Last week I finished reading A Theory of Fun, by Raph Koster, Chief Creative Officer for Sony Online Entertainment. This book convincingly answers the question, What makes a game fun? And more than that, it dives into topics such as the ethics of games and how games can take their rightful place alongside other respected forms of entertainment. It's all good stuff, and it's easy to agree with everything Koster writes. It all rings true.
Although the book is deep with detail, the main question boils down to three words: Fun equals learning. As Koster puts it, "Fun...arises from mastery. It arises out out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes a game fun. In other words, with games, learning is the drug." And likewise, he writes, "Boredom is the opposite. When a game stops teaching us, we feel bored...Games grow boring when they fail to unfold new niceties in the puzzles they present."
I think Koster is 100% right. Developers must strive to make games whose difficulty zig-zags within that narrow band of "fun," between boredom (too easy, already learned) and frustration (too hard to learn). Koster says that "the definition of a good games is therefore 'one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing'."
Another interesting comment in the book gives a hint as to why we love certain genres, like the FPS, RTS, RPG, & MMOG: "Given that we're basically hierarchical and strongly tribal primates, it's not surprising that most of the basic lessons we were taught by our early childhood play are about power and status."
Koster also talks about a concept related to fun, called "delight," which deals with aesthetic appreication. We experience delight when we recognize patterns, yet we're also surprised by them. Delight has nothing to do with challenges. And Koster says delight will "wear thin quickly," and therefore games cannot live by delight alone. It's easy to name games that have sure looked pretty (delight), but have not given us an fresh challenge to overcome (fun).
Koster has written one of the best books for our industry. I hope everyone adds it to their bookshelf.