Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Shrink to Success (Part I)

In Part I of this article, game designer Josh Sutphin elaborates on how "short-form" games ultimately lead to a more engaging experience for the player.

Shortly after the success of Portal, a movement for shorter games began to form. It hasn't gained much momentum in the mainstream, but game designers are beginning to recognize the advantages of "short-form" games, and I predict that producers and publishers will join the chorus within the next few years.

When I say "short-form" games, I'm speaking comparatively. A short-form game, for purposes of this discussion, is one which is significantly shorter than a mainstream AAA title; specifically, a game of roughly 2-4 hours in length, regardless of genre. The establishment of specific duration criteria implies that the game is at least somewhat driven by narrative, if not largely so; for example, it would be difficult -- if not impossible -- to quantify the duration of Tetris, so such non-narrative games are omitted from this discussion.

Short-form games can be uniquely compelling in ways their longer cousins can't. For starters, their shorter duration necessarily eliminates "filler" gameplay, resulting in a more-or-less uninterrupted state of player education. This is compelling because, at their core, games are learning machines. The process of play is a cycle of learning, then applying:


When new concepts are being learned -- whether they're mechanics, environments, characters, or plot situations -- player engagement rises. When known concepts are subsequently applied, or "tested", engagement may begin high, but quickly falls as the application of the concept becomes repetitive; this is "filler" gameplay. The education of new concepts introduces novelty into the game flow and helps maintain player interest over time, but filler -- too-long periods of application without learning -- breaks the game flow and ultimately bores players.

Short-form games don't have room for filler; thus, short-form games need not break the flow of education. New concepts can be educated to the degree necessary to ensure mastery, then applied for just long enough to provide validation of the new skill (and no longer!) The learn-apply cycle is compressed, resulting in greater overall player engagement:


Short-form games also tend to be more focused, in terms of both gameplay and story. Less overall content means room for fewer mechanics and fewer plot points, so short-form designers have to make the most of what they have.

, for example, has very few mechanics:
  • Fire blue portal
  • Fire orange portal
  • Pick up (and drop) objects (e.g. Weighted Companion Cube)
  • Turrets
  • Crushing pistons
  • Jump pads
  • Bouncing energy balls (with matching conduits)
By contrast, Grand Theft Auto IV:
  • Driving (cars)
  • Driving (motorcycles)
  • Helicopter piloting
  • Melee combat
  • Gun combat
  • Cover system
  • Cell phone
  • Bowling
  • Darts
  • Pool
  • Drunk-driving (and drunk-walking)
  • "Wanted" system
  • Vigilante missions
  • Internet cafes
  • Clothing customization
  • Safehouse customization
That GTA4 has a longer list of mechanics than Portal is neither surprising nor disturbing. But try ticking off, for both lists, the mechanics which were implemented poorly, and a very different picture quickly emerges. A major strength of short-form games' necessary focus is that while they contain fewer mechanics, those mechanics are generally of a more uniform, and higher, quality.

The same goes for game stories. The stories in Braid, Knytt Stories, and World of Goo are simple, digestible, and most importantly, thematically and ludo-narratively coherent. By contrast, the stories of games like Metal Gear Solid 4 are sprawling, often incomprehensible, and packed with useless information and a low proportion of memorable moments. Not that I support games uncritically aping film, but there's a useful maxim in screenwriting that applies to writing scenes: "Get in late, get out early." The idea is that by presenting only the most irreducible core of a scene you increase audience comprehension of that scene, and by extension its impact and memorability. Put another way: distracting the audience with irrelevant or redundant content not only makes that content suck; it also drags down the perception of the "good stuff".

So far, it all boils down to focus: short-form games are necessarily more focused than long-form ones, and therefore less likely to break the flow of player education or distract the player with meaningless content, leading to an ultimately more engaging experience.

Josh Sutphin is the design lead at LightBox Interactive (formerly Incognito Entertainment). He also produces mods, indie games, and electronic music, and blogs on game design and politics, at


Reid Kimball said...

Josh, that's a convincing argument and I liked the use of the graphs. Did you make them? I'd suggest tweaking the "Apply" segments to show they do provide engagement at first, even if for a short while and then the majority of the "Apply" segment shows a sharp drop.

As you mention, players do enjoy applying what they've learned, might as well include that in the vertical climb upwards, however small it may be?

I'd go with an even shorter list for Portal, which I assume you mean player mechanics?

* Fire blue portal
* Fire orange portal
* Pick up (and drop) objects (e.g. Weighted Companion Cube)
* Jumping
* Running/walking

RE: Bouncing energy balls (with matching conduits) (having trouble remembering this part... didn't players simply use the portals to redirect the energy balls? If so, I'd axe this as well. That leaves us with four player mechanics.)

Again, for GTA even if you only list player mechanics and not game systems (like wanted system), the list is still larger than Portals and your point is still valid.


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