Surface Area & Extrinsic Loot Systems


Occasionally I post some mostly coherent Twitter threads on game design. Some of them are worth saving here. – Max

As a player, I often wish open world games would have less complexity and management inventory/crafting systems.

But there IS a reason why games have so much these days:
– World size
– Game length
– Systemic “surface area”
…are all tightly connected in most games. #GameDesign

Let’s say you want to make a world for your players. You want them to get lost in the wonder and novelty of it, to feel discovery, wonder, surprise, curiosity.

Ok. For most people, this implies a big world (though it doesn’t have to and maybe shouldn’t).

These days, especially in AAA, players expect long games (many hours per dollar spent), and engagement-driven business models (free to play, microtransactions, DLC) need to keep players’ attention over time.

Together these exude strong pressure to increase game length + playtime

OK, so you’re looking at a big world that players spend a lot of time in. A fundamental question: what goals do players pursue in that world, and why?

Players motivation can generally be split into “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” motivation. Intrinsic motivation is when the play is fun for it’s own sake. Storytelling, competitive matches with a friend, the satisfaction of solving a puzzle.

Note: Research shows that the presence of extrinsic rewards reduces intrinsic enjoyment.

These definitions are fuzzy – not every player is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated by the same things.

So ideally you’d find a way to fill a huge world with endless intrinsic enjoyment. But that’s… really, really hard to stretch out and fill a big non-linear world with. Nearly impossible. Intrinsic enjoyment is generally a higher bar and requires more hand-crafting.

Almost all modern AAA games rely heavily on extrinsic motivation, which can be systematized. This makes them more scalable, able to be stretched out, include reusable elements. And to be fair, this has been true for a LONG time, even for shorter and smaller games.

Ok, so you’re making a big world, with lots of playtime, and for scoping and feasibility reasons you have no choice but to rely on systems that provide extrinsic motivation. You need to come up with a way to reward the player over and over: thousands, tens of thousands of times.

So how do you do that?

Well, where does “value” come from for rewards? Why do players value them? Usually it means that the rewards either provide gameplay utility (power, options), access to novel content (progression to new areas), or are telling a story in some way.

“Access to novel content” or “storytelling” requires, well, new content or stories to tell. Not scalable. But gameplay utility… jackpot! Loot and crafting systems are _really_ scalable. You can design systems that hold up even after thousands of rewards are given out.

When designing these systems, “surface area” is vital. You need players to value multiple different outcomes and options over time. If all your gear has a single stat, “power”, then you have low surface area: there’s always a single best option.

If you have a lot of different stats, special traits, and nuance in your gear, and you provide varied gameplay situations where different options may be viable and optimal at different times, then you have high surface area.

Note: “power creep” is bad for game scalability because it reduces surface area. See Class Prompt: Diminishing Returns in Content.

So, to bring us full circle:

1. You want players to enjoy exploring a world

2. The world must be very big to satisfy customer expectations and business needs.

3. You likely have no choice but to lean on scalable systems of extrinsic rewards with LOTS of valuable rewards

4. Your systems require high surface area to create varied goals and outcomes

5. It’s hard to make systems with lots of surface area without also making them complex

6. Crafting and randomized loot systems are examples of high-surface-area systems that can provide many rewards

Or more bluntly: Because these big open worlds need LOTS OF STUFF TO FIND to make exploration enjoyable, most games include complex crafting or randomized loot systems.

A huge part of Breath Of The Wild’s success is that they found a way to thread the needle and create a simple system with many rewards without relying on extrinsic motivation: the weapon durability system. For some players this let intrinsic enjoyment to stay front and center.

Another path could be shorter games with smaller worlds: that would reduce the reliance on high-surface-area systems of extrinsic rewards. Less complex systems or novel content could motivate instead. Just need to solve player expectations and business model first…

it’s not a given that the paradigm I describe always has to be true. Challenging these assumptions, solving these problems in new ways, or dodging the common wisdom is a path to making new kinds of world exploration games.

Just know what you’re solving for.