Shot of a minotaur in a china shop['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at goals and immersion in Minotaur China Shop.]

Virtually all digital games provide goals. It's a defining feature of the medium. Even games often described as "toys," such as The Sims or Tamagotchi, provide implicit goals that players can choose between. It's through the pursuit of these goals that players experience challenge and interactivity.

When a goal is difficult to achieve, it creates challenge. A game is interesting because of the challenge, but if a game is too hard, it becomes frustrating. Frustration is the enemy of fun and engagement. It makes players detach from the game, and possibly quit altogether. If a game is too easy, however, it can become boring, which also causes the player to give up. Even worse, different players have different difficulty sweet spots; some players want hard games, and some want easy ones.

There are several solutions to this problem. Selectable or adaptive difficulty allows the player to customize the game, and RPG-like experience mechanics allow the player to adjust their character's strength. However, there is another way to address frustration and boredom: offer more goals to the player, in the form of side quests or alternate play modes. That way, when a player becomes frustrated or bored with one goal, she can switch to another.

Flashbang Studios has taken this one step further. In their latest free web game, Minotaur China Shop, they have created a game mechanic that channels the player's frustration and boredom and uses it to add sympathy for the player character and transition smoothly into an alternative, opposing goal.

Shot of Pegasus requesting a cupCustomer Service

In Minotaur China Shop, the player controls the Minotaur, who has finally achieved his lifelong dream of selling fine china. At first play, the game comes across as a simple time-management simulation, where the player must fulfill orders for china by fetching them from the shelves of the shop. However, the Minotaur can accidentally knock inventory off of the shelves, and lose money from breakage.

The twist comes with the introduction of Minotaur Rage. The more damage the Minotaur causes, the angrier he gets. At a certain rage level, Minotaur Rage Insurance kicks in. Suddenly, the player is compensated for any broken china. The game's goal is flipped on its head, and the player is trying to break things to make money on insurance.

The cleverness in this approach is how the Minotaur's emotions mirror the player's own. The controls are deliberately clumsy, and the player is bound to knock a plate or two off of a shelf eventually. If the player becomes frustrated with the difficulty, she can decide to toss away caution and take out her frustration by breaking things. Instead of giving up on the game due to difficulty, the player channels her rage through her character, turning failure into success.

The concept of an alternate goal that is the opposite of the primary one has appeared before. Katamari Damacy had the fiendish Cow Level, where instead of picking up every object, the player must avoid the great majority of things in the level. Messiah incorporates bodily possession as a primary gameplay mechanic, which allows the player to eliminate a powerful enemy by committing suicide. However, these and similar mechanics don't have the perfect balance of Minotaur's opposing goals.

Minotaur's effectiveness is helped along by the simplicity of the game. The game takes place in a limited space, with simple physics-based gameplay. The player can purchase new moves and attributes, but each of applies directly to the primary goals of caution and damage. These opposing goals could easily lose their impact in a more complex game.

Shot of a very angry MinotaurComplete Destruction

There's a broader lesson to take from Minotaur's design, though. The opposing goals work so well because the gameplay is tied to the feelings of the player and the player character. Developers would do well to consider this tie when developing gameplay. When the interaction method supports the setting and story of the game events, players feel more immersed in the game and identify more strongly with their characters.

In the case of Minotaur, the developers recognized the clumsiness and frustration inherent in their physics-based gameplay, and chose to turn it from an annoyance to a feature. When the player is frustrated with her own ham-handedness, so is the Minotaur. When the Minotaur bursts into a rage, the player feels free to cut loose.

The trick is to identify a possible source of frustration, and embrace the player's feelings by flipping the goal around. If the player is having trouble achieving a certain goal, she might prefer achieving the opposite. Because this transition point between goals is different for each player depending on their preferred difficulty, it's a clever way to resolve the issue of differing player skill.