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Structure vs Texture

Broadly, the content and mechanics in a game can be divided into those that provide structure and those that provide texture.

This is an idea I want to refine further (and the names may well change along the way) but I think it’s a useful distinction already. And there are some important implications for balancing them properly.

Structure is the main content - story, campaign, missions, quests, maps, levels, bosses, etc. Finishing this is when you “beat” the game.

Texture is the stuff you do along the way - skill trees, relationship levels, collection databases, etc. Finishing this is when you “100% complete” the game.

While some texture progress is generally necessary to complete a game’s structure (especially since texture progress happens as a direct result of interacting with a game’s structure - beating a boss gives you experience points, for example) none of it is strictly required and you can often decide what portion of it to do (maybe you level up the sword and ignore the bow and beat all the bosses with your sword).

There are games where the line is a bit blurry. In Pokémon, progression through areas and beating gyms and the Elite Four and then the Champion is the game’s structure. Filling out the Pokédex is texture - it’s something you’ll do as you progress through the structure, and some amount of it is (basically) necessary in order to have a reasonable chance at finishing the structure, but you never have to catch an Abra to beat the game. However, to some players, the Pokédex is the much more appealing goal, and effectively the structure/texture relationship is reversed. The gyms and such are just gates that apply pacing to the progress through the Pokédex.

But there are also a lot of games where the line is quite clear. Some people have bemoaned how pervasive “RPG elements” have become in AAA action games - commonly, action games used to be all structure and no texture (see for example Super Mario Bros. where you just progress through levels) but now they seem to unavoidably have a lot of added texture as well (see for example the new God of War with its gear/crafting/skill systems).

Done well, added texture has several advantages. It can be a way for players to tailor an experience to their own play style or desired difficulty. It can provide an alternate, calmer way to occupy the game’s world (this is sometimes called “whittling”). It can help with pacing by providing a tension release valve (I know I often like being able to complete a goal and then spend some downtime “in town” or the equivalent, sorting out my upgrades and loot). And it can provide a continual feeling of progress.

But as noted in that whittling article, when texture is injected into the structure and is required to beat the game, it becomes a grind that pads the game’s playtime. To quote Egoraptor’s classic video discussing the changes between Castlevania and Castlevania 2: “What is the difference between A: Killing a bunch of zombies to get hearts out of them, collecting the hearts, and then going back to town to get an item to go to another part of the game, and B: Playing a game where you kill zombies that are obstructing your forward path to another part of the game? ANSWER: FOUR HOURS!”

And unfortunately, it’s pretty easy for texture to feel required even when it isn’t. I think in the ideal case, either texture will run out right before structure does (you’ll max your skill tree and get to use the coolest abilities on the final boss and get a sense of full closure and completion upon beating the game) or it will be clearly positioned as something the player is not intended to complete (the skill tree is way too big to max out and it’s for specialization across replays, or your characters can level to 99 but you can beat the final boss at level 50 so the extra levels are just there as a way to grind out a lower difficulty). Where we run into trouble is when the texture outlasts the structure but does seem like something the player is expected to complete.

Some of this depends on the player. Given the flexibility in how players can approach texture, it’s really hard to time it to run out at the same time as the structure. Personally, my instinct is to err on the side of running out of texture before running out of structure - as a player, I’d rather be in the situation of knowing I’ve tied up all the loose ends and am ready to push forward and end things instead of the situation of knowing that I’m basically done but am still an hour’s grind away from some dangling optional objectives whose rewards I don’t even need. But I’m a bit of a completionist and I can see arguments in the other direction, that you don’t want the gameplay to suddenly become less interesting at the end of the story. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a mistake when texture outlasts structure.

I am, however, totally willing to call it a mistake when a game attaches achievements to texture that outlasts structure. It’s true that some players don’t care about them, but achievements are still a clear signal from the game designer directing player attention to certain areas. Unfortunately, achievement design is its own skill set that a lot of otherwise-good game designers haven’t really developed. I suspect it’s pretty common for designers to just see natural endpoints in both their game’s structure (beat the boss) and its texture (max out the skill tree) and slap achievements on both of them without thinking much about the signals this sends to the player.

This can easily cause situations where a game has had a satisfying conclusion but the player is encouraged to keep grinding out achievements - sometimes for longer than it took to beat the game! I mentioned how DuckTales: Remastered has an achievement for buying all the gallery pieces, the money for which takes about three full playthroughs to earn. And one of the worst examples I’ve seen is Stories: The Path of Destinies, which is a great five-hour experience with achievements for seeing every ending and maxing out the skill tree that add about twenty increasingly-dull hours on top.

For players who don’t care about them, these achievements add nothing. For players who do care, these achievements either make the player feel like they are missing out or leave the player with a worse final experience of the game (and as I’ve discussed, the peak-end rule means this is particularly harmful).

So, my guidelines for design around structure and texture would be as follows:

  • Where possible, tune texture to last exactly as long as structure.
  • Where that’s not possible, either err on the side of running out of texture before structure or make the texture clearly not something the player is expected to complete.
  • Never give achievements for texture the player isn’t expected to complete.