Sunday 23 September 2012

Twitchy: How to keep your action-game fans from becoming too frustrated.

The last few weeks I have been enjoying myself with trying to survive in Super Hexagon, a game created by Terry Cavanagh for mobile platforms. It has been a while since I played such a game and it reminded me of a dimension in which games can vary; I personally call it the reactive vs. deliberative dimension. This dimension deals with the way how users respond to the state of the game. Do users have the chance to make a hypothesis about the effect of their actions on the future state of the game (deliberative), or will users have to give the correct input to the current state of the game as fast as possible (reactive, or twitch). In this blog post I will mainly focus on the ‘reactive’ side of the dimension.

Pac-man: An age-old example of reactive gameplay
The Incredible Machine: an age-old example of deliberative gameplay
Many ‘reactive’ games have certain characteristics: users have to quickly adapt to the state of the game by giving the correct input (or face being mocked by the game-over screen), the game states are usually in a random order (so the user doesn’t know what to expect), and the aim of the user is generally to survive as long as possible (or survive a given level).

These games have become very popular again with the introduction of gaming on mobile devices. It’s logical, because the games can be quite addicting, and because you have short gaming sessions, you can play on the go. They have become so popular, that both the iOS App Store and the Android Store have been flooded by these games. Some are a lot of fun to play, such as Doodle Jump, while others are so frustrating that it takes a lot of constraint to not to throw your mobile device against a wall. 

So, why is it that some of these games walk the fine line between too little frustration and too much? Are there elements that we can identify that can make or break such a game? Below I will list a few of the more important ones:

‘What the hell just happened?’

Users should have the feeling that when they die, and in these reactive games they will, they have an idea why they died. If the system gives them unclear feedback, the user will become extremely frustrated and quit.  If the user walks away from the attempt with a rough idea how to survive, they will feel that they are in control. This is also important from a user rewarding perspective: clear feedback enables the user to progress through the game and master certain patterns of gameplay (even though they might still have to go 9/10ths of the way).

Super Hexagon: Acting reactively may not always be enough, by understanding that you have to move to one side continuously, you can learn how to deal with this chaotic pattern.

‘You want me to do what now?’

Users should be able to attain a certain level of flow within the game; the user should not become bored, due to a low level of challenge, but the user should also not become anxious, due to a high level of challenge. Users should be able to select their own level of difficulty (or, if you only have one level, start out easy and become progressively more difficult as the game carries on). These kinds of games do not revolve around understanding, but capability, and that means that the user should have the opportunity to learn how to act.  

Super Meat Boy: The infamous kid level: by double jumping and wall jumping the user has to get from one side to the level to the other

‘Oh gods, not again’

It shouldn’t take too much investment for the user to keep playing. There are two sides to this. The first is from a gameplay perspective, if each game session lasts about 40 minutes and users have to redo everything if they die, there’s a good chance that many people will give up. The second is from a user interface perspective, users should be able to have as little downtime as possible between a failed attempt and a new attempt. By making it as simple as possible for the user to restart, and by keeping the game sessions as short as possible, the user will be tempted to try it again.

Stepmania: Playing a session for a few minutes is fine, but some songs are over 10 minutes long... 

While the above elements are also important for all other types of games, they are key for reactive games. However, as always, do not forget that these elements might not apply for the specific niche you are targeting.

Demon's Souls:  A game in which enemies get stronger as you die and levels can take hours to complete. 
So, in short, don't forget to make sure that your target audience doesn't find your game too challenging, that after dying they want to try again, and that they understand where they went wrong when they went wrong.

Do you have any other elements that you think are important? Or do you have any other comments? Let me know below! In two weeks I'll be looking at another aspect of games, so stay tuned!


  1. I wonder if some of these elements are just as important for deliberative games. When you are given 10 seemingly unrelated objects in the incredible machine and a very complex puzzle I can feel a ‘You want me to do what now?’ moment.

    Couple of notes:
    - Do the enemies in Demon's Soul not get stronger as you _do_?
    - Through or throw? Some are a lot of fun to play, such as Doodle Jump, while others are so frustrating that it takes a lot of constraint to not to through your mobile device against a wall.

    Nice post though :)

  2. Thanks for your comment :)

    They are relevant/important as well for deliberative games, but in deliberative games you can get away with it more, seeing as users have more time to understand the situation.

    About your notes:
    - The enemies are already quite powerful, and you lose a portion of your health, and they get stronger, when you die. It's a very brutal game, as it punishes you for failing :)
    - Thoroughly throw ;) Thanks, edited it out!

  3. Two weeks waiting? That's way too much downtime between sessions ;)! Nice post!

  4. Nooowww I understand what you were talking about the other weekend :)

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