Everyone has their own idea of what fun is. For most people it’s not a science—it’s a feeling, a gut reaction. In fact, there’s more science to fun than you might expect. Game developers weave an intricate quilt of mechanics that hits our senses on all fronts, delivering differing levels of surprise and satisfaction over short and long timescales. These are broken down into three levels: core, metagame and superfan. At each of these, budding developers should consider three key questions players ask themselves: What am I doing? Why am I doing it? What’s next? This article will explore the three keys to creating a game which players find both fun and a meaningful use of their time.
What am I doing?
Imagine you are just beginning your game development project. What do you do first? Naturally, you believe you have what we call a “core game mechanic”—a repeated action in the game that delivers fun to the player. Let’s say we want to create a slot machine game. The first thing we ask in the process is: “As a player, what am I going to be doing?” This is the core of any game. What action will we be doing repeatedly that we want to continue because it’s just so much fun?
For a slot machine, the answer would be pulling the lever, right? Imagine being a player pulling this lever on the machine. Imagine the sound of that lever cranking down and sliding back. You watch the slot reels lock into place one by one. You hear the sound of the reels and the music playing in response to them. Finally, the gold coins fall out from the bottom slot when you hit a jackpot.
Question: what’s the reward in this case? Is it the pulling of the lever? The reels locking into place? The gold coins at the end? The truth is that all of these are rewards. Each element of the whole consists of short compulsion loops which, when combined, create a feeling of fun. Within this entire system—pulling lever, watching reels, getting coins—the right degree of reward will entice a player to pull the lever again. After all, with slot machines, that’s the whole point—get the player to keep playing.
This simple loop of “player action > anticipation build-up > response” comprises a compulsion loop. This is the essence of what we call “fun” in a game. “Compulsion” sounds like a bad word, because it suggests that the stuff we do in games is outside of the player’s control. But in this case it’s about fun. We are “compelled” to take action in a game because we anticipate the game giving us rewards—and rewards lie at the heart of a compulsion loop. Games trade on the build-up of anticipation and the delivery of a reward.
Rewards come in all shapes and sizes. For an FPS game, the enemy’s reaction to getting shot by the player is the reward. For Bejeweled it’s the animation and particle effects after matching 3 jewels. For Angry Birds, it’s the surprise at how the blocks tumble in response to the player’s bird hitting the stack. Understanding this fundamental loop of anticipation and reward is central to defining the fun of a game.
Experiments by sociologists and psychologists such as Edward Thorndike and BF Skinner have given us more insight into how to elicit pleasure in humans, governed by the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Research shows that dopamine concentration is strongest not at the moment the person receives a reward, but during the build-up of anticipation before the reward. Furthermore, the pleasure of a reward diminishes if the same reward is repeated. So game developers have learned to create frequent build-ups of anticipation, and to vary the structure of challenge of reward, to design a system that can constantly surprise and delight the player.
“Prestige is king here—players love to show off their amazing cosmetic outfits by ‘peacocking’ in front of other players”
Why am I doing this?
Over time, players get bored with these short loops. When there are no more surprises, they look for greater levels of reward. This is where our second question, “why am I doing this?”, comes into play. How can a team create a system of repeatable mechanics that delivers a constantly changing reward to the player?
One classic solution for this problem is defining long-term goals. In Marvel Avengers, which I worked on, the game grants skill points to the player as they play. These points can unlock new skills for their heroes. The idea that a player does something to eventually receive a reward is the essence of the metagame. It is akin to the daily activities we do for greater rewards, such as saving up money to go on a holiday, or going to school to become a game developer. The task is worth doing because the inevitable reward is worth receiving.
Longer build-ups of anticipation to receive a reward sustain a player’s interest in a game for a longer stretch of time. Games do this by showing players what the reward is going to be long before the player has achieved it. There are numerous other strategies to create long-term compulsion loops which I will give examples of here:
- Appointment mechanics leverage Time as a factor in long-term compulsion. XCOM lets the player select research goals to build new buildings for their base. The player then “departs” for combat, but when they return to base, all of the appointment mechanics begin “firing off,” reporting back the research that they have delivered while the player was busy killing aliens.
- Many single-player games use Narrative Beats as long-term compulsion rewards. In Cyberpunk 2077, long stretches of gameplay result in cinematic “beats,” serving to push the story forward. The narrative gives the player the desire to finish the next level and earn the next cinematic beat.
- Games like Skyrim offer up another source of long-term compulsion: Map Progression via a huge explorable map. By showing a player a canvas of the possible places you can travel, the game entices gamers to keep playing to “discover” the next destination. Each one of those discoveries is a motivator in a gamer’s mind, compelling them to keep playing just one more minute to see what’s over the next hill.
- Other games use Leveling to keep players interested in the game. Most RPGs offer character progression in which the character increases their level of experience which increases the player’s power and allows them to advance to new locations in the world. This works especially well if the game shows the player how much more they must go before they reach their next level.
- Meta rewards can exist outside of games, too. On Xbox and PlayStation, Achievements can be granted for specific challenges. Also known as trophies, badges or medals, these “meta-goals” usually lie outside of the game universe and don’t impact the game in any way. But for gamers who are always looking for the next reward, achievements can create competition among friends to see who can acquire them all, serving as incentives to continue playing their favorite games.
At this stage of a game, players have mastered the core mechanics and seen the majority of the narrative. Now they are asking what more they can gain from playing the game. This is the arena of the superfan.
Not all games provide suitable compulsions for the superfan. Linear narrative games that have a beginning, middle, and end often do not provide compelling reasons to replay. Only the best online role-playing games or multiplayer shooters offer what is called the endgame. The mechanics that apply here generally leverage player skill, offering longer and more challenging scenarios. World of Warcraft is known by its superfans for its “raid” levels that can go on for four hours or more. Games such as Fortnite and Valorant offer more challenging gameplay through the variable complexity of multiplayer sessions where competing with real people offers greater challenge than computer enemies. This is the land of awesome gear, prestige nameplates, leaderboards, guilds, clans, and tournament play. Prestige is king here, and players show up to show off their rewards for their effort through “peacocking” in social hubs with the most amazing cosmetic outfits. It is also the stage in which long-term players give back to the community by helping newbies level up their skill or forming guilds to train up teams of players to compete.
Ultimately, great games have all three of these elements of play–Core, Meta, and Superfan–integrated in such a way that one inevitably leads to the other, keeping players playing for months, if not years. I like to say that gamers are always conscious across three timescales of reward. They are excited by the core gameplay of the present and anticipating the promise of reward in the future, all the while basking in the admiration of their past accomplishments. The best games offer these compulsions at every step of the experience. We employ this rubric at Stage11 and are always striving to create meaningful experiences that constantly drive the player to greater levels of reward. When you understand the science of fun, you can offer players an experience which is truly magical.
Tips for designing games
Here’s some final tips based on the blog that will help send you in the right direction:
- Never build a “bucket of mechanics”—always seek to have every mechanic reinforce and augment existing ones.
- Design a strong core game mechanic first. Then build your metagame and superfan mechanics out from there.
- Always seek to build surprise and variability into all of your mechanics.
- Work to ensure that the magnitude of a reward exceeds a player’s expectations.
- Create mechanics for superfans that challenge their skill and celebrate their accomplishments.
- Test your mechanics with real players–never rely on your team only to test the “fun.”