Games usually consist of interconnected and repeating patterns of play which group together to form larger movements. Some designers take this idea further by saying that smaller and larger patterns have much the same shape. So a loop generated from a single action such as hitting an opponent and a movement of play (such as killing a boss) are basically the same thing. One is just a larger version of the other.
E3, trailers and previews mostly sell games based on potential experience. Look at the haunting graphics of Journey or listen to a podcast about the epic scope of Skyrim, and the promise of experience is there. Come into our worlds, they say, they are thaumatic.
Sometimes they are, however those worlds which are successfully so are based on more than just experiences. Experient design’s goal may be to take the player on an emotional journey, but it’s the games that pay attention to what happens in between emotional events that truly are magical. Experiential highs are just one tool in the making of games, not what they are.
When designing games we often describe interactivity in terms of actions and verbs. We do so casually and interchangeably, but there is actually a difference between the two. It’s the difference between causing change within a game versus the physical inputs you use to make that happen.
In discussing some of my older posts on players, characters and stories, I often come across a logic that says stories are interactive, games are also interactive, and therefore games are stories. Which makes sense except for one crucial detail: Stories are not interactive.
Interactivity is not how you react to what you see. It is how you change what you see. To be interactive, a game (or any art) needs to be capable of being intentionally altered by the viewer’s actions. It may sound obvious, but games are about the doing, not the viewing.
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.
Experimenting with new interaction is important. Without it, we would never fully explore new interfaces. And yet, new ways of controlling games often feel forced.
The developer reinvents how to jump by tying it to the release of a button rather than pressing it. She crafts a system for issuing orders to units through complicated gestures rather than selection and clicking. Weird controls turn perfectly natural actions into arcane ones, forcing players to re-learn skills for no good reason.
Developers (particularly indies) seem to assume that clever interaction is the key to making great games. Sometimes it is. Mostly it's the opposite. Standardised interfaces form over time for a reason, and running counter to them is usually bad game design.
Game developers ask ‘what is fun?’ and academics often answer that fun is seemingly simple but actually fiendishly hard to explain. Everything is potentially fun and trying to encompass it all in one statement is impossible.
When any debate becomes so wide, the intent of the original question is lost. Developers are not really asking ‘what is fun?'’ in the universal sense. They’re asking why does their game suck. Pragmatically then, fun is:
The joy of winning while mastering fair game dynamics.
However the idea that fun can be reduced to 9 little words is just the sort of thinking that makes some people angry, because it sounds like (and is) a hard limit on what games can be.
Game worlds are a subset of all kinds of worlds, defined by a specific quality that other worlds lack. There is a problem to be solved, an area to be explored, a reward to be earned or a contest to be won. There is a kind of pressure when playing in a game, and a sense of risk. There is change, death, rebirth and a state of flux.
So in a sense the difference between a game world and a virtual world is one of motion. Game worlds are built for movement.
In games, like any art, nothing is as it appears, not even something as straightforward as Mario’s jump. What initially seems to be the simplest action in all of gaming is actually fiendishly hard to bring to a finished state. Taking the time to get the basics right marks out a polished game from a typical one.
So the question for your game is, irrespective of budget, time or platform, have you got the jumps right?