You need a good yarn to weave a dream (to steal a quote from Paul), and in a game you need solid fun to weave a world. However fun opens the door to many other joys.
Triple Town is about matching objects, but also the joy of city building. Rez is about targeting and shooting objects, but also the joy of synesthesia and uncovering a story. The Sims is about organising time and space, but also the joys and frustrations of living.
Fun is merely where we start. What could we build on top of it?
Primer terms used in this post: Action, Art Brain, Boredom, Creative Constant, Dynamic, Fantasy, Fun, Lever, Lizard Brain, Meta-Game, Narrative, Numina, Play Brain, Rule, Storysense, Thauma, Toyplay, Traction
One Fun To Rule Them All
There are several models which describe the emotions surrounding games, and why people play them. One model (from Nicole Lazzaro) separates fun into four 'keys':
- Hard Fun: Challenges, strategies and puzzles. Figuring a game out. Mastery.
- Easy Fun: Exploration, creative play, interaction and immersion.
- People Fun: Social interaction, dominance, cooperation, amusement and conversation.
- Serious Fun: Creation of meaning, building towards something.
Another, this time by Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek, lists eight types of fun:
- Sensation: Physical feelings
- Fellowship: Social togetherness, friendship
- Fantasy: Roleplaying, immersion
- Discovery: Exploration, experimentation
- Narrative: Plot, empathy with situation and characters
- Expression: Creating, making, projection of self
- Challenge: Obstacle, puzzle, test of skill
- Submission: Pastime, addiction, busywork
My problem with such systems is that they inevitably lead to equivocations on the meaning of 'fun'. That in turn leads to extrapolation on what should work, as though designing for fun is something of a mix-and-match exercise. To take Lazzaro's model, for example, it is easy to conclude that a game built on the creation of meaning and conversation (serious fun and people fun) would be a workable design.
However the reality is that most such games fail to gain traction. Story, art, music, exploration and socialising cannot carry a game by themselves for long. They may enchant, convey a sense of meaning or an idea, but if the play brain does not see a coherent system that it can figure out and then keep figuring out, the likelihood is that the player will stop playing. A game which is not fun is generally not played even if it has other emotional qualities.
How many times have any of us played a game with a great story but a terrible control system and simply lost interest? Were we enjoying ourselves when playing? Perhaps. Were we having fun? No. What most players actually mean by 'fun' is not the sum total of the emotions within a game. They mean a subset of them, one among many. They get that a game may have a great art style or musical score, or be a great way to socialise, but the combat sucks. It's just not fun.
There are many games with great stories, opportunities for exploration or self-expression and yet they are just not fun. And though we designers love to rationalise these sorts of feelings away, in our hearts we know it. Increasingly our metrics also show it, even though we may try to ignore them. Fun is not a multi-coloured set of qualities through we can extrapolate that night equals day. It is one overriding quality.
This, more or less, is why I define fun explicitly as:
The joy of winning while mastering fair game dynamics
All games that generate traction, long term interest, high completion rates and spectatorship are ultimately about winning while mastering fair game dynamics (remembering that fairness is a perception, which is why children are often entertained by games that adults consider nonsense). Consider sports, boardgames, roleplaying games, videogames and more and ask yourself which among the successful ones does not build from fun? Whereas which of the many meta-game, non-game or similar projects based on something other than fun (or an extrapolated idea of fun) are actually played by, say, 100,000 players for 60 days?
There is only one kind of fun. It involves a mix of strategy and skill to analyse systems and figure out how best to achieve within them, as true for Poker and Jenga, Minecraft and Animal Crossing, Bulletstorm and Sim City. The only differences between them is the breadth of resources available, the nature of the win conditions, the pace of play and the rules.
Some games are faster or slower, test physical or mental skills, creative or purely task-driven. Fun comes in many outward expressions, but invariably comes down to the same structure of overcoming, pressure and improving. Or as Raph Koster might put it, learning. Fun is a creative constant. Fun is a requirement. Fun is necessary. Fun is hard to accept.
But it's not everything.
Joy Cometh In...
The above definition does not include many emotional qualities. Enjoyment of story, for example, would not be considered 'fun'. Neither would social interaction, exploration or creation, nor most of the facets of what I have previously described as thauma.
Narrative, fantasy, social interaction, aesthetics and so forth do not need to jimmied into 'fun' because they really do not belong there. They are joys. Joys are any kind of positive emotional response that a player may experience related to games. They are the colours on the canvas. They can give a game texture and depth and a sense of a thing with existence above and beyond actions, rules and levers.
Joys come in many forms. Fun is the one which tickles the play brain, but many joys are meant for the art brain such as delight, empathy or storysense. Others are for the lizard brain, particularly thrills and feelings of empowerment. While the play brain is the ultimate arbiter of boredom, a game lacking joys is often mechanical, intellectual and charmless.
Joys sometimes emerge from the game system, however they are more commonly included in the game on purpose. They convey a sense of authorship, with many of the best games taking time to focus on culture, participation, hidden gems and aesthetic styles that create something individual. A focus on joy is why studios like Popcap spent so long getting the creative aspects of Plants vs Zombies right. A game like Journey is on one level a platform-puzzle game, but on another it is a joyful experience of co-operation and isolation.
There are plenty of joys to be had from playing games and that is in large part why we play them. Whether your focus is serious or humorous, cute or characterful, minute or numinous, the principle is still the same: Your game needs to be fun, but it also needs to be more than fun. It needs to be enjoyable.
Here are eleven examples of joy:
There are many moments in playing a game where the player realises that she can do something unusual or use some feature in a way that produces hilarious outcomes. This is often entertaining for its own sake. Realising that the grenade physics in Halo can allow you to travel great distances, or that helicopters in Vice City let you fly over what had previously been a driving experience are two examples of this kind of joy.
Delight could be defined as:
The joy of experimenting with the frame of a game and achieving an entertaining result.
Another joy is that felt when exploring, such as sailing to a new land in Wind Waker or discovering a secret chamber in Doom. Wandering, seeing, listening and figuratively breathing in the world are joyful in and of themselves. Some kinds of exploration are obvious rewards that the player knows will come through play, whereas other are hidden easter eggs.
Exploration could be defined as:
The joy of uncovering the richness of the game world.
And then there is the joy of the beautiful. Look, style, even technical feats or design inventions are beautiful depending on the eye of the beholder. In Ico, for example, many of the ancient castle rooms capture your attention simply because they are beautiful. Just like in the real world, there are some shapes, forms, colours, textures and sounds that are worth appreciating.
Beauty could be defined as:
The joy of appreciating the game.
One of the key reasons why Tim Schafer is a legendary game designer is that his games are funny. Like a videogame version of Joss Whedon, his games work hard to make players giggle, and not just in broad strokes. Comedy is very difficult to do well in games but when it does work it is one of the greatest joys of all. There is nothing quite like laughing out loud.
Humour could be defined as:
The joy of laughter.
While few would claim that witnessing the death of a character is joyous, there is a quality of joy in being a part of that story. Equally in games without story (such as pet simulators) caring, fostering and protectiveness are often key parts of the experience. These in turn might be described as kind of joy, though sometimes perhaps in retrospect.
Empathy could be defined as:
The joy and sorrow which comes from emotional attachment to characters in the game.
For some players, story is about finding answers to questions. Plot revelations in Planescape: Torment which give the player inklings of a hidden past are one example. As the player adventures further, more questions are raised. Who is this person, why am I unlocking his past, what does it mean? The player discovers more about her role's identity, the truth of which makes for some interesting revelations. These are all, broadly, the joy of mystery.
Mystery could be defined as:
The joy of uncovering answers to non-mechanical questions.
Dark corridors, scary music, haptic feedback and other similar tricks can play on base emotion to great effect and for some this sense of thrill is almost narcotic. It is the key reason why survival horror games are interesting, for example, both in the feeling of restriction and the relief of narrowly avoiding some horrible consequence. Likewise, rollercoasters and some racing games tap into our sense of thrill.
Thrill could be defined as:
The joy of deliberately scaring oneself.
The ability to leap tall buildings, drive fast cars or be able to do something that you cannot do in the real world (such as be a rock star) are frequently joyful. Empowering games speak to roles and fantasies that we secretly harbour, our idealised projections of who we would be if only...
Empowerment could be defined as:
The joy of being more than you are.
My commander Shepard is a black woman with green eyes and closely cropped hair. Like many other Mass Effect players I took the time to make the doll my own, an avatar that didn't just seem like the usual white male. To do so was enjoyable even though it had no effect on the game. Many games include a similar sort of toyplay, where players can get into making something if they wish.
Making could be defined as:
The joy of using the game as a palette for expression.
Consider the difference between playing Halo online versus the camaraderie of a LAN session. Or between online Poker and sitting around a table trading jibes and chips with friends. Socialising with friends and family via a game is one of the most important joys, one that game makers often neglect. And yet for some players it is the only reason for ever playing a game.
Community could be defined as:
The joy of playing with those we know.
In the novel Underworld, Don DeLillo describes the sights, sounds and people surrounding a famous baseball match. The early tension, the boredom of waiting for something to happen, ancillary events surrounding the match and the buildup to an epic victory are all told through various perspectives. It is a perfect description of participation, a joy which comes from witnessing, or being a part of a place or moment. Whether watching a sport or purchasing a copy of a hot new game because everyone else is doing the same, participation is a joy that we all experience and which binds us together.
Participation could be defined as:
The joy of feeling connected to a meaningful group experience.
Yes, fun is a baseline requirement for games to be played. Yes, what that means is a game dynamic with rules and objects, levers and systems, goals and challenges and so on. However there is more. There is culture, art, humanity and participation. There is belief. There is immersion. There is motion and the sense of story. There is thauma. There is joy.
As a game designer, the fact that your game must be fun should not be regarded as a limit, but as an enabling constraint. Like rhythm to music or plot to stories, fun is the quality that you must accept in order for your game to tick, but it opens the door to many other kinds of joy if you are willing to let it.
(With thanks to Lauren Manning for the use of her joyful photo.)