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What is fun?

6 Feb

The definition of fun often gets hung up on the distinction between fun and entertainment. Some insist that fun requires interaction rather than just passive consumption, e.g. games are fun, but movies are entertainment. This however is clearly prescriptivist semantics, for plenty of passive entertainments have been called “fun”. If there is any real distinction between “fun” and “entertainment”, it’s a matter of degree: both are synonyms for ‘pleasurable engagement’1, and fun simply is a more intense, attention-consuming form. While fun has unique connotations with games and child-like play, these follow from the fact that games generally require greater attention than other entertainments and the fact that children tend to more easily invest themselves in their experiences.

Now, ‘pleasurable engagement’ comprises a very broad swath of experiences, so fun is a multi-varied thing: there is no one type of experience that defines “fun”. Off the top of my head, here’s every category of experience that may qualify:

  • excitement: facing danger, going fast, punching, LOUD NOISES!
  • challenge: overcoming obstacles
  • competition: challenges against other people
  • exploration: discovering an environment
  • accomplishment: a sense of progress
  • socialization: idle chat, social climbing
  • narrative: being told a story by any means (visual, auditory, textual, etc.)
  • informative: learning things of interest, like from a documentary or a lecture
  • aesthetic: pretty pictures, music, etc.
  • auditory and visual stimulation: we often enjoy external stimulation for its own sake, even if random and garish, e.g. the flashing lights and noises of a casino
  • olfactory, gustatory, tactile, sexual stimulation: pleasure from smells, tastes, touch
  • humor: anything amusing or that makes you LOL
  • physical manipulation: affecting the physical world gives us a satisfying sense of control; even virtual action in a simulated world can give us this feeling
  • motor skill action: exercising hand-eye coordination
  • physicality: exercising our full body and/or subjecting it to straining conditions
  • creation: playing with our own ideas
  • vicarious experience: living out experiences we normally don’t have
  • logic, reasoning: puzzles, riddles, strategy, etc.

Most games push buttons in several of these categories rather than just one. Also note that some of these types of pleasurable engagement alone rarely rise to the level of fun. A good lecture, for example, may often be entertainingly informative, but hardly ever fun.

Some people would argue that the definition of fun I’ve just given is circular, that the real question is not ‘what experiences are fun’ but rather ‘what essential quality do fun experiences have in common’. Again, though, my argument is that there isn’t any such common essence. While psychology and neurology may identify some common mental state behind all these experiences, we won’t find some deeper common quality in the experiences themselves. The things we find pleasurably engaging are diverse, end of story.

For another definition of fun, we can distinguish fun from non-fun experiences by their lack of unpleasant qualities. The most notable of these ‘anti-fun’ qualities are:

  • tedium
  • pain
  • frustration
  • pressure of consequence2

In this version of the story, the hard-wired human impulse to seek out stimulation is driven mainly by an aversion to these unpleasant states of mind. Basically, we get bored, but most of us won’t drive nails into our hands as relief.

A question that immediately follows, now, is whether games are defined by any particular type or types of fun (or aversion to anti-fun). Are there certain boxes every game must check to be sufficiently ‘gamey’? The classic example of insufficiently gamey games are those that really want to be movies, like the FMV (Full-Motion Video) games of the 90′s. The real sin these games committed, though, was not in delivering the wrong kinds of fun but in failing to deliver much fun of any kind. They failed as “interactive stories” because they were barely interactive and were terrible stories (both in conception and execution). Similarly, the cutscenes in most of today’s games grate, not because they’re the wrong kinds of fun but because they’re generally presenting bad stories, poorly written and sloppily directed.3 So the real problem here is that good passively-consumed entertainment is extremely hard to deliver: a game that attempts to be entertaining in the ways movies and TV try to be entertaining probably fails because good movies and TV are by themselves very hard to make. Moreover, even when a game’s canned narrative content is done well, the game can easily frustrate players by thwarting their expectations: just as I probably wouldn’t be happy with a movie consisting mostly of text on the screen, I won’t be happy sitting controller in hand, waiting for overly-long cutscenes to end. So really, a designer needn’t worry about whether their game delivers the right types of fun to qualify as a “game”. That’s an academic question. The important question is whether the game actually delivers the fun it means to, keeping in mind that this success can hinge upon the player’s expectations.

Another common question that arises is whether games are more than just fun-delivery mechanisms. In recent decades, academics have advanced many theories of games concerning their social function, their role in personal development, and their status as cultural artifacts. While all these ideas may be valid and interesting to think about, I don’t think they’re of much use to any practicing game designer. A proper theory of fun, in contrast, is useful, even though it isn’t a secret formula that auto generates good gameplay. What the theory tells us is, first, what constitutes a game (as far as game designers should be concerned):

Different people favor different kinds of fun. All kinds of fun are valid, though not all necessarily marketable or easy to create. So don’t worry about what a “game” is supposed to be, but do worry about finding an audience with the right expectations.

More significantly, the theory helps us properly analyze games and break down what makes them work (or not work). This exercise yields loads of useful information and allows designers with conflicting values to, at the very least, articulate their differences, e.g. Designer A wants an RPG focused on exploration while Designer B wants an RPG focused on the thrill and action of combat. Moreover, applying this analysis to the best games out there reveals an important pattern: any one type of pleasurable engagement loses its impact if not properly paced, so good games hinge upon the proper mixing and pacing of different modes of fun.

(As for what constitutes “proper pacing”, that’s a whole other post.)

  1. Pleasurable, of course, being an important qualifier. I’m sure torture is quite engaging but neither fun nor entertaining. []
  2. The pressure of consequence is interesting because we sometimes find it pleasurable, e.g. the thrill of gambling. []
  3. Today’s cutscenes certainly look flashy, but the value of flashy imagery has radically diminished in the last decade due to market glut. Neat visuals were a novel, exciting treat up until about the year 2005. Today, not so much. []

How to actually get better team play in Battlefield 3

11 Dec

This article makes the point that the Call of Duty experience is about the player maximizing KDR (kill-to-death ratio) and further argues that the Battlefield 3 experience, in contrast, is about team work and winning the objective. While this is true, relatively speaking, I argued earlier that this is not true enough. I didn’t offer any fixes, though. I had many ideas, but by far the simplest (for players and for DICE to implement) would simply be an optional server rule set (in the vein of hardcore mode). Let’s call it ‘team mode’.

As the aforementioned article implies, the pursuit of maximum KDR competes with the pursuit of team objectives. Therefore, team mode does not record the players’ kills and deaths nor even display them in the scoreboard. Instead, team mode is all about points, and points are only awarded for team/squad actions. For example, a player would only receive points for capturing or defending a flag which their squad leader has designated as their target. Players would only receive points for suppressing/hurting/killing enemies in the vicinity of their squad mates (or possibly also those shooting at their squad mates if implementing such a thing is practical). If these measures are not sufficient, it might make sense to go so far as to actually deduct points for non-team play actions, such as wandering too far off from your squad (though with exceptions, such as for players spawning far away from their squad). As a bonus, offering team mode as a separate mode in itself has the virtue of self-selecting those pub game players most interested in effective team play.

Player “freedom” in multiplayer games is a design cop-out

15 Jul

For the sake of cleaning random stuff off my hard drive, here’s something I saved which I posted to a forum a couple years back. It mainly concerns the Battlefield series of games, developed by DICE. In Battlefield, two teams fight each other for control of key points on the map; players spawn into the world on foot, but they can enter and exit vehicles found in the world, such as tanks and planes, and this has always been the key appeal of the series.

I’m waiting for Battlefield 2 with much anxiety because the developers keep talking about how the original was great because of its “freedom” and “rock-paper-scissors” balance.

BF1942 (Battlefield 1942, the original game in the series) was a great game for about 6 months, but then on public servers, the gameplay devolved into mindless deathmatch: initially, players were excited by the new objective-based gameplay, so interesting public matches were common, but then, when the novelty wore off, individuals just got frustrated in not being able to coordinate with the strangers on their team, so they started taking the ‘freedom’ of the game too far—meaning they just started goofing around, playing only for personal kill counts, and sabotaging their own teams. (Which is unexpected: you’d think there would be more focused play as the game aged compared to the first months, but this only applied to BF1942 clan matches, not public games.)

Furthermore, certain roles got too powerful as players got really skilled, most notably the pilots: remember how everyone fought over the planes all the time? Well, some of those guys won planes and kept winning them. Then they got really, really good at flying them to the point that every server has that one pilot who climbs to a billion feet then dive bombs everything with pin-point precision. Because everyone else never got practice in the planes (and because they never even hear the planes coming from that altitude), they’re mostly helpless.

Perhaps the basic question that needs to be answered is how to design a more strategic action war-game by upping the average stay-alive time while making it much more deadly for players to play in a Quakish manner (jumping around like a chicken with your head cut off) so that players are forced to use cover. In other words, designers need to coerce players into preserving their lives more without going for the Counter Strike (CS) nuclear-option of permanent death. The CS scheme has the fatal flaw of punishing less skilled players—punishing them not only with less play time and therefore less fun, but also with less practice time. Being dead most of the time hampers the novices’ ability to learn. (CS suffers worse from this dynamic more than other games because of its system whereby the best players have the most money and thereby get more practice time with the best weapons, which are very difficult to learn how to shoot accurately.)

My point is that, first, DICE over-rates freedom: ‘freedom’ in gameplay of this kind is neat at first, but then as the balance of the game comes into focus as enough players gain skill, the freedom destroys the coherence. Second, the rock-paper-scissors balance of deadly encounters must be put in a strong teamplay context or else the encounters with the enemy devolve into just random noise: player on side A has the overwhelming advantage one third of the time while player on side B has it another third.

Another reason to coerce players into playing as a team is because of the ‘90/10 rule’: 10% of players far out-class the other 90%. Such disparities make a game fun for no one except the highly skilled players (assuming they don’t care about being challenged), and worse, from a game maker’s perspective, not giving less skilled players a useful role to play discourages new entrants to the game. Forcing teams to really work together would dampen the distorting effect of the outliers upon the game.

To encourage teamplay, the most basic step is to keep teammates near each other. In the Battlefield series (and in fact in most other FPS games), teammates wandering off on their own is a constant problem because the temptation for each player to take their own course of action without consulting or informing their teammates is simply natural: even if players could reach agreements on what to do, the pace of most games is too fast and the communication mechanisms too cumbersome to execute coordinated actions, so few players try. Voice communication is not enough because 1) only a quarter of players tend to have mics 2) there’s a limit how many people you can effectively talk to at once 3) action games tend to move too fast for players to debate a course of action, and no one can decide who should give orders. Instead, what’s really needed is a way to effectively coordinate with players near you without inundating players with useless info spam; this alone will greatly encourage players to actually move in convoy and thereby really play as a team.

To enforce sticking together, the mechanism I concocted is to damage and eventually kill players for straying away from other players. The details of this are a bit tricky, as you must account for the fact that players might respawn far away from their team, a player’s teammates might die around him, and griefers might abuse the system. The system would work something like this:

  • Every few seconds or so, for each player, get the set of teammates within a certain radius. Those with n teammates within their radius are ‘in compliance’.
  • Depending upon the value of n and the number of players on a team, a team might have separate clusters of ‘in compliance’ players, so it’s not necessarily the case that the whole team has to travel as one. The center point of these clusters is found by averaging together the in-compliance players of each cluster, and HUD arrows direct out-of-compliance players to these clusters.
  • Each player has a compliance rating bar: out-of-compliance players start losing compliance points, and when they get to zero compliance, they start losing health.
  • To account for cases where a player spawns far away from other players, set their compliance bleed rate to something slow enough to reach any of the clusters.
  • A player might wish to move to another cluster, so the bleed rate of a player leaving compliance is slow enough for them to reach the other clusters.
  • Players don’t instantly regain their compliance points when going from out of compliance to in compliance; otherwise, players would abuse the system by hoping in and out of compliance, making the compliance radius less meaningful.
  • If a player’s cluster is dissolved because of his nearby teammates’ deaths or desertions, the player gets full compliance and a new bleed rate slow enough to reach another cluster.

Obviously this is all subject to real-world testing, but I think something like this would go a long way to making gameplay more coherent. Getting the bleed rates right would be tricky, so perhaps it would be more effective to instead give in-compliance players significant artificial advantages, such as more health points and/or more powerful weapons; making out-of-compliance players simply not competitive better avoids annoying death and griefing scenarios.

Battlefield Nerf

30 Oct

Yes, Electronics Arts is evil, but having checked out the Battlefield 2142 demo, I caved in and bought the full game. If you’re not aware of the controversy, here’s a partial list of bugaboos:

  1. The game contains a mild form of targeted in-game advertising via billboards seen in the game world. So far, these billboards show a generic message, but they supposedly will soon start showing players advertisements targeted at their country of residence (determined via the player’s IP–not an exact science, really, but probably good enough for this purpose).
  2. Playing the game online requires making an account with EA and logging in every time. Not only is this a potential invasion of privacy, the authentication process is often buggy and not infrequently prevents a player from loading and playing the game. Last night, for instance, when testing the mod I was writing [discussed later in this post], every time I loaded the client, the game would seemingly hang for ten minutes at the log in screen before finally either succeeding or giving an error message. Other players have more serious problems involving authentication keys (a disturbingly common problem with many PC games these days).
  3. The “unlocks” system–wherein players gain better equipment as they earn points on “ranked” servers (servers registered with EA)–makes what is an otherwise purely skill-based game into a bit of a timesink in the vain of World of Warcraft and other MMORPG’s. Effectively, players with more skill (or at least a lot of time to play the game) get quite significant advantages over other players. This is totally backwards: better players, if anything, should get handicaps, not special advantages. Supposedly, in 2142, advancing through the unlocks is much faster than it was in Battlefield 2 (the previous installment in the series), so it should only take a month or two of regular play to get all the stuff. Still, inclusion of the unlock system is rather dumb as it simply frustrates any player coming to the game late: when a newb starts playing, most of the other players will have all the fancy unlocks already while the newb is stuck with the ineffectual and highly inaccurate starting weapons.
  4. This last problem aggravates the game’s already steep learning curve. Players must learn to master: four infantry classes, each with different weapons and several pieces of equipment; half a dozen land vehicles (including hover tanks, bipedal mechs, APC’s, and jeeps), each of which has multiple seating positions with different functions; four air vehicles; drop-pods; titans (giant airships on which players can walk and man various gunning positions); the team communication systems, which includes voice com and a targeting-based canned message system.
  5. Many hardcore fans are angry that EA has long refused to fix serious bugs in previous games, such as an infamous bug in Battlefield 2 that makes your teammates appear as enemy players at random intervals. This list of bugs is quite long.
  6. The game does not support widescreen resolutions. Supposedly this is to prevent players with widescreens from having a greater field-of-view compared to players with 4:3 screens, but this is a silly argument because field-of-view can easily be set independently of resolution. The game seems to compromise by using a field-of-view that is narrower than should be normal for widescreens but which is wider than should be normal for 4:3 screens: on a widescreen, things seem a bit stretched horizontally, while on a 4:3 screen, things seem a bit scrunched horizontally.

Aside from all that, my own particular peeves with the game include:

  1. The Battlefield series has had traditionally horrible menu screens, and Battlefield 2142 continues that tradition. The layout and organization of the screens are generally dandy; the problem has always been they’re slow. Unlike the best game menus, the Battlefield menu is not a simple overlay that is accessible while playing. Rather, hitting the ESC key triggers a few moments pause before the full screen menu appears, complete with visual effect doodads that add to an already processing and memory hungry game. (In previous installments, the menu background was even an animated video! Thankfully, that misstep has been avoided this time, but the whole thing is still sluggish.)
  2. Speaking of performance, the Battlefield engines–both the one used for the original, Battlefield 1942, and Battlefield Vietnam, and the engine that succeeded it for Battlefield 2 and now 2142–have always featured degraded control responsiveness when running around as an infantryman, especially when the system gets overtaxed. Most other engines, including those from id, valve, and epic, don’t have this problem until the framerate gets noticeably bad; with Battlefield, the framerate can appear fine while the controls feel like crap. My suspicion has always been that this has to do with the way vehicles and infantry are physically simulated, and it may just be a necessary sacrifice to get a good vehicle control feel (something which Battlefield does well but other engines usually haven’t).
  3. And speaking of aggravating menus, you’ll probably be spending a lot of time in them every time you load the game to fiddle around with your control settings. The control selection is split between three control modes–common (for infantry), land vehicles, and air vehicles–and these modes seem to overlap in surprising and inconsistent ways, e.g. selecting a button for an air vehicle control may conflict with a control used in common mode even though that control isn’t used when flying air vehicles. Worst of all, the game has a way of forgetting your control settings or not accepting the changes you make. You’ll go back to the game and find things are not as you set them.
  4. EA and DICE both seem convinced that players should be forced to watch 30 seconds of unskippable intro video every time the game is loaded. This will piss you off immensely if you are reloading the game for the umpteenth time after a crash. (There is a simple hack to make the videos go away: rename or delete the video files. Still, it’s outrageous that users can’t bypass the videos or set a preference to make them go away.)
  5. Battlefield 2 introduced a HUD system in which markers indicating the position of team mates and squad mates are superimposed over your field of vision. While occasionally useful, it’s not useful enough to justify not including any way to disable this feature. Ideally, the position markers could be shown or hidden via a hot button.
  6. The Battlefield 2 engine exposes modding capabilities only really for adding/modifying weapons and vehicles. On the scripting side, while the engine features a built-in Python interpreter, the functionality exposed for it is extremely limited, gameplay-wise. For the most part, script mods are limited to doing administrative things like implementing auto-team balance and sending messages to players. Even simple things, like having the server hurt or kill a player can’t be scripted (at least in a satisfactory way).

Speaking of modding, I spent all Thursday making my own mod for 2142. The idea is to change the flow of the game by allowing only certain squad leaders to neutralized and capture flags. This is a rather crude way of addressing my longstanding annoyance in the Battlefield series, a lack of team coordination and a lack of strategic cohesion (if you can take any flag at any moment and the enemy can do the same, the game mostly degrades into a glorified deathmatch). Hopefully, this mod will force/encourage players to support their squad leaders rather than run off to capture flags on their own.