Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

23 August, 2010

The quest for fun
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:50 AM

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?


  1. Regarding unfashionable fun: I played the hell out of turn-based, “first person” RPGs way back when: Bard’s Tale, Wizardry, Might and Magic, Dungeon Master, and the like. I tried to get into Oblivion, but the semi-pseudo-twitch controls left me cold. I’d love to find more games in that vein. (Anyone with suggestions, I’m happy to hear ‘em.)

    As a subcategory of Individual Fun, I’d add that fun is sometimes relative to expectations. I like Texas Hold ‘Em, but I don’t think a Silent Hill game should have an “all in” mechanic germane to the gameplay. In the MMO sphere I believe Star Wars Galaxies and Pirates of the Burning Sea were damaged (in part) because of how their gameplay conflicted with expectations, regardless of how fun the intrinsic gameplay turned out to be. Conversely, City of Heroes launched without the MMO standards of Crafting or a meaningful economy… but you were playing a super-hero going out and smacking around bad guys, meeting what I’d presume are player expectations.

    I’m still mulling over the notion of “fun” being the ultimate goal, though. Perhaps “engagement” might be a better word. The issues you raise are the hurdles you have to overcome in order to find that sweet spot of fun/engagement, but they don’t necessarily negate the core aim of game design.

    Comment by Sok — 23 August, 2010 @ 5:51 PM

  2. 1.) I don’t suppose I do a lot of things – in games, anyways – that I don’t find fun. I admit to having a skewed view on fun, though. If I know I’m getting something out of it, if I know I’m making non-infinitesmal progress towards a goal, I’ll happily grind/farm to get there. I’m still proud of the work I did in EQ1 to get a troll warrior to “friendly” in the Wood Elf tree-city of Kelethin – and I’m still not too remorseful of the times a newbie threw him or herself off the tree to get away from the giant monster lumbering towards them that none of the guards seemed inclined to attack.

    At the same point, the thousands of repetitions that would’ve been required to build up my night elf druid’s reputation in WoW with the Frostsaber Handlers of Winterspring were prohibitive; that’s too much work for a vanity mount.

    2.) It’s obvious that you can make something “too new,” or “too un-repetitive”; WoW, as popular as it is, didn’t used to have a way to build up cash reserves once you ran out of quests to do. You could farm instances, or play the auctions, or buy gold; Blizzard had to add daily quests to keep frequent raid-wipes from impoverishing their players.

    3.) Even if you replace levels, you’re still going to have to have some kind of superiority ranking. Look at tabletop games like the World of Darkness games: you didn’t gain levels, but you gained skill-levels; you had ranks of supernatural powers – gifts, disciplines, whatever. People react well to knowing that they’re making progress; EQ refused to give XP totals, just a bar, but when the invisible totals got so large people couldn’t tell if they were making progress, SOE added *a second bar.* Levels are an abstraction to aid the perception of progress, you can get rid of the levels as long as you maintain the ability to perceive progress.

    4.) New mechanics are great, as long they make sense and aren’t just feature-creep. I’d like to say something like “if anyone had heard enough of Warhammer to know about public quests, the game wouldn’t have failed,” but I’m not a GW fan so I can’t decide if that comment would be bitter, mocking, flippant, or some mix of all three. Also something to bear in mind while designing a new mechanic: make sure it exists, and make sure the expectations you’ve set are reasonable. (Bonus points: give enough specific information regarding expectations that none of your fans can start gushing about things that absolutely can’t happen, resulting in an internet gestalt setting expectations for you/of you through your own in- [or incomplete] action.) I’m looking at you, Cryptic, and most definitely at you, Sir Peter.

    Comment by DataShade — 23 August, 2010 @ 7:53 PM

  3. Re: #1

    I liked the Monster’s Den games. They’re both on the designer’s profile at Kongregate. They’re, uh, not first person. Not very story-heavy. Not, um, anything like what you said, I guess, but they are turn-based, and after I beat them I went and dug out my copy of Xeen.

    Maybe the Electronic Arts 2D game, Dragon Age: Journeys? Not first-person, but turn-based. Also insanely hard, which should hopefully give you an idea what the 3D version, Dragon Age: Origins, is like.

    Baldur’s Gate and BG2 (if you get them both, look for the total conversion mod to run BG1 in the BG2 engine) are probably the most recent big-name, big-budget RPGs to be full-party affairs. It’s also not first-person, and it’s not really turned-based, but it secretly is – it’s running the AD&D 2nd Ed combat system invisibly in the background and you can configure it to pause at the end of every round.

    If you have an insane level of patience, maybe Disgaea or the other ATLUS RPG/Strategy games.

    Otherwise, you’d want to look to fringe and/or indie games (hence the link to a Flash game up top). I can’t think of any other big-name RPGs (that were any good) that tried first-person, full-party, turn-based mechanics. First-persons tend towards shooters, turn-baseds tend towards strategy, and party/squad games are turning into “d-pad up tells the teammate to attack, d-pad down tells your teammate to return to you, d-pad left tells the teammate to hold position, d-pad right tells the teammate to defend your target,” rather that total-control affairs.

    Comment by DataShade — 23 August, 2010 @ 8:13 PM

  4. Nice post!

    A few remarks regarding the grind in WoW: personally, what made it unbearable to me at times, is one of a number of reasons:
    a) You have a quest to kill X amount of N. When you hand it in, you get a quest to gather Y amount of M, which, coincidentally, is dropped by N. But only as long as you have the quest.
    b) Insanely low drop rates/drop amounts for something you need plenty of to advance in the content. That includes “dropping” reputation with a faction.

    I thought I had more, but right now they don’t come to mind. I understand either of them to be deliberately slowing down my consumption of content, and that annoys me a lot.

    It’s not that I’m complaining about the time spent on going through those chores; “all” I ask is to entertain me/give me a sense of progress regularly by letting me hand stuff in and read the next feeble excuse for sending me to slaughter innocents.

    As WoW went on, more and more of this more annoying form of quest cropped up. I really think that’s part of why people complained more and more about the grind. Or it might be that more people reached those obvious time-sink quests, because the preceding content got easier.

    But back to the general discussion about fun: there are a few games out there who in my opinion generate new peaks of fun regularly, and very well. Right now the best example I can think of is the Zelda on the Wii (twilight princess? I think…). For pretty much every dungeon you enter, you are faced with obstacles you can’t overcome until you unlock some ability that then lets you overcome them. Subsequent dungeons require you to use not only this one new ability, but a combination of previously unlocked abilities as well.

    So the solution might be to focus less on combat and more on puzzle-solving, but of course personal preference plays a great role in how that would be accepted. Zelda’s abilities require you to master them… usually that isn’t terribly hard, but you’ll make a few mistakes at first and keep dying.

    In MMORPGs there are no such hurdles to unlocking content. Generally speaking you just need to have played long enough (gathering XP, levelling, etc.). Mastery of your characters abilities can at most buy you access to more content by a few levels. And death penalties in such games would make it pretty frustrating to keep dying until you master a new ability. The expectations people have of the RPG parts of CRPGs in general or MMORPGs in particular make it fairly hard to introduce such a scheme, I think.

    And possibly the MMO parts also prove to be a problem. If you’re playing a single player game you bought, you might not mind spending a few hours trying to figure out how to do something. Seeing everyone else leap ahead of you because to them this problem is easy could be very discouraging. Add to that that many MMOs have monthly subscriptions, and the frustration might turn into anger over effectively having to pay more just because you’re a bit slower to learn one particular thing.

    So to answer your latter questions first: I do think being forced out of my comfort zone regularly helps create fun. Fun to me derives from the satisfaction at overcoming a problem. Risk-free, always-in-the-comfort-zone game play isn’t. I’m willing to put up with something a bit less fun, yes. If the rewards are right :)

    Do I find something fun that isn’t in fashion? Yup, turn-based strategy games and LucasArts/Sierra-style adventure games. Or not being rushed in thinking things through, in other words :D

    Comment by unwesen — 24 August, 2010 @ 1:37 AM

  5. Some random comments…

    @Sok: have you tried Eschaton (via Steam, if I recall), or any of the Spiderweb RPGs? Those might be

    On the original post: a pretty succinct summary of the major top-level challenges for the designer, I’d say.

    1) Fun is definitely personal. Taking Raph Koster’s concept of “fun=learning/mastering new systems” as a model, the different levels of experience each of us brings to a game obviously would translate to divergent levels of difficulty in identifying patterns in one system or another: i.e. “solving” the game.

    My own personal aversion to the class/XP/HP model is an example, I think, with 30+ years of tabletop, Diku MUDs, and MMOs meaning I’ve pretty well mined that territory (IMO). And yet, City of Heroes of all games, a somewhat typical example of that very genre, continues to hold some interest to me due to the social networks and minor subsystems (inventory management, badge collection), and the fictional genre (super-hero, as opposed to high-fantasy).

    2) Meeting the challenge of providing “new” without completely abandoning the familiar is key, I believe. One tactic might be to provide a familiar interface paradigm, but change the underlying mechanics.

    3) Extending the analogy on going from fun to fun, is there no way to build bridges from one high-point to another? A slight, visible dip in altitude might be more palatable than descending completely into the fog?

    I think the point is, the willingness to do something a little less fun is related to the perceived probability that the new would be more fun. Easing the way, providing tastes of the new _without_ having to abandon the old, would be the best strategy for the designer, if it could be achieved.

    Comment by DamianoV — 24 August, 2010 @ 5:06 AM

  6. Do you find something fun that doesn’t seem to be in fashion or very popular?
    All the time. Popularity only matters to me when I’m researching why something is popular. If I’m looking for fun, popularity is irrelevant. I march to the beat of my own bagpipe… or something. I’ve never been one for following the herd or letting others tell me what is or is not fun.
    Is it worth forcing yourself out of your comfort zone to find something new to keep you entertained?
    Yes indeedy. If it means grinding through a Valley of Repetition of Stuff I Know I Don’t Like, I’ll be less than likely to forge through to a new peak, but inasmuch as “leaving my comfort zone” means “trying new things”, I do that often, and usually enjoy it. I’m an Explorer through and through, exploring content as well as game mechanics. That doesn’t mean I like everything I find, but I’m rarely content with what I have for long.
    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?
    Yes, within reason. As noted above, if I’m looking at plowing through things I know I don’t like (say, Nintendo Hard gameplay or 80 levels of DIKU to find the fun at the level cap) just to get to the new fun, I’ll usually pass. Give me a shiny new toy that I need to learn to master on its own terms, though, and I’ll play with it for a while.

    So… I enjoy learning and exploring. As soon as I stop doing that in a game (or the game slows my exploration to a “progression” crawl), I’ll move on to another one. Y’see, “progression” means little to me in any game, except as a means to the end of my beloved exploration. Too much “progression” gets in the way of my fun, while for others, too much exploration slows down the loot pinata treadmill and bar filling that we call “progression”.

    And then there’s all those people cluttering up the place…

    Comment by Tesh — 24 August, 2010 @ 2:16 PM

  7. I think it’s always about fun but not necessarily fun as a game designer sees it.

    Example: a woman raids in WoW. What she enjoys is talking about her cats. Her raid gives her a captive audience of 24 other people to tell what Fluffy did today, how Tiddles brought a mouse in and it wasn’t dead yet. The only design consideration here is how to not screw up her fun. Make her have to dodge fires or jump platforms and you are interrupting her fun, not augmenting it.

    Example: a high security space Eve player likes griefing other players. He does that trick with jettisoned cans where you can trick other people into going hostile, then kills them. He has an armoury of borderline exploits and game mechanic abuses. He loves playing Eve and has great fun. The danger he provides means that people doing rather routine things have a frisson of fear and danger that never quite goes away in Eve. Not everyone likes it but there are people who find this fun both griefers and griefed. Fixing the exploits may remove the fun.

    In short we lack adequate understanding of what fun is. There are all sorts of complex motivations – Ferrel for instance may like grinding mobs because it creates an instant team and lets him participate with minimal gameplay to distract him from his leadership role. (Healing grinding groups is pretty routine). So he can find fun partly in the gameplay, partly in the ability to manage tells and guild administration while multitasking. So for him it’s simplistic perhaps to say that tapping a button every 4 seconds is fun.

    Comment by Stabs — 25 August, 2010 @ 4:47 AM

  8. The challenge for game designers then is to not screw up what players enjoy (cf NGE). That’s difficult because much of what players enjoy is often not related to game mechanics as such (eg the social environment) or emergent.

    The problem with emergent gaming is that players really like borderline cheating.
    So much so that to support them game designers have had to incorporate things that started out as abuses into their games as features. Or implement things that are obviously abuses from the perspective that wargames should be simulators. Bartle recently described the trinity as essentially a hack.

    In the end I think game designers need to find a vision and trust it. If you design a mmo by taking input from some huge committee you inevitably remake WoW. Probably on a lower budget. Go for what you think is fun, enthuse others on your team to share your visit, tough it out when people tell you no one will play your game or you can’t make a MMO without an auctionhouse or whatever and make a game you would have loved had someone else made it.

    Comment by Stabs — 25 August, 2010 @ 4:56 AM

  9. Questions of “fun” always lead me to ask “fun for whom?” on the theory that individuals are different but that there are some general patterns of preferences. However, I’ve ridden that hobbyhorse into the ground already, so I’ll leave it at that.

    What I will say is that it seems some people are OK with being gently booted out of a local maximum to go find another one that might be even more fun. Diminishing returns for farming yard trash in a newbie zone are one frequent suggestion of that kind. Other people are less tolerant of having “their game” taken away, even if it’s done slowly.

    But catastrophic changes, even if they demonstrably make a game better for more people, will tend to get very bad PR for the many people whose local maximum gets turned in an instant into a giant hole. I expect the NGE will be the poster child for that kind of change for years to come.

    Stabs: “Bartle recently described the trinity as essentially a hack.”

    That’s probably just his most recent statement on the subject, and I think others have also pointed out that collision detection is no longer too expensive to implement. I made basically the same point (and suggested one potential solution) a year ago at . “Aggro management” and its handmaiden “trinity” design are, I would say, a great example of a local maximum form of fun that is long overdue to be retired in favor of something else.

    Tesh: “And then there’s all those people cluttering up the place…”

    Heh. That’s the same feeling I (another hardcore Explorer) have been having lately about MMORPGs, which is one of the reasons I came up with my “Living World” design concept. As the noted philosopher Linus Van Pelt once put it, “I love humanity — it’s people I can’t stand.”

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 25 August, 2010 @ 9:19 AM

  10. Roundup: Playing Games For Fun?

    [...] Psychochild’s dissecting “fun” and why it’s actually a problem to put that as our #1 goal in gameplaying [...]

    Pingback by MMO Melting Pot — 25 August, 2010 @ 2:02 PM

  11. Nothing to add to the discussion (yet), but I just wanted to thank folks for providing game suggestions! I’ve got some shopping to do, it seems.

    Comment by Sok — 26 August, 2010 @ 9:54 AM

  12. Great article. I’m building an MMO now and this sort of information is priceless. I agree with one of the comments above that additional fun doesn’t necessarily have to be something new, but a feeling of satisfaction from having accomplished something and not something that the developers put in to purposely slow your progress artificially.

    Comment by Bruno — 29 October, 2010 @ 5:06 AM

  13. OMG, why do MMOs suck so bad?

    [...] sometimes the audience just won't easily accept something new. As I said in a previous post, exploring new types of fun necessarily means that the interim is going to be less fun in general. [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 8 November, 2010 @ 3:44 PM

  14. Fun vs. satisfaction

    [...] 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 [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 20 May, 2013 @ 11:32 AM

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