Alto’s Flow – Investigating flow states in Alto’s Adventure

I’ve recently been catching up on playing some hyper casual games I’ve had on my list and a few in particular had really go their hooks into me. So, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at one specific game and see how the game was achieving this.

A really, really, quick recap on Flow

You’re probably already familiar with Flow Theory so I’ll just give a brief overview but if you’re interested in reading further then check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi TED talk on Flow or his book Flow: The Psychology of Happiness.

In the 1970’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the concept of “flow“ which was based on research that examined human happiness and how we find deep enjoyment and lasting pleasure in activities we perform. Csíkszentmihályi lists eight components that a flow state has:

Elements of Flow

  • A challenging activity that requires skill
  • A merging of action and awareness
  • Clear goals
  • Direct & immediate feedback
  • Concentration on the task at hand
  • A sense of control
  • A loss of self-consciousness
  • An altered sense of time

Interestingly, it is not always necessary to have all these components present for someone to experience flow.

In the Zone – Flow in games

Game designers such as Jenova Chen and Sean Baron have further considered the concept of flow and applied it to game design. Again, the reader is likely familiar with the term “flow zone” which is the sweet spot between the game offering the right amount of challenge to match the player’s ability (fig.1). When players are in the flow zone or a flow state they are said to focus completely on the activity and forget about time, pressure and any outside influences. I’m sure most of us can think of time where we’re totally absorbed in a game and time just flew by…Well, that’s being in the flow zone.

Fig.1 – Flow zone (Chen, 2012)

To achieve a flow state, games have to fulfil fundamental conditions. Games should provide intrinsic rewards, offer the right amount of challenge to match a player’s skill level. They should display clear goals, provide feedback loops and allow the player to feel a sense of control over the game.

Rewards

  • The game should be intrinsically rewarding

Balanced / modulated challenge:

  • The game offers the right amount of challenges to match with the player’s skill, which allows him/her to delve deeply into the game.
  • Challenges should also adapt to the player’s skill.

Clear goals

  • The game establishes clear goals and players know how to achieve them.

Good Feedback loops

  • The game should provide direct and immediate feedback to guide the player and try remove extraneous information that prevents concentration on the activity. We can hold so much in our heads.

Competence

  • Players need to be able to feel a sense of control or mastery over the game and the challenges it presents (motivation to keep playing).

Alto’s Adventure

The game I wanted to look at is Alto’s Adventure, which was originally released way back in 2015 so you’ve more than likely seen or played it. However, if you’ve not, the game is an endless runner where you play as a sand border, navigate obstacles, perform stunts and collect gold.

It has a simple core loop which involves you tapping to avoid obstacles, tapping and holding to perform stunts and collecting gold. You also have a distance counter and a score which is increased by performing stunts.

As I was playing I began to become more curious about how the game was activating flow states as I played.

Observations

As soon as I started the game, I noticed that there is a very accessible and functional mechanic which primarily consists of tapping the screen to jump or tapping and holding to perform a stunt. This mechanic really allows the player to feel in control straight away and to focus on the task at hand and in my case lead to positive early engagement.

Fig.2 – Flow observations in Alto’s Adventure

As you can see from fig.1, the game’s UI is setup to complement the core loop with flow components. Feedback loops are in place to notify the player instantly they perform a stunt and their score is updated accordingly. Rewards such as gold are prominently displayed in game and again players are notified as the collect the. In addition, goals are provided through the distance travelled meter.

Core loop

Fig.3 – Mind mapping Alto
Fig. 4 – Alto’s core loop

Figures 3 and 4 show some further analysis of Altos design. As I played the game, the core loop felt as though it was designed around 2-3 minute sessions which allow the player to enter micro flow states. As Daniel Berube (2019) has noted, microflow states are emotionally intense experiences that last for short periods and repeat over time (fig.5).

Fig.5 – Microflow state ( Berube, 2019)

This short but engaging loop coupled with flow elements discussed in the previous section allows for flow states to manifest within the player. Indeed, even though it was for only brief moments, I found myself completely loosing all sense of time and place while I played this Alto’s Adventure and I found myself coming back to the game over and over and again.

Conclusions

Designing games with simple core loops, accessible mechanics and flow components allows players to enter flow states as they play. This state produces an immersive experience with an altered sense of time and loss of self consciousness.

In turn, this can lead to increased engagement and improved retention while keeping player churn to a minimum.

Further reading

  1. Jenova Chen – Design Flow in Games
  2. Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design
  3. The flow applied to game design

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