Automatic play refers to situations in which a player types in commands more or less automatically without thinking much; in particular, without paying close attention to text responses.
Problems of automatic play
Automatic play is not inherently problematic; nonetheless, certain types of problem easily arise when the player is encouraged to play automatically.
- Boredom. Automatic play often results in the player growing bored and disengaged. (Conversely, a player who is already bored for other reasons is more likely to switch into automatic play).
- Irritation. Having to repeat action sequences over and over may annoy players.
- Missing important information. Skimming through text may result in important information, including puzzle clues, being missed. An author should never assume that players will play close attention to prose; rather, if they want close reading they should make the game encourage it.
Situations encouraging automatic play
A player is generally more likely to play automatically in situations that seem to reward it, or that punish meticulous play. Automatic play increases gameplay speed at the expense of close reading; situations in which close reading appears pointless, or an actions must be repeated in order to get a result, encourage automatic play.
Repeated sets of commands
The standard cause of automatic play is a situation in which the player must repeat a substantial sequence of commands several times, with little or no variation. If a player must unlock, open, walk through, close and relock a door every time it is passed through, they are unlikely to pay much attention to text responses while doing so.
- Conspicuous, exploitable mechanics. On occasion, a game's mechanics may result in certain repeated behaviours being rewarded against the author's intent. This may constitute a bug, but not always; for instance, if entering rooms sometimes triggers plot-advancing effects, the player may regularly run around the map to see if anything new happens.
- Try everything. A stumped player with a large inventory may automatically try every action with every item (however improbable), systematically run through possibilities in a combination puzzle, or ask every NPC about every likely topic. See also: Guess the verb.
- Authors can minimise this by automating obvious actions, or action sequences which the player has already 'learned' and which don't vary. (In the above example, a command to enter the door might automatically perform unlock, open, enter, close, and lock actions). This is sometimes called autopilot.
- Mapping. After initial locations have been examined, mapping tends to become an automatic activity. A game with a large number of highly-connected locations will take longer to map, and result in more automatic play.
- Examining. During initial exporation, players tend to automatically examine most obvious objects; however, this usually involves paying close attention to text, and thus is atypical automatic play.
- Mazes. One is generally required to type in lots of commands to explore them even when one has figured out how to solve them.
- Traversals. Once the player has an impression of an area, traveling between rooms doesn’t take much thinking; a game with many locations, or poorly-connected locations, can encourage automatic play every time the player wants to get between two points.
- Game features that require frequent travel will result in a great deal of automatic play: for instance, a puzzle requiring alternate manipulation of two distant, fixed objects, or inventory limits.
- Some games automate this with a GO TO command, allowing players to return to places they have already visited with a single command.
Cruelty and death
A player is less likely to pay as much attention if they have to restart and replay to a given point; they are likely to simply enter all the successful commands from their last play session. Causes include:
- Games with higher cruelty.
- Games which require learning by death.
- Disabling of the undo meta-command.
- Many outcome-affecting random elements; for instance, with a random combat system.
- Multiple endings, if the point at which the ending is determined is obvious and simple.
If a game is extremely easy, players do not need to pay close attention in order to be rewarded with plot advancement. If they are not given other incentives (such as strong prose), they are likely to switch off.
- Cliched puzzles. Seasoned IF players tend to automatically search under any beds they see, for instance.
- Very easy puzzles that can be solved without paying much attention; for instance, a puzzle in which the player has been told all the steps, or in which the immediately obvious solution is the correct one. Puzzleless games also have to deal with this.
- Menu-based conversation, particularly if options have no impact on game state and can be repeated. Players are likely to just go through all the options, or pick options arbitrarily.