Saturday, 21 July 2012

Finding The Fun

When making a game, one of the things I like to do early, and often, is 'finding the fun'.  It's the process where you take a long hard look at your game to answer one simple question:

"What makes it fun?"

What is fun? How do we know when we've found it? I struggle with these kinds of questions because I don't play games the same way gamers do.  I'm a deconstructivist.  I tear games apart trying to understand how they were made, what were their authors motivations, what choices and alternatives did they shy away from?  That's fun for me, but I don't think that's much fun for you.

So instead, I hand a prototype of my game over to a gamer, and I watch them play. Mostly I'm looking for facial expressions - joy, wonder. But also their comments. What do they keep coming back to? If I'm trying to 'find the fun', I pretty much ignore all negative feedback, and just focus on the good.

One question I ask a lot is, "How could I make that part better?"  When I ask that question, what I'm really asking is, "What part of that do you want more of?"  If I hear multiple people want more of one thing, then I'll go and brainstorm about how to add more of that thing, using the actual gamers suggestions as a starting point for the brainstorm.

A Quick Note On Design Styles

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know I'm a pretty hard-core programmer that's been fortunate enough to work with a great many super talented designers.  I've found they tend to have different styles and approaches.  Some, like me, are obsessed with finding the fun.  Others are much more interested in telling a story, or bringing the player along an emotional path.  Still others want to make elaborate systems for the player to explore, requiring a delicate zen moment on the player's behalf to catch glimpses of it's beauty.

And many others besides.

It's convenient for me to split designers into two camps - those who try to find the fun earlier, and those who are confident with their tools and process, and know the fun will come later.

Take a character designer for example, often in the second camp.  Someone who is building up the backstory for a character, figuring out their traits and abilities in-game.  Where they got that scar, and who was their childhood friends, and how all of that will affect their interactions with the player.  In isolation, these choices might seem meaningless and trivial, but when woven into a broader narrative, this minutiae can become intensely compelling and enjoyable.

Now, I'm not saying either camp is more or less effective. There's definitely room for both.  I'm just saying I find it more comfortable to follow along with the first camp as I find reassurance in their processes' measurability measurableness ability to be measured.

Which is important, because as a programmer, when I'm designing, I'm constantly have to ask myself, "What would [censored] choose in this situation?"

One advantage from working closely with so many designers, is the freedom to design in the style of those great designers.  I'm not stuck in any one particular school or with any baggage.

And now that I'm Indie, when I don't know the answer, I can just call them up on the phone and ask.

Before the Prototype

The approach above works fine when you have a prototype.  But what do you do before that?

Cardboard is great for this.

Scribble on cardboard, chop it up into pieces and move it around a page.

Make flowcharts, roll dice.  Get some trusted friends over and say "Hey, let's pretend we're playing a video game right now."  And you go through the exact same (watching) process outlined above, but without the actual prototype.

Before the Cardboard

Well that may be fine if you know what game you want to make, but what do you do before that?
Here's where you have to use the power of imagination.

 That's where I'm at right now.

I'm imagining what it would be like for my trusted friends to be playing a cardboard cutout of a prototype of a final game.  And then asking my imaginary designer buddies in my head :

"What makes it fun?"


  1. Fun is Play.
    The word 'play' is synonymous with game.

    Without play there is no game.
    So I hope your game is fun.


  2. Sometimes I think about the fun in games like breakbeats in a classic song. There's a great documentary, "Scratch," where they interview DJs about how they make their music.

    In it, one DJ describes the origin of using breakbeats in hip-hop and turntablism. He describes how in some songs, you reach a section that you wish would last longer, often where the drummer fills a break with this really enjoyable beat. DJs distill that old music, extract those parts, and use them as the backbone of a new piece, or as one of many parts of a new creation.

    I find that many of the game ideas that excite me are gameplay elements in other games I've played, that I want expanded into their own games. I feel like game designers are, in a way, hip-hop DJs of the gameplay world. We extract our favorite breakbeats from other games we've enjoyed, whether they be video games like "Asteroids," or games we played in the yard like "don't fall in the lava."

    And the coolest thing about being indie is: if you enjoy it, chances are there are enough people out there who also enjoy it to support you making it.