Almost every game has one or more major overarching goal. In Magic, your eventual goal (most of the time) is to reduce your opponent from twenty life to zero. In Clue, you want to deduce the details of the murder before anybody else. In basketball, you want to end up with more points than the other team. (Or, if the state of the NBA is to be considered, take more half court jump shots than the other team – but I digress.)

Let's not be results oriented now, LeBron

Sure, there are some games that thrive in open, sandbox settings. You only need to look to the success of games like Grand Theft Auto to see a game with very few established goals that has been highly successful. However, even within games like that, there are still tons of goals. There’s a reason why games like GTA, World of Warcraft, and Minecraft have been wildly successful despite lacking firm structure. Why?

You can pick, choose, and create your own goals.

Sometimes the whole game can seem like a confusing struggle that’s difficult to grasp. That’s why most good video games throw challenges at you in segments. Instead of tackling the fact that you have to somehow climb up the mountain lair of Gorsplack, defeat his six hundred undead ninja zombies, save the princess, defeat Gorsplack, and then trigger the self destruct sequence and leave the lair within five minutes, the opening sequence of the game might instead put you through a minigame to find your sword and tell you to go to visit the Great Deku Tree.

Let’s look at Magic. You know those midgame stalls where nothing is really happening and you’re not really sure what you should be doing? The spikier of spikes thrive on these kinds of game states because people aren’t sure how to proceed. They can figure out our route of victory and play to it. However, for the average player, not having a direction isn’t fun. It makes you disinterested in the game because you’re not sure why you’re playing it.

Ever noticed how a beginning player usually starts off very interested for the first few turns but that their attention noticeably begins to drift the longer the game goes and the fewer options they think they have? That’s one of the reasons why. Fortunately, Magic has done a really good job recently with providing players goals they can attain ­besides just winning. These midgame goals are crucial to current day game design. They create a subgame within a game that players can work toward on their way to victory.

The simplest example is starting the game with a six casting cost creature in your hand. For the first part of the game, you have a goal: get to six and cast that creature. When you’re stuck on five lands, it still helps make every draw step exciting. Of course, big creatures don’t always cut it for creating goals at all skill and player levels, but they’re an easy way to conceptualize the idea.

An awesome, awesome recent execution of this idea in Magic is with the quests in Zendikar. They actively give you an additional goal to work toward. If you cast a turn one Quest for the Gravelord, the immediate game becomes less about reducing their life to zero and more about the easier to grasp goal of killing three creatures. In turn, completing that goal helps you on your way to killing your opponent.

Another example? Metalcraft! It’s a little mini game that gives you direction. It’s not quite as good for goal-setting as quests because metalcraft feels like something you have less control over, but when you’re digging for your third artifact to turn your metalcraft on it certainly keeps the game exciting. You want to play to keep three artifacts in play at all times, and so you have to try and preserve your artifacts. It gives you a goal both in deckbuilding and in how you interact with your opponent.

There are other kind of goals you can create from the onset that help keep the game interesting.

Look at the recent game Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. Overall the game has the goal of achieve more points that your opponent. However, in a vaccum, this can be hard to conceptualize because of the variety of ways you can score points. Fortunately, the game gives you other goals to work toward.

Making sure enough to have enough force to kill a monster? A goal. Having subthemes within factions that you can build your deck toward? A goal. Working up to enough runes so you can buy that Muramasa? A goal. By the end of the game, regardless of if you won or lost, you can feel like you have a accomplished something thanks to how many goals you have managed to hit.

Going back to GTA, WoW, and Minecraft which I mentioned at the beginning of this post, these games have an extraordinarily open nature. There aren’t any firm goals. Instead, you get to play the game toward how you want. However, playing the game how you want actively creates goals.

You want to build a house with all of the furnishings in Minecraft? Bam! You just made a goal in a game with no real set goals. In GTA, you get to pick and choose the missions you want to undertake and who you align yourself with. In WoW you can make the game about leveling, or you can make the game about raiding, or about being in arenas, or simply being a craftsman – there are plenty of options and tons of different goals to reach for which is part of what helped to make it so popular. There’s something for everyone.

Think about the wildly popular Xbox achievement system. The achievements, in reality, mean nothing. However, because they provide goals to aim for, they allow you to break down the game into manageable pieces and let you play them over and over in new and entirely different ways.

The game industry is ruled by goals inside of games. Most games today have them, and for good reason. They subtly direct players while still giving them freedom, allow players to play to their style, and keep games fresh and interesting.

What do you think? Did you notice there were so many goals in games today? Do you disagree that goals are important? I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this. Your comments have been great so far, and I look forward to hearing more from you!

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