This interview with Yik-Sian James Seow, the developer of Steam Marines, explores how he turned Fallout 4 into a personalised RPG experience:
What attracts you to playing this way?
Consequence is a large part of it (e.g. self-enforced permadeath means that escorting/protecting certain named NPCs can completely cut me off of certain quest lines), but on a moment to moment basis it’s the micro story telling that I really engage in. I enjoy preparing for stuff, both in real life and in games I play, so having a plan, acquiring the resources to proceed with it, and then either having a wrench thrown in the gears or executing it well gives me a lot of satisfaction.
This made me think of a related idea about the core of gameplay being the ability to plan ahead.
Thomas Grip of Frictional Games has a useful series of posts on this topic from a game design perspective, making the argument that engaging gameplay is largely a consequence of players being able to plan ahead and execute their plans.
Narrative games are often considered ‘lesser games’ in the regard that they don’t feature as much normal gameplay as something like Super Mario. Because of this, it‘s very common to discuss games in terms of whether you like them to be story-heavy or gameplay-heavy, as if either has to necessarily exclude the other. However, I think a reason there is still such a big discrepancy is because we haven’t properly figured out how gameplay in narrative games work.
Players are rarely reacting blindly. We imagine stringing a series of actions together and compare what we think the result will be to a goal we want to achieve. With this anticipated result in mind, we then try to input these actions into the game where hopefully it works out (if not, the game should signal why we failed, which appeals to our sense of fairness and helps us improve). Planning can be very fast or very slow, depending on the game.
A big part of why this is satisfying has to do with mental simulation.
Often this ability to carry out your plans is what makes the game the most engaging. Usually a game starts out a bit dull, as your mental models are a bit broken and the ability to plan not very good. But then, as you play, this gets better and you start stringing together longer sets of actions and therefore having more fun.
A major reason why the lack of consequences can feel so bad is because these consequences were part of the player’s gameplay plans. So when it becomes apparent that they don’t exist, the whole concept of play breaks down.
That doesn’t mean that every choice is something the player needs to base their plans on. But in that case then there need to be other things that lie on a similar time scale and which are possible to predict and incorporate into plans. I think that one way around this problem is to have a more system-focused feature that runs alongside the more fuzzy narrative choices. When the players make choices, their mental model will have the best predictive skills around this more abstract system, and play revolves mostly around this. Then when more narrative choices are presented they will feel more game-like and part of the a solid simulation, despite not really having any consequences.