Taxonomy of my favoured gameplay elements

· by Steve · Read in about 7 min · (1434 Words)

I’ve ranted discussed on this blog quite a few times about my gaming tastes and how most of the time I’m looking for new experiences, or at least experiences I haven’t had recently, more than the latest blockbuster audiovisual effects. There’s this rather nebulous thing called ‘gameplay’ which pretty much everyone agrees is the central key to enjoyment of a game, albeit subject to varying levels of mitigation by graphical or auditory spectacle, depending on your point of view. Gameplay in itself is rarely well categorised though - it tends to remain a rather subconscious or visceral thing for most of us - you know when it’s there, although not necessarily why. As my tastes have changed I’ve tried to examine what it is that I do and don’t like about certain games, and to relate it to the concepts raised in the writings of such luminaries as Chris Crawford, Raph Koster and Warren Spector. Whilst I can’t hope to come close to their analyses, I thought I’d put down on ‘paper’ my personal thoughts on gameplay characteristics that appeal to me, and why I think that is. Bear in mind that this whole analysis is the result of a sample of exactly one game player, so I don’t expect you all to agree with it. 😀

**Category 1: Writing Quality

** One thing that can keep me coming back for more is a good story. An enganging story penned by a writer that really knows what they’re doing can keep you coming back to a game time and again, just to find out the next element of the plotline. In some ways, a story could be seen as a antithesis to ‘gameplay’, since inherently a story implies a predetermined course of events, and thus less real choice & control for the player, and gameplay is in  essence about control, about the direct and hopefully undiluted link between player ‘cause’ and game ‘effect’. In some cases (particularly in games by Warren Spector or Doug Church) this is mitigated via a highly divergent overall storyline, in other cases by offering a welath of choice at a detail level within a more rigid overall structure (such as character customisation). In the end it’s a balance - no game can ever be completely free-form, and crucially, the quality of the story and how it is woven into the interactive elements can determine how much the player cares that they can’t do absolutely anything to everything.

_Examples: Planescape: Torment, Deus Ex, Eternal Darkness, Knights of the Old Republic, Psychonauts

Category 2: Zen State Inducement

There’s a certain class of game that is hypnotic. The kind of game that progressively teaches you to decouple your higher brain functions and for a perfect, uninterrupted feedback loop from eyeballs to hands. To fall into this category, the playfield and rules have to be simple enough that you don’t  have to think about them anymore. The number of discrete concepts involved probably falls into the ‘magic 7’ category - ie around 7 being the number that’s hardwired into our brains as the optimal number for a variety of things, from interacting as a team (hunter-gatherer team sizes), to quickly absorbing fields on a form. There isn’t a particular genre here - although many will immediately pick out colour or shape-matching puzzle games like Tetris / Zuma - I can get this affect from anything from rythm action games (always more ‘feel’ than ‘thought’ in those) to shmups. You know when you’re there - there’s an ‘in the zone’ feeling that really gets the endorphins flowing - it’s probably how a Jedi feels all the time, which is probably why I like it 😀I’ll keep coming back to revel in this feeling of connected power and flowing consciousness. Some people apply this one to FPS’s, and I can buy that once you’re particularly used to one. Modern FPS’s tend to throw a lot of complex enviornments, set pieces and whiz-bang effects around to distract you which stops you getting in that zone most of the time, IMO. But once you’ve played it a few times you start to play the underlying patterns, and stop seeing those distractions, and then the zen state starts kicking in. And if the game is heavily reliant on those distractions, or the playfield is complex and harder to grok at a baser level of the consciousness, that zen state will be more elusive. I think most people from my generation can play the first few levels of Doom in this zen state, simply because it is simplistic, but many modern FPSs have complexities which mean conscious play is the only option for most, and then to be good they have to fall into the next category. Frequent players of ‘twitch’ (rather than strategic) multiplayer FPSs on familiar maps would be in this category too though.

_Examples: Tetris, Mutant Storm, Geometry Wars, Doom, Donkey Konga, Burnout

**Category 3: Conscious Skill Refinement

**Ok, so this type of gameplay needs concentration. The additional cost of that is rewarded through iterative, incremental improvements in your ability to best ever increasing challenges. This is probably the easiest pattern to recognise in games and it’s most prevalent in sports games and modern FPSs - the range of actions and environments are mostly the same throughout, what changes is level of difficulty and the player’s ability to cope with that. Obviously this is also the gameplay type that benefits most from online play since when the inbuilt challenges run out, players need something else to continue to grow. I think this type of gameplay hook is somewhat over-dominant at the moment, probably because of the popularity of online gaming (and sports & FPS’s). Nevertheless, if implemented correctly it can be a huge draw, I think because it mimics our real-life experience of learning and developing; which is something our psyches are designed to reward with positive psychological feedback. For more discussion on that, read A Theory of Fun 😀Implementing this ‘correctly’ means calibrating the challenges such that they are always within a short range of the players abilities. After all, since the majority of the fun factor is improving your skills by beating your opponents, it’s no fun to beat people far weaker than you (well, unless you’re a wanker), and it’s no fun to be constantly out-matched.

Examples: Trackmania, Unreal Tournament, Mario Kart

Category 4: Exploration

This type of gameplay is all about discovering new areas. Environments have to be varied, probably bold and definitely interesting to discover. Many of them are going to be hidden or secret in some way, to increase the feeling of achievement. The majority of the enjoyment as per this category is not so much in the actions required to find these areas (that  would fall into the other categories above), but in revelling in the newness itself. This is one of those things that appeals to the adventurer / frontiersman in us - the satisfaction of gazing over a vista we haven’t seen before. This category is obviously the more content-heavy of the ones listed here, so if you’re planning on making this sort of game, you’d better have a lot of content creators 😀It also can’t really live alone - it usually has to be combined with one or more of the others in this list to make a rounded experience, but in the good examples it is often the dominant feature of the title.

Examples: Zelda, Metroid, Lara Croft, Knights of the Old Republic

There are of course other categories, but I’ll leave those either to another time or as an exercise for the reader 😀These are the most important to me personally when it comes to picking a game, and reflect what I’m probably thinking about most when I talk about ‘gameplay’ in this blog. It’s naturally subjective. Some of these have particular genre leanings, but I think taken together they cover a fairly broad church, although the sharp readers will have figured out that I’ve never been hugely fond of strategy games, based on my favoured gameplay features above. I have bought and enjoyed some in the past, but not that many. Lastly, these categories are by no means mutually exclusive - much of the time there’s a blend of factors involved, and the examples I’ve listed are where that’s the dominant category, in my opinion.

Hope that’s of interest to someone! I’ve been musing this for about a week and adding bits and pieces to the post over that time, and no doubt I’ll have more to add as time goes on.