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The Objectives Of Game Goals

Like just about every other person with a mobile phone this week, I downloaded Pokémon Go and began playing, Gotta catch 'em all! Now that's a very clear goal, so what other properties should a game designer give game objectives besides clarity?

Like just about every other person with a mobile phone this week, I downloaded Pokémon Go, the new augmented reality game allowing players to capture, battle, train, and trade virtual Pokémon who appear throughout the real world. The goal of the game is stated clearly in the franchise's slogan: Gotta catch 'em all!  And as I travelled about this weekend, I would open up the game app and search for Pokémon in the vicinity, pursuing the game's goal of catching as many Pokémon as I could.

All games have goals, or objectives.  The goal might be to capture all the Pokémon, outrace an opponent, destroy an invading army, explore a realm, build a city, solve a puzzle, align falling blocks, escape from a locked room, complete a task before a timer counts down, beat the odds, outwit an opponent, reach the conclusion of a story, or rescue the prince.  Without a goal, an activity is simply a pastime, without any resolution or sense of accomplishment.

Goals give something for the player to strive for.  They define what players are expected to accomplish within the rules that define the structure and boundaries of the game.  Game might have many smaller goals that are short term ("catch the closest Pokémon to you.") and  a number of intermediate long term goals ("catch all the Pokémon of a given type) in addition to an ultimate goal ("catch 'em all!").

Goals need not all be of the same type nor demand the same skills from the player.  Skills can broadly be classified into three categories:

  • Physical.  To achieve the game's goals, the player must use some form of physical skills, such as manipulating a game controller deftly or quickly typing the correct key sequence.
  • Mental. To achieve the game's goals, the player must use some form of strategic skills, such as working out the correct sequence of steps in a logic puzzle game or wisely using resources to build a good balance of combat units for defeating enemy forces.
  • Randomness. To achieve the game's goals, the player must overcome odds that could cause him or her to lose progress.  This might involve the odds of successfully landing a sword blow on a goblin in a role-playing game or of beating an opponent's hand in a gambling game.

Most games involve some combination of these types of goals, although a good game designer will be careful to use just enough randomness to add variety and uncertainty in the game.  Too much randomness, and players will feel like their actions and decisions won't matter.  One good way to keep your skill level balanced is to ask playtester's how much physical, mental and randomness skills, on a scale from one to five, are required to succeed in your game, and if the results are different from what you expected, you have some tweaking to do.

Goals need to be properly adjusted even at the individual level.  Ideally, each goal should have the following qualities:

  • Clear.  The player should never be position of not having an objective.  The game should always clearly communicate, explicitly or implicitly, what the player's next goal is.  Once the player accomplishes one goal, the next goal should be immediately presented to the player.
  • Obtainable.  The player should be provided with enough information and resources to actually achieve each of the game's goals.  Maybe not at first, but after a sufficient amount of effort, the player should be able to accomplish what the game asks.  Otherwise, the player will leave the game in frustration.
  • Concrete.  The player should never be in doubt about whether he or she has achieved the goals in a game.  Ideally, the game should provide immediate feedback -- that is, notification of the player's success or failure -- when the player attempts to accomplish a game goal.
  • Challenging.  The player must expend some amount of effort in achieving the goal (unless the game is specifically understood by the player to be a mindless game, designed to simply pass the time with no effort).  Now, that effort can be small or great, depending on whether the game is casual or hardcore, but if no effort at all is required to achieve the game's goals, the player will leave the game out of boredom.Note that as players spend time playing the game, they become more adept at whatever skills are required to achieve the game's goals.  This means that goals must increase in difficulty as the player's skill increases.
  • Rewarding.  The player must find value in accomplishing the goal.  Some goals benefit the player within the game's context, such as by advancing the player's progress towards the game's conclusion or revealing more of the game's story.  These are intrinsic rewards.  Goals that benefit the player outside the context of the game are extrinsic rewards; examples of extrinsic goals are exercise games that promote weight loss or gambling games in which players can earn real money.

All of these qualities are essential in keeping the player in a state of flow, the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. When players experience flow, time stops, nothing else matters and when they finally come out of it, they have no concept of how long they have been playing.  This flow state is what makes games engaging, and the proper handling of the presentation and rewards for goals are essential for maintaining it.  Remember that your own goal as a game designer is to catch as many players as your can, and to keep them engaged for as long as possible.

I originally published this article on my blog site.

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