Skill Atoms—Building Blocks That Make Games Fun

I have been putting together a course for beginning game designers. It’s called Design a Game, and it‘s a perfect way for anyone who wants to start making their own games to get started.

The first part of the course answers the question, “What makes a winning game?” My answer is that all great games are fun to play. That begs the question that you clicked on to read this post. Namely, what makes games fun?

In the course, I describe a set of qualities that make games great. One of those qualities is improvement. Great games allow players to get better at something, presenting rewards and unlocking further advancement when they do.

Yesterday, I found an article that describes the concept of skill chains. Imagine that every attainable skill is an atom, a self-contained building block of something a player can learn to do. That “atom” can be used to achieve higher-order skills, which in turn can be used to learn more skills.

According to the author, it’s the process of gaining skills that makes games fun. Everything else is secondary.

Here’s an example. Back in the 80s, Apple introduced Apple Panic. The game featured a simple 2D world with crazy, man-eating apples running around, and you with a shovel. You could dig holes in the floor, and if an apple fell into a hole, you could smash it over the head a few times to kill it.

So there were two things you could do with the shovel: dig and smash. To activate the shovel, you pressed the spacebar. That skill is pretty easy to acquire. Want to dig a hole? Hit the spacebar. What to smash an apple stuck in the hole? Hit the spacebar.

Now, is that one skill or two? For argument’s sake, let’s say that smashing is an advanced form of digging. After all, you have to dig holes first. Then you have to learn how to get those pesky apples to fall into a hole, and to be close enough when it happens to start smashing it. Smash too late, and the apple wriggles out to eat you.


Skill chains for Apple Panic

Apple Panic had a few other skills to learn. The movement skill was pretty easy to acquire, too. Just use the arrow keys to go back and forth on a level or up and down ladders.

Avoidance was a more advanced form of movement. You didn’t want to get stuck between two advancing apples without enough time to dig a hole on one side or the other.

Finally, the crowning skill was learning how to coax an apple into a hole by jumping into it yourself. The attacking apple would follow you down and get stuck, as you sailed on through to the next level down. Then you’d have to run back up quickly enough to smash it before it escaped.

Fun stuff. I remember having a blast in the computer lab.

In those days, time at the computer was precious. Yes, boys and girls, there was once a time when a “personal computer” was a new concept and getting 20 minutes to play a simple game like Apple Panic was pure heaven.

As a result, I never had a chance to get bored with Apple Panic. Regardless, acquiring skills is clearly a big part of the fun of playing games.

As for the claim that everything else is secondary, I have a different take. The blend of a number of qualities is what’s important, and acquiring skills is just one of them.

If you want me to write more about this topic, show me some love, and clap a few times.

Also, you might want to read The Chemistry of Game Design, which was the inspiration for this post.

Finally, you can learn more about my course, Design a Game.


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