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  • Book Excerpt: Creating Casual Games for Profit and Fun

    [04.19.07]
    - Allen Partridge

  •  Cognitive Process of Challenge and Reward

    People are constantly learning. It's an absolutely essential part of human nature. We all are built to be curious and to learn from the investigations that this inherent ­curiosity launches. We see this all the time in our daily lives. You may meet friends in the shopping mall and note that one seems distracted or evasive. Generally we try to explore and examine such irregular behavior. Sometimes we ask direct questions, such as, "Are you okay?" At other times we simply explore the question internally and wonder what might have distracted them. If we see a simple math problem, we often solve it without being asked. This is an obvious truth, but its easier to see in the young, as once we are older, there are fewer unknowns.

    We play games, watch murder mysteries, explore caverns, even travel because it stimulates our minds and satisfies our insatiable appetite to learn. There are limits to the size of puzzle or challenge that we like to encounter. Music provides a fine example of this cognitive limit. We like music that we can easily follow and that challenges or surprises us in some way.

    When we are young, the surprise need not be sophisticated. The Barney® song for example, "I love you, you love me. . . ," is perfectly acceptable to a young toddler, but will quickly irritate most adults. "Get it out of my head!" Adults find the music repetitive and annoying almost beyond their limit to endure. It isn't challenging enough to interest them, so it frustrates them. Likewise, if the music were too complex, full of discordant harmonies or complex rhythmic patterns, the adult would also find the music frustrating, not because it's too simple, but because it's too complex (Figure 1.5).


    Figure 1.5 Delighting an audience requires the right amount of challenge.

    If you think about it, effective games must fall in the middle of this cognitive range: between too simple (boring) and too difficult (frustrating). If they do, the player finds them delightful. This, of course, raises two obvious problems. First, the player will get better at solving the game's puzzles, so the range of the target changes grows more sophisticated over time. Second, all players have different starting points, so they will all have slightly different ranges that they find satisfying.

    The result is that all games are a delicate balance of challenges to stimulate the player's need to learn and rewards to motivate the player to continue facing more challenges. Good games quickly allow players to identify the right starting level to challenge them and strongly reward the player for significant growth. If a game is tough to learn, players are less motivated to invest time in the experience. If a game is easy to master, players lose interest too quickly and are unlikely to purchase the game.

    Any functional version of the game that is ready for evaluation and testing is called a beta. Versions that are unfinished (lack some of the planned functions) but demonstrate essential functions are called alphas.

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