I have been wondering for a long time about what makes a game fun? Why are some games so addicting and others not? So after a lot of thinking I came up with what I think are the 4 traits that make a game fun.
Let me start off by saying that everything here is my own observation. Others may have different interpretations and if so I would love to hear about them.
What is fun?
I started my research by just looking up the word fun. The definition of fun is enjoyment, amusement, lighthearted pleasure. That was not very helpful to me so I looked up “enjoyment”. Enjoyment is defined as the state or process of taking pleasure in something. Still not what I was looking for so I looked up the word “Pleasure”. Pleasure is defined as a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment.
The word “Satisfaction” stood out to me so I looked it up. Satisfaction is defined as the fulfillment of one’s wishes, expectations, or needs, or the pleasure derived from this. Ah ha! You could easily say a fun game also brings you satisfaction. This is a definition my brain may be able to work with.
If satisfaction is the key that makes games fun, then we should be able to narrow down even more and pick out the parts that bring satisfaction.
After thinking about it for a few months off and on I came up with 4 traits that make a game satisfying and fun. Learning, Challenge, Surprise, and Creativity. They overlap each other a lot but I will attempt to separate them out as much as I can.
Learning something new can be very satisfying! I put learning on the top of my list because after thinking about it for a long time I feel like it may be the most important part of video game fun. The reason I came to this conclusion is that most people will not play a game any longer ones they finished it. There is nothing else to learn so the fun is greatly diminished. The reason for that may be because of the way our brains are wired. I am told when you learn something new your brain produces the feel-good hormone dopamine. So, ones you know everything there is to know about a game the dopamine you get from learning is gone and the game gets boring.
Learning is also linked very strongly with Challenge and Surprise but I will talk about them later.
How to add learning to a game
There are many ways a game designer can add learning fun to a game. Just think about in-game lore for a second. Games like Fallout and Elder Scrolls seem to have a never-ending supply of in game books and lore the player can learn about.
A good storyline can fall into the learning category as well. The player keeps playing to learn what happens next. This can also interweave with “Challenge” if the player is trying to get a certain outcome or must surpass an obstacle to learn more about the story. Then surprise can come when they see what happens next. Interestingly if you take the challenge part out then you have a novel or movie.
Explorations and discovery can also fit into the learning category of fun. This is what adventure type games are built on. Exploring the world and discovering its secrets. Maybe even a few surprises!
You can also have “Learning” when it comes to game mechanics. But this can be tricky. If the learning curve is too steep some players will get frustrated. If it is too easy they will get bored. This is where learning connects to challenge.
Overcoming a challenge can be a huge rush. Think about when you finally beat that big boss fight or solved that hard puzzle. Didn’t it feel good? I also think “Challenge” is probably the second most important aspect of fun. E-sports are all about challenge and people have been playing those games for years without getting bored. The only reason I put challenge under learning is that you still must learn a great deal about how to play to overcome a challenge in a game.
I feel like this is one reason why so many people enjoy hard games like Dark Souls. When you master some part of the game you get a rush and it feels good. In other words, you have fun.
But there is a balance that must be maintained between boredom and frustration. If it is too easy then the player is bored and you would need something else to keep them having fun. If it is too hard then they get frustrated and may just quit.
Unfortunately, I do not think there is any one size fits all option here. Each player has their own preference for how much challenge they want. You kind of need to know your target audience. I myself like to lean more to the frustrating side. The reason I think that is from my game jam experience. If the game is considered hard people will still try and have a good time. I have had comments like “This game is too hard for me but it is fun!”. But If I made something too easy it can come across as boring and I get bad ratings.
How to add challenge to a game
Challenge can come in many forms. Mastering game mechanics and timing is one. This is used a lot for fighting games like Street Fighter and Tekken.
It could also come from some mental task like solving a puzzle or perfecting a strategy. Games like Starcraft are a mix of game mechanics, timing, and strategy.
Challenge could be something as simple as collecting things. Achievements are a good example of this.
Then you can tie all that together with competition. E-sports would fit in here very well. Now leave the video game world for a second and think about sports. There is no storyline there and ones you know what is going on you are not learning much. The competition makes it all fun. But I guess you could be learning the other players. Like I said this all ties in together!
Pride and Accomplishment
At first, I had pride and accomplishment out on their own but I think they fit best under challenge. Pride and the sense of accomplishment kind of wraps up the whole challenge aspect of a game. At least that is what it feels like to me. It reminds me of this old screenshot I have from Dark Age of Camelot showing off all the guild banners we captured.
After working hard and mastering a puzzle or getting that item you have been craving you can’t help but feel pride in what you accomplished. That is the stuff that keeps us all coming back for more.
3. Surprise and Mystery
Surprise and mystery overlaps with learning a lot. You can’t be surprised by something you already know about and there is no mystery if you know everything already. I had the surprise aspect of fun under learning for a long time but I kind of feel like it stood out on its own. One reason that I came to this conclusion was that so many people will watch a horror movie or play a horror game only to be surprised and scared. A good surprise will trigger an adrenaline rush and a lot of people find that fun.
F.E.A.R. is the first game that comes to mind when I think about this. I loved that game and it was one of the first games I remember that used so much surprise.
A lot of the games from old are considered some of the best when it comes to mystery. My guess is in a time before you could just look everything up online the mystery and surprise of discovering things in a game was a real rush of excitement.
How to add surprise to a game
A less extreme example could be something like finding a rare item in a game where you did not expect it or an unexpected twist in the story of the game. Learning a new way to do something or finding humor. Funny games are always fun to play.
Then there is my favorite kind of game surprise and that is Easter eggs! It is always so fun when you stumble onto an Easter egg in a game.
How to add mystery to a game
I am not sure how to do this yet. Maybe by adding a few surprises to give the player a hint there is more? You have to somehow cue the player that there is a mystery or secret and if you’re lucky their minds will run with that. But this is a lot harder to do today when players can just look up everything online.
I remember when I was in school how all my friends would be talking about some game and rumors would fly about secrets and tricks you could do in these games. Before long the game in our heads was much bigger and full of mysteries waiting to be found. Of course, most of this stuff was never part of the actual game but for us it made the whole experience deeper and more fun.
Creativity was the last one that came to my mind. I was going down a list of games in my head and seeing where they would fit. That is when I started thinking about Minecraft. It has some learning elements in the beginning but that did not explain why people still play the game for years.
I feel like giving the player the ability to express their creativity is a big contribution to the fun. All sandbox games have creativity as their main source of fun and the more I think about it the more it overlaps with the other traits. You can deploy creativity to overcome challenges and you can surprise yourself and learn new ways to do things.
How to add creativity to a game
Of course, sandbox games are one way but how can we add creativity to other games? It could be as simple as character customization. It may also be a lot more complex like an RTS strategy if the game mechanics allow it or a world-building game like Minecraft.
These are the 4 traits that can make a game fun and addicting. All the top games that I can think of have these traits built into them in one way or another. It is just a matter of how they use them. Some games may use all of them and some may only use a few. If you think about it for yourself I bet you can assign any game to one of these traits.
Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed! If you have any comments or suggestions I would love to hear them. I am always willing to expand my knowledge of game design! You may also be interested in my post about making a great video game villain.