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Interplay of Depth and Flow

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Quinn Brander
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Joined: 02/19/2015

‘Depth’, an already widespread term among gamers, correlates with a few ideas in game design. One is a game’s number of possible permutations. The greater number of permutations of a game, the greater its ‘depth’ tends to be.

However, depth is also intricately wrapped up in game balance, for if a given game displays a high number of permutations but only one or two dominant strategies, it is not considered to be deep.

I propose this definition:

Depth is a generalized measurement of a game’s capacity to allow players to become more skillful.

Regardless of whether this definition suffices, most people understand and use the concept correctly despite being unable to define it satisfactorily. High depth is generally desired amongst gamers and designers alike.

‘Game Flow’ is a similarly slippery idea in ludology. There are many factors that contribute to creating and/or disrupting game flow, and research is ongoing. There is a consensus, however, that game flow is highly correlated with games that consistently challenge and engage players.Game flow is another highly desired quality in games.

Complication

In turn based games, increasing a game’s depth often directly interferes with its flow, and vice versa. This is because, generally speaking, the more options you provide to a player during their turn, the more time it will take for them to decide.

Since a greater degree of options per turn correlates strongly with increased depth and longer periods waiting for opponents correlates with weaker game flow, game designers are often forced to either stake out some sort of middle position between these two extremes, or make use of a mechanism which bypasses or synthesizes this binary.

Before I continue, do note that Depth and Game Flow are both highly complex ideas, and their interaction is multifaceted and influenced by other factors. One of these factors is the experience and preferences of the game players themselves. For instance, lower depth games that emphasize quick play (such as Tic-Tac-Toe) often prove uninteresting to many experienced gamers that expect and prefer a certain degree of variety and depth.

Other games that offer a wide array of choices (such as Go) risk bewildering inexperienced players into making arbitrary choices if they are unable to see why certain moves are stronger than others. Yet, for other players the same game may offer an enormous degree of depth and game flow.

Some Approaches

High Depth Games with Perfect Information

Chess is a prime example of a high depth game that often succeeds in maintaining game flow. Waiting players can do this by anticipating what their opponent will do, either through forced moves, or by attempting to determine their best move or moves, and planning their response accordingly.

This process is more difficult in games with imperfect information, and are less likely to maintain game flow for players over longer periods of time. Furthermore, because chess is a strictly two player game, only one person is ever left waiting. This solution is less convincing in games with several players.

Time Controls

Scrabble is a game that prioritizes depth at the expense of game flow. This has resulted in many a bored player waiting for their turn, only able to prepare partial and contingent plans. Time controls, while adding tension to higher depth games, ensures better game flow.

Incidentally, an easy way to alter the depth/flow balance of scrabble would be to change the number of letters that players draw. A maximum hand size of more than seven, for instance, would increase depth while weakening flow, while a hand size of less than seven would improve flow while sacrificing depth.

Integrating Real Time Elements

One newly popular solution to this problem is to design games with real-time systems that kick-in during higher depth turn phases. Christian Peterson’s A Game of Thrones: The Board Game has players determine their most critical decisions simultaneously and secretly by placing their orders facedown on the board. This system serves several purposes aside from bypassing the depth/game flow continuum, making it an extremely efficient mechanic.

Have something to contribute? Shoot! You can also read more design analysis at www.zamagame.com

SuperBidi
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Joined: 03/27/2015
I disagree with you

For me, depth and flow are 2 unrelated factors. Depth is given by the number of combinations, the game mechanics, and flow by the way the game is supposed to be played, the ergonomy.
If you take chess as an example, if you play in blitz, you cumulate great depth and good flow. During a blitz chess game, you get never bored, and think all the time => good flow. And the number of combinations are the one of chess => good depth.

DifferentName
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Joined: 09/08/2013
Good Post!

Very well written post! I'm sorry I missed it a month ago.

Depth and flow aren't always opposing, but the post just said they're often opposed. Blitz chess can increase the flow without loss of depth for an experienced player, but to a newbie this would be a very different experience. I wonder if this bewildering experience might be considered a reduction in the subjective depth. Although the same options are there, and the ability to improve is there, the new player is unable to see those options fast enough to cope with the time restraint.

Another good thing to improve flow, is to keep players doing something while they're waiting for their turn. This might be something that keeps them paying attention to what the other player is doing, like maybe interrupting with an ability. Some games have you draw cards at the end of your turn instead of the beginning, so you can think about what you're going to do during your opponents turn instead of waiting for your own to start. Introducing a social element to the game can also keep players engaged the whole time, like co-op games that encourage players to work together, whoever's turn it is. Or like a free-for-all game, where you can "attack" any player you choose, and players might be able to influence your decision.

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