The Crossover is a series of articles exploring themes common to both video and tabletop game design, and examining how each world can learn from the other.
Goals might be thought of as an obvious part of games: necessary, but rarely where the excitement and innovation lie in a design. The repetition found in the goals of many games – complete the level, get the most victory points, survive a certain amount of time, kill the boss – underlines the reality that designing meaningful and specific goals that best suit a game is often an afterthought in the game design process.
Unfortunately this means that designers are overlooking a vital part of their design space when they choose to not explore all the possibilities for different types of goals in their games. Goals have the power to not only drive player behaviour, but can also set the tone of a game, vary the amount of freedom players feel while playing, and determine the overall accessibility of a game. In this article I want to explore the different types of goals that can be used in games, before examining their impact on gameplay, and concluding with some interesting examples of goal design in both tabletop and video games.
To better understand the types of goals in games, and how these relate to the actual experience of playing, I think it is helpful to try and distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic goals.
Intrinsic goals – goals that are fundamentally tied to the actions a player takes in a game.
Extrinsic goals – goals that don’t arise naturally from the play experience, but rather are introduced to the player as directives they should follow.
This is one of many divisions you could make in characterising goals, but I believe it can be a useful lens through which to see how goals function in different games, and what types of goals you might need in different situations.
Intrinsic goals are very effective in reinforcing the central game mechanics and actions available to a player, rewarding them for engaging with the game system as it is presented. For example, in the Elder Scrolls series of games, players have a character which will earn experience by using different skills and actions in the game’s fantasy world. If my warrior uses his axe to kill a lot of enemies, then I will soon see the results of this with an improved one-handed combat skill, and I will be on my way to a more powerful character. In Ticket to Ride, a tabletop game where players build train routes in order to connect different cities and satisfy specific routes, if I build a route between any two cities, I gain points. In both cases, my achievement is not the result of a quest dialogue telling me to take that specific action; rather through engaging in the central mechanics of the game – fighting in Skyrim and making connections in Ticket to Ride – I am rewarded.
Extrinsic goals however are much better at encouraging a specific behaviour from players, even if this is not obvious or naturally arising from the game mechanics. Going back to the previous examples, you can receive quests in the Elder Scrolls games which might have you travelling to a specific location to kill a specific character. In this case, there was nothing in the fundamental gameplay that prompted the player to act in this way – they probably have never heard of either the place nor the person featured in the quest, and are encouraged to let the game lead them through the experience. In Ticket to Ride, each player begins the game with a certain number of Tickets – cards with 2 locations that if connected by your train routes by the end of the game will score bonus points – which encourage players to pursue certain local connections over others in order to fulfil these longer journeys.
Characteristics of Intrinsic and Extrinsic goals
Understanding the different characteristics of these two different types of goals is useful in deciding what type is best for a game. While there are many different ways in which these types can be described, I think there are three main dichotomies that differentiate them:
General vs Focused (Specificity)
Long-term vs Short-term (Prevalence)
Player-controlled vs Game-controlled (Agency)
Intrinsic goals generally apply to large portions of a game and the majority of actions you will take in them. For example, in Skyrim (the latest entry in the Elder Scrolls series) pretty much everything you do in the game leads you towards the goal of gaining experience and improving your character (in Morrowind, an earlier Elder Scrolls game, even the simple act of running was rewarded with an increased Athletics skill). In tabletop games, gaining victory points is usually the basic intrinsic goal, and so-called ‘point salad’ games where there are many different actions within the game that reward you with points (so much so that it can feel like doing anything gets you points) are clear examples of games that are focussed on intrinsic goals. In both cases, players are encouraged to engage with whatever part of the game they want, confident that any action they take is going to lead them towards the goal of the game.
Compare this to extrinsic goals, as exemplified by quests and missions. These are normally very specific, and ask players to perform specific actions, in a specific order, in a specific location. They are still goals: they still move the player towards some reward that sits within the overall architecture of the game, but they often force a player to ignore other parts of the game that don’t feature in the quest: players must prioritise what they do in the game in order to reach their goal. Further to this, board games are well known for giving different starting missions to players, in part to simplify the early gaming experience by encouraging players to engage with only certain parts of the design and ignore the rest. This concept is stretched to its limits in games with strong starting asymmetry, such as the individual character power that a player starts the game with in the Voyages of Marco Polo, which has the effect of leading a player to focus on only certain parts of a game for its entire duration. In the game each player rolls a certain number of dice which they then use for their actions in each round. The value rolled on each die is important, and higher values result in improved benefits when placed in the various action spaces. However, one character’s power allows its player to simply set their dice to whatever values they want at the start of each round, completely excluding some of the interesting tactical decisions that arise from having to adapt your plans in accordance with what numbers you roll. Another character gives its player extra resources whenever any player uses the Market, a popular action space in the game, and this strongly suggests to that player that they should focus on the points that can made from resources, rather than engaging with the other routes to victory in the game.
Intrinsic goals, by their definition, don’t end unless there is some massive shift in the game design. They are part of the fundamental mechanics of the game, and as such apply for most, if not all, of the duration of the game. The action of killing an enemy in Skyrim to gain experience is open to a player at any point in the game, as is gaining points by making a connection in Ticket to Ride. If either of these options were suddenly removed, players would not necessarily feel their absence, as their associated actions would be still available to them, but they simply wouldn’t be receiving any rewards from the game for taking them. One of the consequences of Legacy tabletop games such as Pandemic Legacy or Seafall, games which permanently change every time you play them as a direct result of player actions, is that through these changes they can alter the intrinsic goals of the game from play to play, something that is normally off limits in tabletop games with fixed components and rules (this is only one of the many fascinating design aspects of Legacy games, a topic that I will certainly return to in the future).
Extrinsic goals on the other hand tend to be limited in their duration, usually lasting until the player has accomplished them or something in the game removes them (either with or without specific actions from the player), after which they disappear and are not seen again. Their removal, unlike intrinsic goals, can be readily apparent to a player – it might mean that entire areas of the game world are no longer accessible or are devoid of interesting interactions, or that certain characters simply disappear from the game’s narrative and mechanics. Many areas in Skyrim can be extremely interesting and unique locales when populated with the specific tasks, enemies and items necessary for a quest, but upon completion of the quest, returning to these areas is rare as they are transformed into generic dungeons or buildings (the game even prompts you to keep exploring rather than retreading old locations by turning waypoints black once you’ve explored them, giving a sense of completion in visiting as much of the world as possible).
Intrinsic goals are more open to interpretation by players as they rely on the game’s mechanics: a player is only limited by their ability to comprehend and manipulate these systems to achieve the desired goal. Extrinsic goals however are more prescriptive, with a defined set of actions to be rewarded that is decided by the game designer rather than the player.
A great example of this difference is seen in how a video game like Hitman approaches killing a certain character versus the same objective in Skyrim. In Hitman, understanding the opportunities afforded to you by the elements in the game can be used directly in completing your objectives. As you walk through the open worlds of each level, different objects will be highlighted, showing you how different objects can be combined with them (such as gunpowder and a cannon), but it is up to you to explore the consequences of using these objects, as well as actually tracking them down in the first place. Furthermore, the better you understand how the game works, the more inventive you can be in your murder method – it is up to you how violent or stealthy or inventive you want to be by utilising different parts of the game world. All this variety comes from a simple goal embedded in the main mechanics of the game, and no dialogue prompts you to act in one way or another. I would also be remiss if I didn’t recommend the excellent video produced by Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit exploring the design of Hitman in great depth. Another example of how player agency interacts with goals can be seen in the board game Scythe, where players have the overall goal of completing six subgoals. However there are ten different subgoals that can be completed in each game, and players have complete freedom as to which six they complete, and in which order they do so.
In Skyrim the player is often asked to eliminate a certain character in a set location, such as in many of the quests of The Companions. However, even though there are many different multiplicities of locales and enemies, the player has little, if any, agency in deciding how to go about their task. There is not much room for creativity in how you kill the enemy, and usually the dungeon has only one way that you can explore it, and you must do this linearly. This is not to say that every quest in Skyrim deprives the player of agency in how they act, but that many of the quests force a player down a narrow path to complete them. The goal that a player is seeking to achieve is more extrinsic in nature here.
The Effect of Goals on Gameplay
Having a game dominated by intrinsic goals can often convey a sense of freedom and independence to the player. Furthermore, it encourages exploration, as players can safely seek out new and different actions knowing that they will also be rewarded without fear of wasting time or sacrificing efficiency.
However, it can also be overwhelming to a player to be presented with many different options without the game prodding them towards one or another, so much so that players can feel paralysed to even act in the first place. This can especially be a problem in board games, which don’t have the ability to shield options or parts of the game from a player like electronic games can (even in the Civilization series of video games, not every option is available to the player at the start of the game). A good example of this is Uwe Rosenberg’s more recent board games, Fields of Arle and A Feast for Odin. In A Feast for Odin, players are presented with an action board of 61 different spaces, and each turn they will send a group of their workers to one of these spaces, as long as it was not previously occupied by another group in the same round. While many of these options are not viable on a player’s first turn because they don’t have the necessary prerequisites, they still must process which spaces they actually can place their workers on, and which of those 25 remaining options is best for them!
Because intrinsic goals apply to most of the game space and for the majority of the duration of play, games which focus on them can also run the risk of players feeling like they are repeating the same game over and over again, especially if the many choices presented are more illusory than actual feasible choices at every point of the game. While each game of Civilization is unique and will unfold in a different way, it is hard to get away from the fact that the initial 50 turns of the game generally involve the same set of actions, despite it seeming like there is so much freedom present a game where players to some extent literally choose their own goal.
Extrinsic goals can offer a real sense of completion for players, as they get very regular starbursts of achievement throughout the game as they complete quests, rather than the much slower eventual reward of intrinsic goals. Designers should not neglect this effect as a real source of enjoyment for certain players, which can ensure they stay engaged in a longer and more intensive game. Their temporary and specific nature doesn’t take up too much mental real estate for players as well, and give a guiding hand to overwhelmed players as to what to do next. If players didn’t have Tickets in Ticket to Ride, it would be a much more analytical and overbearing experience as players would be forced to consider the relative reward from every route on the board, rather than only needing to focus on the handful of routes necessary to complete the journeys on their Tickets.
On the flip side, having a game dominated by extrinsic goals can make players feel as if they have little agency in a game, and are merely being led from mission to mission, following a set path. In competitive multiplayer games, especially in the tabletop sphere, ignoring or failing to complete extrinsic missions can lead to assured defeat, and games which assign these extrinsic goals randomly (especially at the beginning of the game) can lead players to feel constricted in being forced to play the hand they were dealt. It doesn’t even need to be quests or missions – asymmetric starting positions or abilities can mean that certain actions are obviously more effective for a player to gain rewards that they become for all purposes a quest for that player to complete. For instance, certain nations in Civilization are so strongly advantaged to pursue a certain type of victory that there can be a pressure to eschew the freedom the game allows you to follow the victory path as determined by this initial choice.
What can be learnt?
Most games will use a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic goals, and that exact mix and how that is chosen is an important parameter a designer can tweak to gain a desired player experience. For example, it is not good enough to decide ‘each gold coin is worth 1 victory point’ and be done with it without exploring the consequences this has on the greater game. There are many interesting examples of the use and implementation of goals in games, and I will briefly describe three here as (hopefully!) useful case studies.
Starcraft and softening the intrinsic goal learning curve
Starcraft and other real time strategy games often feature a single-player campaign, with each scenario generally highlighting the strengths and abilities of a new unit. These scenarios build on each other, with the player only having access to the units featured in the current and previous scenarios. Instead of throwing the player straight into the deep end of a game dominated by a single intrinsic goal – defeat your opponent – with a multitude of units and buildings all with different abilities at their disposal, Starcraft instead uses this campaign system to soften the learning curve and allow the player to learn what everything does in a controlled fashion. Using scenarios in this way could be applied more broadly to tabletop games in particular, building on previous examples like in Agricola (a more constrained Uwe Rosenberg design) where the action spaces are revealed slowly throughout the course of the game. Legacy systems also have opened up a similar possibility for modifying the traditional front-heavy learning curve of tabletop games, and upcoming games such as Charterstone could show off this new capability. Indeed, the designer of Charterstone, Jamey Stonemaier, already experimented with this concept in an expansion to one of his earlier games, Viticulture. In Viticulture, players are competing to establish the best winery in Tuscany, planting different varieties of grape, building structures and utilising the different abilities of special visitors. The Tuscany expansion comprises of a number of distinct modules that can be added to the game, such as advanced visitor cards or new buildings, divided into tiers by their difficulty. Players are initially instructed to only add one of the Tier 1 modules, before adding the other modules one by one with further play in ascending order of difficulty. This ensures a more controlled increase in complexity of the game, giving players time to understand and master each new element before tackling another one, mirroring the campaign-based approach.
Ingenious and balancing intrinsic and extrinsic goals
In the tabletop game Ingenious players begin with a simple goal: make continuous lines of similarly-coloured hexagons so that you can move the matching colour marker a number of spaces equal to the length of the lines they made. For example, if in placing your tile on your turn you increased a line of yellow symbols to 4, and a line of purple symbols to 3, you would increase your personal yellow and purple markers 4 and 3 spaces respectively. Players score for each and every line they add to, and the use of tiles consisting of two conjoined hexagons makes lines easy to make while also opening ample opportunities for other players to make longer lines, and so you could consider at the outset the game to be driven by intrinsic goals which are general and long-term. However, as the game progresses and players start to move their markers up in various colours, a crucial twist in these intrinsic goals kicks in – players will only score the value of their marker that is lowest on its respective track. Suddenly this game defined by intrinsic goals is transformed by different extrinsic motivations for each of the players, where they start to focus on making lines of the one or two colours that are lagging behind the rest. This is further twisted by an additional rule – whenever a player gets one of their markers to the end of its track, they immediately get another turn – and so players need to weigh up the value of focussing on a single colour with the hope of gaining more turns versus advancing all their colours evenly. The balance of these different goals is well, ingenious, and gives what is otherwise a very simple game surprising depth. Finding ways for the different goals present in a game to take precedence over each other, and to change that order of precedence during play can be very effective if used properly.
Lorenzo il Magnifico and reimagining side quests
Lorenzo il Magnifico has each player start with four special person cards, each with a cool benefit for the player if they manage to achieve its specific conditions, such as collecting a certain amount of a resource, or building a number of specific buildings. But rather than these simply being a standard ‘starting mission’ type of mechanism, one extra rule adds a extra layer of strategy. Rather than completing these person cards, a player can choose at any time to discard an incomplete person from their hand to receive a small windfall of resources to aid them towards other goals in the game. With this simple addition, players now must consider not only how many of the four people they will attempt to complete, but also at which point they should change course and discard a card in order to grab much needed resources instead. The implementation of this style of player choice in extrinsic goals can lead to meaningful decisions throughout the whole game, and are worth considering in place of more uninspired options.
In a more general sense, if a designer is aware of the choices they are making, there is a chance for truly innovative design. What would happen if extrinsic goals were implemented in such a way that they truly changed the majority of a game’s mechanics for a substantial length of time? What if intrinsic goals turned on and off during a game? Perhaps some designers will take these challenges as goals for new games, ones that deliver an excellent combination between action and reward for the player. In any case, good game design needs to consider suitable goals, and the synergy between the goals and mechanisms in a game can be a powerful tool to create new and enjoyable experiences for players.