Games at a more fundamental level

As game developers, we often talk about the technical aspects of building games; but every once in a while I think it’s prudent that we discuss games at a more fundamental level. Today, I’d like to talk about how games become fun.

This is certainly a divisive topic, and clearly there’s no one answer. There’s no formula you can follow, no library you can use to “import fun”. When I was doing the research for this article, I asked my friend what he thought and he said “that’s like asking a comedian how to be funny”, ­­the implication being that it’s much more art than science.

There are surprisingly few people studying the fun of video games, considering the market size and broad applications of the ability to make things fun. But the (growing) few who have studied this have certainly come up with interesting observations.

The brain is a pattern learning machine.

The human brain excels at discovering and remembering patterns. It’s what we do all day long. Whenever you recognize an object or a person, that’s your brain calling up a previously learned pattern. The same holds for whenever you perform a task, write an article, do a skateboard kickflip, or drive to your parents’ house.

Since pattern learning is so important for your survival, your brain has a way to reward you when you learn a new pattern: it releases dopamine. It feels good to learn something new! That’s your brain’s way of incentivizing you to keep learning stuff. And for good reason; learning things is hard, and if there were no incentive, we’d just sit around staring at the wall all day.

Game designers ended up taking advantage of this learning/reward mechanism. It feels great to discover a new secret in a level, it’s really rewarding to figure out Bowser’s movement pattern and finally defeat him, and “getting the hang” of the games controls is a good feeling.

Now we understand that we should give our players patterns to learn and master, because learning those patterns is satisfying and fun for the players. But patterns that are too difficult to learn are a turn­off. Have you played Dwarf Fortress yet?

To avoid overwhelming players with brand new patterns and concepts (or, “game mechanics” and “ludemes”) for each game that gets built, it may be better to simply evolve upon game styles and mechanics that are already out there. Players won’t feel alienated or in over their heads, but they’ll still get the joy of learning a game’s new take on a mechanic, or a unique combination of game mechanics and ludemes.

It should seem natural, then, that as games evolved, so did their mechanics. Every once in a while a game would come out that invented a new mechanic, but more often than not, new games would simply expand upon an existing mechanic or try to combine established mechanics in new ways.

When Pong came out, it popularized the “ball and paddle” mechanic. Eventually, someone said “we should make a 1­-player Pong”, and invented Breakout. It still used the ball and paddle mechanic, but the opponent was a brick wall instead of another paddle. Thus was born a unique game that nobody had ever seen before, but the core mechanic was still familiar to players.

Donkey Kong popularized the platformer mechanic, and a few years later Mario added to that with more in­-depth gameplay and a few other mechanics (the “secret area” mechanic and the “player upgrade” mechanic, for instance).

The Legend of Zelda popularized the open world RPG mechanic, and also brought in the melee combat mechanic, player upgrade mechanic, secret area mechanic, and even an in­-game currency mechanic (some of which had already existed, others were new at the time).

If Zelda’s mechanics all sound familiar, that’s because they’re still in use today! Those mechanics have been used over and over again, in different permutations, in many games since then. Those mechanics are also seen in the Elder Scrolls series, Diablo, and even Grand Theft Auto. Those best­sellers didn’t need to re­invent the wheel: they just needed to concentrate on great story, gameplay, and immersive worlds. Magic, experience and leveling, currency, melee combat, open worlds, and non­linear story were all established game mechanics by that point.

It might seem that the two things I’ve talked about­­ “make your players learn new patterns” and “use established patterns so as not to alienate players”­­ are statements at odds with one another. However, they form a nice thesis: games should be easy to learn and difficult to master. (“Should” is a strong word; I’d rather say that many­­–but not all­­–groundbreaking games were easy to learn but difficult to master.)

Easy to learn, difficult to master.

Mastery is much more than being able to beat a game. Mastery comes from having a deep understanding of the underlying mechanics of the game, and using that to not only beat the game, but to do it handily and gracefully. This also implies that a game that can be mastered has a certain level of depth, and that allows its players to keep coming back and try to learn more about the game.

Chess is the ultimate example of this mantra. There are only 12 or so simple rules that define the game of chess (7 for movement, and a couple extra for check, checkmate, castling, pawn promotion, and something called “en passant”, which I hadn’t heard of until now). But mastering chess takes years of dedicated practice and learning. And because the simple rules combine in so many different ways, almost every chess game is different, giving it infinite replay value.

Compare chess to tic­-tac­-toe, which is “easy to learn; no mastery”. You’ll play it a couple of times when you’re bored, but it’ll never be a game you spend too much time thinking about. It’s also not really fun. It’s easy to learn, but there’s no depth and very little replay value.