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In many entertainment professions there suggestions, loose rules, or general frameworks one follows that appeal to humans in one way or another. For instance, many movies and books follow the monomyth.

In video games I find many types of games that attract people in different ways. Some are addicted to facebook gem matching games. Others can't get enough of FPS games.

Once in awhile, though, you find a game that seems to transcend stereotypes and appeals almost immediately to everyone that plays it. For instance, Plants Versus Zombies seems to have a very, very large demographic of players. There are other games similar in reach.

I'm curious what books, blogs, etc there are that explore these game types and styles, and tries to suss out one or more popular frameworks/styles that satisfy people, while keeping them coming back for more.

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Hey, that is the holy grail of game design, you expect the answer to be that simple? :P – speeder Oct 16 '10 at 2:13
Pretty sure if anyone has a good answer to this, they aren't going to tell you. See also: the fabled Zynga playbook. – coderanger Oct 16 '10 at 4:54
The title of your question makes you sound as if you were some kind of robotic overlord, trying to enslave us humans with the most addicting game ever. – bummzack Oct 17 '10 at 11:27
It was meant as a joke. No need to insult somebody. – bummzack Oct 18 '10 at 7:23
@bummzack - I have no idea what you're talking about, and it really grinds my gears to have someone suggest that I'm merely an autonomous mechanism attempting to enslave all of humanity for the sole purpose of powering my positronic empire. I see I'm going to have to cool off with a nice can of 10w30 down at the shop. – Adam Davis Oct 21 '10 at 4:48
up vote 17 down vote accepted

I would recommend you to read A Theory of Fun for Game Design, written by Raph Koster, an experienced game designer who started as a writer.

He basically proposes that we humans are living things that love watching and learning patterns everywhere. We basically want to get better at things, and games are a powerful learning tool. Games offer simple mechanisms that add themselves up to enable players to do really complex stuff (e.g. see how a player who loves playing fighting games learns to play those games).

What makes a player to return to a game? A fun mechanism is vital, but there is also another ingredient. Remember when you learned how to play Tic-tac-toe? it was a pretty fun game until you understood how to play it, and what strategies you used to win or tie every time. When we begin doing any activity (being playing a game, playing an instrument, painting, etc.) we start to do exactly that: learn what are the best strategies to do best what we like to do. If the activity is simple enough to know those strategies quickly, then that activity becomes boring. If the activity is too complex, we also get bored and we opt out of it.

So there are two extremes, see? assuming that we like what we are doing, if it's very simple, we will get bored quickly because our brain concludes that it took everything he needed and can predict now the next steps. If it's very complex, we will also get bored because we are unable to grasp the concepts that enables us to win the game/paint nicely/play clarinet beautifully.

So games are especialized in that: they present an activity with a carefully balanced difficulty setting, so the game is easy on us when we learn the controls, but as we gain experience playing it, the difficulty keeps rising and rising.

When we get to this fragile state of mind, we call that being "in the zone". That's an important thing to achieve when designing a game, and watch people who play if they're in the zone, whether they're playing WoW or minesweeper.

You should also read the Princess Rescuing Application slides, by Daniel Cook, which also present an insight on how games trap us.

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I learned this as "easy to learn, difficult to master." This is exactly why Super Smash Bros. Melee is so popular. It does that perfectly. – Tesserex Oct 18 '10 at 20:34
I had exactly that in mind when writing this answer, but I tried to be as comprehensive as possible ;-) – chiguire Oct 18 '10 at 20:35
Good answer. And I like chiguires. – Arcane Engineer May 10 '11 at 20:52

For instance, Plants Versus Zombies seems to have a very, very large demographic of players. There are other games similar in reach.

Take pop culture item, draw it with cute colorful cartoon art, advertise the hell out of it, offer a free demo, and make it a super Casual game with shiny things and little "ding" sounds going off all the time.

There, the secret is out.

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I think this article perfectly answers the question :)

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It has to be fun for the person playing it. It really is that simple. Unfortunately, there's not a recipe to creating fun; I think you just stumble upon it and you're surprised by it. That's why you see a lot of advice telling people to create games for themselves. If it's fun for you then it's not wasted effort and someone, somewhere will also enjoy it. That's where the marketing comes in to play. How do we find the people who will enjoy the game?

Anyway, trying to make a successful game is like designing by committee, it hardly ever turns out like you wanted. Design something fun for you and then you just have to find others who enjoy it.

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+1 on Design for yourself. – Heiko Rupp Feb 11 '11 at 8:50

i don't know if this answer the question, but i found this article and i thinks it is pertinent with discussion:

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In my mind, it first depends on the type of game. For games that requires reflexion and simples actions (meaning not immersive games), it requires artistic genius.

For games which are "immersive"-kinded (where you control one of several character in a virtual environment), it is less complicated, but it requires to have played other genre-alike games.

You have to implement mechanisms that make the player think he is in a world, make a reward system, but keeping all this simple, quick and more importantly, coherent. It's not because it's virtual that you can invent any rule you think is a good one and say "it'll work, it's genius": It's great that virtuality allows to do anything you want, but players want to have fun, not test your ideas.

It can seem you have to imagine you are being god and designing a world and its rules, and it can seem inappropriate, but that's the only way a game can be fun: you have to distort reality, not change it. BUT that doesn't you should not experiment, that is strongly encouraged, but if you want to implement an idea, don't forget that:

  • ideas are cheap, expensive to implement

  • most importantly, your idea might have to be balanced and/or adjusted before you release the game: an idea is more abstract than a state diagram, so in the end, you will have to make it do what you feel is the most appropriate.

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A gun, pointed at their loved ones, and a willingness to pull the trigger if they don't come back to play your game in X hours.

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Maybe we should be glad you live very far away now ;-) Probably wouldn't hurt subscription numbers though. – coderanger Oct 16 '10 at 22:52
Well, I never said I thought it was a good idea to try to make a game that humans keep playing forever either. – user744 Oct 17 '10 at 9:27
-1 for evil alignment. – topright Oct 20 '10 at 12:47
Evil questions have only unpleasant answers. – user744 Oct 20 '10 at 13:42

Compulsion loops is one way to do it.But do note they only work to a certain degree relative to interest and attention span of a player.

Also there is no proven formula to appeal to all except the general rule of making a fun game which can also be subjective. This is probably because to be human usually means to be very varied in taste and behavior.

Note: I do believe this answer borders to the dark side of game design. =p

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