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Playing With Tension

Tension plays a fundamental role in game design, both multiplayer and single-player, both old and new. The types of tension you put in your game can make for very different play experiences. Here are some thoughts about it.

Felipe Dal Molin

July 7, 2015

10 Min Read

Hi! My name is Felipe Dal Molin, I'm co-owner and game designer of studio Luderia, in south Brazil. Last year at Luderia, we launched the game Spooklands for iOS and Android, which got very positive reviews from sites like Touch Arcade and Pocket Gamer. This year I'm working at Aquiris Game Studio as lead designer of the retro-racer Horizon Chase.


I felt the need to start blogging to share some things I learned working exclusively with game design and UX over the past years, and to learn with fellow designers and begginers. I sometimes feel like game design is a mad baby and we're just starting to know what it needs when it starts crying at four in the morning. The more we discover and share about it from different viewpoints, the better.


So for this first blog post, let's talk a bit about tension and release.


As I see it, tension is one of those constants that differentiate a toy from a game. Tension is that sharp pendulum swinging above your head and reminding you that you have to perform well, whatever that means in a particular system.


The fun thing about it is: the different kinds of tension that you choose to put in a game make for completely different play experiences.



Under pressure


Tension comes in an infinite number of ways. Last year, I got to know a game made by a friend, Parole. In Parole, you have to come up with the most words from a random board of 4x4 letters, trying to beat other people's scores on that same board. Longer words award more points, you know the drill.


Parole received some major updates and it's way more polished now, but what caught my attention about the version I played is that it didn't have a time limit, a finite number of turns or anything like that. You could play the same board for days on end, and it would always be there, unchanged.


You see, the concept of finding words in a grid can be explored in many different ways: imagine a board that mixes everything up every 15 seconds, and prompts you to come up with the most words in under a minute; or a Bejeweled-like grid of letters that disappear and drop new ones as you match them, and you have only 30 moves; or just the plain old timer.



Yet that version of Parole put you under a "clean", stactic type of pressure where tension came from there being only so many words within any given 4x4 board. And then there was this smart ass on the leaderboards who apparently discovered every last one of them, judging by their score of 224 points while I can't get past 18. Tension.


Built-in tension


A more physical type of tension is the gravity in games like Balloon Fight, Helicopter or Flappy Bird. Let go of the controls for a couple seconds, and you're dead. The game Dong Nguyen made after Flappy Bird, Swing Copters, makes the same concept work sideways. The same goes for any infinite runner where trains or pitfalls or crocodiles wait for your infinite running to head straight into their mouths.


In Spooklands, tension comes from the fact that every time you shoot, you move in the opposite direction. You want to survive the monsters that come from one way, but you're most likely throwing yourself at another set of monsters as you shoot.



Gregory Trefry's "Casual Game Design: Designing Play for the Gamer in All of Us" argues that good combo systems come from putting some extra tension over the base gameplay. That is, there's higher risk in doing it but if you manage to do it right you'll perform better than usual. We made Spooklands that way: you earn bonus points for destroying large groups of monsters - but letting monsters accumulate in the arena is precisely how you end up dead.



Our car combat game Battle Rides also has tension rooted in its control scheme: the vehicles are always accelerating, and you have to repeatedly press the Brake/Reverse button to maneuver them and make the best use of your weapons. Not unlike the Flappy Bird example, you have to mantain constant, active control over your character to make it stay put or go where you want.


If you were to give more relaxed control over these characters (say, by putting Flappy Bird in space or removing the chasing guard from Subway Surfers), you'd take out the fundamental mechanics of tension from those games. Which you'd probably have to make up for using other tools such as active enemies, a timer, or some kind of cost for players' actions.


Same core, different game


Now, imagine how would golfing be if you swapped the "Par" from a set number of swings to a set time! Or, say, if you had just one shot - how would the game's goal change?



As I said earlier, the type of tension you choose to put in a game leads to different aesthetics of play. Clock ticking? Franctic, desperate action. Limited number of turns? Thought and careful consideration. The stactic board of Parole, full of hidden possibilities? Completionism. Something like gravity or the endless running? Twitchy, split-second reaction. Mana cost or cooldown for character control? Tactical behavior. Gonzo controls? Funny, social-inducing performances. Music, tempo? Rhythmic play.


In a game like Piano Tiles, for instance, what sets one game mode apart from another is just the way they inflict tension on the player. Everything else remains the same. The point is, even when you already have your core mechanics down, the choices you make on tension can generate a bunch of very different experiences.

I think the same can be applied on many levels, for micro or macro dynamics within your game. Risk-reward is a classic way of putting tension over choice, by offering better spoils to those willing to take an extra risk. Costs and gains in any management sim, or virtually every metagame involving economy are, too, a pervasive implementation of tension.

Toying with tension

As for the toy-game comparison: I believe the less tension you have, the more you approach the "toy" end of the play spectrum. Like the castle hub in Super Mario 64. Or any GTA game when you're not in trouble, just driving around in your car instead. A ball when you're not competing. The Sims when you cheat to get rich.



The fact is: tension is engaging. If reducing tension is your objective as a designer (a noble goal, mind you), you better build something that is just really fun to fiddle with by itself, with a set of systems that let players take their time and play around without aim, and that have the power to hook them up when they want to be hooked.


When you least expect it, players will rob a car, bring a creeper into their house or decide to get that unreachable coin just because it's there. Then they'll be in the game's web once more, and you'll know you got another one tensed up and fighting for release.

See you in the next post! :)

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