What’s Wrong With Your Game: A Guide To Adjusting The Cause And Effect Systems


Daniel Cook, co-founder of the game development studio Spry Fox, invented his own game design techniques for fixing ‘broken’ game experiences and shared it with public.

Cause and effect systems are everywhere. It’s how we learn life and games are no exception. You learn that putting 3 same tiles together makes a match. First you assume, then you act to test, once you see the expected outcome you refine a mental model of cause and effect. And to enjoy the game, you need to master the mental models this game is built on.

Depending on how obvious the cause and effect relationships are within a mental model, Cook talks about ‘tight’ (obvious connection) and ‘loose’ (ambiguous connection) systems. Making all systems tight would kill the intrigue and sense of achievement. Making them all loose would give player a feeling of deep confusion. Another difficulty lies in the fact that player’s perception of tightness or looseness changes as he masters new skills throughout the game and what was initially loose turns to tight over time. It is game designer’s to find correct ‘tightness’ for all stages of his game. 

Gameplay consists of the loops, which in their turn have several stages: Action, Rules, Feedback and User’s mental model updating. It’s important to locate the stage that contains issues and pick the corresponding technique to fix them.

1) Option complexity.
A tighter cause and effect system offers a small set of choises making it easier for player to pick one and play on. A looser system includes multiple (if not infinite) options which in itself act as fun factor for certain games. For example, open world games allow for many possible scenarios of playing and that keeps players engaged over long time.
CONTROL QUESTION: Will removing/adding option(s) make my game better?

2) Pacing.
Tighter systems have shorter time spans between cause and effect within gameplay. But there’s a risk to make them too short or not short enough: e.g. you can make players wait for 1-2 secs till a dialog box pops up on hover or use a 200ms interval that’s considered an optimal pacing. 
Loose systems are more rare as players aren’t used to invest into something with late aftereffects. But there are examples of successful ‘slow-paced’ game events, such as Alpha Centauri and its alien attacks at the end caused by what player did early at the beginning.
CONTROL QUESTION: What will happen if I slow down/speed up timing?

1) Processing complexity.
The difference between tight and loose systems is in the number of steps/moves player needs to think ahead (process) for getting the desired result. When you see a bullet coming right on you in a shooter game, you know immediately that staying in the same place will lead to loss. But if you want to succeed in games like Triple Town, for example, you’ll need to do a serious brain work and carefully plan a dozen steps ahead.
CONTROL QUESTION: Are players able to plan enough steps ahead to get what they want?
2) Probability. 
Chess game represents a tight system, meaning that each figure moves along a certain pattern and player knows exactly what will happen after a move. To make it more loose, you can add an element of randomness (such as rolling a dice to determine movement direction). Loose systems are those where cause has a variety of probable effects, for example, a slot machine with multiple possible combinations of symbols after a spin.
CONTROL QUESTIONS: Are actions in my game too pre-determined and boring/too random and illogical?

3) Indirection.
Tighter systems are represented by games with primary effects: cause is directly related to the effect. For example, in Zelda you press a button and a nearby enemy is hit. While in looser systems we’re dealing with secondary effects: cause triggers a secondary system, which in its turn triggers an effect. A good example is SimEarth. Though players may not fully know about what’s actually happening when they are interacting with loose systems, such indirect action games can be very long-lasting.
CONTROL QUESTION: Are the results of actions obvious enough? How can I create indirect action within a simple system?

4) Linearity.
Compare the trajectory of an arrow and an arcing boomerang to see the difference between tight (linear) and loose (non-linear) systems. Usually, looser systems having the elements that increase non-linearly are difficult to play and often make people quit.
CONTROL QUESTIONS: How can I make non-linear systems more predictable? Will my game be better with linear systems only?

1) Strength of feedback.
Winning a match-3 game level is accompanied with sound, color, animation, text as various types of feedback to let player know for sure he’s won. It’s an example of a tight system. When feedback is communicated through one channel only - for example, a sound of footsteps signals of an enemy approaching you in shooter games - we’re talking about a loose system. 
CONTROL QUESTION: Am I using enough feedback channels to make the desired impact?  

2) Noisiness.
In a tight system, a player receives a clear signal of an effect, while a loose one is distinguished by a scope of signals creating an ‘information noise’ effect. Cook mentions Space Giraffe as a game that illustrates how challenging it can be for a player to see well through the visual noise.
CONTROL QUESTION: What is the most important piece of information a player needs right now? 

3) Sensory type.
Visual and tactile types of feedback have the strongest impact on user, and thus create a tighter link between cause and effect. Means of visual feedback have been continuously refined, and it’s not only for making something prettier but to make it more functional. Sounds and smells on the contrary are perceived by players less effectively and are indicative of loose cause and effect systems. 
CONTROL QUESTION: What feedback is functional and what is for aesthetic purpose only?

4) Hidden information.
Immediately visible information about possible matches in Triple Town and the like puzzle games is part of the tight cause and effect system. Loose system is hiding information or keeps it off screen to make progress more challenging. Example: Mastermind, a game about cracking a hidden code.
CONTROL QUESTIONS: Have I hidden something meaningful? Have I made visible something that must be hidden?    

5) Discreteness.
Games with tight cause and effect systems contain units with only low value numbers or discrete states. This is used in Pac-Man where enemies, the Ghosts, are moving in a strictly deterministic fashion. Another hit game, Angry Birds, illustrates a loose system: you can throw a bird at a wide range of angles, which makes the effect very unpredictable.
CONTROL QUESTION: What number of values is enough to create meaningful choices?

1) Time pressure.
Players are more likely to build mental connections between cause and effect when there’s no time pressure. Tighter systems allow them to play at preferred pace to make the connection and control the game situation. Loose systems, on the opposite, force players to make decisions quickly. It mostly works for games with not much complexity involved.
CONTROL QUESTION: How much time it takes a player to understand what’s going on? 

2) Tapping existing mental models.
Stereotypes and strong associations have been existing for years. It’s enough to call characters ‘zombies’ to communicate a large scope of information to players (how they move, that they are dangerous, etc.). This way the tight cause and effect systems work. Tetris is an example of a loose system, which originated from an uncommon idea with no known references. 
CONTROL QUESTION: Can we step away from cliches to create original experience?

We hope these handy techniques will help you balance the ‘tightness’ of cause and effect links within your game.
Stay tuned for more insights!

Posted by Renatus on July 31, 2017