9 Essential Elements for Fun in Games

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I’ve been obsessing about the design of games lately and have attempted to study some of the patterns of good games. First off, these observations are driven mainly by the games I’m playing on and off currently – Patapon 1 & 2, Crysis, the Sims 3, Civilization 5, Angry Birds, and Need for Speed. Of these, Patapon is the one I’m enjoying the most as I compete against my six-year-old, and more so because it’s a very quirky, interesting game that runs on a portable platform with a very cool game mechanic.

Patapon is really ‘fun’; and it set me thinking about what makes it fun. The perception of fun is a moving target, and it’d be difficult to say X element in a game promotes fun, but I’m hazarding sharing my thoughts. We’ve all seen games that are visually appealing, contain numerous game elements and aren’t ‘fun’ to play at all. Then there are those games that don’t have sophisticated visual appeal, appear simple in mechanic but are still spell-binding and sap hour and hours of one’s time due to their fun and addictive game-play.

So these are – IMO, 9 essential elements in fun games:

  1. The opportunities to allow for various types of game-play within a solid mechanic. For example, in a real-time strategy game, a player is able to formulate varied strategies depending on the challenges that face him/her. This response is targeted at a particular juncture in a particular situation that has formed as a result of player action within the game environment.
  2. The game environment needs to provide the space, or rather a sense of space that prompts the player to explore. The game environment need not necessarily be a 3D high-fidelity representation of reality. As I saw in Patapon, a simple layered 2D approach can work very well.
  3. The game mechanic needs to be solid and add infinite ‘replayability’. The rule set that defines the game structure must be logical, and allow for unique instantiation within the environment and the player’s interaction with it. If I look at Patapon as an example, the song/rhythm for an action mechanic is simple yet evocative and allows for a variety of interaction with the environment and non-player characters and elements.
  4. Every game must necessarily include a range of challenges. This is perhaps the simplest observation, to be commonly found in most commercial games. On the other hand, I have found this to be quite rare in learning games.
  5. Every game must target a range of abilities – the combination of abilities required to solve a game problem must progress incrementally. As the level of difficulty goes up, not one but a combination of abilities must be used to win. This sort of ‘ability scaffolding’ is important when players are expected to master the game as they play through levels.
  6. Every game must require varied levels of skill when using the abilities that the game provides. So while I mentioned a combination of abilities previously, its equally important that game requires an increment in the level of skill for abilities within the game.
  7. Rewards must be commensurate to the combination of abilities required and the appropriate skill level to solve a game problem/challenge. Too much reward for too little in relation the in-game demand abilities and skill levels vs. too little reward in relation to the in-game demand for abilities and skill levels. A balance has to be maintained and the player must find the reward fair when contrasted to the abilities and skills required to win in-game.
  8. Failure should never be cheap or free. There must always be a cost associated with it. While this cost may not seem like much and a player will repeatedly pay that cost to learn. Pricing failure encourages players to try out different strategies (combination of ability/skills) in attempt to avoid the price of failing.
  9. There must be multiple ways to win a game. Simple enough; this ties to the mechanic allowing for a variety of strategies to emerge during game-play. If there is typically a single and repeatable way to win, this would be more like a puzzle and not a game. Allowing for multiple win strategies or paths also provides good motivation for strategy exploration. “I can win using this combination, but can I win using another different combination?”

What other elements would you add to this list? Share your elements in the comments below!

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