The very first video games relied on motor skill to achieve points or avoid player “death.” These games could be described as experiential, since the fun is derived from the action, or experience, of the moment-to-moment gameplay.
Galaga, 1981. No inventory management or persistent player growth. Pure action!
Other types of gameplay began to emerge in parallel to this arcade-oriented experiential play, even as the experiential play itself grew and diversified. Games that relied upon the management of resources existed at least as far back as 1973’s Lemonade Stand, in which the gameplay was driven by verbs outside of shoot, jump, or run. As technology improved, the personal computer (and later the game consoles) gained the ability to store vast amounts of data, making more complex management possible, just as advancements in graphics has made experiential gameplay more diverse and engaging.
Lemonade Stand. The gameplay is based on managing resources.
Players who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s often have an interesting experience upon revisiting the games of their youth. Commonly, players find the games of the past frustrating and shallow. Often, these games are quickly set aside.
While several surface-level factors influence this, perhaps one element of older games that causes players to abandon them (and, it should be noted, new games that are made to emulate them) is the overreliance on experiential play, with no management play to balance player expectations. For the core gaming audience, nobody expects a pure arcade experience anymore!
Diablo III, which has action, but also a large amount of management: items, loot, armor, and more!
Consider Modern Warfare, a landmark first-person shooter. While it is certainly a heavy experiential game, it introduced some management elements, particularly in its multiplayer gameplay. Players can level up a character, earning new weapons. Further, players can tinker with the distribution of weapons and perks (special player skills). These elements are gameplay in and of themselves and create motivations beyond motor skill. Crucially, it provides an alternative means of advancement and layer of strategy beyond the moment-to-moment action.
One aspect of management-style gameplay that should be mentioned is its potential to be cheap, in terms of development cost. Systems are engineered and driven by data. An adjustment of a cell in an excel spreadsheet involves one person’s time, perhaps with an engineer supporting. Experiential gameplay, at least in the modern sense, involves work by designers, artists, animators, and engineers. Perhaps even voice actors, motion capture… the works! A few minutes of highly immersive experiential gameplay in a game such as the current God of War title is most certainly not the same cost as a few minutes of gameplay in a management heavy game.
The temptation could be, then, that producers and game designers overly lean on management elements, relying on the fun of management (inventory shuffling, weapon or item loadout adjustment, character leveling, loot “grinding,” etc.) to do a game’s heavy lifting. As games-as-service becomes the dominant paradigm, a design could be burdened by overuse of this management gameplay, to the detriment of the moment-to-moment experience. If the experience isn’t fun, players won’t find managing the game’s resources of much value.
2018’s God of War. Even an action-heavy game such as this has small elements of management. It’s what players expect!
The answer is to combine experiential and management gameplay in smart packages that account for project size and audience. Certainly, a mobile title can lean more heavily on management and less on experiential play than a console or PC title. Even then, a game for the mobile audience can benefit from providing an action-based experience. Console and PC games naturally lean towards experiential play, due to the expectations of the audiences for those platforms. However, as management aspects become more dominant, developers working in this space do well to not forget how effective action gameplay can be.
Monster Hunter World. This screenshot shows the combination of management and experience quite well!
Is there an example of a modern game that is management-heavy yet provides an amazing experience? One great example is Monster Hunter World. The game has a vast array of management options, yet marries this to the visceral experience of hunting large monsters in amazing environments. One could make the case that earlier Monster Hunter games were ahead of their time in this respect. Now, it seems like gaming audiences have caught up, and perhaps the industry has as well.