What is the nature of fun? Why are some things fun and others not? These questions are extremely important when it comes to designing a videogame, yet they are still without an answer and will likely stay that way. What can be done instead, is to find what kind of things are fun: what type of activities are entertaining.
The goal of this article is to be as complete as possible in the enumeration of the broad categories of activities that are fundamentally entertaining. Obviously, no game uses a single element of this list and nearly all of these "forms of fun" can be combined with the others to create a richer experience. The goal of this list is not to provide a perfect method that would insure the creation of great games. Instead, it is another tool to help in the creation of better games and the improvement of existing designs. By understanding these fourteen forms of fun, it is possible to compare the features of a game with them and see which features contribute most to the fun of the game. These fourteen forms of fun are, in no particular order:
- Intellectual Problem Solving
- Social Interaction
- Thrill of Danger
- Physical Activity
- Advancement and Completion
- Application of an Ability
This article will go through each of these in turn, trying to define them and analyze how they can be used effectively to create more interesting games. To reach that goal, a short definition will be given for each form. The goal of this is to make clear, in a concise way, what is and is not included in each category. Following this, a brief text will give some explanations as to the nature of each form, then give some examples of their good use in popular videogames and finally will try to give some ideas of how they could be used better in the future. Obviously, this is a complex matter and each form could be detailed in more depth.
"That which pleases the senses."
Beauty is an important aspect of videogame design: success has been accomplished and lost over the quality of graphics. Beauty isn't only in graphics, however, the quality of sounds (music and sound effects) is a big part of it. Eventually games and technology might evolve enough to affect more senses, but for the time being sight and hearing require the most efforts when designing a game. Force-feedback joysticks do try to include the sense of touch, but they lack the subtlety necessary to make it a part of the beauty of a game. Rather, it is more useful in improving the immersion of the player (see below).
A number of games have used beauty as one of their principal means of entertainment. It is the primary reason why we have 3D accelerator cards today and why the race toward ever more beautiful graphics continues. Two games that excelled in their use of beauty were Myst and American McGee's Alice. Both of them featured excellent graphics, in terms of style and quality, and both were retail successes. In both games, beauty is an element that drives the player forward. The player to often continues to play a game because they are anxious to experience the next beautiful setting or character. The player also enjoys thier presence in the virtual world more, which makes them appreciate the game more. On consoles, the popular Final Fantasy series owe much of their success to their beauty. The wonderful spell effects and full-motion videos are a prime example of how beautiful graphics can improve a game.
In Myst, beauty is an element that drives the player forward.
Future improvements in the beautification of games are a much-discussed topic in interactive entertainment. The development of new techniques that improves the realism and quality of graphics (advanced shading techniques and increased polygon count), and the development of new techniques allowing more stylish games (cell-shading), are the future of this rapidly evolving aspect of games. Better use of environmental audio and superior music quality could also improve the ambient sound quality. No matter what the future holds, beauty will always be a very important aspect of most games.
"Going into an environment different from one's usual environment by physical means or by use of one's imagination."
Another form of fun that is commonly used in games today and is one closely tied to beauty, is called immersion. Immersion covers the pleasure of being in a different environment than usual, the pleasure of living a different life. The fun from this seems to come from the pleasure of escaping from one's problems. For example, getting engrossed in a medieval world where you are the realm's only hope of survival is a good way to change your mind from your daily problems - slaying a dragon is a nice change of space from taking out the trash.
Immersion is a form of entertainment that videogames excel at. So much so in fact, that many designers consider the possibility of creating a completely different and new world inside a computer the ultimate goal of game design. Many games are based on this principle, and the numerous first-person shooters on the market today show how popular this form of entertainment is. The use of the first-person viewpoint is not coincidence. it is the most effective way to bring the player into the virtual world, thereby making them feel like they are acting instead of controlling an avatar who is acting (hence the term "first-person view": "I" act instead of "he" acts).
Two excellent examples of immersive games are Thief: The Dark Project and Deus Ex. Both of these games are particularly good at making the player feel as if he is inside the videogame world and not just simply playing a computer game. Shenmue is also an excellent example of how games can be remarkably immersive while being played from a third-person viewpoint. Outside the world of videogames, immersion is also a very popular form of entertainment: people travel to remote location for this very purpose, astronauts train for years for the privilege of going into an environment totally different from our own, etc. It is also one of the main attractions of novels, story telling and movies. All of these mediums try to envelope the user with in a different world to experience a story firsthand. This form of immersion is considered passive. In contrast, videogames are second only to the real world when it comes to immersion because they allow active participation from the player.
Deus Ex is a particularly good at making the player feel as if he is inside the the videogame world and not just simply playing a computer game.
New technologies and new techniques will allow for quantum leaps in the degree of immersion in games of the future. Methods that improve the quality of graphics are of great importance as they are the virtual world's representation and require great quality to be more immersive. Artificial intelligence, sound and physics are also important aspects of immersion that all need improvement if we are to bring this dream of a virtual world to reality. The smallest difference between the virtual world and the real world can destroy the illusion for the player.
For more information on the use of immersion, please refer to the interviews and the texts written by Warren Spector, Harvey Smith and Doug Church. They are remarkably insightful and will give much more detail on the use, problems and solutions of making immersive games than this quick overview ever could.
Intellectual Problem Solving
"Finding solutions to problematic situations that require thought."
Problem solving has always been a part of videogames, and all games in general. Moreover, many consider solving difficult intellectual problems, even outside of games, fun. Many programmers choose their profession for the pleasure of resolving seemingly impossible challenges presented to them.
All problems have a similar pattern: they consist of rules (the constraints of the computer and of the programming language for programming, for example), a setting (the current situation in a board game, the program in which the module must be integrated for programming) and of a goal (what it is that must be achieved). It is then left to the player to find the best way to reach the goal while adhering to the rules.
Tetris is a great example of a simple game based on problem solving. The rules, setting, and goal are simple, yet many people lost many hours completing lines of square blocks. Problems can also be dynamic: the setting can evolve in response to the actions of the player. A good example of this is chess: it is basically a puzzle game where the setting evolves as each player acts. Of course, competition (see below) is also a part of the game, making it more interesting and introducing the dynamic aspect. These two examples involve gameplay that is close to solving a puzzle: the situation is abstract and the rules are obvious and strict. A game like Deus Ex exhibits another kind of problem solving: many of the problems in it have multiple solutions and are closer to problematic situations encountered in real life rather than abstract puzzles. This conscious choice by the designers made the game more interesting and also more immersive (see above). By creating problems consistent with the game world, the designers avoided breaking the illusion of the virtual world.
Tetris is a great example of a simple game based on problem solving.
Puzzles have existed for centuries and, as such, creating a new one that would be fundamentally different from what has been done before would be nearly impossible, at least for non-dynamic puzzles. While there will always be a place for puzzle games, it seems that the future of problem solving lies in more open-ended situations. Like in Deus Ex, the most interesting problems are those that do not have a single solution but rather a multitude of solutions, allowing the player to feel smart about finding his own way to solve a problem rather than finding the single right way. While "finding the trick" is intellectually rewarding, it is not nearly as interesting as finding a personal solution that is different from the one found by other players.
"An activity where the goal is to show one's superiority."
Competition has been, since the beginning of time, one of the primary motivators of mankind. The need to show one's superiority over another has always been a part of human nature. It is no wonder then that we find it so omnipresent in videogames: what drove the Greeks to participate in the first Olympic games is the same thing that drives players to participate in online deathmatches. Competition is not only against other players, but also against one's self, which is an important part of eastern mythology and can be a very interesting aspect of videogames. In this case, the player tries to beat himself, usually a personal high score.
Multiplayer games are where competition is at its fiercest. Competing against other humans is much more interesting than competing against computers: the human presence adds fun to the victory, for reasons we will see below (see Social Interaction). Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament are prime examples of competition in videogames, both of them are centered obviously on competition as a means to have fun. The whole goal is to win by killing everybody else. Competition doesn't need to be as direct however. In Diablo II, competition is a large part of the online fun - the incredible number of hours some players have clocked so that they could be at the top of the international ladder is a proof of this. In this game, the drive for power (see below) also plays a large part of motivating the players.
Racing games and pinball games are two genres where competition against yourself is very important. The enjoyment of finishing a lap in an always-shorter amount of time is an important aspect of racing games, while beating your high score is one of the main motivations of pinball players. A player can be his own fiercest opponent, particularly in these types of games.
While competition is already used extensively in games, it could still be used more in some cases, notably to increase replayability. For example, simply timing how long it takes for a player to beat a game and posting this time in an internet ladder could drive some players to play the game again to improve their time. Other, similar statistics can be compiled (number of kills, number of time the game was saved, etc.) and compared. The cost of adding this in most games would be very small while potentially adding incentives to play through the entire game again.
Another important aspect of competition is making sure that the game is not too hard or easy. Always winning or losing isn't interesting (especially the latter) and so games of the future (in single-player mode) should attempt to win a fraction of the time (but not always) to make the experience more interesting for the player. Another way of doing this would be to let the player win, but make him have a tough time doing so. This is a technique particularly useful in long games, where having to restart from the beginning could discourage some players. In multiplayer games, making sure that the current losers always have a chance to eventually win is of similar importance. To achieve this, "The rich gets richer" situations should be avoided and "The poor gets richer" situations should be used, to use Bryan Reynolds's terminology. That is to say, the game should be more generous toward losers than to the winners, to make catching up easier.
"Doing things with other human beings."
The simple presence of other human beings is a source of entertainment. The popularity of chat rooms and instant messaging programs (like ICQ, AIM, etc.) cannot be denied, and played a large part in popularizing the internet. Gathering with friends is fun, as much so in the real world as in the virtual world of games.
With the popularity of the internet, the social aspect of videogaming has increased tremendously. Games like Everquest and Ultima Online use this form of entertainment, coupled with others, to create incredibly addictive gameplay. The numerous, massive, multiplayer, online games being developed today shows just how popular this type of entertainment is. Yet, social interaction isn't simply in chatting or doing things cooperatively; competing against other human beings is also much more interesting than competing against computer-controlled opponents. The joy of winning comes in part from the sorrow of the other's defeat. Since a computer is never annoyed at losing, winning against a computer isn't as fun as against other humans.
Social interaction is getting used more and more in games. Many multiplayer games are being developed and many mostly single-player games now come with multiplayer modes. The large internet communities that gathered around popular games are also an aspect of social interaction associated with videogames.
Allowing cooperative play to single-player games seems like an obvious step to add the fun of social interactions to a game. Future advancement in AI will also help single-player games have a better social aspect. Hopefully in the future there will be games with more non-player characters that will behave more realistically.
"Things that make one want to laugh."
Some say that laughing is what distinguishes humans from beasts - this goes to show just how important it is to us. Laughing is fun, there is no denying it. All forms of communications have used it as a way to entertain the public. There are stand-up comics, humorous books and films, caricatures, cartoons, etc. Yet, few videogames rely on humour as much as these other forms of entertainment.
Indeed, very few modern games are funny and even less have comedy as their central theme. To find good examples of how comedy can be used to make a game fun, we must turn to the past, more specifically to the period when adventure games were more popular. Games like Sam and Max Hit the Road, Day of the Tentacle or the Leisure Suit Larry series are all good example of how being funny can make a game more entertaining. Sadly, it seems that this aspect of games has been mostly forgotten, with only a few exceptions, such as the latest Monkey Island titles or the occasional one-liner to cheer us up. This is truly a shame, given that comedy plays such an important in entertainment.
Games like Sam and Max Hit the Road, Day of the Tentacle or the Leisure Suit Larry series are all good example of how being funny can make a game more entertaining.
Obviously, an improvement to the use of comedy in videogames would be to have more of it. Comic relief is an important part of movies but is largely under-used in games. Some intelligent humor could lighten up some scenes in games and actually increase the dramatic impact of later scenes by providing contrast. Also, games based on comedy, where the whole goal of the game is to make the player laugh, have their place in the videogaming genres and should be made more often.
Thrill of Danger
"Exhilaration coming from a dangerous activity."
Performing dangerous activities gives an adrenaline rush, which many people enjoy. As such, People try to find activities that give them a rush. This is why knights participated in jousts in medieval times and why today's extreme sports are so popular (in addition to the competitive aspect). Of course, this rush is associated with the act of doing a dangerous activity, therefore it is very difficult to recreate this effect in a videogame. After all, no matter how engrossed you are in a game, you still know that nothing really bad can happen to you.
While physical danger cannot be reproduced in games, there are other ways to. Basically, a situation can be thrilling if the stakes are high enough. Poker, for example, is a game where players feel excitement when the stakes are high: the player's life is not threatened, but the potential financial loss makes each game a dangerous situation. A few games have used a similar strategy to raise the stakes, example of this, on the PC, is Diablo II. In this game, a special mode of play is available called the "hardcore mode". In this mode, if the player's character is killed the game is over, and there is no way to reload a previously saved game nor is it possible to get resurrected. This mode of play definitely raises the stakes and thus makes each moment of the game more important because it can result in dire consequences. This kind of play is not for everybody however. For example, a few PC games have shipped recently without the possibility for the player to save in the middle of a level - saves are only available between each level or at specific locations in each level. Many players complained about this because they felt obligated to play over and over again until they overcame the obstacle. While the inability to save anywhere raised the stakes of the game (if you die you have to play the level again, which players try to avoid), some players found it to be more frustrating than fun.
The thrill of danger can make games more exciting, but it is tough to use it to make the game more fun and not more frustrating. Modes of play similar to Diablo II's hardcore mode or limiting the ability to save may help in this respect. These schemes should not be forced on players, though, in order to avoid frustrating them needlessly. One technique that could be used would be to limit the minimum interval of time between two saves. For example, a player could be allowed to save only every five minutes. It seems like this would limit the spoiling effect of being able to save every few seconds while not making the player backtrack a lot.
"Activities requiring intense physical movements."
Sports and other physical activities are enjoyed by millions of people. The simple act of doing intense physical activities is enough for the practitioner to feel good. This aspect of entertainment is very important, but also extremely hard to use in videogames.
Still, a few games (mostly in arcades) combine fun with physical exertion. A good example of this is the dancing games craze currently in Japan. These games, like the popular Dance Dance Revolution, make the player dance to the music, making them succeed if they dance with the right rhythm. Clearly this type of game uses the fun of moving to make the game more entertaining. Also, a few skateboarding and snowboarding games use an arcade machine with a board. This allows the player to control the character by moving the board in a way similar to actual snowboarding. While the intensity of the activity is less than for dancing games, these games still use physical activity as a form of entertainment in a boarding game.
It doesn't seem like physical activity will become any more predominant in videogames than it already is. Games aren't known for requiring too much athletic skill, and unless some radically new form of controller emerges, it is highly unlikely that this form of fun will become common in games. Arcade, on the other hand, can use this kind of entertainment with specialized hardware.
A few games combine fun with physical exertion. A good example of this is the dancing games craze currently in Japan.
"Strong affection toward somebody."
Love, romance and sex have been at the core of entertainment since its inception. Paintings, sculptures, stories, movies, songs, poems, etc. all use some form of love as a central theme very often whether it be romantic love, brotherly love, a parent's love for its child, the love of a country for its heroes, etc. Considering the all-importance of love in all forms of entertainment, it is amazing to see how rarely this theme is used in games.
Indeed, very few games involve romance, at least coming from the western world. Sex games aside (strip-poker and other such games), it is hard to find good example of how love can improve a game. An obvious example of this, though, is the Leisure Suit Larry series, which involved a lot sex and sexual innuendos in a comic setting. The Japanese, who particularly like games involving more complex character interactions, create more games involving love. Just about every Final Fantasy game involves a love story of some sort, while Metal Gear Solid also includes a love relationship between two main characters. All of these eastern games are renowned for their great story, which might be more than just a coincidence. For a slightly different type of love, Black & White is a game that involves love and caring for a sophisticated virtual pet. In this case, the link between a master and his pet or even between a parent and his child contribute to making the game more interesting.
Since the release of Tomb Raider, the use of lust as a "feature" in a game has been popularized.
Love also exists in the form of admiration and appreciation from others. Games occasionally use this theme. An example of this is the arcade dancing games, like Dance Dance Revolution, which allow its players to show off in front of the arcade's clients. Good players can impress the crowd, and thus get admired by them. This form of ego boosting is a good motivator and can make some players come back to the game. Finally, since the release of Tomb Raider, the use of lust as a "feature" in a game has been popularized. A number of games have been released with a female protagonist for this very reason.
Given these considerations, two obvious conclusions appear. First, love should be a larger part of games. Indeed, videogames are about the only media where love isn't omnipresent and therefore shouldn't be hard to create original content. The second conclusion is that showing appreciation for the player's skill when they succeed helps promote replayability. Having some character in the game congratulate the player character for succeeding after a tough level could increase the players enjoyment.
"To make exist that which didn't."
The pleasure of creating something beautiful out of nothing is a feeling which many game developers are familiar with. Playing the finished game after years of labor is an incredible feeling of pride and joy. All forms of creation bring joy to its author. It is a good element to consider using in games because it is easier to destroy than create, therefore fewer games use this form of fun.
Some games do focus more on creation rather than destruction, though. A notable example of this is the SimCity games. In all of them, the pleasure comes from starting a city from nothing and making it grow. The related game The Sims also focuses more on construction, this time the construction of a happy household. All of these games have their fun centered on creating something good and worthwhile. Incidentally, all of these games were or are incredibly popular, which goes to show that giving the ability to create to players can bring a lot to a game.
Another good example of giving the power of creation to the player is with the current popularity of modifications for first-person shooters (mods). Since Doom, almost all shooters have had editing tools, which allow players to modify different aspects of the game. This has lead to a large numbers of mods, including the very popular Counter-Strike. Considering that the vast majority of mod-makers are not paid for the energy they put into their creation, it demonstrates how the ability to create can be an incredibly popular feature.
Sim City is a game that focuses more on creation than destruction.
This trend of giving the tools necessary to modify the game to players is a good thing as it banks on the fun of creation to improve the popularity of a game (and mods give reasons for new players to buy the game, so this is a win-win situation). While this is a good thing, the creating is not in the game itself most of the time; it seems that making more games with creation as a main gameplay feature would be a good thing.
"Capacity of having a strong effect, of acting with strength."
Power has always been a very strong motivator. Everyday, people act in the hope of becoming more powerful: getting a promotion, a better salary, influence over some persons, etc. Many epic stories also involve a struggle for power. It is also one of the main motivations for the player in many games. Power is fun and it is easy to use in a game - this makes it a very useful tool for creating fun games.
Examples of the useof power in games are easy to find, one of the most popular and obvious of these is Diablo II. In this game, the goal of the player is to become as powerful as possible. Everything in the game bring the player character closer to this goal. For example, the more monsters the player kills the stronger the character becomes, and it also gives magical items which help the character become more powerful, etc. Everything is centered on this single goal: the player character must become stronger. Command & Conquer and other strategy games are also a good example of using this form of fun as a central element of gameplay. A majority of time spent in the game involves building a base that allows creating an army more powerful than the opponent's, which in turn makes it possible to win. In fact, it seems that the majority of games involve the quest to gain power in some form.
The use of power in games is relatively easy to include and is therefore a very common feature. Thus, the major improvement will be from a better use of this concept as a motivational force for the player. One example of this is how the accumulation of power is presented to the player. In a role-playing game, instead of putting a discreet "level up" sign next to a character's face, an obvious sound effect or music could be played along with special effects making the gaining of a new level an obvious thing, for example. This way, the player truly realizes that he is becoming more powerful and feels better because of it. Another example would be to allow, in first-person shooters and other games involving a single or few player characters, some character customization and improvement. By giving some statistics to the player character and giving the ability to improve them over time, you make him more powerful as the game progresses and thus make the game more interesting.
"Finding something that wasn't known before."
Scientists and explorers of all time have been listening to their desire of discovery. It is one of the most common tools used by designers to build games: new levels, new environments, new weapons, new enemies, etc. are all introduced as the game unfolds. Discovery is all about new things: seeing new things, doing new things. Introducing new things progressively in a game can make it more interesting and this has been used with great effect in many games.
A good example of this is Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The main source of entertainment in this game is the exploration of the world. The world of the game is large and it is expanded slowly as the story evolves. Moreover, the exploration is encouraged by all means possible: ghosts must be hunted in the wilderness, tokens that contribute to getting new things are hidden in remote corners of the world, all of the game's dungeon contain a new weapon or tool to help the player, etc. The world is detailed, interesting and everything in it is there to make the player want to explore more of it. This is an excellent example of how discovery can help make a game more fun. It also shows that discovery is often closely tied with immersion (see above) as both forms complement each other. Immersion involves the player in the world while discovery keeps him interested and willing to keep going forward in the game. The mix of discovery and immersion is what constitutes exploration: going to a different environment to find new things.
Discovery is not only tied to exploration, though. In a game like Quake, finding a new weapon and using it for the first time is an exciting moment. An even more gratifying aspect of discovery is finding a new, non-obvious, trick in the game. When a player finds out that he can jump much farther away by shooting a rocket at the ground beneath him (doing the famous rocket-jump), he feels particularly smart and good because of this discovery.
Discovery is easy to include in a game: adding a new environment or a different weapon keeps the player interested. Finer methods can also be used, however: hiding something interesting (a new weapon, for example) in a hidden area can make the players who finds it feel special, while having a large game world with interesting things to discover (a small village or a sub-quest for example) outside of the game's main path encourage the player to explore more and makes him have more fun. Also allowing some non-obvious use of the game rules (like allowing the rocket jump) can make for some really interesting discoveries.
Advancement and Completion
"Going forward in, and eventually finishing, an activity."
Playing a videogame is fun, however conquering a game is one of the greatest accomplishments of all. Actually, the simple act of going forward in an activity and getting closer to completing it, is something everybody enjoys. This is one of the reasons why being stuck in a game is frustrating. Advancing is fun, but finishing even more so: the act of actually "beating" a game is something some players always aim for. In this case, it's actually a form of competition with the player pitted against the game. Of course, finishing is also a sad moment for gamers who would like to experience the game again.
A good example of using advancement as a way to keep players hooked is Deus Ex. In this game, most problems have multiple solutions (see above, under Intellectual Problem Solving). By doing so, not only is finding a solution more rewarding, but it also makes getting stuck lesslikely. It is much more likely that the player will find a solution to a problem that has five different solutions than if it has only one. Since the player rarely gets stuck, the he keeps advancing. He is less frustrated and enjoys the game more.
Other examples of using advancement and completion to make a game more fun are arcade games and most notably fighting games like Soul Calibur or Virtua Fighter. In these games, the single-player experience is rather short: a few minutes at best. In this short period of time, the player advances through the game and eventually completes it. Beating the game makes the player happy and leaves a positive lasting impression. Of course, such short games wouldn't be nearly as interesting if it weren't for the huge replayability they feature. Since every time the player goes through the game, the experience is different (the enemies and their order is different from game to game, in the case of a fighting game), he can play play it over again and enjoy advancing through and completing the game another time.
The vast majority of games involve, in some form or another, advancement and completion, but not all of them use it well. In many games, it is easy for the player to get stuck. As we have seen, this is not good and should be avoided. Since advancing is fun, we can conclude that if a game isn't fun by itself, making it easy will at least make it a bit better. Another conclusion of this is that short but highly replayable games are fun - yet they are relatively rare, especially on the PC.
Application of a Skill
"Using one's physical abilities in a difficult setting."
Skill games have always existed in one form or another such as marbles, darts, basketball, tennis, golf, etc. All of these games require certain skills to perform a certain task. Often used in a competition setting, these activities are entertaining because they offer an interesting challenge.Videogames have pretty much exhausted all challenges of hand-to-eye cooridination. Action games are a whole genre based solely on this challenge.
As such, many examples of the use of the application of skills exist. First-person shooters like Quake or Unreal are based on the ability to move, aim and shoot correctly. Fighting games like Dead or Alive or Soul Calibur are centered on the ability of the player to enter complex moves correctly and to anticipate the opponent's moves. One common thread among all games is that the players ability must be used in a challenging situation. First-person shooters wouldn't be fun for long if they only involved shooting at motion-less targets, for example.
The important thing about this form of entertainment is the challenge. If the application of a skill is not difficult then there is no fun in doing it. Because of this, it is important to avoid making the player use skills in trivial situations, like clicking repeatedly on a monster to kill it. In Diablo this was necessary but it wasn't really an interesting challenge. On the other hand, the level of difficulty should not be too high, or else the player will get stuck and will likely become bored with the game.
The description of these forms of fun is another tool in the designer's kit. Like any tool, it must be used when needed and not applied to everything. Creating a game that would use all of these types of entertainment would only create a confusing mix of different forms, which would not be as interesting as a game concentrating on a few of these forms and using them really well. However, trying to create a game, which only concentrates on a single form of fun would be lacking in the overall experience. Like in all things, the secret to success is balance.