Deliberately frustrating fun

June 30, 2017 | Filed under: game design

A lot of words have been written on the topic of flow in game design. Mentioned frequently alongside ‘mastery’, the general concept is that players enjoy a feeling of relatively stress free-calm travel through an experience where they encounter little resistance or setbacks, and preferably no ‘hard stops’.

With one aim of commercial game success being tied to keeping people playing longer (often because the highly connected gamer effectively ‘broadcasts’ their choice of entertainment to logged-in friends), creating and maintaining a sensation of ‘flow’ within the player is seen as highly desirable.

A typical game design that works well with this system is the match-3 puzzle game, or tetris. A never-ending game with a simple, but satisfying mechanic that rewards mastery yet will allow uninterrupted play in relaxed, stress-free state.  Such games can be very popular, no doubt very popular. Obviously, we have lots of them.

My latest game ‘Production Line‘ is a weird hybrid of two different design goals, to create a sense of flow, but to interrupt, pause, disturb and frustrate that flow, deliberately so as to create the endorphin rush as that frustration is fixed. Effectively what I’m doing to creating a design where the enjoyment comes not just from the state of flow, but the satisfaction and catharsis of fixing an impediment to that feeling.

Creating a ‘well-oiled machine’ creates a strong sense of satisfaction and happiness in many gamers. Its perfectly natural to look upon something you have arranged and see it work flawlessly. For some reason, this seems to appeal particularly to Germans. It also appeals strongly to me, I enjoy the sense of scale, control, to be honest- POWER that come from having built a large impressive, complex, working… *thing*.

But watching something you created do its job is only half of the pleasure. Something in our brains seems hard wired to want the next challenge, and the next, and the next. To this end, Production Line is designed as a deliberately unsolvable puzzle, an impossible balancing act. A simulation of a system so complex it has no practical perfect solution, only progress towards perfection, but no risk of attainment.

As a car-factory simulation, this feels both natural and believable. Producing something as complex as a car requires a huge number of tasks, many of which have dependencies, and none of which will take the exact same amount of time. As a result, regardless of production scale, bottlenecks are absolutely inevitable. Flow is impossible, a dream to aspire to, an unachievable goal, but one where the struggle to achieve the goal is nonetheless enjoyable.

I suspect that the general consensus of game designers is that frustration is the enemy of fun. Frustration is a negative feeling, and one to be avoided, but games balance out the good and the bad to achieve greater pleasure all the time.  The satisfaction of finally tracking down and counter-sniping someone in an FPS who shot you six times in a row is far greater than it would be without the frustration of being picked off by them again and again and again…

I’m sure some people will look at my best known game (the political strategy game Democracy 3) and my newest car-factory sim (Production Line) and think there is little in the way of a common theme, but in design terms there definitely is. Economics is a system so complex pure balance can never be achieved. Push here and the system pulls there, just like fixing a bottleneck on a car production line, or improving the effectiveness of a part of your fleet in Gratuitous Space Battles.

Positech. We make frustrating experiences fun :D. (Hopefully)

Comments are closed.