Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Motivating Players in an Engaging Way (Part I)

In Part I of this article, scholar Altug Isigan asks why not all motivational game mechanics are necessarily engaging and why they often feel like they are wasting our time.

It happens all too often that we lose our motivation exactly because of the mechanics that were supposed to achieve such motivation. I believe that one of the reasons for this is that game designers have too much faith in reward systems and do not tie them strong enough to narrative structures that foster a strong sense of game progression. In the first part of this article, I will address the concept of increasing tension in order to explain the forces behind a strong sense of progression. Later on, I will give examples from cases in which the increasing tension principle is ignored and what impact this has on player experience.

What Keeps Players Moving?

Increasing tension is one of the oldest and most valued principles in drama. It denotes the piling up of pressure on the protagonist during her struggle to defeat her opponent(s). Usually the pressure will continue to pile up until the story reaches a climax. The protagonist will be then given a relief through a solution which sets an end to the conflict [1]. We experience such pressure in casual games like Tetris and Zuma, or in more complex games like Counter-Strike, where we watch our team members being shot one by one until we are finally left all alone in an hostile environment with lethal enemies just waiting behind the corner.

Expressed through a graph, we can visualize increasing tension as something that works on the vertical axis and therefore is concerned with rise of plot. In other words, in order to have increasing tension it is not enough that events mark time (progress on the horizontal axis only), but their development must also equal to a rise in plot and translate into a further step towards the solution of the conflict.

Necessity (facing an inescapable threat) is usually what gives the story the momentum that makes the vertical axis work. The protagonist would keep struggling until the threat (or herself) is eliminated. Once the solution of the clash between protagonist and threat has been reached, the driving force behind the vertical axis is exhausted and the climbing stops.

The Scope of Dramatic Tension

This sort of dramatic structure can be installed over a variety of scopes. For example within a single act (or, within a scene) it would consist of
  • the set-up of the character’s particular goal for that scene;
  • the actions she carries out to reach the particular goal;
  • the answer to the posed problem (whether she reaches the particular goal or not).
Typical examples would be game levels in Mario, Diablo or Medal of Honor. But we can observe the presence of such a structure on smaller or larger scales too. For example, the particular actions within a scene might have increasing tension: will I be quick enough to place this falling block into that slot? On a larger scale on the other hand (between scenes for example), it means that with each new scene, something is added to the problem that had been brought onto that level of complexity through previous scenes: the cup final in the Konami Cup in Pro Evolution Soccer has been reached after many tough matches and it's such a shame that our most important striker is suspended due to the yellow card limit he reached because of a stupid foul in the previous match.

These examples allow us to say that increasing tension is a matter of causality, of creating a causal chain that brings increasing complexity to an initial problem [2]. Motivation is firmly established within the necessity that the plot structure generates. The reasons that keep the player moving feel real to her. As a result engagement and immersion are reached.


[1] We should refrain from interpreting the word solution as something that must be in favor of the protagonist. Solution is first and foremost the logical extension to conflict, not character. Hence, an ending that sees the protagonist fail (like for example in the play Hamlet, in the movie Braveheart, or in the card game Solitaire) is a solution because it brings an end to conflict.

[2] It is essential that all new scenes are connected to the initial problem (the conflict); otherwise we witness a problem that is called deviation, i.e., the story goes into a direction that leads outside the initial premise. Typically, a spectator’s response to that would be that she can no longer tell where the story is headed towards.

Altug Isigan is a scholar at the Eastern Mediterranean University, Department of Radio-TV and Film, in sunny Famagusta, Cyprus, where he is writing a dissertation on narrative in games. You can read more of his work at his blog, the Ludosphere.


Sande said...

Great observation! I wrote an article for Gamasutra that uses the same kinds of graphs to map story arc with other game elements, such as art, gameplay, and sound. It's at

altugi said...

Thanks a lot! At the time I read your article I was very surprised to see someone saying things like "dramatic gameplay". That was exactly the way I was seeing things and therefore very exciting for me. The article showed that a holistic approach is not only defendable, but also very useful. And yes, the graphs in that were great!

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