Design challenges for short-session gaming

Screenshot of a particularly funny Elite Beat Agents sequence

I’ve just finished reading an excellent series of post by two video game journalists on the apparent revival of short-session games. (What’s not to love about an article that finishes by asserting that Desktop Tower Defense beats BioShock at its own mechanic?) It’ll be in tomorrow’s link post but here’s the link anyway. Being involved with a casual gaming project myself lately, I’ve spent a some time thinking about what the design challenges for this sub-genre are. In other words: what make short-session games hard to pull off? I think it breaks down to these things:

  1. You need to get the player in flow as soon as possible. This means you can’t bother him with lengthy intros (or even menus). It also means the game’s mechanics should be as self-explanatory as possible. I’m reminded of the first time I started up Elite Beat Agents the other day and was given a super-short tutorial on how to play the game, then was dumped into the action right away (this is good).
  2. No stories please. Short-session gaming forces you to design for play, not for narrative (as it should be, in my opinion). It’s about giving the player an engaging activity and interesting choices, nothing more.
  3. Traditional distribution models make no sense for small games. Luckily, we now have network connectivity on virtually all gaming devices (not to mention PCs and mobile phones). The wait is for an open platform for game developers to experiment on while at the same time being able to make a buck. But even now, networked marketplaces on consoles have encouraged experimentation.
  4. The visual layer does not have to be retro. Although most short-session game experiences remind us of the good old games from the beginning days of electronic gaming, there’s no reason why these games should look retro.
  5. Throw some of that processing at the rules, not the visuals. Short-session, small and simple don’t necessarily mean crude. Don’t go all-out on my 4th point’s visuals without forgetting about all the cool complex behaviours you can create with today’s processors.

There’s much more to think and talk about, but I think these are the highlights. Particularly getting people into flow ASAP and coupling this with interesting distribution mechanisms is I think worth some more discussion.

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is an independent interaction and game designer who makes things with technology for play, learning and creativity.

  • Rahul

    Case in point: Tetris. There should be more games like Tetris.

  • I agree Rahul, obviously. :-) I don’t have time (anymore) for these huge story-driven games. I like my gaming in short bursts of enjoyable action. Elite Beat Agents is scratching that itch currently, before that it was mostly Mario Kart (both on the DS). Being an interaction designer, I’ve noticed I’m mostly drawn to games that have novel or interesting mechanics at their foundations. These usually are suitable to short-session play. Perhaps there’s some correlation there?

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  • Richard Thames Rowan

    I agree with most of what you wrote, but I completely disagree with the statement “No stories.” This is simply not true as proven by the market success of games like Puzzle Quest or even Aveyond. The key is to tell the story in small discrete chunks that are easy for the short attention span or disinterested folks to skip. There are a lot of people that like stories and think games without them are less engaging. The real challenge is to convey as much of the story as possible by “doing” rather than “telling.”

  • Hey Richard thanks for dropping by and commenting. One wonders how people find this obscure blog…

    I can’t comment on the games you mention but I think you’ve neatly summarized Marc LeBlanc’s argument concerning embedded versus emergent narrative. I blogged about it a bit in the past.

    When you say “the key is to tell the story in small discrete chunks that are easy for the short attention span or disinterested folks to skip,” you’re basically talking about embedding narrative.

    When you continue with “the real challenge is to convey as much of the story as possible by “doing” rather than “telling”,” I see that as a description of emergent narrative.

    Both are equally valid means of conveying story but I’m more interested in the latter. And when I wrote “no stories” here, I was mostly concerned with embedded narrative. Because as you say yourself, in short session play there’s hardly time for telling a story. Better focus on having it emerge through the activity of play.