Monday, October 31, 2011

What Games Are: The Point

Several commenters have asked me what the point of this series is. The point is to empower us to make better games. And this is how the model supports that goal:

I am going to assume you read the other posts of this series, especially this one.

In the kickoff post I wrote:
For a game to be fun
  • the goals have to be worth the journeys
  • the journeys must not be frustrating
  • the journeys need to keep the player's mind busy
A frustrating journey is a journey the player doesn't think he should have to make.
Now, that is a hell of a statement. It means that if a game is bad, it is because it failed to meet one or more of these criteria. Either the journeys aren't worth the goals, or the game fails at keeping the player's mind busy, or it is frustrating. This is much better than “it's not fun”.

I am now going to give a few examples for each situation.

When goals are not worth the journeys
This is the biggest problem for any game when trying to attract new players. But it becomes relatively easy to manage later on. When you see a new game at Steam you just don't consider it to be terribly important. Succeeding at a game you don't know yet, doesn't mean anything to you. This can be changed if one of your friends plays, or if you saw an awesome trailer, or if you played a similar game before, or if you were drawn into the game within the first five minutes of action or a narrative that sparked your interest. A popular way to increase the worth of goals are internet-wide highscores and leaderboards. Persistent characters and direct or indirect interaction with other people are great ways to increase 'meaning' and such the worth of most goals in the game.

Alternatively, this problem can appear when in-game goals really don't seem worth the effort for an experienced player. This was true for achievements, mounts and pets with me in WoW. I just didn't care. In fact, I tried to avoid gaining pets, because I disliked so much what they represent.

Finally, perfectly worthwhile goals can simply require too burdensome journeys. For example, perma-death suffers from this problem. Unless specific actions are taken, players shy away from the risk no matter what the reward.

When games are boring
This is my biggest problem with Eve Online. In the typical minute-to-minute gameplay it doesn't succeed at keeping my mind sufficiently busy. I get bored. Boredom is terrible for games, obviously. Eve sometimes manages to make players alt-tab away, and return, because they care so much (goals are worth the journeys). But it's still a big problem.
Making games less boring isn't actually all that hard, because we got a nice list of things that keep the mind busy. We can go through that list, like I did with raiding and chess, and determine where exactly the shortcoming are. Then we can try and add more decisions to WoW raiding, for example.

When games are frustrating
Me rage-quitting WoW is clearly a case of frustration. But frustration is actually the smallest problem for games - even though it causes the vast majority of complains on forums!
You can only be frustrated if you care. And I do care about WoW. I wasn't bored by low-level PvP. In fact I enjoyed it a lot - even though I considered things like a bugged stealth animation very frustrating (=it shouldn't be like that). Frustration can lead to rage-quitting games which requires a lot of frustration, really. But should a player indeed rage-quit, he will try to avoid cognitive dissonance. Kurt Vonnegut had a point when he said
"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
In this case the developers need to be careful who I pretend to be: what I say. Me openly quitting WoW would keep me from re-subscribing even if I otherwise wanted to. And it's genuine: it's not just about me worrying about my reputation. Cognitive dissonance is an immensely powerful force and must never be underestimated.

Bhagpuss wrote
“I guess it's like boiling a frog except this time someone at Blizzard turned the heat up just that bit too fast and some of the frogs jumped out of the pot"
And this is very true. Expectations need to be managed. A willing player can help, but the responsibility is the company's (if they want the game to succeed).

Just like we know how to fight boredom and goals that aren't worth the journeys, we also know how to fight frustration. We can either remove or modify the frustrating element (remove Pandas), or change expectations (convince me that Pandas are a necessary sacrifice, so that I expect the company to add them).

When a player loses a PvP game (=almost all pre-computer era games) too often, he tends to think that it shouldn't be like that. Most people dislike losing 50% of the time. To make players willing to suffer through 50% losing, the game needs to excel at keeping their minds busy and its journeys need to be very worth their goals.

Sometimes peoples' expectations can be altered in a way that they don't expect to win more often. In that case games can be fun for them even though they lose all the time. Most PvP matches have a favorite and a challenger: chess, boxing, soccer, arena teams. When I was young I never had a problem with losing in Chess.

By analyzing what makes games fun, three categories were found. While these categories are not perfectly independent, they are independent enough to be useful. Moreover, each category has its own ways to increase fun and/or fix problems in games.
Instead of stumbling in the darkness of “it's not fun”, we can now ask “what category is it?”. And once we have the answer we can apply known methods to improve the game.

And for my commenters:
Can you come up with reasons way games are 'not fun' that do not fit into one of these categories? I know I can come up with some reasons that only fit with some 'effort'.


  1. Actually your own panda example doesn't quite fit there, since your original point states that the journeys must not be frustrating. Unless you automatically consider the simulation (and any issues with it) part of the journey.

  2. Unless you automatically consider the simulation (and any issues with it) part of the journey.

    The simulation has an influence on the journey. I shouldn't have to watch Pandas while I do anything in WoW. It doesn't fit with the style and therefore it frustrates me if I am forced to interact with / look at them to reach any in-game goal.
    (Don't argue this point itself here pls!)

  3. I'd agree with you on something else (don't know if that was your point). I could just as well have written

    1) goals not worth journyes
    2) boredom
    3) the rest

    Because, any reason anybody dislikes any activity in a game can, of course, be expressed in terms of "I shouldn't have to do this" (because it is so boring / because the goal is not worth it).

    That's a good point, really. I guess I should try to find other sub-categories of 'frustrating' that can stand on their own (like e.g. boredom) and then really use the words 'the rest'.