As a game developer I always ask myself what makes a game fun. The “fun” word sounds so abstract and is so subjective from one person to another. A lot of things can be fun in a videogame: exotic environments, impressive sound effects, entertaining story, funny characters, particle effects, and so on. However, some games have all of that and can still be not that fun. So what exactly makes a game satisfying? Where does the SATISFACTION come from?
I’m sure everyone has a different vision of this. That being said, my idea of the source of satisfaction in games is not abstract at all. I think that a lot of game developers have this conception too but they simply never put it into words. Here it goes.
To be satisfying, a game has to make the player go through this “achievement loop”:
- Challenge: The player is facing an obstacle and he has limited means to overcome it.
- Trial and error: This is the hard work (making the player suffer a bit is very important). The player tries to overcome the obstacle in various ways with the tools he has.
- Learning: Having tried his tools, and probably failed while trying, the player learned to use them.
- Success: The player overcomes the challenge. He feels that he accomplished something and that hard work paid off. This is the moment when the player is having fun, he feels satisfaction. The player thinks: “Yeah! I’m good at this game!”
- Loop back to point 1 with a gameplay situation of increased complexity/difficulty.
This looks like a recipe, but it’s not. It can be applied in many ways in any kind of games, but it’s not necessarily easy to do well.
This loop can be found in micro situations of any classic game. Let’s apply this loop to the very first gameplay situation of Super Mario Bros:
- Challenge: Mario encounters a Goomba slowly walking towards him.
- Trial and error: Mario tries various strategies. He walks straight through the Goomba and dies or he clumsily jumps too early and dies again.
- Learning: Mario now understands better how to move and jump.
- Success: Mario jumps successfully on the Goomba and crushes his ugly shitake face. He is victorious!
- Loop back: Mario will now face a greater challenge.
However, when the game has nothing new to teach to the player, it can no longer loop and therefore it becomes repetitive and eventually boring.
In my opinion, a lot of current generation games have problems keeping the player interested because they try to create satisfaction in an artificial manner. The typical game features an overpowered character facing ridiculously simple gameplay situations (because Gameindustryasshole thinks that people only like easy stuff). So what happens is that when playing the game for the first few minutes, you feel like a God, you’re blown away by your own level of badassness. But not long after, when you realize that the game has nothing new to teach, it starts feeling tedious. And worst, when you fail in that game you don’t learn anything and you feel like an idiot because you weren’t supposed to fail.
This loop can also explain the classic or cliché videogame principle tagged to a lot of addicting games: “Easy to learn, hard to master.” Because the hardest a game is to master, the longer the “achievement loop” can go on and still be fun.
I’ve read the book “A Theory of Fun for Game Design” by Raph Koster a while ago. It most certainly influenced this post, so I encourage anyone to read it.