Principles of Good Game Design - Part 4 - Flow in Games

This is part four of my feature on good game design. I’ve gathered a bunch of principles of good game design from various game designers, including myself. I will present one every day and gather them all in a final blog post next week. Some of these are arguable and, of course, they shouldn’t be followed religiously. After all, game design is a creative act, where magic sometimes occurs when breaking the laws or principles of what a good game is. But they can be used as general guidelines, I suppose. After a description of each principle, I’ve selected a game that I believe adheares particularly well to said principle. When the feature is over, I will tell you about how I’m trying to incorporate some of the principles in my upcoming Iphone/Ipad game, called Bouncy Flame.

Principle 4: Flow in Games
“Get players to experience flow”:

The flow theory is used in psychology and developed by
Csikszentmihalyi in 1990 in his book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience". He has observed how some activities, such as painting, mountain-climbing, and other leisure sports, are often carried out simply because we want to. There is no external, material reward connected to these activities. Instead, our motivation is to get into a flow state - a basic human desire. The flow state is one of intense immersion, in which our attention and concentration completely revolve around a certain activity. There is a loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, a merging of action and awareness, and no place for thoughts unrelated to the activity. In flow, you feel as if you alone can affect your fate. The idiom ”to be in the zone” summarizes this state fairly well. Though flow isn’t specifically aimed at games, but has a broader scope, Csikszentmihalyi specifically mentions games as potentially flow-inducing.

So how should we bring players into flow? Csikszentmihalyi sets up several necessary criteria. First off, the difficulty has to match our abilities, so we are suitably challenged. This is a fine balance. A game, which is too easy, gets us more easily distracted by other things. If too hard, we get frustrated. The game has to strike the right balance and keep getting more difficult as we improve our skills. Having multiple difficulty options at the start of the game is obviously a good starting point, as players’ general game-playing abilities differ wildly. An increasing difficulty curve, where gameplay gets progressively more complex, and follows players’ skill developments is also vital. In order to achieve this balance, extensive play-testing is required.

A single, clearly defined overall goal is also important. Without it, we can’t keep an intense focus on the task at hand. This actually goes well with my first principle, stating that unwanted and distracting trial-error incidents tend to occur when our goal is unclear.

Feedback mechanisms are also vital, which is exactly what my third principle deals with. We need to constantly be told whether we are getting closer to or further away from our goal. This keeps us motivated.

We also need a sense of control in an otherwise uncertain situation. Again, this is a question of balance. If the game plays itself too much, we are unlikely to experience flow, because we lack a sense of empowerment. On the other hand, if the empowerment is so strong that we can easily control our surroundings, the challenge is compromised. Imagine dying in a game and just restarting exactly at the same spot with no loss experienced. There would be no incentive for us to concentrate on the task. We would be practically immortal – too empowered. Thus there has to be some frightening, chaotic elements – that keep us on our toes and reminds us that the risk of failure is always looming just around the corner.

Principle found in Geometry Wars:
Many puzzle games considerably adhere to this principle. Geometry Wars is certainly one of them – perhaps the most extreme together with Tetris.

In Geometry Wars, the goal is very clear: It’s all about surviving the hordes of enemies spawning in endless waves. Feedback mechanisms are plentiful too. Colorful particles spawn upon enemy destruction, and score increases and power-ups reward the player often. There’s also an increasing difficulty curve, making sure that enemies get harder and more numerous as a game session proceeds. Finally, you do indeed feel a sense of control in an otherwise chaotic environment. The game feels immensely chaotic as dozens of triangular shapes move about on the screen shooting at you, while bombs and vortexes frequently inhabit the screen. Your heart is pumping as you narrowly avoid an enemy and just manages too shoot a suicidal space ship before impact. These actions are made all the more nerve-wrecking as the consequences of failure are severe: you have to restart entirely. The sense of being constantly "in the zone” is supported by a hypnotizing trance beat.

Despite the amount of chaos, a good player can survive for a long time, indicating that the game is immensely skill-based and that it’s possible to exercise some degree of control over this this insanely chaotic play field.

I hope this all makes sense. If it does, please like it on Facebook☺ Look in the blog archive to the left for more game design principles.

Read about all 8 game design principles here.