Welcome to Colin McComb’s Now, the Twist. A dangerous journey that will force him to take a long, hard look at game design.
Join him, won’t you… in his ongoing struggle to pass Go.
Before we get started today, I’d like to note that when I talk about game design, I want you to be able to use what you find here to make your games more entertaining. Whether you design games or play them, this column should provide some use to you—leave comments below, and I’ll do what I can to address your questions (although not your concerns).
This past weekend, I had the chance to introduce Pandemic to some friends who aren’t exactly full-time gamers. They enjoy games, yes, but they’re definitely in the casual gaming market. I thought this might be the perfect chance to drag them into a new world of strategy-style gaming with an excellent game that requires cooperation and intense thinking. The first round, we wiped out. The second round, the action got intense as we fought down to the last few cards to save the world. “Whew,” we all said when it was over, “that was close”…
“Yeah,” they said. “That was intense. Let’s not play that again.”
“It was a good game, but it wasn’t exactly a party game. It was fun, but it was serious fun.”
So instead, we played Compatibility. I was prepared to snob the game off—I mean, it’s a game about relationships, and the strategy elements rely mostly on knowing your partner, and really, how much fun could it be?
It turns out that the answer is a lot. Even a hell of a lot. Whereas Pandemic found us staring intently at the board, counting out moves and spaces, and strategizing with each other, we played Compatibility with gales of laughter, piles of in-jokes, and the inevitable trash talk. We left the table laughing, and we’re still making jokes about it days later. (For instance, my wife and I scored big with the word “English” by associating the word with a picture of a dolphin—and no, I don’t remember why—but we were cackling like hyenas when we did it).
That was pretty much the last thing I expected. I don’t know if the designers of the game intended for it to be played by people like us, but we did play it, and we enjoyed it. It was fun. Would it be different played with different people? Absolutely.
I wrote last time about how we as game designers don’t know exactly why something is fun. We know we’ve found a good idea when it appears in all its full-blown glory in our minds’ eyes, and we know it plays well when we see the eyes of our friends and testers light up with that familiar spark of joy when they play our prototypes. Alternatively, we might see their eyes go slack and dead as they try to formulate words that aren’t quite, “This kind of sucks.”
We’re always looking for ways to measure fun so that we never get that look. We live in terror of that look. We run playtests and quantify specific data points in our games. How many times do players do this, as opposed to that? Where do they move? How long does it take them to get there? What do they focus on when they do it? Does one position quickly overpower the others? Does an asymmetric starting position still allow all players a chance to win? Are the resources evenly divided or accessible? What needs tweaking to improve the flow of the game?
But these questions don’t answer the important question: is this game fun? A game might be unbalanced or broken and still be a tremendous amount of fun. Likewise, it might be a smoothly functioning machine of precision and power and be bland and boring as hell. While players might appreciate the labor and polish that goes into such a game, they likely won’t come back to it.
We need to find ways to measure and qualify fun. Raph Koster wrote in A Theory of Fun for Game Design that a good game “teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.” Essentially, the thesis is that we use games to explore and understand problems and other patterns using core patterns and mechanics, so we’ll have established a template to address issues when they arise in real-life situations. Still, this doesn’t address “fun” so much…
So I’ve found another definition of fun, one which also helps to explain why people enjoy different styles of game. Marc LeBlanc posits the “Eight Kinds of Fun”: Challenge, Discovery, Expression, Fantasy, Fellowship, Narrative, Sensation, and Submission.
Very few games are just one of these. Indeed, we combine them, in varying degrees, to conjure different experiences. Charades, for instance, is a game primarily of Challenge and Fellowship while a computer game like Doom entails Challenge, Discovery, and Narrative.
Tabletop RPGs are a confluence of most of these, but the emphasis we place on any particular aspect depends largely on the group we’re gaming with although Fantasy and Fellowship typically come first. Some of us prefer a more Narrative fun while others prefer Expression, or roleplaying. Some of us play for Challenge, whether in overcoming the obstacles put in our way by the GM or in rules-lawyering.
Your group might try to experiment with your play styles to discover what drives your style of fun. You might also use these styles of fun in developing scenarios. For instance, you could base an adventure on the idea of Narrative, requiring the players to dig deep into their characters to discover their hidden talents. Do it, and you’ll discover just how closely these other elements of fun are integrated.
If, along the way, you find another path into fun, take it. Last time, I wrote that we are bound in our enjoyment of play. This time, I tell you that fun is at the heart of play—it is the driver that keeps us returning to our old haunts and keeps us open to the new. Once you recognize that, you can find fun almost anywhere.