Drew Davidson, who is clearly better than me with deadlines (given that I kept him waiting 21 weeks past mine to deliver an article for Well Played 3.0), returns to us with another fascinating cross-cultural look at games. Inspired by the concept of bite-sizability and just as low on time to game as the rest of us, today talks about how snacks and games can co-relate, and what we can learn from each when thinking about good design. You’re on, Drew!
by Drew Davidson
Penny Arcade recently satirized the snack food industry in a series of three strips titled “The Globfather.” What got them going was PepsiCo’s new product, Tropolis, and how it’s an attempt to “snackify” beverages, or “drinkify” snacks, or maybe both. Regardless, this brought to mind a New York Times article from 2006 (“Twelve Easy Pieces”) that described food snackability and how the food industry was trying to snackify apples. Snackability is a term for how easy and convenient it is to eat a food. Lay’s slogan for their potato chips, “You can’t just eat one,” cuts right to the quick. The more snackable it is, the more we’ll eat. And the NYT article looked at how research had shown that while we don’t snack on a whole apple, we do snack on apple slices, often eating more than an apple’s worth.
At the time, this got me thinking about how casual games are a lot like snacks. We can’t just eat one potato chip, and we take just one more turn at a game. In both cases, it’s about making it extremely easy and convenient to have another, then another and then another. So, if we can snack our way through a game; are games also like food, in that some are more snackable than others? And if so, how and what does that mean in terms of the design of their gameplay?
Then in 2007, the March issue of Wired focused on the snackification of pop culture. The copy in the byline of the feature article couldn’t have put it better; “Movies, TV, songs, games. Pop culture now comes packaged like cookies or chips, in bite-size bits for high-speed munching. It’s instant entertainment – and boy, is it tasty.” Also, they mentioned minigames as snacks even, so the idea of games as snacks had some merit it seemed.
And I’ve been talking about this with Troy Whitlock, a creative director and game designer in the casual game space. He has helped to refine these ideas about snacks and games that I’d initially just been noodling around with. Together, we started to more clearly articulate a concept of snackable gameplay, and a lot of the characteristics and mechanics mentioned below came from our discussions.
Thinking about snackable gameplay, a defining characteristic revolves around time. Snackable gameplay comes in short bursts of time, making it really easy to take another turn. At first, I thought of this only in terms of casual games, but I’ve come to see how it can be found in almost any type of game. So a casual game like Peggle makes it really easy to keep playing for another quick round, while the more complex Civilization series are the classic “just one more turn” games.
Another defining characteristic of snackable gameplay is that it creates play experiences that feel complete in themselves. On a micro level, it encapsulates a game’s tension of rising challenges and gratifying rewards in each short play session. These snackable moments can stand on their own as gameplay experiences, and can also tie together into a larger game experience with a longer challenge and reward cycle. Game Dev Story does this well, with a nice integration of snackable micro activities (making games) within the game’s macro activity (running a studio) that combine together so that we have multiple rewarding moments across our playing experience. Snackable gameplay’s challenge/reward processes are just smaller and shorter which makes it easier to continue to play one more turn again and again.
A specific challenge for snackable gameplay is to have the play experience feel complete within a short timeframe, while also ramping up the difficulty as players advance through the game. An old school way to increase difficulty is to make the gameplay challenges much longer and harder, so as we get further along in a game, we have less snackability in our gameplay as the playing time between challenges and save points expands greatly. Osmos almost stays snackable for the entire game. For the most part, the levels increase in difficulty through new mechanics and clever level layouts that are nice and snackable. But eventually at the upper levels, the game keeps adding more and more until the amount of time required expands beyond a nice playful snack (it’s still a great game, it just moves beyond snackable gameplay toward the end). Infinity Blade stays nice and snackable throughout. Even as the challenges ramp up, they always remain fairly short in terms of time, making it easy to snack our way through the whole game.
Short amounts of time are key, but snackable gameplay is not just that. The play experience needs to feel complete even in these short bursts while it cycles up in terms of its challenges and rewards. It helps to rely on well-established gaming conventions so that prior playing experiences can enable us to jump right into playing a game fresh. Recently, The New Yorker ran an interesting article on the artistic experimentation of Catalan pastry chefs, and how they’re questioning what constitutes a dessert. The chefs are deconstructing desserts into their smaller components and mixing them anew for familiar experiences with a twist. And snackable gameplay helps mix familiar mechanics together in interesting ways to offer up newly fun playing experiences. World of Goo does this by taking something familiar (physics-based construction) and mixing it up with funky music, art and humor along with inventive mechanics to make a unique puzzle game.
Snackable gameplay also helps make it as easy and convenient as possible to play by reducing the friction to engage with a game. With food snacks, friction could be worrying about weight gain, so manufacturers can package snacks in 100-calorie servings. With games, friction could be watching a long introductory cutscene and tutorial, so developers can allow us to skip a cutscene with a buttonpress, and make an in-game tutorial that gets us playing right away. Snackable gameplay helps reduce and remove friction and lets us get right down to the core fun experience of playing the game. Uncharted 2 does a nice job of reducing friction at the start of the game, as we’re tossed right into the action. The introductory tutorial and cutscenes are all in-game, so we’re immediately playing the game.
Snackable gameplay incorporates various mechanics to help create these brief, fun playing experiences. Looking at casual games, the following mechanics can be helpful in the design of snackable gameplay: progress meters – showing us how much more we have to do to win; game time – counting down the short amount time we have left; power ups – giving us special abilities to more easily overcome certain challenges; cascade combos – multiplying game rewards for strategic play; unlocks – highlighting our mastery of the gameplay; metagames – providing high-level motivation with external prizes; and ongoing rewards – allowing us to personalize our experience the more we play. Bejeweled Blitz incorporates some of these mechanics, and Jesper Juul and Rasmus Keldorff have shown the amazing depth found in the game, which lasts only a minute. Now, these mechanics are specifically useful for casual games, but I think some of them can also translate to other types of games.
That said, what’s interesting about snackable gameplay is that it can enable us to play just one more turn for hours and hours on end. Looking to the study of food again, Brian Wansink, head of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, has conducted research that shows that the way food is packaged, presented and served has an effect not only on how much we eat, but also on how much we enjoy what we eat. Similarly, snackable gameplay serves up easy ways into playing a game a lot as we’re really enjoying the game that we’re playing. In essence, we’re playing just as much time as we would on a less snackable game.
And this gets to the heart of the matter for me. Snackable gameplay encourages me to try out games, and give them more of my increasingly divided attention. Grim Fandango is a great playing experience, but it isn’t really that snackable. It’s more of a five-course meal that rewards some focused attention across hours, with clever dialogue, twisting story points and puzzles that require us to master a quirky inventory full of objects found and collected from all over the gameworld. It’s a hard game to step in and out of. In contrast, Ico has the large goals of a good meal, but it also has lots of snackable couch save points along the way that help make it easier to snack through a game with a longer story arc.
Susan O’Connor, a game writer, has some snackable ideas about how stories for games can be written in small associated bite-sized chunks to help us experience the story more modularly. This can make the experience of the narrative feel more organic as we proceed through the game, and I think it also helps us snack our way through the story as we play. And speaking of chunks, the idea of snackable gameplay shares some affinity with the learning concept of chunking. In chunking, we learn a subject more thoroughly by breaking it into smaller, manageable chunks of associated content. And as James Paul Gee notes, a well-designed game teaches us how to play it through the very act of playing. Good snackable gameplay comes in associated chunks that help us to advance through the reward-challenge cycle of a game.
It’s fun (for me at least) to think about games through the perspective of snacks and to unpack the idea of snackable gameplay, which appears to be a useful concept to explore. On a related note, a group of friends and I (who mostly just meet at an annual game conference) started attending a cooking class every year we’re there. The conversations range from food to games, and beyond. I’ve almost always found that considering games from different perspectives is a useful way to unpack what makes them work so well (or not) and how to make them even better. For instance, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s psychological notion of flow, in which a person achieves an optimal experience with a high degree of focus and enjoyment, has become an apt method for discussing the need for a smooth increasing challenge and reward cycle in a game. This helps us learn how to master a game and get more engaged as we play it. And not to push this idea too far, but I find it funny (and for Penny Arcade it reached a snackularity) that in PepsiCo’s press release on Tropolis, they state that their researchers designed the snack so that it would flow. So, it would seem that flow is an optimal snacking experience.
Looking back, one of the things that appeals to me about the NYT article on apples is that it resonates with how I enjoy playing games. I prefer to consume a game on my time, instead of having a game consume all of my time. A whole apple may not be a snack, but cut it up and we can easily eat an apple or two as we snack on the slices. Similarly, a game can offer an overall complex experience that takes awhile to fully play through, but by having some snackable gameplay, we can complete a game in nice associated chunks across time. In general, snackable gameplay makes the playing experience feel rewarding in, and of, itself. It’s so much fun to play just one more turn.
Thanks for another thought-provoking article, Drew!