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!
Great article! The game I’m playing now with the highest snackability factor is clearly Echo Bazaar, and while the developers haven’t described the concept as such it’s clear that it’s a fundamental principle of the game.
Thank you for the examples from longer/more “core” games like Ico and Civilization. This seems like a very useful common ground between casual and hardcore games. I’ll be thinking about it for a while!
Well thanks again Drew, for giving me a bunch of interesting new things to consider… including whether I am a binge gamer.
Great piece, Drew.
And I’ll definitely be looking for a way to work the term “snackability” into my conversations over the next few days.
For some reason I kept thinking of Charles Dickens while reading this.
Also, I took a bunch of technical writing courses a few years back and “chunking” was something I immediately grasped. “Flow” was more slippery though.
hi all – thanks again to steerpike for the invite, and to the tap-repeatedly crowd for all the thought-provoking commentary…
@armand – when i was writing this up, i did think about how the design of games (and of snacks) can make for some overindulgence… so while snackable games are easier to play more casually during a busy schedule, they can also make for some great binging…
@mike gust – interesting mention of dickens… i think he’s applicable to this essay, and the one on post-secrets (since he wrote serially, his books came out across time in nice short segments…
as for flow, jenova chen has a nice piece on it: http://www.jenovachen.com/flowingames/designfig.htm
that i think helps illustrate it well…
[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by drew davidson, Zach Alexander. Zach Alexander said: http://bit.ly/e3Qero more on that idea of small gameplay loops – "snackability' which is a dumb word but w/e […]
What I found most intriguing about the article is something that’s oft-overlooked: that “large” games, like Civilization or WoW, can in fact be snackified. All adults bemoan the fact that we don’t have time to devote eight hours to a full game of Civ any more. But if the game is designed with snackability in mind, be it lots of save points, an easy system for reviewing what’s been happening, or just a bite-sized turn structure, suddenly that game can be spread out and enjoyed. Snackable gaming doesn’t limit the player to casual games.
But it must be a design priority. In a game like Galactic Civilizations 2, I’d have loved a simple note-taking feature so I could jot a few remarks about what I needed to do, so as to refresh my memory if I returned to the game after a few days. The larger, more sprawling a game is, the more it needs a good player refresh system to be snackable.
Control unification is another aspect of design where snackability could come into play. If you can be away from a game for two weeks, come back, and still remember what all the buttons do, that’s a well-designed interface. Recognizing that gaming time is being broken into smaller and smaller chunks, but that gamers don’t necessarily want to trivialize their game experiences just because they have less time, should be a priority for developers.
@steerpike – your comment on being able to jot down notes just reminded me of the advance wars series… there were some battles that would take more time than i had to complete in one sitting… and i’d often come back to the battle and have to spend some time trying to recall where i was in the combat and what my next move(s) should be… there would be times i’d miff a turn (and lose the battle) because of this…
and i agree, if it’s a design priority, you can have large-scale games full of snackable gameplay so that we can play through the entire game across multiple sittings (and that’s definitely my sweet spot for playing games nowadays…
Food for thought Drew 😉 Fantastic article and one that expands greatly on what I’ve been recently calling ‘bite sized’ gaming. Over the years, as my childhood has runaway, I’ve found that I simply don’t have the time to gorge myself like I used. I’ve still got the appetite but I just don’t have the time.
I’ve been playing multiplayer Solium Infernum for a while now and it’s snacktastic. I load my turn up, take it, forward it to the host and that’s it, I’m done until it’s my turn again. I can usually do it over breakfast which is fantastic. Solium Infernum is a complicated and deep game too but it’s remarkable how palatable it is in these small chunks. However, as each game matures and the stakes get higher with more things to factor in and weigh up, the turns do become less snackable.
Me and my girlfriend are playing Grim Fandango at the moment and I’d argue that because it’s a relatively undemanding game (in the sense that there’s no rush to do anything like most adventures) and it allows you to save anywhere it’s actually quite snackable. We can boot it up, have a good walk around, try some things out then save and quit. They’re not very progressive sessions but sometimes doing one puzzle, collecting a bunch of objects or chatting to a character can be progress enough and give us something to chew on until our next session!
My biggest weakness though has been the tower defence genre. Snack attack right there. Just one more nibble… nom nom.
“The larger, more sprawling a game is, the more it needs a good player refresh system to be snackable.”
This is one of the problems I foresee with AI War which I’d argue is a 7 course banquet. I’ve tried playing it in bite sized chunks but it’s just a pain to come back to. There is a note taking system but there’s so much to keep track of that accurately recording it all would be a game in itself.
@ gregg b – i haven’t played grim fandango in years, but i recall that it was helpful (for me) to play in large chunks of time… i found that i was able to solve the puzzles better… same thing happened with myst… the larger chunks of time helped me connect the dots of the puzzled better… it was harder to dip in and out of those games, as i’d struggle more to figure out the puzzles (i guess this speaks to how poorly i took notes…
and i haven’t played solium infernum, but i’ve heard great things… now i’m going to have to check it out…
Drew, I love your article… it’s certainly something we all think about but not something we often sit down to try to articulate.
While I would never limit myself by saying I sit solely in the corner of “casual” or bite-sized gaming, it is certainly something that is achievable in all games of all sizes, shown by your many examples.
Some things I believe help contribute to the snackability of a game are: like you mentioned, first and foremost, having a clear set of goals; having absolute control over when you enter and exit the experience, whether that is achieved by short levels of gameplay or the ability to save a game whenever and wherever you want.
An example of some snackable games for me would be, like Steerpike mentioned, World of Warcraft, which allows me to jump in, complete a handful of quests, turn them and and simply return to my inn to rest. In and out, a level gained in probably no more than 45 minutes. Another one is Fallout: New Vegas: a massive experience but one that has clearly and well-defined goals laid out so that I can come and go as I like, completing as many or as few quests as I like, and having the prospect of leaving and returning without an upward curve every time.
I find this harder to do in games that control your experience by having set destination checkpoints; many shooters do this, such as Metro 2033, Gears of War and Halo. I find these games to be much less snackable, each requiring a much greater effort and investment of time to approach. Is that a bad thing? Not really, it simply is what it is; but there’s no denying the demand for “snackability” in games today.
Thanks again Drew, great article.
@xtal – that’s a good point on fixed destination checkpoints… thinking about ico (and it’s been a year or so since i played it) i wasn’t bothered by the couch check points though… i think it may have had something to do with enjoying the architecture of the castle enough (and that they were fairly close together) that it worked on a snackable level for me… but checkpoints usually force you to play longer (and often you have to start over from some past check point awhile ago… and like you said, this isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a different style (that’s harder for me to play with less free time…
and a clear set of goals is key (that are easy to refer to whenever you need… it helps you get right back into the game and keep playing…
@brad – i haven’t played echo bazaar either… another one i’ve heard good things about, and now looks like i need to check it out… a big plus of games with some snackability is that it helps to check them out… i’m not sure i said it clearly in the essay, but i do enjoy how you can snack around on a variety of games to see which ones you want to play more…
Even Ico had some form of control though, as you could return to certain couches several times as you saw fit. That I was fine with and it didn’t lessen my experience at all. If anything I enjoy the sight of green-ish couches, as they remind me of that game.
I have more trouble with games that use automated checkpoints, where you don’t even have your say in a save file; that really irks me, particularly in a game like Metro 2033 where I’d like to do some trial and error.
@xtal – it can definitely be tricky with how a game enables you to save progress… ideally i like having control to save whenever i want… i thought uncharted 2 did a pretty decent job of combining automated checkpoints with the ability to save whenever (although there were times i’d realize i wanted to try something else, and my last save file had been overwritten with an automatic checkpoint, so i had to go further back to replay a certain section again…
jesper juul (http://www.jesperjuul.net/) gave an interesting talk at last summer’s foundations of digital games about being punished by games with “lost time” (both in terms of having to replay due to having failed in the game, and also in terms of the time we spend playing more due to the need to replay…