[Gameloft technical designer Christian Philippe Guay looks inside to answer fundamental questions about what is fun, and offers up his own unified philosophy.]
Fun is a familiar word and, to this day, it is still hard to define. We do have that strange ability to understand how to make something fun, but so little understanding of its actual origins. For years I've been asking to myself many questions:
- Where does it come from?
- How can it be produced?
- Is fun exclusively subjective?
- Is it possible to create something fun for everyone?
- Is fun all about learning something new?
- Why do I still enjoy older games more than the most recent ones?
- Are we losing our understanding of fun?
- Is engagement the same thing as fun?
- What is the future of video games?
- Could a unified theory of fun exist?
I never found a proper answer to these questions in any articles on the internet, nor any book. However, I did find out a lot about fun, because most articles or books pointed out a lot of the factors that result in fun experiences.
They never, however, clearly explained what fun was or how to produce it. After months of intensive research on the subject, I had a hard time believing how many fun products we've made as an industry without even understanding what fun is or where it comes from. It's amazing, really, what we've accomplished so far.
Desperate and without answers, I started to think. I spent years looking for those answers and, more importantly, underestimated the value of my own experience in solving the problem. Fifteen minutes later, I found my own answers to all of those questions.
That's when I realized how much we know about fun, and how little we know about ourselves. By the end of this article, I'm sure most of you are going to be amazed by how much you knew about fun, and discover that the real trouble was in connecting the dots.
Where Does Fun Come From?
Everything that exists follows what we call a structure: recipes, books, films, video games, chemical formulae, etc. We all know that fun can be experienced during or after an experience. In other words, by better understanding the structure of an experience, we will gain a better understanding of fun. We'll find that structure in the creative process is necessary to create an experience.
Whether it's based on a specific audience target or simple personal inspiration, we first create the vision for a game. Some designers might prefer to call it a blueprint. That blueprint is, exclusively, an idea located in the mind or on paper. It is not yet perceptible or interactive, and yet this step is the heart of the experience.
To make that blueprint interactive, we need to make it perceptible to our human senses. If the idea was to create an interesting enemy, we would have to make the 3D model first. I usually use the word context to cover all that. Fighting on a battlefield is different from fighting in a moving elevator, right? Also, some games feature a story. The perceptible story is found on this specific layer.
Once we've made the idea perceptible, then we can give it a mechanism. We add to our character the bones he needs to move in the intended way. Just keep in mind that everything perceptible will always empower the mechanism and make it better; that's why old school 8-bit games aren't necessarily better even when they offer cooler, more innovative gameplay than contemporary titles.
The ultimate goal of a designer is to give to players tools to influence the world, AI, and other players; it's all about the mind game and the challenge. When it comes to the story, while the context covers the perceptible story, this layer covers the one that we create as we play.
Now that our experience has a mechanism and is interactive, what we want to do is to add that subtle layer of emotions. That's actually one of the steps we often forget, but it is absolutely crucial to the creation of a great and memorable experience. Do you want to throw rockets that will profoundly stress the player? Did you create a room so empty that the player will know for sure that he needs to prepare for the next big fight? Do you desire the player to feel that this area is a peaceful or dangerous place?
Once the player performs the interaction, from cause and effect there is a direct result. Did he counter an attack? Did he eliminate his opponent? Did he hear a sound? What treasure did he find by opening the chest? It's important to notice that there is a challenge and a reward, but the reward is not the last thing to think about. There are a few other steps to an experience.
Once the player gets the result, then he can be conscious of the time it took to complete the experience. The notion of time moderates the intensity of an experience, and it creates rhythm or repetition.
Finally, it's only once the player is aware of the time that he can achieve a full realization of the whole experience. That's the moment when he registers the data in memory and can compare its quality with other past experiences. By going through this final process, the player also forges his judgement. By creating an experience, we also forge our audience; a natural evolution cycle of which we are all part of.
The Structure of an Experience
The structure of an experience consists of seven layers -- categories or guidelines. It really doesn't matter what we call them. The following bullet points contain examples of what each layer comprises.
- Game design documents
Context (everything perceptible)
- 2D art
- 3D environment
- 3D models
- 3D animations
- Sound effects
- Special effects
- Perceptible story
- Gameplay mechanics
- Learning curve
- Difficulty curve
- Level design
- Playable story
- The player found new equipment
- The player found a shortcut
- The player gained points
- The player unlocked a new feature
- Did it help to understand how to perform a gameplay mechanic?
- Did we learn a new twist in the story?
- Was this adventure more enjoyable than the ones made 10 years ago?
It's even more important to understand that one experience can be made of multiple and smaller experiences, or be part of a bigger experience -- just like a game is made of levels, and those are made of gameplay sequences, and those are made of gameplay, and that is made of actions, etc. It grows infinitely big and infinitely small.
- Video games
- Game levels
- Gameplay sequences
- Gameplay sequences
- Game levels
- Video games
It's the ancient principle of correspondence, the theory of relativity, the phenomenon of fractals, or the relationship between the microcosm and macrocosm. That's also where it easily gets confusing to analyze the different layers, because things move up or down the scale, and everything is relative.
Seven Principles of Engagement
Our seven principles can be considered as seven linear steps that can put the player into a greater state of engagement. If the player dislikes one step, it can be enough to prevent her from continuing the experience. Ideally, we want the player to be seduced by all the steps as much as we possibly can. Simply put, all steps should be better than what can be found in past games, films, books, or music.
A greater degree of fun is experienced when we simply experience something of greater quality. Basically, engagement allows the potential fun of a game to emerge.
Still, all the products have their own strengths. Some games will offer greater visuals and others greater mechanism or emotions.
In order to produce greater states of engagement, to do less is more, because the more we add details, the more we increase our chance to make a mistake or to create things that are disruptive or disturbing to the experience.
More importantly, everything created must have a compelling reason to exist, and ideally it should empower the rest. It's pointless to add 50 accessories to a character if none of them actually tells us more about him. The simple color of the cape, the shape, or the way it moves should alone tell a lot.
It's always great to keep in mind that time is money.
Is Fun Different for Everyone?
A game isn't supposed to be fun for everyone; it was designed for a very specific audience. The group we can attract is gamers. Is everyone a gamer? Absolutely not.
Fun is subjective, but not entirely. From one perspective, because we all experience different things and are born with a certain approach to life, we might find things fun that wouldn't necessarily be so for others. Still, experiences forge our judgement; those experiences are limited to what exists. That means if you understand what exists, you can obviously make something that's more fun for your audience.
That means fun is only wholly subjective if we don't know what is out there, or if we can't create something more fun than what the audience can create in its own mind.
Different Skill Levels, Different Perspectives of Fun
The different skill levels of the players will influence how they perceive fun. As mentioned earlier, fun is only potential, and the more a player develops her skills, the more she can understand and appreciate.
A simple approach would be to break down the audience into three categories:
- Advanced players
- Pro players
Those are not necessarily representative of their physical skill level, but more their mentality, because physical skills can be lost over time due to a lack of practice.
The newcomer is obviously new to the game and mostly cares about something basic: ''I just want to shoot people''. If we were to design a map for them, it would be smaller and more chaotic.
The pro players need the total opposite. They would instead need a map that offers better pacing and plenty of tricks and strategy. The advanced players are right in the middle and can enjoy both aspects of the game.
Ideally, a game should offer gameplay and maps that can please the three categories of players. More importantly, every multiplayer game should also offer a system that matches the players based on their categories. Otherwise, pro players will always give a hard time to newcomers, and some of them might just not enjoy their experience at all.
Fun isn't a Static Force, It is a Potential
We do not create experiences that are fun to a very specific degree. As said earlier, fun is relative to the past experiences of the players and to everything created in the past. What game developers do is give to players tools; by taking advantage of those, they can experience fun, to a certain degree.
Usually, the fun will also increase as the player progresses in mastery of the game. By improving her skills, she will increase the degree of memorable moments that happen. That will also intensify the degree of fun -- and that's why games are so enjoyable.
However, game developers must also make sure that the learning curve isn't too intimidating. Some games lack sufficient information or tutorials, and players can't understand how to play them, or what about them is fun. A lot of multiplayer games suffer from that problem, and that can be easily solved.
How can I Improve My Ability to Create Fun Products?
We have to be aware of what has been done before, as it is important to not repeat past mistakes.
If you want to get better at creating a blueprint, then you have to study pretty much everything. Be aware of what is going on, anticipate what is coming next, and develop the ability to find holes in the market. To study and understand marketing and psychology might also help a lot.
If you want to get better at creating context, what is perceptible, it's going to be difficult. You would have to study anything artistic; music, films, video games, photography, etc.
If you want to get better at creating a mechanism, then I suggest you play and study a lot of games, sports, and martial arts. I would suggest to any designer to take one game and spend enough time to master it. There are things that can only be properly understood once they're truly experienced. In reality, the more we master an experience, the more others become alike, because everything in this universe is based on the same principles. We realize that the same mechanics are used, but in a different context. By doing this, it becomes easier to create interesting gameplay mechanics or learn how to fix them.
To create more emotive experiences is probably the most difficult task, because it still is fairly new to game developers. It is always a plus to understand what makes other passions so great. Films, books, video games, and the daily news might be great things to look at if you need inspiration. Most humorists understand how to trick the audience, add a twist to a story, and trigger very specific emotions.
If you want to get better at creating a result or a reward, video games are obviously the best reference.
If you want to create a great realization, then at least make sure the experience was worth it, and better than what you experienced before.
I tend to think that to study the greatest games of all time would help us to better understand how to make better games. However, those games are often so engaging that we might not see how to make greater things, because when we play them, we aren't thinking critically about how they're constructed; we're experiencing them as players. However, if we play the worst games, then everything frustrating will jump in our faces. Then we will see what needs to be improved, and that forces us to be creative and find how to fix those problems.
A Bright Future
The creation of useful games is the way of the future, and there are many approaches we can take to achieve that. One idea: the creation of games that are as much educational as they are entertaining. This medium is one of the easiest and most accessible we've ever had. We don't get injured while playing games, because our body isn't at risk, so we can keep learning. Video games are an easy way to experience thousands of things in a short period of time. It would make perfect sense if video games became part of a new educational system.
Right now, video games are an easy way to study and better understand reality on a physical level; powerful tools for self-development, and that's something we'll have to push.
A Unified Philosophy of Fun
I invite you to perceive this article more as a unified philosophy of fun rather than a theory. There still is a lot more to say about these seven principles of fun, but the goal was to give you the keys that will allow you the find the rest of the answers on your own. You will, at least, know where to look.
I hope you enjoyed reading; feel free to comment, ask questions, or debate.