Fun factor for game developers
by by H. Hernán Moraldo
(Originally published in Pixelate #6, on 1 November 2001)

Some introductory words

I'll start this article with a situation. Maybe it applies to you or not, but the point is that it will let us see what's the problem with forgetting what I call the fun factor.

Johnny Zapallo works hardly during weeks, months or years in a single game, and some day he finally gets it done. That day is a very happy one, the sun shines and Johnny's face evidences a giant smile, he calls some friend and tells him: "Look at this game I've done!" and, after playing it, Johnny's friend replies: "Great graphics, but it lacks of something. I'm not having fun with it. I'll rather go home to continue playing Pacman™...", or something by the way.

Doesn't it happen all the time (poor Johnny)? Can't we see it too, when we have fun with some really simple game, say Tetris™, and not with the latest technology driven ultra game?

Game developers' work is almost never really appreciated by the people that plays the games. Other game developers usually are able to see the work, the patience and the technique behind a program, but common people see another thing: our fun factor.

In this document we'll see what this factor is and how it works. We'll also make a large analysis of it, as to discover the way to make more fun games. I'm sure it will be interesting to see for once the game development from this unusual point of view, and in such a degree of detail.

At last, I wanted to add that anything I say in this document is just my opinion on the subject: I'm sure that lots of people have different ideas about it. If you totally disagree with my opinion (say you think the most important thing on earth are 3d graphics), I highly recommend you to read it anyway. It's always interesting to see other people's point of view, maybe you learn something from it, or maybe I can learn something from your feedback.

Fun factor: what

The Fun Factor has a very short and easy definition: it's what determines the amount of fun a game has. And what is fun? I just can explain it with an example: that question wasn't fun.

As you'll see, I'm having fun writing this article :)

Point is: the factor definition itself is very easy, when it isn't plain obvious, but trying to find a way to compute it can be really difficult. In fact, I have very bad news for you: it can't be mathematically computed (well, you can always tweak a bit the Eternal Life algorithm to get the calculation, but it would be considered cheating here). Though its lack of numerical values, it can be smelled: most of the times you'll know if a game is fun just by playing it.

Things aren't that easy, either. People have different minds, and the same with their wishes: there aren't too alike. So, what is fun for somebody, might not be fun for Johnny Zapallo. What is fun for you, might be fun just for you, and for nobody else (though it would be really extremist). We can then say that there isn't a single fun factor, but that it varies between the persons or, rather, between the different groups of people.

Anyway, it all will be right as soon as you know what people you are focusing in when making the game. If you know it, you can investigate what they like, until being almost sure about what their fun factor looks like.

Also, fun factor varies with the time. Kids enjoy games that adults would never even touch, and vice versa. A same person can have a time in his life in which he really enjoys any war game, and later he can start liking specially the first person shooters.

Fun factor: why

The next interesting question is: why should we care about the fun factor? Why isn't the technique enough for our needs? And why should we care about what other people think of our games?

When playing a game, people expect just a thing: to have fun with it. There are lots of game developers who think that graphics are a more important factor, or the same with the AI and so on. Let's disagree, but not completely. We can come to the conclusion that, if people enjoy ground breaking graphics, it's because it generally helps to create a more fun experience.

In fact, I would say that, in games, the fun is all.

And maybe that if we go a bit further we'll find that fun is all in life, too. But that's another story, and hasn't so much to do with our main topic.

So, how couldn't we care about the main factor in games? Games that aren't designed with the fun factor in mind are fated to fail (or to success through randomness).

Fun factor: how

Now we know the what and the why, so it's time to see how to develop better games with the fun factor in mind.

The first step would be to start developing games around the fun factor. This way, every time two alternatives for something are found, the new decisions are taken following the fun idea. For example: "I'm programming an arcade shooter. How would it be more fun, with full shining 3d graphics, or with a faster 2d engine, that would also be easier to use for the gamer?".

When answering questions like that, a very important point is to compare both pros and cons in every alternative. You'll find that the apparently perfect solution often stops being so: in the example above you could see that a 3d engine isn't a good idea for all the games (at least with the current technology). Or that a simple AI is sometimes better than a very complex one, that never lets the player win a match.

That point about obviously perfect ideas against fun ones lets us see that, when we work with the fun factor in mind, the design becomes a harder task. We have to start wondering about everything because every point in a game can be blocking the entertainment, and we must have our eyes wide open to see where changes are worthwhile.

But this harder task will also give us a better final release, something in which we haven't wasted the time. A fun game, that's all what cares.

We'll dedicate the rest of this dissertation to the how itself.

Fun factor: who

Johnny Zapallo. Who else?

Analyzing fun

And now, the hard question. What does a game fun? It hasn't an easy answer, sure, as it depends on a lot of different factors combined together. Anyway, we can think on some tips that usually drive us to a fun game. Some of them could be found useful as well for other kinds of entertainment, like movies or books, while there are other ones that are mostly exclusive for game development.

A list of what I think are the most important factors when developing a fun experience follows, including a brief explanation for every item.

  • Creativity:

    As in life, in game development there is no magical way to the success, neither mathematical methods to make fun experiences. Solutions to the big problem of "how do I do it more fun?" depend on a lot of extra factors that vary from game to game.

    The only way to solve it, then, is the same that in life. Using the head, not to break doors, but to think solutions to be applied for every case. Here is when creativity comes in help, and when it's just essential.

    The final remark is that usually the best solutions aren't the first ones you see. Creativity golden rule is about being patient, and trying to find answers from every unexplored point of view you can think of.

    This list is in fact the result of an auto-brainstorming process, pretty characteristic of creative work.

  • Understanding:

    Here I'm not meaning that you have to understand what you are doing, but that the player has to be able to understand what he has to do. Otherwise, the game would seem boring to him: as soon as he doesn't know how to play, he can't play at all (he can try, but won't enjoy it until he really knows what he's doing).

    Understaning can be given to the player through a manual, on-screen instructions, tutorials, or just by simple rules that can be understood quickly, whether there is any extra help or not.

  • Power:

    People hate feeling powerless, and I honestly think all of us like having control over the things. And guess what, we can use this little piece of knowledge to make more fun games!

    In this case, we have two conclussions to take:

    • If people likes being powerful, give them the most possible control over the things in our games, and they'll love it! A very important rule here is that the more interaction a game has, the more fun it is.

      However, interaction has to be limited by the rules of the game. As an example, think in what would happen if we add a key that erases lines of blocks in the Tetris™ game... would it be more fun? Of course not, that key would more probably kill its interest!

    • We can also know that people will hate a game that makes them feel idiot, or powerless... That is, never underestimate people, or they could get easily annoyed with your game ("it's for kids!").

      And never let the gamer feel he wants to do something he can't do according to the game design / rules.

  • Defying the player:

    Now we've already spoken about power feelings in the players and the way they make a person like (or dislike) a game, it's time to name the Defying factor. It's another shape for the same thing, because we are again using users' egocentrism for our purposes.

    This time it's about making the player feel he'll need hard acquired abilities to do something in the game, that's also necessary or at least desirable. If the player feels dared, bingo! He'll play until one of two things happens: or he happily beats the challenge, or he loses it and decides to forgive the game that made him feel useless.

    Ok, it isn't always black and white (now we have TV color!), but point is that defying the user will improve the experience just if it's an equilibrated challenge: hard enough, but also possible.

    It's an old known fact: easy games are boring, and very hard / almost impossible ones are scaring. The best game experience is the one that make the player feel defied, while letting him know that it's possible to beat it. That is, a middle point between both extremes.

  • Surprise:

    If when you readed the name of this factor you felt at least a bit surprised, you already have half the information you need to know what it's about.

    A person gets surprised when something that wasn't expected to happen, just happens. And it's still more amazing when that fact wasn't even imagined!

    Why would we care? Because surprises are emotional, and good ones are fun! And a game with unexpected events happening all the time, a game whose succeeding line of time can't be guessed, should in efect trap the player attention with its continous changes.

    In other words, if there is something that really kills user attention (and fun) is the constant repetition of things, that can be avoided through the surprise factor. If games like Pacman™ succeeded in the past despite their never changing nature, is because they were very strong in other aspects (like the Defying factor)... but surely the classic Pacman would be more fun with surprising events happening sometimes (like that in half a level a ghost takes a machine gun and starts shooting your little yellow friend... hmmm, better forget it).

    At last, a good example of this factor applied can be seen in games like Earth Worm Jim™ (my favourite series from any time!!!), and other tons of games by the way. The Quake™ games, to say another example, lack a bit of this factor, but have those ground breaking graphics, a very good difficult level, continuous action, and some other combined stuff that make it be fun anyway, despite that deficiency (I'm not saying nothing about the final quality of the game, that IMHO is great).

    That's something to think in, while reading this article: no one of these factors guarantees the fun on a game, but every one of them contributes to the final result.

  • Humour:

    There isn't too much to say about this factor. Humour is inherently fun, when well done. And a good laugh is never forgotten. The same with drama, suspense, and other novel like genres.

    Some good examples of successfully humorous games are the components of the Monkey Island series. They are hilarious, I've often been playing them just to hear the jokes.

  • Addiction:

    Fun games are usually addictive games, too. When you can't stop playing a game, it's just because it's fun, by sure.

    We could say that an addictive game is a game whose players cannot stop using it. And how do you make a person want to continue playing all the time?

    Through the player's curiosity, and his own ego.

    They are the two basic ways to catch the player, by making him inquire what comes next (the same that in suspense movies), or by defying him enough, so that he ends up saying "this silly game won't beat me!". Those feelings are the ones that, when are strong enough, can catch the gamer for very long time periods.

    Look at the games that make you want to continue playing all the time, and wonder what they have as to trap you in such a way. Most of the times, the answer will be the same than the mine, curiosity, ego, or both combined.

    In Pacman™, or Tetris™, two games that in the classic version tend not to change through the time (so that the game is exactly the same even though hours pass!), what make people continue playing is their ego. In Resident Evil™, Castlevania™, Earth Worm Jim™, and so on, the main factor is the curiosity, though combined with the player's ego (easier versions of the same games wouldn't probably be as succeessful as the original difficult ones).

    Another important factor in Addiction is what I call "nearness". To say it simple, give people a very cool game that's hard to install or slow to start playing (5 minutes of previous screens to the game), and they will hardly play it.

    The inverse process works almost as well. Though a totally uncool game will continue being uncool even when it's easily installed, people will give it a try in such a case. And if the game is installed together with a tool the player uses, he maybe will play it from time to time when using the tool and looking for a minute of distraction.

    Now I think, I've played more than a time the simple puzzle game RHIDE™ comes with, and that horrible pinball game Word™ features like an easter egg. Enough said.

  • Evolution:

    Human being is very egocentric (if you can't believe it, ask me!!!), so anything a game does to make the player feel he's the best, will make the experience a more enjoyable one. That's again the power sense, but this time from another point of view: people don't just love feeling the best, but also love feeling they are getting even better!!!

    That's what I call Evolution (those times I decide to forget Darwin's), and trust me that it can really increase the enjoyment in a game.

    We could separate three kinds of Evolution, they are:

    • Evolution in the game:

      That's the most common one, it happens when the player goes through a story line, levels, stages, or something by the way that shows a progress in the game itself. I'm sure Mortal Kombat™ would be a lot less fun if the fighters were just random, and not a fighting plan you can see as a way to know your current place in the story line.

      To say it briefly, give the player a way to know his progress in the game, like a back story, changing levels, or at least a score. Endless unchanging games tend to be boring, also for lacking the surprise factor.

    • Evolution in the knowledge:

      It's the successive growing amount of knowledge about the game mechanics, story, or whatever, that tends to make games more interesting. When the learning is about the story, its result is similar to the one provided by suspense movies that let you know what's happening in slight pieces of information, so giving the spectator the idea he's advancing in the story.

      And when the knowledge is about the game mechanics, it's mostly reflected as a progress in the user's ability, that's something we'll speak about in the next item in Evolution. A very interesting case of it is the (impressing) series of games Oddworld™.

    • Evolution in the skills:

      This kind of Evolution is very interesting, and quite common nowadays. It happens to the player when the game is so complex that it can't be totally mastered before a big time. So, there is a learning curve the player goes by, in which he learns step by step all about the game, maybe techniques, special moves, strategies or whatever. There is an Evolution in the skills.

      It's in fact another way to defy the player, but with a different feedback for him, an inner feedback. That is, the user sees his own evolution by perceiving his increased skills.

      There are lots of examples for this kind of evolution, see the Mortal Kombat™ special moves and fatalities, that have to be learned; look at the Quake™ strategy, abilities and knowledge in the most powerful players. See how proud hard core gamers are of their current knowledge, gained with herculean effort. See it, and wonder: "how do I reach the same result with my own games?".

      Answer is, probably, the following: give the game secrets, try to make the final always winning technique impossible to get (yes, I said impossible), create the game with the following idea in mind: that no one, ever, have to be able to master it completely. This way, the gamer will always be having to learn a bit more, and so on, forever!

    So those are the three kinds of Evolution. IMHO, a good combination of them can convert a semi boring game in a very fun one.

  • Identification:

    This factor is very easy, and works in the same exact way that in movies. The idea is to make the player feel he's his own electronic avatar (the character he moves in the game) and, more important, to make the player really enjoy it.

    The first step is simple: give the character the same motivations, feelings, way to act (in the back story), maybe the same physical characteristics too, that the potential player has, and that's all. For wider audiences, you can always use multiple characters, and other tricks.

    The second step is more about what the player would like to be, than about what he is. It depends again in the target, what it likes more, and developing an interesting character can be difficult... or very easy: Do people want to fly? Give them Superman™! Do people want to kick doors and say bad sounding phrases? Give them Duke Nukem™!

    Probably, that was what the creators of those characters thought when creating them... Do the same, and create a character (or a couple of) that is what the target is, and that is also what the target wants to be.

So those were the main factors that help games be more fun. As I said before, no one of them grants the success, but a correct combination of them does. And what's the correct combination? That depends, it may be different for every developer / gamer / game. Don't forget what we discovered at the beginning, that there isn't a single fun factor, but a different one for every person.

And here is creativity again. What I brought to you was an almost generic solution, but you'll need more specific ones for your games. Be creative, and try to get new answers to the question of "What does a game fun?", and new answers to the question "What could do my game more fun?".

As you'll see, it all depends on you.

End of file

So that's the end. I hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it (here is the fun factor again), and I also hope you found it useful. If you have anything to comment about it, just mail me to I'm always there.

And be sure I'll really appreciate any kind of feedback (appreciate? I'll love it!).

Have fun,

H. Hernán Moraldo

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Date this article was posted to 5/29/2002
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

See Also:
Game Design

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