What makes a game fun? Episode 002 – Choices

Episode 002

The most basic premise of playing a game is that you, yanno… play the game.

If a player doesn’t have a direct control over the outcome of a game, then they may as well be watching TV instead of playing, because they’re not actually engaging in the gameplay aspect.

This is the single most important aspect of what makes a game fun, and one which, sadly, is misunderstood by many developers, and hence we get offerings where the player has minimal, or sometimes virtually no input at all except the superficial.

Case in point.

Case in point.

For FPS games, the most egregious examples tend to be things like not preventing spawn camping, or abusive use of snipers, wherein a player may flop over dead without having had any real control over such.

In MOBA style games, hard-CC, such as stuns, roots, and so on, prevent the player’s character from acting at all, sometimes for long enough for them to go from 100% health to 0% health without anything they could do in between.

With RPGs, you often find the vast bulk of your support spells are useless; bosses are immune and anything else is too weak to waste the ability on.

The fact of the matter is, any time you add something to any media, such as books, movies, or games, it must serve a purpose in some way, shape or form. In the case of games, it must also enable gameplay.

If we take a MOBA for our primary example, some abilities are channeled over time, some may be straight-line skill shots. These are fine since a player can escape the channeling effect to reduce the effect of such, or may dodge the skill shot. Gameplay is added with these kinds of abilities in that both the player and their opponent interact with the abilities in question.

A spell which silences the player’s character, but can be removed by channeling a 1.5 second spell where they can’t move gives the player a choice, an option, something to interact with the game.

In games, choice is everything: it’s what gameplay is comprised of. A player is given a choice and are rewarded based upon choosing the “correct” choice.

If you choose to dodge or choose to take the blow, it’s still a choice. If you didn’t have any realistic option to react, then there’s no choice.

The lack of choice is almost unanimously what makes a game feel bad: I didn’t have a choice, I was dead no matter what I did. No matter what button I press, it’s always going to reward me so why bother?

Note that there’s many ways for this to go wrong:

  • No choice at all.
  • All choices are wrong.
  • No choice has any real effect.
  • Too many choices that they’re just white noise.
  • Weak or negligible choices.
  • False choices that look real but have no impact on outcome.
Ah, we capture the false choice in the wild. Stunning, isn't it?

Ah, we capture the false choice in it’s natural habitat. A wily predator whose primary diet consists of sheeple. …Did I seriously just say sheeple? Shoot me now.

The list could stretch on nearly infinitely, so we’ll end it there. The point is, a player needs to be able to make a choice to have an impact upon a game’s outcome.

For two prime examples of bad game design when it comes to choices, let us look at a pair of Blizzard titles: Diablo II and World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, as these contain two particularly egregious examples.

Bone Fetish from Diablo II

Bone Fetish from Diablo II

Our first example is the Bone Fetish monster from Diablo II. It’s too fast to run away from, it explodes on death dealing high fire+physical damage, it has massively high melee damage, very little health and very little experience with reduced item drop rates, and comes in large groups.

In this situation, letting a bone fetish enter into melee range is a bad idea. For melee characters, there’s no real way to prevent this. Even worse, is that it deals both fire and physical damage when it explodes, with virtually no physical damage prevention available until very much later in the game, much later than these are introduced. For ranged characters, they’re too fast to run from, and even teleporting away, then turning around to attack means they’re already in melee range again.

The low physical health means any summoned units or hirelings will probably kill one by accident, and the large groups can make it virtually impossible to find a safe spot.

This is a long list of choices removed from the player wherein nothing they choose really impacts the outcome of the fight. Fighting bone fetishes largely involves just killing them one at a time and healing in between, or firing large amounts of Area of Effect damage out off the edge of the screen and hoping they die before you even see them.

Though these factors are annoying, the biggest problem is that it fails in what we found in the first episode: progression. Reduced EXP and item drops means they aren’t even satisfying to kill. Unlike a hard boss, which gives out a nice bonus to both, you have a highly irritating to fight enemy that just isn’t fun in any aspect because it fails at so many levels. Even the hardcore player will confess that they’re simply not that fun to kill, even after you’re capable of defeating them with ease.

Shirrak The Dead Watcher, from World of Warcraft: The Burning Legion, Auchindoun Crypts

Shirrak The Dead Watcher, from World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, Auchindoun Crypts

Shirrak, The Dead Watcher, provides our second example where choice is removed in every and all manner. The reason for this is a combination of abilities which, each individually is fine, but combined removes any counterplay.

  • Standing farther away from Shirrak reduces casting speed of all abilities.
  • Standing in melee range stacks a bleed effect upon players.
  • Standing still gets an instant-kill ranged attack fired at players.
  • Standing too far away pulls you into melee range.

With this combination of abilities, we have a problem. A ranged caster class has all their choices stripped away. A spell can take up to +200% (or triple) the casting time to cast, standing still for that long means you get instant-killed. Trying to move in closer means you bleed to death instead which the healer can’t keep up everyone for. Kiting means no damage. This meant that, really, out of nine classes available at the time, only two, the druid and hunter, were particularly viable in the fight.

What makes this truly unfortunate, then, is that Shirrak dropped some of the best healing items for that level range for priests, who, as a class, were especially ineffective at the fight with how their spells were designed at the time.

This kind of design strips away all viable options, leading to a severe lack of fun because there’s simply no choice for the player to make. Players would use instant cast spells, and really nothing else, and there’s nothing that they could do to change that due to the mechanics. This leads to a frustrating, boring fight with awards that don’t even make sense.

So, we need more choices, obviously. The interesting part is… players have infinite choices to begin with. You can do /ANYTHING/! Ah, but that’s boring. We actually want limitations! We just don’t want so many limitations that there aren’t any choices left at all. So… why?

Well, here’s the thing: if you enact limitations upon the player, you narrow down the number of choices. Too many choices becomes, as stated, white noise; the player can’t decide or even realistically compare 100 choices at the same time of what to do. Instead, you want to grant them a series of smaller choices with some clear cut good and bad options, and maybe a few they have to think about.

The problem is, the more reflex-based a game is, the less time the player has to think, and therefore the more simplistic the choices must become. “Do I dodge left, or right, or stand still?” is a good choice for an action-oriented game.

Reality OP, nerf plx.

Reality OP, nerf plx.

In a MOBA, for example, abilities must be simple and able to be quickly interacted with and chosen when in combat. Itemization, however, can be much more broad and open since players have more than a split second to make their decision. They can plan out ideas even when not in the game itself, in that case, and as such, it’s reasonable to place more interesting decisions with less obvious answers, where players have to carefully weigh and balance which options are more ideal in various situations.

A game designer can only limit the choices available, they can’t actually add new choices. They can add an event which occurs, but that creates infinite choices in how to react to such until they place limitations that narrow down the options a player has to interact with the event. Most of the time, this is fine, so long as the game designer understands the basic principles of choice, and both when and where to use different types of choices.

We do, however, find that sometimes there are problems. Sometimes you get conflicting needs, and this is where game design transcends being merely a mathematical concept, and becomes an artform.

In our MOBA example, let’s say we have an ability that has a channeled effect over time. If the opponent can do nothing to stop it, then that’s kind of pointless; there’s no disadvantage nor advantage to having the channeled effect in that case.

If, however, we give the target a stun effect, which interrupts the channeled effect… well, now there’s counter-play because the defending player has the choice on whether to use their stun to interrupt the channeled effect, or save it for a more opportune time.

Here’s the problem: a long duration stun removes all choices from the player afflicted with such, unless the game designer also provides a way to remove the stun.

Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to add choices, is to remove choices, and this becomes a problem when you remove all choices and the player realizes they had no control over the outcome of what happened.

I have no control! Because, like... the control button's... missing... yeah, I'll stop now.

I have no control! Because, like… the control button’s… missing… yeah, I’ll stop now.

As such, a designer’s job largely entails ensuring that players either A: have at least 2-3 choices at all times on how to interact with any given situation, B: the sections where they don’t have choices are minimal and not much that can impact the game can occur while the player is without choice, or C: try to mask the fact that the player doesn’t really have a choice.

The problem is, if the player ever realizes they didn’t have a choice, they’re going to be both irritated that they didn’t have a choice, but they’re also going to feel lied to for being told they did have a choice when they didn’t.

Chance, in games, is the automation of choice for the player without their direct control. Any time chance is introduced, it removes all choice from the player and makes the choice for them, and this is typically a bad thing, however, chance can lead to odd situations where excitement can occur.

As such, players like chance in their game in order to spice things up, but they don’t like chance overriding their capacity to affect the outcome of the game entirely.

Some games you may as well just flail wildly and hope for the best. Clickie picture for a gamesradar article on luck based games in particular.

Some games you may as well just flail wildly and hope for the best. Clickie picture for a gamesradar article on luck based games in particular.

Let’s say that you have two players, they each roll a die and whoever gets the higher number wins. There’s no choice, no control, nothing that can be done to affect the outcome of the game. Now, if you add in a choice, such as betting and being able to hide your die roll, in something similar to poker, the players can then choose to bluff or use their skills of reading the other player to enact choice. “Do I bet more or fold?” is a choice in poker that doesn’t exist in our die game, and even someone with a losing hand in poker can still win by careful use of choice.

As such, skill should trump luck, not the other way around, since skill is based off of a player’s choices, and that decision-making capability increases with experience.

So, too, must capacity to enact a decision be of the greatest importance: if a player knows what they want to choose, but the interface or controls prevent the player from actually making the choice, then they didn’t really have a choice at all, did they?

To a degree, requiring players to have skill of reflexes and motor control to interface with a game, such as inputting commands in a fighting game like Street Fighter, for example, is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as the complexity of the interface is low enough for a player to be capable of doing what they want, when they want to, at least with a bit of practice.

When you have an interface which actively lacks the basic information needed to make a choice, or you withhold information needed to make a choice, or your controls are unresponsive to the point that the choice you make simply doesn’t register, then you have a fundamental problem with your game. Games which use this “interface screw”, as TVTropes calls it, tend to create vast amounts of frustration, such as pressing left occasionally just randomly means you go right instead of left for no real reason (boss ability in Sequence, or Palace Persephone in Castlevania: Bloodlines). However, if the controls are predictable, such as an icon warns you a second before it happens that your controls are going to reverse, the player’s skill can counteract the effect. If the game just randomly fails to do what the player says, however, then the player simply has no choice as they can’t reliably interact with the game to enact the choice they’ve made.

So… what makes a game fun?

Choices, but only enough choices, and only as complex choices as a player can realistically decide upon in the timeframe they’re given to make a choice. A player must be able to enact their choice, and must be able to make choices which actually impact the outcome of the game.

If a player isn’t given a choice, or their choice doesn’t matter, or they can’t apply that choice due to issues with the interface, or lag, or whatever… players grow frustrated instead.

I totally had that guy, he just got lucky my mouse batteries died.

I totally had that guy, he just got lucky my mouse batteries died.

Good game design is an artform to balance how much choice is too much in any given moment of gameplay, and how to apply limiters which focus a player’s attention on just a few choices that matter instead of feeling restrictive.

In the end, though, a game without any choices to be made is not a game at all. Even Tetris has choices, as does Pac Man of all things. All the way back to Pong, players had choice, and without it, you’re just watching TV. Choice is what defines a video game as a game at all.

Of course, sometimes it just hates you.

Of course, sometimes it just hates you.

If your player ever utters the phrase “I couldn’t do anything.”, then you have a problem. Even if they could have done something, they may not have been aware of it, or the choices available weren’t obvious enough in what impact they would have on the game to matter. Either you, as a developer, need to do a better job of making your player aware of the choices they have, or make it more obvious what those choices would do to affect the outcome. Sometimes, a player really couldn’t do anything, and those are the parts that absolutely need to be dealt with immediately.

As such, we discover that, yet again, a game can objectively be measured as having traits which are “fun”, and traits which are actively not fun. And, yet again, we discover that the specific details often require adding a bit of not-fun traits to frame the fun traits, making it a very tricky matter for designers to ensure they add more fun than they add frustrating elements, but that there’s enough frustrating elements to ensure players feel like they’ve accomplished something.

Both hardcore and softcore gamers like the same traits - but in varying amounts.

Both hardcore and softcore gamers like the same traits – but in varying amounts. Some… slightly more extreme than others. The introduction of more gamers in total also changes the bell curve a bit…

This is why game design is so complex to learn, and why some games really just aren’t that fun. Everything else we will ever discuss in this article series will, eventually, boil down to choice vs limitations used as framing.

So, while the balance of what players consider to be “fun” is different from player to player, the key components of what is fun and what isn’t are universal. As such, any reviewer, and any player, can tell you whether they find a game fun or not, even if they don’t truly understand on an intrinsic, mechanical level what it is that’s causing that feeling of fun, or lack thereof. It’s a bit different when it comes to PvP games, since players tend to try to justify doing poorly compared to someone else, yet there can still be issues there worth examining.

This is why video game journalists need to report on what factors there are in a game, and what aspects frustrated them, because we can, in fact, report enough information for our readers to know whether they will likely consider the game to be fun or not based on that information. To make the claim that “fun” is 100% solely subjective to the individual, and therefore irrelevant to review, is to harbour a complete and total lack of comprehension of the topic of games at all.

About Catreece MacLeod

Catreece MacLeod has worked as a writer, editor, video game designer, teacher, 3D artist and quite a few other roles. Her specialization is pre-production writing, most notably, world design and IP creation.
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  • kitazari

    I agree with the majority of this completely, but am curious about the “too much choices” bit. Are there any examples of games that are bad because they give too many choices to the user?

    • Catreece

      Yes, there are tons of games with “too many” choices, though they’re rarely understood as such, since most players just assume it’s “hardcore”, or intended difficulty.

      A clear cut example of this, is the Invoker from DotA and DotA2, who has 14 abilities tied to 4 keys, which tends to mean that the vast bulk of those abilities are either never used, aren’t used effectively at any given time, are lost amidst indecision or poor controls, or simply are forgotten about entirely since the player has to memorize the key combination to use each ability.

      While the Invoker’s a neat idea, the mechanics, in practice, are simply unresponsive and present so many choices at any given time that it’s not really reasonable for most players to even be capable of making use of even a fraction of his skillset.

      If we want to get really technical, the idea of having all 108 (as of the time of this writing) heroes available at the start for a new player in DotA2, while it sounds good on paper, in practice, it massively raises the skill floor to even begin playing in the first place, rather than gradually giving access to characters over time for a player to get used to.

      This isn’t to rag on DotA2, it just happens to have a lot of “it sounds cool!” ideas that weren’t thought through beyond the “cool” factor is all, which makes it an easy example.

      For other games, you’ve seen it before: any time you ask “what am I even supposed to DO here?”, or you have such a large list of weapons to choose from that you’re not sure which to pick, or where you’re given a task to accomplish which takes longer to think about what options you have than you have time to act, tends to mean poor design due to too many choices.

      Again, the average human can only handle about 3 options at any one time, and our short-term memory is physically limited to only about 6 items in sequence (hence why the puzzle at the end of Okami is so bloody hard, since it has 8 items that need to be remembered). Passing these physical limitations on the human brain isn’t “difficulty” so much as cheating. It’s akin to asking someone to perform a complex calculus equation in three seconds or less; it’s just not how our brains are designed to work, with some exceedingly rare exceptions to such.

      In any case, the truth of the matter is that almost all games suffer from this error to some degree, with very rare exceptions. It takes a surprising amount of effort, play testing, quality control and design knowledge to even identify when such an issue crops up, much less fix it.

      For a good example of the effort required to avoid “too many choices”, look at another Valve title, Portal, and note that they mapped every movement a player made in the game. If a player so much as stared at a wall for a little too long, they would put a marker of some sort to give a hint of which direction to go.

      For a real life example of “too many choices”, imagine yourself just being dumped in the middle of a desert, with no civilization or life in sight in any direction. Which way do you go? Unless you have specialized training to garner a clue of where water may be, you’re left with an infinite number of choices of where to go. If you could see a single palm tree, off in the distance, then suddenly you go from infinite equal decisions to one good decision and an infinite number of bad decisions.

      As a game designer starts with infinite decisions and can only add in the equivalent of palm trees to limit choices to a degree, it’s actually almost impossible to completely remove the problem of “too many choices”, unless you have a really good designer and a great deal of testing and time to work with.

      Anyway, I digress, to return to your original question?

      Leisure Suit Larry, Myst, Mechanicarium, virtually any pixel-hunt or adventure/puzzle game can be cited due to the nature of the games themselves, especially if you have to combine items together, often following a less-than-obvious form of logic. Even several of the Resident Evil series of games have this particular issue when it comes to combining items.

      Any text-based game is also laden with too many choices as a problem: “I don’t know how to do that.” is a phrase all too well known by older gamers where the phrasing of exactly how to do something had to be encoded in one phrase at a time, and if the writer didn’t think of every possible permutation of how a player may try to type something, it would cause issues. “Pick up cube. Pick up box. Pick up matchbox. Use matchbox. Get matchbox.” You can see the issue quite quickly.

      From “skilldrassel” on Path of Exile, to trying to pick out which items to fill your shop with in Awesomenauts (recently patched to fix this issue), or even whether to block, back up, jump over, or dash through a ranged attack on Touhou’s fighting game series, you see the problem all over the place, with some cases being more obvious than others.

      The biggest key is just the limitation of time a player has to make a decision and the number of choices they have to pick from, and the obviousness of the “correct” choice.

      EDIT: Oops hit send early. Anyway, this’s as good of a spot to end as any. The point is just that virtually all games suffer from “too many choices” to some degree, some are just much more pronounced than others. Hope that answers your question!

      • Catreece

        Acurses, I’d made a second edit that got eaten. Durn you inturwebz. Knew I should’ve saved that before hitting send.

        Anyway, there is a bit of a caveat to what I just mentioned: all players want a challenge to some degree. What counts as “too many choices” in a given timeframe, may actually be quite manageable after playing the game a bit longer. As such, this challenges the player to get more used to the controls or the abilities, to develop twitch-reflex muscle memory, and to simply get better at the game over time.

        The tricky part about game design is that there’s no “right” answer that works as a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Every player’s tastes will be different. Some will want a steeper difficulty curve, others will want a more gradual one. Some will have physical limitations that prevent them from getting past a certain set of decisions to be made on a timer, and others won’t. Most people have about a ~100ms reaction time delay which physically prevents them from acting any quicker because of the delay between the signal from entering the eye and then reaching the brain; some people don’t have that. (A close friend of mine has been tested all the way down to about 8ms, whereas I have a neurological tick that puts me much higher than average, to the point that I don’t appear to actually have reflexes when I go to the doctor’s because the delay is so great that I can actively suppress it; hence why I suck at Kirby Allstars’ samurai game. =P )

        Some people actually like Invoker, and will go through the effort of learning his abilities off by heart to be able to use the best choice in any given situation (I used to be able to do that; not so much now =P ), and, despite that everything in game design says he’s a bad idea, he does have a niche, hardcore following.

        Unfortunately, game design is a balancing act of mutually exclusive goals. You can’t make a game that will make everyone happy, period. You can, however, make a game that will make MOST people happy.

        As a reviewer, I can’t tell you if a game is fun, what I can do is tell you what aspects are present in the game and how the designers chose to balance the game (or who didn’t know better to make an informed choice on their part), and you can decide based off that information if you think the game sounds fun to you or not. I can, however, state that repeated and consistently bad decisions taken to extreme values will tend to make a game not very fun.

        There are people who enjoy russian roulette with a real gun, but we can generally state rather safely that you’d have to be insane to try. If a game were to kill the user with an electrical shock if their character ever died (jokingly suggested by Nom-Nom Games for their hardcore patch for Dungeon Defenders: Eternity), even if that character died due to the lag spike by the server that wasn’t in control by the player (and their servers were having severe problems at the time they suggested it), I think we could largely agree that such would be a bad design. =P

        And yet there would be a few who would disagree, anyway.

        In the end, game design’s difficult because you’re constantly juggling mutually exclusive goals, as I’ve stated above, and will say many times more in the future. It’s not a perfect science, and never will be. Games are fun because they’re challenging, but they suck when it goes from being a challenge to being frustrating. Where that line is crossed is dependent upon each individual player. As such, we know that “too many choices” is a bad thing, but “how many is too many?” is something that isn’t clearly defined. The best we can ever hope to do is make it “just enough for most players” or to fine-tune it to being “just right for a targeted niche audience.”

        Anyway, hopefully this comment doesn’t get eaten this time. =P