Flow: Balancing Challenge & Skill

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous theory of flow – that state of being “in the zone” – is often described as finding balance between challenge & skill: when challenge outstrips skill, you get anxiety; when skill exceeds challenge, you get boredom. In game design, this balance is what you often try to strike with your players so that they're constantly in the zone and lose all track of time. 

I've found this to be true for work, too. We encourage each other to "go for it", "what have you got to lose?", and "what's the worst that can happen?" and are often able to achieve bigger and better things because of that attitude. In general I think that's a great approach, but it doesn't always work out. Sometimes facing big challenges creates opportunities to rise to the occasion. Sometimes not. 


I have the dubious honor of being the only designer who worked on Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge from the very beginning through to the very end. This would normally not be worth mentioning until you know a little bit of the history behind it. 

The original Xbox which launched in 2001.

The original Xbox which launched in 2001.

I had just finished working on “The Beast” when I had the opportunity to join this new team working on Crimson Skies for the original Xbox; this would be my first chance working on a console game so I jumped at the opportunity. Our lead designer was a pen & paper RPG veteran who impressed me with his deep radio voice and apparent depth of game design knowledge.

We pushed to fulfill the vision of the "playable movie" like "Indiana Jones in the sky" or something. Sounded great. Our engineering team got the game engine and design tools up and running in short order while our art team cranked away on storyboards and concept art. Various groups of people on the team, under the direction of our lead designer, would build prototypes that we’d all play day after day, week after week, looking for the fun. When we couldn’t find it and say so, he’d always have some rationale and something else for us to pursue. 

At E3, the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, in 2002 we showed a playable mission containing an archipelago with a large island which had a wide canyon you could fly through. The game looked great, it ran well, but it didn't play nearly as well as it looked. Sad part was, most of us knew it but hoped we were wrong. We weren't. With the tepid response at E3 we were lucky not to be cancelled outright and get laid off. 

This is the only image I have from the E3 2002 build. I think I was still playing around with the HUD, icons, and other parts of the UI so it's not a pure screenshot. 

This is the only image I have from the E3 2002 build. I think I was still playing around with the HUD, icons, and other parts of the UI so it's not a pure screenshot. 

Instead we were given another year and a new strategy: fix the core gameplay and make multiplayer run on Xbox Live. We reorg'd, started looking for a new lead designer, and replaced most of the design team; a few veteran game designers who wrapped up another game were brought in. This small group of veterans came in with attitude... but they also knew their stuff.

A couple of them wanted to be considered for the lead designer position and interviewed for it. I was asked if I was interested in throwing my hat in the ring since I had a bit of seniority and tenure, but I told people I didn’t want it; that was simply ego talking. As if it were mine to turn down in the first place, but the truth was I knew I wasn’t ready for it. We needed the game to succeed, and the last thing we could use was yet another designer who didn’t know when they were in over their head. Our previous design lead was clearly unable to give us what we needed over the previous year but was unwilling or unable to say so to the detriment of the entire project. In retrospect it's possible this was a case of the Dunning-Kruger effect, but regardless, our studio leadership failed us as well. We came close to a mutiny many times, but it took that disastrous E3 showing for them to do something about it. 

After a rocky start, our new design team figured out how to work together. I learned a tremendous amount from my colleagues as I watched them spend countless hours making the planes feel right with the proper amount of movement and swoopiness; balance the game by creating massive spreadsheets defining and calculating the numerical values behind every single plane, bullet, rocket, and object and playtesting relentlessly; experiment with the tools to create new gameplay options and missions. I worked on the game tutorial and a few of the campaign missions, but I spent most of my time on multiplayer where I immersed myself in designing new gametypes, scripting and debugging, designing maps, and getting people across the studio to play them day after day to make sure they were fun and balanced. 

It wasn’t perfect, but we made amazing progress. We took an incomplete and broken game, tweaked it, played it in a slightly less broken form, fixed it again, rinse, repeat, and were able to deliver what would become one of the top games of the original Xbox’s portfolio. 


Not bad for a game that came this close to being cancelled. However the game didn't get the kind of marketing support it needed to become a blockbuster hit, so instead it became a critical hit with modest sales and a cult following. 


"What's the worst that can happen?" 

Lots of things could have gone wrong, and many of them did, but enough went right that we were able to come out at the end with something to be proud of. It would have been better if our design lead was able to admit that he needed help. It would have been better if the concerns of the rank-and-file were listened to sooner. The list goes on. 

Thankfully many of us on the team were able to find that proper balance between skill and challenge and poured it into the work. Not to say we didn't continue to make mistakes of our own, but we grew as a consequence and delivered a product that was better because of it. By meeting the challenges with the appropriate level of skill, we shipped a solid game a bit battered and bruised, but with heads held high.