Game Mechanics – designing challenge and engagement
How to develop game objectives
Developing an engaging, exciting game is difficult if your objectives are unclear. You need to know where you’re going! To ensure immersive game play, in most cases, you’ll need to dangle a carrot in front of your player and offer them something to strive for.
If your game is driven by an ongoing narrative, then a character driven goal is an obvious option when setting goals in the game. Your players might be set the task of finding hidden apples for Kodu, defeating combatants for bike bot, or catching fish for the tug bot. Perhaps there’s a choice of tasks, or a succession of more difficult requests. Trying to fulfil an objective set by a character in the story can be an effective way of delivering the task, and it offers the player a degree of agency in the game by giving the impression, real or imagined, that they are choosing to help.
Think about the number of movies you’ve seen where time is the thing that the characters must race against to complete their objectives. A ticking clock is also a wonderful way of adding suspense and increasing the tension in a game.
Simply achieving a game objective can be enough, but add a ticking clock in the corner and you add another layer of difficulty and engagement. The other great thing about using time as a secondary objective, is that you can up the ante, perhaps by reducing the time available to complete a task as the game progresses. A time limit will push the player to improve their game skills as the game progresses and keep them coming back for more!
Your game may have objectives, but achieving them doesn’t necessarily mean an end to the game play … in fact … your game doesn’t have to end at all. Open ended games rely on the activity in the game being absorbing enough that you don’t need to set an end goal.
You’ll find it difficult to achieve this however, unless the game play remains fresh. One way to do this is continuously change the abilities of either the character or the opponents. Another way is to move the player between a number of different challenges in rotation. First I’m shooting fish, next I’m racing a cycle, then I’m back to the fish again. If you focus on a different theme for each challenge, the player will have to refocus each time they move to a new game.
Obtaining a difficult to attain object is a good way to place a goal in front of your players. You might surround the object opponents to build the game challenge, or alternatively, make the terrain the challenge. A thin path you must stay on to reach your objective for example. It doesn’t have to be in plain sight, but they will need to be reminded of the ultimate goal if it’s not.
An additional character can represent your objective. Beat your opponent and win the game. You’ll still need to establish something that both characters can strive to achieve, a particular score, collecting the most items etc.
Where two players are working toward a common goal however, your objectives can be a little tricker to establish. The focus with more than one character is usually working as a team.
One simple way to make this engaging is to clearly differentiate the characters. Giving them different abilities, different strengths and weaknesses will encourage them to rely on each other. You’ll still need clear objectives, but with team play the aim is to put in place a set of achievable goals most easily gained when the two players work together.
We’ve all played games where the goals increase in intensity with progress. It’s a tried and true method of ensuring that the players skills are increasing as they move from one challenge to the next. It’s also a good approach to draw a character into the game without overwhelming them at the outset.
With Kodu, this can be achieved in a number of ways. For example, with the achievement of a certain score, or once an objective has been met, a more difficult opponent is released into the gameplay. You don’t neccesarily have to build multiple game spaces in which to achieve this, simply make this ’sleeper’ opponent part of the scenery until it’s time for them to take part.
Another approach, and an obvious one, is the game Boss. Building a larger more fearsome opponent in the game that you must get past to move to the next level or complete a challenge is also a well established way to develop intense game play.
You might surprise your players with this more difficult opponent after a set number of achievements. Alternatively you may elect to tease them with the notion of a difficult end game challenge, seed the idea early in their minds as something to work toward. For most players, the Boss character will be a solid inducement to play on as they’ll look forward to an ultimate challenge.
Developing your game rules
Building a world with consistency
One of the more frustrating aspects of a game, can be a lack of consistency. If all the fish bots in the river are easily defeated except one, and you haven’t established this quirk clearly up front, it can feel like a bug. Setting clear rules about how your game will progress gives a degree of certainty to the player, and allows them to feel confident in the method of attack that they take.
Revealing the rules to the player as they become necessary is another approach to take. You may not want to hit the player with 12 different requirements at the outset, but release them slowly as it becomes necessary to know them. For example, if you have several game spaces with differing terrain and combatants, you may want to provide guidelines as the player moves to each new challenge.
Changing the rules
Of course, changing the rules on the player is also one of the best ways of adding a fresh element of challenge in the game. Set the rules, play the game, and then at a predetermined point, do a 360 degree turn and force your player to change their approach.
For example, Kodu may have to reach an apple at the end of the road, it’s lined with bike bots that stand immobile. If he touches the apple however, they come alive, and become new combatants that Kodu must defeat. Changing the rules is also a great way of quickly establishing a new objective.
There are however, two things you’ll need to be careful of when changing the rules.
- The first is to notify your character that the rules have changed. You can do this up front, warning the player that performing certain actions will trigger a change in game play. Or you can do it at the moment of crisis, for example, when Kodu grabs the apple, it triggers a message that informs him of the new objective.
- The second is to consider the other implications of a change in game play. Does your music need to change, adding a little tension? Do you need to remind the characters that shooting or running away is now required?
Secrets (And how to reveal them!)
Keeping secrets is something my six year old is becoming adept at, and she takes great relish in telling vital information to some members of the family and not others. Knowledge is power after all!
Earlier we talked about changing the rules, and revealing secrets about the game play is a great way to achieve this. Revealing for example, an opponents weakness to rockets, can encourage your player to take a new approach mid way through the game.
There are countless games that rely on this device to keep the game feeling fresh as the player moves through the set objectives. In RPG’s for example, it’s often a piece of the story, or characters history that’s revealed. Often the information allows the game to develop to the next level, and is intended to offer the player an additional incentive to play on.
You can introduce secrets into you Kodu games in many ways. For example, items or opponents that reveal themselves when a particular score is achieved.