Monday, October 13, 2008

The Theory Of Fun

Last week I ended with a simple question: Does making a game more balanced make it more fun? And like so many other things in life, the answer is both simple and complicated:

It depends.

To put it briefly, it depends on the context of the game and the reasons people are playing it. While on the surface, the original Doom appears similar to Quake 3, they are polar opposite games from a game design perspective. Doom is all about mowing downs armies of generally stupid demons with your increasingly diverse stockpile of weapons. Quake 3 is about fighting a skilled opponent with access to the same weapons and powerups you can use. Doom is a visceral game while Quake 3 is tactical. Rather than saying Doom is fun, it's more accurate to say that visceral experiences are fun, and Doom happens to fill that role. But a game like Serious Sam is just as fun, and in the same way.

If games are candy for the mind, then whether or not you like a particular flavor of game is a question of personal preference. What does your mind enjoy? Each kind of thinking corresponds to a different style of game.
  • Analysis
  • Action
  • Discovery
  • Creativity
  • Socialization
  • Identity
As best I can tell, these are the six basic thought elements that make games fun. Allow me to explain them in more detail:


Examples: Chess, Go
Requires: Discrete set of Options

People who like analytical games approach them as a puzzle to be solved. The game needs to provide decisions for the player to make, any of which could be helpful in the right situation. The fun is in selecting your decision and finding out if it was a good choice. Winning the game usually means you were right, or at least more right than your opponents. Analytical games can also be single player games, such as a Rubix Cube. They need not include perfect information to all players like Chess and Go do, of course. A game like Poker contains a lot of analysis. But the analysis is in large part about probabilities, risks, and rewards. You can win a game of poker by making the wrong play, or lose making the right play, but people who deduce the right plays more often will win more often, and that's what makes the game analytical.


Examples: Golf, Football
Requires: Physical Interaction

An action game is anything that involves a physical component. If there is ever a game situation where you know what you need to do but your muscles might not be able to do it, it's an action game. The joy in an action game is seeing how well you can do what you tried to do. It's really satisfying to shoot a three point shot in basketball, score a goal in football, or hit a home run in baseball. Every physical sport is an action game by this definition. But other games have action components as well. All first person shooter games are "action games" because they require you to aim at your target and shoot them. You know what you want to do, but your muscles might fail at moving the mouse to the right place. Even a game like Jenga is an action game, because it depends on precise muscle control.


Examples: Final Fantasy VII, World of Warcraft
Requires: Artistry

Discovery games are fun because the player experience new things. Their joy is the joy of appreciation. A common theme in these games is a story line. As a result, discovery games generally have lower replayability. They are highly engaging the first time through, however. What the player experiences doesn't have to be the story, of course. It could be enjoying the look and feel of a new World of Warcraft zone. What all discovery games have in common is artistically designed content that the player enjoys experiencing.


Examples: Charades, Magic: The Gathering
Requires: Very large set of Options

Some people really enjoy thinking outside the box. To become a medium for expressing creativity, the rules of the game must be extremely flexible, allowing for a wide variety of possible options. The number of options is far larger than that of an analytical game: it needs to be so large that players cannot exhaustively try all of the alternatives. This gives creative people the option to express themselves by making choices other people might not even have considered. Creative games often have a verbal component to them, but this is not necessary. For example, deck design in Magic: The Gathering is a very creative endeavor. There are more legal Magic decks than atoms in the Universe! And a number of Magic players enjoy making decks more than playing with them.


Examples: Mafia, Shadows over Camelot
Requires: Cooperation

While it's true that games are only as fun as the people you play them with, some people explicitly enjoy games because of the social interactions. In their opinion, a game's purpose is to generate social interactions, and whether you win or lose isn't as important as how you got there. These games categorically encourage players to work as a team towards a common goal. Victories and losses are shared. The fun is about being part of a group and, for some games, deducing who isn't really a member of the team from their actions.


Examples: Counterstrike, Team Fortress 2
Requires: Winners and Losers

There are some gamers who play games to win. Obviously the typical sore loser falls into this category, but that's not the only type of person who fits this description. This type of gamer considers winning an expression of who they are. The sore loser is someone who considers that expression to be a validation of identity-- they are distressed when they lose because the loss injures their ego. By definition, every game has winners and losers. But in almost all cases, gamers who want to win prefer games against human opponents, as it makes winning more meaningful. Note that these gamers need not be good players. Often bad players who want to win will gravitate towards teamplay games like Counterstrike. No matter how bad you are, you will win roughly half of your games if the teams are large enough. When a gamer wants to express themselves through winning, all they really need is a human opponent and the plausibility to claim they won through skill. Actual skill could have been involved, but it's not required.


Dave Mark said...

Good stuff, Ted.

I would tag the sandbox tycoon games into Creativity. Zoo Tycoon, Roller Coaster Tycoon, SimCity, etc.

Ted Vessenes said...

Absolutely. And Spore! I have no idea why I didn't think of it when I wrote the article, but yes, that's exactly the kind of game that lets you express your creativity. Spore has gotten generally positive but somewhat mixed reviews. My theory is that how much you'll like Spore depends heavily on how much you enjoy being creative.

Mangara said...

It's kind of ironic that you put one of the largest MMOs in a category which you describe as generally having lower replayability. I think the success of WoW lies in the fact that it caters to so many different groups. It has elements that fit into all these different types of games, although the degree of creativity is less than socialization for instance. Nevertheless, there is a huge number of people using WoW to fuel their creative needs for example by making machinima movies.

Ted Vessenes said...

World of Warcraft solves the replayability problem by hiring legions of content creators, funded by the obscene number of money hats the game brings in.

But you are right that WoW caters to many of these areas. Hardcore PvP and raiders really like the analysis aspect, lore nerds can appreciate the exploration and discovery the world, and social butterflies can, well, hang out in Goldshire.

I can't really think of a better example of a game that has more single-use content, quest lines, and stories to appreciate however.

TheHighFive said...

I agree with Mangara and I think you've got it wrong putting MMO's under "discovery". Discovery is low on the list of reasons that players play MMORPG.

I think most play it for socialization and "identity." As far as you classing "identity" as those that want to win/lose then MMO certainly has that (all those guilds waging war on eachother). As far as MMO identity...also consider how players want to "level up" and have the "coolest" special items or best looking clothes / armor on their character...

People wouldn't play MMO's 40 hours a week if they had low replay your putting MMO's in the discovery category really makes no sense. The category is still good, but your examples should have been single-player "adventure" games where you play the game once and then there really isn't anything left to do (i.e. Mario, Sonic, Zelda, Half Life, etc). You could play these specific titles again, but that's b/c these are the "classics" of this genre and have some replay value. Most games in this genre, however, have little replay value, b/c as you said, once you've discovered, there isn't much left to do.

Ted Vessenes said...

I think I didn't do a good job of explaining the Discovery example. What I meant by listing MMOs in that category is that MMOs have more opportunities for discovery-based enjoyment than other games. I did not mean that discovery was the primary kind of enjoyment people look for from them. So what I said was technically true, but confusing.

The best example I can think of (other than random Final Fantasy games) is Ultima 7. The world was pretty darn massive, especially given the computing constraints at the time, and you could do all kinds of crazy stuff. For example, you could take a bucket to a well and get a bucket of water. Then you could mix flour with the water from the bucket and get dough. Then you could put dough in front of a hearth and after a while, you'd have baked bread that you could actually eat.

But what to know what's really cool? In a few dungeons, you could find buckets of blood. And when you mixed flour with them, you could bake blood bread. It worked just like normal bread but was reddish. Ultima 7 had all kinds of little touches like this, and it's a truly amazing game. I think single player RPGs are the poster child for the Discovery kind of fun.

Someone also brought up the basic concept of achievements in MMOs, particularly relevant because World of Warcraft's latest patch adds a new achievement system to track what you've accomplished in game. Of course, achievements are all over Xbox Live games too. I don't think achievements are their own category. They are a kind of "Identity" mechanic. An achievement is meaningless if everyone has it. The whole point of an achievement is that you have it and not everyone else does. In other words, achievements are proof that you "won" something. I think this is a major draw for MMOs, as there are so many people out there that you can be better than. Achievements just formalize your relative awesomeness.