Justin Li

The Fun in Games


I've always liked text based adventure games, even though I haven't played a lot of them. I was looking at Inform engine the other day, a MUD development environment, and was side tracked to Emily Short's webpage. One of her recent blog postswas a review of Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun for Game Design. I found that there's a foreword by Will Wright (the creator of SimCity, the Sims, and the still-in-production Spore), and I thought about buying the book. Instead, I realized the university library has a copy, and I went and got that instead.

The book is very informal, which could be either good or bad depending on your background. It's also not too thick and has relatively large font, so I was done within 3 hours. Although overall the book seems to talk about the place of games in culture and art, I found some of the diversions more interesting.

In particular, Koster postulates that the fun in games comes from trying to figure out how to beat the game. Once we know how to win, and can win decisively every time we play, then the game ceases to be fun. In this sense, games are destined to be boring, and the designer of games have to deal with that. In other words (my own), the replay value of the game requires the player to do things differently, which is more commonly observed as diverging story lines, since players (of an RPG, say) rarely choose a different character to play with. The point behind this example is that, once you've learned something you can't go back and learn it again, no matter how much you've enjoyed the process.

I was thinking that this only works if the game has a goal. Of course, it's hard to imagine games without goals (which are perhaps more appropriately called "toys"), but at least one game designer has always tried to do that: Will Wright. There are no strictly defined goals in the Sims. We could try to advance the career as much as possible, or to get as many friends as possible, or try to get the Sims to kill each other. The "goal" in the Sims is therefore created by the player. In Will Wright's words, the point of his games is to "take the player out of the protagonist of Luke Skywalker, and put them in the world of George Lucas."

I'll give one of my own examples of creating goals in games. Back in the days I played Populous: The Beginning, an RTS game. The first level was easy: all you have to do is build a few huts, train a few warriors, cast a spell to connect your island to the enemy's island, and blow them to bits. It was meant to be a tutorial, and so it took all of 15 minutes to finish. After beating the game, I went back to this level, and spent on enormous amount of time on it. What did I do? I built as many houses as I can, got as many villagers as possible, and then cast spells to turn the planet of mostly water into one with mostly land. It might seem boring in retrospect, but I had a great time doing it. This is what I mean: the goal of the game is just to conquer the system of planets, but when players create their own goal, no matter how trivial or uninteresting it may seem, in the end the player has fun.

I thought I would end with a quote from the Koster's book. It's about how game is one of many types of media in today's society, and how while the other types have gone on to become (at least partially) art, games are still lagging behind. Koster offers this explanation: "because all art entails posing questions and puzzles - tough ones, ethical ones even. And games will never be mature a long as designers create them with complete answers to their puzzles in mind."