After several years, I’ve realized there are three kinds of games in my Steam library:

  • Games I started but never finished.
  • Games I finished, possibly more than once.
  • Games I own, but haven’t started yet.

As a game designer, this intrigues me. I think I know why some games fall into the latter while others stay on the first point.

30 Seconds of Fun, Iterated

In one of my earlier posts, Elements of User-Driven Games, I mention the phrase “30 seconds of fun, iterated” (go read the ‘Constant Iterative Change’ section of that post if you haven’t – it’s a short read). This idea is central to the difference between the first two types: Games that constantly iterate on the gameplay to introduce something new are typically games that I will finish. Games that are interesting but become ‘stale’ after 20 hours are the ones that never get past the first point. Note that a game doesn’t have to iterate every 30 seconds – it’s just a number given to express the point. For some games, the iteration timeframe could be as long as 20 minutes. Any longer and the game starts to fall into the ‘stale’ category.

Here’s an example: YS Origin. This is a game with a ‘not bad, but not great’ metascore and user score, despite having a forgettable soundtrack and story. The reason why this game isn’t bad is because of its gameplay: Lots of running, jumping, dashing, shooting, striking – very reminiscent of many Legend of Zelda games. There are even reviews for YS Origin that start out like this: “I wanted to rate this game poorly, but the gameplay was just so much fun that I don’t regret the time I spent.”

So what’s the pacing of YS Origin? It goes like this:

  • Clear dungeon level. Often includes several rooms and involves acquiring a unique new gear that when equipped, gives you a new skill. This gear is often required to complete the dungeon.
  • Mini-bosses at certain points throughout the level that force you to use this new gear, in comparison to many of the dungeon ‘trash mobs’ that can be defeated using methods or habits we have long settled into.
  • Boss at end of dungeon that requires you to use the new skill you have learned. Defeating this boss is akin to ‘mastering’ the new skill.
  • Repeat the above.

Some of you will recognize this as the tried-and-true Legend of Zelda gameplay loop. The reason I mention YS Origin instead of The Legend of Zelda is because most people will agree Zelda (and its spinoffs) are fun games with interesting plot twists and memorable music. YS Origin can be seen as the abstraction of that: Throwaway story, forgettable soundtrack, uninspiring characters, just pure tried-and-true gameplay pattern put into practice. I spent more time on this game than I would have liked, even though some much more detailed games (such as Pillars of Eternity) deserved much more of my time.

In terms of gaming time spent, gameplay will always be king, and even though I speak of games like Pillars of Eternity with more adoration, most of my gaming time is spent on the games I find to be legitimately more fun to play. I don’t think I’m alone on this subject, and as game designers it is important to remember that our goal first and foremost is to entertain, even if aspects such as story are deep parts of what we are producing.