Players experience relief when they achieve goals, but in games where they must reach multiple smaller goals to accomplish a larger one, when should they experience different types of relief?
In many games, especially first person shooters and platformers, players run into a new area, suffer setbacks, figure out why they were set back, then use that knowledge to avoid the setbacks. Usually, the player iterates through this process a few times, solves the area, and proceeds to the next one.
Players experience emotional relief* in at least three ways during this process. First, there is the relief to their curiosity, which happens when they learn what's in the game area and how to manipulate it (Cool!). Next, there is the relief they feel when they figure out what they need to do to solve the game area (Aha!). Lastly, players experience fiero (I did it!), and the relief that follows it, when they actually solve the puzzle.
So, should players experience these emotions at once, a few at a time, or widely separated from one another? I've heard Damion Schubert** suggest that the cycles of tension and release be based on the level of emotional investment a player has in the game. It makes sense that a casual player should experience relief (or reward) more frequently. As the player moves up the continuum from casual to hardcore, the cycles of emotion should take longer, and the relief achieved should be greater. This pattern can be seen in most MMOs, where getting from level 1 to 2 takes minutes, yet getting from level 49 to 50 takes days.
If we accept that players' emotions (and game designs) follow the 'short time, small emotion leads to long time, big emotion' pattern, I'd like to focus further on when players should experience the different _types_ of emotional relief.
I'll use a hypothetical game experience as an example: In an FPS, you reach a big room that has several ledges high on the walls, a few boxes scattered on the floor, and a rope hanging from the ceiling. After playing through the room several times, you discover that a monster appears on one of the ledges after you have been in the room for a short while, that there is a horde of ankle-biting creatures that appear on the floor, that the boxes are movable and stackable, and that you can swing on the rope to get to a few of the ledges (Cool!). The price you've paid for this information is, let's say, six deaths: four from the monster's guns, and two from falling.
You get excited (Aha!) when you solve the puzzle: You've found the place where the boxes must be stacked so you can jump up to the rope. You've also figured out which is the best ledge to swing to; it gives you a few extra seconds before the monster can climb up to you. You've discovered that you need those extra seconds to use a combination of weapons and available artillery against the monster, but once the monster joins you on the ledge, only one of your other weapons can kill it. You've solved the puzzle, but you haven't completed it yet.
Now, you prepare for your moment of triumph. Stacking the boxes is dangerous; the creatures on the floor bite at you mercilessly, and you can't afford to spend time killing them. The jump from the box to the rope is a tricky one. If you don't make it on your first try, you're too exposed and the monster gets in enough shots to kill you. After X number of additional tries, you finally manage to kill the monster (I did it!).
Let's look at X for a moment. X is the number of times players must attempt to execute the correct strategy before they succeed at their game's objective. We can also look at X as a variable span of time: How long after a moment of puzzle-solving relief (Aha!) do players experience fiero relief (I did it!)?
Each different span of time between moments of player relief could be given its own variable. For example, we could also look at V, which we could define as the gap in time between when a player experiences curiosity relief (Cool!) and puzzle-solving relief (Aha!).
Watching when X and V (or any other gap) become too large or too small may be valuable in game design.
* My parenthetical emotions borrow from Nicole Lazzaro's 'fun keys'.
** Damion Schubert's blog is Zen of Design. The concept of players existing on a continuum of casual to hardcore is just one of the ideas I learned from his panel at AGDC.
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