Eat Your Vegetables

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. – Albert Camus

Games create a unique dynamic between the designer and the players. With most design, the designer and audience have aligned goals: For instance, with an app layout, the audience might want to use the app to easily access their bank information, while the UX designer in charge of the app wants the audience to use the app to easily access their bank information.

Game design is the only medium where the designer’s goals and the players’ goals are frequently at odds. Take Pandemic as an example: the goal of each player of Pandemic is to win the game by curing all four diseases, but the designer’s goal is to make it as difficult as possible for the players to cure the diseases while still having a chance. This split lies at the core of all game designs, no matter what medium or target audience.

In this article, I’ll go in depth into this precarious dynamic, how it can complicate the journey from “player” to “designer”, and why it’s critically important that you make your players eat their proverbial vegetables.

Game Design For (K)nitwits

A few years ago I purchased Matt Leacock’s party game Knit Wit. The game combined a simple, Scattergories-esque premise (write down things that fall under several categories and try not to write the same thing as someone else) with delightful sewing-themed accoutrements including string, tags, and wooden spools. It still remains one of the best-looking games of the past decade, and it was easy to teach and to scale up.

And yet, after a few plays I ended up stashing Knit Wit in my closet with a lot of other games that didn’t quite make it there for me. Why is that?

It’s because, though Knit Wit was a lot of things – engaging, simple, gorgeous, even funny – it wasn’t the one thing that every game needs to be, which is difficult.

In more depth, the basic premise of the game is to come up with a list of concepts that fall under one to four adjective “tags”: For example, I might have to describe something clear, bitter, and disappointing. The issue is that even with a large number of tags, it was fairly easy to use your imagination to come up with concepts that nobody else would guess – in our example, I put down a cucumber water-flavored popsicle. These don’t exist (I hope), so nobody else was able to think of it and I breezed through the round. Most games of Knit Wit ended with people winning by a small margin because almost everyone was able to come up with things that other players would never be able to guess, every time.

The game didn’t provide enough challenge, so it fell behind other, harder party games.

Danger Makes Me Feel Alive

Why do people play games? You could say as a social tool, but there’s plenty of other activities, like watching movies or going out to eat, that are just as suitable and require less investment on people to teach.

The primary reason people play games – of any variety – is to encounter challenges in a safe environment.

In real life, challenges are often hard to understand, disproportionate to our abilities to achieve them, sometimes wholly reliant on luck, and come with severe consequences if they aren’t resolved correctly. Games are different: We pick games that we believe we have the skills to attempt competently and it doesn’t matter how well or badly anyone did once the game is over. We can experience the tension of a tough situation without being in one for real.

Take soccer as an example. Soccer would be much easier if you could pick up the ball and drop-kick it into the goal, but the reason soccer’s popularity is so enduring is precisely that you can’t do that. By simply requiring the players to use their feet to maneuver the ball, soccer adds a level of difficulty to play that captures the hearts of players of all skill levels around the world.

A Sidenote on Difficulty and Complexity

People sometimes conflate difficulty and complexity in games, partially because complex games take more learning and are more difficult for first-timers. However, these things are different. All games should be difficult, but many games shouldn’t be complex.

As an example:

Build a desktop computer from scratch, using this guide. A very complex task, but not so difficult that someone can’t accomplish it.

Now eat the desktop computer. Much less complex, but much more difficult.

Because I Said So

The issue is that, although players unconsciously crave difficulty, at a conscious level they hate it. Challenges in a game are painful and hard, and they can make you frustrated and upset. We shy away from risks and try to pursue the path that will give us the victory with the most certainty, even if that’s boring. (I describe this more in depth in this post.)

Thus, it’s the game designer’s job to know better than the players and to make them eat their vegetables. How exactly to do this depends on the game:

  • Euro-style games place limitations on what you can do each turn, either through resources or by some kind of action rationing mechanism like worker placement.
  • Party games usually restrict information, either by limiting players to a certain subset of communication (impress-the-judge games, charades variants) or by making information unreliable (social deduction).
  • Co-op games like Pandemic use random elements as an antagonistic force against the players.

An important step to providing enjoyable difficulty is making the experience not feel like you’re limiting the players. you hear a game described as “punishing” or “cruel”, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s harder to succeed in that game than others, but more often that the game doesn’t try to hide its challenges very well. It’s not surprising that the games that usually draw these labels are co-op games, which typically have the most “obvious” divisions between design and player goals.

A well-designed game in regards to difficulty makes a player feel like they achieved something, win or lose, but not feel stupid if they don’t live up to the challenge set by the game. There are dozens of techniques to accomplish this – I wrote about one, guardrails, in depth – and many ways to strike the balance between “boring” and “frustrating” that are unique from game to game. However, every good game, to a one, has to strike it in some way.

Conclusion

Some people, myself included, are afraid of making games too hard because we associate it with memories of ourselves struggling while playing other people’s games. This is the biggest difference in perspective between someone who just plays games and someone who wants to design them, and bridging it will come as more of a challenge to some people than others.