In most games, players are tasked with managing some form of resources. These resources can take many forms. It’s not just money and ammo, but also health, stamina or troops – basically everything that can be obtained and spent.
When it comes to game design, Sid Meier is often on the spot with a great quote. In this case his Civilization IV co-designer Soren Johnson takes a part of the credit as well. Soren and Sid have respectively said: ”Many players cannot help approaching a game as an optimization puzzle. Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game,” and therefore, “one of the responsibilities of designers is to protect the player from themselves.”
If players find a way to exploit a game, by optimizing and repeating a mundane task to get resources or defeat enemies, they will do that. The result is that the players are making the game boring for themselves as it becomes too easy after the optimization, plus the optimization-process itself was a monotonous task. For instance, players will perform the concept of “farming” resources in a RPG, i.e. doing low-level risk-free mundane tasks for small gains repeatedly instead of just playing the game. For example in Diablo 2 where players will keep reloading and running through the same cave to get a chance at the right loot and gaining small increments of experience.
Players will also often hold onto special potions, unique guns, ammo/health, or save up rare items instead of using them, thus robbing themselves of the awesome experience the game designers have prepared for them. To stop this from happening designers can use the resources to attempt to either push or pull the player towards the intended behavior.
Pushing with resources can also be described as the game urging players to play it a certain way. The Resident Evil games keep their players on the edge, because they are pushed to maximize the use of ammo or risk running out. It’s a balance of conserving ammo, while killing fast enough to stay alive. Players are always on the brink of running out, so the game is keeping them in a tense flow of changing weapon types and using melee weapons when they can.
In Doom the Glory Kill system is the main way to get health, pushing the player into the fight to take out glowing enemies with a special melee attack instead of hiding out behind walls, thus letting them play the way it is meant to – engaged in the fight.
In Bloodborne’s combat system, the player will gain some of the life they recently lost from an enemy attack, if they attack an enemy right after, again pushing them into the fight instead of running away.
Pulling with resources can be described as a game urging players to keep trying and not worry about running out of resources. Celeste and many difficult platformers give the player infinite lives/attempts to allow the player to experiment in the games by trying over and over again and getting better.
Dark Souls have a finite amount of health potions, but they can always be refilled at a bonfire, so the player does not have to save up or be afraid to run out. The liberal use of potions, and infinite lives, allows the player to experiment with different playstyles and keep trying without any penalty.
In Outer Wilds, there is time pressure but the player has infinite lives, letting them take risky and fun decisions. If it had been the other way, infinite time with finite lives, the player would be pushed to play conservative and the game would be a whole lot less fun.
Games are often about creating a balance in the push and pull. For example regarding health in games like Doom and Bloodborne, enemies will take it and players need to perform certain actions to get it back.
In Frostpunk the game starts out by pulling with human resources, giving the player much needed workers for all the various tasks that needs to be done, though in the end the humans are pushing back as they need to be hot and fed.
In many RPG’s the level progression will both push and pull players around the world. Enemies that give more XP and better loot, should pull players to new areas to explore and too hard enemies will push players out of high level areas. If a certain boss cannot be defeated before most enemies in the area have been cleared out, the player probably wouldn’t be ready for the enemies in the next area anyway and the boss serves as a gatekeeper to make sure the player is “doing it the right way”.
As it often is with game design, this boils down to the tension created in risk vs. reward. By rewarding the players the designers can encourage specific playing styles. The fun can often be found in risky decisions, that either pays off or fails epicly, so the game should be rewarding players for taking risks. From the Doom and Bloodborne example above, staying in the fight is both risky but also rewarding.
The great thing about risks is that they lead to a greater sense of triumph and satisfaction when the risk pays off. Designers should be careful about implementing safe options that guarantee success, as the players will be sure to optimize the fun out of the game.
As an example, a crummy way to structure stealth games is to punish players by losing instantly when they’re spotted (Marvel’s Spider-Man), instead they should be rewarded for completing a level the ideal way, through rewards or scores (Dishonored). The desired style of play is the same, but by doing it with a carrot and not a stick, the players will feel triumphant when completing a level, rather than disheartened when losing – and the player can choose to play Dishonored with guns blazing if they wish.
Looping back to the quotes from the beginning “Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game”, so “the responsibilities of designers is to protect the player from themselves”. By giving players the right incentives and rewarding their risky decisions, games can be designed to get players to spend their resources and urging them into the fun instead of attempting to make the game into a mundane set of safe tasks.