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What makes a fun video game?


[[I would love to have contributions to this subject. Please if you have any of your own design "aspects" that you don't see on my list feel free to post it.]]


Theoretical document by Chris Watts.

What is ?Fun??

The reader of this theoretical prose must understand one important fact. The word ?fun? is nether solid or tangible. It's a term loosely used to sum up all the words that encompass enjoyment, entertainment and pleasure.

In an industry were we make interactive entertainment like video games. We should really try to avoid the term ?fun? as designers. But we know there will always be producers and consumers that will want ?Can you make this movie franchise into a game and make it fun??

So what is fun? What is fun in a video game? Academics have their own theories into what is fun in general. But games rely in new and different types of fun then just any normal rule set. There are dozens of aspects of ?fun? that we employ into a game to make it grab and hold the players attention.

Admittedly. Nothing will stay fun forever. Video Games are finite entertainment and the only time we seem to continue playing a single game over and over is when it's a form of social superiority. [World of Warcraft ? Starcraft ? Counterstrike]

In my personal opinion however. Elite Social superiority isn?t a form of entertainment that we as designers should be trying to make into our games. As it can easily move out of the realm of ?fun? and turn into an almost soulless competition for being the top monkey.

Video games are not like league sports. We shouldn?t have to be elite at playing a certain type of game to be part of video games. Elitists will always find places to show themselves off. That's undeniable. And admittedly we all do it all the time. But that's not the majority of players at any given point. Most players want to have fun and thus if too many elite players saturate a game it becomes closed off to beginners and only those willing to fail reputably again and again can ever hope to get as good as the elites. Then your game suffers from what I call ?Counterstrike Syndrome.?

Luckily though. Your not making counter strike. Are you?

We must also remember that we cannot have every facet of design and game play into just one game. Games are becoming more and more complex in both production and styles but if you employ a ?Kitchen Sink? convention to the games you make, not only will those many designs be half done and not thought out. The game will become incoherent and frustrating for the player.

So How many different types of video game ?fun? are there?

In truth. As designers are also Analyzers. There are as many different types of ?fun? as we can justify. And sizing them down isn?t always the answer. It's helpful to be pacific in what you?re trying to explain.

And these different types of fun are not always direct to the player. Some aspects are appreciations that compliment the game.

Below I?ve listed what I believe some design aspects are for a video game. But you yourself can probably come up with even more.

Different aspects of a video game that helps to make it ?fun?

These are listed below pretty randomly. Not that it matters to any great importance. However ?aspects? that I believe are critically important to a game will have a slightly bigger text size for the item.


To succeed in gaining possession of as the result of planning or endeavour; acquire.

In video games; Obtaining and Possession can become an addictive and popular formula for good gameplay. A game that we all know that employs the aspect of obtaining is none other then World Of Warcraft. You go on your merry quests to improve yourself. But in doing that you also obtain new and stronger weapons, items and armor. Learning new abilities. This continues on and on in a cycle and as long as there is always something new and interesting to seek the player is compelled to obtain it.

Obtaining often leads to new and more dynamic ways to play the game. Like when you get a rocket launcher in a First Person Shooter. You know and expect that this weapon will kick ass.

For games that require the character/s the player is controlling to grow. The aspect of Obtaining is a critically important design.

Obtaining usually appears in: FPS , RPG , MMO , Collection games [Gran Turismo]


To raise to a more desirable or more excellent quality or condition; make better.

The aspect of Improving is closely linked to many other video game design aspects like obtaining and power. Put simply both the character and player must improve in and at the game. This usually happens through learning and an almost subconscious process. The katamari series is a great example of a player improving. The concept is simple in rolling a ball to gather things on it; one would think there's nothing to it. But the player gets accustomed to the controls and quickly learns what objects will stick at what sizes. The aspect is the player having the need to improve should be at the core of every Video Game Design.

Also it's important to note that as the player improves his skills, so should the Character he's playing. Rewarding and giving the player an appropriate response to his input into the game is the cornerstone of interactive entertainment. In Jak 3 the improvement of the character is shown in one partially interesting way. As Jak collects new pieces of armour he both visually changes and his health bar improves by two points. Finding this armour is spaced out all through the game.

Improving should appear in all game designs of all styles. Improving can be also be linked to ?Difficulty?


To become greater in size, volume, quantity, or scope

Expanding is an aspect usually explored in strategy based video games and simulators that revolve around business and commerce. Expanding can come in many forms. In the Roller Coaster Tycoon series expanding involved starting out with a blank park. Then through profit and research the player would add more attractions and expand in power and size.

Expanding is an important part of strategy games as it's the equal of obtain and improving to a singular character game. It shows that what the player is doing is correct. Of course expanding isn?t solely a design aspect for strategy games. Katamari requires you to grow bigger and expand.

Expanding appears in Strategy and collection games.


A person, group, or nation having great influence or control over others.

Power goes very close in hand to Expanding. Most visible in strategy games as usually controlled territory such as the control maps in the Command and Conquer Series. The aspect of power is for most of us a form of role-play. It's fantasy fulfilling and makes us feel superior.

It's important to note that most games designed and made in this industry revolve around power and status.

?     Owning the most Land.

?     Controlling the biggest Army.

?     Owning the fastest and most expensive car.

?     Possessing the football team with the best players.

?     Owning the biggest house and best job.

The reason why we revolve so many games around status and power is simply because that is what we as humans strive for in life. Most of us will sadly never own that luxury sport car, or a 6-room estate. And this sad fact is one of many reasons we play games and role-play about power.

Power is an aspect that can appear in mostly all video games.


The causation of change by the exertion of power or a natural process.

Action is an aspect and a term of entertainment. Like the word fun, ?action? can represent a lot of things. For this prose Action in a video game refers to intense boosts of gameplay that the player experiences and contends with. An example of this is the play style of the game ?Black? on the PS2. As you play as a black Ops member you follow the gameplay style of very little confrontations of enemies over distances and then an intense boost of game play in an enclosed area. Usually a large room.

Action can be used in games but designers should avoid it as being a core component of design. Pace is allowed to flux but you should strive to make ALL of the game interesting. Because you?ll simply lose the player in a slow boring component. A good example of action working well is Shadow of the Colossus. In this game you have high-pressured boss battles. But to keep the player happy in-between you get to enjoy beautiful scenery as you travel to the next colossus. And travelling doesn?t take to long.

Action can be applied to most games. But is most seen in FPS and RPG.


The act of introducing something new.

The designers fabled word. All designers want their games to be original and innovative. But what does innovate mean?

For the publishers, highly innovative is a risky and dangerous aspect of design to take on, but a small amount of innovation can wield a profit.

For consumers innovation can be meet with both popularity and obscurity. And where you live also takes a part in that. In Australia consumers are conservative and prefer game types and brands that they know and enjoy. Where is in Japan highly innovative and new games can be meet with huge success.

For a designer. Innovation is adding something new to a genre of game or [very rarely] inventing a new genre. Deus Ex is a great example as it sought to bring RPG elements to a first person shooter setting. Sadly most innovative games don?t get the recognition [or sales] they deserve.

Innovation can be easily misconstrued however as many designers try to meld too many genre types together. Giving it this ?Kitchen Sink? form of design.

Innovation can be found in all types of games. From the smallest puzzle to the most complex story driven title.


To assume or represent in a drama; act out:

Role-Playing is a multileveled and multi platform aspect. From board games to internet play to theatre. Playing the role of someone else is a recognised form of fun and entertainment for both the participants and observers.

In video games role-playing can be a part of storyline or in the case of a few games, role-playing IS the game.

The SIMS is a great example of this. The player does nothing more then play out and control the lives of a few digital people. The game is quite trivial in its goal and has no real finishing point. None the less being able to role-play in it made the game hugely popular with many player demographics.

The other side of role-playing that appears in games is story based. Your player assumes the role of a character, the events revolving around him and his enemies and allies shape him and the world around him. Eastern RPGs like the Final Fantasy series are a prime example of this style of story. While the player has no control over the outcome he is still compelled to play and see how things will pan out. Basically playing a movie with gameplay elements and aspects implanted into the design.

Role Playing is used in games where you assume and identify the players? character, ether being person or object. As long as you can relate to it and your not ?god?


Easy to use or learn to use

If an interface and button layout is easy and well done only designers and analysts stop of appreciate it. Most players wouldn?t notice it. However if a heads up display is clunky and the button layout doesn?t conform to peoples likes. Then you bet your ass they?re going to complain about it. Regardless of how great and perfect the rest of the game is, with so many games to choose from, the casual gamer will simply move on.

The current trend in HUD layout is to make the player have as much play screen as possible. The old design term ?less is more? is coined here.

HUD's and button layouts are a part of the mechanics and core of any video game. And are in all made today.


The quality or condition of being complex.

Complexity in video games has risen in some areas and lowered in others. Complexity is used to add more depth to the game so the player has more to explore and entertain himself with. A perfect example of this is the first person shooter genre. We started out with 4-5 weapons 10 years ago. Today some games have literally dozens of weapon types that all have a different exploit.

X-Com is also a great example of complexity done right. A game of tactics and deep thinking. While complex in your actions and what you could do, all actions are linked together. Complexity is a great tool but should only be used in games where it's essential as part of its overall design. Never over do what doesn?t need to be done.

Complexity usually turns up in tactical games like RTS and Turn based Strategy. But if justified it can be implemented into many other game genres.


The property, condition, or quality of being simple or uncombined.

Simplicity in video games is usually seen as the tool and aspect used for Arcade and retro games, young kids games and learning tools. But this isn?t the total truth.

Simplicity is important to implement into the backgrounds of the game, such as HUD design and button layout. The design of your characters and the solutions to problems the player must face in the game.

The game Destroy all Humans uses a small and simple HUD design to convey only the information needed for the player to enjoy the game. Context is important though. Because the many gadgets and gizmos on the HUD in the Armored Core series is loved by the fans.

Simplicity is also removing annoying middleman tasks from games like Cryptos recharging health bar. In removing the need for health packs the player has more focus on just running amuck.

Simplicity can be found in almost all games. Centralised around the need to let the player have fun and not busy himself with trivial tasks.

Learning Curve:

A graph that depicts rate of learning, especially a graph of progress in the mastery of a skill against the time required for such mastery.

The dictionary description above is pretty spot on for this. Designers need to take into account their games learning curve and when and how you introduce different features. Do you dump all of what the game has to offer right at the start and hope the player has the time to move through two hours of tutorials? And is your game made fairly to the skill level of the genre?

A good example of well Implemented Learning Curve is from the game Dark Chronicle. A game that has features poring out of its disc. If it dumped it all on you in one hit it would be too overbearing and the player would favor one feature and probably neglect the rest. Instead, Dark Chronicle introduces the different features over time. One feature isn?t introduced into the game until the 3ed Dungeon. At least 10 hours into the game.

If you believe your game will entertain. Then be gentle to your players and don?t give him everything all at once.

Learning Curve is a part of all games whether electronic or sport. And it varies greatly from seconds to hours. The aim is to make learning the game as fast, effective and clear as possible.


Movement from one member of a continuous series to the next.

Progression as an aspect of video game fun is a necessity of all games. From the time that the first level starts to the end of the last challenge or goal given to the player the game must progress in storyline, difficulty, game features and expectations of both the player to the game and the game to the player. The player must never find himself in a gameplay ?dead zone?

Dead zones are very easy to come across in games. In Eastern style RPGs it's usually when the player has lost his way on the world map. If the directions weren?t clear enough and the player is getting frustrated then chances are he?ll turn off the game and not come back to it. Or a better example is some of the arcade ?flash? games hovering around the Internet, while entertaining for a few minutes, all features are laid out to the player at the start of the game and once you finish past level 3 or so the game says. ?Well.. You?ve beaten me this far. I?m not going to even try to make it any harder then this. So you can quit now.?

Progression is a part of life. There is always change and always something around the corner. It's so critical to us that we implement it into our games.

Success: [rewarding]

The achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted

Every time the player completes a chunk of the game that has posed to be challenging and required him to pursue and persevere at that task, it should be met with a suitable reward to the player.

It's a required clause of gameplay that has evolved over the years. The current generation and on going generations will not participate in a game unless what they do comes with a suitable reward. MMORPGs are the best example for this aspect. The player accepts a quest. Battles and travels to complete the quest and when he hands it in he gets both experience for his character and a new item/weapon/skill. This has become mandatory.

In real life we believe Success to be met with a reward of suitable value to our efforts. And such is with games.

Success and rewarding can be found in all genres of video games.


To investigate systematically; examine: explore every possibility

Exploring as an aspect in video games in one of the oldest around. It started with Pac-man and the fact that the level could not be completed until the player explored and consumed all the yellow dots in every part of the level.

In today's games exploring is important as well. From platform games like the Ratchet and Clank series, to tactical strategies like Civilisation. The need to explore and evaluate all that's around us is both meet with rewards and peril inside the video game. But usually nothing the player can?t handle.

It's important to note though that exploring in video games usually is a spatial and geography based aspect. Exploring in terms of mind and other experimental subjects are hardly ever..well..explored.


The fulfilment or gratification of a desire, need, or appetite.

Satisfaction as part of a game aspect ties in very closely to success and feedback. Satisfaction however is much more hard to achieve in emoting the player then rewarding and feedback.

For satisfaction to occur. Not only does the player fell that his reward is worth his work. But that the time he's spent playing this game was also worth his attention. In that playing and completing this game he felt that his money was well spent.

There is no true answer to what gives a player satisfaction. But there are things that contribute to it.

?     A list of ?extras? like picture/video content that's earnable through finishing the game is an always welcome asset to any game.

?     Many different play types and features in the one game offer more play time. But if over done and if the features are half-baked then it can turn into a negative for any game.

?     A compelling story with a great ending always puts a smile on anyone's face.

It's important to note however that the satisfaction of your target audience will differ. Not everyone will like the same thing. And putting research into your target audience will make it clear into what your goals for ?player satisfaction? should be.


A state of equilibrium or parity characterized by cancellation of all forces by equal opposing forces.

Balance is an important aspect of any game that has to two or more forces that are against each other. All forces must be leveled out at the time that the players? character moves onto it. The best example for this aspect is your RTS games. Starcraft is a great example of balance.

In Starcraft you have three teams. All of which play differently and have their units and style. However in the hands of a skilled player any team can overthrow the other two teams as every unit and weapon can be counter acted.

Balance is important for video games with multiplayer emphasis. But balanced non-player-character enemies are important to. This ties in with progression.

Balance is an important aspect in most video games but is mainly visible in MMOs and Strategy based titles.


A number or variety from which to choose

Choice is something of a new and still evolving aspect of video games. We have to remember that video games are mainly designed on a plate of sets, values and calculated variables. So when we say choice we really mean multiple trees of linear pathways.

Games that allow absolute choice come with the sacrifice of a direct and compelling goal. Sim City is a prime example. No one can tell you what to do and you can essentially play god. But playing god can only be fun for so long. Because when the player has consumed every feature the game offers. He quickly becomes bored and moves onto he next game.

Deus Ex offered many choices. But it was inevitably and sadly linear as any choice lead the player to the final outcome and in that the last level where he chooses whatever ending he liked.

It has choice. But only controlled choice.

Designers must be very careful and take their time with this aspect. For the sake of fun and entertainment ?Choice? isn?t always the best answer.


An intense mental state that arises subjectively rather than through conscious effort and is often accompanied by physiological changes.

An aspect of a video game that the designer must think of before and into production of the project. Emotion is linked into the storyline of the game and what exactly the character is doing. This is an important part of any media design.

Stories exist to teach and evict emotions from the player. When we create a storyline we want emotions to run in unison to the style of gamplay and the context of the game. Sadly however our video game stories are often just obscure grafts onto our gameplay design in order to give the player a purpose to why he plays the game.

This shouldn?t be. We are far more creative then that.

Emotion is also a factor of how people perceive the game. Manhunt was first seen in the eyes of the public as poor taste and wrong [and frankly I?m glad they did think this about a game revolving around snuff.] However, once it was banned from the shelves it got bestowed a ?rebel? type label and therefore a handful of people that would?ve disregarded it before would now search for it.

Emotion can appear in games that have a story driven context. However emotions like dominance and superiority can appear in all video games.


The object toward which one strives or for which something exists; an aim or a goal

In my eyes probably the most important aspect of not just video games, but life itself. Everything we seek to do and accomplish is for a purpose. Ether selfish or charitable we always have an agenda to the actions we take. For games this holds true as well.

To give a player a purpose in a game we set him up with tasks and give him a character and storyline to relate to. He must feel driven to continue playing this game over all other games out on the market.

There can be more then one purpose at a time as well. Like in real life we can analyze purpose into different frames of scale and time.

?     Immediate purpose: Save the village

?     On going purpose: To find those who attacked the village.

?     Long term purpose: To find those who employed the attackers and get some answers/revenge.

If the players? goals and purposes are not clearly stated and made solid he will only feel half-heart about pursuing that goal.

As Designers it's important for us to make the players purpose in the game compelling and interesting.

Planning and Execution:

A video game design aspect that was widely used when games where in their pixel states but today has been overruled in favor of real time gameplay. Planning and execution is one of the corner stones of tactics and therefore tactical video games.

The PC title Total Annihilation is a great example of planning and execution in a video game. In planning the player made power and metal collection facilities and would focus on building defense and an army to engage the enemy. And likewise the same went for the enemy. Execution occurred when the player would send his army off to the enemy and would find out whether his planning held fruit or whether his units got sl*gged. ['sl*gged? is a transformers term, equal to being destroyed.]

In today's game market of fast pace and real time fighting, planning and execution is getting pushed aside. However if implemented rightly into tactical gaming it makes for a more dynamic and entertaining experience.

Planning and Execution appears in tactical games mostly. But makes the rare appearance in other genres of games.

Visual Appreciation:

Visual Appreciation isn?t really a design aspect but it's a video game aspect and has become a focus-point to many game studios.

As technology has advanced and we have been making games in 3D for 10 years now, the visual quality of a game has become not just an expectation from the common consumer. It has become a competition between studios and publishers.

First Person Shooters, being basic and similar to most other FPSs in gamplay mask this fact with improved and state of the art graphics.

An example of this is DOOM3 and Quake4. These two games have really nothing all that innovative or new about their gameplay style. But with the mask of more complex graphics and complex level layouts the common player forgets or puts aside these faults and simply plays to appreciate the ?eye candy.?

For a designer I have this advice. Pretty graphics can mask a lot of fault in your design. But it doesn?t make a good game. Visual appreciation should be the last priority in your list of aspects and things you want designed in your game.

Visual Appreciation appears in all graphic intensive genres. FPS, MMORPGs, RTS, Sport games and so on.

Atmospheric Appreciation:

Atmosphere is an important part of presentation to a video game. It's the overall feel and look to the game. When the atmosphere of a video game is done well the player wont notice it. However if the atmosphere of the game is mixed and not focused to a style the player will find the game to be corny and less dynamic.

The PS2 game ?Black? gives a good example of atmosphere working well. From the very start of the game the title is mostly in black. In the intro we only hear radio chatter and music and the screen is nothing but black and a few credits. In the game the tone and style is appropriate. The characters are adults, swearing and forceful in acting. The art style is realistic and dark. The HUD design also compliments it and all the weapons are textured darkly.

Atmosphere adds to the experience of the game. While it doesn?t make direct entertainment it compliments and enhances all other video game aspects.

Atmospheric Appreciation appears in all video games. From music, art style, HUD layouts and title screens.


An aspect that is the sum of many other design aspects. Feedback is one of the most important design considerations for interactive entertainment. For everything the player does whether it being right or wrong it has to be meet with a form of feedback.

It's extremely important. The basic example is this. The player sees an item that he thinks can help him out. He goes to pick it up, nothing happens. He will try for 3 minutes trying ways to obtain this item not knowing it's not useable in his inventory and it's only there for show.

Feedback is an easy remedy. For this item when the player clicks on it ether makes a sound that presents itself as being incorrect. Or have a small text box or voice over that states. ?You cannot pick this up.?

Feedback is a critical part of any video game and the designer must constantly remember to give everything a cause and effect status.

Feedback appears in all video games.

Caroo2006-09-21 08:00:53

Submitted by skunx on Mon, 29/05/06 - 1:30 AM Permalink

I didn't read through all the post but i'd agree each of those points or aspects are of importance to a game designer. As you said, fun comes in many forms and its up to designers to carefully map out what they believe will be a fun product.

The problem is, every game or genre puts more emphasis on certain of those aspects (and many others) so this needs to be identified in a design. Also, the interpretation of what is fun varies between designers and users/gamers. Put 2 different designers to work on the same project (as in the same subject matter, genre, appeal) and both will come up with a different version of what they envision would make a fun experience. Even if the differences are small, they still exist, and both of them can be valid.

At the end of the day there are a million different ways for a designer to approach a design and many of them can be valid. Its up to the designer to choose and craft together first and foremost what he/she thinks will make a fun game. One aspect that helps this is knowing your market/competition/trends. It sounds boring or obvious, and it would be hell easier for a designer to say "stuff it i'm doing what i want to do nevermind the trends" but it sometimes helps to have an overall view of the scene. Does the design take into account what is already out there and in gamers hands? Is it more of the same? Is it more of the same with a twist? Is it trying too hard to be different? Is the original vision still in there somewhere?

These questions are ones that will (or should) come up in a designer's head during production. Apart from balancing all the key aspects for making good entertainment they also need to question themselves along the way. Take a step back and see the big picture, then dive into it again. Its only too easy for a designer to lose focus on the overall vision and get caught up in micromanaging aspects of the game.