August 2009's topic, Single-Play Sessions, was submitted by game designer and writer Andrea Phillips.
Games are designed with the understanding that each player needs to meet some requirements to get the best play experience. Hardware specifications and age or maturity level, for example, are even listed on the box. But game design also makes implicit assumptions about a less obvious requirement – the time commitment we ask from our players each time they sit down to play. This assumption can quietly influence saving systems, level size, challenge difficulty and more.
In a world where the average gamer is in the mid-30s and an ever-growing number of gamers juggle their spare time with the demands of career and family, the assumption that a gamer will sit and play however many hours it takes to get to the end of a level, a match, a mission or a save point is a risky proposition. The perception that a game is asking more than a player can give can limit the audience. The time has come for game designers to be mindful of the session length we’re asking from out players. But the act of fine-tuning a game with the player’s amount of free time in mind can have a far-reaching effect – doubly so for multiplayer games.
• How long can you reasonably expect a player to play in a single gaming session? What about for a multiplayer game?
• How much should a player be able to accomplish in that amount of time?
• How does that reasonable session length change depending on the game genre and demographic your game is trying to reach?
• Is a 20-minute gaming session necessarily different in quality from a three-hour session? Why and how?
• What does designing with shorter vs. longer sessions in mind mean? Do shorter sessions sacrifice narrative tension or game difficulty? Do longer sessions risk frustrating or completely losing many potential players?
• Does giving the player complete control over session length hinder your ability as a designer to effectively pace the action and narrative flow of your game?
• Does the ability to restore a save point from anywhere in a level, boss encounter, or match – even during a cut scene – run too high a risk of unbalancing a game system? Is this risk higher for some genres?
• Does allowing the player to save from anywhere completely solve the problem of the gamer with limited time, anyway?
• How do you fine-tune your game design to maximize narrative power, preserve pacing and game balance, and limit unnecessary player frustration?
Andrea Phillips is a freelance alternate reality game designer and writer, and has worked on projects like the award-winning Perplex City, True Blood’s Blood Copy campaign, and Channel 4’s RoutesGame.com. She is the chairman of the IGDA ARG SIG. She writes about games and digital culture at Deus Ex Machinatio.