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2 Feb

What makes a game engaging?

I don't think you would disagree when I say that the recent FIFA World Cup Final between Argentina and France was a total banger.

In fact, I don't think anyone who watched the game would.

But did you pause for a bit and try to figure out why exactly the game felt as thrilling as it did? Asking myself this question soon after the game ended led me to an interesting realization, which I would like to frame as a hypothesis.

The hypothesis:

Games are most engaging when the frequency of consequential decisions being made is high. To make any game interesting, think about how to

1. increase the frequency of decisions, and
2. make decisions highly consequential for the players

Some definitions:

Consequence: Cost associated with any decision taken by the players — rewards or penalties — depending on if the decision was a good one or a bad one, respectively.

Frequency: Number of moves made or decisions taken per unit time. Essentially decides how fast- or slow-paced the game feels.

For a game where the decisions are highly consequential, someone would say

"I was at the edge of my seat."

For a game where the frequency of decisions is high, someone would say  

"Blink and you'll miss it. Pay attention. Things are changing every second."

This gives us a 2x2 with the following quadrants

  • High Consequence x Fast-paced
  • High Consequence x Slow-paced
  • Low Consequence x Fast-paced
  • Low Consequence x Slow-paced

High Consequence x Fast-paced: Thrilling

Why does T20 Cricket command such a large audience vs. Test Cricket?

Because the T20 format compresses the time duration of the game. So every wicket and over suddenly becomes a lot more consequential. And even in these 20 overs, it is the final 3 overs of the second innings that are the most thrilling. Every ball, every run, and every wicket counts.

Likewise, what made the FIFA World Cup Final interesting was it was extremely fast-paced, with a lot of counterattacks and shots on goal — especially in the second half. Every play felt consequential; every attack could make the difference between winning the world cup or losing it, for either team.

Some other examples of thrilling games where the frequency of decisions is high and every decision is consequential are:

  • Watching/Playing a game of Counter Strike
  • Pulling the slot machine lever or playing the Roulette Wheel in a casino, with sizeable money at stake
  • Working in an early stage startup, where you're iterating fast and most decisions impact the business meaningfully
  • Watching a UFC title fight

High Consequence x Slow-paced: Demanding

These are the kind of games that demand a lot of knowledge and context around the game from its audience, for them to meaningfully enjoy it.

For example, take a game of chess.Have you ever been engrossed playing a game of chess with a friend and had another friend walk up to you, tap on your shoulder, and say,

"Come on dude, let's do something else. y'all are boring me."

Chess as a game is only interesting to the players who are playing it and the audience who understands it at the level of strategy. Even if you're making highly consequential moves, they might seem of no consequence to a layperson who was randomly flipping channels and ended up on one where your chess match was being broadcasted.

To enjoy chess as a spectator, you need to have a decent knowledge of the game and the strategic plays being made.

Another example is F1, which is demanding, but in a different way.

Here's a Redditor describing what makes F1 fun to watch:

"F1 becomes interesting once you get more knowledgeable about the teams and drivers, development, take part in speculation about races, care about the top 10 battle not just who wins, etc. Probably true about a lot of motorsports. Tried to watch Nascar once but found it utterly boring since I had no knowledge about Nascar."

This matches my observation. Many people I've talked to have told me that they started finding F1 interesting after they built sufficient context and backstory around the game and the teams competing due to Netflix's Formula 1: Drive to Survive series!

The same goes for Test Cricket: only folks who have sufficient taste for cricket and context around games being played on the regional level, what players are rising stars, etc. seem to enjoy this long and slow-paced snooze-fest where the game is only entertaining to someone who understands the play on a much deeper level.

Even the relatively slower games of football come under this category. Avid watchers of the sport enjoy it if they know about the team, the management, the strategic decisions and plays being made, etc.

Barcelona's Tiki-Taka is polarizing because although it is fast-paced, most of those passes don't feel consequential. Too much tiki-taka and a layperson starts feeling bored if the passes don't result in any shots on goal.

Games under this quadrant demand contextual and strategic detail from its audience in order to be interesting. They're for a niche audience.

Low Consequence x Fast-paced: Entertaining

These are games where the stakes aren't very high but they're still engaging because things are continuously moving. The frequency of moves being made or decisions being taken are high, even if all of them are inconsequential.

Some examples:

  • Candy Crush: No high stakes are involved, there's no fear of dying in the game, but people play it because it's fast-paced
  • Playing the Slot Machine on CRED: Because CRED coins are near worthless anyway.
  • Tiktok and Instagram Reels: Fast dopamine hits that keep users engaged but scrolling through them is never of high consequence.
  • 5-set Tennis: Initial sets may not feel very consequential but you still watch them because things are continuously moving on the screen. The play is fast.

Low Consequence x Slow-paced: Boring

Most corporate jobs at the associate level come under this category. Neither are your decisions highly consequential nor do you make enough of them on a daily basis.

Golf is another. This is not an idiosyncratic opinion — Golf has been declared Britain’s dullest sport after a survey revealed that 70% of people found it boring to watch.

So then, why do people play golf?

Because players play it not as much for the game itself, but for the emergent properties it has, namely that it is quite a sociable game.

It allows people to catch up, have leisurely conversations, make deals, network, or just catch up with friends. In fact, golf courses will often make the effort to pair visiting players with others in an effort to get more people on the course at the same time!

One of the great attractions of the game is that it is very easy to meet people either by joining a club or simply visiting a course.

But the fact still remains that it isn't for an audience. Because it is slow. And the play, for the most part, doesn't feel consequential.

There are two morals to this.

1. While designing games, think about your audience.

If you're designing for the masses who have low investment, you need to make a fast-paced game. A layperson will still enjoy a speed-chess match over a normal one, simply because it shows activity and highly consequential moves arrive faster.

They will play candy crush instead of chess, because chess is slow and needs deep investment.

Think about it like a person flipping channels on their TV and landing on your game. Would it capture their attention?

What is more likely? A layperson getting engrossed in a test match or a game of Kabaddi?

But if you're designing for a niche audience, aim for supplying as much analysis, context, and detail as possible. This will even make a slow-paced game interesting because context makes decisions feel more consequential.

2. While designing games and game-like experiences, think about frequency of decisions and how consequential these decisions are.

When every decision can lead to elimination, death, or failure, and these decisions are being made at a rapid clip, games become thrilling.

So, yeah. Think about frequency and consequence the next time you think of gamifying any product or experience you're building.

I'm not big on watching sports myself, so all corrections, exceptions, or feedback along this train of thought are more than welcome!

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