Theory: What (Some) People Like in Games

Keith Burgun’s articles on design are always well-written and thought-provoking; his most recent, on solvability in games, is no different. Yet, I found myself unpersuaded. His argument fundamentally relies on the position that the joy of games lies in “gain[ing] heuristic understanding,” and I do not believe that his own evidence bears out that claim.

It is worth conceding at the outset that I agree with much of Burgun’s argument. For example, I think it is absolutely true that there is little need to worry about whether your designs are solvable in the abstract. Trivially solved games are problematic, of course, but Burgun is absolutely correct that it is very unlikely that anyone will actually solve your design. (Were they to do so, that would be a good problem to have–your game would have inspired a great deal of thoughtful play!)

He is also correct, I feel, in saying that bending one’s design in undesirable ways to make it less solvable is unnecessary. Just making a game too big to brute force does not, as Burgun points out, make it interesting. His example of 200 x 200 Tic-Tac-Toe is, I think, a good one; that might be difficult even for a computer to work though, but who cares? Such a game would not be worth the computer’s time, much less a player’s.

Despite these areas of agreement, though, I am not convinced that the “ideal amount of depth” requires one to have some Goldilocks-esque just-right amount of complexity. Burgun arrives at that conclusion through an analysis reminiscent of flow theory:

If a player has learned the rules of a game and has been playing it, and then quits, this is not going to be because they solved the game. The most likely reason is that the player has gotten far enough through the solution process that they have a sense of what it would take to complete the solution process, and they lose interest. They feel as though the system will not surprise them from here on out, and in most cases, they’re probably right to feel that way.

Imagine the total solvability of a game to be an iceberg floating in water . . . As players play, they are also getting a rough sense of how big this iceberg is. If they get the sense that the iceberg is insanely massive (as I did with, say, Go), they will lose interest because the amount that they can learn about the system . . . feels futile compared to what they can sense is there.

On the other hand, there are times where, even though you haven’t got a game even 1/3 solved, you can sense that the project of solving this thing wouldn’t be all that hard. (I got that sense from the board game Hive, as an example.)

Here, Burgun’s examples undermine his points. We know, from thousands of years of historical experience, that many people are not put off by Go’s enormous decision tree. To the contrary, Go’s challenge can be a draw for its fans. I have not done a scientific survey, but surely many appreciate that this is a game they can sink their teeth into.

Some may quit playing Go because it is too difficult to improve their skill, but even that does not mean they feel that “the system will not surprise them.” To the contrary, I would imagine that they anticipate further insights down the road. They have to allocate their time between many tasks and projects, however, and Go may be of lower priority than work, or family, or a game with online matchmaking.

In the same vein, it is not clear to me that people quit games merely because they are easily solved. Many popular games reduce down to fairly simple heuristics; I would bet that most folk card games are of this type. Nevertheless, people play such games for many years. When they stop, in my experience, it is because they lose their regular opponents, not because the project of solving the game has become unsatisfactory.

As I am not sold on his evidence, I am also unconvinced of Burgun’s conclusion that players “get bored when they either feel like there is too much or too little to learn . . . .” I am certain that that is true for some people–in particular, of Burgun himself! For some (many?) (most?) players, though, a game having a lot to learn means it rewards investment, and having little to learn turns it into a good social lubricant. Neither is sure to be a cause to stop playing in and of itself.

The examples of Go, Hive, and folk card games suggest to me that there is no single, theoretically preferable amount of stuff to learn that a game benefits from having. Rather, a design should know its audience. Some people want a lifetime of challenge; some want a game they can play with the kids while chatting about their schoolwork. The goal is not to shape every game into an iceberg with consistent volume, but rather to make thought-through choices about how large this particular iceberg ought to be.

Let me end with another concession: I think that many people who buy lots of games want, as Burgun does, a design that resists solution and remains surprising through a reasonable-but-limited number of plays. That is a sensible objective when designing for invested game players. We should not, though, hold it up as the final standard all games must reach toward. Each design has its own purposes, and their designers should choose how much players can learn accordingly.

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