Consider this for a sec: you are ridiculously happy, genuinely deep down happy, and people actually notice this about you. Where does that come from, and what does this state of delirious happiness have to do with games?
As you may have noticed in a previous post, I've been giving thought to the concept of happiness lately and how that structures our play and design experiences both in the real and virtual worlds. I believe there is great value in the line, "Happiness comes to those who wait," and there is also something to be said for the amazing power of +1.
In a larger sense, we may be in search of something in a game (or in the real world, for that matter). This thing that we search for, we may know it precisely (the Holy Grail), in part (a killer on the loose) or not at all (we become aware of a general progression toward something amazing). In the case of an unintentional search where we get on to something we weren't expecting without a precise idea of where the hell we're going, we'll often follow a path because it just feels right, and we like the journey. The world gives us all the right feedback, and though we don't know what we're on to, we do know that we are onto something.
It is the process, the path, that are important.
In game worlds, we structure this progression toward happiness through rewards. They are doled out generously - visual and sound effects, XP or points, items, levels, finishing animations, new areas to explore, or special recognition through an Xbox live achievement. In digital games, rewards come every two minutes at least. In non-digital games, these rewards take a little longer, and each is an incremental step toward that big thing that we desire - the raid, the boss or the object that we've been looking for.
The challenge in reward delivery is to keep people interested in the progression from intent to object and the formation of intent to clear agency.
Intent to Object
Upon arrival in the world, you have been tasked with finding an object rumored to be incredibly powerful. The last known location of this object, however, was with a man who hasn't been seen for well over a hundred years. The object itself drove him mad, and so to protect everyone else from its power, he sacrificed himself and died with the object still in his possession. It took the player at least 50 hours to complete this quest, and as its designer, I remember feeling a sense of great pleasure when I'd completed the long, long list of things that needed to happen from mission assigned -> mission accomplished. For those of you horrified at the thought of a 50 hour quest, bear in mind that this was in the days of the old school RPGs where 70 hours of game play was not uncommon.
There can be (and were) over 400 quests of various sizes between you and that object. Those 400 quests - those little +1's - provided you with something key to your experience: it provided you many incremental steps of desire, discovery, reward and recognition. These steps are essential to building the necessary anticipation and ultimate pay off the game has in store.
Intent to object, however, is fairly basic unless it truly becomes something the player wants versus a roadblock.
You Reminded Me
Through these many +1's, we build a library of knowledge about a person, a quest or a story. Each +1 serves to reinforce our current beliefs, modify them for the better (or for the worse). In a game, such incidents can serve to remind us of previous successes, and as a designer, these +1's are essentially freebies.
Consider for a moment how you feel as you fall into that heady space of affection with another human being. There is a beginning flirt and ultimately a wonderful feeling pervasive happiness, and each thing said reminds you of previous things said. Collectively, they gather together to present what ultimately becomes an amazing human being.
These same principles can apply to our games. If we provide small rewards along the way, each of which builds upon the last, we craft a tight space in which the player can experience not only the immediate success, but be reminded of past successes while building anticipation for the future. They form clear agency.
Intent to Clear Agency
Through these many +1's, through this building anticipation, through the attachment of repeated success, reward and feedback along the way, ultimately, this intent to object becomes intent to clear agency. It is something the player wants because she wants it, wants to solve it, wants to complete the circle that started her down this path in the first place. It is something that players deeply desire, and this desire goes beyond the game itself. It becomes what the game is about, and something we will brag about to our friends.
If you're reading this article, odds are high that you have experienced moments of waking up where the first thought in your head is about completing a quest or perhaps waking to turn the page on book you couldn't bare to put down the night before and instead fell asleep reading. This type of direct player agency is the highest kind. Carrying an object from point A to point B because some random NPC told you so isn't.