Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gameflow

There is no April fool’s joke for Compete-Complete. I do not know how to be funny.

Instead I’m going to talk about the thing that’s been on my mind a bit lately, which is the concept of gameflow. There are lots of phrases that get thrown around without people really defining them in advance. I think “gameflow” and is one of those things. I’d like to offer my perspective on it.

Gameflow refers to the way that different situations within the game connect to one another. It means understanding that if you take an aggressive action right now that you will have to immediately focus on escape and defending against a counter-attack afterwards. Or perhaps you will need to attack again in order to make the first one worth it, to keep the opponent off balance and prevent them from fighting back. When you understand what each decision means relative to the others, it means you understand your game’s flow.

What happens when you don’t? It will always feel like you are scrambling. It will feel like you are always off balance, like the other person always seems to have this magical advantage. This is because when you complete one action, you are not mentally (or positionally) prepared for the next situation. You do not fully understand and see how each situation connects to one another. Hence each new moment of the game is like having a flash-card pulled on you, then yanked away before you’re even done reading it. Gameflow means knowing that if you see one card, you’re likely to see a different one after, and being prepared a bit in advance to react to what is on it.

Game flow can work at a very macro level, like saying that a basketball team ahead by 20 points with 3 minutes left in the final quarter will probably focus heavily on defense. Or we can describe it on a more micro level, where it shifts moment by moment, where one action puts you in a position that your next option should be a defensive one, which leads into another defensive option, then you reposition, then you can attack from advantage again. In some games, the game flow is heavily dependant on the mindset and style of the opponent, so understanding what’s in their head is how you can repeatedly accrue advantages. Whether it’s a very moment to moment thing--they will try and retreat and right now--or it’s a larger scale one--they will play a bit more defensively and slow things down later on in the game--understanding their preferences can inform you what kind of things you need to look for.

Or if you enjoy writing (and I do) it works a lot like any piece of writing. Different words lead into another, and sentences lead into each other, and the paragraphs lead into each other. Having these things flow into one another properly is how the work succeeds. Failing to connect them makes the whole thing choppy, hard to understand, and unpleasant to read. If you don’t connect things properly they just won’t work. Vocabulary perfect if excellent order don’t wrong, your it’s in diction the and matter. And that’s really all there is to it.

Much like writing, it’s understanding this flow, the connection between the different elements of a game, that lets you turn things into a meaningful whole. It’s what causes things to click.

What kind of click am I talking about? It’s the click that makes you connect a lot of isolated skills, like puzzle pieces settling into place. When you understand just a tiny bit in advance what skill you will need to draw on, you can have it queued and be mentally prepared to execute. You will know, just a little bit in advance, what cues you should look for to decide your next action. This is why for many, they understand how to execute each individual skill in their game, but they have a tough time switching gears from moment to moment. So they always feel a bit surprised, confused, and lost, reacting a bit too late, making little mistakes that don’t ever crop up in practice. Things just never seem to be going their way and they don’t understand why.

On the other hand, sometimes you get players who don’t really seem to stand out in any regard, but things just seem to work out for them. They seem to get away with things that look boring, dumb, low-level, basic, whatever. It’s because they are mentally prepared for what is likely to happen in the next situation, and their opponent isn’t. This is one of the ways that you can make a game look extremely easy. Some of it comes down to experience, but it’s also about where you put your attention and whether you're ready for what the next situation will demand.

If we go back to the writing analogy, it is why some writing can use very basic vocabulary and sentence structure but feel well-crafted and put together. It is not all about the fancy words or the crazy compound sentences (you kids and your crazy compound sentences). Sometimes it’s barely even about the ideas you’re putting on paper. The transitions are what matter; linking well from one moment to the other is how you get a piece of writing to feel natural and informative.

Look at your favorite game. From moment to moment, do you have a sense of where the game will go next? Do you have some idea of what kind of decisions and skills will be tested in the next few seconds? Or is it all a big blur, where each second you’re suddenly trying to re-decipher what’s going on? If it’s all a blur, it’s because you don’t see the game as a cohesive whole.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you should find your game predictable. If you are too heavily locked into a sense of how things “should go,” then you are going to find yourself very surprised in competition one day by somebody who understands the game on a deeper level than you. Game flow is not just about understanding the script of conventional play. It’s about understanding what options are legitimately available to you, how the opponent plans to guide the game, and how you can lead him/her into a position that nets you an advantage. To do this, sometimes you will need to abandon other people’s typical rules about what decisions are good and bad. Sometimes you will have to consider options that are very unobvious or appear dumb, and sometimes you will have to resist your first impulse.

Those are my thoughts for today. Thanks for reading.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent read, Rob! I've hit a point in my game where I'm anticipating situations, as you described. I have a hard time coming up with situations to bait people, but I make up for it by spacing well, mixing up my movement, and not falling into opposing traps.

    If I were to try to coach someone about gameflow, I'd say the best way to grasp it better would be to watch. Playing is important to get used to controlling your character, but it means nothing if you can't punish people properly when the phase begins.

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  2. This article helped me a lot. I write articles for my website but there's always been this one article which started, but has been in the drafts for over a year(poor bastard). That article being on how to make flow in games. This has helped me tremendously and maybe I'll whip out that old unfinished article sometime soon. Thanks!

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