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Designing for Fun

This post originated as I was exploring some "career advice" forums and came across an article suggesting that the best thing to add to your blog is a post that defines fun. "That's a ridiculous idea," I thought. Then I tried to do it.

Jimmy Steorts, Blogger

November 2, 2009

6 Min Read

This post originated as I was exploring some "career advice" forums and came across an article suggesting that the best thing to add to your blog is a post that defines fun. "That's a ridiculous idea," I thought. Then I tried to do it.

My first step was listing things that are "fun." Winning. Challenge. Mastery. Sharing. Exploring. Discovery. Role playing. Growth. Failing. Triumph. Learning. Creating. Anticipation. Cheating. Revenge. Memories. Nostalgia. Superiority. Explosions!

The list goes on and on, and all of these are experiences that can be fun when placed in the right context. But I wasn't any nearer to defining what fun is or better yet, how to achieve it. So my question then turned to, "How can we, as game developers, make games fun?" Here's what I came up with:

1. Understand where the fun comes from in your game. It may be your main feature or it may be a happy accident that was uncovered during development. It doesn't matter. Find it and expose it. Make sure that people know about it and make sure that it's on your player's main path so that there's no way they can miss it.

Skate 2 did an awesome job of exposing something fun:  bailing. It wasn't their main feature but they embraced it. Not only can you choose when to bail, but you can control your body after you bail as well. This makes for hilarious moments when you judo kick old ladies or canonball down the massive dam. The game records the damage done to your body so you can track and attempt to outdo your best bails. In addition, there are challenges within the game that ask you to reach a certain speed while bailing, get high bail scores, or slam into pedestrians at a certain speed. These challenges provide something adjacent to skateboarding that adds to the overall experience, and I'm really glad the developers exposed this aspect of the game.

An example of a game that conceals the fun is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Buried within cheat codes is the ability to spawn a Harrier and a parachute. The most fun thing (for me) to do in the entire game was fly the Harrier straight up, as far as it could go, and stall it. As soon as it stalls, hop out of the jet and freefall until you either decide to open your parachute or don't. Either way it's hilarious, and you'll be back in the Harrier for another run. What I don't understand is why something so cool was hidden instead of flaunted (especially when the assets, animations, and game breaking contingency measures were already in place). It could have been worked into the mission design. An NPC flies a helicopter over a military base to steal a prototype plane. The player has to jump out of the helicopter and parachute into the base. This would have shown the player both that the mechanic exists and the means of securing it.

There is something to be said for finding something like this on your own as it can be exciting to do something that the developers never intended. But for me, the reward of interacting with the systems far outweighs any joy I had when I found the cheat code. I spent hours relishing in the majesty of free falling, but I only felt a brief moment of satisfaction when I thought, "Oh cool, there's a Harrier in the game?" Players will always find some new way to use an existing feature, such as the video above. But if there's something that's known to be fun in the game, SHOW IT.

2. Examine everything you add to the game in the context of what already exists. Every time something new is added to the game ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is it making the game more fun? If not, why are you adding it?

  2. Is it detracting from the fun of the other features? If so, why are you adding it?

As an example I'll use two recently released third person action games that I enjoyed a great deal: Batman Arkham Asylum and Prototype. Both of these games incorporate combat with an array of upgrades earned as the game progresses.

Prototype has four different types of weapons for the player to use: a claw, a club, a blade, and a tentacle. The tentacle arm was incredibly fun, whether hi-jacking helicopters or swinging through a crowd of infected. The other three, however, were incredibly similar and probably should have been merged into one other very polished weapon. As I played the game I never really knew which one was going to be more effective or what situations to use each weapon in.

The myriad of other upgrades in Prototype ends up adding to this issue. There are so many to choose from that not only do I never know which ones to buy or use, but most of the time I simply forget that they exist. Not to mention that each one comes with its own complicated control scheme. I stepped away from the game for a couple days and when I came back, I had forgotten how to play.

http://www.supercheats.com/guides/prototype/upgrades - Here is the list of upgrades from Prototype. Scrolling down the page and seeing the sheer volume is simply overwhelming.

Batman Arkham Asylum took a different approach to upgrading the player's abilities. While there are still twenty of them to choose from, the majority are either passive abilities, or simply change the way that the player uses an existing item/ability. Throwing one Batarang is the same as throwing three Batarangs. All of the gadgets in the game are controlled very similarly if not exactly the same way and only require that the player switch between them using the d-pad. The simplicity of the upgrades and controls in Batman added to the fun of the game without detracting from any of the other features or gameplay.



3. Play your game. It sounds like the most obvious thing in the world and to some degree it is. But the best way to make games better and ensure they're as fun as humanly possible is to play them.  A lot.

During development it's incredibly easy to get caught up the mentality of "play it to make sure it works" and move on. But there's so much more to play testing than just finding and verifying bugsFor one, it's the only way to assess the first two points in this post. Second, when everyone on the team is playing the game they'll talk about the game. Some of the best ideas in development come out of those discussions and should be encouraged.

This is such a weighty topic with so many aspects to think about and explore. I'm sure I'll be able to add more to it with every project. I'm not sure if this is what that article I found had in mind but it has definitely been a fun topic to ponder.

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