For most of us as players, coziness is an undefinable quantity in our games. We may recognize it when we encounter it. For some of us, coziness lies in getting to know our fellow villagers in Stardew Valley. For others, it’s decorating our estates in Final Fantasy XIV or collecting fossils in Animal Crossing. It can be a day-in, day-out routine in some games, like the daily rhythms of Harvest Moon, or it might be a single system, like those brief, comforting moments at the bonfire in Dark Souls.
Whatever it is, coziness is powerful. It can lift our spirits, revitalize us, give us moments of safety or hope. For many of us, finding a new game that feels cozy in just the right way is something to celebrate.
But as a game creator, how do you design for coziness if no one can quite define it? Is it simple domesticity? Does it have something to do with solitude, or is it about connection? Without a definition, you can only create it by accident, by instinct, or through careful trial and error.
That was the problem put before a group of talented experts at Project Horseshoe 2017. Project Horseshoe is an industry think tank, a conference bringing together video game professionals who want to help move the industry forward, solving problems of game design to help other creators improve their own projects.
The group responsible for unpacking coziness included Tanya X Short, Kitfox Games; Anthony Ordon, ArenaNet; Dan Hurd, Playful Corp; Chelsea Howe, Owlchemy Labs; Jake Forbes, Star Stable; Squirrel Eiserloh, Rodents of Unusual Size; Joshua Diaz, ArenaNet; and Daniel Cook, Spry Fox. Together, they put together a report on the subject, seeking to define something that may not be undefinable, after all.
In their report, they put forward a working definition of coziness: “Coziness itself refers to how strongly a game evokes the fantasy of safety, abundance, and softness.”
Safety: A cozy game has an absence of danger and risk. In a cozy game, nothing is high-risk, and there is no impending loss or threat. Familiarity, reliability, and one’s ability to be vulnerable and expressive without negative ramification all augment the feeling of safety. To maximize safety, activities should be voluntary and opt-in so that players never feel the threat of coercion.
Abundance: A cozy game has a sense of abundance. Lower level Maslow needs (food, shelter) are met or being met, providing space to work on higher needs (deeper relationships, appreciation of beauty, self actualization, nurturing, belonging). Nothing is lacking, pressing or imminent.
Softness: Cozy games use strong aesthetic signals that tell players they are in a low stress environment full of abundance and safety. These are gentle and comforting stimulus, where players have a lower state of arousal but can still be highly engaged and present. There’s often an intimacy of space and emotion, with a slower tempo pace and manageable scope (spatially, emotionally, and otherwise). Soft stimuli implies authenticity, sincerity, and humanity.
It might sound simple as the group defines it, but this is only the surface. The Project Horseshoe report goes on to explore how each of those elements can be created or negated. It lays out the benefits of coziness to both the players and developers. It identifies ways to create it in games that are solitary and games that are social, and equally in games that are peaceful and games that are tense.
These details explain why, for example, Animal Crossing: New Leaf feels cozy for many players, while Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp may not:
“In order to extrinsically motivate the user to act as desired, notifications often use the promise of rewards, the threat of a lost opportunity, and marketing spin to deceive the user into interacting.”
This isn’t called out as bad design — but is part of what makes the mobile Animal Crossing notably less cozy than its handheld and console fellows.
If you’re interested in what makes games feel warm, comforting, and safe to players (without going so far as to be hedonistic), Project Horseshoe’s Coziness in Games: An Exploration of Safety, Softness, and Satisfied Needs is an absolute must-read.