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Conflict as Applied to Mission Design

May 5, 2008

As players, we’ve all been sent on missions, and all missions are designed to resolve some type of conflict. The amount we invest emotionally in that conflict often determines how much we enjoy the mission.

Fedex missions (bring item X to person/place/thing Y) often fail to involve the player because their conflict is either missing entirely, hardly dramatic or meaningless. Good conflict involves the character or someone or something the character and player care about. Going to get the 5 pieces of tiger tooth to bring to the Wizard of Waffles makes players feel annoyed or delayed at best. Sure, you can say that the character cares deeply. An NPC in the game might even back you up on that. If the player doesn’t buy it, you’re done.

You need to wrap that mission in a conflict/story the player cares about. As fellow game designer Mark Nelson once told me, Lord of the Rings is a Fedex quest. You cared enough about that quest to watch all the films even after you had probably read all the books. That’s the difference emotional attachment and buy in can make in a mission.

Within that larger mission, there are dozens – maybe hundreds – of smaller missions (i.e. find the key to the lock), but the sheer strength of that large mission and the conflict that wraps it drives the rest along.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2008 11:36 pm

    The problem is that broad goals of this sort are little more than devices to get the gameplay going, so it’s easy to neglect their storytelling aspect. A mission should ideally have emotional appeal for the player, but in fact it’s nearly unimportant from a gameplay perspective. “Our princess has been kidnapped. Just follow the ground in that direction until you see a big castle. You’ll find her (I hope).”

    The mission is the hook, and is mostly utilitarian. The core gameplay and the story details — all the interesting stuff that happens on the way to the goal — is, of course, what matters most. Frodo wouldn’t know it, but the only reason he ended up with that ring is so he’d have all sorts of interesting experiences along the way.

  2. May 6, 2008 8:15 pm

    Are you saying the story isn’t important from a gameplay perspective? In some games, that may be true, but that’s a decision left up to each designer and to the genre as a whole. Many RPGs have incredibly deep story and gameplay.

  3. May 6, 2008 9:31 pm

    I suppose my answer depends on what “gameplay” is taken to mean in this context. If gameplay refers to the player’s participation in the game’s mechanics, then my answer is that story is mostly unimportant. If, on the other hand, gameplay refers to the entirety of the player’s experience, then my answer is that story can be essential.

    I agree that a mission without emotional investment can feel like a chore, and if there’s nothing along the way to grab my attention and suck me into the game that chore becomes a true waste of my time. I just think that an emotionally appealing mission with nothing else along the way to grab my attention is likewise a waste of my time.

    “Frodo reluctantly carries the ring all the way to Mordor” isn’t very interesting, except for the stuff that happens to him along the way.

  4. May 7, 2008 8:34 am

    Great blog! Been lurking for a bit…

    I think from a narrative perspective they can be fairly lackluster. However from a gameplay perspective, done in moderation they can provide a nice quick win if they are strategically placed between more involved quests. If I am on a long quest chain, its nice to come upon a a quest where I only need to deliver something. But of course most games use these quests as “filler” and abuse them.

  5. May 7, 2008 9:25 pm

    I remember when Animal Crossing came out a few years back, and it really plagued me why the fedex missions worked there, but didn’t seem to work in other games. After mulling it over for what seemed like weeks, I decided that it was because each quest in AC represented progress whereas in many games, they were used as roadblocks.

  6. May 7, 2008 9:56 pm

    I haven’t played Animal Crossing. Could you elaborate on the player’s perception of progress in Animal Crossing in contrast with other games?

    I see progress as a fundamental issue in game design, so I’m very interested in comments concerning progress in games. It’s easy to forget that challenges are there to make success possible, rather than to impede it.

  7. Chris permalink
    May 10, 2008 4:37 pm

    Animal Crossing was a unique game in that the player was asked to live in the game’s town. Yes, that’s it. It didn’t have the same aspect of raising your avatar like The Sims does, but it felt like everything you did was building onto a life you have established in the town. I have to get the game eventually so I can better understand how its mechanics work. Otherwise, I’d comment a bit further.

    Games have it difficult when it comes to conflict resolution because the easiest way to implement this is usually through fighting and action. “Journeying to save a princess” usually means having to defeat the guardian that imprisons her. “Surviving” usually means “last man standing”, and “Saving the world” usually means “saving the world from somebody“. I’m not complaining, although I’d like to see more examples of how conflict can be resolved other than fighting.

    Harvest Moon is a good example: you’ve got your grandfather’s old farm, get it running in three years and have a family before your parents come and see how you’re doing. It’s a farming game. I do think, however, it would have been funny if on the last day you, your horse, and your livestock had to ban together to save the town and your farm from a giant killer rabbit… but the game’s conflict isn’t solved through violence.

    Metal Gear requires you to stay away from conflict at the risk of being found and either captured or killed. Considering that premise it’s been very successful, even before Metal Gear Solid, especially in a world where most games require lots of violence to win.

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