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Designing A Game’s Flow [Introductory Guide]

designing video game flow
Picture of Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

Have you ever felt like you were “in the zone”?

Consider the thing you’re best at, that you know nearly everything about. How does it feel to be in the zone with your favorite thing?

The concept of “flow” originates from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He describes it as the intense and joyful experience of complete, uninterrupted focus on one specific task.

We tend to imagine this in terms of an athlete breaking a world record, or an inspired scientist frantically writing down their discovery that apples fall from trees sometimes…but what does it feel like to enter a flow state through a video game?

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Csikszentmihalyi breaks down the concept of “enjoyment” into eight key components that also apply to designing for game flow:

  1. Tasks with a reasonable chance of completion due to a balance between challenge and ability
  2. Clear, well-defined goals
  3. Immediate feedback to the player
  4. Effortless, yet all-encompassing focus, removing attention from any real-life, mundane concerns
  5. Feeling of perfect control over the character’s actions
  6. No awareness of the self (for instance, sitting in an uncomfortable position while playing due to temporarily forgetting you have a body)
  7. Time dilation (“Wait, how long have I been playing? When did the sun go down?”)
  8. Tasks that are intrinsically rewarding, in addition to the extrinsic benefit

These aren’t all essential to creating a flow state, but at the very least, they’re each helpful guidelines to follow as a designer. If a game is consistently checking most of these boxes, it’s well on its way to becoming a smoothly flowing, deeply engaging experience.

When you’re in a flow state, nothing else matters; the whole world ceases to exist, and all of your attention is focused on one all-encompassing goal.

This can feel somewhat similar to dreaming—it’s liberating, there’s no space for any unrelated thoughts, and you don’t become aware of it until you “wake up”.

Everything just seems to “flow” naturally from one action to the next. It’s as if your brain is making all the right connections more quickly than it can communicate what it’s doing, and you’re just going along for the ride.

(Just to be clear: this is not about the “logic flow” of programming a game engine, or the game titled “Flow”—though they certainly has the concept of creating a flow state down).

What is game flow, anyway?

Game flow is the experience of being consistently immersed in that focused mixture of challenge, intrigue, focus and victory. When you look up and realize you’ve snapped out of it and hours have passed—that was a state of game flow.

The idea here is to gently lead the player from one action to another, helping them master the game’s mechanics and become fully absorbed in its world. They should be making conscious choices, playing the game the way they’ve chosen.

Here is what consistently happens when the player is in a flow state:

  • They are deeply engaged
  • They are challenged (but not to the point of frustration)
  • They’re enjoying themselves
  • They aren’t hesitating or second-guessing their decisions

Ultimately accomplishes the goal of longer retaining the player’s attention through the entire gameplay.

It’s this balance between frustration and boredom:

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If you’re wondering how it actually feels to be caught in a game’s flow, think about all the times you’ve charted your own course through a seemingly complex level or area or mission, only to later watch a friend play through it all in the exact same way.

Why did their brain produce the exact same results as yours? Because that’s how the game was designed.

You’re both standing in the same river, so you flow in the same direction. It might feel like each moment-to-moment decision is entirely up to you, but a well-designed game will periodically coax you in one direction or another, just like the river’s current.

(Unless they deliberately try to swim upstream, pushing against the game’s clear intentions with a combination of childlike curiosity and spite…those people are born QA testers.)

One of the most obvious and simplistic examples comes from the ancients.

In the original Super Mario Bros., the NES controller only lets you move in four directions. Left is always an invisible wall, down is the ground, and up apparently does nothing.

So, you have to go right. And to get past the first goomba, you have to test out your only other movement option: jumping. It’s hard to miss the flashing question mark block, so that will teach you that power-ups exist.

Since the gameplay is so simple, it’s easy to enter a flow state while playing it. You’re already going to be running and jumping anyway, but those actions also feel great (for 1985), and there are minimal interruptions since dying just resets you to the start of the level.

Think of it this way: if you’re on a roller coaster and, rather than yelling or flailing wildly, you start thinking about how many other people have sat in this seat before you…that’s not a well-designed roller coaster.

Likewise, if you catch yourself thinking, “Oh, of course, I bet everyone solves this puzzle that way”—your immersion isn’t complete. There are no other people. Just you and this game, right now.

So how do you evaluate if your game’s flow is effective?

First, you need to identify your objectives—more specifically…

  • What would an effective experience look like to you?
  • Is the player riveted to their seat, constantly fixated?
  • Are they thinking carefully before they act?
  • Are they casually interacting with the world, just seeing what happens?

Once you know how you want your game to feel and how players should progress, you’ll be able to evaluate whether its current design is effective at establishing that experience. For every potential change, you can simply ask whether it improves or harms its ability to achieve the kind of game flow you want.

It’s clear why just about any game would want to create this experience for the player, but—how?

Here are 2 components that greatly impact how well your gameplay flows:

1. Game mechanics – It’s hard to find yourself flowing through the game if your character keeps tripping over their own feet. The mechanics need to be carefully calibrated to allow for sufficiently complex movement and/or combat without being so difficult that they gate players out of the experience.

Anyone who has experienced this through a game’s mechanics knows why we call it a flow state.

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(If you’re unfamiliar with the relationship between mechanics and flow, gameplay is the flow between challenges, mechanics and outcomes.)

It really feels like each part automatically flows into the next, just as watching an enthralling movie seems completely unlike staring at dozens of pictures per second. When there are no “gaps” between actions, no mental downtime, that’s the hallmark of a flow state.

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2. Visual and audio cues – These can range from minor hints to the blindingly obvious yellow paint that keeps showing up everywhere.

Walls with prickly patterns or noticeable vines usually indicate a climbing spot (and a shiny, slippery-looking surface implies the opposite). Differential lighting can draw players in different directions, especially in places where it’s easy to get turned around, like a snowy mountainside.

Even the soundtrack helps you stay focused. Musical changes can warn players that danger is up ahead or help get them in the mood for a fast-paced platforming section. Many games use a subtle chime to indicate proximity to treasure or a hidden passageway.

This can go too far, though—in Ocarina of Time, your companion fairy straight-up yells “Hey!” anytime you walk past something vaguely important.

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(Here’s some mixed player feedback on this in r/zelda.)

Together, these create the interactions. Ultimately, it is well-sold game interactions that keep players in the game.

These are the various factors that directly motivate players, so they can override other aspects if that motivation is strong enough. Essentially, you want them to think, “I don’t care that I’m not supposed to go this way, I just want to!”

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In-game rewards are nearly omnipresent game elements, and for clear reasons. Equippable resources, new tools, points for upgrading characters and abilities; these are what get players excited to jump back into a game in the first place.

Sure, I want to finally reach that inaccessible, beautiful-looking spot, but I’ll be annoyed if it doesn’t also give me a reward for going through the hassle.

Speaking of which, exploration is another key component of most games’ flow.

There’s a reason our species sailed across the oceans and back so many times before there was any way to do so safely. The drive to explore can outweigh even our survival instincts. So, imagine how explorative we tend to be in an environment with essentially 0 real-life risks.

Conversely, while there are many ways to enhance it, it’s unfortunately quite easy to sabotage a game’s flow.

So watch out for flow-breaking pitfalls…

Essentially, these can be anything that blocks the players from achieving their objectives—especially the overarching goal of having fun. This can happen through a combination of various factors, including but not limited to…

  • Negligence (e.g. simply forgetting to communicate the characters’ next objective)
  • Inadequate play-testing, leading to glitchy movement or unfulfilling battles
  • Real-world issues (budget constraints, unconvinceable corporate forces, etc.)
  • Boring segments that delay the fun parts (uneventful backtracking, unskippable cutscenes with repeat boss fights, really long ladders outside of Metal Gear Solid 3, etc.)

Take the “forest maze” trope:

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You can’t freely experience the game, since you’re trapped in a maze; visually identical paths offer no way to choose between them; and, unless it was covered in the plot, there’s no clear reward waiting for the player after they spend all that time trying to solve the puzzle.

It’s intentional misdirection, which stands in stark contrast with all the other helpful directions the player will have been receiving. The mere lack of guidance can feel actively hostile.

Finally, there are even cases where interrupting the game’s flow is really a built-in part of it. This kind of game flow only makes it feel like you’ve escaped the river’s current.

Exploration-based games often do this subtly; rather than a giant sign saying “Wrong way! Come back later!”, they simply stop rewarding players for their natural curiosity in one particular area (for instance, by making it clear that they lack something necessary to progress further).

Sheer boredom will force them down any other path, and since we know that the player will be quickly exiting the Boring Zone, we can say, hide a hint that only becomes obvious once they’re running through the previous area backward.

Pushing the player in this apparently unintended (but very intended) direction can even be a core part of the game’s flow.

No matter how a game aims to push or pull its audience, the key guiding principle here is to always know what the player is thinking and feeling.

Establishing a meaningful game flow means being able to correctly read the player’s emotional state in any situation.

Thankfully, there are about as many different ways to achieve this effect as there are enjoyable video games. The list could go on forever, but a few games and series stand out for their ability to pull players in and never let them go.

So, what does highly effective game flow look like in practice?

Let’s examine a few examples of effective game flow:

1. Ori and the Will of the Wisps: The time trial races are not necessary to complete the mission of the main game—however, they boldly showcase the fast-fluid platforming at the heart of the series.

My favorite—the desert race by Chris McEntee—is a blazing combination of leaps, air-dashes, and drilling into and out of sand that showcases every tool Will of the Wisps has to offer.

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This was done by repeatedly playtesting the level, carefully spacing out each element and paying close attention to how quickly and consistently threats appeared on screen. The hazards, enemies and dashable sand bars are all placed to allow the player incredible flexibility and speed once they know the level design.

2. Civilization: This series is almost dangerously addictive. There are so many interrelated aspects to focus on that every action flows into 3-5 other ones and there’s just an endless cascade of anticipated dopamine.

My coworker at Blizzard consistently lost entire Saturdays to Civ 5.

3. Hades: The Supergiant Games dev did a great job combining isometric action-RPG combat with a roguelite game flow.

Usually, there’s a reason why games within a given genre take similar paths to crafting their flow, but mixing up systems from different disciplines can also help evolve them.

4. Fighting games: Most games in this genre excel at helping players enter their flow state.

If your opponent is moving too much faster than you or thinking several steps farther ahead, you’ll simply lose.

Matching or exceeding the opponent’s flow state might be optional when playing these games at home, but in a competitive environment, it’s the only way to survive.

5. Elden Ring: Its gameplay does an excellent job of borrowing all the game flow-enhancing elements of earlier, more linear Souls games and complementing them with its open-world structure.

You have to beat that boss to progress, but the entire rest of the game isn’t gated behind it; there’s other stuff to do in the meantime, in case you—and this is the critical point—get bored.

Challenges are fun, and blocking progress with them can make it extremely rewarding to finally overcome them, but they can also become more boring than motivating without something to break up the repetition.

image1

(The Radahn boss fight is tough, and you need to defeat him to progress through Elden Ring, but most of the game world is still open to explore while he’s waiting for you to try again.)

As both a famously difficult FromSoftware game and an open-world, go-at-your-own-pace RPG, Elden Ring gets to have its cake and eat it, too.

6. StarCraft II: It’s kind of impossible to make that many decisions that quickly in this RTS without entering some kind of avatar state.

Here is an example of how high the APM (actions per minute) can get in an intense StarCraft II match:

The elements of effective game flow can sometimes be a bit more abstract and debatable, but ineffective game flow smacks you right in the face.

It’s an immediate, frustrating roadblock to your progress. A disorganized, stagnant game flow is the enemy of fun.

So, here’s how not to alter your game flow:

1. Random encounters: Sure, they can have a sort of nostalgic appeal, but de-randomizing the enemies plaguing nearly every map can do wonders for any RPG’s game flow.

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(And the only reason these exist in the first place is that earlier RPGs had to work within much stricter hardware limitations.)

It’s still easy to generate the same feeling of danger by making certain enemies stronger, or harder to dodge—as long as the player has the option to manage that risk themselves.

2. Surprise instant death events: The key word here is surprise.

If the boss or area is difficult, but interpretable, understandable…that’s great.

If I walk into a room, and the floor falls out from under me with no warning, 20 minutes into a fun and challenging dungeon…that’s pretty much a death blow for anyone’s flow state.

3. Excessive ambiguity: This can come in many forms, but it tends to make the player wonder

  • What do I have to do next?
  • Where did my characters say we’re supposed to go, again?

Even something as simple as requiring the player to press “up” on a background area to progress can quickly disrupt the game’s flow, if they happen to miss that cue.

4. Walking all the way back after beating a boss: This is more common in older RPGs, when you’ve just overcome your nemesis only to find that the reward is an equally long journey back.

There’s nothing left to discover, and most of your healing items are gone. So please, just teleport me back to the entrance, even if it doesn’t make sense.

I’d rather my suspension of disbelief be broken by a teleportation spell or an anti-gravity water slide than by how annoyed I am on that boring walk back to town.

5. Pay-to-progress traps: Some games are built with calculated traps. They deliberately work to damage their own game flow, then charge players to bypass the manufactured tedium.

It should go without saying, but don’t do this.

6. Crashes/disconnection issues: This one isn’t always within your control, but nothing decimates a flow state like an unexpected game crash.

Not only does it cause an untimely end to your current fun, it also threatens to haunt all future playthroughs by showing up at another unpredictable moment. Game crashes get even worse when they also combo into…

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7. Lost progress: Think about how it feels when you die twice and lose all your Souls souls. Or when your beloved sibling saves over the only Pokemon file on a shared cart.

Restarting a single level is one thing, but losing too much progress can make you want to turn the whole game off, rather than motivating you to try again with renewed focus. It’s a delicate balance.

Let’s Address Some Common Questions About Game Flow

What differentiates game flow from immersion?

Immersion is about soaking in a game’s setting, storyline, or plot elements; you’re immersed in its overarching world. Game flow has to do with the gameplay and specific decisions the player makes; it’s more like “immersion into the game mechanics”.

The two work together—a game’s background scenery can help bring the player into a flow state, if it makes them want to race around at top speed or explore more thoroughly or acrobatically defeat enemies.

Many games have the strange experience of losing their mechanical appeal right after you beat the last boss—because now your gameplay accomplishments aren’t part of the story anymore.

The true masterpieces immerse you into their lore and gameplay equally, weaving them together creatively and making it nearly impossible to put down Elden Ring.

Game flow vs. gameplay flow: what’s the difference?

Game flow is the forest; gameplay flow is the trees. They’re two different ways of looking at the same set of information.

When crafting their game’s flow, a designer might ask,

  • What kind of movement options will players naturally want to use?
  • How do I limit progress temporarily while making it clear that new paths will be opened later?
  • What’s the quickest way to show that the player can climb this wall but not that one?

Assessing the gameplay flow just means looking at these same questions from the player’s perspective, rather than the designer’s:

  • Where should I go with this new movement upgrade?
  • What can I do to get past that giant boulder?
  • How do I get out of this jungle tutorial area?

What about [some game that doesn’t follow the rules]!?

You’ve learned the ultimate rule in game design: contextual adaptation to your audience and product is more important than black-and-white thinking, which ultimately contributes to the flow of a game’s experience.

Pat yourself on the back and go back to practicing the basics until you have the experience to make the call that your game is in that rare niche.

 

If you have thoughts or questions, please share in the comments below and I’d love to hear from you!

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EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan