20 February, 2006
Loyal Psychochild’s Blog reader Cael posted a bit on his blog about fun in response to some of the discussion on this blog. It’s always nice to see someone try to tackle the issue from their own point of view.
Cael mentioned that he thought risk was an important element of fun. I thought this was worthy of a quick post.
I wrote a bit about the nature of fun and how it applies to games in a previous blog entry. That post was mostly in the same vein as Cael’s post, where I tried to define something we kinda take for granted. Some of our arguments are very similar.
But, Cael also wrote about the topic of risk, and how it is essential to fun.
This brings us to another component of fun. Fun always has a risk associated with it. Always. It may be a physical risk (driving, extreme sports), it may be a social risk (sports, dancing, dating, sex), it may be a personal and internal risk (chess, solitaire) or a financial risk (gambling).
Fun is a drug, and the name of drug is Risk.
I don’t agree that risk is a necessary component to fun. I have fun with my better half even after we’ve been together for over a decade. There’s very little real risk involved in our relationship, but I prefer her company over most other alternatives. Am I really having fun with the woman who I know better than anyone else in existence? I think so, even though there is virtually no risk involved.
However, I think risk can be a catalyst for more intense fun. Playing poker with friends can be fun, but putting a little money at risk usually makes it more fun. The question becomes, how much risk can you tolerate? I couldn’t tolerate the risk of playing high-stakes poker thing in Vegas, so that wouldn’t be much fun for me. But, other people do it on a routine basis.
And, that comes to the next point: one size doesn’t fit all. No high-stakes poker for me, but that’s great fun for quite a few other people. I enjoy harsh death penalties in online games because that makes success all the sweeter, but other people can’t tolerate that amount of risk. It makes sense to allow people to adjust the risk they take. However, this can force people who prefer lower risk activities to feel “forced” into higher risk activities in order to be most efficient. They want the bigger rewards, but they don’t want the higher risk.
And then there’s the last point: risk has to have an element of failure. If you claim there’s potential failure but it never happens, some people might notice and that eliminates the positive effects to fun that risk can add. Note that in non-repeatable cases this might be okay: for example, having a newbie/tutorial fight where the player can’t be killed might still be fun, and the apparent risk of dying might heighten it, but this can still have a positive effect even if someone later realizes you always regenerate hit points faster than you take damage. It’s also important to remember that failure can suck; few people think failure is really all that much fun, but it’s the risk of failure that enhances the fun. So, the trick is to allow people to fail at least a modest amount to keep the perception of risk alive. But, allowing people to fail too often can be a real fun-killer. But, if you take away that risk you risk taking away some of the fun.
Raph points out the paradox of risk and fun in his book as well. Individuals usually try to maximize rewards and minimize risk. This is logical survival behavior for the most part, although some people do enjoy a challenge. But Raph points out that this is expected of most people: it’s a sensible way to run a business, for example. However, as you minimize risk you also reduce the amount of fun, until the activity becomes rote and essentially boring; all the fun has been drained out of the activity through repetition, as Cael points out. Frustration can set in when people feel like they can’t reduce risk enough. Boredom sets in if there isn’t enough risk. Learning where to strike that balance is the job of a good game designer.
But, now we face the traditional problems of commerce vs. art. When you try to cater a game to as wide an audience as possible, it’s hard to find a level of risk that makes everyone happy. So, the general response is to reduce risk as much as possible. In the end, a low-risk game can still be fun, but the peaks of fun won’t be as high as if there had been an element of risk. Likewise, a game with higher levels of risk will also have significantly higher levels of failure, which can affect people in the opposite way and make them remember the intense frustration they had the times that they failed. If players go out of their way to avoid failure, they also go out of their way to avoid some of the most potentially intense fun experiences.
What do you think of risk?