Tuesday 28 February 2012

"A Theory Of Fun For Game Design" Book Notes

Very odd thing, I've actually read a book recently, without even being ill or travelling a long distance, which are the usual cases I fallback to using this form of media.

The book was "A Theory Of Fun For Game Design" by Raph Koster. It is a very well written, easy-to-read material on how human perception works, what do people consider being fun, how games can be fun and finally how to design games right.

I felt like it's very important to not forget about these things, so I wrote down some of the most important excerpts and took notes. Naturally, if you're interested, I highly recommend reading the whole thing and hopefully this post will not turn out as a copyright infringement of some sort. Here it goes:

What are games?
The human brain is mostly voracious consumer of patterns, a soft pudgy gray Pac-Man of concepts. Games are just exceptionally tasty patterns to eat up.

They are limited formal systems. If you keep playing them, you'll eventually grok them. In that sense, games are disposable, and boredom is inevitable.

What is fun?
Fun is all about our brains feeling good - the release of endorphins into our system. It is the feedback the brain gives us when we are absorbing patterns for learning purposes. Fun is just another word for learning.

That's what games are, in the end. Teachers.

People sometimes call many things as "fun", Raph Koster describes them as different types of enjoyment, only one of these things is the actual "fun":
 - Fun: the act of mastering a problem mentally.
 - Aestethic appreciation: isn't always fun, but it's certanly enjoyable.
 - Visceral reactions: are generally physical nature and related to physical mastery of a problem.
 - Social status maneuvers: intrinsic to our self-image and our standing in a community.

What games teach us?
Games almost always teach us tools for being the top monkey. They are largely about getting people to see past the variations and look instead at the underlying patterns. Because of this, gamers are very good at seeing past fiction.

What games aren't?
Stories are powerful teaching tool in their own right, but games are not stories. Games aren't about beauty or delight. Games aren't about jockeying for social status. They stand, in their own right, as something incredibly valuable. Fun is about learning in a context where there is no pressure, and that is why games matter.

Different folks
People are different. For example, men not only navigate space differently, but they tend to learn by trying, whereas women prefer to learn through modeling another's behavior. Since different brains have different strengths and weaknesses, different people will have different ideal games.

The problem with learning
Cheating is a sign that the player is in fact grokking the game, because cheating is a winning strategy. That's actually what games are for - to package up the unpredictable and the learning experience into a space and time where there is no risk. They teach us things so that we can minimize risk and know what choices to make. Phrased another way, the destiny of games is to become boring, not to be fun. Fun is a process and routine is its destination.

The "real gold" - actual tips on achieving proper game design
Successful games tend to incorporate the following elements:
 - Preparation;
 - A sense of space;
 - A solid core mechanic;
 - A range of challenges;
 - A range of abilities required to solve the encounter;
 - Skill required in using the abilities.
There are also some features that should be present to make the experience a learning experience:
 - A variable feedback system. The result of the encounter should not be completely predictable. Ideally, greater skill in completing the challenge should lead to better rewards.
 - The Mastery Problem must be dealt with. High-level players can't get big benefits from easy encounters or they will bottom-feed. Inexpert players will be unable to get the most out of the game. Historically, competitive game-playing of all sorts has tended to squeeze out the people who most need to learn the skills it provides, simply because they aren't up to the competition and they are eliminated in their first match.
 - Failure must have a cost. At the very least there is an oppurtunity cost, and there may be more. Next time you attempt the challenge, you are assumed to come into it from scratch - there are no "do-overs". Next time you try, you may be prepared differently.

Not requiring skill from player should be considered a cardinal sin in game design. At the same time, designers of games need to be careful not to make the game demand too much skill. They must keep in mind that players are always trying to reduce the difficulty of a task. The easiest way to do that is to not play.

Checklist for quick game evaluation:
 - Do you have to prepare before taking on the challenge?
 - Can you prepare in different ways and still succeed?
 - Does the environment in which the challenge takes place affect the challenge?
 - Are there solid rules defined for the challenge you undertake?
 - Can the rule set support multiple types of challenges?
 - Can the player bring multiple abilities to bear on the challenge?
 - At high levels of difficulty, does the player have to bring multiple abilities to bear on the challenge?
 - Is there skill involved in using an ability? (If not, is this a fundamental "move" in the game, like moving one checker piece?)
 - Are there multiple success states to overcoming the challenge? (In other words, success should not have a single guaranteed result.)
 - Do advanced players get no benefit from tackling easy challenges?
 - Does failing at the challenge at the very least make you have to try again?
If your answer to any of the aboe questions is "no", then the game system is probably worth readdressing.

The problem with people
The holy grail of game design is to make a game where the challenges are never ending, the skills required are varied, and the difficulty curve is perfect and adjusts itself to exactly our skill level. Someone did this already, though, and it's not always fun. It's called "life". Maybe you've played it.

Taking their rightful place
 - Games do need to illuminate aspects of ourselves that we did not understand fully.
 - Games do need to present us with problems and patterns that do not have one solution, because those are the problems that deepen our understanding of ourselves.
 - Games do need to be created with formal systems that have authorial intent.
 - Games do need to acknowledge their influence over our patterns of thought.
 - Games do need to wrestle with the issues of social responsibility.
 - Games do need to attempt to apply our understanding of human nature to the formal aspects of game design.
 - Games do need to develop a critical vocabulary so that understanding of our field can be shared.
 - Games do need to push at the boundaries.

The gap between those who want games to entertain and those who want games to be art does not exist.

Good advice for any act of creation.
 - Work hard on craft.
 - Measure twice, cut once.
 - Feel the grain; work with it, not against it.
 - Create something unexpected, but faithful to the source from which it sprang.

My dream has been to become a game developer since when I was a little kid and saw my first video game and first book about the programming. Raph Koster's work has shaped tremendously what I think about the games and what I'd like to achieve some day.

My sacred dream has now become to participate in a development of a game(s), that would teach people to collaborate online, to make collective decisions, to share the so called "intellectual property" and see benefits in doing favors for each other without asking money for it.

These are in my opinion the most crucial things that everybody needs to learn, if we want the human race to survive.

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