It's an interesting question. A better one, though, might be... what makes play fun?
Bet you've not made one of these since you were a kid...
There's a lot of psychology being worked on right now on why games are fun, but some of it is common sense. Here's a quick laundry list I put together of what's fun and why.
- Are you emotionally engaged?
That's fun... or at least, it's engaging. It makes you feel something.
- Are you narratively engaged?
(Do you want to see what happens, or how the story ends?)
- Are you physically engaged?
Are you pressing buttons and getting feedback? Are the buttons consistent? Is there room to learn a new motor skill?
- Are you learning?
Learning is fun, provided that there is feedback and reward.
- Are you projecting?
Do you feel attached to the character you're interacting with? (eg. move your mouse to the top of the screen, and smack it there. You'll feel a little psychomotor feedback, as if the mouse is "sticking" on something. That's projection. It's what lets you feel the tip of a screw when you're using a screwdriver).
- Are you learning new projection-related skills that are unlike things you do in everyday mundane life?
eg. Rolling things up in Katamari Damacy, jumping 3 stories in Crackdown, dreaming about tetris blocks, creating Portals. You can tell if you're doing this right, because you'll look around your mundane everyday world, and think about how to do those things within it...
- Is there direct feedback in the system? Are your actions connected directly to the actions you see on screen? Are the consequences mostly immediate (ties to physicality) or long term (ties to narrative).
- Are you competing with another player, human or otherwise?
Humans are competitive animals, and a lot of play in animals is to lay down the rules for territory and battle.
- Are you collaborating with another player, human or otherwise?
Humans are societal animals, and a lot of play in animals is to lay down the rules for cooperation and collaboration.
- Does it provide a change in state for the player, preferably into a "flow" state? (eg. Rez/Geometry Wars/Zuma = Trance/Flow state) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)
Ultimately, a fun game requires:
- Feedback - actions have consequences, preferably immediate (unless narrative)
- Progressive induction - that is, start easy, get progressively harder. Challenge the player - but at a rate appropriate to them so that it causes frustration, but not too much.
- Rewards - doing something cool must provide a reward.
Fun may or may not require:
- Narrative engagement
- Physical engagement
- Emotional engagement
- General learning
- Projective learning
- Induction into "flow" state
... but usually a fun game will require at least one or more of these ancillary categories to provide depth and engagement. The most powerful of these are Flow, Projective Learning, Competition and Emotional/Narrative engagement, in roughly that order. And they're also that difficult to attain, in that order.
That's my take on it anyway.
Note that I'm only listing the dominant traits of these games. For example, Crackdown has a small narrative element, but it's really really small - certainly nothing compared to GTA4's storyline.
Panzer Dragoon Orta - a game which involves a lot of General Learning (to get the patterns right), Physical engagement, a smidge of Narrative engagement, and some gorgeous graphics
Physical engagement, General Learning, Induction into "flow" state
Physical engagement, General Learning, Competition & Collaboration, Projective Learning
Narrative engagement, Physical Engagement, Emotional engagement, General Learning
Narrative engagement, Emotional Engagement, Physical Engagement, General Learning, Projective Learning
Project Gotham Racing
Physical Engagement, General Learning, Projective Learning, Competition
Narrative Engagement, Physical Engagement, Emotional Engagement, General Learning
Physical Engagement, General Learning, Competition, Collaboration
Physical Engagment, Projective Learning (hugging the walls), Induction into "flow" state, General Learning
Physical Engagement, General Learning, Projective Learning, Collaboration
So what's the Upshot?
If you're designing a game, see if you're missing any of these elements, and try to figure out how to get them in. You don't need all of them, but most games will involve some kind of General Learning (ie. they're not totally random because that's unfair - even Minesweeper won't let you click on a bomb on your first move) by default. Identifying which elements of your game correspond to each of these categories can also help you to refine those experiences.
Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.
The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).