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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.

Fun is a dead horse

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?

Golden Developer

“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.

F • un

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.

Video games are porn

I love this quote, though this isn’t verbatim.
John Carmack

“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.

Don’t Compete

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!
Kyle Gabler

“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.”


Greg   game development

7 Responses to “Here’s my problem with Fun.”

  1. Porter

    I just thought about this a bit, and without getting too deep, I came to this conclusion. A fun game, is a game that in some way tickles your mind in a positive way. If a game has art that sends chills up your spine, that part of the game is fun. If the music is so excellent you find yourself bobbing your head as you go through levels, it’s fun. If bouncing off of enemies and not touching the ground gives you some sort of enjoyment, than it’s fun. I would say a fun game is any game that can do any of the above tasks(or those not listed, but of the same nature), while still maintaining enough quality in it’s other areas to give an overall positive grade. To elaborate, I’ve played some fun games that were not that great, but had very fun aspects about them. If portal had horrid graphics, a bad story, and the level design sucked, portals themselves would be fun, but the game wouldn’t be. However, if you fix the levels, let the graphics stay bad, and keep a sub par story, you mind find it’s overall value to be positive, thus making it a fun game. I just thought of this after reading your article, so it’s not exactly refined, but I like the idea. Thanks for getting me thinking, it’s definitely something us developers should keep in mind.

  2. Scypher

    @ Porter:

    I’d say the feeling you’re describing could be better described as “compelling” or “pleasing,” or maybe something else entirely; but replace the word “fun” and your meaning still holds up. I see what you’re getting at, and why you’d equate those things with fun, but you can probably imagine how confusing that gets. I don’t mean to single you out, but I think it’s important that games — as a field, a medium, an artform, or whatever — stick to a terminology, which means keeping open interpretations to a minimum.

    (Which is in part why the discussion of “games as art” is such an ass of a thing because it almost always necessitates a clarification of the word “art” and people are a lot of times in agreement but don’t realize it and a lot of other annoying things. But that’s some other tangent.)

    Anyway, I gotta agree that intentionally not competing with giants is such an awesome and sensible approach to game design. I think the more that devs approach games this way, the more examples we will have of games that were never meant to be fun, yet are incredibly compelling. And that makes a better case for the diversity of games; for the UnFun-ness of games more than anything. Which, incidentally, can help make Fun games more Fun, right?

  3. Merus

    I think a lot of the reason why ‘fun’ is valued is because, as a medium, a game cannot exist without a player. Its defining feature is that it has an external agent, or several, making decisions that affect the game - the players.

    If the player isn’t of the opinion that the game is worth her attention, she’s going to stop playing and the game is entirely for naught. Some games, particularly Shadow of the Colossus and the very end of the most recent Prince of Persia, exploited the player wanting to keep playing for narrative effect, by making their only meaningful action one that in the context of the story was morally wrong.

    So here’s the thing about ‘fun’: if the player’s not having it, the game’s unable to make any kind of statement because the player’s not engaging. To a degree, I think that games kind of have to be at least a little fun, enough for people to be engaged by them. This isn’t really a sliding scale where more fun = more engaging = more artistically successful, especially considering “what is fun” is inherently subjective anyway and so some players are never going to be as engaged.

    I do think compelling interactions are important, even in a game that is explicitly not interested in entertaining. There may be a way to do compelling without also being fun, but other than explicitly experimental games designed for people who find ludonarrative experiments intrinsically compelling (and use words like ludonarrative with a straight face), it might be better to just accept that on some level games need to be fun to work.

  4. GoNintendo - The problem with fun

    [...] Article here [...]

  5. Michael Samyn

    So glad to hear this. We were starting to feel pretty lonely here at Tale of Tales.

    One problem we run into time and again is that people object to our use of the word “game” for our work. Our justification is that videogames have become so much more than just games. But I guess most people still associate games with fun. Do we need a new name for these “unfun” games?

  6. fucrate

    If you change the target of your work from making a “game” like chess is a game to creating more of an “experience”, then fun becomes just another tool you can use to keep players interested and engaged. Fun isn’t the only tool we have, but a lot of game developers, and journos and others, talk like the only point of games is to create a fun experience for players. The thing is there is so much more that we can do to keep people engaged and interested, we have a wealth of tools for player experience at our disposal, and our focus on just the fun hurts the diversity and breadth of what we can achieve as game makers.

    The important point, however, is that since all the AAA dev’s are so focused on fun, we can get by a lot easier by focusing on horror or character development or any number of game experiences that are less developed and thus have a lower bar for entry.

    Gotta hit them where they don’t expect, as indie’s we’re basically guerilla fighters here.

  7. Kaworu Nagisa

    Marvelous post.
    Fantastic quotation of John Carmack.
    And yes, we really need games that have some meaning (any meaning, tbh; where are games saying “I love you” from developer to his/her lover?) or at least a mature, well written story that is framework, not an addition (I would love to say that Hollywood does it well but American mainstream cinema is right now often penetrating the depth of any gutter marked with $$$ sign; anyway, even a game with plot equally “deep” to 90s ‘SPEED’ would make me smile like a child).

    On the other hand, is it really porn movies that we play? Isn’t it popcorn, hotdog and hamburger with solid dozen of uber-healthy cola that we play? Where is the “Ratatouille” of game industry then? :)