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Fun is Boring

July 5, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

In the two weeks before writing this piece, I've seen easily a dozen scattered, derivative definitions of fun. Five page "manifestos" and weird Rubik's Cube personal philosophies. No respite at DigiPen the other day. Covering for another prof, I thought I'd poison the youth with design theory.

"Oh, sweet," says one edgy-looking student. "Me and a buddy have been talking about making a unified theory of fun. An exhaustive language for games."

"Neat," I say. "Have you read Raph's Theory of Fun?"

I click to the first slide, a cropped image of the cover.

"Uhh, Raph?"

"Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games?"

"I stared at the first page for awhile."

"Good enough." I say, though it really isn't. I want the laughter, but they only give me puzzled stares.

Fun is a lazy word. A bit like "game". On first blush anyone can grin, nod their head, and think they understand what you're talking about -- but there are breathtaking gulfs between Today I Die and World of Warcraft, between Monopoly and Foursquare (both social networking or playground variants). Pete Garcin wrote a good piece last year about the problems of broad language, though he wasn't looking to, "pick on 'fun' specifically."

Let's pick on fun, specifically.

Fun is a process. Idea to shipped game is roughly the difference between a frozen ovary and a 24-year-old human. Things happen in between. Fun may or may not be one of those things. Maturity may or may not be one of those things.

Testing early and often doesn't just work out bugs. The creators start to see what, in this growing new reality, is enjoyable. The social element? Running? Painting? Climbing? Problem solving? We hope that by the time it ships, this little life is, at the very least, functional.

That fun process sometimes gets a few tries. Super Mario 3D Land Director Koichi Hayashida recently said that even across Nintendo's games, they've added to the pot, taken some away, and considered what elements to keep and why.

Hayashida said, "What you have to do is make an investigation at every new stage and say, 'Okay, which of these elements is working well for us, and which of them do we need to think about minimizing, or removing entirely?'" He's trying on these mechanics, but all that talk requires crunch and craft to mature. Within the process, or even between projects, there isn't much time for talk. Studying new and glorious descriptions of fun is laudable, but not exactly a priority.

We already have a vocabulary. We use games to talk about games, especially where those are emblematic of a certain type of experience. That's the lingua franca. Like certain words in Sanskrit poems, which translate to pages of English description, naming certain games condenses hours of detailed, unique memories.

I recently overheard during a games critique: "Ditch the broken Portal puzzles and stick with your 3D VVVVVV mechanics" among dozens of constructive quips that spoke in the shorthand on tap: our mosaic cant of games. All calling to mind experiences we've got in common, before said team hunkered down for the long, hemorrhoid-inducing crunch to include two, maybe three of the dozens of suggestions floated.

Cliff Bleszinski was on fire with these ludic linguistics in this interview with Brandon Sheffield. Easily a dozen quips like, "I would've loved it in Skyrim if my fiancee could have left a treasure in a chest in my house while she was playing, Animal Crossing-style. You know, Fable with the orbs in the world, that's where we're all going, right?"

That sentence is going to mean fuck-all to a lot of gamers, let alone shambling great-grandmas (he's talking about this). To the right audience, there's a depth of meaning. But that language of games isn't the same as an elastic alphabet. It's a rough-hewn, hodgepodge collection of hieroglyphs. Finished, well-peddled games form the brunt of our symbolic language. And the effort required even to copy known hieroglyphic passages is staggering. Equivalent to carving into solid stone, with tools that'll seem antiquated and ball-busting in a generation or two.

Graduating from referential hieroglyphs to a specific alphabet might be a seductive adventure for some, but a unified language is a major undertaking. Beyond the question of whether anyone would give a shit (we have, after all, spent thousands of hours learning our various shorthands) well... whose work -- of the dozens (probably hundreds) of academics and devs who've contributed -- do you favor?

Ernest Adams, Richard Bartle, Jesper Juul, Nick Yee, Steve Swink, Janet Murray, Koster, Bogost, McGonigal, Hunicke, Brathwaite, Schell, etc, etc? Some of them conflict, sometimes clearly and vocally, sometimes subtly and in back channels. An uncareful vocabulary might suddenly get political. Maybe that invites a counter-vocabulary, and then the whole point of the exercise is gone, lost in translation.


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Comments


Luis Guimaraes
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This whole "Let's make design accessible so everyone and their mother can be a Game Designer" is really annoying.

Neils Clark
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To me the article is less about the number of developers we should have, and more about the quality of the conversations that we've been having.

Luis Guimaraes
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Hey Neils,

Yes, I know. I'm exactly joining the article on the opportunity to say this because it's been stuck in my throat for a long time.

Maybe we should stop and consider making a Game Designer Sim were you can pretend to be Miyamoto, Cliff Bleszinsky, Will Wright, Shinji Mikami, Ken Levine, Peter Molineux... then we can put a long handholding tutorial sections teaching how to design awesome games (via QTE, of course), and add lot of achievements, leveling up and positive reinforcement telling how the player is awesome.

Joe Wreschnig
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Also annoying: Teaching people to write, play instruments, draw, speak, or do anything other than subsistance farming.

Seriously, why can't they just accept our divine right as designers?

Luis Guimaraes
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Joe Wreschnig,

You're right. I admit I'm over reacting.
Developer Syndrome is real! I'm spoiled as a player.

Not against teaching anything, I also enjoy doing so. But Game Designers are already undervalued and underused, coming from a Graphics Design background I've seen a lot of this in practice. Recipes will only empower marketers and producers more then they already are.

Unless a method is trully free of bias and preferences (or at least encompasses all possibilities), the adoption of said methods will only bring further stagnation.

Joe Wreschnig
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@Luis,

Marketers have shitloads of resources. If they can get what they want by making games, they will figure out how to do it no matter how accessible it is. In a lot of ways in the F2P and advergame markets already have built parallel business/education structures to implement, learn, and teach the kind of design they want.

The solution is not to retreat into our ivory towers and pretend they don't exist. It's to make sure *everyone* can make a game, and that we have a *broad* definition of game and game design.

Stephen Chin
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"Recipes will only empower marketers and producers more then they already are."

While perhaps designers are undervalued, I don't think knowing more about these sorts of topics really hurts them. It's like knowing what a Higgs boson is... and being an actual particle physicist. There's no doubt that a lot of people can talk about the general concept behind the Higgs boson, but few would call themselves a particle physicist. It's that level of distinction that's important not the underlying knowledge - that there's a certain level of training, experience, and skill required to turn that knowledge into something more than a random definition.

Evan Hartshorn
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"...Game Designers are already undervalued and underused, coming from a Graphics Design background I've seen a lot of this in practice. Recipes will only empower marketers and producers more then they already are..."

A good part of any art is craft. Gotta learn how to play scales before you can play the blues. Jazz by non-musicians isn't Jazz; it's noise. They had to go over the scales and various chords hundreds of times before getting to that point.

Will a revealed and understood concept of the craft empower producers to produce schlock? Yeah. So? People find and elevate non-schlock regardless. The existence of Batman and Robin doesn't destroy Dark Knight, let alone the Lord of the Rings novels. And options for venues keep opening up. Indie games are cheaper than AAA games. People notice them. Enough people notice them, and the AAA companies notice them, and you get Cave Story on the 3DS, in 3D.

In the mean time, if we find the rules, learn the craft -- well, a good general rule in any of the arts is if you don't know the rules of the craft, you will only produce art by a wild and unlikely accident. But if you *do*, then you start to feel how to break 'em and make it work, and non-schlock results.

There will always be schlock, and there will always be a way for actual artists to shine. It ain't perfect, but nothing is.

Alexander Parshin
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The articale is a Words juggling in a pursue of self-delight, pure demagogy. 'make love not war' - and what a 'love' and 'war' is? do we have enough of vocabulary to describe a love or at last to understand what is love?

Keith Burgun
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Raph's theory of fun is not a theory. It's an attempt, like so many game design books of our sad time, to wrap up the totality of videogames into some kind of all-inclusive "summary".

The problem with all of these design books is that they are specifically NOT theories. They basically all say the same thing: "sometimes this works, sometimes this works, sometimes this works, I don't know, just try some stuff." Jesse Schell's book is probably worst in this regard, being literally a list of like 101 things that you could try? Maybe?

There can not be any real game design theory until we're prepared to divvy up "videogames" into smaller, useful categories. A contest is not the same as a fantasy simulator. A puzzle is not the same as interactive fiction. A toy is not a game.

The reason we haven't done this is complex, but part of it is that we wrongly attribute value to the word "game". This means that we feel like we're insulting something by pointing out that it maybe isn't one. I wrote about these issues recently on this very site.

Keith Burgun
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There is something between "spray and pray" and "a single authoritarian theory". What I propose is a single, useful theory. What Koster and Schell and the rest offer is basically a description of the current situation, rather than a proposal of what could be.

I am not saying that my theory is the "single unified theory that ends all theories". But it is actually a paradigm, which I think is much more useful than an all-inclusive "hey, whatever works works I guess" approach.

Joe Wreschnig
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@Keith,

Do you really not yet get how contradictory it is to say "we wrongly attribute value to the word 'game'" while in the next breath demanding "that is why all SERIOUS PEOPLE will see the value in *MY* definition of the word and use *MY* definition of the word"?

No one's attributing more meaning to the word than you in your attempt to exclude what thousands of people are doing.

(Of course, you'll claim you're not excluding them - they just won't be relevant to a site about the art of *game* development, or enter the independent *games* festival, or join the international *game* developers association, or subscribe to *game* developer magazine, or be part of the *game* industry.)

Mark Venturelli
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Yeah, just like an unified theory of music killed it.

Let's just keep being ignorant and unable to communicate properly with one another because that's where art comes from!

http://www.altdevblogaday.com/2011/06/11/respecting-design/

Neils Clark
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What did you think of Ian Bogost's breakdown of games, Keith?

Neils Clark
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@ Mark,

Dan Cook took an incredibly insightful look at the development of early musical notation, in his 2006 blog post Creating a System of Game Play Notation.

http://www.lostgarden.com/2006/01/creating-system-of-game-play-no
tation.html

He writes that varied rewards act as your instruments, and tracking those (among a range of other things) in a system of notation gives license to making more cost-effective, modern design tools. Definitely a piece that gets overlooked too often.

Luis Guimaraes
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@Neils,

That article (and discussion) is great.

"Creating a complete and robust notational system is a Herculean task."

Well, creating the music notation was probably a Herculan task. A musical partiture is writen in two dimensions.

Games can't use such a simple notation. My favoutire way of writting and analysing games as interaction atoms, write it down in the same fashion of a Thesaurus, with links that explain how each atom interacts with each other (interaction focused design).

The method you use must come from the design philosophy you want to follow, which often comes down to mood and preference. My Thesaurus system comes from a simulationist (emergent gameplay) philosophy, created for one specific project in the works. Different projects have different goals, therefore need different tools.

"The more I play games like that the more I turned off to them and just want to get back to systems interacting with systems" -Cliff Bleszinski

Interaction Atoms (systems):
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/MarkVenturelli/20110807/89959/The_
Perception_of_Roles_In_Game_Systems.php

Interaction Documentation:
http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/37816/gdc_online_the_design_do
cument_.php

But that works for me, the kind of games I enjoy playing and the kind of game I'm making right now. Not all games are the same.

This system works for me because I consider that creativity can be roughly described as "extrapolation of data", so the approach of "alright, what can happen between these two elements?" and the fill the blank if necessary, interesting and not negative to the main goal of the project. So by manually exposing the details in the date and intentionally asking question for extrapolation I come with more solutions, hence having better chances of coming with creative solutions. Statistics is a science.

That, said. I'd personally favour a comparisson between games and food.

Darren Tomlyn
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All my posts on this site are generally based upon the contents of my blog, (and I suggest everyone should read it): http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DarrenTomlyn/20110311/6174/Content
s_NEW.php

The problem we have with discussions of games, is that they're not being based upon a solid, consistent, foundation - a full understanding and knowledge of what games are - what it is the word game itself truly represents. Without such a foundation, many such discussions and perceptions of games, and other, similar activities, (such as puzzles and competitions), will not exist within the correct context.

So the root of the problems, is a matter of linguistics - which is what my blog is for...

We already HAVE split computer games - (note: it's possible for games to use computers without requiring video!!) - up into smaller, useful categories, in a manner consistent with how the word game is used in general - by the type of behaviour the game enables. (Trying to split it up further, by the medium used, only helps if you want to differentiate between different types of computer - (such as consoles/PC's etc..))

I'm afraid that the behaviour of interacting with a story being told, IS what the word puzzle (as a noun) represents an application of - and can and will vary depending on the medium, be it picture covered wood (a jigsaw), a drawing (a maze or Sudoku etc.) or using text (a choose-your-own adventure book) or even video. The things we call a puzzle are only called that because of the application of behaviour they are designed to enable, just like games. Just because we've confused the behaviour for the things/media that enable it, doesn't mean they're the same...

Game, art, puzzle, competition, work and play all represent applications of behaviour/things that happen, (activities), (or specific (tangible) things that enable it), when used as nouns, but the problem we have is that this is NOT understood and recognised in general, which has led to subjective perceptions of such words and what they represent - definitions of art by the properties it creates in its audience, puzzles and games as and by the media used, games as play, and competition by its goals, and as only being direct etc..

Until the basic foundations are laid within the language itself, by its study and teaching, we'll always be building on sand, and nothing will every be fully consistent and therefore make total sense.

Until we know what the word game itself represents, we'll never fully understand what games ARE, and therefore understand how to make them to their full potential, or how to describe them properly and consistently.

The fact that game, puzzle and competition have all become confused for each other, just because of the medium used, (a computer), is a problem, and as I've said before, is a matter of linguistics - though of a very fundamental nature for at least the English language.

NOTE: Fun is NOT a process - it is a property a process has/can be perceived as having, (used as an adjective), (or an application of such a property when used as a noun) - it is not used as a verb, so it doesn't represent behaviour/a thing that happens.

To understand how and why games CAN be fun - (they don't need to be in order to exist) - you must first understand what a game is...

Christopher Totten
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I think the part that really spoke to me was the discussion of Brenda Brathwaite's delineation between "fun" and the emotions and experiences that happen in games. Earlier in the article you mention the Koster's classification of "delight" in the context of realizations. In many ways, even the games that express or explore negative experiences have their own elements of delight - less so in the "ah-ha I figured out the puzzle" way but more in the way that a dramatic twist happens in a film. Incendies is a good film example of this. The film's twist is something that's painful to see and think about, but it is a memorable experience.

In my own recent article I pointed out how the board game Zombies!!! plays with your negative emotions in a crafted zombie apocalypse situation. While I would say I have "fun" playing it, there are times when you consider killing off your current "character" so you may start over from the beginning with fresh supplies. It was a year before I realized that the game, by the nature of its rules on dying and restarting, makes you weigh the benefits of committing suicide. While that's not a "fun" emotion, the experience is rather enlightening into the mindset of a person in a situation of devastating loss. I've also had similar experiences with games like Gambit's "The Snowfield."

Preet Kukreti
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Once we have definitively, concretely, absolutely nailed what fun means, and the merit of defining it, lets define meaning next, or even better, existence!

Lets have a few articles discussing the value of the process of defining vague heuristics for measuring a game and devoting considerable time to creating unified theories of everything.

Meanwhile I'll be making a game.

Oh, and I do hope that these upcoming articles are full of ultra-meta goodness; hopefully abstracted away to some obscene degree beyond practicality where they can provide fellow game designers (philosophers) with maximum utility.

Luis Guimaraes
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"Meanwhile I'll be making a game."

Two.

Mark Venturelli
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Theory without practice is useless, but when you couple them together you are much more powerful and can do better, more meaningful things.

Also, almost all of these authors make games themselves.

Stop advocating ignorance!

Sean Kiley
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Anything can be made boring by analyzing it to death.

Laurence Nairne
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Depends on the mentality of the analyst my friend.

For an industry that demands such a large quantity of funding and man power, I'm surprised there are relatively few who actually care to analyse "game", "fun" and "meaning" to the degree that they require. Whilst we can make games and be happy doing so without lengthy debate about those terms, and without caring a bit about the language we use to discuss them, I agree with Clark when he says (I hope not to be incorrect in my understanding) that we need a more complete vocabulary of games in order to expand beyond making games that are based solely on a combination of symbolic examples. Rather than saying "That worked for X developer so let's take a slice of their pie with a pinch of our own 'originality'", we will begin to unravel the elements of games that make them worth playing. It is particularly important for top level designers to explicitly understand the process of meaning making between developer and gamer, and really get a grasp on the neurological impulses that are formed when in an immersive gaming experience.

Like with any industry, you need experts at the top of the chain who understand why they are making certain decisions, not people who rely on the ingenuity of other such professionals in the past to dictate what direction they will head in. There is nothing wrong with borrowing ideas, but if a designer is borrowing them simply on the basis that it seems popular, it may be completely incompatible with their own models.

On a slightly different tangent, as much as I do believe we need a more cohesive language to discuss games, I believe that even a complete language falls into a disarray of shorthand expressions regardless of the completeness of the language. Look at English for example. Trying to define 'nice' would take a while as 'pleasant' would only cover one use of that word. The word 'sweet' is not only used to describe a taste. This language is full of expressions that are so unbelievably vague that they can fit hundreds of contexts. Whilst a clearly defined language would allow us to move away from only describing and producing experiences that rehash old tired mechanics and narrative arcs (etc), it would have to be formally logical to avoid the complex misunderstandings of modern languages.

Sean Kiley
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I can see the appeal Laurence, I just don't think it is necessary. Top designers are "top designers" because they understand what is fun, intrinsically. When they hit a wall, people buy games by others who are getting it, so there is always a progressive momentum.

I agree vocabulary can fall short for many things, but this is why we also have expression (e.g. I give flowers to my wife instead of describing how I feel). You know fun when you are having it.

Laurence Nairne
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Whilst I accept that some people have a 'knack' for creating something enjoyable to interact with, I struggle to believe that everybody in a position to merit the title 'top designer' became so without extensive research. Like Mr. Stewart states below, there needs to be a balance. If you wish to do something properly, just hurtling into it isn't the best approach. There needs to be a merge of theory and practice, not one or the other. Nothing gets done with theory alone, but then nothing comes to fruition and success without extensive research when considering something like the process of making a game. A programmer for example could be considered an artist of code, but there is no way anybody was born naturally into knowing a programming language. It takes years of practice to become effective at it no matter how creative you can be with it. Same with design, you might have an affinity for creative coherence and flow, but knowing the principles to utilise that intrinsic ability comes with learning. I imagine if you ask most designers they will tell you that they will have researched a fair bit before settling on their working practices. There is a time and place for both theory and practice.

Sean Kiley
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True, experience makes us all better.

Bart Stewart
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Is "fun" an ineffable, Platonic quality that strikes randomly like lightning? Or is it a specifically definable Thing that, with the right planning and execution, can be produced reliably and whose fitness can be measured?

Why are some designers unwilling to accept that making a broadly enjoyable game depends on *both* artistry and engineering?

Gamasutra is full of "how-to" articles -- why have those if making "fun" is random? Why tell aspiring developers to study how games get made? Why bother trying to have or use a vocabulary for expressing the nature of "fun" at any level if successfully applying that vocabulary is a complete crapshoot? Even if it's not perfect, having some shared language of design increases the likelihood that a particular gameplay mechanic will suit its intended design purpose.

At the same time, it's obvious that engineering isn't enough, either. There are plenty of games that follow sound software development methodologies for both schedule and cost that somehow miss capturing the spark of enjoyability. There is no perfect recipe for fun; if there were, everyone could and would be doing it. (That cake really is a lie.)

Articles pushing (or putting down) either the Artist or the Engineer -- as though they're mutually exclusive -- always feel like yet another rehash of C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" observation. I'm never going to get that; all I can see are the anti-examples where both art and engineering are respected as equally necessary to bring into existence a complex new thing that engenders joy.

A Pixar movie is both a real thing and a joyful thing. It's a product that got made according to a schedule with budgets, and that resolved a massive number of functional/technical considerations. It's also a glorious exploration of human feeling that's "fun" for many people. Something like that doesn't happen despite engineering or artistry; it happens *because* both creative modes are applied. Both are necessary, but neither is sufficient.

So why is there so much resistance to believing the same is true for computer games? Why can't we talk about the theory of making games (as I have in my "Personality and Play Styles" article) as well as the practice, while at the same time acknowledging that a truly enjoyable gameplay concept whose creators care about its expression is required for all the process and theory to mean anything?

The artistry of game design is about having ideas that different kinds of people can find satisfying. Engineering is about turning ideas into reality efficiently enough to make such creative projects achievable.

Why does anyone think that favoring one over the other is necessary?

Neils Clark
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Whether looking at studios who are innovating, or even just finishing games, you're absolutely right. I was writing about this last night, for Limbo. In Christian Nutt's interview with Arnt Jensen and Dino Patti, they talk about a developer's ability to tell how another studio's office space is structured. That they could literally hear where the music guy sat.

I love it, absolutely love it, when something like Limbo fuses engineering and design (among other things) so well that we don't notice. Even if the joy is short-lived.

Keith Burgun
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Lightning doesn't strike randomly.

Curtiss Murphy
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Well said Bart! I like it.

JB Vorderkunz
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Neils,

If "Fun is Boring" and "Psychology is Fun", then by the Transitive Property "Psychology is Boring." Am I following your logic correctly? =)

Nick Harris
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"Idea to shipped game is roughly the difference between a frozen ovary and a 24-year-old human."

What?

Nathaniel Marlow
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He's saying going from game idea to finished game is about the same as going from frozen ovary to adult human.

Luis Guimaraes
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Such an ambiguous analogy. At first read I though it had something to do with fertility...

Nick Harris
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@Nathaniel Marlow

Hmm... 24 years to make a game?

Seems a bit high. I thought that AAA titles took about 3.

Let me see if I can put some real numbers onto this conception-to-distribution interval...

Halo 3's Multiplayer is perfect - so much so that when Bungie came to make a prequel they messed it up, not due to ineptitude, but because any change to the ingredients of a perfected recipe couldn't hope to be better. Now, Halo 3 came out in late 2007, so all I have to do is try to work out the earliest probable date of its conception and make the subtraction. According to Wikipedia, Bungie's Jason Jones was living in the dormitories of the University of Chicago when he first saw id's seminal "Wolfenstein 3D" in the mid 1992:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pathways_into_Darkness#Development

So I would venture to say that the idea of doing Bungie's next sci-fi game "Marathon" with 3D graphics stems from that point. This is significant because many gameplay elements that were successful in the Marathon game series resurface in the Halo series:

http://xboxrepublic.top-forum.net/t5441-marathon-halo-comparison

Consequently, I would assert that although there wasn't any online multiplayer before Halo 2, it took until that game's sequel to cultivate its emergent gameplay so that every match was packed with incident, excitement, interest and fun (even if you aren't playing it hyper-super competitively, but just having a social knock-about with some friends) - really, it is remarkable that, even now (after more than 10,000 matches) I witness some never before experienced event every time I play; this really is a testament to the cohesion of the rules (indeed, some maps almost feel like Chess such is the maturity, balance and disposition of its pivotal elements).

This gives Halo 3 a conception-to-distribution interval of slightly over 15 years. Obviously, not every game gets such a long creative gestation, so much opportunity for player observation to feed back into incremental refinement, and I am not saying that Jason Jones knew he'd write Halo 3 when he began work on Marathon, but what seems clear is that saying it takes 24 years to make any game fun has no supporting evidence, credibility, or (frankly) incentive for games developers to delay their gratification that long.

That isn't to say I wouldn't be interested to play a game that had taken 24 years...

Nathaniel Marlow
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Er, he doesn't mean it literally takes 24 years to go from idea to game (and also, the first Halo had online multiplayer in the PC version).

It's an analogy, to put it more simply he's just saying:
1. You get a cool idea for something.
2. You get started making it.
3. You finish it, and it's changed from the original idea in ways you couldn't have predicted.

This happens without exception to pretty much any type of creative endeavor. As soon as you start the process of trying to materialize your ideas, the goalposts are already shifting.

James Margaris
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"Even if it's not perfect, having some shared language of design increases the likelihood that a particular gameplay mechanic will suit its intended design purpose."

Movies have a shared language of design (two-shot, master, inset, etc) but it's a little pointless to try to define what makes a good movie. "It has to have at least 3 explosions!!!"

Being able to talk about game design with terms that are specific and well-understood is great. That's completely different from developing some grand theories about what makes things fun.

Joe Wreschnig
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I brought up this same point on Keith's article re. music theory.

These theories work because they grow as music and film grow. They talk about tools used in music and films but do not define (or want to define) "music" or "film".

The job of any kind of "game theory" or "fun theory" won't be to define game or fun. It'll be a way to categorize elements of games - defined very broadly - so we have common reference points. Not common goals.

Lewis Pulsipher
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As I read it I'm thinking, "I never use the word fun as in 'a game is fun' because there are so many different ideas of what fun is". Ask chess players, about half will say it's fun, half won't. People can have fun playing a game, but the fun comes from the people they're playing with, not the game. I use "enjoyable or interesting" instead of fun. The very idea of pinning "fun" (or enjoyable/interesting) down in one theory is . . . pointless as well as impossible, by its nature. If nothing else, language is not sufficiently precise, and it certainly can't be described mathematically. But it's certainly worthwhile to remind students that they don't need to invent game language from scratch.

And when people start to talk about "meaningful" games, I run for cover. Games can be "meaningful" (whatever the hell that means) to individuals for lots of reasons, but trying to talk about it is hopelessly mired in semantics.

Michael Rooney
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"I use "enjoyable or interesting" instead of fun."

Why is 'enjoyable' or 'interesting' any more descriptive than 'fun'? 'Enjoyable' and 'fun' are synonyms.

Lewis Pulsipher
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Interesting is not a synonym for fun, Michael. I don't think "enjoyable" is, either, some things that are enjoyable are also fun, some things that are fun are also enjoyable (maybe all). Enjoyable is a broader term. In any case, that's why I also include "interesting".

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Michael Rooney
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If you look up enjoyable in the dictionary, it lists fun as a synonym.

Interesting isn't a synonym, but it isn't any more descriptive than fun. It has the same problems as "meaningful" or "fun". I don't see how you can differentiate the level of description offered by any of the words. All of them just say that the game does something you like, but don't delve any deeper into why you like it.

Roger Tober
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I've found that people that tell me games have to be fun, generally like very repetitive, twitch games. I was working on a strategy game and someone told me it wasn't fun. He was a game designer also, and when I played his game it was a shoot the moving target game. I don't think the reverse is true. People that like strategy games don't say "games have to be fun", or try to define games or some other broad, semi-useless word.

Michael Rooney
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I don't think I agree. Games should be fun. What makes games fun can differ greatly.

Roger Tober
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For me, games should be challenging, explorative, goal oriented, and thought provoking. That's what I find to be fun, but I'm not so naive as to define the word around my interests.

Michael Rooney
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Can somebody verify this for me. Is this article just a 3 page long way to say, "use more descriptive words than 'fun' and develop them into a shared vocabulary"?

Daniel Boy
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No.

Keith Burgun
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No, it's not. For hints on what the article is about, read the article.

Curtiss Murphy
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Why do I ask my wife to review my stuff? She's such a harsh critic!

I write a lot, and sometimes, I create a masterpiece! Something I just know everyone will love! And when I do, I will print it and set it lovingly on my wife's desk. I ask her gently and sweetly, 'oh honey, when you have a chance, would you ... Review ... this for me?'

And then I sneak away and sit, waiting, on pins and needles. I'm afraid of what will happen next. Because, sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, my wife will find all of the holes in my masterpiece. She will hack and slash it to bits, until my masterpiece lies in taters on the floor, covered in the blood of my shredded ego.

But, after the carnage, something amazing will happen. I will realize she is right! I will begin to see the gaping holes in my work and ... I will make my it shine! Until it becomes the masterpiece I believed it was at the start!

I wish this author had a wife like mine... because then, after 3 pages of awesome links and beautiful prose, I wouldn't be sitting here, ... scratching my head and wondering what the heck I'm supposed to do with, "Speak to me, you theorists, in the sexy language of games"?!?!

Rik Spruitenburg
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No, he was telling us that most "Triple A" games are derivative and probably worse that the game they copied. Then he mangled an idea about "fun" meaning "learning" and then claimed the new games weren't fun if you played the older games. Duh, you aren't actually learning anything if you played the same game before.

Tadhg Kelly
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Yes, it's complicated. Of course it is because each way of looking at games (and I'd include my own work in this) is more akin to a literary theory than a scientific analysis, which is hardly surprising. There are a number of us who would like to be the ones who nail the terminology once and for all, but in all likelihood it will always be indistinct because all it takes for someone else to come along and say "I think it's THIS" (again, I include myself in this).

But you know what? It's interesting too. Getting someone else's idea or point of view and reconciling or rejecting it compared to your own is part of how we grow, meta-meta-meta-fun if you like. So I wouldn't be so keen to dismiss the grey areas, as they are sometimes some of the most enlightening and animated discussions of all. Here's mine of course:

http://www.whatgamesare.com

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Moses Wolfenstein
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Indeed Tadhg, one of the reasons I keep your blog in my feed is for those moments that leave me sputtering in indignation at your framing of a concept in a manner that I totally disagree with. The other reason is of course because from my perspective you often nail concepts in a thoroughly comprehensive manner that I completely agree with.

There are certainly plenty of folks who don't want to get involved in the conversation...who simply don't favor meta-meta-meta-fun (or whatever people want to call it). For those of us who find enjoyment in theory and believe it can support our practice, there's this ongoing and very lively conversation to be had.

Scott Rogers
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Fun is too general a term for gaming. Anyone who is asking if a game is "fun" during the production of a game is asking the wrong question. While there are dozens of criteria on which to gauge a game (challenge, difficulty, beauty, variety, surprise, wish-fullfilment, feel, etc. ad nauseum (pun intended), during production, I find it best to apply the "theory of unfun" (as outlined in "Level Up! the Guide to Great Game Design" and "Swipe This! The Guide to Great Touchscreen Game Design") - which states, if you start with a fun gameplay idea, concentrate and remove on the unfun elements during production, you should be left with the fun. Sure it seems simple, but often simplicity is all that is required for success.

James Byron
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Of course the totality of games can be condensed into a unified theory. Just like Joseph Campbell unified story-telling under the Hero's Journey, and like the Higgs Boson unified physics, it's just a matter of time before we understand the natural formulae of fun inherent in our universe.

Best article I've read in weeks, btw.

Ole Berg Leren
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I heard they thought they had found the Higgs-Boson, but not that it was verified AND that it had unified Quantum Mechanics and Special Relativity. Care to link me to a relevant article, since I am lazy but interested? :P

Evan Combs
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It's not verified, they still have a long ways to go before they can verify it. At a minimum months, possibly even years.

So far I have found this has been another subject of poor communication because of improper use and understanding of vocabulary, or sensationalized news articles.

Ole Berg Leren
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Yeah, that's in-line with my understanding. "Yay, we found _something_ and it _might_ be the HB!" Even if it isn't the HB, they still found something new, and that's still exciting!

JB Vorderkunz
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If you think that the Hero's Journey has unified narrative theory then you need to re-examine narrative theory. It's just one tool in the kit...

Daniel Boy
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@Evan
You're quite correct: CERN found evidence of _a_ new particle @125 GeV (significance of just shy of 5 sigma). Best guess: It's "the" Higgs. So the standard model isn't broken. Yet. But it's still possible, if some other decay paths won't match up. It will take another year+/-, to _verify_ that. And independent verification, I don't know. Maybe you could milk the tevatron data for clues, now you know, what you are looking for?

edit
@Ole
Did not see your second post. Sorry!

Brent Gulanowski
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Any question that starts with "Why do people...?" is fundamentally unanswerable, much the same as "Why does the sun shine?" or "Why is the sky blue?" is fundamentally unanswerable.

If we one day understand the exact workings of the brain, and succeed in demonstrating that human beings are in fact physical systems that obey physical laws, it won't actually tell us "why" humans do what they do. "Why" is a chain of cause and effect that leads back to the beginning of the universe.

A perfect physiological model of the brain will tell us a lot about "how" people work, and what leads them to play games, but it won't actually explain the subjective experience of playing a game.

When someone asks the question "Why are games fun?", it's another way of asking "Why do people play games?" As if there could be a single, definitive answer to a question like that! If you want to know the answer to that question, you just have to ask people. You will get a different answer for every person you ask, although I'm sure you would find statistical trends emerging. But it would not help you to create a formula for making a game that is always "fun" (or "interesting", "artful", "awesome" or whatever subjective quality which is currently associated with encouraging people to notice, play and pay for games).

But disregard all that. The reason that people ask questions like "Why...?" is not to get a definitive answer, any more than the reason people play games is to win them. People play games, and game designers and critics think about games, because they just like to. Even if they say that they want to make a unifying language of "fun" or whatever, that's not actually what they want. They just want to think about, write about, and talk about games, because they find it "fun" ("fascinating", "interesting", "engaging", "compelling", etc.. etc.).

So let's not be disingenuous, either as creators, critics, or meta-critics (or whatever you like to call critics who spend more time criticizing other critics and their theories than the thing they're criticizing). Let's first of all stop being so quick to tell anyone, "you're doing it wrong." Personally, I am not completely sure what the true purpose of Mr. Clark's essay is. I do think he's trying to influence the behaviour of game designers. He wants people to make more games, I think. But if people would rather think about games than making them, exactly what's so wrong with that? Should we encourage people to make games (or anything) when they'd rather think about making games (or whatever)? Are they likely to make good games if they aren't yet ready to make them?

Are there enough good games or aren't there? Are there enough good game designers/developers, or aren't there? Can you actually measure that? If you could, what number would be enough?

Understanding is good. Ignorance is bad. Knowing what you want to accomplish is also good, and you can't do that without being able to describe what you are trying to achieve. And you can't do any of it without a suitable language. You cannot think about that which you cannot describe. You certainly cannot discuss ideas that you cannot put into language.

I do agree that games themselves are a language, but they are not a precise language. And considering how long it takes to make a game, the conversations that are possible using games as a language will take a very long time, and be restricted to a very small number of people, out of the total number who are interested in games and how they work. This is the same in all forms of artistry and creative enterprise. And like other art forms, talking about them does not take away from their existence, their meaning or their significance. Or their fun.

Making games is, it's true, a practical way to learn about games, but it does not replace having a proper (word-based) language for discussing them. It is valuable to build a proper vocabulary that comes from reality, that describes games based on their parts and how those parts are put together. But even then, this won't lead to the development of a formula for making better games. It will just give people a way to talk about something they are interested in without the frustration of not being able to get their point across.

Ole Berg Leren
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Seems legit: http://voices.yahoo.com/the-sky-appears-blue-because-something-ca
lled-scattering-1875964.html

And the sun shines because it's a nuclear furnace, right? Or were you asking on a more metaphysical level? Not disagreeing with your post, just thought the premise was a bit odd.

Ken Williamson
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And yet no-one who enjoys games needs to be told what is fun and what isn't for them. Kids don't intellectualize why something is fun, they just enjoy it. There is something visceral and subjective and indefinable about fun that is going to resist all the attempts to categorize and theorize it. Unless that is first understood, any "theory" of fun is going to be a pointless exercise (and I suspect it may be ultimately pointless anyway). It's like music - you can study and understand the theory of composition, but that doesn't mean you can create good (or great) music. All creativity is like this.

I actually view the continual attempts to define and quantify what is essentially indefinable with suspicion. The desire to do so betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of what is being "defined", IMO.

David Pierre
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Absolutely disagree!

Ask a child why they like or hate something and they'll return an answer! It is still a purpose!

No casual user* sits down and ponders "Why is this fun" when they are enjoying something because they are in the midst of enjoying it. Only a skeptic, a complainer, or an inventor would. When they finally find a game or any other activity that they don't enjoy, they will question it. "Why is this fun?" "Why would anyone find this fun?" And so they will ask others, who DO enjoy it, "Why is this fun?" Answers will likely vary from person to person, but there will be some purpose as to why they enjoy such an activity, even though that feeling is completely lost on the interrogator. Fun can be explained!

As game designers, we are, 99% of the time, trying to bring the fun to people. It is one of the cores of our purpose. But how can we do that when we can't even say what fun is? Are we just going to let our intuition of fun speak for itself and continue to build games the same way as we have? Should we let one of the most important principles of our trade simply become "an unwritten concept." No, that is mental stagnation! having undefined terms makes discussions feel as if the group is speaking different languages. I know many discussions about games that have been derailed as they've spent too much time trying to define what a game means! Defining things would make all communication, discussion, development, and growth easier.

That is why we as designers SHOULD try to define fun. Actually, let me write that better: We should try to define "The Funs". "Fun" as a word I find to be synonymous with enjoyment, a state of satisfaction or pleasure. There truly isn't much to it. But if connecting a player to this state is what we aim to do, we should familiarize ourselves with how to do it. That is what needs defining. I've heard of the things that Lazarro has brought up from time to time, and I found it very fascinating. There are many different sources of fun and enjoyment that any person could get out of their media, and I'm certain she hasn't found all of them. By understanding those, a designer can understand how their game could potentially satisfy players even if it wasn't their initial intention.

* casual user- average person who picks up a game and doesn't think about game design.

Tyler Shogren
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X or Y is fun. Fun is an adjective, not a noun. So fun isn't anything without something else being it, like green or fast; meaningless alone.

What is amusement or entertainment? It's always different in every moment for everyone. So the question isn't "what is fun", but "is this fun"; so how to answer that question and predict the answer of different people at different times experiencing from different perspectives. Is the solution in medea res?

Also, microtransactions are not fun.

Darren Tomlyn
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See my reply to Keith Burgun above... (And then read my blog ;) ).

"Also, microtransactions are not fun."

100% agreement with that! (What the microtransactions enable and promote can be fun - but that's literally a different matter).

John Mawhorter
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The main problem with using game references as your design language is simply that games take so long to play, there are so many games (and genres), and their immense complexity. Despite this, even in movies or music where the vocabulary is pretty fully developed, the industry guys probably still end up saying "like that shot in Vertigo" or "like Stella Dallas meets The Simpsons episode where Bart is a General" or "the guitar sound on Stairway To Heaven". With games the problem is in describing interactive systems, which ultimately, are more complicated then music, which has to deal with time and pitch and other elements, but not 3D spaces with multiple simulated entities interacting with each other, some controlled by players (who by the way are all different) and some by AI, in relation to a physics simulation that only simulates some aspects of reality and those in a very particular way. And many of the very particular things about game feel are controlled by variables in code that are invisible to the player, so designers who didn't work on a project don't have any way of copying it except by rough approximation/guesswork.

Jason Pineo
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Agreed about the hurdle of building up that game experience for use as vocabulary. But the idea of using those experiences as shorthand still has pull for me, not least because we're already doing it. People speak derisively about game designs thrown around as "Game X but with Feature Y" but perhaps there's a useful method there. Not at the "Game X" level, but rather at the level of discrete goals and player experiences. If I tell you that I want my real-time game to have the ability for Players to Leeeroy Jenkins their way into trouble, that's going to be enough for some portion of our audience (keeping in mind that the audience for a statement like that is probably other designers). For anyone who doesn't already know it, Leeroy Jenkins can be explained relatively quickly, and from then on it can be used as shorthand.

It reminds me of Chekov's Gun, the way I can refer to it succinctly and expect some of you to know what I'm talking about, but if you don't, it's well-established enough that I can just link you to an explanation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekov%27s_gun

As we pass around these shorthand references, we should keep alert for ones which can be archetypical, that can embody not just a specific implementation, but also our design principles.

TC Weidner
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whole thing is way over thought.

What makes a good game, a good book, a good movie, a good tv show? Its called engaging the audience. Getting your audience engaged in your medium. Having them care about the story, characters, experience and outcome.

Fun will happen naturally via this engagement.

It's not rocket science, its hard to do, but the goal is simple enough.

Darren Tomlyn
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Games are not the same as art. Although games can be seen as works of art, and can use art to exist - what makes a game good, is different from what makes a good work of art - (and therefore be good works of art, independently of being a game, or vice-versa).

Fun is a property that things we do, or things that happen to us - (some kind of behaviour that we take part in) - can posses. Since games are things people do, they CAN be perceived as being fun. There are also a few things that games naturally are, and involve, that people can find fun in themselves - they're naturally competitive, for example.

But the prime consideration to make a game fun, BECAUSE it's a game, should be to make it consistent - which doesn't happen that often these days, primarily because people don't know what a game is...

Nathan Frost
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One notable theorist omitted from this discussion is Chris Bateman (a colleague of Ernest Adams), who's developing a model of "what different players like" that's tied to neuroscience.

From his website: "[the BrainHex] player model depicts gameplay behaviour in terms of seven key elements in the human nervous systems - the hippocampus and sensory cortices, the amygdala, epinephrine, norepinephrine, the orbito-frontal cortex, the hypothalamus, and the nucleus accumbens."

http://blog.brainhex.com/


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