Game Design Part 2: Whatever happened to our sense of adventure?

Matthew Warneford

A virtual world is a place to have fun with friends. Sounds so simple, but what makes a world fun? It’s certainly more than rooms and mini games; like bolting wings onto a car wont make it fly, adding mini games into a world doesn’t automatically make it fun! Flight and fun are two concepts that really ought to be designed in from the start.

So where do we start? Thankfully some very smart people have developed frameworks that we can use – these aren’t rules that guarantee success, human nature just isn’t as predictable as physics. As the second post in this series on game design we’re sharing one of our favourite frameworks: the three types of immersion. Lets begin.

Ernest Adams separated immersion into three categories: narrative, strategic, and tactical.

  • Narrative immersion occurs when players become invested in a story, and is similar to what is experienced while reading a book or watching a movie.
  • Strategic immersion is associated with a mental challenge, often choosing a solution among a broad array of challenges; these are the games like Fallout where the player is managing their avatar statistics and balancing their skills.
  • Tactical immersion is experienced when playing games involve skill where players feel “in the zone”; these are games like Halo or FIFA where the player is absorbed in the moment.

The best worlds use all three types of immersion, but rarely in equal measures. A bit like mixing cocktails, we combine the types of immersion in varying strengths for different audiences. In this post I’m going to assume we’re designing for casual players – not the gamers.

Unlike gamers, casual players often won’t have the skills to succeed at tactical games like Halo. You may laugh, but it really is skill – to beat a game like Halo you actually have to become more talented. Think of these games like sports – players are immersed in the moment but only most talented tennis player wins the tournament. To win the game you’re playing against the game designer – he controls the pace and difficulty. So if you’re not talented enough, you’ve not played enough games, or don’t have the hand eye coordination, and the game progresses faster than your abilities, then you’re out of luck!

Virtual worlds create this type of tactical immersion through Flash mini games – you know the kind of game, skill based requiring good hand eye coordination and fast reactions. At the end of the game the player’s score is usually translated into some kind of virtual currency, while breaking into the leader board unlocks the bigger prizes. Yet most of your players will never be that good at the game and they’ll find it hard to earn currency, let alone getting close to the leader board! Mini games are not the answer to making your world fun, instead your casual players need a different type of entertainment.

Maybe you don’t buy that argument, so instead consider the millions of free Flash games you’re up against! You cant make the best mini games, and you can’t beat MiniClip on that front. So offer a different experience.

To be clear, I’m not advocating a world without mini games. In fact I think these mini games play an important function in the economy. But they’re not the foundation for your worlds entertainment.

Narrative, however, is perfect for virtual worlds. There’s no learning game mechanics, rules, or skill required to be drawn in by a good story – such an easy way to engage players. Yet most virtual worlds have no narrative, maybe they have a theme, but they don’t hook me in like the first page a book. Indeed, I feel more like I’m in a ‘virtual world’ when I’m reading a book than actually in a virtual world!

What a missed opportunity. Everyone loves a good story, and in a virtual world you’ve got the chance to turn a story into an adventure. This is huge, because I don’t think kids have adventures any more. When I go back to my folks house there are no kids playing outside, the paths through forest behind their yard are overgrown, and the playing fields have been turned into parking lots.

Kids want to explore, make up stories, and go on adventures. But where do they go? It could be your world. One such world is Poptropica, they seem to be doing quite well with around 8 million monthly unique players. In perspective, that’s nearly twice Club Penguin!

So we think narrative is important, what about strategic immersion. For a long time the strategic games, like Fallout and World of Warcraft, have been considered the “hardcore games for geeks” (I can say that as a huge fan of the Fallout series). But, peel back the layers, and you see that these are not ‘hardcore’ games, they’re just set in ‘geeky’ environments like Fallout’s post apocalyptic America.

Unlike FIFA or Need for Speed, strategic games don’t need great hand eye coordination, and you don’t actually have to become better at the game to win. I gave up at FIFA, I’m just not good talented enough. With Fallout all I really had to do was spend the time playing the game – my character levelled up so I didn’t have to get any better! This is the false achievement we explored in the last post.

Take away the post apocalyptic America and replace with something more friendly, and we have a game mechanic thats accessible to your casual audience. They don’t need skill, just time. Anyone can win, and everyone loves to win! Zynga figured this out with games like Farmville and now FrontierVille.

Your world is going to include all three types of immersion – a big dollop of narrative that pulls the players into the strategic gameplay, and just a few tactical mini games for earning virtual currency. The graphic below (hopefully) summarises how these three fit together.

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