I love fun, but after we made Gray, something went off in my head. So now I’ll rant about that. :)
“This is actually kind of easy. It’s not perfect or even great, but making a game with a message is a relatively simple pursuit. So why is making a fun game so hard?”
After some thinking and a few late night discussions with people smarter than me I’m pretty sure I know why.
When it comes to games, that’s the one trait of a game that people gauge. Sure reviewers will throw in ratings for graphics and music, but that’s mostly naive. Their response to the game directly hinges on if the total package was entertaining. If the art style is horrendous, but the game is fun/engaging [Sexy Hiking] then all is forgiven. The fact is, people have been perfecting the art of making fun games for the last few decades. They’ve gotten pretty amazing at it. Though, take a step back for a moment. Why are we still going after Fun like it’s the Holy Grail?
“It’s simple. Make a good game.”
That sucks. Not because it’s untrue, but because it doesn’t help at all. Well how do I make a good game?! What is a good game? Well, for the most part, a good game is a fun game. Right? Gray was a game we made that completely ignored fun. In fact we didn’t want it to be fun at all, if it was, it would have muddled the message. But yet, to a fair amount of people, Gray is a good game. As I said earlier, it was fairly easy to make. Certainly much easier than making something like Dinowaurs or even Fig. 8 because those chased Fun.
What is Fun anyway? Well it’s engaging. Often a challenge of just enough difficulty to be compelling but not enough to be frustrating with enough variety to maintain interest. At least that’s how I see it. Fun is about learning new skills and using those skills and being rewarded for using them. The rewards vary. In WoW, rewards come by way of numbers. Other times rewards are more intangible, such as “skill” in a hand-eye-coordination game like Halo. That’s really it though, and it’s not easy. Designing a game that does this well is no small task.
Though, designing the first Fun video game was probably a bit easier than designing a Fun video game today. Why? Well, we’re spoiled. We get Fun thrown at us from all directions to the point where we have an incredibly high tolerance for it. Each new game must do something slightly different, but not too different or it will be too frustrating/confusing for the players. In the beginning, games were hard. Kid Icarus hard. But now, designers have learned that doesn’t hit the Fun sweet spot, so we’ve altered things to capitalize on the Fun.
Look at Valve. Perhaps the best game developer in the universe, but they don’t have a roadmap for Fun even. They know when they have it, that’s a skill in itself, but they spend years play testing and tweaking a game in order to get it to that point. Do a couple guys with laptops have that kind of time and resources? That’s where we’re at right now. Surely we can still compete through the Fun angle with interesting new ideas even today, which is pretty incredible when you think about it, but it is most certainly rare.
I love this quote, though this isn’t verbatim.
“Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important”
Carmack isn’t wrong, but he succumbs to the same notion that all of us have. If film was invented and the only thing we did with it was make porno for 30 years, it’s clear that people would start associating film with porno. Of course there’s a lot more that you can do with film than show people having sex. Why not video games as well?
Well, some of folks are trying. Beyond “art games” plenty of Fun games have nuggets of message in them and they always will, but for those to work they’ve had to have a healthy dose of Fun, and often times having a mechanic that is Fun and provides the right message through gameplay leaves things muddy for the player. They’re focusing on the entertainment, not the meaning. The UnFun games movement isn’t a dead horse at all, in fact it can barely walk! Eventually, though, these will grow and mature into a market that will challenge the traditional video game market. Carmack is right, video games are porn. That might seem outrageous, and it definitely sells Fun video games way too short, but it wouldn’t be a wake-up call if it wasn’t annoying, right?
Now there is huge blank canvas for people to experiment in all kinds of ways. If you cross Fun off your To Do list, then you free yourself as a developer to search an almost endless amount of emotions/responses. That’s really what fun is isn’t it? It’s just a response. There are hundreds more we can look into.
So let’s go do that.
If we don’t compete with Fun games, we’ll save ourselves the enormous burden of honing in on that special formula of fun. If few people have really been making any games about honor [right Clint? :P], loss, or obesity, then we don’t have to trump the last guy. The bar is lower and that’s not a bad thing. That’s a great thing!
“AAA game companies have hundreds of people with millions of dollars that allow them to produce high caliber games and would be incredibly daunting to compete with. So don’t.”