Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Theories of Fun

I've thought of a theory of fun. Unfortunately, it's about 90 degrees to the "normal" fare, and I don't think that simply EXPLAINING it will actually get any response. So, instead, I'll explain why it's a significant improvement, in my incredibly humble opinion.

Let me start by explaining the massive holes I've always bitched about when other people define "fun".

Marc LeBlanc, a clever man who won't remember meeting me, has eight kinds of fun: Sensation, fantasy, narrative, challenge, fellowship, discovery, expression, and submission. Another common division is the "four types of fun", which denotes hard, easy, social, and "altered states". Earlier, I posted a tentative "challenge, freedom, and resonance" division.

Marc's eight kinds are flat out bad. They don't talk about fun: they talk about arenas of fun. Settings. You can have fun in a fellowship setting, but is it a KIND OF FUN? No, not really: there's a bunch of different kinds of "fellowship fun". Because fellowship isn't a kind of fun, it's merely a wrapper, a shell for actual kinds of fun. Moreover, it can't really be used to implement "fun". You want to implement fellowship-type fun. What are you going to do? Put in a PvP mode? A co-op mode? An on-line community? Some kind of party game?

Lazzaro's are nearly as bad, because they started with roughly the same kind of divisions as Marc, but then compressed them down into four choices. This won't make them any more helpful, especially with ambivalent titles like "the people factor" for a "kind of fun".

You certainly can't meaningfully dissect game dynamics with either of these. Is a racing game "hard" fun? Why? How about Mario Kart? Is it "challenge"? Why? How about Mario Kart?

As you can see, it's clear there's something missing. How can the same game dynamic be both hard and easy? The only difference is whether you're on a hard or easy difficulty level or whether you have a hard or easy goal. The dynamics are exactly the same. So these don't help you design dynamics. They can't help you dissect dynamics. All they can do is help you point your existing dynamics in specific directions, which is good, but not what they were intended to do.

I reviewed my preferences for games, and those of my friends. Both Marc and Lazzaro talk about how different players have different preferences. So how is it that I like some games that focus on a type of fun, and hate others? Is it because they are bad? Much as I might like to say so, no, not really: I dislike FFVII, but nobody else does. It must be a good game. Why do I dislike it, if it includes the same kinds of "fun" as FFVI, my favorite?

The answer is, of course, it doesn't. The dynamics of the games I like and I dislike are very different... once you shake your head free of the 'genre' rut.

Let's take a more pronounced example: why do I love some of the MechWarrior games, but hate others? They're all "mech-fighting action games", a pretty specific genre, right?

Forget the genre. We're talking about the dynamics of play. The pattern the game follows.

Looked at like that, the answer suddenly becomes clear. The mechwarrior games all shared pretty much the same combat dynamics: the hideously complex eighty-button, three-mouse piloting configuration designed specifically for our crustacean market. Putting aside the stupidity of a certain XBox game we won't talk about.

The plots are univiersally unengaging, the graphics aren't exactly an important point, the dialogue and pacing are as bland as they can be. The only place where the games really vary is in the pre-mission screen.

The best of the series are easy to find: they're the ones that allow you to customize your mech better. The more dumbed-down the mech creation, the less worth playing the game was to me.

My joy wasn't in using my eighty-four fingers and five arms to pilot my mech skillfully. My joy was in building a mech that I could hose my opposition with.

One of my favorite games of all time - the one nobody else has ever heard of - is Carnage Heart. It's a game where you create a robot chassis, fill a circuit-board-like layout with instructions, and unleash a small team of them against another team, where they start fighting automatically.

The game's instruction circuits were pretty poor. I would have given quite a lot to have a 'movement angle' and 'movement velocity' detector, and the fact that it was impossible to tell how far your mech automatically turned while tracking an enemy always screwed me up. Despite the painful limitations, I CRANKED at that freaking game. I am probably the TOP PLAYER of that game, given that I've never met anyone who could come anywhere close.

I created mechs which would nestle up to obstructions so that only their gun arm projected out from it, allowing them to shoot from nearly complete cover. I created mechs which were so adept at using cover that they could go an entire battle WITHOUT GETTING HIT. I could lay mines in a pattern guaranteed to kill. I had single mechs which could take on platoons of other people's mechs - WITHOUT a hardware advantage.

But the fun was in making teams of mechs (maximum: three). There was no way to tell which enemy you were seeing, or which ally: it was just "an enemy" and "an ally". However, you had a radio and some variables. Using these, I created squads which were so incredibly destructive that I could beat an entire level - usually 20-50 engagements - with only six mechs.

Brag, brag, brag. The point isn't that I was incredibly good at this game. Anyone who played it as much as I did would probably get that good. The point is that I had a LOT OF FUN. And you know what part was fun? DESIGNING AN INTERACTIVE PATTERN.

That's ALWAYS been the part I've loved most about games: taking the available pieces and combining them into a superlative whole. FFVI let you do that by assembling a team out of characters with specific special abilities and allowing you to assign each two relics. FFVII did NOT let you do this. Characters were essentially interchangeable and materia did not "combine", they merely existed as options accessable from one location.

Similarly, Sim City's fun part was in building the city and then watching it struggle against the comically overpowered problems it would face chronically, from pollution to crime and back again. Tropico, on the other hand, was a game of minmaxxing. You built your city, but how your city acted wasn't really dependent on how you built it. All cities had roughly the same style of interaction and problems, the only difference was really in how you made your money.

There's nothing WRONG with managing an existing pattern, as most games have you do. I simply like being a watchmaker.

Then, of course, there's just WATCHING a pattern. There's nothing inherently wrong with THAT, either. But it's a different kind of enjoyment.

Why is this distinction better than the earlier ones? Because it allows you to determine exactly what makes a game act a certain way. And, when you dissect games, you find an astonishing trend:

Most of the games which are considered extremely good are about WATCHING and CREATING patterns, NOT about modifying or managing them. Think about it: the more popular RPGs have better plot/setting (watched patterns) and better character customization/varied levelling paths. The more popular FPS have a wide variety of guns, allowing you to switch to ("create") a new interaction pattern on the fly, and many of them have character creation/improvement systems.

Games are all about either creating a new method of interacting, tweaking the statistics of your interaction, or watching interaction. There's some media glitz in there - good music and sounds effects, for example - which don't seem to fall into this kind of framework, but then, they aren't "fun". They're merely "experience enhancers".

I'll talk more about it in a bit, but feel free to post comments.

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