The Origins of Fun
April 12, 2012 Page 1 of 3
[Gameloft technical designer Christian Philippe Guay looks inside to answer fundamental questions about what is fun, and offers up his own unified philosophy.]
Fun is a familiar word and, to this day, it is still hard to define. We do have that strange ability to understand how to make something fun, but so little understanding of its actual origins. For years I've been asking to myself many questions:
- Where does it come from?
- How can it be produced?
- Is fun exclusively subjective?
- Is it possible to create something fun for everyone?
- Is fun all about learning something new?
- Why do I still enjoy older games more than the most recent ones?
- Are we losing our understanding of fun?
- Is engagement the same thing as fun?
- What is the future of video games?
- Could a unified theory of fun exist?
I never found a proper answer to these questions in any articles on the internet, nor any book. However, I did find out a lot about fun, because most articles or books pointed out a lot of the factors that result in fun experiences.
They never, however, clearly explained what fun was or how to produce it. After months of intensive research on the subject, I had a hard time believing how many fun products we've made as an industry without even understanding what fun is or where it comes from. It's amazing, really, what we've accomplished so far.
Desperate and without answers, I started to think. I spent years looking for those answers and, more importantly, underestimated the value of my own experience in solving the problem. Fifteen minutes later, I found my own answers to all of those questions.
That's when I realized how much we know about fun, and how little we know about ourselves. By the end of this article, I'm sure most of you are going to be amazed by how much you knew about fun, and discover that the real trouble was in connecting the dots.
Where Does Fun Come From?
Everything that exists follows what we call a structure: recipes, books, films, video games, chemical formulae, etc. We all know that fun can be experienced during or after an experience. In other words, by better understanding the structure of an experience, we will gain a better understanding of fun. We'll find that structure in the creative process is necessary to create an experience.
Whether it's based on a specific audience target or simple personal inspiration, we first create the vision for a game. Some designers might prefer to call it a blueprint. That blueprint is, exclusively, an idea located in the mind or on paper. It is not yet perceptible or interactive, and yet this step is the heart of the experience.
To make that blueprint interactive, we need to make it perceptible to our human senses. If the idea was to create an interesting enemy, we would have to make the 3D model first. I usually use the word context to cover all that. Fighting on a battlefield is different from fighting in a moving elevator, right? Also, some games feature a story. The perceptible story is found on this specific layer.
Once we've made the idea perceptible, then we can give it a mechanism. We add to our character the bones he needs to move in the intended way. Just keep in mind that everything perceptible will always empower the mechanism and make it better; that's why old school 8-bit games aren't necessarily better even when they offer cooler, more innovative gameplay than contemporary titles.
The ultimate goal of a designer is to give to players tools to influence the world, AI, and other players; it's all about the mind game and the challenge. When it comes to the story, while the context covers the perceptible story, this layer covers the one that we create as we play.
Now that our experience has a mechanism and is interactive, what we want to do is to add that subtle layer of emotions. That's actually one of the steps we often forget, but it is absolutely crucial to the creation of a great and memorable experience. Do you want to throw rockets that will profoundly stress the player? Did you create a room so empty that the player will know for sure that he needs to prepare for the next big fight? Do you desire the player to feel that this area is a peaceful or dangerous place?
Once the player performs the interaction, from cause and effect there is a direct result. Did he counter an attack? Did he eliminate his opponent? Did he hear a sound? What treasure did he find by opening the chest? It's important to notice that there is a challenge and a reward, but the reward is not the last thing to think about. There are a few other steps to an experience.
Once the player gets the result, then he can be conscious of the time it took to complete the experience. The notion of time moderates the intensity of an experience, and it creates rhythm or repetition.
Finally, it's only once the player is aware of the time that he can achieve a full realization of the whole experience. That's the moment when he registers the data in memory and can compare its quality with other past experiences. By going through this final process, the player also forges his judgement. By creating an experience, we also forge our audience; a natural evolution cycle of which we are all part of.
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