In professional game design, designers follow a methodical framework called engagement theory. Because this might be the first time you’ve heard of the concept, a short explanation is in order. Simply put, engagement theory is an approach to analyzing and creating engaging interactive experiences, and its structures, as the answer to four questions: What, Who, Why, and How.
Engagement theory can be used for other experiences such as movies and books, but since this website is dedicated to games, I’ll stick to only writing about that. Engagement theory is divided into four different parts: elements, audience, engagement, and dynamics. This article will focus on elements.
An element is anything the creator of the experience can directly create or control, and it’s the main building block of all experiences. There are three broad types of elements: sensory and narrative.
These are pretty self-explanatory. They are the visual and audio elements of your game. Sensory elements do involve two other elements, but they do not apply to our situation. Yet.
Narrative elements are what connects the experience to the life and culture of the audience, and are what many consider to be the most important aspect of single-player game experiences.
- The plot encompasses the events, actions, conflict and climax of your entire game. This is where we would put the Hero’s Journey, or monomyth.
- Characters make up the bread and butter of your narrative element. Protagonist, antagonists, companions and foils belong here.
- The setting is what sets up the conditions and time for your entire story. This defines your narrative physically and culturally.
- Narration is the method through which the story is told. Point of view, voice/form, tense/time-frame.
The backbone of your game. For many games, this will make or break the game for most players.
- Mechanical elements are things that can be done or events that can happen, the verbs of the game.
- Component elements are your nouns. Things that act or are acted upon. Your characters and game objects.
- Spatial elements is the space where the game takes place, where things happen, although this sounds similar to the narrative element: setting, spatial elements is about character and object placement in that space.
- Interface elements are your user inputs, user interface, user experience, control systems and feedback are what fits under this subtype.
So… What about it?
So, after making it this far into the article you must be thinking: What’s the point of all this? Well, games are all about the experience, which involves all the elements above interacting with each other. Game developers should be thinking about all these elements to create the experience they want to give to the player. In the current sphere of adult games, narrative elements are king and are what brings people back for more.
Adult games are currently missing strong sensory and interactive elements. More specifically, I believe the current adult gaming industry is lacking in unique art styles and music. While it is understandable that a game developer might not care about the music due to budget or simply not think it’s important; Gaming is all about an experience.
Music is often the last thing put into a game because the game creators might not think it contributes much to the experience or completely forgoes it to save time and effort. However, as many know, a good track that can serve as a leitmotif can elevate your game from great to amazing.
I’m a big proponent of having an art style that fits the narrative and themes of the story. For the most part, 3D models work for every almost every narrative and theme, so this is probably a note to 2D game developers. A great 2D game would have an art style that can instantly tell the player what they need to know about the setting and reflect the themes. While a cutesy art style may work in a grungy game, it’s preferred that the art style be changed to better fit the themes, so as not to confuse the players.
As previously stated, I feel that the strongest points of most of the adult games out now is the writing, so that will be not be talked about here.
Beware of grindy filler mini-games
Putting the sensory aspects aside, I believe the biggest roadblock for the current state of adult game development are the interactive elements. While there is nothing wrong with kinetic novels, it gets stale after a while. Although many games have attempted to break out of the mold by adding in faux free-roam and a faux open-world experience, they get bogged down by grindy mini-games as a substitute for content (make sure to read the amazing article that Envixer wrote regarding it, and my comment on it). Quite a few game developers try to put as many mechanical elements into their game to make it seem like there’s a lot of content, but they mostly end up being grindy filler mini-games that don’t contribute much to the entire experience.
To paraphrase my comment, narrative should not be locked behind checks that make the player have to play a grindy mini-game to be able to proceed. Players will consider that a punishment for not exploring the rest of the game rather than a break period. Instead, consider giving players rewards or extra content for doing those actions. Players react much more positively to rewards and will be more inclined to do mundane tasks if they are rewarded, however this does not justify grind as a replacement for proper content.
I will acknowledge that because many adult games are not developed by professional studios, they simply do not have the means to be able to create a game with capabilities surpassing that of kinetic novels, however that still doesn’t justify grindy mini-games in place of content. Instead, consider creating side quests or substories. They can serve a purpose of not only filling your game with more content, but they can also be used to better flesh out your world and characters. A great game doesn’t need to have many mechanical parts, they just have to do the ones they have well.
The final thing to this incredibly long read is the user interface. While many adult games’ interface is a result of the engine, it doesn’t mean that it should be bland. User interface should be visible, legible and their functions should be obvious. Good UI is unobtrusive and simple to navigate. If your game suits it, consider a diegetic UI—simply put: UI that exists and makes sense in the space and or narrative, think: Fallout’s Pipboy or Metro Last Light’s notebook. I won’t delve into it that much here, as I believe it deserves it’s own article.
So, should you just ignore your instincts for a good game idea or mechanic because it doesn’t fall into the framework? No, not at all! This is called a framework for a reason and there’s no need to follow it to a tee; they are merely suggestions not the rule. This article is just to help those that might be stuck in a brainstorming or even creation process. Think about the experience the players will have instead of having something technically impressive or fun. Consider how the music or art style might change the experience, how it presents a juxtaposition or helps reinforce the narrative. Consider if your game really needs a grind mechanic.