Robin’s Rants – ‘Fun, Fun, Think About Fun’

November 17, 2011 in Articles, Editorials, Features by Robin Wilde

I’m often surprised at how many people play MMOs. After all, sitting in your dank room, eyes straining, right clicking until your mouse resembles a silicon pancake – are those fun-sounding activities? I believe I’d get a clear majority if I proposed that it sounded about as fun as a holiday to Mogadishu. Yet it strikes me as supremely odd when the main reason those people play MMOs, often at ridiculous financial and social cost, is that it’s fun.

Surely there’s something more to it? I mean, aside from the occasional patch or expansion pack, there’s not all that much on the surface to keep people playing. In this article, I’m going to propose something radical. Can we simulate the sensation of fun?

Google’s magical dictionary tool defines fun as “Enjoyment, amusement, or lighthearted pleasure”. I feel the most important and yet most ambiguous term there is “pleasure”. After all, many things can induce pleasure, like a good film, sex or food, depending on the person. So let’s see what our good friend the dictionary has to say: “A feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment”.

This shows us that two things are required for pleasure, and therefore fun, to be found. But could it be that satisfaction and enjoyment are linked? When we are satisfied, it goes a long way towards making us feel pleasure. Similarly, when playing an MMO, we have factors that make us feel satisfaction – levelling, killing bosses, opening up a new quest. Face it, how many of you get excited at the prospect of an experience bar climbing incrementally upward? I know I do, and I’m certainly not the only one. That mapped out, traceable progress offers a structure wherein you can only improve, and well, there’s always respawning.

All seemingly harmless from the outside, but is this trend of artificial incentives and satisfaction-inducing markers growing? Almost certainly. Take a look at your Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or Steam collection. How many of those games features trophies/achievements for you to collect? Hands up if you’ve gone back to a game you were bored with just for that precious Gamer Score? I thought so!

The thing is, it’s this revelation that so much of gaming is artificial that’s led me to have some questioning thoughts – what if all of gaming is like this? I mean, we play games on their artistic merit, but what keeps us playing is the prospect of finishing a mission, finding a new area or progressing the story. The button-presses and stick movements aren’t in themselves anything special. What is special is the relationship between all the elements that make up a game – writing, graphics, sound and, yes, gameplay elements. If they all work together, we see a huge spike in reception of a game.

This is why games such as Heavy Rain and Fallout meet with such huge critical and commercial success – they’re exquisitely crafted, yes, but they also give the player the feeling that they actually matter. That one scene that everybody was shocked by in Heavy Rain? We see bloody mutilation in countless games, so why should this one be special? It’s all a matter of the depth of control. Anyone could have watched the actions take place within a cutscene, sure, but when you actually feel the resistance and feedback of the buttons, the experience just seems that much more genuine and forceful.

In Fallout, a very different beast to that foul-weathered adventure game, the player is given near-absolute control in a world with a framework and back story but little else. Instead of being guided through a pre-written, linear story, we are free to forge our own destiny. We can be good or evil, a silent assassin or a ruthless brute, but the game will find its own way to adapt. It invites exploration and lets us create our own tasks. Once we complete them, we feel accomplishment and satisfaction. See where I’m going with this?

Note that non-linearity is not the only way to go. Games can all too easily pull this off wrongly and create a huge disconnect between story and gameplay – wouldn’t LA Noire have been much better if it didn’t include awkward sandbox elements with nothing to do? Linearity is fine, but a large amount of gameplay options, opportunities for discovery and hidden secrets would be greatly appreciated. If Portal proved anything except that AI isn’t to be trusted, it’s that letting a player puzzle their way through a story makes it all the more rewarding.

Satisfaction is indeed a way to make the player experience fun, but I’m concerned we may be going about it the wrong way. Instead of railroading players into an increasing number of Simon-esque button-matching sequences, we should be increasing player choice, freedom and creativity in solving puzzles. We’ve reached the point where technology is up to it; will developers want to make it happen?

-Robin!