GDC: Juul's rules on games without goals

Game theorist Jesper Juul discusses the benefits of open games that give players the freedom to play their own way.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--Games don't need to have compelling goals to make them interesting. That was the argument Jesper Juul, noted game theorist and assistant professor at the IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark, delivered in a talk this morning on the second day of the 2006 Game Developers Conference's Serious Games event series.

Juul first presented a common explanation of why goals make sense in games, based on the writings of designers like Firaxis' Sid Meier and Sony Online Entertainment's Raph Koster. As summarized by Juul, the two game vets say that players are happiest somewhere between the states of boredom and anxiety, when they are making progress toward an objective.

"There is a feeling that we really know why video games are fun. Video games are fun because games have goals. Players enjoy working toward that goal," said Juul. "If the challenge the game provides for the player matches the player, the player is in a state of flow. This was probably a good theory until around 1981."

Today, however, Juul suggested that the reward of more flexible gameplay is attracting a wider audience. "Players come to a game with a set of experiences, a set of expectations. One of the points about having open games is that you can let the player select their own difficulty on the fly, so if they want to try something really hard they can go for a hard problem, or if they want to try something easy they can go for the easy problem."

To prove his point, Juul used an emulator running the arcade classic Scramble. As he played, he showed that there is really only one way to play the game--by shooting his way through the levels. Anything else, like trying to crash as quickly as possible or playing "pacifist" by not attacking enemies, gets boring very quickly.

The problem with games like Scramble, according to Juul, is that the feedback is a little too clear--after all, those games were designed to be difficult to squeeze more quarters out of players. While hardcore gamers take pleasure in the challenge presented by striving for a difficult objective, getting punished can be a huge turn-off to casual players.

"Goals force players into optimizing their strategy," said Juul. "Not all players like optimizing, certainly not all the time. Clear goals can lead to clear failures. Not every player enjoys this." He went on to suggest that narrow goals allow for only a narrow playing style, and that means a narrow audience of people interested in that limited form of play.

The good news for fans of open-ended gameplay is that some of the most successful games in recent history have moved very far from the simple model put forth by arcade games. Juul highlighted the Sims 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as great examples of the "open game" model. Juul showed some screenshots of an experiment where he asked his Sim (a user-created character in The Sims series) to eat seven times in a row. The effort ended in typical "Sim-tragedy," with a kitchen fire that led his Sim to develop pyrophobia.

As Juul put it, "failing tends to be very interesting in this game." By comparison, GTA: San Andreas does offer clear in-game goals, but also gives players the freedom to ignore those missions if they prefer and explore the in-game world at their leisure. By allowing for more styles of play, these games can attract a broader audience of players with different styles.

Traditional arcade games are like languages with very limited vocabularies and limited syntax, Juul argued. Adventure games have big vocabularies but the same rigid syntax. Open games like The Sims 2 and GTA: San Andreas are successful because they are rich languages with huge vocabularies and extremely flexible syntax. As Juul explained it, these languages let players find meaning in the game. "Successful games without goals tend to be deeply expressive."

On the other hand, creating games where people can express themselves also means that players can abuse the language. "When it comes to serious games or something like corporate training, if you have something that's very expressive...it probably means you can do something that somebody would find offensive."

Juul also addressed another emotional aspect of gaming, the perennial critic's question about games--"Can a game make you cry?" The people asking usually already think the answer is no, but Juul argued that what they are really asking is whether a game's prepackaged content can make you cry. He held a different view: "Even as I'm speaking, there are thousands of people around the world crying over computer games. Games really do make people cry, and they have been doing that for a very, very, very long time. They're crying over user-generated content and user-generated status all the time."

At the end of his talk, Juul contrasted open games with the small, simple casual games that also tend to attract a mainstream nongamer audience. The theorist argued that their success proves there's no single strategy for designing good games, though he did draw one final connection between casual games and blockbusters like GTA San Andreas: "One of the characteristics of casual games is that you tend to have very little failure, very little negative feedback compared to what you'd expect from traditional games."

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