What is “fun”?
Fun is an ephemeral thing, hard to pin down and harder to replicate. It differs from person to person, and what is fun for one person is anathema to the next. Fun is also absolutely crucial to the success of a game; a game can be brilliantly produced with the blood, sweat, and tears of hundreds of developers, testers, support staff, executives, and everyone else who is involved in its creation, and all of that is for nothing if the game isn’t fun enough for enough people to buy it.
You might note that I said “fun enough” and didn’t stop that previous sentence at “fun”. The qualifier “enough” in both sentences is really, really important, partly because it hints towards a realistic approach to talking about (and reviewing!) games, but also because it gets us a step closer to my goal, which is defining what “fun” is.
Fun = ?
Here’s where we’re at. This isn’t really enough to build a game (or anything else) on, with a definition like this at best we’re guessing and hoping we get lucky. Certainly some highly successful games have done this, but it’s not a sustainable way to make great games, or for players, to recieve great games to play.
That “fun enough” comes back, here. Our equation needs to reflect the fact that this will be different for different people; no single game, no matter how well-made, will be fun for everyone. To this end, let’s find a variable that appears in lots of games that differs from person to person. Our variable is so prevalent that game developers have classically put a lot of work into allowing players to manipulate the way the entire game works just to accommodate it.
That variable is difficulty. Put another way, challenge: which is so important to a game being successful (read: fun) that devs are willing to put time and money (extremely valuable resources) into supporting it for as many players as is feasible.
Fun = Challenge + ?
It’s important, here, to note that more challenge is not strictly better. Challenge rides a very thin line between being so difficult it’s frustrating and so easy it’s boring. It’s also a sliding scale– as a player plays a game, they get better at it, and if they play it too long, they become bored (though the amount of time this takes is widely variable from person to person). The game also has to allow players breathing room, to appreciate the skills they’ve attained in overcoming challenges. If a game’s challenge continually rises with no variation, the sense of progression, of mastery, is lost. This suggests that there’s another factor here, which I’m going to call “expression of mastery”. Players need to be challenged but they also need the opportunity to appreciate the skills they’ve developed while overcoming challenges.
Fun = Challenge + Expression of Mastery + ?
These two things, while important, aren’t enough to define fun, and they leave out a lot of games in the process. They’re a part of things, but there are some other parts missing. As with challenge, I suggest following the trail of developmental money, time, and effort. This isn’t a perfect metric (something I’ll talk more about later), but looking at what game developers focus on can tell us a lot about games.
More on this tomorrow. I’ll talk about what game devs focus on, try to complete our Fun equation, and talk a little bit about what that equation means and how we can use it, whether we’re making games, playing them, or just observing.
Some additional reading: Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, from which many of the concepts described here are derived.