It’s important to give players enough to do. Especially in videogames where the focus is more sport- and single-player oriented than in table top games, your game really needs a lot of actions to occupy a player’s time. But of course it’s not just about the quantity. Does every game action cause a meaningful change in the game world? Do most of them?
If so, then you are on the right path. The wrong path is actions which do not cause meaningful change. There are a wide variety of meaningless actions that games incorporate but they all share a common trait:
Meaningless actions oblige the player to crank a handle that the game could easily be cranking for them. Such actions are busywork, and busywork is usually boring.
The story of Sisyphus is that of a wily king brought low. He must push a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it fall back down, for eternity. His punishment is being made to go through the motions ad infinitum without prospect of variation or strategy on his part to finishing the task. Sisyphus is essentially doomed to waste time. Busywork is his curse.
As a part of the change in industry obsessions from gameplay to engagement, developers often create behavioural game designs composed of busywork. They oblige the player to do things that the game could easily be doing itself, so that the player is cast into the role of a janitor or a rat in a maze. Busywork lengthens interaction with a game, can be policed using an energy metric to oblige return scheduled gameplay, and so your engagement stats rise. More hours played equals more attention which equals more fun and more likelihood of transactions.
The fallacy is this: More attention does not equal more fun. What it means is more time with eyeballs staring at the game, but it says nothing at all about the quality of engagement that the player is experiencing. In most cases, busywork design creates low-quality engagement because all it actually does is test a player’s tolerance and patience.
Aside from the very young and those with addictive personality disorders, players realise after a while that they are being made to wait or wander around. They don’t particularly relish the feeling but they stay in the game for a while in order to get to the good bits. They will maybe even transact (buy virtual goods) in order to skip the tedium to get there. They won’t like you or your game as a result, but some companies may be inclined to think ‘So What?’
Well, unless you have a locked-in audience like Zynga or Activision arguably do, you are quite likely to lose players to a better competitor if your attitude is So What. Players are tolerant of busywork only while there is no credible alternative, and when it shows up they leave. MySpace to Facebook, Yahoo to Google, PlayStation to Wii, PCs to tablets and so on. Players want meaning, not timewasting.
What is meaning in this context? A meaningful action is any which the player takes that causes a deliberate change in the game world.
Players want to take meaningful action. They want to craft their farm, lay out their city, defeat an enemy, beat a high score, solve a puzzle in short to cause significant change and feel the difference of action versus no action. What game developers who create busywork are actually doing is confusing wins with meaningful actions. The busywork design essentially says this: If you hang around long enough, I will let you take a meaningful action every once in a while.
It seems okay to make a player jump through a hoop 100 times in order to be able to do something fun, and there are to be plenty of examples of games that do this. It’s not really, however, and players push back. They try to game the game (as it were) to get past the busywork. They figure out the quickest way to grind, the fastest way to get more energy, the most immediate way to overcome vacuuming (see below) and then that is what they will do.
Players will try to outwit the game itself, as though the imposed busywork is a system to be solved, rather than play the game as intended. This leads to all sorts of unintended consequences, including finding breaks in the game logic, employing cheat codes, hacking, creating dummy profiles and so on. Whatever the tactic may be, players will always try to subvert busywork rather than play in the spirit of it for the simple reason that it’s just wasting their time not to.
Nobody likes to be jerked around.
Types of Busywork
Busywork is any action that could conceivably be automated or skipped entirely. Here are some examples:
Traveling: Walking, driving or flying from one encounter to another across a map is pretty common in massive multiplayer, roleplaying or sandbox games. The game makes the player go from point A to point B in real time, and depending on the game it can become tedious.
Grinding: Part of the fun of any game is mastery, and repeating a lot of similar challenges helps with that. In racing games, for example, you will often have multiple races run around the same track while you try to win, beat lap times and other players. This is good.
Grinding, on the other hand, is repetition with little variation, challenge, and over hundreds of identical encounters. It dispenses with the improvement aspect and simply insists that the player should keep cranking the same handle over and over and over. This is bad.
Harvesting: Harvesting is busywork which involves collection, watering and other similar maintenance actions. The player arrives into his game and the first thing he has to do is click to collect crops, and coins arising from them, sweep up rubbish, fix broken things in the game environment and so on. It doesn’t extend (improve, get more interesting), and tends to become overbearing as the game expands. This is especially the case if the game actions are metered by energy (or similar) and that energy does not keep pace with the player’s progress.
Vacuuming: Vacuuming is a kind of busywork seen commonly in adventure games. The player is a clue-hunter and when he enters a scene there are many potential clues and objects for him to find. In the designer’s mind this should translate into a kind of game immersion that gets the player involved in the story, but what actually happens is the opposite.
Players instead scan the area methodically. In 2D adventure games this means that they move their mouse left to right, in a series of rows, until the mouse suddenly highlights on an object. In LA Noire the equivalent is for the player to walk around the walls of the room and then inward in an ever decreasing spiral until their joypad vibrates, like someone vacuuming a bedroom. All it does is lengthen the game time.
Talking: The player enters a town and there are a number of characters to talk to. In some games the dialogue is selectable, so the player can guide himself through the conversation and learn more or less as he wishes. In others it is hard-wired. The experience of talkie sections in games is actually more like flipping switches in a large room to find out which one activates the overhead light.
Talking is essentially an activation and permutation exercise in which the content matters a lot less than getting to the right on/off combination which lets the player proceed. Talking is not a deliberate game action that causes change. The player is simply asked to choose X or Y repeatedly and with the sensation that the game will steer toward Y anyway. So it’s busywork.
Obligation: One of the persistent myths around social games is that because they are on social networks, they must involve a lot of social content. In actuality they involve a significant degree of forced contact between players to allow them to proceed but it is entirely token as far as the sociality of it is concerned.
Many social games oblige players to invite friends, send each other requests, give each other gifts in the hope of reciprocity and other behaviours. The game is simply telling the player to complete rudimentary tasks and wait before being allowed to continue, which is classic busywork.
Looting: Slot machines, Bingo, Roulette and other luck games require the player to do nothing more than pull a handle or pick a number, with the prospect of a reward at the other end of this activity. The same action exists in other games, such as the loot drop in massive multiplayer games, where every once in a while the player receives a special reward for killing another orc.
It is fashionable at the moment to think of these occurrences as rewards. A more apt description, however, is looting. While the game may well adjust the levels of loot depending on various factors, the busywork of looting is simply the rolling of a die repeatedly and hoping for a 6.
I, like many players, have enjoyed driving around Liberty City, talking to random characters in Fallout 3, hunting for clues in Blade Runner and I even found the chain-harvesting of goods and rent in CityVille oddly fun for a while. A little busywork is perfectly fine and can give the player a chance to soak in the game world, making the high points of the game that much higher because they are punctuated and paced.
Busywork and meaningful actions are also sometimes interchangeable purely depending on their context. Riding around in the desert to go from one mission to the next in Red Dead Redemption is busywork which is occasionally interrupted by random events. However riding into a new area to chase down an enemy is meaningful because it changes the world. The map expands, the enemy is killed, a new mission is unlocked and the player wins.
What I am arguing for is minimising busywork. Do I really need to walk all the way around the Citadel to find characters to talk to in Mass Effect, or could the game shortcut that process significantly? Do you really have to include manual harvesting for every last plant in your farm game, or could you include an automated farm worker who collects the crops when they are grown? Do I really need to vacuum every last corner of a room looking for clues, or could you include a visual aura around each important one?
Often the answer to these questions is an emphatic no. They are not needed, and they are just cruft. While the ideals behind them may be noble or ignoble, cruft is still cruft and should be excised where possible.
One way is to simply skip the content. Moving on with the game, reducing those cut-scenes to the bare essentials, getting the player to the next level minus the preamble and so forth are examples of this. However not all games are nor should be intense action simulators or strategy games, so sometimes it’s more about minimising rather than removing the busywork.
Choosing the right control scheme, for example, can soften busywork significantly. LA Noire could be a much smoother experience if the vacuuming behaviour wasn’t reliant on limited third person controls, for example, and the prominence of the somewhat pointless notebook function were reduced.
A third option is to streamline reward collection. In God of War the player’s rewards often do not need to be manually collected. They will travel toward him. Many other games oblige the player to walk over and pick up each individual object, and so they are comparatively sluggish.
Incorporating writing into the game rather than in discrete parts is a fourth option. Why stop play for a staged branched-dialogue sequence (as roleplaying games insist on doing even though it’s never fun) when you could use alongside dialogue instead? It’s much better to impart the feel of the game world without the comparatively egotistical design choice of making players stop to listen to your bad writing.
There are many more ways to minimise busywork. The common trait that they share is to automate that which can be automated to get the player back to causing deliberate change as quickly as possible. If you make your players jump through needless hoops, conduct pointless conversation, harvest endless crops and so on then just what kind of experience do you think you are actually delivering to them?
I guarantee it’s not nearly as high minded as you’d hope.
The Busywork Test
Ideally what you should do is go through of every type of game action in your design and consider the following questions:
- Does the action cause a deliberate change the game world?
- Does it permit significant variation?
- Does it lead to a win?
- Does it lead to a death?
- Does it open up a new game area or impart a reward?
- Does it costs the player anything? (including time)
If the answers are mostly no (or yes for the last one), then it’s likely that the action is busywork, and you should take steps to minimise it.
(today’s image came from Noel Natter’s blog)