The princess is in another castle — Understanding the player goals

New Super Mario Bros DS — World 1 map
New Super Mario Bros for Nintendo DS — World 1 map.

One way of thinking about games is by imagining a game as a set of goals that the player desires to achieve and obstacles preventing him to do so. It is through overcoming these obstacles and reaching the goals that the player derives the satisfaction from playing a game.

The goals that the player is trying to reach can take a myriad of forms. They can be anything, ranging from banal, like jumping over a gap between platforms to divine, defeating a mega powerful hell-spawned demon; from abstract, like eating that pixel dot, to highly complex, like optimizing the resource flow of a virtual civilization. The form in which goals are presented to players are dictated by narrative tropes of the game genre. The goals in games are as diverse as human imagination.

However, on the system level all these goals share some fundamental similarities. We can speak about player goals in terms of time and effort that the player needs to invest in order to reach a particular goal. Generally speaking, the required effort is determined by the difficulty of obstacles that we put in front of the player and his skill. Balancing these two variables is in itself a huge topic in game design.

In this text, I am going to focus on the second variable, the time. I believe that this is both important and useful, because one of the key metrics used to evaluate the success of the sort of games I make is retention, which is obviously defined as a function of time.

Essentially when we are optimizing a game for player retention, what we are doing is actually structuring the player’s time, by influencing his aspirations.

In terms of the required time, the goals can be very divided in three broad categories:

  • Short term goals,
  • Medium term goals,
  • Long term goals.

Short term goals are what is usually referred to as moment to moment, or minute to minute interaction. This is a domain of the core gameplay.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, long term goals are something known as aspirational goals, something that a player tries to achieve, but is by no means guaranteed to reach. Indeed, according to some estimates, even in the world of AAA games, on the average only about 10% of players ever reach the end of a game.

From the retention point of view, the medium term goals arguably have the biggest importance. This type of goals form the bridge between the moment to moment gameplay and the ultimate aspiration goal. In a way, they form the backbone of the retention structure and the pursuit of medium term goals will occupy the bulk of the player’s time. This is what is usually referred to as the metagame.

Although the timescales of all these types of goals grow seamlessly from shortest to the longest, there is one curious thing that must be noted. In most games these goals are presented in a peculiar order.

Typically, the player is presented with an aspirational goal, the ultimate prize, the longest term goal that game has to offer. This establishes the context of the game, and the world that the player is about to enter.

Next player is presented with the short term goal. In most games, a player would go through some sort of a tutorial which would teach him about the basics of moment to moment interaction.

Finally and only after the player has established at least the rudimentary level of skill, medium term goals are gradually revealed.

To better illustrate what I am talking about I am going to use examples from two games that, I hope almost everyone is familiar with:

  • Super Mario Bros,
  • Football.

Example 1 — Super Mario Bros

The story of every game in Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros franchise is somewhat psychedelic. You are an Italian plumber. A giant turtle monster has stolen your girlfriend and you are expected to rush through a kingdom inhabited by moving mushrooms to save her.

The intro scene presents us with the aspiration goal: save the princess Peach!

Immediately after the end of the cutscene you are thrown into the action. The short term goals become obvious. You are supposed to jump over the gaps between platforms and eliminate the malicious goombas.

Your struggle is not endless. Eventually you will reach the end of the level (or a halfway checkpoint). The first medium term goal is revealed. You finally reach the flagpole that marks the end of the level. Victoriously you walk into the castle, just to face the disappointment: the princess is in another caste! In the very next moment, you emerge to the overworld, a map of sorts that reveals even more medium term goals. The game reveals its complexity to you.


  • Long term goal — save the princess,
  • Short term goal — don’t die, jump over gaps, kill enemy mushrooms,
  • Medium term goals — reach the end of the level, clear all the levels in the current world.

Example 2 — Football

Ostensibly football (known as Soccer in North America) is a game of kicking the ball using only your feet and legs. It is safe to say that none of all the millions of kids that started to train this sport with any level of seriousness was thinking about it in these terms. Of course not, their dream is to become champions. Champions of the world, champions of the continent, of the league, of whatever. Becoming a champion is the ultimate aspirational goal in the world of football.

Obviously to do so one must beat opponents. Minute to minute gameplay of football is about dominating the playfield and scoring goals. Scoring more goals than the opposing team will result in winning a match!

Winning a single match is rarely enough. The team must win many matches to climb the league table or reach the tournament finals. After a single league season ends, the next one continues. Winning the domestic championship will let the team qualify to the international competition, etc.

The metagame of football developed over more than a century and is now extremely rich, consisting of layers upon layers of medium term goals.


  • Short term goals: score a goal, win a match,
  • Medium term goals: win a match, climb the league ladder, win the season championship, qualify for the world cup, etc.
  • Long term goals: win the continental cup, win the world cup, win the world cup five times in a row, etc.

Another important thing that the metagame of football illustrates well, is that timescale of goals can shift. What is a medium term goal in one context can be seen as a short term goal in another. Winning a match can be seen as a medium term goal in the context of one round of competition, but can be also seen as a short term goal in the context of the whole season. Furthermore, new layers of goals can be stacked on the top of existing ones. Even for the teams that reach the ultimate prize, like winning the world cup, the goals can shift. Objective becomes winning a world cup twice, winning it twice in a row, winning it five times, etc.

Key Takeaways

A game can be seen as a set of goals and obstacles that the player needs to overcome to reach these goals. Goals can be very diverse, but ultimately can be categorized according to the time that player needs to invest in order to reach them.

By constructing the game in this way we are structuring player’s time.

Short term goals are part of core gameplay and moment to moment interaction. Long term goals are aspirational goals. Medium term goals form the bulk of the metagame.

Goals are typically presented starting from the aspirational goals, then short term immediate goals, to medium term goals.


This text contains icons by Freepik and Payungkead from Flaticon

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

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