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Patience and short-term goals in game design

With certain open-ended games, I can't stand the idea of trying to comprehend the game mechanics, but I'll hammer away at the same difficult level for an hour. Why is that?

A while back, I picked up Civilization IV during a Steam sale. I enjoyed turn-based strategy games like Advance Wars, and I heard about how addictive the series was, so I installed the game and was all ready to lose chunks of my life.

I turned it off an hour later and haven't played since.

It's not hard to explain why. The game's tutorial only barely skims the surface of all that Civ had to offer. When starting a new game, you are asked to define your parameters. As a new player, I had no idea what parameters were good for a beginner, or what I wanted the scale of the game to be, or how different characters and settings would affect my playstyle. Of the goals in the game, there is no way to tell what actions you should take to try to complete any of them. To the Civ fans that I've talked to, the game is intentionally vague because it wants you to explore for yourself and find a playstyle that suits you. But without an understanding of the consequences of my actions, both short and long-term, I was quickly turned off. This same approach is also in games like Minecraft and Terraria, and is the primary reason why I can't play those games either. I simply don't have the patience to learn all of the game mechanics to get the most out of the experience.

But if my lack of patience is what turns me off of those games, why is it that I can replay the same level for half an hour in Trials Evolution and still come away from the experience satisfied?

On the surface, there's nothing at all to be gained. Perfecting my run so I can get the gold medal isn't going to get me any achievements. I've already unlocked all the game's content. My leaderboard ranking won't be that impressive even if I do pull it out. Yet I replayed the same track over and over again, often making the same mistakes, cursing some of the obstacles in my path. Arguably, bumbling around in Civilization is going to gradually introduce you to different aspects of the game, even if in the end you fail. But the difference is that in Trials, I know what I'm trying to accomplish, and more importantly, I know how to approach the problem.

Close friends of mine know I love sadistically hard games. I've completed both the Xbox and Steam versions of Super Meat Boy, gritted my teeth through the trickier parts of Rayman Origins, and unlike most who played Catherine, I adored the difficult block-pushing puzzles. When the difficulty is divided into small, manageable chunks, it's easy for me to get lost in the pursuit. A carrot on a stick, basically. On any given track in Trials, I know that if I tilt my bike a certain direction, going a certain speed to land perfectly to prepare for the next obstacle, that I will eventually reach the ending in one piece. The Civ series isn't known for being difficult, but it's hard for me to care about taking over the world or going into space when I'm still figuring out how making pots fits into the grand scheme of things.

A lack of short or long-term goals has turned me off from a good number of games I would have otherwise liked. When presented with a long list of skills and abilities to choose from in Dragon Age or Oblivion, I froze up, having no idea which ones would benefit me the most. Skyrim's reworking of the leveling system was my primary reason to buy the game in the first place, as it allowed me to explore the world without worrying about a mistake I made ten hours back. I thought I would enjoy the Souls series for its infamous difficulty, but my progress was often block by an annoying foe or obstacle. Do I not have the right weapon for the job? Should I ditch the heavy armor and learn some magic? Is there a secret in the level that will help me overcome the problem? Or do I just need to take another stab at it and see if I can face it head-on? Paralyzed with indecision, I quit playing the games, as much as I admire aspects of their design.

This kind of theory applies to much more than just games, though. A vague goal of "losing weight" is much less effective than a quantifiable "lose 10 pounds". History class always terrified me because I had no idea what facts would be important to know for the test, as opposed to math class, where each problem tended to be an extension of the one that came before it. Heck, life in general is full of this vagueness, such as getting a new job, moving to a new apartment, getting into a new relationship, etc. You can make educated guesses about what will result from your decisions, but so much of it is up in the air. Picking the wrong class in college will hold you back far more than picking the wrong class in an RPG.

In fact, that's what draws a lot of people to games in the first place. Games provide the clear, accessible goals that real life can't. That's why we get sucked into finishing quests in an MMO, or play Call of Duty for hours on end to earn the next rank. Real life has its own sets of issues, and facing that same pressure of too many options in a video game is not what I want from entertainment.

Of course, maybe restructuring how the real world works so that people won't want to hide in their games and hobbies will probably be better long-term, but ironically, I don't know how to go about that either.

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