All Good Things Must Come to an End

This will be my last article, so on that note, I decided to finish it off by talking about designing games to end.

Decide How Long Your Game Should Take

You don’t have to decide straight away, but eventually you will need to tell people how long the game will take. “Too long” is a common and valid criticism of a game, and if the game is too short, you may not be able to get your players to the point where the game gets good.

A good rule of thumb is to let your game get good, then end it. If the game tends to get at its best in 25 minutes, try to make it end in 30.

A game like Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons really starts to shine perhaps 40 hours in. (Usually not done in one sitting, but I’ve heard stories.) Because of this, these games are designed to never end. Players play for as long as they choose, sometimes by deciding ahead of time, or sometimes aiming to last as long as possible.

Many games are not designed with an end time in mind. A game of Flux could be over in 5 minutes, or still be going 3 hours later. Although Flux is an otherwise brilliant game, I will be using it as an example of what not to do, or at the very least, what to try to avoid if you can but otherwise do full knowingly.

Ending the Game is Your Job

Try to think back to the last time you’ve had this experience. You are playing a game and deciding between two options, let’s say A and B. Option A is no better for you than option B, but you choose option A because it will have the game end faster.

This is a very bad dilemma to put a player in, and the mark of poor design. That said, it comes up even in good games, but the difference is, in a good game, even if everyone plays to make the game take as long as possible, the game will still end in a timely manner. In a bad game, it will just keep going. Remember that the role of the player is to try to win at all costs. Prolonging the game until the opponent becomes bored is always a valid strategy, and one that must be countered by the designer, not the opponent.

Fortunately, this problem isn’t too strong in Flux. Playing hard to win at all costs can actually make the game end earlier, rather than later. (But there are still some choices that could potentially extend or shorten the game, and the choice to shorten isn’t always the best.)

Give Your Game Inertia

This may be a word that game designers are already using, and if I’m very lucky they may even define it the same way I’m about to. If not, get ready to learn a new term I made up.

A game has inertia when it naturally progresses from early game states to mid game states to end game states, and rarely progresses backwards.

For example, Chess starts with many pieces on the board and most moves result in there being fewer pieces on the board. Sometimes a pawn is replaced by another piece, but the total number of pieces always goes down, not up. Fewer pieces means fewer options, and fewer options means escaping Check Mate is more difficult. Thus, with every passing move, the game ending becomes more likely.

In Connect 4, there is initially no pieces, but as more pieces are added, the probability of 4 of them being in a row gets higher. Once 4 are in a row, the game is over. No one ever has a turn that ends in there being less pieces.

In Monopoly, it’s the number of hotels on the board. It’s quite common for hotels to be built and uncommon for them to be destroyed. A game with a hotel on every space is far more likely to suddenly end than a game with no houses or hotels anywhere.

It’s possible to imagine a much more complex example. Perhaps the number of red pieces divided by the number of blue pieces plus the number of green pieces always goes up and never down. If having lots of red pieces divided by blue pieces plus green pieces made the game more likely to end, then such a game would also have inertia.

Different Levels of Inertia

Games cannot be easily defined into categories of having and not having inertia. Rather there must be a way of measuring inertia, so I’ve chosen a measure that will give very few games an ultimately all or nothing score. The best measure is by how predictable play time is. Most being a game that is played with a timer. Least being a game that could finish instantaneously or never.

Inertia is measured by the variance in play times assuming experienced players. So, if you want to get all statistical on it, you could get a list of play times and calculate the standard deviation, and maybe divide it by the average play time if you want to get extra fancy. Going to that level of measurement may not be very helpful, but it is helpful to imagine what sort of result your game might get if you were to measure it.

That’s All Folks

When I first started this blog, I imagined getting lots of followers and lots of long discussions on game design. It seems my expectations were unrealistic, and it’s all gotten too hard. That said, if any reader takes the time to ask me a detailed question, I’ll write another article answering it. Deal?


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