The Zone

17 August 2011

A lot of game designers talk about the importance of getting players into what’s called a “flow state” — the mental state where you’re completely engaged and the interface between you and the game disappears. For most games getting into flow is (relatively) easy and usually reflects a certain acquired skill; when you’re on a kill streak in a first-person shooter or macroing perfectly in a real-time strategy game, you’re almost certainly in a perfect flow state. For turn-based strategy the situation is a bit different: how can you get into a flow state in games which are inherently slow-paced?

One way, of course, is to just make turns go really, really fast. A standard chess match more-or-less requires players to enter a kind of anti-flow state in which every move is slowly, meticulously considered; add a time element, as in blitz chess, and the game suddenly becomes about reflexes and speed rather than deliberation. Serious blitz chess matches basically require both players to keep a sustained flow state for the entire match.

Of course, it’s not as easy as imposing a time limit on turns — anyone who’s tried to play blitz chess over the internet has probably noticed that achieving that critical flow state is much, much harder. I’d argue that the interface for playing chess on a computer is terrible, at least compared to the interface for playing chess in real life. Part of what makes enables you to reach a flow state in a game, be it Call of Duty or Go, is minimising the amount of brainpower you have to waste actually executing a plan. In general, flow is about reaching a point where you don’t have to explicitly think about the game; you simply act.

It seems obvious to me that part of what keeps us from achieving a flow state in slow-form strategy games are the clunky, information-heavy interfaces we usually use. There’s only so much you can do with a mouse and keyboard, of course — but bring proper touch controls into the mix and I suspect we can really start to change things. Don’t think, don’t plan, don’t hunt for Shift-W — just reach out and tap the damn thing.

Right now I’m working on streamlining the UI in Distant Star. Partly this means optimising all of the in-game screens so that touch controls work like you’d expect, but partly it means finding places where I’m giving the player too much information and changing what gets displayed. The system for ship stats, for instance, is needlessly complex: tracking, damage, speed, armor, shields, recharge…it’s far too much information to process quickly. The interface for selecting fleets and issuing move orders is, I think, one of the few places in the game right now where it’s possible to get into something like a flow state — moving fleets is intuitive (I hope!) enough that you just don’t have to think much about it.

Note to self: more of that, please.