Finding The Fun In Your Game
When I first started designing games over thirty-five years ago, my main motivation was to explore topics that I enjoyed and take on the challenge of presenting those topics as an interactive experience. If the player had as much fun playing my game as I did making it, well, that was just the cherry on top of the experience. However, as I matured as game industry professional and began to appreciate my responsibilities as a make of products that consumers spent their hard-earned money one, I realized that my responsibility was not to create something that would be fun for myself but rather to be an advocate for the player.
There’s a great analogy that, if I’m not mistaken, was made by Tracy Fullerton of the USC Games Program. In many ways, designing a game is like being the host of a party. You decide what music your friends will enjoy, what food to serve, what decorations to put up, what activities there will be. It’s your job as the host to get everything ready, and when it’s time for the party, ensure that all of your guests are having a good time.
Novice game designers will often start designing a game by planning out the game’s rules and mechanics or developing the game’s story, but current design thinking is that designers should start out by defining what type of experience they want their players to have. Should it be a realistic experience or should it be fantasy-based. Should the action happen very quickly or do I want players to take their time an explore? Should the challenges be easy enough that anyone can win my game with little effort, or should they be difficult even for hardcore players?
Of course, everyone has different tastes for what makes for a good time, and we all find different things to be fun. Even in games. Game designers use the term “play value” for the reasons why a player plays a particular game. Unfortunately, many players can’t explain well why they like to play a particular game, beyond simply saying, “it’s fun.” So game designers look towards behavior psychology and other models to understand why certain aspects of a game would appeal to particular players.
In 2004, game designers Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek wrote a landmark paper entitled “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research” in which they divided the aesthetics (what a player feels) of games into eight categories:
- Sensation: Game as sense-pleasure.
- Fantasy: Game as make-believe.
- Narrative: Game as unfolding story.
- Challenge: Game as obstacle course.
- Fellowship: Game as social framework.
- Discovery: Game as uncharted territory.
- Expression: Game as soapbox.
- Submission: Game as mindless pastime.
Most game designers start out with designing the game’s mechanics, which when the player interacts with them create the game’s dynamics, leaving the player with the game’s aesthetics. However, Hunicke, et. al. recommended that designers should first start out identifying what aesthetics they want to players to experience while playing the game, and then work backwards to determine what game elements are essential for creating that experience and what their game can do in particular to capture that experience.
In 2012, Ubisoft Creative Director Jason VandenBergh presented a talk at the annual Game Developers Conference called “The Five Domains of Play”. Drawing from the latest thinking in behavioral psychology, he outlined five basic dimensions of a game that appeal to primary human motivations:
- Novelty: The dimension that distinguishes imaginative experiences from repeating, conventional ones. Novelty can be conveyed through either the game’s theme (art and story) or mechanics (such as the degree of randomness used).
- Challenge: How much effort or self-control the player is expected to use. The degree of challenge in a game is determined by the game’s mechanics, resources, opponents, and objectives.
- Simulation: The emotional element and social engagement of play, such as whether a game is slow-paced or fast-paced, or whether the game is more of a passive experience or an exciting one. The degree of stimulation is provided by the game’s player format, objectives and mechanics.
- Harmony: This dimension reflects how the player interacts with other players or the game environment, such as whether the game is about cooperation or competition, building things or creating things. Harmony is determined by the player format and goals.
- Threat: This dimension reflects the game’s capacity to trigger negative emotions in the layer, such as the risk of loss or humiliation. Player format, objectives and the environment (cheerful vs. gloomy) can be used to determine the degree of threat.
When creating the Boy Scouts’ Game Design Merit Badge, we drew upon VandenBerghe’s ideas to teach scouts about how to go about targeting the type of player experience they were trying to achieve through their game.
Once a game designer targets the type of fun they want players to have in their game, then they must draw upon their experience and craft to put together the right mechanics and dramatic elements to create that experience.
However, even the most experienced and successful game designers can be very wrong when making predications about what makes their game fun. The only way to find where the fun in your game actually is (or isn’t) is to observe people as they playtest it. Professional game designers will put together prototypes of their games as soon as they have something that’s playable, invite people matching the profile of their intended customer to play it, and take note of what interests or frustrates them. Playtesters are the game designers guide to where the fun in their game is (or needs to be).
After collecting data from the playtesting session through surveys, interviews, or even recordings of the players’ actions, the game designer needs to determine what might have caused any discrepancies between the intended experience and the actual experience. Then the game designer makes changes, has a new prototype created, and the game is tested again and again until, hopefully, the fun emerges before the time and budget for developing the game runs out.