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Randy Smith: Do Games Need To Be Fun?
Randy Smith: Do Games Need To Be Fun? Exclusive
November 17, 2009 | By Chris Remo

November 17, 2009 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Must a game be fun?

That was the question posed by designer Randy Smith of Tiger Style Games (Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor) in a talk given at the Montreal International Game Summit, Smith, whose credits also include the Thief series and System Shock 2, firmly stated his belief that it possible to make games that deal with dark topics in a heavy way, while presenting an experience that is engaging, if not "fun" in the traditional sense.

"My thought is they don't need to be fun; they need to be engaging," the designer said.

Despite that sentiment, Smith's talk was more concerned with reflection and consideration of the topic than hard rules about so-called "not fun" games. "There's a chance that one of the only things I'll be able to do with this presentation is to get people to consider this question again," he admitted.

Many games deal with topics that are ostensibly dark, but they almost invariably treat them in a relatively light, "fun" way -- similar to action adventure films like those of the Indiana Jones series. When Indiana Jones takes out a Nazi on a motorcycle, "it was really fun that he dies," Smith pointed out.

But a film that treated that same subject matter with a heavy style might then cut to a distraught German child weeping at the gravestone of his father, who was killed by a rogue American archaologist. Most games do not saddle the player down with the weight of violence's implications, even if they don't necessarily play it off as comic relief.

Some have light topics with light treatment (Mario et al.), or dark topics with light treatments (most violent games), and it's generally impractical to do a heavy treatment of light subject matter in any medium, but few games attempt a dark treatment of dark material.

So could a game present dark material, without shrouding it in a layer of fun, but while still presenting an engaging and meaningful experience? Smith offered the hypothetical game Hospital Director, whose goal is to deal with the difficult realities of running a hospital. It would necessarily deal with numerous fairly grim themes: underfunding, illness, poverty, death, and "insurance companies who refuse to pay for stuff, because it's in the United States."

Structually, the game might play out closer to a choose-your-own-adventure book than the more traditional tycoon-style gameplay implied by the synopsis. Discrete stories and situations would be presented to the player, who would then have to make choices -- each with potentially positive and negative ramifications -- that would affect both those discrete events as well as the ongoing ecosystem of the hospital.

Unlike a choose-your-own-adventure book, however, these discrete scenarios would be the result of an underlying series of systems that weigh numerous variables, including the player's own actions -- similar to the likes of Civilization. And these discrete events would run underneath the larger overarching heartbeat of the hospital, including regularly scheduled tasks like board meetings, at which big-picture policy would be determined.

Ideally, the systems underpinning such a game could generate plausibly honest and meaningful stories about the NPC patients and staff who inhabit the hospital that the player would get attached to and invested in their lives. The believability of NPCs remains a weak point in games, but Smith believes it will continue to improve over time.

"There need to be game systems describing this stuff that are at the core of where the experience comes from," Smith reiterated. That core is what he calls the possibility space: "The possibility space is really the beating heart of this entire question."

The creation of honest and believable stories out of that possibility space is what would give such a game its engaging nature, even if the sobering realities of such a scenario would disqualify it from being described as "fun."

After all, said Smith, humans have an innate desire to see stories resolve. "Things that are just about to happen are really difficult for us to watch and not know what happens," he said. "If you're about to see a glass roll off the table, you really want to see it fall off so you know if it will break or not. Devoid of any other context, you're drawn to see actions complete. A story, whether it's happy or sad, manages to do this, to be compelling."

"This is the reason we watch so much Lost," he added. "They're always claiming things are going to resolve some day."

Some games succeed with "not fun" mechanics. Eric Chahi's Another World (Out of This World) requires the player to engage in a complex, finicky series of actions to save his friend; they aren't inherently fun, but they reflect the desperation one would feel in such a scenario, and it's relieving to succeed.

Smith also Positech's Democracy 2, which deals with the relatively not-fun topics of policy formulation and the passage of legislation. It demonstrates, however, a key potential stumbling point for "not fun" games: exposing so many of the systems' workings to the player that those systems can be "gamed" in a way that breaks through the intent of the game. "As the player, there's tons of stuff you can play with and tweak," Smith explained. "If Hospital Player was like this, it would totally fail, because you'd have the player zipping around this depressing environment and winning because they figured it out."

Perhaps surprisingly, Smith revealed that he himself might not even fall into the target market for Hospital Director: "I don't even like depressing media very much," he said. "It kind of depressed me just to work on this presentation. But the stuff I do like doesn't shy away from not-fun stuff, and that seems the most honest to what real life is like."

Honesty is the key, Smith said. Great stories aren't afraid of dark or uncomfortable subject matter, even if the story is not relentlessly dismal. The ideal, at least for Smith, boils down to "games that have their fun monents, but at appropriate moments hop over to experiences that aren't fun."

"I think this is really hard, but I don't think it's impossible," he concluded. "My honest guess, after being a game designer for 12 years, is that you could do this and it would work."

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Wolf Wozniak
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Demon's Souls says no.

James Hofmann
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I love the term "engagement." It describes everything we want out of "fun," without being saccharine and constraining.

Mike Engle
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Yeah, games are more about discovering engaging or interesting patterns. While this often means "fun", that's not always the case.

brandon brown
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Well personally i think the logic contradicts itself, because most people find being engaged "fun" so in theory being engaged and having fun are really the same thing. I would dare say, you cant have fun if your not engaged.

For example, a person who is reading a good book is engaged in the story, While they are not physhically doing anything (other then staring at a piece of paper) they are mentally engaged in the story and are most likely enjoying it. Thus, they are having "fun" reading the book.

While i realize reading a book and playing a video game are two different experiences, the mental stimulation or "Fun" they create are very similar. So when he says "Some games succeed with "not fun" mechanics" i dont believe that is fundamently true. As i would count a story of a game as a gameplay mechanic, and thus atleast in one aspect, the game is fun.

Jason Bakker
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Interesting stuff. I'm working with some darker themes at the moment, and figuring out how to be engaging without necessarily being fun is going to be a major part of the next iteration.

Also, couple of spelling/grammar mistakes in the article, missing a "mentioned" (or something) after "Smith also" regarding Democracy 2, and "monents" in the penultimate paragraph. Cheers!

Glenn Storm
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I'm on board with Randy on his premise and reasoning, but I want to point out how close this gets to those sticky questions like, "What is fun?" and "Can a game that isn't fun sell?". I think to make the case that Randy is making, you have to skirt around those questions carefully.

I also like the term engagement (I like 'compelling' too), as it describes a more pure form of what we find interesting, what we want to attend to. Drama, for example, engages as well as Comedy. So too, dramatic play could engage as well as fun play. And the basic compulsion, as Randy mentions, of wanting to see engaging things come to a resolution is what it is all about.

John Petersen
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You should already know that fun takes on many shapes and forms for different folk... I love the mundane... I love fishing and gardening and tinkering and cooking. Pretty boring stuff really.

I want to breed my own fish and plants and dragons and create something new that is old. The time and knowledge and effort it takes to do that is mundane. What I do while that is happening could make up the rest of the game, such as hunting and racing and exploring and crafting things made from what I've found, hunted and fished (just like in real life). Cleaning up a river so the evironment can better sustain life there, and after I clean it up, bigger and better fish will be able to be fished from there

With Lost the show, it wasn't what happened next, but where and why things were happening. I loved the discovery/science/solitude aspect. I wanted to be trapped on that island so I could discover and rediscover. I wanted to make the world a better place.

But yeah, there is definitely room for non-fun games, so long as they're fun.

It is not fun walking around for hours, looking for dung, but when you can use that dung to make something else that is vital to the game, it becomes really exciting.

What can you get from a pile of dung?... Alot!

Maurício Gomes
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From what I saw, the author meant: Games don't have to be "funny" only "fun" is good.

Mike Engle
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@Christian Philippe Guay

Hmm, I'd agree with that.

Then it seems the article fails due to poor terminology. Because it seems like the article's intent is to say, "Happiness isn't the only way to have fun in a game. Sadness, Fear, Comfort, and many other emotions can all be elements of fun within a game."

Andrew Smith
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I've gotta fire my two cents in here.

Anyone who thinks that engagement and fun are the same thing need to look them up in the dictionary. Alternatively think back to the last movie you were engaged in...

For me it was Pixar's Up - some moments of the movie were fun, and some most certainly were not (the first 10, minutes for example, were some of the most heartbreaking Ive ever seen in a movie), but all of it was consistently engaging.

Engagement is purely the holding of a person's attention, the concentration on something, the suspension of disbelief or awareness of the world outside whatever it is. A painting can be engaging, but very few paintings are fun.

For me, engagement and immersion go hand in hand, way before fun happens. No matter how fun something is, it needs to be engaging to grab me.

I think perhaps that is the crux of it. Something can be described as 'fun' in an objective manner, but the same cannot be said for something being engaging. Mouse Trap is fun - nobody would deny that - but you may well grow out of it, at which point it loses it's ability to engage.

Engagement is subjective, then?

jaime kuroiwa
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Although I agree with brandon brown that "fun" and "engagement" are the same thing, I have to say that "engagement" more adequately describes the experience that we seem to be striving for. Saying that something is "fun" to someone -- especially a non-gamer -- gives the impression that it's immature in some way. "Engaging" connotes depth and focus.

I have to disagree with the "innate desire to see stories resolve," though. I don't think a story especially needs a resolution if it's going to be engaging. Case and point, Twin Peaks. David Lynch never intended for the viewer to learn who killed Laura Palmer; He wanted us to observe the murder's affect on the town. I would argue that the show was much better off before the case was solved.

In terms of videogames, I believe the "innate desire" is to see the chaos, not resolution. When you push a button, you want to see a lot of things occur from your single action. In a story, you want to see how the catalyst affects the character(s). In the example of the glass falling off the table, we want the glass to EXPLODE when it hits the ground! The key to engaging content is not by dangling a resolution, but by showing its affects (the grander, the better); an emphasis on the journey, in other words.

Ben Hopper
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"Do Games Need To Be Fun?" Uh, YES!

Aaron & Alex Leach
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It's interesting, I actually just wrote an article on this exact same topic about a month ago for Pixelosophy. I used the term enjoyment instead of engagement, because you can enjoy something without it being fun as well. Using the movie analogy, you can enjoy the film Schindler's List, but you probably didn't have a whole lot of fun watching it. I hope you guys take the time to check it out, thanks.

Bart Stewart
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I've pretty much stopped using the word "fun" in a design sense; it's just not functionally useful when people enjoy different things. I find the word "entertaining" to be a better (if longer) catch-all term... but can a grim experience be considered "entertaining?"

When I want to talk about some design concept in a specific way, I've often found myself using the following words to express particular kinds of gameplay:

"exciting": sensation-based play (_fiero_, explosions, loud music, risk-taking)

"engaging": story-based, character-driven play (comedy, drama, roleplaying)

"illuminating": discovery-based play (exploration, crafting, puzzle-solving)

"competitive": accumulation-based play (beating others for tangible benefits by following the rules)

Happily, while I think individuals primarily prefer one (or maybe two) of these forms of play, there's nothing stopping a game designer from finding ways to satisfy all of these playstyle preferences in their game.

Bryn Bennett
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Oregon Trail?

Adam Bishop
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I agree that "engaging" is a more useful term than "fun", and it's the one I typically use. For example, while I found the film Hotel Rwanda to be incredibly engaging, I didn't have even the slightest bit of fun while watching it, and I would be kind of concerned for anyone who did. Ditto for some of my favourite books. Nothing Dostoevsky wrote was fun, but it's all consistently interesting and engaging.

chris hill
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As Gaming evolves as a medium the aspect of Fun becomes secondary, just as in movies. Nobody can tell me that Schindlers list was a fun movie but it was engaging. If you can relay darker material in a way that will keep someones interest there will be a market for it.

Aaron & Alex Leach
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Chris, sounds familiar. See four posts above.

Sean Maples
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Do games have to be fun?

This question makes me think of Aion. An MMORPG that was recently released. It has had solid sales, and yet contains a leveling system where the player must spend hundreds of hours killing npc's without storyline, without purpose other then to watch the experience bar fill up. I have heard the final levels take over 16 hours each.

Is anyone actually having fun doing that grind? I doubt it. Yet just watching that experience bar fill up, and dreaming of max level play, creates such an engaging experience that they continue on.

So I do not think games have to be fun; just addicting.

Luis Guimaraes
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Lot's of semanthics issues that's it...

"But" "yes" "," "games" "do" "not" "need" "to" "be" "funny" "..."

Joseph Amper
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More like fulfilling. By playing the game, did the user accomplish what they wanted to do? Could be things like:

-Completing a story

-Building a buff character

-Creating something

-Wreaking havoc and causing mayhem

-Exploring a lush world


A game doesn't have to be fun, but it should provide to players the designer's intended experience.

Sean Parton
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I love how Demon's Souls seems to work it's way into half the conversations I look at here on Gamasutra lately.

That game does bring up an interesting point though; Demon's Souls is arguably not a "fun" game, at least in the traditional sense. However, the player certainly gets feelings of elation from overcoming major challenges, especially if there's a lot at stake (such as the player's bodily form in any unexplored area, or going against a boss with thousands of souls on hand). So fun moment-to-moment? No. But players feel enjoyment from overcoming challenges, especially if they feel they've beaten stacked odds, and you could certainly call that "fun".

Christian Philippe Guay said: "Games do not have to be fun, what they need is great publicity. However, great games need to be fun." 100% agree. Niche games, by definition, are aiming at a non-standard market or method of gameplay, and as such are not necessarily fun. Great games, however, are usually only considered that when you can get a large amount of people to feel that it is indeed a great game, which means you're likely to be targeting more of a mainstream audience, with more tried-and-true methods of bringing enjoyment, such as the usual fun factor.

Frank Forrestall
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I totally understand where this article is coming from. The predictable mantra that games must be "fun" to be worthwhile is almost as irritating as the battle cry that they must be "addicting" or "cool." These are the shallowest definitions of what makes a game worthwhile.

The evolution of games is outgrowing its juvenile phase, and there will be a large segment of players seeking more psychologically complex and fulfilling games; games that deliver compelling ideas without aiming to be brain-dead entertainment.

Other adjectives which I hope to be apply to games in the future...











-Emotionally Challenging

-Psychologically Complex

-Spiritually Motivating


I can think of some games that have racked up a few of these adjectives; but the territory is still wide-open.