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The +1 Road to Happiness

May 30, 2009

Mona_LisaConsider this for a sec: you are ridiculously happy, genuinely deep down happy, and people actually notice this about you. Where does that come from, and what does this state of delirious happiness have to do with games?

As you may have noticed in a previous post, I’ve been giving thought to the concept of happiness lately and how that structures our play and design experiences both in the real and virtual worlds. I believe there is great value in the line, “Happiness comes to those who wait,” and there is also something to be said for the amazing power of +1.

In a larger sense, we may be in search of something in a game (or in the real world, for that matter). This thing that we search for, we may know it precisely (the Holy Grail), in part (a killer on the loose) or not at all (we become aware of a general progression toward something amazing). In the case of an unintentional search where we get on to something we weren’t expecting without a precise idea of where the hell we’re going, we’ll often follow a path because it just feels right, and we like the journey. The world gives us all the right feedback, and though we don’t know what we’re on to, we do know that we are onto something.

It is the process, the path, that are important.

In game worlds, we structure this progression toward happiness through rewards. They are doled out generously – visual and sound effects, XP or points, items, levels, finishing animations, new areas to explore, or special recognition through an Xbox live achievement. In digital games, rewards come every two minutes at least. In non-digital games, these rewards take a little longer, and each is an incremental step toward that big thing that we desire – the raid, the boss or the object that we’ve been looking for.

The challenge in reward delivery is to keep people interested in the progression from intent to object and the formation of intent to clear agency.

Intent to Object

Upon arrival in the world, you have been tasked with finding an object rumored to be incredibly powerful. The last known location of this object, however, was with a man who hasn’t been seen for well over a hundred years. The object itself drove him mad, and so to protect everyone else from its power, he sacrificed himself and died with the object still in his possession. It took the player at least 50 hours to complete this quest, and as its designer, I remember feeling a sense of great pleasure when I’d completed the long, long list of things that needed to happen from mission assigned -> mission accomplished. For those of you horrified at the thought of a 50 hour quest, bear in mind that this was in the days of the old school RPGs where 70 hours of game play was not uncommon.

There can be (and were) over 400 quests of various sizes between you and that object. Those 400 quests – those little +1’s – provided you with something key to  your experience: it provided you many incremental steps of desire, discovery, reward and recognition. These steps are essential to building the necessary anticipation and ultimate pay off the game has in store.

Intent to object, however, is fairly basic unless it truly becomes something the player wants versus a roadblock.

You Reminded Me

Through these many +1’s, we build a library of knowledge about a person, a quest or a story. Each +1 serves to reinforce our current beliefs, modify them for the better (or for the worse). In a game, such incidents can serve to remind us of previous successes, and as a designer, these +1’s are essentially freebies.

Consider for a moment how you feel as you fall into that heady space of affection with another human being. There is a beginning flirt and ultimately a wonderful feeling pervasive happiness, and each thing said reminds you of previous things said. Collectively, they gather together to present what ultimately becomes an amazing human being.

These same principles can apply to our games. If we provide small rewards along the way, each of which builds upon the last, we craft a tight space in which the player can experience not only the immediate success, but be reminded of past successes while building anticipation for the future. They form clear agency.

Intent to Clear Agency

Through these many +1’s, through this building anticipation, through the attachment of repeated success, reward and feedback along the way, ultimately, this intent to object becomes intent to clear agency. It is something the player wants because she wants it, wants to solve it, wants to complete the circle that started her down this path in the first place. It is something that players deeply desire, and this desire goes beyond the game itself. It becomes what the game is about, and something we will brag about to our friends.

If you’re reading this article, odds are high that you have experienced moments of waking up where the first thought in your head is about completing a quest or perhaps waking to turn the page on book you couldn’t bare to put down the night before and instead fell asleep reading. This type of direct player agency is the highest kind. Carrying an object from point A to point B because some random NPC told you so isn’t.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. June 2, 2009 6:42 pm

    I was playing a mmorpg the other day and I realised that, perhaps obviously, I was imagining the games depiction of a world as I went along in it. This was a reflexive sort of imagining – not really deliberate on my part. Might call it unconcious or subconcious imagining. I realised I was creating a mental structure as much as if I had deliberately decided to imagine a world in my head, just while staring at the clouds one day.

    Now as much as it wasn’t deliberate imagining, it occured to me that the only way to imagine it in this undeliberate/subconcious way, was to play the game. I’ll hypothesize: I was addicted, because while my subconcious mind would want to think of this world, it could only imagine it through gameplay. It was a feeling that I could not forfil this want/desire myself, that I needed the game to forfil it.

    And in terms of a typical book, that’s true – you can’t exactly imagine how a book turns out. But in a standard mmorpg, there’s hardly any of what a book has – it’s all fairly…predictable. The feeling I need the game is a false one – I can imagine the games world without the game – it just came up because I started imagining it without intended to and that imagination was triggered by the game, so there was an association in my mind that the game was needed to imagine.

    Okay, now to make this really complicated – games are an interactive medium. They can’t be like books, otherwise it’s not an interactive medium, it’s doing puzzles/busy work simply to turn a page. So the player needs to be able to decide stuff (ie, imagine stuff himself, then implement it). But at the same time, in conflict with that is that too much of that and the user could imagine it all by himself anyway (and there’s just the feeling he needs the game to imagine it). It wont be at all like a book where you do indeed need the thing in order to imagine the next part. There’s an inate conflict there between freedom, and so much freedom there’s no need for the product at all.

  2. Chris Pioli permalink
    June 4, 2009 7:21 pm

    Fantastic article, as usual, Brenda. I can think of two games that in partial terms exemplify this – Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV (I was a jrpg fan as a kid, and few of my experiences come from American games, unfortunately).

    At one point in Chrono Trigger, the game acknowledges you have reached the point where you can go through the last dungeon and confront final boss; however, it also hints at other objectives that have emerged in the world. Talking to the different characters in your group reveals additional details on these objectives as well. Furthermore, all these events can be taken on in any order (literally, non-linearly). You are rewarded in four ways: additional experience, new items, character development, and the conclusion of sub-plots and conflicts. Each of these can be thought of as +1 roads to happiness, if that’s the proper way to redefine the term in your blog entry’s title. As objectives, they can be accomplished and will give you rewards. The one possible drawback is that they are all optional – you can skip them over if you want and fight to the final boss and complete the game.

    Final Fantasy VI is incredibly similar. After certain tragedies occur and your entire party is thrown in turmoil, you are dispersed. The player then takes control of a certain character who has woken from a coma after a significant period of time has elapsed. After riding a raft from your deserted island to the mainland, meeting up with three other team members and finding a new airship, you are able to fly to the final dungeon, and fight the final boss. Unlike in Chrono Trigger, this time going into the final dungeon is suicide: it’s a puzzle-based dungeon requiring you to split up into three teams, and you would be lucky enough to survive a few fights before game over. The game forces you to search for your former allies, and on the way you meet new people, resolve old conflicts, level up, and find new weapons and armor. This time the +1 roads of happiness are near-mandatory (as in 99.9% mandatory), and if you go through all of them and bring back every character you’re rewarded at the end with a depiction of that character escaping the final dungeon. It’s as breathtaking and cinematic as a game can be, for its time. Its sole weak point is that it is very linear: certain characters are not available to re-recruit until particular in-game events occur. Another indication of this linearity: you can tell the game designers want you to enter particular dungeons first because their inhabitants are at lower levels than monsters in other dungeons.

    Those are my two favorite and most obvious examples. I can’t think of any way to expand on the topic right now without going into a tangent or off topic. I always try to take those extra quests, because they end up being very rewarding. My only problem is that they don’t always feel as rewarding as I’d like them to (in some games, at least).

  3. June 6, 2009 9:17 pm

    The twitter game notification is interesting. I can think of two solutions to the challenge.
    I’m just going to call the messages sent from game to twitter twit-achievements.

    1. To reduce flooding, make the a real challenge. Something that won’t be said often, something that would make the player proud that he/she achieved what others could not. This would make the twit-achievements rare and possibly ignite conversation of the game and in turn promote others to play and achieve some hard score. You can do this two ways. Make the twit-achievements really hard to obtain, or keep the activation of the twit-achievements hidden, acting kind of like a surprise.

    2. This one is unlikely but it could work.
    Twitter and/or face book should release a filter to swift through people’s non-game tweets, hard twit-achievements, medium twit-achievements, and easy twit-achievements. It would be like they launched a platform within itself though.

    Ya soo…those are just my thoughts.

  4. June 14, 2009 12:17 pm

    This is incredibly true, and what interests me most is how true it is for real life as much as it is for games. Inasmuch as the act of living resembles a quest, viewing the goal, progress, and experience of one’s life through this lens can yield some remarkable insight and clarity. What is more, it can be a surprisingly powerful engine of hope when we feel lost, directionless, in crises of confidence or purpose. Fascinating, Brenda 🙂

    • June 20, 2009 7:21 pm

      Thanks, David. At present, it is my favorite post, and you’re right, it is very much about real life, too.

  5. June 24, 2009 6:14 pm

    A bit late to the show.

    It’s interesting to consider this in MMOs, because the focus has generally been on the +1 as the main form of gameplay instead of in support of the gameplay. Richard Bartle identified one type of player who enjoys this focus in gameplay, the Achievers, and most games have catered to that style of play more than others. It’s interesting to consider what happens when the +1s dominate the game instead of guiding it.

  6. June 24, 2009 7:08 pm

    Brian, that is an interesting parallel. Would you say that all the +1’s in MMOs are ultimately leading us toward the raids or are they the goal alone? I think it’s possible to consider these +1s as almost meaningless if the game has become a purely social event, perhaps something only to pass the time.

  7. June 29, 2009 1:25 am

    It depends if the mmo has become more like a pub or coffee shop and the +1’s are the beers or coffees you have while socialising there. That’s a focus on socialising.

    I’m pretty sure Brian is talking about a focus on gameplay rather than socialising, but not a focus on achiever gameplay and instead some other gameplay type.

  8. July 1, 2009 7:41 pm

    This is why Dwarf Fortress is so much fun. The only goals are player created, and it gives you an entire warehouse full of different tools to play with. Some of my best memories of gaming were playing Ultima 6: try to get a free set of plate mail off a town guard without getting flagged as a theif, Ultima 9: fill Lord British’s throne room with bones and pile his throne with skulls, Morrowind: collect a full set of every armor type and put them on display in my house and the Wing Commander series: kill 100% of all killable enemies in both games and their expansions (yes, I actually did this by telling my wingmen to return to base at the start of every mission and restarting the level if a required wingman got a kill or an enemy jumped away)

    Games where the only reward is the scripted hand-off to the next quest might kill some hours, but I’ll never reminisce about them 15 years from now.

  9. July 26, 2009 11:00 am

    my God, i thought you were going to chip in with some decisive insght at the end there, not leave it with we leave it to you to decide.

  10. itwillbemiles permalink
    June 20, 2010 9:19 pm

    I very much prefer the create your own gameplay style of games. GTA was my first experience with this in GTA 3. I was able to choose my own goals and set challenges for myself. There was enough interactivity in the world that I didn’t even need to complete the missions.

    I rarely ever played a mission in GTA yet I’m sure I logged 100+ hours over the entire series.

    I’m playing The Sabateur at the moment and it follows a very similar methodology. I can choose to play the somewhat linear missions and complete a set of tasks set up for me by the game developer, or utilize the tools they provided me with to seek out small goals of my own.

    In The Sabateur you are provided with white icons on your map after you have purchased the appropriate upgrades that show you freeplay targets. These include all of the little Nazi propaganda and armor locations etc. You can set charges and destroy them earning contraband to purchase more items. I often find myself setting up my own little missions. I’ll set the goal to take out Object 1 by killing Gaurd A while Gaurd B isn’t looking. Then while Gaurd B is investigating the death of his neighbor I can sneak behind him and take out the Object. Sometimes several of these objects are set close together and I will try to take down the whole camp. None of this is controlled by the game itself.

    There is something about setting up these goals for myself that I love. I think the game would take part of the fun and exploration out of these experiences if I walked up to one of these camps and it set an objective to “destroy the camp”. If I die its obvious that I failed, I don’t need the game to reinforce the negative feelings associated with that. If I do destroy everything the clearing of the white dots on the map is very satisfying.


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