20 May, 2013
Games are supposed to be fun, duh. It seems to be a regular comment that if something isn’t fun, it should be removed from a game. Why are game developers so stupid to leave in systems that nobody finds fun? Or, just look at those EEEEEVIL free-to-play games with their “pay to win” strategies, forcing people to pay money to avoid the parts that aren’t fun, amirite?
Except, there’s a good reason why games have parts that don’t seem fun on the surface, but that build a long-term feeling of satisfaction. Let’s take a look at satisfaction and why it matters in games.
For this post, I’ll assume an unstated, informal definition of “fun”. I won’t try to formally define fun, since that’s tough to do. But, I think your specific definition of “fun” that isn’t too esoteric won’t detract from my point.
Measuring on one dimension
Trying to measure everything in a game solely through the lens of “fun” leads to problems. Even if you look at it as a continuum instead of a binary setting, it seems natural that a person should always want “more fun”. Just imagine one of those TV commercials where someone asks a group of kids “do you want more or less fun?” and imagine the answers.
Azuriel over at In An Age posted about Instant Gratification vs Fun Investment, drawing a distinction between something that’s fun immediately vs. something that you have to invest time in that leads to fun later. The post argues that even things you invest in to have fun should be fun in and of themselves. This explanation relies too heavily on looking through the single perspective of “fun”.
Let’s take a look at the example of building a deck to play Magic: the Gathering (MtG). Azuriel argues deck building is a necessary but still fun part of the process, but is that universally true? I think it’s likely that people who do find deck-building fun are the ones who stuck with MtG longer. The existence of pre-constructed decks show that deck building isn’t always fun for everyone in all situations; sometimes you do just want to get in and play.
To me, part of the enjoyment from building a deck comes from the anticipation of playing that deck in a game. Give someone who hasn’t played before a bunch of cards (and no instruction booklet), and while that person might enjoy looking at the art, I doubt they’ll spontaneously decide to build a deck for enjoyment. Take this one step further: give that person rules for how to build a deck but deny them the ability to play the game; would they find that process fun? Some might, but I think you’d get a lot of people who would find that process particularly unfun.
Yes, there are exceptions. I love rolling up characters for RPGs, even if I’ll never play them. I like exploring the mechanics of a game I might not play in earnest. But, people like me are in the minority. This is why I want another way to describe the feeling when constructing an interesting MtG deck.
Adding a second dimension
So, why is deck building “fun” for some people? I think “satisfaction” may be a better term than “fun”. Building a good deck requires skill: knowing how to play the game, knowing how cards work in conjunction, knowing probability, etc. Building a deck expresses of mastery over these skills, and a player can feel satisfied having mastered them. There’s also an element of anticipation: thinking what happens when you get one of the card combos set up and can pull it off spectacularly.
There’s also the continuing satisfaction of when you play the deck in an actual game. If you have done a good job in building the deck, then it enhances the gameplay and you feel greater satisfaction for constructing a deck that performs well. I think this sense of satisfaction is separate from, but very much related to, the fun had while actually playing the game.
To see the role of satisfaction more clearly, consider three scenarios. First, you are given a limited, random supply of MtG cards to make a deck. Second, you are given access to any MtG cards you want to build a deck. In the final scenario, you are given a champion’s pre-constructed deck and allowed no modifications. You then play a game of MtG and win in each of these scenarios. Which scenario gives you the most satisfaction? To me, the more input I have and the more skill required, the more satisfied I am. The more satisfying situation is the one that requires the most effort.
Although, like “fun” there’s no one universal definition of what is “satisfying” to someone. Maybe someone would be just as satisfied with unlimited cards rather than being limited. Or, in RPGs, I might find satisfaction in a well-organized inventory, whereas someone else sees that as unnecessary busywork. You might think getting to max level in a short period of time is satisfying, where I see that as focusing on the destination rather than the journey. To repeat the cliché, one size doesn’t fit all.
Short-term vs. long-term
Fun tends to be fleeting, but satisfaction lingers for most people. Imagine a situation where you have fun, but where you don’t have a lot of satisfaction. Let’s say you play a board game with some friends, but there’s no deep rivalry or decisive victories. You might have fun playing the game, but the next day you might not remember many of the details beyond, “yeah, it was fun.” A week later the fun you had is unlikely to be meaningful to your life. The most likely outcome is that you look forward to having fun again.
Now consider a situation where you didn’t have fun, but experienced intense satisfaction. Obviously there are major life landmarks, like graduation, that tend to be satisfying but not especially fun while you’re going working to the goal. But, consider a smaller situation like writing a blog post that helps cement a game design concept that’s been bouncing around in my head. Sure, writing can be fun, but I could be playing Borderlands 2 right now which is a lot more fun that writing this. ;) But, which am I likely to remember better: that jolt of dopamine from picking up a strange new weapon in Borderlands 2, or the satisfaction of explaining out a few theory of game deign I’ve finally been able to articulate into words? I’d put my money on the latter.
People will want different things at different times. Sometimes you just want to shut off your brain and have some mindless fun. Other times you want something deeper, more meaningful, and satisfying. Neither is universally “better”, but I think a great game provides both. However, it’s also important to understand that some satisfying things may not be as “fun” as other activities, but those other activities may end up being less satisfying.
So, I think satisfaction explains some of the reasons why people put stock into “long-term fun” when it requires doing things that aren’t the maximum amount of fun in the short-term; it’s not really long-term fun we’re talking about, but satisfaction.
Satisfaction vs. achievement
It might seem like satisfaction is a synonym for achievement. I think they are related, but slightly different emotions. Achievement is something that requires external validation. Achievers are one of Bartle’s four types of players, and we have come to realize that it’s important to Achievers to be recognized for their achievements. This is the reason why achievements in games became formalized when we had more networked games and game consoles. I think this is also a motivation for why people play modern MMOs, these games cater to achievers and the other players are a knowledgeable audience who will appreciate your achievements more.
Satisfaction, on the other hand, is internal. I can do something that nobody else will ever see, and be satisfied with the results. Even if nobody read this blog post, I’d have the satisfaction of having developed some of my own game design tools. (I’m posting this on my blog not necessarily to get a high score in number of views or comments, but to get insight into how others react to my concepts and to refine my ideas.) Satisfaction usually has more to do with accomplishing a personal goal than with external validation.
Although, these two concepts an interact in interesting ways. An achiever might feel satisfied with an accomplishment because he or she knows that recognition will follow. Someone doing something for their own personal satisfaction might be pleasantly surprised when others laud their action and it becomes an achievement.
Satisfaction in MMOs
So, how does the concept of satisfaction relate to MMOs? There are a few ways that explain why activities that some people find “unfun” others find the core of the experience.
The multiplayer nature of MMOs really makes satisfaction tricky. As I said above, what one person finds satisfying isn’t necessarily universal. I might find it very satisfying to know an efficient route to get to a dungeon entrance quickly. Or, I might find it satisfying to meander to a dungeon entrance with a group, killing monsters and harvesting resources along the way. You, however, might find it dreadfully boring and want to just get to the dungeon, get your loot, and scram. Once the game introduces an efficiency like an LFD tool, I will likely no longer get the satisfaction from traveling to the dungeon entrance, reducing my interest in the game.
In a previous post, I argue that MMOs need to re-focus on social elements to promote long-term retention in games. As people love to point out, it’s not particularly compelling to wait for groups to form. It can feel like an obligation when doing something organized like raiding. But, there’s a certain sense of satisfaction in being a productive member of a group. Knowing that you helped your guild finally conquer that raid boss gives a sense of satisfaction that can balance if not outweigh the nights of wiping against that boss.
Or, consider the dreaded grind. While many people don’t see repetitive activity as fun, it can bring satisfaction. Knowing that you’re tough enough to endure a “hell level” in the original EQ1. Knowing that you’re capable enough to earn money to fund your raiding. Knowing that you’re clever enough to ferret out the well-kept secrets in a game by checking every nook and cranny. These repetitive activities can feel satisfying even if they don’t feel very fun while you’re in the middle of the process.
As a last example, consider the trend of making games easier. Or “dumbing down”, if you prefer. Looking at this in terms of satisfaction shows that while making a game easier can make it faster to find the “fun” parts, it feels less satisfying. Thinking back on the Meridian 59 characters I’ve built compared to the Guild Wars 2 characters I’ve leveled, I have felt a lot more satisfaction building the M59 characters. In M59, there’s a real element of risk involved that isn’t present in building a character in GW2.
A crisis of satisfaction
This separation of fun from satisfaction explains some of the failings of modern MMOs. Streamlining has let some get to the “fun” faster, but it has lead to less satisfying games for others. WoW is still a fun game, but I think for a lot of people it’s less satisfying and therefore losing subscribers. Other games that copy the fun elements of previous MMOs but don’t examine the satisfying elements are only getting it part right. They need the satisfying elements to keep people interested.
What do you think? Do you agree that fun and satisfaction are two separate emotions? Do you recognize the experiences you had in MMOs as being fun vs. being satisfying? Is there some common element that makes a gameplay element satisfying?