Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The fun curve

This month I had two negative experiences with games which made me stop playing those two games. One of these was Bastion, where somewhere in the middle of the game the difficulty got too high for me. I had to play the Jawson Bog three times before I was able to finish it, and when I again wiped in the level after I decided that the game wasn't worth the hassle any more. The other game was League of Legends, where even after trying the Dominion expansion which solved the "battles are too long" problem, but not the "combat is too twitchy" problem, I realized that I wasn't having fun playing this, and then promptly uninstalled LoL. What cheered me up immensely was reading the post of Tim from How to Murder Time on fun, with this brilliant list of facts on fun:
  • I like fun things, and dislike things which are not fun.

  • Only I know if I am having fun or not.

  • If I am asking myself if I am having fun, I am not having fun.

  • If I have lost a game, and did not have fun doing so, it is probably not a good game. It might not even be a game.

  • If someone else has to have less fun so I can have more fun, I have less fun.

  • If someone else that I like has fun, I have fun.

  • If someone else that I like is not having fun, I have less fun.

  • Sometimes people are fun.

  • If something is too easy, I have less fun.

  • If something is too difficult, I have less fun.

  • Only I know what too easy and too difficult are.

  • Doing a fun thing lots of times makes it less fun.

  • Doing a thing that isn’t fun for the first time makes it more fun.

  • If I have to do a lot of things that are not fun, to have fun at some later date, the net result is usually a deficit of fun over the total financial quarter.

  • Fun cannot be stored.

  • If a thing is described as character building, it is generally as an apology for it not being fun.

  • I try to avoid things that are not fun, especially in my spare time.

  • People sometimes pay me when I do things that are not fun.

  • I sometimes pay people so that I can do things that are fun.
I fully agree with that list. And it is especially pertinent for game design: If a game isn't fun from the start, it is a bad game. The concept of "you need to do something that is not fun for hundreds of hours to get to the fun part" is an abomination. It appears blindingly obvious to me that you could make a better game by cutting out the non-fun part and go directly to the fun part at the end.

Having said that, I do agree that there is some sort of fun curve describing the fun over time you have with a game, and the maximum of that curve is not directly at the start. You don't have the most fun with a game in the very first second, where you are still trying to figure out what the controls are and how the game works. There is an increase in fun while you learn how to play. But that is a period which should be measured in minutes, or at most a few hours. While you might hope to still somewhat increase your fun if the game is easy to learn but hard to master, and you have many hours of fun ahead of you while mastering the game, you can already make a good judgement on the game at the point where you have learned how to play without yet having total mastery. While summoner level 5 in League of Legends is not very much, I can say with certainty that if I hadn't have fun up to level 5, it isn't worth continuing to play. Hope that fun somehow miraculously materializes itself at level 10 or 20 or 30 would be misplaced.

It is also worth noting that regardless of what the game is, the fun over time curve always has a maximum and declines afterwards. Thus when judging a game I look at how much fun I had at the maximum, and how long the game provided a good level of fun. For example while I don't play World of Warcraft any more, that doesn't affect my judgement of the game: I had a lot of fun with it for over 6 years, and the game provided me with thousands of hours of fun at a very affordable cost of about $200 per year. That my fun curve has dipped below an acceptable level after 6,000 hours of play is only natural, and not to the discredit of the game. Hey, 6 years is already more than half of the median length of a marriage in the United States. It would be kind of unrealistic to demand much more of a game.

I have been playing video games long enough to have experienced a time where I had to play the games I had, because nothing else was available to me. Early computers and consoles didn't have all that many games, and my financial means were limited. I played what I had, because I couldn't afford another console or more games, or there weren't any more games available for the platform I had. But the number of both games and platforms on which to play games has grown exponentially in the last 30 years. And my financial means have grown well beyond the point where the price of a regular game poses a problem. Not to mention that these days lots of games can be at least tried for free. Under these circumstances ditching a game I don't have fun with or do no longer have sufficient fun with is just the best strategy, regardless of whether I have "finished" the game. And I'm not alone in that. Games are a disposable commodity product: Play until you don't have fun any more, then switch to the next one.

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