilities or tools. After that, we will back to just use our optimal strategy again until we meet a new harder enemies.

So, that is the theory. The next thing that I want to tell is how this theory works in my game. The game itself can be accessed here. However, it is still a paper prototype though. So if you want to try it, you need to do some little chores before (print, and cut the game assets).


Before we proceed, I need to warn you something. If you do not want to ruin your play experience, I suggest you play it before read what I wrote next.

 First, we need to know in what form expectation, doubt, relief, and reality appeared in the game. Just like the other games, in this game the expectation come in the form of winning the game. However, if it is the only expectation player could build, I thought it would be less effective. Because to achieve that expectation, player needs to keep his/her expectation till the end of the game, and there is a big chance that the player lost his intention due to the lack expectation feedback. So, it is better if the game can also provide a small type expectation that people can create through the game duration. In this game, it can come from executing gadget combos, or dealing a certain damage. The problem is, this kind of expectation can only be built by the player who already accustomed with this type of game. For inexperienced player, I feared they have a hard time to build/aware of this expectation. Which in turns they will play with what I call firefighting, where they only react to what enemy action (in this game, it comes in the form of the drawn alien’s card). To solve it, in this game, I implemented a mini objective. For every 20 damage that the player inflicted to the alien in that year, player have an opportunity to take any card that they want from deck at the end of the year. This system can encourage the player to create a small expectation in the form of dealing a certain amount of damage. After made the expectation, player will do specific curiosity, and create an upward trend.

For doubt, it comes in two types: doubt that comes from enemy and doubt from player. Doubt from enemy consisted of alien’s total attack (resulted from normal and piled up cards in all seasons) and the newly drawn card in every season (normal card , force card, and zero value card). Doubt from player comes from player’s hand card, cards composition in the field and the remaining cards in the deck. Doubt works to create the novelty seeking for player so s/he undergo downward trend.

In some games, relief consisted of different things from doubt. However, in this game, they appeared in the same form. It happened because each doubt/relief in this game does not have an exact consequence towards the player. The same items, such as alien’s card that was drawn, can be doubt or relief. The same also happened with chess, where the movement of opponent’s pawn can be doubt or relief.

The last is the reality. The reality in this game appeared as all the visible game components in the player’s eye. The reality can appear when these game components are effecting each other and cannot be separated. So, It could be cards in field AND player’s hand cards AND alien’s cards AND pawns position. But not cards in field OR player’s hand cards OR alien’s cards OR pawns position.

Next is to plot the trends. But before that, because there are many terms that I used from my article that I mentioned before, if you have not read it, this would be the best time to pick it up.

From four components of the graph, the only things that we can plot are expectation and doubt. The reason is because reality can be quite hard to control (yet it is not impossible) and because relief appears from the same items with doubt, it can be just included together with doubt (but with different consequences).

Every season start with alien draws a new card that will replace the previous card in the current season. This step works as a turning point to the player’s trend in the graph. Depending on the card that was drawn, it could change the player’s current trend. If before alien draws a card player’s trend is upward (player build expectation) there are three outcomes that could result from alien's drawn card. It could increase the pace a little if the card creates a benefit to the player, decrease a little if the card doesn’t have consequence to player current expectation, or change direction to downward if it breaks the player expectation (appears as a doubt).


However, if before alien draws a card player’s trend is downward (player has met a doubt) there are three outcomes that could result from alien's drawn card. It could increase the pace a little if the card creates a disadvantage to the player, decrease a little if the card doesn’t have consequence to player current reality, or change the direction to upward if it appears as a relief (where the player find the solution of his/her doubt).


Previously I explained the function of free draw card at the end of the year is for creating a small type of expectation. Other than that, it also works as a source of doubt. By allowing the player to choose cards at the deck freely, at the same time it also makes the player know the remaining cards in the deck. If the deck consists of good cards that allowed the player creates more damage than his last expectation, then for the next year player would increase his/her expectation (deal a bigger damage). If the remaining cards are valued the same with the current cards in hand and field, then for the next year player would keep the same expectation(create the same damage). However, if the remaining cards are worse than the hand and field cards, then the player meet the doubt. From this point, player would decrease his/her expectation for the next year(create less damage or just to survive) and hope finding the relief.

Sadly, even though the game provides all four component and there are a turning point between two trends, but if we plot the graph from the start of the game till the end there is a big chance that it will show a fluctuate pattern. Although a good game should create a repetition of interchanging upward and downward trends that drive player to get a better emotion (as I show at the last of my article) but I found that it will be hard to achieve in this game. The reason is the number of information that is hidden from the player. In this game, player cannot know what the next alien’s card and player’s card would be. These hidden information could limit the expectation and doubt that the player able to predict. So, instead having total control of the trends, player would feel like being dragged. Chess, in contrast, has a bigger chance to produce a better graph. In chess all information are accessible by the player, so s/he can predict the expectation and the doubt better. However, there is an advantage that comes from hiding the information. It will limit the number of things a player must process at the same time, so the game will be more easily to cope.

Actually, there is a solution to this problem. That is by controlling what the next card will appear. Or in the other words, creating a scenario. Even so, this scenario must not be controlled by the player. The scenario must be handled by the other agent beside the player. It could be a game master or a computer. This solution is actually what has been used in video games. To limit the number of information that player processes at the same time (so it will attract many players) video games let the game system controls the hidden information.

That is all what I can share. If you have any opinion regarding the theory or even the game, please let me know. Oh, and because the game still in prototype, I am sorry if it is not that enjoyable. If you have a suggestion to make it better, please tell me. I really appreciate it. Thanks for reading.


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