“Fun”, Defined (Part 1)

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.

So.

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.

30 Things This Blog is About (#30: Things That Are Broken)

Reality is broken. So says Jane McGonigal, and I don’t disagree. I think it’s important to pay attention to the things that are broken, but it’s often even harder to realize when things are, in fact, broken. Oftentimes, like an ailing car, we believe that things aren’t broken, because we know that the effort or cost incurred in fixing them will be high.

This is a human tendency that we must fight at every turn.

We cannot allow ourselves to hope that broken things will fix themselves without our efforts. We cannot allow ourselves to turn a blind eye to things that are problems, or need fixing, even (especially!) if they’re within ourselves.

I have had beliefs that I now know are harmful; I have said things and used words that I, in ignorance, thought were acceptable, even poignant. I have had my car break down suddenly at 80 miles per hour on the highway. I’ve been lucky to have had patient and varied friends, who have broadened my perspective and helped me realize that this isn’t about being PC, it isn’t about being right, and it isn’t about doggedly driving the car until it breaks down and threatens your life and the lives of everyone with you.

The faster we admit that something is broken, the faster we can fix it, and the less pain we’ll incur in doing so. Harmful beliefs are a frayed drive belt on the engine– they will appear to be working just fine until they suddenly snap and your world is thrown into disarray, possibly catastrophically. We live in the age of the internet, the Surveillance Age, where careers and lives are ruined because of harmful beliefs that someone has held onto for too long.

If something is broken, it will need to be fixed or it will break down. I’ve decided that if that something is me, I need to fix it, before the breakdown occurs.

30 Things This Blog is About (#29: Clever Things)

A clever person turns great troubles into little ones, and little ones into nothing at all.

–(attrib) Chinese Proverb

I am obsessed with efficiency. I like problems to be solved quickly, effectively, and with a minimum of fuss. Myers-Briggs pegs me solidly as INTJ, and while I don’t necessarily ascribe completely with the evaluation, it’s definitely fitting in a lot of ways. I want things to be done in tidy ways, and I tend to feel like any problem that is solved with brute force is being solved inefficiently.

I’m also fascinated by the solutions to problems. I love to hear about the clever processes people have discovered to solve otherwise unsolvable (or extremely difficult) issues. I equally love little life hacks, ways of creating little efficiencies and helpful tricks in everyday life, particularly if they’re not intuitive but highly effective. Anything that makes me go “wow, that works? I would never have thought of that” catches my attention.

Similarly, my favorite entertainment to watch involves highly skilled people doing the thing they’re highly skilled at. This can be everything from professional League of Legends to Iron Chef to Ocean’s Eleven and other heist movies. I like to see how things are done at a high tier of skill, sometimes to learn, sometimes just to appreciate demonstrations of skill.

30 Things This Blog is About (#28: Terrible, Terrible Jokes)

I love terrible jokes. They’re really the best. Awful dad jokes, excruciating puns, you name it.

Rather than going on a list of truly outrageously awful jokes, I actually want to try to analyze WHY I like them. Kodra or Ash would probably say it’s because I’m a terrible person who feeds on the anguish of others, and while that’s not entirely false, I feel like there’s more to that story.

Cognitive dissonance is the term for the mental friction between two thoughts or concepts that either contradict one another or just don’t fit. It’s a weird form of discomfort, like pulling a muscle, except that the muscle is your brain. It’s also a really potent source of distress– when you pull a muscle, you limp a little bit, because you’re forced to adjust how you move. When your brain undergoes the same effect, it can force you to reevaluate how you think. I’m a big fan of anything that forces thoughts to go sideways, or otherwise flex in unusual ways.

A really excellent awful joke is like a bridge with a gap in the middle. To cross it, you have to jump, and that jump is a brief thrill for your brain as it adjusts. As you “get” the joke, everything snaps into place suddenly and you laugh. Like a puzzle or a math problem or any other sort of challenge, it’s a brief moment where your brain gets to bend in a slightly unusual way, and it keeps your mind sharp.

Also, I do sustain myself on the anguish of others. Hence the puns.

30 Things This Blog is About (#27: Aggrochat)

The link, if you’re not familiar, is on my sidebar. I have never been much for podcasts, there are relatively few that I listen to, and none regularly. I’ve had a few people ask me to participate in podcasts, and I’ve generally declined, partly because when I’ve been working in the games industry I’ve worried about having people potentially think I’m speaking for the company, when I’m speaking only for myself, but mostly because I don’t feel like I have very much terribly useful to say.

The same, honestly, is true for blogging. I’ve long hid behind “I can’t blog because of paperwork I’ve signed” as a shield behind which the reality is I generally don’t feel like I have useful or interesting things to say. Even this blog didn’t really take off until I framed it as a repository of my thoughts and ideas. We’ll see how well that works.

Participating in Aggrochat has helped me unwind a bit. With the gentle but relentless tidal forces he emits, Bel managed to talk me into doing a few shows, which became more shows until I’m more or less a regular on the cast. I occasionally put on my “game designer hat” and go on some rant or another, which hopefully doesn’t put anyone off, but on the whole it’s rarely any different from my usual nights just talking with Rae, Ash, Kodra, and Bel.

At any rate, hopefully it’s worth a listen. As I say in August 30th’s episode, come here and tell me when I’m wrong, it’ll be fun.

30 Things This Blog is About (#26: Politics)

I’m continually frustrated by politics. This is probably true of everyone in this and every other country. Kodra, if pressed, will probably tell you that I’ve said that I hate talking politics, and this is generally true. I take serious issue with the “red vs blue” political spectrum, and the unyieldingly trenchant taking of sides that marks most political “debate”.

The entire thing makes me think of MMOs. I’ve long said that two-faction PvP doesn’t work terribly well, as it leads to massive imbalances and a lot of direct butting of heads without a lot of nuance. The same is true of politics. In the meantime, PvP factions in excessive numbers tend to create a big, disorganized mess (and my limited understanding is that the same is true of politics in other countries as well).

I do, however, think that games make for good microcosms of society in many cases, and there’s a lot to be gleaned about the political system by looking at the smaller analogues in player organizations in games. Resource management, policymaking, conflict resolution, all need addressing and there are some very compelling practices that both sides can glean from one another.

On top of that, I feel that in the same way we’re seeing games become extremely mainstream, we’re likely to see the same thing creep into the political sphere. We’re not too far out from a government where a majority of the participants play video games at some level, and I can’t help but wonder how that will change things, if at all.

30 Things This Blog is About (#25: Culture)

People are fascinating, frustrating, and fantastic. The ways in which we communicate, play, and share with one another are myriad, and while my usual medium for that sort of thing is games, I’m no less interested in the differences between media.

I also find it fascinating to see how our media shapes our culture, the things we do, say, and think. Ten years ago it would have been unheard of for the “popular kids” in high school to even know what a d20 was, much less use one for anything. The other day, a friend of mine told me a story about his middle-school-aged daughter, who was nearly in tears because a boy she had a crush on was playing in a D&D game that she wasn’t invited to. I can only imagine my friend’s reaction to this– he’s been DMing tabletop RPGs for 20 or 30 years, works in video games, and here is an opportunity to become The Best Dad Ever, hosting a game for his daughter and folding her into a group she desperately wanted to be a part of.

Twenty years ago, the idea of everyone having a phone, an instant camera, a notepad, a game boy, a voice recorder, an up-to-the-minute map, a source of driving directions, and a boombox all at once, constantly, would have been laughable. Now I carry around a device that does all of this and more and is less than half the size of my wallet. The cultural shift that’s followed has been immense. We’ve gotten food porn and the selfie, two frivolous but extremely popular things that have only arisen because we have smartphones, and up-to-the-minute news comes from actual people reporting events live on twitter, for the entire world to see, and countries that try to censor their media find out just how difficult it is to stop the signal.

Culture has been undergoing a seismic shift over the past few decades, and the speed with which it’s changing is only increasing.

30 Things This Blog is About (#24: Business and Money)

Yep. Boring, I know. Part of this is that as I advance my career and my education, I’m learning a lot more about both business and money. That’s not really the cause of my interest, though.

We (by which I mean the ‘we’ that is likely to read this post) tend to vilify corporate interests without a second thought. I’ve spoken to many people, some of whom are good friends, who are quick to use words like “greedy”, “stupid”, and “selfish” to describe businesspeople in general, regardless of industry. I think this is a failure of perspective. I wouldn’t call a Starcraft master an idiot because they can’t explain to me the story of Mass Effect, because we’re playing different games. Similarly, the professional gamer isn’t greedy because she accepts money to play games.

As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, I think it’s important to see all of the different sides of a given story. I’m in the unique position of being able to get a good look at both sides of things, and it’s something I’m hoping will give me a good position to talk about. I think that making sense of decisions on both sides is important– beyond simply “why didn’t game X include my favorite feature” or “why did they cancel game Y” to more complex questions: “why aren’t we getting more Mega Man games?”

I don’t think these are necessarily simply answered, and I suspect there are a lot of questions that would come from the executive business side that we find easy to answer. I’m hoping I can find myself in a good “bridge” position that lets me speak intelligently to and on behalf of both sides.

30 Things This Blog is About (#23: Q&A)

I occasionally have people ask me why I do things, or why I think things. It’s not always an easy question to answer, as it requires that I analyze myself and my motivations. In the course of doing so, I usually either find I feel more strongly about something than I thought I did, or don’t care about something that I previously fought fervently over. I like it when people ask me questions and challenge my worldview, because it tends to mean that there’s a perspective that I’ve missed, or it lets me analyze and become more secure in my convictions (if I can adequately defend my thoughts).

Every so often, I find that there are some very simple questions that I have a hard time answering, which is an interesting situation to be in. A great example is “what kinds of games do you play?”

It’s not a simply answered question. The flippant answer is “everything”, or “everything good”, but those are non-answers, both untrue (I don’t play everything, that would be impossible and very expensive) or vague and elitist (by saying I only play “good” games, I’m implying that what I think is good is somehow an objective view of ‘good’, and that everyone else should be able to recognize what I mean by my shorthand, which is an incredibly arrogant stance to take). A real answer would take an incredibly long time; I play quite a few games and listing them all out would take ages. A better answer is probably “I play games that are culturally relevant, either because of massive ad campaigns or word-of-mouth or because of the issues addressed therein, and I particularly like games that I can play cooperatively with my friends and/or have a strong focus of some kind, be that exploration, narrative, puzzle-solving, reflexes, or what-have-you”.

Sometimes, the flippant answer is best:

Q: “Why are you writing 30 posts in about as many hours?”

A: “Because Ashgar doesn’t think I can, and I’m concerned he might be right.”

30 Things This Blog is About (#22: The Future of Games)

One of the really neat things about having grown up playing games is getting to see the advances the industry has made, and in turn the leaps and bounds by which games have advanced themselves. Watching games evolve from chip-sound and monochromatic graphics to the audiovisual extravaganzas we have today has been a wild ride, to say the least. More than that, though, the ways in which we play games have evolved significantly.

We are long past the days where games were mostly played by teenage boys, and we’ve left the days where games meant a specific, dedicated machine used for no other purpose far behind. Arcades have risen and fallen in most places in the world, replaced by the home consoles and ubiquitous PCs. Solo or small-group multiplayer has given way to online play, and couch-gaming is rapidly less and less of the overall games breakdown as mobile and social games take the fore.

In and among all of this, the games themselves have been rapidly evolving. You can trace the lineage of many games back to their roots, and with any luck, following those paths might hint at where games will go.

We’re on the cusp of a variety of new technologies– Google Glass is poised to either overhaul our relationship with our personal devices or fall flat, while advances in streaming technology get us closer and closer to gaming on the cloud, without specialized equipment or physical software. In the meantime, tools advancements and rapidly developing middleware on the industry side are making it easier and faster to make games, while perpetually driving up the quality bar, and indies are filling in the gaps left by the massive rise in production values.

Whether any of this is sustainable is up for (heavy) debate, but one way or another the future of games should be exciting.