23 August, 2010
A lot of people tend to believe that the only important thing in a game is “fun”. There are several problems with this, perhaps the most important being there is more to an experience than fun: self-improvement, information, understanding, and various other good things can come from an experience like watching a movie or playing a game. The hyperfocus on fun means that a lot of other important aspects might get overlooked.
Let’s look at some of the problems with finding fun in a game.
Individual types of fun
Another big problem is that fun has no universal definition; it tends to be a very personal thing. Yes, some mechanics are generally accepted as being more fun than others, but this is not universal. My personal theory is that a lot of what is considered “fun” is a matter of fashion: some genres fall in and out of favor as time progresses, and people will tend to play what their friends are playing. The current trend is for social games as the darling, but I suspect that’s mostly because the social network framework that supports them makes it easier to see what is popular and trendy.
There’s also the truth that people are just wired differently. I’ve mentioned before that my brain loves inventory management puzzles, even though I know a lot of people see that as extreme tedium. (I think this is one reason why LotRO’s vault change is going to be frustrating for me, because I can’t organize the way I want to!) Or, to point out someone else’s quirk, Ferrel likes slaughtering/camping monsters. (You can see another example of Ferrel’s view of fun if you’re curious.) But, it’s hard to say that a certain set of mechanics is fun. I think it’s more accurate to say that the mechanics are popular because a large number of people find it “fun”.
The fun of the new
A large part of what makes a game fun for some people is the newness of the experience. When we first get into a type of game, like MMOs, we fall in love with the game because it’s like nothing we’ve experienced before: Character advancement! Quests! Other people! Raiding! Auctions! Then, we get used to the details and it becomes old hat. In MMOs, this is the point where people complain about things like “the grind” in a game. Remember how WoW was cherished as the game with no grind? Questing was so much better than camping monsters! But now, even after gaining levels has become so much easier in WoW, people are still complaining about the grind. The core gameplay didn’t change, the tolerance of the players did because the gameplay is wearing thin.
What makes things new enough to be exciting again varies. It’s a lot like building up a resistance. At first, you become immune to a single thing; in the case of gameplay, running another “gather ten rat tails” quest might be the first thing you grow tired of. But, something else catches your attention: a new quest only requires you to kill ten rats, not gather their (randomly dropped) tails! Wow, this is so much cooler! But, that wears thin in short order. Eventually you need something radically different to overcome that immunity: Perhaps a focus on dynamic quests instead of the same static quests.
This seeking out of new thing is one of the reasons why players ask for “innovation”. They want something new that they haven’t seen before. But, as I hinted in that linked article, there’s another force at work: familiarity. While most players like new things, they also cherish some familiarity. Trying to immerse a player into a completely new game will likely just leave them confused and frustrated. So, while players want something new, that doesn’t mean they want to abandon the old completely. Finding that balance is tough; anything too new and different is doomed to failure, but simply cloning what came before is no guarantee of success, either. We’ve seen a lot of both in the MMO space.
Going from fun to fun
This concept was discussed by Will Wright in one of his talks. He had a great graphic, but I can’t find it. Since I’m a word guy instead of a pictures guy, I’ll paint you a verbal image to illustrate this point.
Let’s pretend that you are traveling around an area, a vast expanse of land with hills and mountains of different sizes covered in picturesque mists and fogs. You have barophobia, the fear of gravity, and being up high lessens the sensation of being trapped by gravity. Since it’s foggy, you can’t always see very far and you always head upward if at all possible because you know that will take you to a higher elevation. You easily reach the top of the hill, but through the fogs you see a shadow, and wonder if that’s actually a taller hill (or even a mountain!) that would help you. But, to head in that direction to find that possibly higher altitude, you have to go down from your current position.
This is the problem with finding fun in a game. Once we find a mechanic that provides what seems to be a maximum amount of fun, we’re often stuck there. Heading off to find another mechanic that could possibly be more fun, we generally have to abandon that existing mechanic. For example, let’s say we want to improve character advancement in games. Maybe we want to look at replacing levels as the measurement of advancement. Maybe there’s something more fun than levels out there. The problem is that most people are so familiar with levels that removing it is a shock. The reality is that the replacement might not be as fun in the short term as levels were, but perhaps with some work it could end up being more fun. But, without support, it can be hard to explore a new mechanic enough to see if it can be fun. Worse, the demise of a game exploring that new mechanic due to lack of support can taint the view of the mechanic; an example of this might be public quests as we saw in Warhammer Online, although some people are mentioning it as something worth investigating further.
As a developer, it’s just really hard to find those other higher peaks. Large companies prefer to avoid risks and will only hesitantly explore for other peaks. The most successful companies are the ones that look at the maps of previous explorers and add a pile of shiny rocks on top of an existing tall hill. The big companies could use their resources to build a teleporation machine to move them around faster, but those things are notoriously hard to calibrate and might cause one to crash and burn instead of landing safely on the top of a taller mountain. By contrast, the indies have to trudge their way there, but often nobody cares because chances are they’ll die of starvation before getting there because nobody is buying their game.
So, what do you think? Do you find something fun that doesn’t seem to be in fashion or very popular? Is it worth forcing yourself out of your comfort zone to find something new to keep you entertained? Are you willing to put up with something that is a bit less fun in order to have the possibility of finding something that is a lot more fun?