Interactive Immersion is one of these game elements we've known to pay attention to when both designing games and measuring play involvement. While trying to maximize immersion, designers should be aware that life will interrupt at any time; hence the pause button's formality! Everyone has a built in “bladder control meter” that nags you and says, “get up and take care of IT before IT gets embarrassing!” However, when crafting a play session's length we don't need to concentrate on the length of time unless we seek to impart the player with a very specific, topical takeaway (dynamical meaning - Jon Blow) where the meaning is required - almost forced - to be understood within that fixed time frame. I mostly find that the summary of the play session, its narrative/story takeaway, mostly occurs between gameplay sessions (to be applied later), while in many art/indie games, the interactive takeaway is presented and employed during play, as if the understanding of it is message is desired to be exploited instantly. Maybe this is because many indie games, many of which are made for online platforms with varying access to drive space and a small length-of-play budgetary constraints, don't rely on saving mechanisms. This is probably a good thing and probably the main functional constraint that is allowing them to further game's meta-cognitive functions more that AAA productions have recently explored.
The following is some advice/suggestions for implementing a play session's takeaway without forcing a rigid play-time clock onto a player.
- Don't just measure the time per play session, measure how the player performs simple tasks and modify the delivery of the most relevant portions accordingly. Player profiles should be used to assist this, taking into consideration more than just the difficulty setting they are usually used to. How long they've been playing? how many times they've started the game? etc.
- How about instead of asking players “how difficult?”, ask “how much time do you have to play today?”... and balance for that! Not parental control like, where it just shuts off. Help them decide to take a break! Wii sports does this, but it should check first if you're in (willingly) for a marathon session...
- Game consoles will eventually have “web 2.0” calendar clients, etc. (Steam client lets you know of clan appointments already) If games already scale and balance their play objectives for co-op, why not balance for a lifestyle? Rock Band has learned from this! At parties their inclusion of a No Fail mode in a way that doesn't make the hard core feel guilty has been a buzzkill saviour. Things like that: just. Make. Sense.
- Game flow is crucial! Take a standard (unique to your game) time to introduce elements and match them with at least as many “chapters”, areas/levels, puzzles as things/verbs the player can perform... that lets them notice an interactive rhythm. If the game is meant to last 3 hours, why not change the atmosphere every hour to help with a perceivable rhythm?
- Vary level transitions, timing, atmosphere, to help them understand that time has actually passed.
- Attach meta-information when keeping an in-game completed objectives list and let players filter it for a character's verb/action meta-tag. For instance, every time you encounter a plot point, stamp the event's entry with tags such as “Hat”, “Ms. White”, “in the library”, “with the rope”, date/time, etc. Later, when the player is looking at their journal, if they select any clothing item, they'll be able to see what they've worn most frequently. Also add these tags to the Achievement you give them in order to increase its uniqueness.
- Avoid grading them if you're just going to show them a report card and ignore them until next “GPA” report. Implement a game mechanic that is a based on that grade, not just unlock some other ending. It's simply a waste to gather information about somebody and never put it to use... especially for our creative, dynamic purposes.
- NEVER PUNISH THEM FOR LEAVING A GAME SESSION. Never, EVER, prohibit the players' interactive ability, i.e. skipping non-interactive cut scenes.
- Let the game world mature with the player, like pulling weeds in Animal Crossing. Allow the game world to grow and change as the player spends time with the game
- Don't just change the environment because they got to it, change it according to how long it took them to get there.
- “However harsh the winter, people love going through the seasons”, use a real-time date/clock (NiGTHS' 12/25 Christmas day session).
- •Manage the player's sense of time dilation. Help them modify interface narrative elements like speed of animations, transitions, cut scenes, dialogue, etc. to their liking.
Hard and extreme difficulty selections artificially inflate the length of a game session; and the quicksave-quickload cycle erodes play sessions by removing softening the impact of choice. If one of our strengths is dynamic construction, why not shift the session's difficulty through different game mechanics, where they'll help the player understand and manipulate "emergence" more directly by exposing the underlying meta-information more readily. Some games already do this (Goldeneye's multiplayer settings, Left 4 Dead's The Director) and help the player understand the game at a meta-layer, but most games let players modify these settings in multiplayer only, not single "parent” mode. “This is the only level!” by Armor games implements this expertly... if you know the play session will require repeat visits, then make the repetitions as meaningful and as uniquely playful as possible.
I believe that games will extend the Input Process Output cycle... breaking through the 6th wall: to show players we know what they're thinking; i.e. Input, Process, Output, Reaction, Acknowledgement. This is where bio-sensors are going to lead to; to a companion medium that truly reacts to and engages you with its awareness of your individuality. Much like how HAL behaved when playing chess with Dave ;-) Just imagine a game that knew how you felt, how to know you and how you're affected by the experience – like a mom reads to a child. It could then heighten or reduce the intensity of a play session; lengthen or shorten its duration, customized for how YOU feel or have indicated you want to feel. Once this exists, we could assist players with a way to interactively earmark any experience in our unique way; nuanced with individuality, meaning, and care. Regardless of the technology being available or not, we need to be designing with this in mind today, some people already are... and it's coming faster than you think.
Repetition creates familiarity with a creator's style... the message AND “voice” in the piece. Just like a good song AND musician becomes GREATER to the listener through more listens, so do games. So, sometimes less (shorter) is more (long lasting) because it lets you revisit it again ang again. A literary example of this “brevity as wit” is Hemingway's “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” <-that's the whole story! In Jason Rohrer's Passage you can explore the sense of loss and mortality in just 5 minutes... a record of sorts. The authorial voice is loud, which is not surprising since he did it all himself! Yet it takes Final Fantasy 7, more than 15 hours to “kill” Aeris and share with you a similar statement... the grinding being obviously negative; even to SquareEnix. I cannot truly suggest to extend these shorter visions through longer lengths of time, or to spread them across a predetermined minimum number of play sessions; they achieved what they set out to prove within those constraints and succeeded.
We can't pretend to build on our strengths without consensus and common goals; being like giving a foreigner only a dictionary of our local argot and hoping he can understand all our literature. We shouldn't just settle for spell checkers to accept “gameplay”, “multiplayer”, etc without red marks. Of course, the length of time a player will spend on any game will always depend on their enjoyment and understanding of current in-game events along with our ability to communicate these game structures to them. Let's give them tools to bolden and highlight a session and to know what to write on the margins. Let's manipulate that 6th wall and notice how players fluctuate between conscious and subconscious mental models of a game's challenges; i.e. what they explore in the possibility spaces of our creations, that which lies between what they remember has happened, what they're attempting, what they know they could do, what they suppose could happen, and what they want to accomplish; all the while competing against real life – a challenge we should only accept responsibly by teaching them to trust that you or your game is not cheating or toying with their time! Let's borrow “closure” as a main gameplay element and let's notice what we implement at all cognitive layers, so when they explore the game's context and discover a meta-component, we greet them there, with a grin, saying “aren't we clever, and aren't you some kind of genius!”. So don't punish them for leaving you, “if you love them, let them go” with closure! When they come back - and they will... help them reminisce about the good ol' times, as many times as they will need.
Keyvan Acosta lives in Orlando, FL where he is a game designer and musician. He also teaches a 2 month game project at Full Sail University and is also the founder/host of a most excellent game development workshop called theplaymine.com, dedicated to "mining play" through the creation of experimental games, the evaluation of game development techniques, and the joy of working in a collaborative environment.