Balancing between anxiety and boredom (was RE: [MUD-Dev] Fair/Unf air? Scenarios (fwd) )

Sellers Sellers
Fri Dec 17 14:08:36 New Zealand Daylight Time 1999

JC wrote:
> Greg Miller <gmiller at> wrote:
> > Reminds me of something I read lately. It might have been here,
> > but I think it was on a web site (Gamasutra, maybe?). The author
> > commented that people tend to have the most fun when they're
> > learning. This sort of thing leaves you with no sense that you
> > won't make the same sort of mistake next time.  
> This leaves the deliniation being between:
>   <bad thing happens -- character killed>
>   Damn, that sucks!  I'm outta here!
> and:
>   <bad thing happens -- character killed>
>   Damn!  Umm, Oh.  If I'd jut done XYZ then things would have been
>   different!  Let's try that again.
> You have to maintain the willingness of the player to play and
> persist even in the face of apparent failure.  There's a tender line
> to be trodden there between demoralising futility and monty hauls.

Interestingly enough, I'm reading a book called "Beyond Boredom and Anxiety"
by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (University of Chicago? not sure).  It's about
the psychology of 'flow' experiences, also characterized in our industry as
engagement, enjoyment, etc.  I haven't finished the book, but his thesis
seems to be that there is a region that can be graphed between two axes:
skills on the X, and challenges on the Y.  If the challenges-per-skill are
too high, the individual becomes anxious.  If the challenges-per-skill are
too low (or too infrequent, etc.), the individual becomes bored (and oddly,
eventually anxious again, if this sinks too low -- I believe from other
reading that this relates back to long-term habituation, but that's a
different matter).  

So, for any task where you want a 'flow' experience -- and that is
*precisely* what games are about -- you want to carefully calibrate the
challenges-per-skill.  I would argue further that you do not merely want to
stay in the proper mid-range for this on some linear course upward, but that
you want to support the player in proceeding on a winding path of their own
devising: sometimes 'climbing' and increasing challenge without a great
increase in skill (e.g., a quest); sometimes 'resting' and increasing skill
without greatly increasing challenge (e.g., something on this side of
macroing skill increase).  

Keeping the gameplay in this midrange while allowing the player an
appropriate degree of freedom is quite a challenge, even moreso in an open,
multiplayer environment like a MUD.  In their recent article in Game
Developer (and on Gamasutra) on the 'Cabal' process of game development, the
Valve guys alluded to this: they said that they made all challenges
distance-based, did not initiate any challenges but instead let the user do
so, and gave signs to the player as to how difficult a challenge was likely
to be.  This combined with exhaustive user-testing and data mining gave them
a game that kept to this narrow mid-range of challenge-per-skill, and thus
*feels* fun.  

So: insta-death traps that you cannot see coming qualify as way-high
challenge for which there is no commensurate skill, and thus which is likely
to induce great anxiety in most players.  OTOH, telling the players every
time they're about to encounter the least bit of danger lowers the challenge
too much, raising the probability of boredom (and the more advanced the
*player* is, the easier it is to bore them, as their challenges must
increase as their skill increases).  There are a variety of techniques to
present a real challenge while allowing the player to prepare for it and
decide whether to face it or avoid it, thus helping to keep them in the
flow, engaged, fun area where we want them to be.  

Mike Sellers

MUD-Dev maillist  -  MUD-Dev at

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