Let them flow (nothing else seems to matter)

When we create games, we want to make it so good and interesting, that people play it intensively and stay focused on the game as long as possible.

When someone concentrates entirely on something for a long period, like player on a (good) game, there is something interesting happening around him: time stops, the whole world stops. There is nothing more than the player and his experience of sustained focus, pleasure and enjoyment.

This feeling, the feeling of complete and energized focus in an activity, that we want our players to enjoy, was described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and is called a flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.

Flow can be achieved during interesting and absorbing activities, e.g. playing instruments, sports, yoga, sailing, meditation, programming and, of course, during playing games. Flow is characterized by an intense focus on the present moment, altered feeling of time and complete freedom from doubt and fear.

How to achieve flow? There are four simple rules:

  1. You have to have clear goals, know exactly what you need or want to do.
  2. You have to have immediate feedback, just after you act, because there is no place for doubt.
  3. You have to have challenge-skill balance — the challenge cannot be something that your skills are not enough for, but at the same time it cannot be something that your skills are too big for.
  4. You cannot have any distractions. Distractions steal focus, and where there is no focus, there is no flow.

This leads us to something that is called a game flow:

This simple diagram shows basic dependencies: when the challenges are high and the skill is low we get anxious, because we cannot complete it; if the challenge is low and skills are high, we get bored. So the flow is possible only in the middle: we can feel that we are really engaged in an activity, because it requires us to stay focused, it is difficult enough to stay focused, it gives direct feedback and we know clearly what to do. At the same time we cannot forget, that it is a very dynamic situation, because one cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long — so it must be balanced according to growing skills. This is how we explain psychologically a flow in games.

How to create a game flow?

  1. We have to design far and close objectives
    Why far and close objectives? Because the player needs to keep being rewarded. “Close” means short time to complete (depending on a game it can be 1 hour, 1 day or 3 days, but usually no longer), so we have to keep bombarding player with close objectives. 
    Close objectives are usually in the game mechanics and they are providing the feeling of success throughout the game (feeling of success is connected with reward). 
    Far goal is more like a mission, usually connected with the plot and core rules of the game.
  2. Far objectives should be concise and presented early (e.g. “Find the Pirate’s Treasure” or “Defeat The Mad King”). 
    It doesn’t have to be detailed, but it should be like a direction.
  3. Close objectives should be precise and presented directly before starting them (e.g. the description of a next wave of enemies or a puzzle level). 
    It should be really detailed and clear, because only with details player can accurately assess the resources needed to complete the objective (as you remember, one of the rules of flow is a clear goal).
  4. Feedback for close objectives should be instant and clear (e.g. the amount of damage shown above the monsters or screen blinking red when being hit).
  5. Progress of far objectives should be presented precisely and regularly remind the player about the overall completion (e.g. the area of map explored during loading screen or our character with level and equipment in the pause menu).

Jesse Schell in his book “The art of Game Design” provides us a very useful tool to analyze the flow in our games. We have to ask ourselves five questions:

  1. Does my game have clear goals?
  2. Are the goals of the player the same goals I intended?
  3. Are there parts of the game that distract players to the point they forget their goal?
  4. Does my game provide a challenge-skill balance for growing skills of my players?
  5. Are the player’s skills improving at the rate I hoped for?

Last but not least thing to remember when thinking about the flow is that it is really difficult to observe from outside. It manifests differently depending of both type of a game and type of a player.

Actually flow is one of the main reasons that people play video games, so designing it the right way is another step towards good, exciting experience for our players.

/This post was influenced by Game Industry Conference’s (2016, Poznan, Poland) lecture ‘What happens in our brains when we play games” by Piotr Sobolewski.

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