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  • The Fun Instinct

    - Tim Lang
  •  Game designers have to understand "fun" on a few levels. For one, they need to be able to verbalize what they find fun about a particular game, task, or challenge. They also need to have an intuitive sense about what will be fun for players before a game is even prototyped. I call this sense the "fun instinct," and if you don't think you were born with a strong instinct for fun, never fear. You can actually cultivate your own fun instinct.

    Theories of Fun
    Sid Meier famously defined fun as "a series of interesting choices." Plenty of people have speculated what he meant by that. Most of the opinions state that of the choices a player makes in a game, no one choice is better than the others. In other words, Meier believes that the key to making a game fun is making sure it's well balanced.

    In A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Raph Koster equates fun to learning new things. According to Koster, then, as long as there are aspects of a game that a player doesn't fully understand, the game is still fun. The same principle is at work in most mystery novels; you have to read to the end to find out who did it.

    Conversely, Ernest Adams (in his "Designer's Notebook" column on created a list of conditions that deny fun. He refers to them as "Twinkie denial conditions." It's not necessarily a theory of fun, but he always notes the things in a game that ruin the fun. From Adam's perspective, fun is created by simply removing the things in a game that aren't fun. For example, Adams frequently mentions the condition of not being able to save anywhere you want -- one of my own pet peeves. By allowing the player to save anywhere, the game becomes more fun.

    These three game designers put forth interesting opinions that spark plenty of debate -- but are they incomplete? Possibly.

    The truth is that different people find fun in different ways. Some people find their fun in playing in a sandbox for hours and hours. The success of The Sims is proof enough of that. Other people find fun in completing tasks. That's why games with Xbox Achievement points are so popular.

    My opinion of what is fun has to do with the nature of challenges and rewards. I believe that a game is fun as long as the player's reward is comparable to the difficulty of the challenge she or he faces. When the challenge is too easy, the player loses interest because she used too little effort to receive a large reward. When the challenge is too great, the player either gets frustrated and stops playing, or feels let down after overcoming a great challenge and receiving a paltry reward. That's why cheating ruins the fun: It makes every challenge so easy, you never actually earn your reward.

    What is the Fun Instinct?
    The fun instinct is the ability to visualize gameplay and disseminate how fun a game mechanic will be. For game designers, this skill should be as instinctual as breathing. Whenever someone is explaining to me their next new and great game idea, I instantly visualize myself playing the game they are describing. From there I can start making judgments whether the idea they present will be any fun.

    Sounds great right? Where do I sign up for that skill? Can you find it in a book? Maybe. I haven't come across any books that can teach the fun instinct, but they may be out there. I've got a better way than a boring old book, though. The best way to develop your Fun Instinct is to play games. Play lots of them. And then play some more.

    Play the games you love. Figure out why you think they're fun. Play games you hate. Decide what you would do to make those games better. Play games you wouldn't be caught dead playing. Don't just play them for fun. Analyze them. Figure out which game mechanics work well, and which don't. For the ones that don't work well, figure out the best way to improve them so they do.

    Visualizing Gameplay
    Visualizing gameplay in your head is easily half of the fun instinct. Daydreaming about games is what game designers do.

    Throughout my career, my bosses have frequently caught me staring into space with a blank look on my face. Some accused me of dozing off on the job. Others took delight in scaring the bejeezus out of me because I didn't notice they were there. Why didn't I see them? Usually, I was lost in a world of video games and their mechanics.

    A good imagination is key to visualization. As a self proclaimed hyper-creative, I've always had an active imagination, but it wasn't something I was born with. Believe it or not, an active imagination is something you have to work at having.


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