Fun And The Flow In Games
  • Fun And The Flow In Games


    If you're going to design games, or GM RPGs, it helps to understand a little bit about what makes games enjoyable. Game publishers often say in their guidelines for designers "game must be fun," but I've always found this to be useless because fun means different things to different people.



    I used to ask gamers who like to play chess, whether they regarded it as fun; about half do and half don't. It may be engaging, it may be enjoyable, it may be fascinating, but it's not fun for many of them. I like to use the terms enjoyable or interesting. I think that fun comes from the people you play games with, and the circumstances. So you can have fun playing Monopoly, even though Monopoly is a really dull game and not well-designed. Certainly there are games that are intended to be funny, often party games, but that's funny, not fun.

    "When baseball is no longer fun, it's no longer a game." -- Joe DiMaggio

    We can still ask, though, why do people enjoy some games more than others? A Czech researcher who worked in the USA identified “the positive aspects of human experience - joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow." For game purposes people have an optimal experience when they are challenged, but not challenged too much. If somebody has low skills in the game and the challenges are high they're going to be anxious. If they're very skillful and there's not much challenge in a game they're going to be bored, it's too easy. You want people to be in that Flow area where the challenge matches the skills.

    That's partly done with levels in Dungeons & Dragons. The deeper you go in a traditional dungeon, the tougher it is, so as your characters get better they go deeper into the dungeon. It doesn't make sense from a "realistic" point of view, but it works, and the technique has been adopted by video games. As you play the video game, and you become more skilled and your character gains capabilities, the levels become more difficult. This keeps players in the Flow.

    Raph Koster characterized games as learning in a safe environment: players learn and they become better as they play the game, so the game has to adjust. If it's a GMed game, the GM has to adjust the challenge level. If it's a video game, then the designers have to provide adjustable challenge. If it's a tabletop game, and the player is playing with other people who are also getting better at the game, the challenge will increase.

    But for good pacing you need to vary the challenge so that sometimes there's a lot of tension, because it's difficult, and sometimes the player can relax because it's relatively easy. You want ups and downs in games, just as in life, because that makes the ups more delicious.

    Another time I'll talk about MDA and "8 Kinds of Fun."

    Reference:
    Csikszentmikalyi: Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), p. xi
    Raph Koster: A Theory of Fun for Game Design (2010, 2013)

    contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Comments 20 Comments
    1. Imaculata's Avatar
      Imaculata -
      Defining what "fun" is, is one of the hardest questions in Game Design. And no Game Designer should ever be afraid to answer the question "What is fun about this game?", they should be excited to answer it.

      I once talked to a guy who wanted to be a game designer, who had a computer game that he wanted to make, and asked him "But what is fun about it?", and he got really angry about it. I think because he didn't really have an answer, and it frustrated him.

      I attend Spiel in Germany every year. You can see a lot of unpublished games at this convention, try them out, and have a chat with the designer. Some of the biggest mistakes that I often see in game design is:

      -The game lacks focus on a central theme
      -The game is trying to incorporate too many computer game ideas into a board- or card-game format
      -The game features too many bits and pieces
      -The game has too complex rules and/or too many exceptions to rules
      -The game has too much maintenance/upkeep in between rounds (in other words, too many things you need to remember to do each round)
      -The game has a too complex action economy (too many actions on your turn)
      -The game's mechanics are not a cohesive whole
      -The game mostly just has cool artwork
      -The game is an inferior clone of an already existing popular game
      -The game has too much number crunching, or the numbers are substituted by a ton of tokens
      -The game does not have a clear definition of what is supposed to make it fun
    1. Pagansexy's Avatar
      Pagansexy -
      http://www2.rpgresearch.com/blog/rpg-optimization-

      Optimizing the Experience for Maximal Immersion and Achieving Maximal Flow State

    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      Overly complicated games are such a downer.
    1. shidaku's Avatar
      shidaku -
      Quote Originally Posted by Pagansexy View Post
      http://www2.rpgresearch.com/blog/rpg-optimization-

      Optimizing the Experience for Maximal Immersion and Achieving Maximal Flow State
      Maximal?
    1. JeffB's Avatar
      JeffB -
      Baseball is about 5 minutes of fun encapsulated in hours of snoozefest. Thank god DiMaggio did not make RPGs.
    1. werecorpse's Avatar
      werecorpse -
      Quote Originally Posted by JeffB View Post
      Baseball is about 5 minutes of fun encapsulated in hours of snoozefest. Thank god DiMaggio did not make RPGs.
      A perfect example of fun being different for different people. I hear it's quite popular.
    1. Bill Reich's Avatar
      Bill Reich -
      Quote Originally Posted by JeffB View Post
      Baseball is about 5 minutes of fun encapsulated in hours of snoozefest. Thank god DiMaggio did not make RPGs.
      NFL football is _documented_ to have eleven minutes of action in an endless telecast. Comparing it to sevens Rugby, it is impossible to understand why anyone watches it.
    1. fantasmamore's Avatar
      fantasmamore -
      Recently I heard an episode of System Mastery podcast where they compared an RPG where it was difficult to hit an opponent, with soccer, where the two teams play for 90 minutes and they might not even score once. I am a huge soccer fan. That made me think of how differently people with different culture might see the same game. Every time an opponent takes the ball I fear of that one mistake that can end the game and every time my team attacks I hope that it is going to be the deceive moment. A goal is not just one point.
      So yes, fun is different for everyone. Is it fun when everybody at the table makes jokes or when you have this dramatic moment when your character's life depends from a single die roll or the balance between jokes and dramatic moments? All of them. If the system is too tactical or free-form, if the bad guy is caricature of an evil mage or a well thought person with motives and weaknesses, everything is fun if the people around the table have a good time and most importantly if they can remember, years after the game, that one moment when something extraordinary happened...
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      I'm not sure about the "bits and pieces" thing to be honest. There's a whole sub-genre of board wargames that are nothing but masses of bits and pieces. Advanced Squad Leader anyone? Heck, my Eclipse game has a metric buttload of bits and pieces and that's not counting the add ons.

      Never minding deck building games. How many cards are there in Magic now?

      Sometimes lots of bits and pieces are a good thing.
    1. shidaku's Avatar
      shidaku -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      I'm not sure about the "bits and pieces" thing to be honest. There's a whole sub-genre of board wargames that are nothing but masses of bits and pieces. Advanced Squad Leader anyone? Heck, my Eclipse game has a metric buttload of bits and pieces and that's not counting the add ons.

      Never minding deck building games. How many cards are there in Magic now?

      Sometimes lots of bits and pieces are a good thing.
      Last count took place last December, there are 16505 unique cards.
    1. Jhaelen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Imaculata View Post
      Some of the biggest mistakes that I often see in game design is:
      [...]
      Most of the things you list are a matter of personal preference; it's not really a list of things game designers should avoid.

      I've been thinking about the matter of 'fun' in the context of video and board games quite a bit. Especially regarding video games.
      I'm finding that most modern video games aren't very challenging or fun, but they're often extremely addictive:
      They achieve that by a constant stream of small 'rewards' given out for playing the game, which manages to keep players hooked.

      Every couple of months I review the games I'm currently playing and try to decide objectively if I'm still having fun playing them.
      More often than not I find them lacking in that regard and stop.

      By comparison, older video games had a tendency to be really hard, probably hearkening back to their origin as coin-operated arcade machines:
      They tried to hook players by spurring their ambition. And after getting past a tough spot, there was the infamous 'insert coin to continue',
      if you wanted to avoid having to replay from the beginning.
      (These games are also the only ones I feel having a connection to 'the flow':
      To play them well, you _had_ to enter a certain 'trance-like' state, allowing you to get past 'impossible' spots;
      something that was hard to replicate once you've left that state for even a short time.)

      What I've found when playing some of my old favorites is that I no longer have the high frustration tolerance required to be somewhat successful in these games.
      I consider that to be at least in part the result of being conditioned by modern games.

      Regarding board games, there's definitely quite a few really enjoy playing, although I wouldn't call them 'fun'.
      Typically, these are mentally exhausting games requiring good strategy and/or tactics; let's call them 'brain-burners'.
      However, these games manage to achieve something that somewhat shallower 'fun' games don't:
      They often create a truly memorable experience.

      RPGs are similar to this, and I tend to remember either really tough encounters or ingenious solutions to encounters that probably would have been really tough, otherwise.
    1. Imaculata's Avatar
      Imaculata -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      I'm not sure about the "bits and pieces" thing to be honest. There's a whole sub-genre of board wargames that are nothing but masses of bits and pieces. Advanced Squad Leader anyone? Heck, my Eclipse game has a metric buttload of bits and pieces and that's not counting the add ons.
      I'd argue that a game can be great despite having the flaw of having lots of bits and pieces. Its not a binary thing. The boardgame Dead of Winter has a ton of bits and pieces too, and yes, that's bad. But its a great game regardless. But likewise the boardgame Descent has bits and pieces to a ludicrous degree, and it kills it. Many people would decline to play Decent after seeing the box.

      Name: DescentAllStuff.jpg ► Views: 409 ► Size: 172.0 KB
      Merciful Zeus!

      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Never minding deck building games. How many cards are there in Magic now?
      That is an entirely different thing. Having a large deck to choose from, does not overcomplicate the game. Where as having dozens of tokens to track health, sanity, food, money, trash, weapons, is definitely a negative. It is inelligant design. And like I said, it doesn't automatically make a game bad, because all games have flaws. One of my favourite games is Arkham Horror, and that game has way too many bits and pieces. Sometimes the good outweighs the bad.

      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Sometimes lots of bits and pieces are a good thing.
      Almost never in my opinion. Bits and pieces make a game more clunky, there are more things to get lost when playing it, and it is often the result of trying to (poorly) translate videogame statistics into a boardgame format. If you could find a way to track said statistics without the aid of countless tokens, the game would without a doubt be better for it.

      Quote Originally Posted by Jhaelen View Post
      Most of the things you list are a matter of personal preference; it's not really a list of things game designers should avoid.
      All game design is subjective, and a matter of personal preference.

      Quote Originally Posted by Jhaelen View Post
      I've been thinking about the matter of 'fun' in the context of video and board games quite a bit. Especially regarding video games.
      I'm finding that most modern video games aren't very challenging or fun, but they're often extremely addictive:
      They achieve that by a constant stream of small 'rewards' given out for playing the game, which manages to keep players hooked.
      Lots of modern games are all about allowing the player to progress, and experience more of the game. I think that does make the games more easy, but it also shows a stronger commitment to make the games fun (which ultimately I would argue is the goal). Would a game like Silent Hill benefit from being really hard? What if you had to redo boss fights multiple times, instead of killing them on your first try? What if the puzzles were way more difficult, and you were stuck on them for several days? Would the Silent Hill games be better that way? I don't think they would. With a horror game like Silent Hill, its more about getting the player to experience more horror, and not about challenging their fighting and/or puzzling skills. It would be an entirely different game if it did.

      Likewise, would Uncharted be a better game if the combat was harder? No it wouldn't. You can play the game on "crushing" difficulty, and immediately find out just how utterly frustrating and repetitive the combat can be if the game is unforgiving. Uncharted is all about the story, the characters, and feeling like you're Indiana Jones. Many of the cool combat moves would not be possible if you simply got shot to pieces. But the game is deliberately more forgiving, because the designers want the player to get out of hiding, and not just stay behind a rock all day. Also, I think the designers are aware that the combat just isn't really good. Its not one of the game's strengths, despite them all having a large focus on shooting.

      Dark Souls is a very niche game in that regard. The difficulty of the series turns a lot of players away, but for those who really like a good challenge, it is very rewarding. But I don't think that all games should follow that example.

      Quote Originally Posted by Jhaelen View Post
      By comparison, older video games had a tendency to be really hard, probably hearkening back to their origin as coin-operated arcade machines:
      They tried to hook players by spurring their ambition. And after getting past a tough spot, there was the infamous 'insert coin to continue',
      if you wanted to avoid having to replay from the beginning.
      (These games are also the only ones I feel having a connection to 'the flow':
      To play them well, you _had_ to enter a certain 'trance-like' state, allowing you to get past 'impossible' spots;
      something that was hard to replicate once you've left that state for even a short time.)

      What I've found when playing some of my old favorites is that I no longer have the high frustration tolerance required to be somewhat successful in these games. I consider that to be at least in part the result of being conditioned by modern games.
      Is it though? Or is more that we now have higher standards? I think despite the endless stream of boring cover based shooters, there's been a lot of noteworthy improvements to videogames over the years. For example, we are no longer required to redo an entire level if we lose. Most games have checkpoints now. Most games also mix up their mechanics more often, and they have very clear tutorials.

      I think the reason why I like old school games, is pure nostalgia. When I was young I had the patience to master those games, and our choice was limited. We didn't have internet reviews yet, so we had to rely on reviews in game magazines, or more often than not, we simply bought a game blindly. Sure, there's some gems among the classics. But I can also recognize some poor design decissions in some of them. And if I look at the games that I still occasionally play, there's very few of them.

      I have quite a few games for the classic NES, but out of all of those the only ones I play are:

      -Zelda 1 (because it is a great game and stood the test of time)
      -Megaman 2 (for being the best, and perhaps also the easiest in the series)
      -Super Mario Bros 3 (For being like Mario 1, but better. Better graphics, better music, more gameplay variety, better controls)
      -Castlevania 3 (for improving on the formula, having varied levels and enemies, and having awesome music)
      -TMNT 3 (because its just about the best sidescrolling multiplayer brawler, just short of Golden Axe). All the others, garbage, mostly.


      And you may notice that a lot of these are sequels. A lot of game designers were just popping these games out very quickly, and more often than not just throwing stuff at the wall, and seeing what sticks. The first game in a series was rarely the best one (Zelda being a rare exception to the rule), and important improvements were often made to the games in the sequel.
    1. Libramarian's Avatar
      Libramarian -
      Quote Originally Posted by Imaculata View Post
      Dark Souls is a very niche game in that regard. The difficulty of the series turns a lot of players away, but for those who really like a good challenge, it is very rewarding. But I don't think that all games should follow that example.
      I wouldn't call it "very niche" when Dark Souls III was the 30th best-selling game of 2016. I wouldn't say all games should be like DS, but I think it will be influential given its critical and commercial success.

      Also I think something like jumping into multiplayer Battlefield 1 is actually more frustrating and unforgiving than Dark Souls, and that's enormously popular as well. I think it's become increasingly obvious that game designers have vastly overestimated the importance of a smooth learning curve. A temporary plateau in the learning curve is a quid pro quo -- it's frustrating, but also more satisfying to overcome. This satisfaction is also enhanced by the network effect of knowing that everybody else is playing on the same difficulty level.

      As for horror games like Silent Hill, I don't think that the anxiety produced by high difficulty is inappropriate in that context at all. Quite the opposite. The problem is when it requires the player to repeat the same content over and over again, but this is only necessary if the game narrative is very linear. A non-linear horror game (like Day Z or Friday the 13th) can have players frequently failing during moments of fear/anxiety without requiring them to repeat content.
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      Quote Originally Posted by lyle.spade View Post
      Overly complicated games are such a downer.
      And yet, Pathfinder, FFG Star Wars, and FFG 40K sold well....
    1. Imaculata's Avatar
      Imaculata -
      Quote Originally Posted by Libramarian View Post
      I wouldn't call it "very niche" when Dark Souls III was the 30th best-selling game of 2016. I wouldn't say all games should be like DS, but I think it will be influential given its critical and commercial success.
      Yeah, the game seems to have tapped a very specific (but apparently large) sub-group of gamers. So yes, perhaps niche is the wrong word. And I agree that it will be very influential (in many ways it already is right now). And to think reviewers totally dismissed Demons Souls when it came out. Funny how that perception can change.

      Quote Originally Posted by Libramarian View Post
      Also I think something like jumping into multiplayer Battlefield 1 is actually more frustrating and unforgiving than Dark Souls, and that's enormously popular as well. I think it's become increasingly obvious that game designers have vastly overestimated the importance of a smooth learning curve. A temporary plateau in the learning curve is a quid pro quo -- it's frustrating, but also more satisfying to overcome. This satisfaction is also enhanced by the network effect of knowing that everybody else is playing on the same difficulty level.
      I think that's a fair point. I think multiplayer games such as Battlefield and Counterstrike can be very discouraging, because if an unexperienced player were to step into it, they would have their butt handed to them by far more experienced players. I think Team Fortress 2 does a far better job at this in that regard. The various classes provide some what of a learning curve. But even that lacks a proper tutorial to tell the player how to really play the classes. I think a lot of game designers (and also gamers) make the mistake of thinking that a smooth learning curve equals the game being too easy, but far from it. Its more akin to providing a poor manual with your game. A game should have a smooth learning curve, regardless of the intended difficulty of the main game. Even the Dark Souls game fail a bit in that regard. Several of them start out pretty hard, and then loosen up later on.

      Quote Originally Posted by Libramarian View Post
      As for horror games like Silent Hill, I don't think that the anxiety produced by high difficulty is inappropriate in that context at all. Quite the opposite. The problem is when it requires the player to repeat the same content over and over again, but this is only necessary if the game narrative is very linear. A non-linear horror game (like Day Z or Friday the 13th) can have players frequently failing during moments of fear/anxiety without requiring them to repeat content.
      But both of those are multiplayer games. In general, single player horror games tend to be quite linear. And having to replay the same section multiple times can quickly drain the suspense and fear from such a game. This was the case with Fatal Frame 3 for example, which had a really tough final boss that was pretty frustrating. I didn't feel like the added difficulty made it a scarier game.


      (Fatal Frame 3's final boss fight was mostly made difficult due to the insta-kill attack of the boss, and the blurry screen)

      Of course, maybe that also depends on the manner in which the game is made more difficult. On the other hand, the horror game Obscure was pretty difficult, and it did add to the menace and dread of enemies for that game. So it all depends on the execution I suppose.
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      Quote Originally Posted by JeffB View Post
      Baseball is about 5 minutes of fun encapsulated in hours of snoozefest. Thank god DiMaggio did not make RPGs.
      I fell asleep at the last baseball match I attended.

      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      For game purposes people have an optimal experience when they are challenged, but not challenged too much.
      I couldn't get through half of Shadowgate. Didn't stop me from playing it a lot though. See Einstein's definition of insanity. Same thing for Hitchhiker's Guide... Zork... maybe I'm just a glutton for punishment?
    1. DragonMan's Avatar
      DragonMan -
      Power is out from Hurricane. Our family played Yahtzee including my daughter who has never played it before. We had fun.
    1. PrometheanVigil's Avatar
      PrometheanVigil -
      Quote Originally Posted by aramis erak View Post
      And yet, Pathfinder, FFG Star Wars, and FFG 40K sold well....
      It's funny -- I don't see Pathfinder as complicated. It is the standard (as was 3.0/3.5 before it) from which all over tabletop RPG systems are compared with regards to complexity, variety and accessibility. There's a reason newbie gamers are still able to get into it, especially if they're stereotypically prone to giving up on it (female friends, non-nerds etc...). FFG Star Wars is the same, it's not that complicated (in fact, it's one of the better designed games so far this decade to be released, excluding the very flawed talent tree sub-system). All the 40K RPGs are badly laid out in their respective rulebooks and there's so much ill-fitting stuff in the system (although, of course, combat's pretty robust) -- it is a heavy system but only just and only because it attempts to do a lot but then not focus on or smooth out anything not related to facing or scatter graphs.

      Now give something as DANGEROUS as the Hero system... or something as shallow as Fate... and then you might be onto something.
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      Quote Originally Posted by PrometheanVigil View Post
      It's funny -- I don't see Pathfinder as complicated. It is the standard (as was 3.0/3.5 before it) from which all over tabletop RPG systems are compared with regards to complexity, variety and accessibility. There's a reason newbie gamers are still able to get into it, especially if they're stereotypically prone to giving up on it (female friends, non-nerds etc...). FFG Star Wars is the same, it's not that complicated (in fact, it's one of the better designed games so far this decade to be released, excluding the very flawed talent tree sub-system). All the 40K RPGs are badly laid out in their respective rulebooks and there's so much ill-fitting stuff in the system (although, of course, combat's pretty robust) -- it is a heavy system but only just and only because it attempts to do a lot but then not focus on or smooth out anything not related to facing or scatter graphs.

      Now give something as DANGEROUS as the Hero system... or something as shallow as Fate... and then you might be onto something.
      5E is the standard, not Pathfinder... Pathfinder is above it. D&D 5E outsells Pathfinder, and is getting more plays than pathfinder. And it's well above the midline for crunch, but it adds it in small chunks. (Pathfinder starts higher, and also adds more as you go, as did 3.X; AD&D 1E and 2E pretty much capped in complexity by 9th level; 3.X, 4E, PF, and 5E continue to add complexity to at least 20th level; 40th for 3.0/3.5, 30th for 4.0, 20th for 5th... as new powers continued to accrue.)


      Hero's actually mechanically simpler than FFG star Wars or 5E. The problem is that it has a lot of advice and tons of examples in the rules... The actual 4E core was not that big... but was chock full of advice. Most characters will use the same 5-6 powers, and maybe 1 the rest don't, for the career of the character. It's a slog at first, but it doesn't get much more complex in play.

      GURPS ... again, most of the complexity hits you squarely in the eyes right up front. No "easing into it"...

      The brilliance of Class & Level is that you can code in difficulty increases in system mastery required by how the abilities are gained. The drawback is that low level play is (for many) unsatisfying after 1 or 2 characters.
    1. Pagansexy's Avatar
      Pagansexy -
      Here is an excellent video that explains flow state with examples. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dbtma-4qUl8
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