This month we’re looking at approachability in game design. How do we remove the initial barriers to entry that new players face in games? This week we look at several methods that help to encourage a player to try a new game. To follow up on our six axioms of Approachability, this week we’ll be looking at Familiarity and Purpose.
Bridging the Uncertainty Gap
As we introduced last week, gamers and non-gamers alike often have a bit of rules aversion. We don’t wish to learn new rules as it can lead to confusion while learning, errors in judgment and even anxiety over the possibility of making mistakes. In order to help dissipate this initial response game designers have some tools to generate leverage on the situation.
Familiarity: Ease concerns by establishing connections with the audience.
Purpose: What is my objective and how do I get there?
Let’s begin with an example that illustrates why some games need familiarity and purpose:
Although this clip is comedic in nature, it is a wonderful illustration to set-up our first phase of approachability. The Cones of Dunshire may or may sound like a game for you but convincing others to play would undoubtedly be a significant obstacle. The game may have some innovative mechanics, interesting decisions and intense player interaction but most people would never know for themselves. The Cones of Dunshire lacks familiarity: nothing we see or hear during Ben’s pitch will trigger memories or ideas that resonate with a prospective group of players. Furthermore, The greatest mystery in this clip is the purpose or overall objective of the game and how players might achieve it.
The first axiom of approachability relates to the initial impressions of a game by a new audience. Optimistically a game can make connections with an audience using familiar visuals or concepts which can reduce the uncertainty gap they may be experiencing. Before getting to the table, games often face the question “What is that about?” and familiarity starts with the pitch, a brief summary of the game. The pitch can provide familiarity when it sparks a connection with pre-existing knowledge.
It shouldn’t be very surprising to find out that theme is an uncommon source of familiarity. Building a network of power plants in Germany or constructing a luxurious casinos in Las Vegas aren’t relatable activities for most people in the real world. Familiarity will usually be introduced in the form of mechanics.
Real World Connection – Adapt a real world counterpart
Speculation is a relatively straightforward title in the stock trading genre. Players buy low and sell high, attempting to make wise investments in a fluctuating market. The stock trading mechanic is an interesting example as it often can provide players the purpose of the game as well. Maximizing one’s value is an innate notion so attempting to have the greatest self-worth at the end of the game is a natural objective.
Draw Comparisons – Liken to a popular game or concept
The Resistance has the benefit of using several existing entertainment subjects as to spur potential links with an audience.As Matt discussed in his teachability article, Mafia or Werewolf are some games that loosely describe what players might come to expect. Comparisons can extend to other mediums and for The Resistance a connection could be to the television series “The Mole”.
Mechanic/Genre with a Twist – Build on a familiar concept with an intriguing modification
Trivia games can create a gigantic uncertainty gap for people: What kinds of categories should we expect? Do I need to respond in the form of a question? What if I say a foolish answer? Will this game make me feel inadequate about my knowledge of Olympic figure skating bronze medalists?
Wits & Wagers builds on the trivia game premise and alleviates new players concerns by billing itself as the trivia game for “People who don’t know stuff”. Players bet on the answers by incorporating a gambling system to reward participants simply for identifying the opponent who has the best idea of the answer.
Avoid Creating Unfamiliarity
While familiarity is a great way to introduce your game to new players, its success is conditional on a variety of factors. Familiarity can be an unreliable method to enact approachability if a person has no interest in the stock market or never played Mafia. One concern about ignoring familiarity entirely is the danger of creating additional barriers to entry in a game.
The earliest visuals a person will encounter are the game box and components. As much as we all love production value, implementing a wide variety of custom components can create uncertainty.
Custom sided dice can be an awesome addition to a game design, but that “awesomeness” comes at the cost of familiarity. Games such as Castles of Burgundy, Yspahan and Stone Age use traditional dice in new ways, which is a more friendly idea to new players. The main idea here is to be aware of when you’re taking a familiar component and creating something unexpected as it can quickly shift a game into the “that looks complicated” mindset.
Few experiences can generate uncertainty more than feeling like you’re speaking a different language. Thematic language can add flavor and appeal to players who are already fans of a particular series or subject matter. Unfortunately an emphasis on language can really ostracize new players.
Android: Netrunner is a remarkable two-player experience where players engage in clever mind games as they attempt to gain the upper hand. Unfortunately the game can be a very difficult game to follow for new players as card types, tokens, and the orientation of cards use their own language during the game. Theme and mechanics can generate terminology that is difficult to follow for new players and being mindful while writing a rulebook can help indicate areas of concern.
From an outsider’s perspective, role playing games can be some of the most difficult to follow for new players. In Dungeons & Dragons, once a beginner is able to distinguish between character classes and ability scores they may then still need to learn terminology around some of the the spells, actions or special abilities available to them. D&D may or may not be a gaming system that needs approachability for new players but it is always worth keeping in mind the dissimilar attributes new players must grasp to understand the game.
An Alternative to Familiarity – Low Commitment
The value of familiarity in a game design is closely tied to the intended length and complexity of a game. The average person is going to have a giant uncertainty gap and hesitation if it is their first time playing a four hour game about 16th century Mediterranean trading.
An alternative to incorporating familiarity in game design is by having a quick playing time and low levels of complexity. Using a short set-up time, a friendly theme and limited rules can often bypass the need to establish connections with an audience. It is far easier to convince someone to play a game if you can pitch it to them as “This game doesn’t seem like anything we’ve tried before but it only takes 15 minutes to play.”
Love Letter demonstrates several axioms of approachability, but not familiarity. The theme and mechanics lack the ability to connect with the pre-existing knowledge of the audience and there are no shortcuts to teaching the rules. Love Letter thrives without the need for familiarity using a quick playing time, light rules and a generally low commitment for a new audience.
Our second axiom is the process of communicating the final objective to a player. This is the earliest point during in the learning process in which players can begin framing their strategy and observe how elements of the game can be beneficial.
A game’s purpose is generally a component of the game’s pitch. In games players have come to expect to learn a game with a degree of reverse chronological order. We want to know the destination before we begin our journey. Let’s look at a few methods to make the purpose or objective of a game more approachable to a new player.
Traditional games offer a goal and one or more ending conditions after which a winner is declared. Sometimes these two events occur simultaneously but in modern tabletop games it is common for the goal to be dependent on the ending conditions. Lets try a few examples:
“The winner is the player with the most currency after ten turns”
In our first example we have an objective (“most currency”) and a static independent ending condition (“after ten turns”). Many experienced gamers would no longer give an statement like this a second thought, but it still leaves uncertainty for new players. Is the value of currency relatively stable over the course of the game or is there inflationary mechanics in place? A new player won’t be able to tell from the objective or ending conditions that points are far easier to accumulate at the end of the game and they should always reinvest early accumulated currency.
7 Wonders can be a struggle for new players and as you’ll see later this month it is a wonderful example of approachability for both positive and negative reasons.
One of the biggest drawbacks to 7 Wonders is that a new player has an extremely limited planning perspective in order to maximize their score during the three ages. An early blue VP card appears enticing to a beginner as it directly moves them closer to their objective, but the potential opportunity cost isn’t readily apparent as building infrastructure can produce long-term scoring opportunities.
There are plenty of ways ending conditions can be separated from the objective:
“…at the end of five rounds.”
“…once the last building is constructed.”
“…when the draw deck runs out.”
Purpose is best defined when the endgame condition and the objective of the game demonstrate interdependence. This relationship can be seen in games where these two characteristics are triggered concurrently.
“The first player to cross the finish line wins the game”
In our second example we have an objective we are used to seeing in classic board games. While an objective like this may not be as thought provoking as the previous example it does give new players a better idea of the purpose in a game. The alignment gives players a specific target to aim for rather than “score as much as possible” in relative to your opponents. Measurable progress can be simpler to observe as every action that can move your position toward the finish line is a step in the right direction.
Crossing the finish line is an objective commonly found in traditional children’s games like Candyland or Chutes & Ladders but this absolute objective type is simply re-phrased in many other classic and modern games:
Monopoly and potentially Risk! can be played as a “last person standing” challenge. Scotland Yard ends once Mr. X is caught or evades capture. Clue ends once someone has made a successful accusation of the murder evidence. Stratego concludes most often when one side captures the flag of the opposition.
A number of modern game designs have used similar absolute victory conditions that unite the end of the game with the objective.
The winner of Qin is the first person to place all of their pagodas first. Players can directly see the benefit of taking a turn that allows them to place a pagoda over one that does not. A natural learning progression allows a player to see the benefit of stealing pagoda placements from other players, placing one of their own pagodas and forcing an opponent to return a pagoda to their pile.
Settlers of Catan famously uses a first player to ten points victory condition. As a simple objective this is works wonderfully as players can see the connection between point scoring opportunities and winning the game.
Viticulture uses an interesting victory condition in which the game is triggered by a player who achieves a threshold of twenty points. After this threshold is broken, players finish the current round and the highest score wins. This is an interesting method as it introduces a pacing concept that would be natural to new players. Players don’t know precisely when the endgame will be triggered but can see as the game approaches the end that they need to stay close to the leader.
Although providing a clear and concise objective is the best way to give players a sense of their purpose in a game, sometimes the objective could be loosely defined or does not reflect the immediate challenges facing players. One way to help build purpose in a game is to give players a short-term goal using mechanics. This can help a player grasp some of the long-term thought processes before they will require it.
In Survive: Escape from Atlantis! players need to achieve the long-term scoring goal of moving their people to the exterior islands and off of the sinking mainland. Players are assisted by boats which transport people more effectively. Moving people to boats is an easy to explain short-term goal which can help new players aim for the greater objective as they become comfortable with the game mechanics.
Familiarity serves as a hook the grab a player’s attention until it can be fulfilled (which we’ll examine closely in our next article). Familiarity is most valuable to establish approachability when:
- A game carries a heavy commitment – large game length, high complexity or a “daunting” theme.
- A game has a large amount of innovation or new ideas.
Game designers often want to do something new and different, but when it comes time to teach others your game, familiarity can make the difference between success and a confusing experience.
Purpose serves to highlight a player’s role in a game and to provide a destination on the horizon. Purpose is most valuable to establish approachability when:
- A game has a steep learning curve.
- A game lacks familiarity and requires a high commitment.
- A game is geared toward children or non-gamers.
Familiarity and Purpose exist as methods to extend an invitation to a receptive audience. Next week we’ll examine how to captivate an audience who have accepted the invitation and walked through the door.
- Continue to the next approachability article – “Captivating a Captive Audience” – Engaging players, clarifying their actions, removing distractions and giving players a push in the right direction. We’ll look at Clarity, Navigation, Parsimony and Assurance.