Thursday, June 09, 2005

Kicking Ass and Chewing Bubblegum: Both Fun?

(It's a fourth post! Arrrgh! Well, the first two were pretty meaningless, so... um... yeah, they only count as half a post each.)

When you look into fun, you'll find a thousand people giving ten thousand different definitions. Are there eight kinds of fun? Twenty one? Four? Is fun an autonomic reflex attempting to restore the brain to regular neural pulsing? A pattern-learning system? An attempt to prove mastery?

In regards to what I'm doing, there ARE different kinds of fun. But these are not defined by what you do to make the player feel them. They are defined by what the player feels.

In many ways, this is similar to the four kinds of fun proposed by Nicole Lazzaro/XEODesign. Okay, so she technically proposes twelve 'models of player experience', but apparently these boil down to the following kinds of fun:

Hard fun, easy fun, altered states, and 'the people factor'. These, in turn, boil down to applying the brain's basic pattern recognition systems towards different ends.

Hard fun deploys them against obstacles and rewards them with last post's "Woot, I'm the man!" reward. Easy fun deploys them against terrain - not obstacles, but spaces of wide variation. This is generally the exploration, 'what comes next' approach to a game. Altered states deploys pattern recognition avoidance - replacing one pattern with another because it is preferable. "The people factor" deploys your pattern regonition system against other people in a social way.

Honestly, I don't think those are the four 'kinds of fun' I would have chosen, but the basic idea is the same: the player gets to FEEL a radically different emotion type based on the kind of fun. It's rare for an RPG to get your blood pumping, but it is equally rare that five years from now you'll remember that really cool thing you did in Tetris.

If I had to define the different kinds of fun, I would define them as "challenge, freedom, and resonance". This isn't official - it's just what I would say if asked right now.

Challenges are the kind of fun where the player has a path they must take and the whole point is to acheive that path. Freedom may have challenges, but not mandatory ones: a player is not forced to take specific actions. Resonance is when the game causes the player to feel something without directly confronting him in play space.

For example, Dance Dance Revolution is a challenge, but there's a pretty big chunk of freedom as to what your body is doing while you're hitting those beats. WATCHING DDR is resonance, because you're kinda groovin' with the people playing.

Further example: Morrowind. Morrowind is a freedom-based game littered with semi-optional challenge play. However, it also has an element of resonance, as freedom-based games usually do, in its stories and environment. The player is immersed in a new and passably interesting world.

Farthest example: GTA. GTA is like Morrowind. You can hardly tell the difference! Except in the SPEED of the play - Morrowind plays at maybe one-tenth the speed of GTA, which is definitely an important choice.

The KEY to most of the most popular games recently is MIXING these three experience types.

A player usually isn't all that incredibly intrigued by just one of these three kinds of experiences. Sure, a game CAN consist of such, but around it springs a culture to support the rest. Take Starcraft's multiplayer mode. It's pretty much entirely challenge play. So what happened? An entire culture sprung up around it, chatting and grooving together, and added resonance to the environment of the game (if not the game itself).

Depending on the exact nature of the play, you can usually do two or even all three of these kinds of play at once, but games don't keep it up. A normal player can't keep playing the same exact way for hours. He burns out. So games switch it up.

Some games even switch up and have multiple 'games' inside their game which are used to get different versions of the same type of experience. An RPG has local challenges (fights) and global challenges (dungeons). These are often mixed with other kinds of fun - a fight, fast-paced and infinitely repeatable, is devoid of any added cruft. "Streamlined" is the word. But a dungeon is a much slower challenge and is liberally combined with freedom and resonance.

By mixing and matching these kinds of experiences and the rate at which they are experienced, a game is made unique. By CORRECTLY mixing them, you get a game which is eminently playable.

I've always reviewed games by their patterns and play loops, but this seems to be even more promising. The games I'm reviewing in my head seem to pretty clearly split up by audience based on the mix of experience.

My favorite game, for example, is Apples to Apples. There's a fast challenge/resonance phase: put down a card, but a card which will win the judge. This is actually quite a complex challenge despite the limited resources. There's a slower challenge/resonance/freedom phase - renumerating on the card you've drawn and filing a bit more information about the reactions of that particular judge in your memory. Usually, the judge is kind enough to make SOME commentary - but not too much - about the cards, causing laughter. Rinse, lather, repeat.

It's simple, but because the challenges are highly diverse within their framework AND they include multiple speeds and experience types, I can play it for days. I don't know if I'm the record-holder for Apples to Apples play, but I played for more than 12 hours once, taking into account a few bathroom breaks and a few meals - usually eaten while playing.

So long as you remember that a challenge has to be a challenge, freedom has to involve freedom, and resonance has to resonate, I think this is a really neat way to look at game design!

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