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Breaking Down The Fun

I’m the kind of person who, when faced with any problem, analyzes it to death before I even attempt to solve it. In this post I analyze fun, break it down and postulate on the Four Elements of Fun

This post was originally printed on the author's blog, Think Small

I’m the kind of person who, when faced with any problem, analyzes it to death before I even attempt to solve it. Doesn’t matter if the problem is putting butter on bread, in my head I’m already calculating the optimal butter spread thickness and bread temperature for best melting. One of the best problem solving skills is breaking down a problem into smaller sections so that you can address each one individually. Maybe this means that I don’t get many dates but it really helps with programming.

So when I’m faced with the problem of, “How do I make my game more fun?” I take the same approach. It’s a class problem of defining fun that game developers run up against all the time. It’s a subjective thing; what’s fun for one person may not be for another. But, in typical fashion for me, I like to analyze it to death in hopes of understanding it better and in the end perhaps being able to identify where I can improve my games. Here’s my humble approach to defining fun, I break it up into four categories, which I call the Four Elements of Fun.

1. Challenge

When I was younger I would play Half-Life or Quake and have lots of fun. I grew up on these games. Killing aliens and demons and mutants never got old. (It’s old now but so am I.) Eventually I learned about the cheat codes that could turn you into a god. So I went through the sometimes obtuse methods of activating these codes (run the game with a special command line, activate the developer mode, open the console, type a particular command) and found myself the all powerful deity, able to grant myself any armament and incapable of sustaining damage.

But the game wasn’t fun anymore.

There’s no fun in games without challenge. A significant element of fun is being compelled into a struggle. Some games (Cave Story, Super Meat Boy) are built solely around this concept. Some gamers (like me) enjoy turning the difficulty up in a game and playing through with no deaths, no enemy kills, no ammo, no items, fox only, final destination. It’s almost as if some unconscious part of our animal brain takes gratification from the struggle.

So, making a game more challenging can make it more fun, but not all gamers respond to challenge in the same way. While I love a challenging game, the game’s not fun if the AI opponent just plain old cheats. Too much challenge becomes frustrating.

In some kind of zen way, sometimes it’s more about the journey than the destination. Or did I just get a bit too cliche?

2. Choice

When I say choice, I don’t mean giving the player an option to go left or go right. While that’s a clear method of giving a player a choice, it’s not the only one. I’ve written previously about tradeoffs and risk/reward mechanics to improve the fun of a game, but I’ll recap it here.

Tradeoffs are usually central in a game’s mechanics. First person shooters force you to trade between mobility and firepower. Role playing games force you to trade between physical strength and powerful magical spells, and so on. Oftentimes it’s the simple action of pressing a button to raise your ironsights, trading off speed for accuracy.

Risk/reward systems are similar, but they give the player a choice of whether or not to take an action, and if the action is successful the player gets a boon but if the action fails (maybe the player dies?) there’s a penalty. The most classic example is going for the 1up mushroom that’s heading towards the pit in Super Mario Brothers.

Every game invites the player to make a choice immediately. Did you know first person shooters have four directional buttons to choose from at any time? Amazing, but true, and each one of them represents an ever-present choice. They usually have one or two buttons for firing weapons, another choice. It may seem silly to think so hard on things that we probably take for granted these days, but I think that understanding them gets you a step closer to making a fun game.

Without a choice, you don’t really have a game. I’m reminded of two flash games (using a loose definition) one being “Press X to Jason” and the other being “Press Space To Win”. They really only give you one choice, press the button or don’t. Maybe you can press it fast versus press it slow. There’s not a whole lot of variety to it. These are more like flash movies where you need to press a button to advance the plot. Certainly entertaining, but without the element of choice, there’s no game and the fun runs out pretty quick. On the other end of the spectrum there’s sandbox games, which offer nothing but choices. Games like Minecraft aren’t so much about doing what the designers want you to do, but making your own choices about what to do with your new pristine infinite world.

(PS: Dear Notch, please stop bragging about your one millionth sale.)

3. Gratification

Gratification is the feeling of progression, or accumulation, or accomplishment in a game. This element is a bit difficult to define because it takes different forms in different games. It can be a collection mechanism, an achievement system, a gradual progression of better equipment, or even an invocation of the characters in the game.

Gratification needs to be doled out slowly. In most first person shooters, you start with a knife or pistol, then later you find an automatic rifle or SMG, and then a shotgun, and then a machine gun, and then a rocket launcher, and then a miniature nuke. Getting everything at the beginning simply isn’t as fun. Role playing games are the kings of gratification. Every time you achieve a level, something in your brain releases the endorphins or oxytocin or feel good juice or whatever it’s called.

I think social games and strategy games are both guilty of abusing this mechanic, and one of the reasons Minecraft is so successful is that it’s built around this concept. These games represent a gradual but consistent buildup of the player’s abilities and possessions. An ever-growing castle, or farm, or base keeps the player engaged.

One important point to remember is that gratification has to be matched well with the first element, struggle. As a very general rule, I like to think that every struggle needs to end with a gratification.

4. Eye Candy

I hate to admit it, but pretty games are more fun. Humans have eyes. We receive most of our information through them.

When I was a kid I had quite a bit of fun blowing up little plastic army men with firecrackers. Nevermind that my parents didn’t know I was doing it. Hearing the pop and watching the poor thing fly a couple yards was hours of fun. Then I had the task of finding it again and examining it’s mutated, melted form. One of the reasons that action games lend themselves more strongly to males is that explosions are inherently cool, and that’s a science fact. You can look it up.

So what do you think? Are there more elements of fun that I’ve missed?

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