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Want to make your game fun? Challenge player expectations
Want to make your game fun? Challenge player expectations
July 11, 2012 | By Mike Rose

July 11, 2012 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Design

Expectation and uncertainty are some of the biggest barriers to fun in video games, reasoned a panel of game researchers and developers at the Develop conference today.

Robb Rutledge, senior research associate for the Wellcome Trust, explained that player uncertainty can really boost how much a consumer enjoys your game -- "if you know exactly what you're going to get, it will no longer be interesting," he noted.

A player's prior expectations of an experience can work alongside this uncertainty, for better or for worse. Player Research founder Graham McAllister explained that if the player finds that a game does not live up to their expectations from the get-go, this can immediately break their enjoyment of the game, and from that point it can be hard to fully bring them back into the fray.

On the flip side, if a player is presented with a reward or experience that goes above and beyond what they were expecting, that can have very positive effects on fun. "It's good to be surprised by how good a reward is," he said.

Contrast is another key element of fun in video games, argued McAllister. He reasoned that it is OK to let a player experience some frustration with gameplay, or maybe a cooldown period after a huge chunk of action, as this then creates a "calm before the storm" situation, with rising expectation that can lead to even more enjoyment.

He noted that, in particular, it's a great idea to offer players a cooldown period during which they are fully aware that they are safe to walk around with no action going on, such as how the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series tackles the concept. This means that the player isn't always on edge and can relax and enjoy themselves more.

Elsewhere, Mediatonic's Paul Croft reasoned that the platform your game is aimed at has a direct correlation on how quickly you need to engage your audience through expectation and uncertainty.

For example, with browser games a studio needs to grab players quickly, offering instant rewards and gameplay that builds up rapidly. In comparison, a console game can build the situation up more slowly, introducing fun elements and rewards gradually.

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marty howe
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Why would it ever be ok to let the player experience 'some frustration'?

That sounds really dumb, we should be removing frustrating elements from games.

Evan Hartshorn
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Not if the frustration is paired with the expectation of a contingent release Which is, in turn, fulfilled.
Frustrating button configuration leading to repeated death = bad.
Frustrating level segment leading to powerup that is so worth it = good.
The first kind is irresolvable and off-putting.
The second increases the emotional intensity of the payoff, making a more fulfilling experience.

Eric Geer
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Frustration is the number 1 reason I put a game down.

Matthew Mouras
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Because there are different strokes for different folks? Maybe we are reading that line differently. I read that it was referring to gameplay such as that featured in games like Ninja Gaiden Black or Dark Souls... punishing and "frustrating", but success feels more rewarding.

There's obviously demand in the marketplace for experiences like those.

TC Weidner
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I think hurdles, challenges, and even set backs would be more appropriate words. I agree frustration is more of a failure of design IMHO, but once again as others point out, word definitions aren't always as rigid as we would believe them to be.

Lance McKee
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Yeah, for me it seems to depend on what I'm frustrated about in a game. For example, in Mario Kart I could be approaching the finish line in second place and fire my green shell forward at an opponent. Immediately after using the shell I could get hit by a red shell fired from an AI opponent behind me and then have to watch as about 8 AI opponents zoom past me. This situation would frustrate me but would likely cause me to try again, and make it that much more rewarding when I finally do well.

On the other hand, if I'm approaching the finish line in first place with a huge lead and an AI opponent hits me with a blue shell, then just as I'm about to get back up to speed I get hit by a second blue shell and then watch as all the AI zoom past me and across the finish line, then I feel a much different kind of frustration. This situation makes me feel like breaking the game in half and punching whatever designers or programmers are responsible for setting the game up that way. I don't enjoy that frustration quite as much as the first one.

I guess the difference for me is whether I'm frustrated because I just can't quite accomplish something that I know I eventually can accomplish, or I'm frustrated because of something that I feel was an oversight or "bad" design.

Kevin Alexander
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Perfect example Lance!

David OConnor
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yeah, it comes down to how "frustration" is defined, much like how a "game" and "fun" are defined. People have quite different interpretations of these words.

There are quite a few interesting articles on Gamesutra that discuss these key concepts in a fair amount of detail.

Tomas Henriquez
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I think that the word frustration is a bit harsh. Dark Souls wasn't frustrating because it was well designed, battle system worked almost perfectly, so when you died, you knew it was YOU that did something wrong, and not that the game was unfair, unbalanced or frustrating. I think frustration comes when the player thinks he is doing the right thing, yet he gets punished.
A challenging game doesn't have to be frustrating. If I get challenged I will try over and over again untill I succeed. If I get frustrated, I'll most likely drop the controller or change the game.

If we change the phrase "some frustration" to " a (difficult) challenge" the message can be more clear.

About the "cooldown" idea, I agree. The calm before the storm is a nice touch in action games, but CoD over abuses this resource over and over throught their infinte sequels, so I thinkg it doesn't work for them anymore, since you already know that if there is a "calm", surely there will be a "storm".

Luis Guimaraes
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Frustating moments in games:

- Crysis: when you're invisible or inside a building the chopper always follows you and stays right above your head, at all times, just waiting for you to become visible to start shooting straight at you. You can't just go away or play the game without dropping the chopper. While the soldiers will still search around your area, the chopper will simple be right above you at all time. Awful.

- FEAR 2: I was trying to finish the hardest dificulty playing only with the initial pistol and not using slow-motion, then about 2/3 into the game I got a second pistol and then I'd wield two pistols at once, but accuracy was horrible and the weapon was useless that way. There's wasn't a way to switch back to single pistol, I tried every button, droped and picked it back many times, read all in-game instruction and searched online and didn't find a way to switch back to the single pistol. As I was so advanced in the game I had to drop it and start using the rifle. Probably the most frustating thing ever in a game.

- Call Of Duty: Invisible walls, everywhere. Open doors you can't get in. Boxes you could jump on but blocking volumes don't let you. Having to backtrack an awful lot to trigger stupid AI events, like waiting for you in a door you already got in. Dammit!

- Dead Space: Enemies just forget about you and turn around if you step through the doorway, even if you're two feet away from them.

- Resident Evil 5: Think about coming to the last fight with only a grenade launcher, and every other slot in both inventories filled of full explosive rounds boxes. No other weapon, no health items, nothing but the most powerful round you can buy in the game, which also has the most painful feedback animation from the boss when you hit him. Then you survive an intense fight avoiding being hit until you shot all 90 rounds straight in the boss' neck. And he doesn't die! Then you say "whatever", come back with a knife and run straight up to him, press a couple QTEs and kill him! With a knife!! WTF?!

Wylie Garvin
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I don't mind challenges that are difficult to overcome. I don't even mind challenges that I have to repeat several times before I can overcome them. Try playing through the Call of Duty games on the hardest difficulty: you'll die a lot, but I still find that kind of challenge a lot of fun.

What drives me nuts though, and what I classify as "frustration", are when its difficult to progress for _stupid_ reasons: bad design decisions, heavily unbalanced challenges, bad controls or clunky gameplay, etc. When I feel like I'm stuck because of reasons beyond my control, *thats* when I get frustrated.

Its annoying to be hamstrung because of character development choices I made 10 hours earlier. When I get stuck at a challenge and the game offers me some subtle hand-holding (such as the on-screen hints in Shadow of the Colossus) I usually appreciate it. OTOH, its easy for the game to accidentally come across as condescending, since it has only the crudest idea of what is going on in the player's head when it provides hints or other assistance.

Frustration Example. I think there must have been no time to playtest and polish the last level of God of War 1, because it has this stupid acrobatic balance-beams section where I got stuck for like 30 minutes. I played the entire game on the hardest difficulty, then I got to this section and kept falling to my death repeatedly. About every 3rd death, the game prompts you to switch the difficulty down to 'Easy', and you have to be careful to press a different button than you press when there's no prompt. And the difficulty setting has no effect on the acrobatics crap, only the game's combat! That was frustrating. I perceived it as being entirely caused by bad design and controls, not by my own shortcomings as a player.

Matt Cratty
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The knee-jerk reaction of remove all frustration has been the root cause of the massive drop in interesting or worth-playing titles in the last decade.

I used to buy 10-15 games per year and enjoyed just about all of them. Now I've learned to only buy the two or three that are actually worth playing.

If there's no frustration or anxious moments in a game, there's nothing worth doing.

The problem is that people have gone from "lets get rid of the rotten camera angles, terribly designed encounters, and game-breaking control scheme", to "hey, we don't really need an inventory or skills, its just in the way of the fun, right?"

Maria Jayne
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I think it's admirable that people want to feel challenged and frustrated when playing a video game in their spare time. My concern is that people only want this challenge and frustration if they succeed, it's quite a different experience if you simply cannot move forward in the game.

I expect the fear of people simply not being good enough to enjoy the whole game drives games to be easier. After all, if you can't finish the first boss you encounter within a couple of hours of the game, you probably won't become so attatched to the game that you take note of a sequel.

Instead of asking for games to be more challenging, players should be asking for difficulty modes that are more challenging. Then everyone is happy.