Modern video game design has a problem with player motivation. In Pong you hit the ball until you couldn’t, in Tetris you stacked the blocks until you couldn’t, and in 2D side scrollers like the original Super Mario Bros, you ran left until you couldn’t. But modern, big budget-3D action games don’t have the luxury of such linearity. Tunnels are boring, so games either discard them or disguise them.

But I worry that modern game designers have failed to replace the built-in motivation found in Pong, Tetris, or Super Mario Bros. Too many games just dump content in front of the player and expect them to care enough to plow through it. This failure to provide adequate player motivation in modern games is ultimately due the absence or failure of medium-term goals.

Why was The Last Guardian so Boring?

I didn’t understand this until I recently reflected on why playing The Last Guardian was so boring. I mean, I love pretty much everything about the game – the visuals, level design, music, camera work, and even narrative – except playing it. While I don’t find the INSIDE/LIMBO-esque puzzles that make up most of The Last Guardian stimulating, they aren’t the main problem with the gameplay. At first I thought the real problem was a lack of “sense of progression” or “flat pacing,” but while both complaints are accurate, they are also too vague. This is what I wrote about the game shortly after playing it:

“The primary problem with this type of gameplay is the lack of a sense of progression. Rarely in The Last Guardian did I feel like I was actually moving closer to any sort of tangible goal. I knew my general objective was to escape the crater-like valley the boy and Trico found themselves in, but I didn’t see why going in any one particular direction helped me achieve this goal more than going in any other direction. I went where I went because the game’s design and architecture only let me go one way. If I were actually in the boy’s shoes, this would be a horrible and nonsensical decision every time. But instead, I, as the player, simply had to accept that an endless string of puzzle rooms would eventually get me out of the valley because that’s the nature of video games.”

Rather, the true problem with The Last Guardian is that it completely lacks medium-term goals, which renders much of the gameplay aimless and pointless from the perspective of the player. And this makes the game… boring.

The Three Goal Structure

Just as stories have a three act structure, games have a three goal structure.

Think of it this way – there are three primary horizons at any given point in a video game: the short, medium, and long-term goals. The enjoyment of all games ultimately derives from passing these horizons (ie. completing these goals) and therefore games are designed around driving the player towards them. The short-term goal is the player’s immediately apparent objective, like clearing a room of enemies, solving a puzzle, or jumping up to a new platform. To skip ahead, the long-term goal is the player’s ultimate objective, or the entire purpose of playing the game in the first place. This category includes both in-game goals, like solving the problem which instigated a game’s plot, and meta-game goals, like getting a high score.

Then there’s the medium-term goals, the most difficult horizon to formulate from a game-design perspective. The medium-term goals are objectives which link short term player action with the game’s ultimate objective.

I believe that the key to making a compelling video game (or any game for that matter) is to effectively link the three time horizons so that the player is always advancing towards all three goals simultaneously. Whenever the player feels any one of the three levels slipping away, the game becomes pointless and/or boring. Ultimately, video game designers most often fail to flesh out the medium-term goals within their games, but it is possible to also fail to make adequate short-term and long-term goals.

For instance, why do most people hate experience grinding? In grind-heavy RPGs, it’s usually not the gameplay itself that’s the problem, but rather the lack of compelling context which makes ordinary gameplay feel like pointless grinding. The player still has a clear long-term goal in mind (like finishing the story), as well as a coherent medium-term goal (whatever the player is trying to accomplish by grinding at a particular point, often defeating a boss), but the short-term goal feels muddled and dreary. In such cases, players wish they could just speed up time to skip the short term goal (gaining experience) so they can get to the medium-term goal. This is a failure of short-term goal design.

On the other side, consider the sort of fatigue which impacts MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and single player games like Diablo. I could never get into these games because I couldn’t see the point of any of my actions in a larger context. WoW players engage in combat, quests, raids, and trading to gain experience, money, and equipment. But the level cap is quite low so players max out their need for experience quite quickly, and the primary use for money is to buy equipment, so the gameplay rewards quickly narrow. And what’s the point of getting equipment? To defeat tougher enemies. What’s the point of that? It unlocks better equipment.

Clearly there are plenty of players who love to lose themselves in that infinite loop for thousands of hours, but other players like myself see that design as fundamentally flawed due to a lack of a long-term goal.

The Plague of Medium-Term Goal Failure

However, as problematic as short-term and long-term goal failures may be in video games, I believe it is ultimately the failure of medium-term goals which is most common, and one of the biggest problems in modern video game design.

At the risk of creating an absurd caricature, too many game developers seem to think that medium-term goals are simply irrelevant to the player. Or alternatively, they aren’t aware of the need for medium-term goals because they assume the raw short-term gameplay and the big end-game payoffs are sufficient to keep the player engaged. My experiences with video games throughout my life have drilled in me a deep, intuitive sense that this is not the case. Players need connective tissue. There needs to be a sense that I’m making tangible progress towards completing big goals beyond just shooting whatever mook stands in my way or solving the umpteenth puzzle in an abandoned ruin. Without that sense of progress provided by a medium-term goal, my long-term goals feel illusory and my short-term goals feel pointless.

This is why The Last Guardian bored me to tears. My long-term goal in the game was to escape the “Nest,” a network of ancient ruins inside a massive crater. My short-term goal at any given moment was usually to solve a platforming puzzle so I could leave whatever room I happened to be standing in so I could get to the next room. But my medium-term goals were almost entirely non-existent throughout the whole game. I never had any indication that getting to the next room would take me a step close to leaving the Nest. My player character should have been making his way to high points to scout out more paths, or investigating locations which offer clues to the Nest’s layout, or even just travelling to the edge of the Nest to find a way to scale the wall. These would all be viable medium-term goals that someone trapped in an unfamiliar environment would establish to achieve his long-term goal of escape. But instead, The Last Guardian just makes you amble from random puzzle to random puzzle with no sense of making forward progress towards escape.

To put it another way: what percentage of The Last Guardian’s events are essential to the game as a whole? If the game had enough levels and puzzles removed from it so that a playthrough fell from 12 hours to 4 hours, would the complete package be worse off? I don’t think so. Actually I think it would improve. I would go as far as to say the ideal way to experience The Last Guardian is to watch a 2 hour highlight reel of the game on YouTube.

Again, the reason for this is the complete lack of medium-term goals. None of the short-term goal puzzles have any meaning a minute before they are revealed, nor a minute after they are passed. They don’t fundamentally change the Nest, or give the player-character new tools, or reveal new information. They just exist because video games need something for the player to do while he gets closer to the end. As a result, none of the puzzles matter, they are nearly all equally disposable. Both from a narrative and gameplay perspective, the writer could easily remove a massive chunk of the game’s puzzles without consequence to the overall quality of the game as a whole.

The Importance of Medium-Term Goals

My frustration with the Last Guardian is that it does almost everything right, but it does one thing very wrong, and that alone is enough to sink the entire game’s value in my opinion. It was this realization which led me to see that the establishment of compelling medium-term goals is actually more important than establishing compelling short or long-term goals.

The medium-term is the only one of the three horizons which is absolutely essential to the construction of a good game. Consider any one of a dozen online flash games or cell phone games which do nothing more than string together short term goals. They may not ever reach great aesthetic heights nor compete for “game of the year,” but those games still have value on their own terms. On the other side, consider games like Eve Online, or even Farmville where short-term goals are either non-existent, or tedious, yet the medium and long-term goals are sufficient to keep players coming back. Again, these games have their shortcomings, but a game driven entirely by slow progression towards a distant end can still be engaging, even without short-term gratification.

Compare those examples to any game without sufficient medium-term goals. Take Bioshock 2; the problem with Bioshock 2 isn’t that it’s mostly a retread of the first Bioshock, the problem is that 90% of the game consists of the player-character trying to take a train from one side of Rapture to the other while at every stop some local governor halts your train, and won’t let you continue until you intimidate/kill him or her. These diversions to keep the train running are the game’s medium-term goals, and though they are present, they are awful. The whole “people keep stopping my train so I have to get out and restart it 4 times across 8 hours” is absurd and infuriating. It feels unfair and annoying from the player’s perspective. It would almost certainly be faster, and certainly would be safer and easier, for the player-character to simply walk along the track across Rapture.

The Last Guardian and Bioshock 2 are two high profile examples of bad medium-term goal game design I can identify off the top of my head, but I see this failure as a plague throughout the games industry. It’s especially prevalent in lazy FPS campaigns which string together endless fire fights with only the barest of pretenses, but it’s everywhere! It’s in dull sections of strategy games (consider late-game Civilization V), it’s in puzzle games that have so little context that they may as well be played on cell phones (ie. The Witness), and it’s even in plenty of good games with weak stretches.

But to really see the importance of the medium-term goals, look at success cases, rather than failures.

Why do players spend dozens, hundreds, and thousands of hours playing Civilization or the Paradox Studios grand strategy games, like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis? Why do they consume endless nights and leave bleary eyed gamers asking for just “one more turn” when they know they should have fallen asleep hours ago? These games succeed in being utterly engrossing and addictive because of the way they layer multiple compelling medium-term goals on top of one another. It is the knowledge that every action moves the player closer to completing multiple medium-term goals which makes player action supremely efficacious and addictive.

When a Europa Universalis player initiates an invasion of a particular province, he isn’t just increasing his score or winning an isolated victory. Every action causes a multitude of cascading effects, and the better the player, the deeper his understanding of the medium and long-term consequences. For instance, if a player controls the Italian nation of Milan, and conquers nearby Tuscany, he simultaneously moved towards dozens of medium term goals at once as he gains a larger manpower pool and increases his force limit modifier to make his military stronger, he consolidates his state as the strongest in Northern Italy to incentivize an alliance with powerful Austria, he gains access to central Italy to get leverage over the Pope, and he gets one step closer to unifying Italy under one banner to become a global power.

Now compare conquering a single province in Europa Universalis with solving a single puzzle in The Last Guardian. One action has power because it signifies a player’s advancement on countless axes, and the player can easily see and feel his progress within the game’s systems. The other offers no evidence of advancement on any goals, and not only could easily be removed from the game with little consequence, but will quickly be forgotten by the player soon after execution.

Yes, Europa Univeralis and The Last Guardian are very different games with very different player objectives, but the fundamental principles of game design are the same between them. Players need reasons to act. They are incentivized and rewarded by accomplishing goals, and goals need to be distributed amongst different time horizons to maximize player enjoyment. When a game can set up effective and simultaneous short, medium, and long-term goals, it can create a sense of immersion and efficaciousness which no other artistic medium can hope to emulate. People don’t drop dead from reading books or watching movies for too long, but they do from playing games.

Game designers need to recognize the value of medium-term goals and consciously develop better methods to implement them. Players need more than short term distractions and distant lures. I want to see a game industry which continues to develop medium term goals and makes their focus an integral component of video game development.