*Note: The following is only a portion of the full article. We highly recommend you follow the link at the end to read the full piece.
Video games as a media can be reviewed as two essential components:
- Game Content - The soul of a video game; a specific experience the game is designed to convey
- Game System - The body of a video game; an interactive software that communicates Game Content to the players through visuals, audio and interactions
When treated as content, the definition of Flow is too broad. However, if applied properly, it can literally happen in every game. In order to make a game special, it requires content that is more sophisticated than Flow experiences.
But when treated as a system Flow explains why people prefer certain games more than other games and how they become addicted towards these games. If a game meets all the core elements of Flow, any content could become rewarding, any premise might become engaging. [Sweetser & Wyeth 2005]
From the simplicity of Tetris to the complexity of Civilization IV, video games have already proven to the world that anything can be fun if players can access Flow.
Expand the Flow Zone
Assume the content is attractive to the audience. Designing a video game is very much about how to keep the player in the Flow and eventually be able to finish the game. Therefore, the game system needs to maintain different players' experiences inside the Flow Zone.
In Figure 2, the red curve represents an actual experience a player gained through playing one segment of a video game. The player may feel a certain part of the game experience is a little bit harder or easier than their expectation. But he can still tolerate and maintain his Flow experience inside the safe zone.
If the actual experience gets too far away from the Flow zone, the negative psychic entropy like anxiety and boredom will break player’s Flow experience (see Figure 3 below).
Unfortunately, like fingerprints, different people have different skills and Flow Zones. A well-designed game might keep normal players in Flow, but will not be as effective for hardcore or novice players (see Figure 4 below).
For example, a simple action to an FPS player such as shooting, might be an extremely difficult task for a casual gamer just starting a game. Even though the rest of the game might be something that casual gamers enjoy a lot, the harsh beginning just turns them off.
In order to design a game for broader audiences, the in-game experience can’t be linear and static. Instead, it needs to offer a wide coverage of potential experiences to fit in different players’ Flow Zones.
To expand a game's Flow Zone coverage, the design needs to offer a wide variety of gameplay experiences. From extremely simple tasks to complex problem solving, different players should always be able to find the right amount of challenges to engage during the Flow experience. These options of different gameplay experiences need to be obvious, so that when players first start the game they can easily identify the corresponding gameplay experience and delve into it.
Passive Flow Adjustment
The biggest dilemma on Flow adjustment is whether or not to create a system to adjust the gameplay for the player. Under this kind of passive system, players can enjoy the Flow experience fed by the system.
Much research centers around designing a system that adjusts the difficulty based on the player's performance. This kind of system-oriented DDA works under an iterative adjusting loop.
The loop consists of four fundamental elements:
- Player - Create raw data inside the game through playing
- Monitor System - Choose critical data reflecting player’s Flow state and pass it over Analysis System.
- Analysis System - Analyze player's Flow state and notify the Game System about what needs to be changed
- Game System - Apply changes to the gameplay based on the request from Analysis System
Theoretically, this system should be able to maintain player's Flow by constantly reacting to the feedback collected from him. [Bailey & Katchabaw 2005] However, there are still several key unsolved problems , which makes this type of passive flow adjustment hard to implement.
No direct data - Video games do not read what player thinks yet. Up until today, the most common connections between players and video games are still going through game controllers. With limited inputs, the possibility to sense player's Flow state directly is very low. Although there are biofeedback devices on the market, people still lack the knowledge for imaging data into Flow and emotions. Most of the measurements are still based on assumptions and incomplete statistics.
Performance does not mirror Flow - Video game designers and researchers have figured out ways to estimate player's performance through sampling limited data like “Total Kill”, “Accuracy” and “Headshot”. However, performance is objective while Flow is subjective. When a player is in the Flow of just jumping around in Super Mario Bro but not finishing any level, the DDA system will have trouble to sense that.
Analysis based on assumptions - Assumptions never work for mass audience. When a player enjoys performing a suicidal stunt in Grand Theft Auto, it would be ridiculous for a DDA system to assume that the player's skill is too poor because of the death count.
Changes are based on rigid design – The way a system adjusts its difficulty is pre-determined by the designer. Different designers use their own preferences when deciding how many changes should be applied; however, the individual preferences of a designer will never represent the preferences of a mass audience. [Costikyan 2004]
In addition to the portions included here, Jenova proposed methods of implementing 'Active Flow Adjustment', discusses the impacts and takeaways of playtesting, and shares his thoughts on 'Embedding Choices into Gameplay' as a method of determining a players flow state.
Read the full article here: http://jenovachen.info/design-flow
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