Monday, August 15, 2011

Fun, Frustration, and Satisfaction

I remember a friend of mine asking me, while I was playing a particularly difficult game--the specific one escapes me at the moment--"why do you do this to yourself?"  She was referring to the fact that, for at least two hours, I sat there swearing at the console without a break, just trying to conquer some difficult segment.  Because, as conventional wisdom states, games are supposed to be fun.  They are a form of entertainment, source of amusement.  If they aren't, they are failures, or poorly made.

This, I think, is wrong.  Games are not always fun.  But this does not in any way make them bad games.

That's because games also provide another positive emotion beyond the sensation of having fun, which is satisfaction.  It's a pretty simple formula: achieve a goal, experience satisfaction.  The more difficult the goal is to achieve, then generally speaking the satisfaction will be greater as well.

Difficult boss fights where you die eleven times before finally winning can yield tremendous amounts of satisfaction.  Competitive multiplayer scenarios, particularly one versus one, gives a lot of satisfaction to the winner, even moreso if the players are of equal skill.  And that sensation of satisfaction is what keeps people coming back to certain games even when they aren't having the remotest trace of fun.

Then you have the adversary of satisfaction, which is frustration.  Frustration is the obnoxious enemy that pushes you off cliffs and into pits, killing you in one hit that you didn't even see coming.  Frustration is the boss that stun locks your character in a corner.  Frustration is a difficult jump with a two frame window.  Frustration is a cheesy rush in an RTS.  Frustration is a timed underwater escort mission. 

And while it sounds like frustration is something you should actively seek to remove from your games, it's important to understand that an element of frustration is NECESSARY for there to be any meaningful amount of satisfaction.  As Snoop Dogg once said, "that which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly."*

Games that are too easy don't really satisfy people.  Because fun is distinct from satisfaction, it's also mostly isolated from difficulty.  It can be isolated from winning and losing.  It can be isolated from doing anything at all, in fact!  People have plenty of fun passively enjoying other forms of media, so it's silly to think that the actual game is necessary for it to take place.  Fun comes generally from surprise, from the presentation of things we think are cool.  Fun happens when you're playing a physics based flash game and you get nuked by a rocket launcher and your character spazzes out uncontrollably.  At the end of the day though, the key difference between fun and satisfaction is that while fun is typically at odds with frustration, satisfaction relies on it and plays off it.  This isn't to say something can't be fun AND satisfying; finishing off an extremely difficult boss fight with an awesome finishing move while you get to listen to a rocking electric guitar track would, I assume, be fun AND satisfying.  I guess if you had to tack on an unneccessary definition to THAT emotion, you'd call the fun-satisfaction hybrid "exhiliration."

(It also bears mentioning that what people find fun and satisfying does vary from person to person)

This is, I think, where the terms casual and hardcore come in as they apply to games.  Casual games focus primarily on fun, and hardcore games focus on satisfaction.  Likewise, casual players focus on maximizing their fun from games, and if a game becomes too frustrating or just isn't fun enough, they will typically drop it.  Meanwhile,  more hardcore players will not even notice if they aren't having fun, provided that when they beat a level or win a round or whatever, they experience commensurate satisfaction. 

Please note that I'm not really trying to pin any one definition down on any player or game.  Some people become more hardcore about different games and endeavors.  Certain games hit a decent middle ground, and some games have a variety of modes that appeal to both ends of the spectrum.

So what's the point here?  Well, for all game designers who think this is actually worth paying attention to, look at it this way: games that have high levels of fun AND satisfaction will appeal to wider audiences and be more successful.  But if satisfaction increases based on frustration and adversity, what's the answer?

For starters, you can try and turn the failure into fun.  One of the primary tenets of a party game is that everybody is a winner in some form or fashion.  And since you just KNEW that I couldn't go one post without talking about Smash, we can look at it as a prime example.  Somebody takes first place in every game of Smash, and will experience some measure of satisfaction.  But in the chaos of a four player game with explosions and crazy effects, most people--those focused on fun--will not really NOTICE failure and frustration provided the outcome is cool enough!  Or, at the very least, the frustration will be heavily minimized.

How effective is this approach?  Well, in the case of Melee, people still played it religiously (and we're talking outside of the tournament scene) for years and years after its release purely because it could provide fun and satisfaction for everybody involved.  And the best part is, it didn't force people to play a particular way.  This let the audience define its own experience, which is how the tournament scene was able to grow from a casual party game environment.

That element in itself is another excellent example of how to expand an audience; permit the audience to define its experience and allow a variety of options.  Different game modes, difficulties and options let people decide how they plan to play the game.  The difficulty of this is, of course, that you run the risk of spreading yourself too thin and you end up with a bunch of poorly realized features, none of which end up delivering.

Another way to mitigate the downsides of frustration is simply by having a good soundtrack.  I believe that the reason older game music is focused heavily on catchy and simple melodic hooks--apart from hardware limitations--is that if the song wasn't catchy, it would drive people crazy to have to listen to it while they replayed the same levels over and over again.

More to consider: a game's frustration and satisfaction both need to be paced properly to create a proper emotional payoff.  A level that is insanely frustrating followed by a boss fight that's as mind-bogglingly easy and boring as the stage was obnoxious has limited impact.  It will typically create a sensation of, "what the hell, that's it?" when you win, followed by "well at least it's over..."  And if people are saying "at least it's over" when your game is finished, then you've probably done something horribly wrong.

Let's go in a different direction now.  One of the ways to enhance both fun AND satisfaction comes from, surprisingly enough, the game's aesthetics.  Appropriate graphics and sound effects do have an effect on how fun and/or satisfying the game is.

Let's say you're playing Adventure of Action 3, Quest For the Thing.  And you are running around beating stuff up with a wooden stick, which we will call the Newb Stick.  It makes an amusing "bop" noise and when you kill things, they fall over.  This is all pretty much in line with what you would expect a stick to do.  It's not the most exhilirating experience in the world, but it's a stick so no big deal.

Now you find your SECOND weapon, the Punch Launcher (which launches punches).  When you hit a Derp Goblin in the chin with it, it makes a metal "KCHANG" noise and the enemy does three backflips through the air.  Suddenly, fun.  Fun enhanced by multiple things: the new animations that clearly display progress and the new sound effect that vividly communicates the action.  These aesthetic upgrades over your Newb Stick create satisfaction on multiple fronts; you can kill Derp Goblins faster, and the new method communicates an increased sense of power.

And if the animation is done well enough and the sound effect isn't horribly equalized or whatever, some players will want to run around ignoring level objectives just to hit stuff with the PL.

How could you ruin the Punch Launcher?  If it made the same sound effect and had the same death animation for the enemy as the Newb Stick and the difference was purely in the gameplay element of having a projectile weapon, it would not be as fun or satisfying to use.  Sure, you have the benefit of your new gameplay mechanic--a way to engage enemies from range.  A lot of people say that all they care about is gameplay, and sure enough, the sound and the visuals don't have an actual effect on it.  Their novelty will wear off after awhile.  But that initial impression and hook are important to keep people playing your game and feeling those emotions that create a sense of progression.

And don't forget, the mark of a good sound effect is that it doesn't get annoying.  An obnoxious sound effect is funny at first, but if you force a player to rely on an item with such aesthetics for an extended period of time, it will piss them off.

Good upgrade scaling is also important.  Getting the Punch Launcher after the Newb Stick is great.  Getting it after the Ragnarok Shatterbomb Cataclysm Thing?  Eh.

Hope that was interesting.  I have more to say on the subject regarding particular games and features, as well as the types of players, how they experience games, and what they expect from them.  Look forward to the sequels!


*I MAY have confused Snoop Dogg with Thomas Paine.  But I doubt it.


  1. this was a great read. still chuckling over some of the things you wrote here haha

  2. just recently got into a melee scene. time to work on my melee with the wobbles blog mentality

  3. Wobbles I love reading your blogs, they are always very well done and interesting and often make me realize that I thought about things a certain way, or reaffirmed a way I already thought.

    Lately I've been playing a lot of sc2 and because of this particular entry I realized that I was thinking about the game in a very incorrect way and have found a lot more satisfaction playing it than I used to.

    I've also been able to wrestle with my own inconsistency using ice climbers thanks to some of the methods of practice you suggest.

    Thanks for investing your time into this blog, I really enjoy reading it.