It's about ACCOMPLISHMENT, not difficulty

@Gigiwoo 's excellent podcast about flow has been rolling around in my head for a while now. He argues that there are three main elements (plus one anti-element) to achieving and maintaining flow:

  • Clear Goals

  • Feedback

  • Balanced Difficulty

  • No Distractions

(Incidentally, Gigi, you really should put that nifty flow diagram up as a linkable image... I'd have included it here!)

All makes pretty good sense, except for the third one, "Balanced Difficulty." I'd like to argue that this is missing the mark. As evidence, I point to a variety of very popular games that have essentially no difficulty at all: Cookie Clicker, Farmville, most tower/city building games, Cooper's Little Adventure, etc.

So what's the real thing that keeps players engaged? I say it's accomplishment. Players must walk away feeling like they've accomplished something (however fictitious that might be). They gotta feel like this guy.

Difficulty is one way to achieve that: we give players a difficult task that they can't initially do, and then hope they stick around long enough to build the skills to the point where they can do it (beat the boss, pass the level, whatever). This gives them a sense of accomplishment.

But these other games show that there are much more direct ways to provide accomplishment: simply give them some clear "how they are doing" number (total cookies, cookies per second, Farmville bucks, number of fancy decorations, etc.), and make sure this increases over time. Earlier today I was generating 1000 cookies per second (cps), but now I'm making over 3000 cps; that's a morning well spent! This works even when there is essentially no difficulty or skill to the game at all; anybody can play and do the very simple interactions required to keep these numbers increasing.

But there's a catch: I think people judge accomplishment in such cases by percentage change, not absolute change in the number. In the beginning, if I get my measure (whatever that is) from 10 to 11, that's a pretty decent accomplishment. Later on, if I spend the same time to get it from 1436 to 1437, that's a waste of my time. I'll go play something else.

So to keep a sense of accomplishment in this case, you have to keep increasing the rate at which the numbers go up, in an exponential growth curve. Embracing this is what made Cookie Clicker so popular.

When the accomplishment is dedicated toward a specific goal, such as finishing a project, then I think what we perceive is basically % complete, and % remaining. And the same effect applies: at the start of the project, we focus on % complete, and when we move that from 5% to 6%, that's noticeable and feels good. (This is true even if there is no such explicit computation, but just our own perceptions, as for example when trying to reach the end-goal in Minecraft or build a huge castle out of LEGO or whatever.) And if we get close to the end, we focus on % remaining; moving that from 5% left to 4% left also feels like a good day. But in the middle, when the best we can do in the same amount of time is go from 45% to 46% complete (or worse, from 55% to 54% left)... that's not rewarding. This is the "long slog" period that many projects (and poorly-designed games) go through, and is when we often abandon it and do something else, where the sense of accomplishment is higher.

(And note that this isn't just about games — it applies in real life, too. It takes real stubbornness and discipline to get through the long slog period of any project, because the fun of accomplishment is mostly in the beginning and the end.)

I believe the focus on difficulty in games is an artifact of the initial monetization scheme, i.e., chucking quarters into arcade games. Games had to be designed so that most players couldn't play them for more than a minute or two, in order to make money. And by improving their skills, players got more play per quarter, which is very rewarding (not just for the inherent accomplishment of beating a previously unbeatable challenge, but because it was linked to money — making or saving money always generates a sense of accomplishment, which leads to another great example for my thesis: slot machines!). So of course it was all about the difficulty then.

But now, when that's no longer the point, I think the focus on difficulty is missing the mark. It's all about the accomplishment.

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Interesting.

I am not sure though that your amount of increase has to go up as you get closer to the end, although I do believe people look at the percentage and even more so, the amount remaining.

In life, when we learn something new, there is a learning curve, some steeper than others. As we learn, the curve becomes more shallow and it gets easier. If we model a game the way we learn in real life, then the feeling of accomplishment diminishes as the task becomes easier.

This is why most games do the opposite. You start out easy, learn how to do the task, and then it becomes harder to do, more time to accomplish the same percentage of change. What makes it feel like an accomplishment isn't how much better you get in 5 seconds, but what you can do with what you learn.

In the first ten minutes of the game, you are gaining skills/levels quickly but you can only do small things with what you have learned. Maybe you can run faster or jump. Later, as it becomes harder to gain that much skill/levels in ten minutes, the reward is that you can do more with that skill, such as make a magic weapon or discover a hidden treasure. In a simpler mobile game, it might mean new levels opening up that are more challenging and reward more coins, or a new chapter in the story.

In real life, when we master the Blender learning curve, we find we can continue to make more types of models and make them faster. The reward goes up as we see what we can make with our new skill. Yes, we can work faster, and we are learning faster now, but the real feeling of accomplishment no longer comes from learning to make an edge loop but from making a castle or a character model.

So..while I absolutely agree that accomplishment belongs on Gigi's list, I think that accomplishment is based more on what we can achieve as our skill increases, rather than simply mastering a skill. I would argue that making money in-game is also rewarding if you can use that money to buy items that help you accomplish things in the game.

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Very interesting conversation! In the example @JoeStrout gave with the cookies, I would think that as your skill increases with a cookie they would work to be easier and eventually trivial. So the more you progress, the more cookies it will take to progress but the time to make each cookie would decrease. The accomplishment would be increasing skill and being able to move on to harder cookies, or cakes... I guess I'm old school in that way and like the way things were done in the early days of EQ and other similar games. Sure, sometimes there was a grind but when you made it, you really felt like you accomplished something. Personally, I would like to figure out how to combine that type of old school mechanic with something fun thrown in to distract from the grind. I think it took me a couple of months to get into my 20s back when I first started EQ. But I had a blast during that time.

So definitely agree with what has already been said. And you guys may be talking about the same thing as what I said. Insomnia filled night probably doesn't have my comprehension level high enough to properly digest this post today... lol

Star Wars Galaxies had an interesting skill grind. You would chose our primary skill tree and grind each skill until it was topped out and then the next skill would be released to you to grind, etc. Each new skill you learned within the tree allowed you to do something new, make a new article of clothing, dance a new dance, play a new instrument. Of course, many just find a dark corner, turned on macros and starting grinding rather than play. The once social game became very dry.

The true sense of accomplishment came when you reached the top of the tree and now could dance any dance or make any article of clothing. Then the new goal became making a lot of money to buy as much stuff as you can. :) Or for some, to get involved in factions and kill as many other player enemies as you could.

Most games don't have a top though, so the accomplishments must be scattered throughout or the top continuously moved upward. Personally, I think it could be demotivating to never reach the top, always having another hill to climb but obviously the formula works since there are still people waiting for that new expansion pack with new levels and new things to try.

I suppose that a game can never really appeal to everyone because some people get bored with grinding and others want to get to the top and end the game.

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So if you're still in the mood for lengthy diatribes on game design, you might want to dig up my engagement cycles thread and give that a read. I've got a similar sort of conclusion about difficulty, not that I linger on that part for long. My emphasis is more on what actual conflicts are resolved and how important those are, rather than just numbers going up though.

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[quote=“RockoDyne”, post:5, topic: 599227]
So if you’re still in the mood for lengthy diatribes on game design, you might want to dig up my engagement cycles thread and give that a read. I’ve got a similar sort of conclusion about difficulty, not that I linger on that part for long. My emphasis is more on what actual conflicts are resolved and how important those are, rather than just numbers going up though.
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I happen to agree with you. I am a storyteller, so for me as a player and a game designer, I need accomplishments that are more than the mundane grinding, even in a multiplayer game which are rather open ended.

In most games, the resolution has to do with quests or the storyline of the game. In an RTS game, maybe the goal of a farm that has every building and produces enough goods to sustain itself with little input from the user or a city that runs smoothly, continues growing and surviving.

Open ended games that are more player directed such as sandbox games require the player to find his/her own goal, whether that be building a player city and inviting others, making friends with all the NPCs in town, battling the “other side” to save the world…or to destroy the world, owning every clothing item in the game, becoming very rich, becoming famous or infamous, etc.

As for conflicts, I don’t want to find the farmer’s poor kidnapped daughter. I want to create lasting peace between the two dwarven tribes, or destroy a lair of evil cult members, or help to elect a new mayor who will grow the city. What I don’t want to do is solve conflicts that are not really solved…for example, in a multiplayer game, I don’t want to solve the same problem that everyone else is going to solve after me…because really it is not solved. :slight_smile: That totally destroys any sense of accomplishment I have. In a single player game, that is fine.

However, as noted before, I tend to be a Socializer, so I want to impact the world, not just compete against myself. :slight_smile: I also want to make games where players can actually make an impact, change paths that are not written in stone.

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Yep. But (to doggedly bring it back to the point I was trying to make), what's important in all those examples is the sense of accomplishment, not whether it was the "right" difficulty level.

In fact, I think it's easy to see that for difficult-task based games design, this notion of "balanced difficulty" falls naturally out of looking at it from an accomplishment point of view. Too easy, and the user doesn't feel a sense of accomplishment. Too hard, and they can't accomplish it at all.

My point is that this isn't the only way to produce a sense of accomplishment. @BackwoodsGaming , I suspect you've never tried one of these cookie-clicker games! There is no "making" a cookie — or rather, you make a cookie simply by clicking a big giant button. There is absolutely zero skill to it. But you spend the cookies you make on various gadgets to auto-make cookies, faster and faster, until after a few hours of this you're creating millions of cookies per second. Still no skill to it. But players feel a sense of accomplishment at all those busy gadgets, and every time they sit down and spend all the cookies they've accumulated, they get more accomplishment at how much their cookies/second has increased.

I referenced Cooper's Little Adventure, even though it's not very well known, because it's a perfectly delightful little game that also illustrates this well. You collect coins. You could walk away from the keyboard and continue to collect coins. But if you play a little (still no particular skill required), you can spend coins on gadgets that let you collect coins faster, in an exponential curve that is very satisfying. Why is it satisfying? Because you feel like you've really accomplished something. You started out collecting a coin every second or two, and now you're raking them in by the thousands.

@Teila , I'm generally with you on value I get from pointless quests vs. impacting the story/world. But again, the motivating factor is the accomplishment we feel — not how difficult it is. If I can create lasting peace between two dwarven tribes just by introducing the chieftain's daughter or some such, that's still pretty rewarding. If it takes a very clever solution or three weeks of hard labor, well sure, that's even more rewarding — because you have the accomplishment of dwarven peace, and the accomplishment of achieving a difficult task. So, even better. But difficulty isn't necessary.

Note that I didn't address different types of goals. Some games give you an explicit goal; some have implicit goals (maximize your cookie production!), and some (e.g. sandbox games) depend primarily on self-selected goals. It doesn't matter. What keeps the players going is that sense of accomplishment that comes from making noticeable progress towards that goal, whatever it is.

Minecraft example: several times I've started a game with my boys with the goal of getting to the Ender dragon (which I've never seen, but hear it's great). We have great fun in the beginning, when we're accomplishing a great deal; starting with absolutely nothing, we've built safe shelter, useful tools, some armor, a nice place to sleep, a useful mine... and then we get into the long slog in the middle, where we're grinding through the nether, trying to keep villagers alive so we can collect enough crap to make the potions we need to get the pearls required to eventually do some other sub-goal I no longer remember, and one day we realize we're not having any fun, and quit playing. Why? Because it no longer feels like we're accomplishing much with the hours we put in.

@RockoDyne , it sounds like we may be on the same page. (And yes, we're in the mood for lengthy diatribes on game design; that's what this forum is for.) For a game based on resolving conflict, the accomplishment comes directly from resolving conflicts. But that's not the only sort of game either.

Let's look closer at slot machines, for example. These take in millions of dollars a day. Absolutely zero skill, zero conflict; you stick in your coin, and pull the lever. Now and then you get a payout, and feel like all that lever-pulling has accomplished something. (And because this accomplishment comes at random times, this is intermittent reinforcement, which means that once players get used to it, it's very hard for them to stop.)

I'm thinking accomplishment — along with clear goals, feedback, and lack of distractions — is the key element that unifies all games, rather than just the difficulty-based ones we traditionally think about. And it was expanding game design beyond mere difficulty that caused the explosion of casual games, reaching entirely new markets and making literally billions.

[quote=“JoeStrout”, post:7, topic: 599227]
Let’s look closer at slot machines, for example. These take in millions of dollars a day. Absolutely zero skill, zero conflict; you stick in your coin, and pull the lever. Now and then you get a payout, and feel like all that lever-pulling has accomplished something. (And because this accomplishment comes at random times, this is intermittent reinforcement, which means that once players get used to it, it’s very hard for them to stop.)
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I find slot machines very dull and boring. The payout is not worth the time I spent…but then I don’t play them long enough and for enough money to really have a big payout. But the payout is not worth the mindless pulling of a lever. I feel the same way about lottery tickets…standing in line for them is just not worth it. :slight_smile: I like to play games that challenge my mind, not how fast I can click buttons or pull levers.

What I am trying to say is that there isn’t one size fits all here. The cookie game you mentioned…boring. I would never play it. :slight_smile: That would feel like a waste of time rather than an accomplishment. So do all players feel a sense of accomplishment when they play it? Some may but I suspect many do not.

So we need to look at the scope of our game, our intended audience, and of course, the platform. Mobile games are usually simpler than a PC game simply because of the limitations…although I have played some very challenging and interesting mobile games that are not about clicking cookies. :slight_smile:

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[quote=“Teila”, post:8, topic: 599227]
I find slot machines very dull and boring. The payout is not worth the time I spent…but then I don’t play them long enough and for enough money to really have a big payout. But the payout is not worth the mindless pulling of a lever. I feel the same way about lottery tickets…standing in line for them is just not worth it. :slight_smile: I like to play games that challenge my mind, not how fast I can click buttons or pull levers.
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I completely agree (as usual). But clearly they do have appeal for some players.

Why do they play it then? It’s not for the challenge (there isn’t any). I think it is the sense of accomplishment, and because in this case that comes almost exclusively from the increase in a pretty arbitrary number (“cookies”), that number needs to increase exponentially to maintain that feeling.

Those of us who don’t get any sense of accomplishment out of that, don’t play such games.

(OK, I’ll confess, I have actually done a session or two of Cookie Clicker, and found it an amusing enough distraction to put some time into. And it was exactly that “woo, look how many cookies I’m generating now!” feeling of accomplishment that made it worthwhile. I quit playing once I understood its trick, and no longer felt I was accomplishing anything significant.)

I absolutely agree, there is no one-size-fits-all design that works for all players. But, I still think as a theory of fun, accomplishment works better than difficulty. Different people will get a different sense of accomplishment out of different things, depending on what they value (since “accomplishment” could be defined as something like “achieving or increasing something of value to you”). But accomplishment of a difficult task is only one subset of a much larger world of things we can let players accomplish, and recognizing that opens up the design space quite a lot.

[quote=“JoeStrout”, post:9, topic: 599227]
Why do they play it then? It’s not for the challenge (there isn’t any). I think it is the sense of accomplishment, and because in this case that comes almost exclusively from the increase in a pretty arbitrary number (“cookies”), that number needs to increase exponentially to maintain that feeling.
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From watching my own kids…I think honestly, lots of people play games because they need something to do. We have raised a bunch of kids who depend on electronics. Our power went out last night, and wow…you would have thought the world ended. lol

My son had a smart phone for a while but could not put down the games, even when grandmother visited from out of state. We got rid of it and went back to an old phone with no games. He is older now and recognizes the problem…lol. His usual games are very complex, RTS, RPG, MMO’s…I have NEVER seen him playing a game like the ones he played on the phone. The cookie clicker game might have been played by him but only because he had no other choice. Me? I would rather read a book or play solitaire on my tablet.

I've never played the cookie clicker games.. But I did do a run with Farmville and all those games for a bit when I was between MMOs.. hangs head in shame :p I imagine it is kind of similar to what you are talking about.. I droned on to gain levels so I could buy better decorations, tractor, plant better crops, etc.. Seems that the drive there is all about moving up.. I nicely decorated farm with lots of crops and trees gives a sense of accomplishment (while you are droning your life away) lol

Normally I'm not a gamer. I know.. Odd for someone working to develop a game. lol I think the big draw for me with EQ was it was the first time I sat down with a game and felt like I was being immersed in my own story. The accomplishments were ok, but the immersion was probably more of what drew me in and had me quickly hooked.. lol

I like Farmville type games. :) At least with those, there is a challenge to handle money well, choose what to do first, etc. It is a little more complex than most clicky games.

[quote=“Teila”, post:8, topic: 599227]
What I am trying to say is that there isn’t one size fits all here. The cookie game you mentioned…boring. I would never play it. :slight_smile: That would feel like a waste of time rather than an accomplishment. So do all players feel a sense of accomplishment when they play it? Some may but I suspect many do not.
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I also hate the clicker games too. But every once in a while I cave and pick one up. Then I have to forcibly drag myself away from the screen and say no more.

Interesting? No. Engaging? No. Fun? No. Addicting? Yes.

I would encourage you to play one for a half hour or so, just to observe the psychological effects on yourself as a player. Its certainly interesting.

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[quote=“Kiwasi”, post:13, topic: 599227]
I would encourage you to play one for a half hour or so, just to observe the psychological effects on yourself as a player. Its certainly interesting.
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They would kill my hands and I don’t like pain. :slight_smile:

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[quote=“Teila”, post:14, topic: 599227]
They would kill my hands and I don’t like pain. :slight_smile:
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Try trimps. Its an idle clicker without the clicking.

Or actually don’t try it. Its an incredible waste of time for not much benefit.

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Right, @Telia, you don't actually click that much in clicker games. You only have to click at all for the first couple of minutes — you'll very soon have enough to buy an auto-clicker, and then you never need to click again (except for the usual UI manipulation of any other game). It's not about clicking, it's about increasing your cookies/second. I think you should try one sometime, just to see what it's like. :)

But anyway, this has been an interesting discussion, and I really appreciate everyone who took the time to chime in with your thoughts. Thanks for being awesome, as always!

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[quote=“JoeStrout”, post:16, topic: 599227]
I think you should try one sometime, just to see what it’s like. :slight_smile:

But anyway, this has been an interesting discussion, and I really appreciate everyone who took the time to chime in with your thoughts. Thanks for being awesome, as always!
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Oh but it sounds so boring. Sorry. :frowning: I just can’t see accumulating cookies by clicking and then buying an auto clicker as fun. It actually sounds silly. lol Glad that some folks like them but I guess I am just not one of them.

[quote=“Teila”, post:17, topic: 599227]
Oh but it sounds so boring. Sorry. :frowning: I just can’t see accumulating cookies by clicking and then buying an auto clicker as fun. It actually sounds silly. lol Glad that some folks like them but I guess I am just not one of them.
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It is boring. That’s my point. The genre has no redeeming value. And yet its hard to draw yourself out once you start playing one. Its a weird glitch in human psychology.

Actually, if we want a modern example, isn’t Fallout Shelter essentially the same game done by an AAA?

(I haven’t played it yet, but by all accounts it looks like a classic idle game).

[quote=“Kiwasi”, post:18, topic: 599227]
It is boring. That’s my point. The genre has no redeeming value. And yet its hard to draw yourself out once you start playing one. Its a weird glitch in human psychology.
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Then I must be doubly weird because I can’t get myself to start playing one. It is sort of like someone asking me to eat raw oysters. I just can’t bring myself to do it…the thought is just icky.

We use numbers as a general benchmark for success in lots of human endeavors. A lot of how we as a society judge success is based on numbers, be it money or some other measure.

Representing progress numerically (income, stats, etc) is definitely useful and important in many games.

Accomplishment is a huge subject and I think there are as many ways to go about giving the player a sense of accomplishment as there are games.

A big part of it is also narrative tie in. Often times, our 'impact' on a game is played out via story. We beat a boss, and freed a princess. A lot of games live and die by these kinds of more narrative driven accomplishments. The more that a game leans toward narrative, they'll often invest time and effort in stuff that makes these narrative accomplishments more tangible: you saved the village, whenever you talk to a villager he says "thank you so much" "you're the champion of village 1918a!!" etc.

You mix narrative accomplishments in with numeric accomplishments and you can start to give players a more holistic experience.

There is also a lot to be said about the build up to a challenge. I find myself spending a lot of time on the buildup and so far, I think that time is very well spent.

Another good example of the balance between narrative accomplishments and numeric ones would be if you want to compare the Diablo style equipment system against a more old school non random system like in Pillars of Eternity or Baldurs gate.

Diablo's stuff was randomly generated, better stuff had bigger numbers. Pillars had hand designed items with specific backstories written for each of the 'legendary' items.

A decade later, I kind of remember some of the items in Baldurs gate. I don't remember a single thing about any item I had in diablo.

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