Holy Flow

I think game design is equal part art and science. I have been looking for some time now, for an objective system to make good games. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a simple checklist we could go through, then add some of our own personality to it and voila, we have an amazing game?

Right now we have methods of doing it but they take a long time. We make many iterations, testing many ideas. Most ideas seem good in our heads but ultimately fail in reality. What if we had a system to check these ideas beforehand?

Let me introduce the concept of Flow. You might have heard of this mental state. It isn’t anything new and people have been applying it to game design already (for more info links at the bottom).

I’m reading a book called “The Rise of Superman” recently. It is a detailed chronicle about how extreme action & adventure sports men get into the flow state. About the enjoyment, the sense of purpose and the impossible they achieve in the Zone (another term for ‘flow’). The discoveries they make on Flow apply to us all. If you haven’t yet read the book (I highly recommend), trust me on this understanding, that Flow – is the Holy Grail we’ve been looking for.

Flow is why we play games.

How easy we get into the flow state and how long it lasts is a direct measurement of how good a game is.

This is amazing news because we have a goal by which we can objectively quantify how good a game is. You know a game is good when you experience all or any of the following:

* Extreme focus on a task.
* A sense of active control.
* Merging of action and awareness.
* Loss of self-awareness.
* Distortion of the experience of time.
* The experience of the task being the only necessary justification for continuing it.

If we steer gameplay experience so the players achieve these states, we are at home. Now here is how we do it. The following is a features list a game should have. Consider it a checklist on how to build a perfect game. Match and mix methods and mechanics described under each section.

[ ]  Risk
In order to ‘force’ the state in the player he needs a big enough motivation to concentrate. The best way to achieve this is how action & adventure athletes do it – they risk their life. We can do this with less extreme measures in games, yet still requiring attention.

Methods: loss, humiliation, exposure

a) perma death
b) unforgiving (lack of save games)
c) leaderboards
d) periodical gameplay (eg. once per round, once pre week/day)
e) loss of comfort/powerup (eg. big Mario becoming small again)

[ ]  Rich environment

Boredom kills flow. The environment must constantly be stimulating to the player to grab his attention at all times.

Methods: novelty, complexity, dangers and opportunity, anything can happen, awe, beauty

a) random generators
b) awe-inspiring visuals, sounds & effects
c) many different/new environments

[ ]  Deep embodiment
In order to lose touch with himself and his body the player must immerse himself totally into the game world. He must come to a state absent of emotion and self awareness where all he experiences is what the game is feeding him.

Methods: immersion, involving all senses, stimulating all senses


a) stimulating graphics
b) sounds
c) music
d) motion (eg. camera)
e) feel (control)
f) character is the player (eg. mute Gordon Freeman)
g) minimal or no HUD
h) smooth gameplay (reduce frustration, some is good but not ‘rage quit’)
(no interruptions! – interruptions cause 15 mins to get back into flow)

[ ]  Humility
Humility is a *binder*. It binds all the other aspects together. If the player grasps the game and is humble towards the mechanics he will open up and increase the flow of information, leading to a better game experience, better scores and better immersion.

Methods: intuitivness, focus, presence


a) intuitive controls
b) no explanations needed (no tutorials)
c) “NO BS”
d) perfect mechanics (no room for more features)

[ ]  Clear simple goal
The goal should be challenging yet manageable. Inspiring by its grandiosity yet motivating to start if chunked down.

Methods: presentation, visualization, imagination

a) high scores
b) levels/chapters
c) tasks/subtasks
d) goal always in front of you (eg. combine tower in HL2)
e) showing or forcing to imagine roadmap to goal (visualization increases chances of success)
d) 3rd person cameras
e) maps

[ ]  Immediate feedback
Only with a sense that the game is managable and learnable can the player focus and enter the Zone. He needs a sense of purpose of his actions. Feedback is a necessary component of learning which gives purpose and ultimately satisfaction.

Methods: responsiveness, clarity, logic, familiarity

a) effects (sounds, graphics, particles, motions)
b) understandable scores
c) responsive controls
d) responsive world (nothing static – everything jiggles, dings, pings etc.)
e) instant replays
f) clear reason for losing
g) clear path to avoiding mistake next time
h) what you see is what you get (no hidden mechanics)

[ ]  Hard but not too hard
Flow can only be maintained if the bar is constantly raising. If the challenge stops, flow stops. If there is no challenge, there is no flow.

Methods: science shows that tasks should be exactly (at all times) 4% greater than current skills to induce flow

a) game metrics / AI director
b) always increasing difficulty (Tetris!)
c) similar skill level for multiplayer
d) competitive scene (clan wars)

[ ]  Companionship
As humility was a binder, so companionship is an *enhancer*. When other people watch you everything changes. Suddenly there is much more at stakes. Suddenly there is much more to win.

Methods: transparency, communication, human touch, unpredictability, rivalry

a) competitive multiplayer
b) cooperative
c) leaderboards
d) community
e) chat / emoticons

[ ]  The pattern
Finally here is a map of an ideal game experience (which throws you into flow) and after this an example showing how this all works in a real game.

The pattern goes like this A->B->C->D->A->B->C->D->A… and corresponds to phases a player goes through while playing a level or part of the game.

Struggle -> Release -> Flow -> Recovery -> Struggle…

A. **Struggle**- awkwardness, frustration, unsolvable, analyzing chunks and patterns, leaping faith – “I can do it”
B. **Release** – failure, do something else, relax
C. **Flow** – return to challenge, finally “got it”, in the zone
D. **Recovery** – break from gameplay, leveling up, feedback, learning

Example game:

“Hotline Miami”

a) Struggle
Hotline Miami is extremely difficult in the beginning yet the goal is clear and very clear how to achieve it. The top-down view helps visualizing the path to success.

b) Release
The player can choose a variety of different “heads” before entering a level. These heads give different perks and abilities. It is a method of “stepping back” and trying something different. Sometimes even relaxing and doing something for fun (the weapons choice menu in Soldat works in a similar way).

c) Flow
This game can only be beaten in flow. This is why it is not uncommon that people finish the whole game in one seating. After accomplishing such a feat they don’t remember what they did, they just know “this was the best game ever”.

d) Recovery
Hotline Miami has intermittent levels that on first look serve no purpose. Between every mission you have a “shop” level where you can walk in a shop and talk to your clerk friend. Also before a mission starts you start at your apartment which reveals some details about your characters life (like a naked women in bathtub or bed). These serve only as a relief and recovery time. Something that takes the players mind off of the game, while his brain “compiles” and levels up for the next level.

Release and Recovery can be achieved artificially outside of the game. Simply stop playing and do something else. Return and you will be much better. However great games introduce these elements inside the game so there is no need to step away and you’re fully immersed and leave the state of Flow only after you finish the game.


More info:
[Gamasutra article about Flow and games]
[Art of Manliness podcast about Rise of Superman]

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