Don’t let your players see the entire iceberg

For the Frontier of Freedom assignment, my team made a turn-based survival strategy card game Quarantine under the background of a virus outbreak. Apart from the normal card drawing and playing, we added event cards into the game. At the beginning of each round, an event card is drawn from the events deck and shown to everyone. Its content (a buff or debuff) takes effect immediately and lasts for a round. Initially, we designed four types of events. During our playtest, due to the time limit we didn’t make a whole deck of cards including duplicates of these four events. Instead, we only had the content written on four notecards and rolled a D4 every round to decide which event should happen. However, we received the feedback that having all events laid out facing up ruined the surprises and anticipation players might have got from card drawing, despite the fact that these two options are roughly equivalent in terms of probability. This feedback made me think about the relationship between a game and the player’s anticipation for the game. How should we play with anticipation and use it to our advantage when designing the game?

Why do players (especially those who play the game for the first time) feel excited about the face-down events card? Because they don’t know what they are gonna get, and this unpredictability creates anticipation for the unknown and adds to the fun. Not revealing all the options/items that players might get to them is a very common strategy in game design. For example, in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, all the shops (be it Able Sister’s, Nook’s Cranny or Nook Shopping) sell only a very limited number of items, and the items they sell change daily. In my opinion, the reason is two-fold. First off, there are just so many items in the game. There are over 4000 items in the previous New Leaf version. It’s easy to browse and pick from a small number of items, but when it comes to 4000 items, players are distracted and finding something they want to buy will be a painful and time-consuming experience. The other reason is the anticipation. The anticipation for something new is a strong motivation that keeps players playing every day. Also, some items in certain colors can only be purchased from another player’s shop, which requires connections with other Switch consoles and is not a must for this game. Letting players know there is something that they might never have access to will turn their anticipation into huge frustration in this case.

This kind of huge frustration shows up in the latest Pokémon game—Pokémon Sword and Shield. Pokémon fans were angry and disappointed to find that the new game has an incomplete Pokédex, which means you can only play with Pokémon that are available in the new region and all other existing Pokémon cannot be transferred to this game. Angry fans created trends “Bring Back National Dex” and made memes to complain about and boycott the game.

Meme made by fans

This example again proves that game devs should be very careful not to ruin the player’s anticipation. A situation where the players know something is out there but they cannot get it often leads to disappointment. And a situation where they know something used to be there but it’s now taken away by the developers may result in a backlash and loss of trust.

To summarize, we need to try our best to create and live up to players’ anticipation for our game. Don’t reveal everything, especially when they can’t get everything. Only letting them see the tip of the iceberg is safer and more tempting.

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