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Subject: [Level 99 Games] - What is Fun? rss

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Brad Talton
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Cross-Post from www.level99games.com

Many times when I talk about mechanics or game design or game theory, the knee-jerk response is “but how does this make a game fun?” And isn’t that the whole point? If we can’t make a game more fun, then all the other tools are useless.

So in this article, I’ll sum up my thoughts on fun–what it is, where it comes from, and how we can use the tools we have as game designers to create more of it in the world.

Definitions
Fun is an emotion, and like other emotions, it comes from the inside. External forces may facilitate or work against our enjoyment, but ultimately the individual is responsible for his own emotions, and for what he chooses to feel and take away from the experience. Here are two truths about fun:

- No game can make you have fun if you don’t want to.
- No game will get in the way of having fun if you want to have it.


So what can the designer take away from this? If enjoyment belongs to the players, how can we create something that will inspire enjoyment? Should we give up? Of course not! But we have to give a certain amount of trust to our players too. We should assume that players approaching our creation have two properties…

- The player knows what they enjoy and how to enjoy it.
- The player is actively seeking enjoyment.

These two properties give us much more hope as we seek to produce an enjoyable experience. Our experience can’t be inherently enjoyable, but it will be met by a recipient who is seeking to experience enjoyment from what we offer, and even in the form that we are offering it. And since we know that people are fully capable of enjoying themselves, we have only one task—to fulfill the expectations of the player.

Defining the Experience
Have you ever gone into a movie with a growing feeling of doubt that things were not what you expected? That the title was not as good as the previews had told you? That you had been cheated out of your enjoyable evening? These feelings of regret and resentment surface when the contract between the creator and the consumer is broken. The creator promised an experience, the consumer wanted the experience, and the experience delivered fell short of the one promised.

Games are the most immersive form of art that humans have in our repertoire, and so the contract we make with players is even more binding than that in movies and books. However, the potential for enjoyment in games is greater too, because our ability to deliver an experience is even more pronounced through the medium. We can deliver an experience and agency that other mediums can’t. And with that power comes a much greater responsibility to live up to the expectations of our players.

Thus, to make a game fun, you must think not about the mechanics or the design, but about the experience. What role do I want to put the player in? How should he feel before, during, and after the game? How are all the mechanics and art and design in this game working together to bring this experience to life?

One reason I believe that board games in general have not been accepted by the mass market is because the experience to be delivered is not clearly narrated. Consider perhaps the world’s most ubiquitous toy, LEGOs. If you haven’t been to your local department store recently, I encourage you to go in and pick up a box of LEGOs and look at it. The LEGO box accurately describes the experience that it will deliver. There is knowledge we bring to the table ahead of time: we know it’s a building toy, we know it’s inanimate (usually), and we know that our imagination will be required to carry out all the exciting action pictured on the box cover.

When a child picks up a LEGO box, he inherently knows what to expect. This is a toy that will use his imagination, his direction-following, and his own narration to create enjoyment. These are complex ideas for a child (surely they are more complex than the ideas behind most board games), but they are comprehended immediately and subconsciously through the package design and the child’s experiences, either with commercials, television shows, video games, or all the culture surrounding LEGOs.

And of course, assembled LEGOs have the advantage of being an imagination toy—it’s hard to break the experiential contract when the player himself has to decide on the experience that will be delivered. Notice how the boxes for LEGOs only give vague suggestions about how you might use the assembled toy—there is never a complete narrative or set of rules—that would interfere with the player-generated experience.

Why is it then that many games have little theme, a theme pasted on, or a theme that doesn’t match the rules? The theme is always the experience the player is after! “I want to be a pirate”, “I want to run a movie studio”, or “I want to explore a dungeon” are all well and good, and then we present this thing where players sit around and roll dice and have some mechanics in play. But this isn’t the experience at all—it’s a simulation. It’s the experience of playing a game about the experience we originally wanted.

Building the Experience
The best games take one of two routes–they either embrace the simulation as the experience (you’re not an explorer discovering the new world, you’re a company that’s sending out explorers to the new world) or they streamline and strip down and condense mechanics until the gameplay disappears behind the experience itself (to create immersion in the experience).

In both of these cases, our mechanics and game design offer solutions. In the first case, they serve to streamline and enhance the simulation, providing greater depth to the gameplay. In the second case, they give us the tools to make the simulation match the narrative more closely, thus making the experience more natural and enhancing immersion. The more tools in your box, and the more expertly you can use them, the more capable you will be to follow one of these two paths.

In Summary
Good game design will make your games better able to deliver the experience they promise, and by delivering the experience they promise, your games will inspire enjoyment in those that play them. It’s important to keep in mind that each player has something different they are looking for–be up front about what your game is and what it offers. It won’t be the right game for everyone, but it will be right for some group of people, and those are the ones best positioned to enjoy it.

If players don’t enjoy your game, ask them what they wanted it to be and what they expected it to be (in fact, ask this before you start playing too, for comparison!). Often you’ll find that the game is getting in the way of the experience, rather than facilitating it, or that some critical detail in the experience just isn’t represented, making things feel incomplete.

Design with the player-experience in mind, and let everything else build up around that, and you’ll find that your games are much more accessible and enjoyable for it.

If you’ve taken the time to read all this, I’m curious to hear your thoughts and responses as well. Please leave a comment, and tell me what you think about fun, play experience, and the ultimate goal of game design
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Philip Thomas
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In depth analysis of the essential quiddity of fun-ness...
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Marc Missildine
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Indeed, I too am a big fan of delivering Experience when possible. I have a game I'm working on right now that is essentially a re-theme of Sentinels of the Multiverse, because I love how each deck 'feels' like the intended superhero, eg: Fast heroes have more card drawing powers, etc. For this reason, i believe it is superior to other comparable games such as Legendary.


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Andy Parsons
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Quote:
Thus, to make a game fun, you must think not about the mechanics or the design, but about the experience...The theme is always the experience the player is after!


This just isn't true for everyone. I see that different Wikipedia articles estimate either 24 or 40 million Go players worldwide. A very large number anyway. Yet it is difficult to conceive of a more abstract game. Since Go puts its players in no role except protagonists, by your reasoning it can't be much fun. What can so many players possibly see in it?

For some players the experience they are after is to test their abilities against an opponent's. For others, appreciating or defeating a game's systems is where the fun lies. For both these types, theme may actually get in the way by adding elements they would regard as extraneous or distracting.
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Brook Gentlestream
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Andy Parsons wrote:
Quote:
Thus, to make a game fun, you must think not about the mechanics or the design, but about the experience...The theme is always the experience the player is after!



I also agreed with everything up until I got to this point. The theme isn't always the experience the player is after. Mirror Box Games really highlighted this for me in one of their podcosts, where Joey V. talked about how he wanted to build experiences into the mechanics of his game. He discussed the feeling of opening up a pack of magic cards, for example, and talked about how he wanted players of Chaosmos to experience those same emotions while playing.

Yes, we're intrepid treasure hunters (and Chaosmos by Mirror box Games really does deliver on that theme very well) but there's also a lot of other mechanics and things that players do, that the designer wanted to focus on as an experience.

It's not all about the theme. Systems of mechanisms can provide an experience too, and in a way, this is what the classic Hasbro-style board games really built on.

"Go Fish" provides its own experience. You may not find it a particularly great game or not, but as a mechanism it works, and I can see how the "Go Fish Experience" could be a desireable part of some future game. We don't have to feel like actual fishermen to enjoy that, but if people do enjoy it, then it's constructive for a game designer to study what a player is thinking, feeling, and experiencing when using these mechanisms.

I know that you have experimented with tying "the experience of playing" to particular systems of mechanics because War of the Indines and Devastation of the Indines are awesome games that do this very well with extreme modularity -- different characters providing completely different experiences even with the same game and the same theme.

I do agree with everything in your summary.
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Paul S
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Kyokai wrote:

Games are the most immersive form of art that humans have in our repertoire


Much though I love my games, I think you overstate the point. Music, literature, movies - I'd argue that all/any are at least - and often more - immersive.

Kyokai wrote:
Design with the player-experience in mind


This, otoh, seems undeniably right.
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Brad Talton
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Quote:
Thus, to make a game fun, you must think not about the mechanics or the design, but about the experience...The theme is always the experience the player is after!


Andy Parsons wrote:
This just isn't true for everyone. I see that different Wikipedia articles estimate either 24 or 40 million Go players worldwide. A very large number anyway. Yet it is difficult to conceive of a more abstract game. Since Go puts its players in no role except protagonists, by your reasoning it can't be much fun. What can so many players possibly see in it?


Andy Parsons wrote:
For some players the experience they are after is to test their abilities against an opponent's. For others, appreciating or defeating a game's systems is where the fun lies. For both these types, theme may actually get in the way by adding elements they would regard as extraneous or distracting.


The "expectation of experience" is what I mean to convey by 'theme' here, and you're right that theme is not an adequate word for it (except in thematic games). I'm generally talking about mass market audiences in relationship to theme anyway--dedicated board gamers who know what they're looking for are a whole other beast. When a typical person who doesn't play games picks up a game, they are usually looking at the theme to understand the alien experience this box is proposing to contain.

But even with abstracts like Uno or Go Fish, players know what they are getting into. The "expectation of experience" overlaps well with the experience the game provides. Players have a very definite expectation of experience when they sit down to a Chess game.

Abstract games have just as much of an expectation of experience as thematic games do, and players have fun when that expectation is met, whether the expectation is a contest of skill or a system to break.
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Kyokai wrote:
The best games take one of two routes–they either embrace the simulation as the experience (you’re not an explorer discovering the new world, you’re a company that’s sending out explorers to the new world) or they streamline and strip down and condense mechanics until the gameplay disappears behind the experience itself (to create immersion in the experience).


This excludes dry heavy eurogames from the "best games" category, which probably betrays your gaming tastes more than it tells a universal truth.

Then as general matter of fact, I'm not sure I agree with your post. It boils down to "people are always the most satisfied if they get what they expect". I can see a couple problems with that in any creative media. And even if we tone down the assessment to "people are usually more satisfied when they get what they expect", that's not only barely a discovery, but also doesn't tell much about "what is fun", making your title misleading. For instance if I expect a strawberry to taste like a strawberry for me to enjoy it and that it indeed tastes like a strawberry, I'm satisfied and enjoyed the experience. That doesn't make the strawberry "fun".
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Nate K
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Beloch wrote:
Kyokai wrote:

Games are the most immersive form of art that humans have in our repertoire


Much though I love my games, I think you overstate the point. Music, literature, movies - I'd argue that all/any are at least - and often more - immersive.


I'm not so sure about that. There's not audience-participation in music, or literature, or movies. Stage productions CAN involve the audience, but are also much less immersive--they require a much great suspension of disbelief in order to buy into the idea that the wooden platform in front of you is actually a police station, or a garden, or a castle, or whatever.

Video games incorporate all the techniques that allow films to be immersive--seamless sets, realistic characters, dramatic tension, costumes, music--but ALSO include something that films can never have: audience participation. Same thing with board games versus literature. The viewer or reader takes on a role within the world, thus immersing them deeper into the fantasy then would be possible with a static film or book.

:twocents:
 
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Chris Hawkins
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I agree with the main point that the experience is the final goal; mechanics and theme are just means to that end. In playing games and watching others, I think that there are two kinds of fun experiences that map on, more or less, to the Euro vs. Ameritrash distinction. Some games provide a cerebral experience, and some people enjoy solving the dynamic puzzle presented by such games. Other games provide a visceral experience, and some people enjoy a wild ride that grabs them by the stomach and the heart (and maybe even the gonads). Many people enjoy both cerebral and visceral experiences, and some games provide a mix of the two kinds. However, one or the other often seems to dominate. So, if your game is more cerebral, seeing your playtesters scratching their chins and pulling out calculators may be OK. If your game is more visceral, you want to see your playtesters doing things like trash talking, cheering, and groaning.
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John Breckenridge
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What is Fun? Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt me, no more.

Sorry, but that earworm gets stuck in my brain every time I see the title of this thread, and the only way to get rid of an earworm is to share it.
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David Sevier
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Hmm, ok, I think the underlying point is valid. That the experience of the game is the critical thing.

Why do some games work well and others fall flat? I think it is usually because some aspect of the experience is failing.

For example, if you have a highly thematic game mechanics that don't fit the theme very well (or even go against it) can disrupt the experience of the game even if the mechanic is sound.

Or, in a more mechanical game (say, a Heavy Euro) if you have mechanics that don't work well or disrupt the balance of the game it can be disruptive and remove from the experience.

And then you have more general issues, like poorly written rules, unclear iconography, hard to read text, etc that can make any game more difficult to enjoy simply by getting in the way of actually playing the game.



So for me, I think the thought here is that when designing a game you need to keep the experience of the game in mind. What that experience is depends a lot on the game in question, but whatever you are doing should work to enhance that experience.
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Nate K
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jbrecken wrote:
What is Fun? Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt me, no more.


PREEEEETTY sure I'm going to have that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day, and for that, sir, I thank you.
 
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Steve Zagieboylo
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I have a lot of nit-picks with your details, including your second major point.

- No game will get in the way of having fun if you want to have it.

However, you then go on to deny this, so I'm not sure why you put it in. As you said, if the game fails to deliver on the promise (that is, if it fails badly enough) then it won't be fun for the players even if they were going into it planning and expecting to have fun.

- Games are the most immersive form of art that humans have in our repertoire
Change 'immersive' to 'interactive' and I'll agree with you. For all the reasons you stated (mechanics, including cards, dice, board, etc.) games are less immersive than a well-written novel.

However, I will agree with your basic thesis, which is to consider not just the theme and the mechanics, but the entire experience. The difference is that the experience includes the expectations that the players bring to the game, their own behavior while playing, the opportunity for theme immersion, and a dozen other characteristics. Are they laughing the whole time or competing seriously? Do they focus on tactical minutiae or do they chat about something else while they are waiting for their turns? None of the answers to these questions are wrong, but you still should know what you're expecting.

Some of these aspects can be managed, such as the expectations that they players bring. If your game is light-hearted and full of humor, then your title, your art, your advertisements, and everything else associated with the game should convey this. If it is a serious, realistic treatment of gory battle, you should make this just as clear.

No matter what you do, your game is not going to appeal to everyone, so you should make a huge effort to ensure that it is discovered by the people it will appeal to. Enable them to self-select down to the ones who will be glad that they gave you $40 of their hard-earned cash, and be glad you've turned away, pre-purchase, the ones who are going to dislike the game and give you terrible reviews.

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Kyokai wrote:
Thus, to make a game fun, you must think not about the mechanics or the design, but about the experience.

A game's theme serves the purpose of drawing you into the game; it gives flavor to your actions and what challenges come your way. It's what pulls you into the game world to give you an immersive experience and escape. For those gamers who want such an experience, theme is of primary importance.

But when talking about what is 'fun', you can't dismiss elegant, efficient, and balanced game design and mechanics because no matter how well the theme pulls you into a game, you can count on convoluted game rules and poorly written rulebooks to abruptly pull you out of that immersive theme every time. And that is NOT fun.
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