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.
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.
Perhaps the greatest lament of all is the one about why the adventure game died. Once hugely popular, adventure games started to fall out of favour in the mid 90s and by the turn of the millennium were essentially dead. However they did not die because of a grand conspiracy on the part of publishers to kill them (as is often asserted).
Adventure games contributed hugely to the development of the video game as an art form, but there’s a basic reason why they went away: They were bad games.
Some games are made of smaller games, like Wii Sports or the Total War games. Other separations are softer. Vehicle play in Grand Theft Auto feels quite different from on-foot, and GTA is essentially two games which link strongly.
When games mix they can create exciting new experiences, but many mixes just don’t work. Rather than being enhanced by their interaction, these games pull on each other, leaving the overall experience to be one of dysnergy, the opposite of synergy.
Perhaps the game design has forgotten the importance of the player’s role. Role is not a marketing issue. It is how players understand your game and why it's awesome
You might call it challenge, difficulty or a scenario, but a universal trait of great games is that they test players in some way. Games have a learning value (as Raph Koster so memorably chronicled) and a huge part of their fun comes from mastering them. From the simplex crossword to the massive complexity of Battlefield 3, games push the player to be better in some way. Even creative games like the Sims are test driven.
Yet it is a major fallacy to conclude that all types of test consequently make for good games. They don’t, and there are good reasons as to why. The psychology of play and boredom gets in the way, the lack of clarity in some kinds of test makes them frustrating and the overall opacity of their results leave players nonplussed.
This is an essay about optimality, the play brain and why successful games need to be far more abstract than they might appear.