Compulsion and fun

Posted: December 27, 2009 in Game Design, Games
Tags: , ,

I’ve been doing some thinking about compulsion and the notion of fun.  Most people would admit that the goal of a game is to entertain, usually summed up in the word fun.  To have fun.  When building a game, we refer to the intangible ‘fun factor’ of a game.  We also talk about a game’s ‘stickiness’, i.e. it’s ability to have the players come back for more after they’ve left the game, or better yet, to stay in the game for extended periods of time.  For myself as a player, and other player’s i’ve talked to, a game’s stickiness is often involved in the fun.  A game that keeps me coming back, I naturally assume it’s because I enjoy it.  But is that really the case?

As a designer, we look to ‘compulsion loops’ to help guide players’ behaviours and communicate to them what is good and what is bad in the game’s ecosystem.  These compulsion loops are designed to leverage a player’s desires by having the game reward them with small doses of what they want by completing parts of the experience.  It’s true that we are leveraging the player’s existing desires for money, love, fame, mastery, bragging rights, story, what every they want.  It may also be true that the experience they are going through is one that they find engaging, so they stick with it.  If that is true, then how did the term ‘grinding’ evolve into player vocabulary?

Grinding is one of the simplest cases to examine.  One could define grinding as the player participating in an game activity solely to receive the reward while the activity is not in itself an enjoyable experience.  To say it differently, it’s gameplay the player feels compelled to do because they want the reward.  At some point, most of us have played a game where the experience turned from great to bland over enough time, yet we are still willing to do it for some reason.  I hit a wall with an MMO after several years of play, where I feel physically ill trying to level up my character.  I want to level them up to play with my friends and see the world, but I find the gameplay banal.  I am likely well past the point where the experience is meaningful to me and there are larger compulsion loops at work.  I still describe this game as one of the best games ever made, but perhaps it’s just the level of compulsion I’m describing.

Another game I’ve played recently is a very popular online modern military shooter.  The online component has been raised to a levelling experience rivalling most RPG’s.  In addition to the progression system, there’s a leaderboard system showing accuracy, kill/death ratio and win/loss ratio.  Once you’re caught up in the personal progression and blend in the peer pressure from the leader boards, the game is extremely sticky.  I find myself playing well after the point where I want to do something else simply because I want to increase my win/loss ratio.  If I hadn’t been thinking about these things lately, I most likely would have played even more.  I wanted to try to figure out how to talk about compulsion and fun in such a way that I’d have a better understanding of crafting them.

There are as many compulsions as there are people, more perhaps, but there are some that I’ve seen as commonly used for game players.  One could argue that these are compulsions or desires.  I don’t have a great definition for desire yet, but I’d like to define compulsion as an almost intrinsic desire with potentially limitless and easily cyclical application.

  1. Mastery – The oldest one in the book, I want to continue so I get better
  2. Story – What happens next, perhaps the second oldest, I continue to find out what happens next.  As a note, movies and narrative media have been using this forever, so it’s not just games
  3. Collection – I continue to gather more of those things you tell me are valuable
  4. Character Improvement – I continue to gather power for my avatar, and thus me
  5. Numerical Advancement – 100 points is better than 50 right?  This could fall into a special case of collection, but it’s pervasive enough to warrant it’s own bullet
  6. Peer Competition – I continue because the Jones’ boy has more kills than I do
  7. Wealth – I continue because I’m promised the possibility of great wealth if I do (often referred to as gambling.  This is rarely employed by games played for fun)
  8. Fame – Yet to be totally tapped by games in North America
  9. Completion – I continue because I have yet to finish completing X.  X can be a level, a game, a deck of cards, a set of rewards, all the guns, etc
  10. Surprise – I continue because I believe there to be surprises coming (story could be seen as a type of this)

There’s likely others, and every designer will craft the use of them differently, or conceptualize them in different ways.  Given the compulsions above, we can craft loops or cycles which give the player positive feedback when they indulge in the compulsion.  Depending on the person, different loops will have different impact.  Bartle and others have created several conceptual models for understanding different player desires.  When looking at the desires and combing them with the compulsion loops we can make games that are very sticky for different people.  Now, none of this speaks to the actual experience.

A game experience provides the player with a context and a set of activities.  One of the terms players use to describe a game that they no longer find engaging is that it has become ‘repetitive’.  Most games are repetitive.  Tennis is repetitive, first person shooters, tetris.  Could people enjoy the repetition as long as their compulsions are being successfully satiated while still being left wanting?  Repeating the same activity on the keyboard, mouse or controller thousands of times can be very enjoyable.  The player feeling the repetition simply means that they no longer feel the pull of the compulsions, not that the game is repetitive.  There’s a game out in the last few years, which recently has been sequeled, that received great sales numbers and critical acclaim.  It involved climbing and assassinating.  Before assassinating, the player was required to do some ground work.  The small quests were felt to be quickly repetitive by most of the players I’ve encountered.  People largely wanted to just get on with it.

These quests involved tests of skill, planning and even told story.  You’d think that they’d be no more repetitive than hitting a button to kill someone.  Would having twenty different mission types be truly more engaging?  They were no more repetitive than an MMORPG quest of kill X creatures.  So what was the problem?  Perhaps the problem was that the gameplay didn’t line up with a compulsion very well.  The story they gave was primarily side story and only a few tidbits of it.  There was no strong reward for completion or collection, other than allowing the player to proceed.  The game itself was ground breaking in a lot of ways, but these pre-kill quests stood out as an anomaly.  For me, they stood out not because they didn’t craft an experience, but because they failed to fill a compulsion of mine and thus I found them boring.  Finding them boring isn’t the point.  The point, to restate it, is to that the compulsion fulfilment was so heavily wrapped up in my enjoyment of the experience, that these experiences failed to engage me.  Fun and engagement was starting to look a lot like compulsion and indulgence.

So the central question that I want to investigate is what is the relationship between a good game and compulsion. Can we have a good experience without compulsion?  Is indulging in compulsion bad?  Is it ok in moderation?  Should it be fully embraced?  Is there such a thing as a good experience separate from compulsion?  Constantly new experiences scare us, yet those we are totally familiar with bore us.  As a game designer, what should I use to help me judge ‘good’?  Anyway, some thoughts.

  1. I’m also in the process of designing my first couple games that I would actually desire to see published. Great posts all around this blog, thanks!

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