Depth of Engagement

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by Lemon, Jan 3, 2016.

  1. Lemon

    Lemon Well-Known Member

    Depth of Engagement

    Note: this article uses definitions of game, toy, contest and puzzle as defined here, and the definitions of networked system and content as defined here.

    All interactive systems except pure toys provide the user with an ultimate goal. In order to reach this goal, the user typically needs to build and then execute a chain of intermediate goals. For example, Chess has the ultimate goal of checkmating the enemy king. To do so, you’ll have intermediate goals such as “capture the queen”, “move my rook past the pawns” or “pin the enemy black bishop”.

    A system with a longer chain of intermediate goals will be engaging for longer. This is because each time one goal is completed a new goal can take its place. The user’s engagement is transferred from one goal to the next. For the sake of clarity, by “engagement” I mean “a desire to interact with the system”.

    In this sense, we can say a system with a longer goal-chain will have a greater depth of engagement. The engagement is layered like a ladder, and the ladder is climbed by solving immediate goals. The user will remain engaged until they either:

    1) Reach the top of the ladder,
    2) Are blocked by an overly-difficult or unsolvable intermediate goal,
    3) Lose interest in reaching the next intermediate goal.

    This is not to be confused with strategic depth, which refers to building layers of problem-solving heuristics.

    In Pure [Clockwork] Games

    Games are designed to resist being solved. There are multiple ways to do this, but they all involve creating uncertainty. The further out your ultimate goal is, the more uncertain you’ll be on how to reach it. For this reason, the goal-chain in a game is pretty shallow at any one point in time. You’ll be fairly sure of your next goal, a bit fuzzy on where to go from there, and rather unsure of how to reach the ultimate goal.

    That said, games are also good at helping the user build the goal chains. Players learn decision-making heuristics that help them create better intermediate goals. So despite the goal-tree being shallow at any particular point in time, the goal-tree is also quickly and easily expanded in light of new information. The player can therefore remain engaged for the entirety of a match, even in the face of uncertain goals.

    In games, depth of engagement is actually closely related to strategic depth. A strategically deeper game lets you develop more complex heuristics, and therefore leads to more variety in the created goal chains. The game can therefore be played many times without exhausting the goal-chains. One issue, however, is that the goal chain completely resets between each match. The player must re-engage each time they play the game.

    In Networked Systems

    Networked systems create goals in a different way. A goal in subsystem 1 will require solving another goal in subsystem 2, which will require solving another goal in subsystem 3 - and so on. Subsystems are often reused. The most simple and most common pattern is a circle, which will create a goal chain looking something like:
    1 → 2 → 1 → 2 → 1 → 2 …​

    Many other patterns will be possible, but I’m going to focus on the circular pattern for now - since it is the simplest.

    This kind of “networked goal chain” has rather different properties to a “game goal chain”. This chain is very simple to understand - you alternate back and forth until you eventually reach the end. There’s a lot less uncertainty in the chain. The flip-side, however, is that these chains can be very long. They can last for as long as you can keep pumping content into the next system without maxing it out.

    A longer chain, as noted earlier, means a greater depth of engagement. This is likely why games resembling networked systems like Minecraft and Hearthstone keep players hooked for such vast quantities of time. Diablo 3 is perhaps the clearest example of this. It has a literally endless grind in the Nephalem Rift system. These are levelled ‘rifts’ (missions) wherein each rift is more difficult than the last, by way of scaled-up numbers. Each rift also gives you better loot than the last, by way of scaled up numbers, and so the difficulty actually remains the same over the long term. People have played this for hundreds and even thousands of hours, following this infinite goal chain. If you want players to stick around, you need to give them a longer goal chain.

    There is, of course, a dangerous side to long goal chains. Many people who played through the greater rifts in Diablo III will tell you they played long past the point of it being enjoyable. They were simply compelled to keep reaching the next level. This is because Diablo III’s gameplay is extremely shallow - the game is very little beyond a skinner box designed to exploit flaws in our minds. Goal chains need to be used responsibly.

    If you’re compelling a user to perform an activity, then that activity should provide some benefit to them. Pure games are very good at this, since the player is learning about strategy. But these games also have fairly low depth of engagement. By placing a pure game within a networked system we can get the best of both worlds.

    Games Within a Networked System

    By placing a pure game within a networked system, we prevent the re-engagement issue of games. Each match of the game is linked to the next, through a long term goal chain embedded in the structure of the networked system. The simplest example of this would be:
    Game ←→ Ladder​

    By tracking a player’s long term performance on a ladder you provide motivation to keep playing. The long-term goal chain is clear: win a game to rise on the ladder so I can play a more challenging game, and so on, until I reach my desired raking. The short term goal chain is formed through a single match of the game, and will therefore be strategically interesting and beneficial to the player (hopefully).

    But this network is one dimensional. You rise, or you fall. I think there’s plenty of room for more interesting subsystems to be inserted. For example, the game could be connected to a puzzle. Each move in solving the puzzle is done through a match of the game. This could be themed as crossing a large map. You choose your route, and then complete matches of a game to progress down that route. The type of match you face can be determined by the route you took.

    Closing Thoughts

    Once the goal chain ends, players stop engaging with your system’s prescribed goals and start engaging with it as a toy. Pure toys rarely keep people’s interest for long, so if you want to maintain a player base then you need to construct a long goal-chain.

    Networked systems let us create a goal chain that is both long and interesting. Interest is created within the subsystems, and length is created by connecting them. Increasing your depth of engagement is one of the major benefits of the networked systems approach.
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2016
    valavir, alastair, Batlad and 4 others like this.
  2. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    I prefer "arcs" to refer to what you're referring to; that way there's clearly ONE "goal" and then everything else is just smaller and larger arcs. But yeah, not saying that to be pedantic, more just to show how this is something I talk about just in a different way.

    Anyway, I'm a little bit skeptical of your wording - "longer goal-chain > greater depth of engagement", because that kind of suggests that games should be really long. I would say it's more about how much each "intermediate goal" (arc) tightly relates to the final, true goal of the game, not the "number of intermediate goals". Basically I think the number of intermediate goals does need to be higher than some number and lower than some number, but within that range, the numeric value is totally system dependent. Sometimes a very low one will be preferable to a high one, etc.

    Anyway, great post!
  3. Lemon

    Lemon Well-Known Member

    I'm not saying systems SHOULD be long, I'm saying if you want your system to be long then you need to increase depth of engagement. Some ways of doing this, like ladders, are largely beneficial.

    One benefit of a long system is financial viability. Another is value for money.
  4. Batlad

    Batlad Well-Known Member

    Another great post. One thing I've been thinking about recently though is how external (networked) sub systems draw value away from the primary system. Here you show that they can be used to extend the engagement in the system, but admit they can be used to extend it artificially, ie long after the core system provides no engagement.

    So if your primary system is already provides enough depth of engagement are you just taking away from that when you add an external system? Shouldn't players just be playing the primary system for the joy of doing so?

    Of course the external systems can provide value of their own, but if they are designed merely encourage the player to begin the next level then should they be kept as small and lightweight as possible to avoid any artificial extension of the player's engagement beyond the point at which they are still gaining enjoyment/learning?

    I raise this point because it is well known that extrinsic rewards while good at motivating players actually cause players to devalue a task. For example the extrinsic reward of climbing a ladder could detract from the enjoyment of individual matches, especially if it was a good game and you learned a lot but still lost.

    So while I agree with everything in the post I think there's still more to uncover about designing such a networked system.
  5. Erenan

    Erenan Well-Known Member

    What's a goal-tree? That term sort of came out of nowhere. We'd previously seen goal-chain and ladder, but I was kind of confused about what a goal-tree was.

    It seems to me that Lemon is referring not only to players remaining engaged for the full length of matches but also remaining engaged with the game system from match to match. For instance, the way Auro's skill ladder keeps the player engaged by attempting to match the game difficulty with the player's level. Lemon's terminology regards this as a goal-chain, so we're not just talking about arcs inside of the game itself.
    Lemon likes this.
  6. Lemon

    Lemon Well-Known Member


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