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 a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

6 thoughts on “Design challenges for short-session gaming”

  1. 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?

  2. 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.”

  3. 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.

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