What Makes a Video Game Fun (for me)?

Developing a video game is hard--at least, it’s harder than one would expect. There are a lot of moving parts that go into developing one: coding, visuals, music and sound, testing, etc. That’s why, when I see an indie game come up on places like the Babylon.js Forums, itch.io, or other places, I’m always in awe of it. Whether it’s a single person or a whole team, I know that a lot of effort went into that game. A game needs a game loop and logic, plenty of visual assets (especially for 3D games), sound effects and music, a method of distribution, etc. Now, the reason I’m bringing this up isn’t to discourage anyone from making games but to illustrate just how much effort it takes to get something playable. Next, you have to add the idea that it has to be FUN. Fun feels like an obvious one but there’s a lot to it.

Photo by Alex Carmichael on Unsplash

Fun is a bit of a moving target. What’s fun for me may not be fun for any of you and vice versa. On top of that, what’s considered fun for the average user one day, may not be considered fun the next. What I’d like to do is to explore a few of the things that I feel lend themselves to what I see as a fun game experience in the hopes that this may give some budding game developers a little food for thought. I am, by no means, a subject matter expert on this so please take this blog post with a grain of salt. It should also be noted that I’ll be touching on primarily mechanics and will avoid weighing in on story aspects.

There are a lot of different areas that lend themselves what’s fun and each area is an iceberg of information. My plan for this blog post is to briefly touch on three areas: the atmosphere of a game, player agency and choice impact, and difficulty and fairness.

Atmosphere and the World Around You

In my opinion, there is no better feeling than feeling like I’m a part of a living and breathing world. Things like looking outward and seeing every area I can visit to perusing the detailed minutiae of background set pieces in a shop always help me to feel just a bit more at home in any game that I play. Back in the day, games didn’t have nearly the amount of detail they do now but had a couple of tricks to give you that “living world” feel. It could be as simple as a ding when you touch something or a footprint left as you walk but it’s always the little details and polish that can make the difference between playing on a static image and playing in a world. Details like that may not seem like much to you but they add to a fun experience. It doesn’t just have to be visual either.

When walking through the snow, both Arthur and his horse leave tracks in real time (GIF courtesy of RockstarGames on GIPHY)

Music is one of the strongest tools that can be used to convey emotion or add to the Atmosphere of a game. How many times have you heard an old theme from a game you loved, only to get swept up in a deluge of amazing memories? Even sound effects can do this. I’d be willing to bet that, for those of you who played the original Final Fantasy 7, if you heard the Limit Break noise without any sort of context, the majority of you would not only know what it was but a few of you would remember what your favorite Limit Break was (mine was Omnislash).

Here’s a video from MELOO showing all of the forms of the Omnislash throughout the years

Building a game’s atmosphere, whether it be through animated objects, detailed easter eggs, or sound effects can help to create a more immersive and ultimately, more fun game. Sometimes, people just want to get lost in a world for a bit. Whether the game takes place in fantasy world or the stadium of their favorite sport team, atmosphere can make all the difference.

As I’m sure that anyone who’s tried to make their own assets knows, making assets is difficult if you don’t know what you’re doing. The same goes with coding. If you’re not familiar with what a particular game engine can do, you won’t be able to put everything together. Even if you have a working game, you still need to polish it.

Polish is the idea of taking a working game and refining it by removing bugs, adding little details like sound effects, little animations and transitions, etc. The funny thing is that for developers, they can feel kind of insignificant for the work they take to implement. The average player might not even notice their inclusion but when they’re done wrong (or not at all) people will notice.

One instance that comes to mind is when I was playing a game and got to a point that I could reach normally but was stopped by an invisible wall. I remember it being odd that I could go so far and that nothing should be stopping me but I could go no farther. I can understand why the developers didn’t want me to go past it but I always thought, “Why didn’t they just put something there?” As a developer, it’s important to keep player in bounds but can you do it in a way that either maintains immersion or even “rewards” the player? One of my favorite examples is in a game called Motocross Madness. In that game, there were cliffs that acted as boundaries for the level you were on. If you were to ride up the cliff and keep going, you would hear a cannon fire sound effect and be launch in the opposite direction for a few hundred meters. While this “reward” didn’t help you in any way, it was fun to send myself flying.

Outside Xtra shows several clever ways to handle players trying to escape the boundaries (including Motocross Madness)

The Weight of Your Choices

While launching myself halfway across a level was fun, it would have never happened if I didn’t try to break out of the level. It didn’t just happen to me. I made it happen. One of the primary aspects of a game is Interactivity. It’s one of the things that makes a game, a game. A couple of you might be thinking, “Well, a Blu-ray menu is interactive. Is that a game?”

Well, a menu is interactive but do your actions impact the menu? Another aspect of a game is that your actions have Weight. When you defeat an enemy, you can earn points, items, or progress. While you can move around on a menu, you will always have access to each area. In a game, you have to earn access. You need to beat the boss to access the next level. You need to earn points to unlock the next special ability. You need to find the key and bring it to a special area to unlock the Easter egg with the secret credits roll. I think you get the point.

Finally, while you can interact with a world and have that world show signs of your influence, wouldn’t that get boring after a while? Truth be told, no game will be fun forever. Getting from the first level to the last may have the same path but doesn’t have to be done the same way, which brings me to a subject that I hold near and dear to my heart, Player Agency. Player Agency is the idea that a player can choose what they do. While there may only be one best path to the end of a game, that doesn’t mean that it’s the only way (or even the most fun way).

I’m reminded of a time that I was in a board game shop with some friends and was approached by a DigiPen student who wanted a group to playtest a game for an assignment. The game involved the group choosing an enemy at the start and rolling dice each turn to attack and defend against that enemy. At first, the game was fun and easy to play but as we played, the lesson began to set in. The only thing that we could control was the dice roll. There was no other choice but to roll and there was no strategy, other than to try to roll well. The initial New Game Euphoria began to wear off after a bit and we ended the game. At the end, we answered a few questions and suggested things like having different options or incorporating some ways to vary the strategy of attack. I suspect that the purpose of this playtest and the assignment was to show the importance of being able to choose what to do and have agency.

Photo by Jonathan Petersson on Unsplash

Player Agency isn’t just about having several choices but about having the creativity to stray from the road less traveled. Whenever I start a new Dark Souls playthrough, I take the time to plan what I want to do and then I see what I can break to make that happen.

I am a huge fan of Sequence Breaking. Sequence Breaking is the concept of doing something outside of the normal order in a game. In my last playthrough, I had used some sequence breaks to beat everything in the game EXCEPT the final boss (Gywn, Lord of Cinder) and the first post-tutorial boss (Taurus Demon). I had conquered everything in the DLC and I was only Soul Level 5. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, the big takeaway should be that I was both way too overpowered and underpowered at the exact same time because of my choices. That was a hard but insanely fun playthrough. This is, by no means, the best way or even the standard way to play the game but a way that I had the choice of using.

I don’t think that the Crestfallen Warrior approved of my sequence breaking

No matter what the intended way of playing a game is, a developer should always consider the chance that players will find a way NOT to do that. Not punishing (and even rewarding) choices that may stray from the beaten path is something that I feel allows players to find even more fun, even in unintended ways.

Difficulty and the Feeling of Fairness

For the most part, people tend to break a game to make it either much easier or much harder. The Speedrunning community has been built off of the idea of breaking the game. The game has proven to be so easy for some that trying to beat the game in less time than it takes to install the game on their device of choice. Let’s take Dark Souls Remastered, for example. The average play time, according to Howlongtobeat.com, is just under 47 hours. The fastest speedrun record is around 32 minutes and 25 seconds. That’s pretty crazy but that brings me to the idea of Difficulty in games. Easy games can be fun and the same goes with difficult ones. I feel like difficulty is one of the most divisive aspects of a game. I’ve known people who look at a game like Sekiro as a punishment while others look at something like Animal Crossing as a game for kids (I personally love both of these games and play them based on my gaming mood). To say that one game is more fun than the other does both games a disservice because they don’t cater to the same audiences at the same time. What I find that promotes fun in difficulty is when you find a game that matches the amount of virtual adversity that you willing to suffer.

Something that every gamer has experienced is what is known as “being in the zone”. Being in the zone is the idea that you are fully immersed and in sync with your character. Everything else in the world fades out of existence because your focus is purely on your character/avatar and your virtual environment. This feeling is the closest that you will ever feel to being in the game. Sometimes, being in the zone doesn’t mean that you will succeed but you won’t give up. This is like that feeling where you’re constantly losing but you just keep saying to yourself, “I’m so close! I know I can do it on the next attempt!” This may include yelling at the screen, banging your fists against a desk, or suggestions from friends and loved ones to just take a break that fall on deaf ears. Regardless of frustration, you ALWAYS feel like there’s a chance that you could win. This, in my opinion, is difficulty done right. When you finally win, you feel amazing. That brings us to the one thing that can hurt fun, with respect to difficulty and adversity, the feeling of unfairness.

It’s a tough trek but there’s comfort and accomplishment in lighting a bonfire in Dark Souls (from GIPHY)

Fairness is the idea that, in a given choice or situation, you can progress even when the difficulty is high. When we perceive a situation as unfair, it can affect how much fun we’re having. Now when I talk about an unfair situation, I’m referring to a mechanically unfair situation, not story-wise. This isn’t always a big deal, if you know about it but it’s frustrating to waste useful items and energy on a no-win situation. I’ve seen several JRPGs that tended to use no-win fights as a way to build tension or progress the story. If you know about it, it’s a great way to put over a specific bad guy. Nowadays, it feels like games are better about this but occasionally include unfair scenarios.

When I encountered Zio for the first time, as a kid, I thought I was prepared to win this no-win fight. I didn’t realize just how much I was gonna lose. (Phantasy Star 4 — Sega Genesis)

One example that comes to mind is from one of my favorite new games, Final Fantasy 7 Remake. For the purposes of progressing the story, there are times where a cutscene will take place in a battle. These cutscenes tend to happen when an enemy reaches a certain amount of health. Unfairness comes into play when you use a move like a Limit Break right before one of these triggered cutscenes. Since some of them hit multiple times, the move will partially be executed and be canceled, in favor of the cutscene taking place. In that instance, you might feel like you’ve wasted your move. Because you can’t get the rest of your attack or start a cutscene of your own, you feel like your choice has had an unfair result. This also add an unintended mechanic to the fight, if you end up doing the fight again.

While not spoiling anything, Girlfriend Reviews perfectly illustrates the frustration (@ 8:22) — Warning: Mature Language

Here’s an example of a slightly different situation. In Ghost of Tsushima, you can learn a special move called the Dance of Wrath. This move allows the player to strike up to three enemies in quick succession. When used in a duel, you will strike your opponent three times. Sometimes, your opponent in a duel will clash swords and stop your attack to exchange a few words. This is kind of like how Final Fantasy 7 initiates a cutscene, except with one big difference. If this clash happens before your three slashes are complete, you will stop, trade words, break contact, and finish the move. The resolve used isn’t wasted because you’re given a chance to finish all three moves. Since this is a costly move, it feels more fair to handle things this way. It’s stuff like this that can help to keep things fair while maintaining the difficulty of the situation.

Jin stares down his foe, ready to duel (GIF courtesy of Playstation on GIPHY)

There are a lot of things that both define and enhance what makes a game fun and this post only scratches the surface. Hopefully, this was an entertaining read and inspired some ideas for any budding game developers. In any case, have fun with your development!

Dave Solares - https://twitter.com/PolygonalSun

Babylon.js: Powerful, Beautiful, Simple, Open — Web-Based 3D At Its Best. https://www.babylonjs.com/

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