What Makes a Game Fun?

Raph Koster, Chief Creative Officer for Sony Online Entertainment, has written a book Theory of Fun. This book convincingly answers the question, What makes a game fun?

The book explains why we love certain genres, like the FPS, RTS, RPG, & MMOG: “Given that we’re basically hierarchical and strongly tribal primates, it’s not surprising that most of the basic lessons we were taught by our early childhood play are about power and status.”

This reminds a bit the post Players Prefer Points – we want to rank higher and higher. I think this is an element which we game developers should consider.

I’d like to hear your comment, please tell us: What makes a game fun?

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. If its fun for you then odds are there is someone out there who wants to play it….

  2. Games involving hunting and gathering are fun. Pac-man was a hit in its day and is a basic from of hunting and gathering with the emphasis on gathering. Same with “Pokemon”. “Gotta catch em all!” is clearly gathering and the battles are some from of hunting.

    Fantasy games typically hold a “kill or be killed” attitude but the fun comes from the fact that the game takes place in safe environment.

    The ability for a player to develop skills and use them logically throughout the game is important to fun as well. A game can’t be too hard or too easy. And clearly you can’t ask a player to preform a double jump across a bridge to get to the place in which the user learns the skill of the double jump.

    The choices that a user is able to make contributes to the fun factor of a game as well. No choices in a game make it a movie. Meaningless choices add variety, but make little more than an interactive movie. Infinite choices is the best model of reality however the designer has to provide code and artwork for the entire game. Games could incorporate choices that lead to the demise of the player but that gets frustrating for the player and is reminiscent of text based games. Choices involving a single convexity are the best as far as quality of game play and fun however require fluid coding on the part of the designers. This will allow the player to make meaningful choices but still end up fighting the end boss and completing the game. Having a series of convexities allows for continued game play as well as production of a world in which the player can navigate.

    These convexities need to have a varying degree of difficulty to challenge the player, but still allow for a break, or a chance to practice skill and learn new ones.

    The story and character are important but not totally necessary. Usually great character development and an interesting story make up for flaws in game play. To incorporate both story/character and functional game play make a truly great game.

  3. Your comments are fine. It’s true that it’s not ‘just’ points (or rewards) that make the game fun. There are very many other… like chatting, getting immersed, good story, humor – depending on the player. Players like different things, that’s for sure.

  4. Games do not, in my opinion, have to be based on power/status. Take for example WoW. Of course some people will enjoy becoming powerful and high-level, but that is not always the case. I, for example, do not play MMORPGs for the opportunity to become a part of the ‘elite’. When I play, it’s for the chance to immerse yourself in a completely different world, and become a part of it. Being a merchant, or just a poor beggar, can be fully as rewarding (in some ways, more) as becoming the leader of the most powerful guild, becoming the most powerful fighter, or acquiring the rarest gear. And even then, it can be more about accomplishment than rank. Becoming the leader of the most powerful guild is a great accomplishment, and can impart said leader with a measure of satisfaction, but that does not necessarily mean it has to be an ego boost. It is an integral part of the human psyche to be spurred on by a hope, or dream, about accomplishment. The more personal accomplishment in a game, the better the game becomes, even if the accomplishment be no more than a singular prowess at targeting and sniping enemies quickly. (as in an FPS) Even though I agree with Jeff E., basing games on a predetermined set of rules will interfere with creativity, to the detriment of the game, one should always keep in mind that the player should be left with a sense of accomplishment.

    The level cap in WoW will not be 70 before The Burning Crusade is released.

  5. @Game Producer: I was using that specific feature in World of Warcraft as an isolated example to illustrate that the game is not successful (or fun) simply because the player can grind from level 1 to level 70. They play because that journey to the top is rich with diverse content, tightly designed gameplay, and for the excitement of interacting with other (often) living players, and that is exactly what those players want.

    I’m with Nathan on his ** point: one of my favorite features of many games is the ability to not only customize my avatar but to have social or emotional impact on other players who will remember not only the thrashing (or having thrashed) but exactly who it was with. Individuality and style are powerful tools within culture, which not only means special team skins for UT2k4, or being known for using “your” character your fighter-game of choice, but among music scenes, social heirarchies, and further out and into the past, suggesting that what amounts to a simple visual cue, not unlike war-paint, stems from something very deep in the collective human experience.

    One of my favorite descriptions for games goes “easy to learn, yet difficult to master.” Every good game ought to reward practice, but also reward first-timers with something meaningful and stimulating. Games like Tetris, Dance Dance Revolution, and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time all reward the player with small but satisfying rewards for small, simple achievements, but leave lots of room to improve and develop those simple skills over time and repitition into complex techniques that can be almost infinitely rewarding in and of themselves, sometimes even without any reward greater than having done a little better than last time.

  6. Adam, I do not mean to suggest that is the only way that games can be fun. Indeed, fun is of course a subjective term. And you’re right, I have enjoyed all of Lionhead’s games quite a bit.

    As for the mention of MMOs, I also wrote an essay trying to apply my “empowerment” concepts to a couple different genres.* MMOs get a mention in the essay; but to summarize, almost all the interesting (empowering) decisions the player makes in an MMO are about character development, so I would argue that the fun part of an MMO is played within your own character.** In that sense, the levels one progresses on through a traditional linear game and the levels a character progresses through in an MMO are two sides of the same coin.

    * – I don’t mean to be too self-interested here or anything. This is just exactly the type of discussion I enjoy having.
    ** – The fun part for MOST players. There are players of MMOs that derive most of their enjoyment from empowerment in the social sphere of the game. Second Life would be a good place to look for these kinds of players, but they can be found in all MMOs. Think about the guild leaders and organizers in WoW.

  7. @Jeff: “For example, MMORPGs all have a sense of rank and superiority thanks to achieving a higher level, but that alone does not make them fun.”
    Yes, that’s true – it’s only one element: but it’s quite critical. Would anyone play World of Warcraft if could not develop your character?

    It would be naive to try to find a certain element that a game must have because we people are different and we prefer different things: ranking, socializing, chatting, points, power for example are elements that can attract us.

    @Nathan: Nice article btw.

    Question to all of you: what makes a game fun?

  8. This reminds me of how Disney has attempted to change movies from an art into a science. I heard they tried — or at least toyed with the idea of — stuff like making movies based on the musical score. They thought the Lion King was a good movie because it had an exciting song here, then a funny one after that, etc. Later, having perceived Pixar’s consistent success, they came to the conclusion that computer animation makes movies good. It’s quite evident that this isn’t true thanks to Chicken Little (and again later on with Toy Story 3).

    I surmise from his blog link that Nathan F. thinks Lionhead Studio’s games are good because they “empower the player”, but I don’t like them because they felt too linear and limiting. I like all of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies because I think their stories are good, but some people like only The Sixth Sense because it has a better twist than the others. Something as openly debateable as a “good movie” or a “good game” can’t be confined within rules when people can’t even agree on the rules that make them good.

    This book sounds like it’s just going to tell us stuff we already know, while trying to make it sound like some unique revelation.

  9. The danger of building rules of design is that those rules can interfere with creativity in a lot of ways. For example, MMORPGs all have a sense of rank and superiority thanks to achieving a higher level, but that alone does not make them fun. Many of the most popular games (Halo 2, World of Warcraft, Gran Turismo, Mario Kart, Super Smash Brothers Melee, etc) reward players based on the skill they develope, as opposed to an arbitrary level system. Players love games like Halo 2 and Mario Kart DS because they REWARD players with greater ranks by proving their skill, not just doing menial and repetitive tasks that one could train a gorilla to perform.

    Status and power are only a small cut of the big picture. In Pong, status and power are only represented by the score, and if that was the deciding factor in fun the designer (be it Baer or Bushnell or Alcorn) could have just thrown out the paddles, the ball, the controls, and just given the player a random number generator to confer arbitrary ranks on the player each time they dropped their coinage into the machine. Despite the bizzare enjoyment of games like Progress Quest, this doesn’t seem to be the answer.

  10. I am an aspiring game designer/programmer and I write a blog on game development. I kicked off the blog with an essay on what makes games fun that might be relevant to this discussion. I recently got the Koster book; I’m really looking forward to reading it.

  11. So fun is a psychological trick of the mind?

    *sigh* I really, really, really don’t want to buy into this, and want to believe that the argument of “what is fun” is equivalent to the argument of “what is the soul” in that fun cannot be defined and must remain something individual and intangible…

    … but I end up sounding too much like Tom Cruise.

    But darn it, if as game designers we must resign ourselves to using mind-control and to make our games based on psychological models in order to ensure a high “fun-factor”, what do we become?

    Does this also mean that “fun” is something that gets pre-programmed into the users?

    Let us then endeavour to explore and innovate NEW realms of fun…

  12. The simple fact Koster wrote it means I won’t be reading it. He sure can spew some theory but when it comes to acting on it his theories fail.

    Star Wars: Galaxies anyone?

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