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Why is this game fun?

Sunday, February 3, 2008 , Posted by Bradd McBrearty at 6:46 PM

To paraphrase my favorite quote ever on the process of designing a video game, “You don’t try to make one game that entertains a player for 10 hours; you try to make several small games that entertain a player for 30 seconds that they can repeat endlessly.” I think I heard that in the postmortem of one of the Halo games.

The more I play video games, the more I find that to be true. Take World of Warcraft for example. Even though your quest may be something grand like “Rid the countryside of the Goblin Infestation” what you really end up doing is grinding mobs for goblin ears or spleens or whatever. Therein lays the subtle trickery that is success in the game industry: Giving purpose to the mundane.

At the base level every game is comprised of two parts: Input and output. Everything else in the game experience can be attributed to layers of abstraction. When you pick up the controller to play Halo 3 over XBOX live you are not actually the master chief. You are not actually killing your friends. You are actually making very precise, very repetitive motions with highly dexterous thumbs. We are the generation of thumb dexterity.

Were there a video camera recording what you were actually doing with your hands in game of Halo 3, it would be nearly impossible for the lay person to distinguish it from say, a video clip of your hands in a game of Soul Caliber 2. However, to the avid gamer those two titles represent two very different experiences.

I base my next statement on the previous observation that the ‘play experience’ is not tied to the input. The true satisfaction, the enjoyment of video games comes from the output. Were I to pull the trigger relentlessly in Halo 3 with no satisfying output, I’d quickly lose interest. It’s the “You killed player X” that makes it all worthwhile. FPS games take the abstraction one layer further by making the focus not to hunt down one player, but to acquire a preset number of kills to win the match.

Reach into your mind for a moment and picture a close game. In this game the score is tied with each team a single point from victory. Now imagine yourself scoring the final point, securing victory for your team. You set down the controller and celebrate. Hold onto that feeling for a moment.

Now imagine the opposite scenario, in that final firefight, you are killed, handing the enemy team victory. You hang your head and sulk.

In both scenario’s, the input elements are nearly identical. It’s the output element that determines the psychological response the game evokes from the player.

Creating a fun game is in creating the correct layers of abstraction between the input elements, and the balance of rewards in output elements.

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