A player needs to invest in a game for an epic win to feel truly epic, because it is only by being invested that the win can come to mean something personal to the player. However to become sufficiently invested, the player also needs to experience many other kinds of win. A game needs ascending wins, like the steps of the Chakra scale. Otherwise the epic win will feel hollow.
So what are those steps?
In a mechanical watch, interlocking wheels meter out different lengths of time. When the seconds wheel achieves one full revolution, the minute wheel moves forward one step. When the minute wheel achieves one full revolution, the hour wheel moves forward one step. And so it goes.
Games are similar. You perform several actions to complete a loop, several loops to complete a dynamic, several dynamics to complete a task, and so it goes. Wins are the closure of each revolution, each more significant than the last, equating to a longer or deeper part of the game. Little wins build into larger wins, and so a scale develops.
In some games the scale is more obvious than others. One of the most explicit examples is tennis:
1. Action: An action win is a great shot, the sharp serve or the scramble to reach a ball.
2. Loop: A loop win is catching a return from your serve.
3. Dynamic: A dynamic win is the rally that ends with the scoring of a point.
4. Task: A task win is winning a game.
5. Scenario: A scenario win is winning a set.
6. Campaign: A campaign win is winning the match.
7. Epic: The epic win is when the player pulls off an act of genius. It might happen as a result of any of the previous wins, but it is always an individual and highly thaumatic moment. In tennis, an example epic win is when the player wins the championship point.
Action, loop and dynamic wins tend to be achievements. Task, scenario and campaign wins tend to be victories: The further up the scale the player goes, the more rules-driven the metrics of success become.
However epic wins are always achievements. They may use the same metrics that delineate victories, such as winning a tennis match, but they contain such an amount effort of spirit on the part of the player that they are personal. A player winning a match has attained a victory. A tennis player winning Wimbledon has put a life’s work into getting there. He has achieved. His win is measured by points, sets and games, but its epicness transcends mere numbers.
The steps on the scale correspond closely with how magical the game really starts to feel. Winning, progressing and emotional involvement are all interrelated, so just as numina or writing contribute to thauma, so too do wins.
At first glance, this scale does not fit all games equally. In many arcade games, for example, there are no obvious scenarios or campaigns. There are only levels (tasks), each harder than the last until the player eventually loses.
In these instances, the larger kinds of win are in the sensation of seeing just how far the player can push the game. Such games develop a sense of informal scenarios rather than formal ones. Space Invaders gets a little harder each level, but from a player’s perspective the levels psychologically group into beginning, middle and a very difficult end. So although the game never specifically describes scenarios, it implicitly does. An epic win for this kind of game is clocking the score meter for the first time, beating the best player in the local arcade or seeing your name at number one, and other similar acts of hard work.
At the other end of the scale, many sim games lack the capacity for actions that feel like a win. Their loops are leisurely and, unlike a game of tennis, the player often has many loops open at the same time. Such games are simply quieter, but the sense of winning is still there. In Sim City when you stumble on a method to construct the perfectly replicable community to balance the various variables in the game, that is an action win. When you start to see those efforts yield material results, that is a loop win. And when you start to put those results to further success by building out more city sections on the same principles, that is a dynamic win.
In another example, some adventure games are not meant to be replayed. A gigantic Japanese roleplaying game has hundreds of hours of quests, combats and side missions to complete, and so has many scenarios. In those cases, the campaign win and the epic win are usually much the same thing. Other epic wins include completing every last bit of the game’s world, every side quest and defeating every hidden boss (such as the Weapons from Final Fantasy).
Each is personal to the player, as all epic wins are.
Portal is a short game that contains all of the wins described above, as does the lengthy Final Fantasy VII. Wins in quieter games focus more on achievements rather than victories, and the sense of the epic win is not one of furious excitement. It is rather contentment, in line with the intended pace of the game.
Looking at how long it takes for the player to complete an average loop, and whether those loops are singular or running in parallel, is a good way to get a sense of the game’s pace, and therefore the appropriate pace of its wins.
By being able to gather those wins into useful boxes (such as the seven-step scale) a worldmaker can see where the large deficiencies are. If I complete several loops, am I building up to a meaningful win in the game dynamics? Will I progress significantly in a tangible and permanent way?
If not, then the game design likely has a problem.