12 March 2011

[Literature] A theory of Fun for Game Design

Raph Koster. 2004. A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Paraglyph Press.

Quotes taken from Koster's book. I did not try to put them together in a meaningful way, I just copy-pasted those I found most interesting.

ch3: What games are

The only real difference between games and reality is that the stakes are lower with games.
The more formally constructed your game is, the more limited it will be. Long-lasting games integrate variables from outside the magic circle.
Fun from games arises out of mastery.
With games, learning is the drug. Fun is just another word for learning.

ch4: What games teach us

Most of the game designers working professionally today are self-taught.
Games are viewed as frivolity.
Games almost always teach us tools for being the top monkey.
Most games encourage demonizing the opponent. Can we create games that instead offer us greater insight into how the modern world works?
There has not been a topologically different 2d shooter since [the first 2d shooter to have power ups and bosses and scrolling]. Unsurprisingly, the shooter genre has stagnated and lost market share.
Algorithm for innovation: find a new dimension to add to the gameplay

ch5: What games are not

One of the most self-defeating rallying cry in history: "it's just a game"
The part of games that is least understood is the formal abstract system portion of it, the mathematical part of it. Games need to develop this formal aspect of themselves in order to improve.
This is why gamers are dismissive of the ethical implications of games. They do not see "get a blowjob from a hooker then run her over", they see a power up.
Since games are generally about power, control, and those other primitive things, the stories tend to be so as well.
When games and stories are good, you can come back to them repeatedly and keep learning something new.
Getting emotional effects out of games may be the wrong approach. Perhaps a better question is whether stories can be fun in the way games can.
Different kinds of enjoyment:

  • fun is the act of mastering a problem mentally
  • aesthetic appreciation
  • visceral reactions are generally physical and relate to the physical mastery of a problem
  • social status maneuvers, intrinsic to our self-image and our standing in a community

Aesthetics is about recognizing patterns, not learning new ones.
Delight does not last. Recognition is not an extended process.
Fun is the feedback the brain gives us when we are absorbing patterns for learning purposes. Real fun comes from challenges that are always at the margin of our ability.
Fun is contextual. The reason why we are engaging in an activity matter a lot.

ch6: Different fun for different folks

Since brains have different strengths and weaknesses, different people will have different ideal games.
People will usually choose to play the games they are good at, that reflect their strength.

ch7: The problem with learning

Players try to find the optimal path to getting to the ultimate goal.
Exploiters are often the most expert players of a game.
Since we dislike tedium, we'll allow unpredictability, but only in the confines of predictable boxes, like games or TV shows. Unpredictability means new patterns to learn, therefore unpredictability is fun.
Those of us who want games to be fun are fighting a losing battle against the human brain because fun is a process and routine is its destination.
If there is not a quantifiable advantage to doing something [reward], the brain will discard it.
Successful games incorporate:

  • preparation [choices made before a given challenge], otherwise it's chance. Can the player prepare in different ways and still succeed?
  • a sense of space, otherwise it's trivial. Does the environment affect the challenge?
  • core mechanics
  • challenges [= content] otherwise it's too short. Can the rule set support multiple types of challenges?
  • a range of abilities (otherwise it's simplistic). Can the player bring multiple abilities to bear on the challenge? At high levels of difficulty, does the player have to bring multiple abilities?
  • abilities should require skill. Not requiring skill from a player should be considered a cardinal sin in game design.

A learning experience require:

  • variable feedback (a greater skill should lead to better reward). Are there multiple success states (ie no guaranteed result)?
  • high-level players can not get benefits from easy encounters or they will bottom feed.
  • failure must have a cost. Player should have the ability to try again (with another preparation round).

ch8: The problem with people

Particular problems and solutions appeal to particular brain types.
Games are not there to fulfill power fantasies.
[The increasing complexity of games within a genre] has led to a priesthood of those who can master the intricacies. Newcomers can not get into them - the barrier for entry is too high.
Designeritis [= being] hypersensitive to patterns in games.
Given the lack of codification and critique of what games are, game designers have instead operated under the more guild-like model of apprenticeship. They do what they have seen work.

ch9: Games in context

The following chart can be applied to any medium.

User goal Collaborative Competitive Solo
Constructive Community
Team game design
Commercial game development
Experiential Performance
Single player games
Deconstructive Teaching
Strategy guide writing
Hack and cheats
Writing this book

It's a lot easier to fail to respond to a painting than to fail to respond to a game.
The closer we get to understand the basic building blocks of games (...) the more likely we are to achieve the height of art.

ch10: The ethics of entertainment

For games to really develop as a medium, they need to further develop the ludemes, not just the dressing. By and large, however, the industry has spent its time improving the dressing [...] It's just easy relative to the true challenge.
The best test of a game's fun [is] playing the game with no graphics, no music, no sound, no story, no nothing.
Ethical questions [in games] are aimed at the dressing.
The ludemes themselves can have social values.
As a medium, we have to earn the right to be taken seriously.

ch11: Where games should go

For games to really step up to the plate, they need to provide us with insights into ourselves.
When you feed a player [with a game], right now, we only know "fun" and "boring". Mastery of the medium of games will have to imply authorial intent. The formal systems must be capable of invoking desired learning patterns.

ch12: Taking their rightful place

Games need to develop a critical vocabulary so that understanding of our field can be shared.
Games will never be mature so long as designers create them with complete answers to their own puzzles in mind.


The challenge game designers face is "how do we create games that do not have one right answer?"
[Game designers] are not geeks in the basement rolling funny-shaped dice. Games deserve respect.

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