Yesterday I read Brett Gilbert’s article Why Everything Not Forbidden is Compulsory and it helped me crystalise an idea I’ve had for a while.
As Brett explains, there are always a large number of ways of playing any game. The rules place some boundaries on that space but we still need some freedom to provide room for play (“play is the free movement within a more rigid structure” as Salen and Zimmerman have it). So there is a space of play-possibilities fenced off by the rules. Brett draws this as a cicle but I prefer to think of it as a countryside.
Typically that countryside is hilly. Some places (ways of playing) are higher (more fun) than others. The player usually does not come to the game knowing where the peaks are but they can experiment and explore. Starting at any one place in the country they can explore the neighbouring areas to see which way the ground is sloping and start climbing uphill to greater levels of fun.
As anyone with a background in AI or optimisation knows, there are several kinds of problems with this approach. The first is the problem of local maxima. If I am standing at the top of a hill every direction I can travel leads downwards. If I cannot see the higher hills and mountains in the distance, I will not be inclined to move from that spot. If my hill is only a low one, this may mean that I will have a mediocre experience when I could have had a great one.
A second problem is when I find myself in the middle of a flat plane. No matter which way I go, everything is at the same height, so I wander aimlessly and have an unrewarding experience. I might even walk straight past a mountain and not notice it.
A third problem is when there are competing measures of optimality. If a game has a “win” condition then this creates an alternative slope for the player to follow. Some styles of play will be more “winning” than others. Oftentimes the “win” slope will point in a different direction to the “fun” slope and players will sacrifice their enjoyment of the game in order to play more efficiently. This leads to behaviours like grinding which are effective but dull.
The answer is to design your game to always provide a slope for the player to follow and to make every slope lead to the most fun parts of the play-space.