Challenging, Interesting, or Fun: The Elements of Modern Game Design

Finding ways to categorize and determine what makes a game compelling or worthwhile may well be a fools errand, but considering academia has attempted to analyze the highs and lows of gameplay through the psychology of rewards and flow, I thought it might be interesting to come at it from a purely classic game theory perspective.

After ruminating long and hard about what factors determine whether a game offers a compelling experience and a metric to weight the pros and cons of including specific features or mechanics in a game, I arrived at three elemental properties. These are:

  1. Challenging  Does such a mechanic or feature offer the player a legitimate but fair challenge to overcome? And does completing that challenge offer a worthwhile reward (psychological or otherwise)?
  2. Interesting — Does the mechanic or feature offer the player a compelling reason to keep playing out of interest, intrigue or curiosity? Does the mechanic or feature compel the player to press on, unravel a story, solve a puzzle, or dive into a deep or complex system?
  3. Fun — Does the mechanic or feature offer players the opportunity to have fun. Is the act of partaking in said feature or mechanic fun in and of itself?

Of course, these are hard to define. Definitions by example go a long way in game design theory, and it serves me well to include them here. Fun, for example, is ill-defined no matter where you look, but I think we can all agree that things like running and jumping through a game world have been proven time and again to be fun if executed well.

As for challenge, well, that is up to the player for the most part. Many games offer too much challenge, others too little. Yet some player's relish these experiences like no other and the thrill of the challenge and the reward of victory is a feeling players are hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

The concept of "interesting" features is a relatively new one to games. It covers varied topics like intriguing stories or deep or complex game systems that promote a player's curiosity — whether they want to see what happens next, or want to understand the system or world around them more fully. Many of the features of story-driven games fall into this category. And yet, complex systems in RPGs fall into the category as well. Anything that sparks the player's curiosity and urges them to discover something, anything, could be classified as interesting. Even discovering a new technique or strategy in a fighting game, for example, could be argued to be interesting.

With these three elemental properties of games, I find myself analyzing mechanics and features constantly using this rubric. Is X addition to game Y challenging, interesting or fun? If not, why is it included in the game? If you've been paying attention, by now you've likely realized I've been missing an essential property. A final element of features in games. Something not as exciting to players or as dear to developers. And that is: Necessary.

Necessary features or mechanics are those that are required, for some reason or another, in a game. Why? Well, again, it's hard to define, but a perfect example of a necessary gameplay system would be Fast-Travel. In many open-world games, a fast-travel system becomes almost necessary. If i did not exist, players would be forced to make extended journeys every time they wanted to make their way towards areas they've previously visited. For many players, this impedes on the fun, challenge or interest in the game. For this reason, developers add fast-travel options as a way to alleviate those issues and allow players to immediately skip from one destination to the next. Though never required to be used, fast-travel allows the players some freedom who wish to use the option.

There are, however, "necessary" features that aren't all that necessary after all. It is of utmost importance, in my mind, to question why a necessary feature must actually be necessary. If a something is working against player fun and a feature is required to alleviate that, in my mind that seems necessary. But a feature or mechanic that stands on it's own, is not a remedy to other problems, and does not promote fun, challenge or interest seems like one that, too me, more developers should willingly question it's inclusion in the game.

In a future post, I'll look at common game mechanics and features through these metrics I've drawn up, and see what categories (if any) they fall into. I'll also analyze features and mechanics that some feel drag some games down, and question whether or not they are truly necessary.