Density of Goals in Games

How many times have you given up on a game because you got stuck on a level? Did you drop a game because a boss fight was too hard? How many months have you spent stuck at that level in Candy Crush?

We have already talked about the importance of goals and goal formation for good game design. We mentioned also that not all goals are created equally, that they can differ in their importance, time horizons, and difficulty. We made a distinction between long term aspirational goals, short term, minute to minute goals, and medium term goals, that make up the bulk of the gameplay.

However, in that discussion we used a pretty simplistic model in which goals are presented in a sequence. In this model, a player still needs to clear goals one after another. In order to reach the next goal, the player beads to overcome every obstacle on his path. This type of gameplay feels very familiar and intuitive. After all, this is the rough structure that so many well known games have, starting from old school arcade adventures and platformers to many more recent games such as Angry Birds or Candy Crush.

This type of structure, known as the Linear metagame, has some obvious advantages. Above all, it is very simple to design. The game designer controls every step of the path that the player must take through the game. He can precisely control the difficulty of the challenges that the player will face. In addition, this structure is very convenient in the narrative sense. The player’s progress through the game can be easily accompanied by a set of appropriate cutscenes that tell the story and introduce the new gameplay elements.

However, this model has its own Achilles’ heel, an inherent weakness that makes it especially largely unsuitable for certain types of games, namely games employing the free-to-play monetization model. The problem itself is the one described by rhetorical questions from the intro of this text. Namely, it is very likely that a player will eventually get stuck on a particularly difficult point in the game. His path forward can get blocked by a particularly nasty opponent or a difficult level. Indeed, only 40% of players complete a typical single player game with linear structure.

If you are a game creator, this fact is not necessarily a problem in the world of premium games. Your customer has already paid the full price of the game, and you do not have to worry if he has reached the end of the game or not. As long as the player feels satisfied with the part of the game he managed to play through, you can count on him buying the sequel.

Things are radically different if you are running the game as a service, for example, a free-to-play title. In this world, player retention is the key to financial viability and success. Player churning because he got stuck on a level is a Product Manager’s nightmare!

The need to avoid this glaring problem has caused the rise of various other metagame structures, all known under the umbrella name of Non-linear gameplay. Obvious idea here is to provide the player with an alternative path of progress if he has become blocked by insurmountable obstacles on the main path! This approach evolved relatively early in the history of video games, and it can be seen for example in overworld maps in Super Mario World on SNES, where the player has a limited choice over the order in which he can attempt to traverse particular levels.

But what happens if the player gets blocked on the alternative path as well? Obviously, we can always add more paths and more goals for him to go after. This brings us to the real topic of this text, the concept of the density of goals. The idea behind this concept is that the game should be ready to offer a variety of goals at every step of the player’s journey. The player can make his own choice about which goal to pursue at what time. This choice can be driven by his skill, his play style, or simply his mood on a particular day.

The most important feature of this approach to the metagame design is that it dramatically reduces the possibility that the player would get hopelessly stuck at any point in the game. Even if his previous goal turns out to be for the moment unreachable, he is free to pick and choose another one that might be within his reach!

RPG Mechanics

Creating such a structure with the traditional methods can be difficult, especially if one is still focused on presenting a coherent narrative in the game. Enter the RPG mechanics! The letters in this abbreviation stand for the Role Playing Games, the type of games where this metastructure originated. However, nowadays this game design pattern is applied in a variety of genres some of which can be quite distant from the original.

The RPG mechanics push the idea of goal density to the extreme. The focus in these games is not on the narrative, but on a character and its development. In more standard, more linear games, characters have permanent qualities, or qualities that evolve little during the game. In contrast, characters in games employing RPG mechanics are described by a set of numerical values indicating their properties. For example, a typical character could have variables describing his:

  • Strength — the amount of damage he can inflict on the opponent characters,
  • Health — the amount of damage he can take before being vanquished by the opponent,
  • Speed — maximal velocity at which he can travel,
  • Stamina — maximal time during which he can run at the high speed,
  • Etc., etc.
Genshin Impact character screen
Genshin Impact character screen

Each of the character properties can be upgraded in some way. The RPG games provide a variety of sometimes very elaborate methods of upgrading mechanisms. The player’s goals become about upgrading each of these values to the next level. The attention shifts from the progression through the story to the development of the character. This can in itself provide a very high density of goals. However, it can be multiplied several times by introduction of a multitude of characters at the player disposal. The player’s game starts to revolve about upgrading each of the character properties for every character in his roster. Expanding the character roster by unlocking additional characters becomes another important source of player goals.

The player can, thus, move forward through a game along a series of parallel progression vectors.

This type of metagame is actually quite versatile. It has been adapted to a variety of game genres on almost every platform, from very hard core games, such as Genshin Impact and Summoners War, to more casual titles, such as Brawl Stars.

Brawls stars character meta
Brawls stars character meta

The basic RPG model has spawned additional metagame patterns. The so-called Card Collecting Games (CCG) are an example of this evolution. Here the focus is on the endlessly expanding inventory of cards representing a broad roaster of characters. These games employ a somewhat simplified, very intuitive metaphor of collecting cards as a mechanism for unlocking of the new and upgrading the existing characters.

Sandbox Games

While RPG and CCG games offer the great density of goals, and present the player with a smorgasbord of choices, they still share one key property with the linear games. All goals that a player can pursue are defined by the game system. However, there is a type of games that does away with even that constraint!

“We are building a McDonald’s restaurant now. We just killed the Ender Dragon. Do you want to see the Sakura tree that I made! I used Pink Wool for the leaves!” — Honest-to-god quote of my 8 year old son during the Minecraft gameplay session.

“It’s so lovely to see him play so nicely, but I have no idea what is the goal of this game!” — Honest-to-god quote of my 68 years old father about the same Minecraft gameplay session.

Instead of a predefined metagame structure, sandbox games employ a set of rules that define the way in which the gameplay elements can interact. Akin to atoms in the real world or LEGO bricks, Minecraft blocks can be combined in an almost infinite number of ways. This robust yet loose game system allows for what is called emergent gameplay. Precisely, because the game is left to interpretation, its world allows for players to formulate their own goals. These goals can shift, be transformed or abandoned in an instant.

Let’s build a treehouse! Let’ go dig for diamonds! Let’s make a SpongeBob sculpture or a Redstone roller coaster!

The density of goals is infinite, as is the feeling of autonomy that the player feels! It is impossible to get stuck in Minecraft!


Key Takeaways

  • Players abandon games when they can’t advance any further
  • Provide multiple progress paths
  • Let players chose the goals which to pursue
  • Create density of goals
  • RPG and CCG games are examples of density of goals
  • Sandbox games allow players to define their own goals

I am a Creative Director at EA/Tracktwenty studio in Helsinki.

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