It don’t mean a thing if it aint got that swing.
Duke Ellington’s point was simple: Across all genres and eras, music needs to swing. It’s a creative constant. I make a similar point about fun, arguing that it too is a creative constant and a game is not a game if it lacks the joy of winning while mastering fair game dynamics.
But some kinds of fun are more appealing than others. Some are innately fascinating and inspire the play brain to play, where others just don’t. I call it the law of fascination.
First Comes Inspiration…
The relationship between player and game starts long before the game is ever played. It starts with a marketing story that says ‘Look, in this world you get to do this awesome thing.’ And the player is either inspired or not. Why?
The first reason is to do with whether the game promises the player an empowering role with the prospect of heroics or stewardship. Heroics means the opportunity to overcome impossible odds with amazing action, like the striker in a soccer game or the terrified teenager in a survival horror. The joy of winning in those circumstances is the sense of physical achievement and the thrill of avoiding death.
Stewardship is more like the appeal of logistics, caretaking, puzzles and figuring out complex problems. The joy of winning is less about thrill and more about satisfaction of solutions, like a gardener feels when all his blooms spring forth. The soccer fan who is interested in stewardship does not find the role of striker to be half as interesting as that of manager. The adventure game fan is interested in the puzzles and decoding the story, not combat or action. The virtual pet fan is interested in the complex problem of caretaking and teaching.
Another factor is culture. Soccer is a widely televised sport in the United Kingdom and children are brought up in that culture. It’s no great surprise, therefore, that they play videogames based on soccer and buy franchises like FIFA in their millions. Madden NFL occupies a similar position in the United States. In each case players are inspired by that which they know outside of the game, and the game promises to help them enact their fantasy.
Lastly there is the question of whether the player is on the fringe or is a muggle. Fringe gamers pay attention and want to try new things, so they will often find an exotic role, as in Katamari Damacy, exciting. Muggles, on the other hand, tend to only look for that which they already expect.
… Then Fascination
As the player tends to be inspired to play for heroics or stewardship, so the play brain wants to search for the optimal path to achieve that goal. Therefore it must find the game fascinating enough for the player to get there. In a previous post I described fun as the joy of winning while mastering fair game dynamics. For this post, the key word in that definition is mastering.
The play brain, remember, is the machine-like part of the mind which only sees a game as objects, rules and levers. It doesn’t care about the aesthetics, story, numina or rich content of the game and when it achieves maximum mastery it grows bored. Boredom in the play brain is the reason why players don’t finish games.
So the law of fascination requires that a game dynamic is robust enough to encourage wins, learning and many outcomes. Whether empowering the player through heroics or stewardship, the game dynamic has to be able to stand up to many play sessions and yet still be deep enough to be exciting. Which means that all successful games are based on one of two archetypes.
Some designers believe that all game design is abut creating economies, but I think they are only half right. The other half is creating activities. Most games are mostly about one, but contain a minor amount of the other.
Field sports like soccer, rugby or American football, for example, are largely tests of skill. They test player endurance, accuracy, speed and ability to work together, but they do so around a ball. Obtaining possession of the ball and trading it for score (via a goal, try or touchdown) is the economic activity in the game but that trade is not really the fascinating part.
The fascinating part is the physical activity involved in attempting to acquire possession, the dynamic between players as they co-ordinate an attack, and the heroics that tend to emerge from scoring. In other words it’s not the points that bring about the thrill of scoring a try. It’s the hard work of pushing through an opponent team to get there.
Texas Hold ’Em Poker is the reverse. It’s all about judging resources understanding complex situations, intuiting the psychology of opponents and so on. The player has to know what’s in his hand, what the cards on the table likely imply and how many chips every other player has. He has to understand how other players tend to bet or fold and judge whether some situations will result in wins or losses. All of which is economic play.
However the actual actions of Poker, such as betting and folding, are rudimentary. Unlike a sport, where the skilful execution of a tackle can significantly affect the game, a bet is always a bet and there is no way to beat other players by placing your chips down in a different way. You either place your chips in the pot or you don’t.
The skill of placing is not fascinating. The fascinating part is the dynamic that results from betting, figuring out the permutations of possible hands and waiting for the big reveal of cards at the end. Unlike a field sport, mastery is all about strategy and logistics and the fun is tied up in lessons learned from doing that. So the revelation of the river card is fascinating.
A 1:3 Ratio
Rockstar attempted to extend Grand Theft Auto by including the ability to own businesses, train skills, buy clothes and go on dates. Each added an element of economy into what was a heavily activity-focused game, and none were particularly fun. There was little joy in earning swimming skill points (as you had to in GTA: San Andreas) to be allowed to undertake a mission.
However the extensions that focused on activity, like bikes or helicopters, were much better. They made sense within the context of the game and were robustly implemented. They were fun because they added extra ways to achieve the heroics that the play brain already wanted to master.
When trying to figure out a way to add an extra dimension to his game, a game designer will often make the same mistake. He will take a design that focuses on activity or economy and then add some of the other in order to make the game more rounded. He’ll add a numbers-and-resources element to an action game, or a physical skill requirement to a strategy game, all with the idea of increasing engagement by giving the player more opportunities to have fun.
Extensions to a game that work with its existing active or economic focus tend to be worth including. However blending activity and economy tends to make a game worse rather than better. Those kinds of extension usually breed design tension (by making the focus less joyful) and introduce busywork that the player would rather skip.
As a general rule of thumb, consider that the ideal game (which doesn’t really exist) has no more than a 1:3 weighting of activity versus economy, or vice versa. This means that the play brain never has to devote more than 25% of its attention span to elements that are not the focus of the game. Enough to make a skilful game a little strategic or a strategic game a little skilful perhaps, but no more.
In Halo, the main tests are activities (shooting, ducking, movement) but there is a small economic aspect through rules like ammunition or how many weapons the Master Chief can hold. The player must be mindful of his resources, but only in so far as they support or detract from activities. The game economy only draws perhaps 10% of his attention, leaving 90% for the action.
In Starcraft the economy involves the logistics and strategy of building a perfect army, but speed is also important. World class Starcraft players have lightning-fast mouse and keyboard skills for selecting units and issuing orders, and speed-focused tactics to rush opponents in the early stages of the game catch new players off guard.
However despite the need for speed most of the player’s attention is actually on the economy. He has to keep many complex factors in mind, such as position of units, status of resources, enemy positions, upgrading of units, and formulate a strategy to win.
Although the controls might be complex, the actions that they govern are uniform. Unlike Halo, where the physical skill of pulling a trigger and aiming may hit or miss, a Protoss zealot ordered to attack a Zergling will do so in the same pattern, with the same result, every time. 75% of the player’s attention is focused on issuing 100 similar orders and many other management activities. If he had to physically be involved in combats as well, the game would be a disaster.
Not a Game
Some people may read the above and ask ‘What about games that are not fun?’ or ‘What about games that are not about winning?’ or similar. This is contentious territory because it’s talking about topics like storytelling in games (which tends to be a lightning rod issue), but needs to be addressed.
The Stanley Parable, if you don’t know, is a mod developed for Half Life 2 in which the player plays Stanley, a lowly employee in a company whose monotonous life has been interrupted. A narrator describes Stanley’s life while the player moves him (a technique that I call alongside dialogue) and interacts with his environment.
As a player you are essentially watching The Stanley Parable and nudging it at various points. But you’re never really tested. It is interesting, but not fascinating. It encourages several replays to see the paths of choices not taken, but there is no challenge (in the play brain sense) or wins.
It and several other works sit on a different branch of the interactive tree, and to call them games is simply confusing. No conventional term exists to group works like The Stanley Parable together, but they seem closest to promenade theatre. Perhaps we should call them videoplay, inter-drama or virtual promenade.
Whatever they are, they are not really games. Games really do need to be fun, and that fun needs to be fascinating. Otherwise players never complete them and any artistic intent that the game may have had goes unseen. It’s hard to accept that fun is a requirement of play and that games are not a storytelling art because we are conditioned to think that storytelling is the only valid form of art.
Blame Hollywood for that if you like, but the upshot is that there are many game developers out there who want to believe that they must go beyond fun in order to be taken seriously. Unfortunately they can’t, but also they don’t need to. They are already artists, but their art is the making of fascinating worlds, not movies.
Duke Ellington understood that music needed to swing because swing was the gateway to everything else. With games, fascination is the same. It don’t mean a thing if it aint fascinating.