Playing a game is an emotional activity. Whether is be a rush of excitement when you take down a difficult enemy, or a sense of dread as your omens tick up one by one and you wait for the haunt to begin, a good game should try to create strong feelings in its players. These feelings do not come out of nowhere – as a designer, it is important to be aware of how your game is making players feel, and make sure that the emotions evoked match the intent of the game.
These feelings will not be constant throughout the game. Certain parts of the game will naturally be more exciting, tense, sad, or frightening than others. This is generally a good thing – by varying the types and intensity of emotions that player feels the designer can keep the game from feeling stale or one-note. However, there is one emotion that should remain high throughout the length of the game, and that emotion is player morale.
Player morale refers to the amount of enthusiasm that the various players feel for the game at any given time. Player morale can vary from person to person, and will fluctuate throughout the game. Player morale is a big indicator of how people will feel about the game, and plays a role in determining whether the player will return to the game or not. If morale gets too low players may decide to never play again, or may even abandon the game without finishing it.
While there is some correlation between high morale and doing well in the game, they are not the same thing, and the connection is weaker than you might expect. Feeling like you have a chance to win is good for morale, but it must be coupled with a feeling of agency – the player must feel that their actions matter. If these two elements are present for the duration of your game, it is likely that player morale will remain high as well.
How do we create this combination? Lets look at each criteria separately and examine some of the potential road-blocks that might be encountered.
Players should feel like they have a chance to win
There are many different types of players in the world, who play games for a million different reasons. However, if there is one thing that almost all of these different players can agree on it would be this – winning is good. It may seem so obvious as to not need stating, but players prefer winning to losing. This means that if a player thinks that they have no chance of winning they will have a worse experience and lower morale, which also means they will be less likely to want to play again.
In games it is generally good to make the player feel like they have a chance at winning throughout the entire game, even if the chance is small. A small chance can give the player a feeling of hope, whereas if the player has no chance to win this feeling is replaced with hopelessness. If the player is unable to win (or even just thinks they can’t win) they tend to disengage, which can lower morale for the whole playing group.
There are a few ways to create this feeling for the players. The first is to allow players to make more impactful decisions later on in the game. The second is to create a “catch-up mechanism” that allows players to come back from a bad situation. A third option, which I would try to avoid, is to make the scoring mechanism so complicated or random that nobody knows the winner until the very end of the game.
* Making Later Decisions more Impactful
One way to create more impactful decisions later in the game is to use a resource system that grows as the game progresses. This approach is quite common, and a great example of this type of system is Magic: The Gathering. In this game, players play “land” cards that provide them with a resource known as “mana”. A player can only play one land per turn, so the amount of mana available to the player increases as the game goes on. Early on the player can only afford to do simple spells, but the abilities become much more powerful as the game progresses.
Because the player has more resources later in the game, they are able to make decisions that have a larger effect on the overall state of the game. A player may be at a disadvantage early on, but a powerful effect later in the game has the potential to put them back in the lead. This can help to alleviate the feeling of hopelessness that sometimes comes when your opponent takes an early lead, as you know that there is always the possibility of making a come-back.
One pitfall of this approach is making the decisions at the end of the game TOO impactful. If later decisions carry too much weight it can create a feeling that the actions leading up to the end simply don’t matter. An example of this can be found in the fictional game of Quidditch. In Quidditch there are two ways to score points – throw a large red ball (called a Quaffle) through one of your opponent’s hoops – which is worth 10 points – or catch a small gold ball known as a Snitch which is worth 150 points and ends the game.
You may be able to see the problem here – catching the Snitch results in such a large swing in points that, if I remember correctly, there is only a single example in the books where the team who caught the Snitch didn’t win the game. In addition, catching the Snitch ends the game, which means that there is no opportunity for the opposing team to come back afterwards. This has the end result of making it feel like the entire game leading up to the Snitch is basically meaningless, even if it has the desired effect of creating an exciting, nail-biting ending.
* Catch-up Mechanisms
Another way to prevent players from feeling that they have no chance of winning is to create a “catch-up” mechanic. This mechanic would be placed in the game for the sole purpose of giving players who are behind the ability to come back from defeat.
There are several different ways to implement a catch-up mechanism. One way is to simply provide a small advantage to whichever player is currently going last. One way to do this is through turn order – if going first has some advantage, perhaps the player in last place at the beginning of the round could go first.
Another method is to scale resources in some way based on a player’s current position. An example of this type of mechanic would be the Mario Kart series, in which a player’s position affects what types of items they can get. If you are in first place you tend to get poor items (while being susceptible to the dreaded Blue Shell), while players in last place will often get very powerful items to help them recover.
Finally, a third method is to flip this on its head and give a disadvantage to the player who is currently in the lead. One way to do this is to use an “edge” mechanic. An example of this can be found in the game Vampire: The Eternal Struggle. In this game a player can gain the “edge” token by attacking another player who currently holds it. By holding the edge, this player gets an extra resource counter each turn, but doing so also places a target on that player’s back and encourages other players to attack them.
As with the previous method, it is possible to go too far with this technique. If the catch-up mechanism is too powerful, it may actually encourage players to stay out of first place until the very end. This can cause a skewed reward system in which the fun thing (being in first place) conflicts with the correct strategic decision (stay out of first place until the very end). If the catch-up mechanism is powerful enough it can warp the entire strategy of the game around itself and encourage players to simply take advantage of this mechanism instead of trying to play the way the game was intended.
* Incomprehensible Scoring Mechanisms
One final method to make players feel like they have a chance to win is to simply make the outcome of the game impossible to determine until the game is completely over. This is usually done by making the scoring system either so random or so complicated that the players have no reasonable way of determining how well they are doing until the game is entirely finished.
One example of this type of scoring system is the Mario Party series. In these games the players are all competing for golden power stars, and the player with the most stars at the end wins. However, at the end of the game players are also awarded with a number of “bonus stars” for various things.
These bonus stars can be awarded for anything from recruiting the most allies to earning the most coins, and you never know which bonuses will be awarded. Even if one player has the most stars by the end of the game, they may still be defeated by somebody who earns more random bonus stars.
A different type of example can be seen in what are commonly called “point-salad” games. In these games, players are awarded points for a wide variety of different actions, and it can be difficult to determine which actions would be most beneficial at any given time. Points in these games tend to be tallied at the very end, and it can be quite difficult to determine who won until the points are counted.
An example of this type of game would be Tokaido. In this game each player takes the role of a traveller on the roads of ancient Japan, and scores points for various activities along the way. These activities include buying various types of souvenirs, completing paintings, eating food, and encountering other travellers. You also get bonuses for being the first to complete each of the paintings, spending the most on food, and various other bonuses.
With so many different ways to score points, and so many bonuses that aren’t awarded until the end of the game, it can be difficult to know where you stand until the very end. While this does achieve the goal of creating a close game and making every player feel like they have a chance to win, it does so at the expense of the second necessary component for player morale – the ability to make meaningful choices.
Nearly every action will result in some amount of points for the player, but because the scoring is so inscrutable it makes it impossible to know if your decision was a good one. If the player cannot determine the value of their decisions the choice is rendered practically meaningless. So, how do you go about making a player’s decisions feel meaningful? This article is getting a little long, so you will have to come back next week to find out!
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, where I look at the second major component of player morale – making meaningful decisions!
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