Game Development Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professional and independent game developers. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

As designers there has to be some ways you've approached establishing the 'fun-factor' in your games. You've likely done something in one game that may very well transfer into the future games you've worked on. You've likely played a game that did something really fun and you noticed that formula being applied to other games.

What are some ways to improve the fun-factor in game design? What makes Zynga games on Facebook so popular? Do rewards lead to more fun? Does failure lead to more fun? Does making a player come back in 2 hours lead to more fun? Have you read any good quotes or thoughts that really sticks in your mind?

There could be a good list of things to think about when approaching fun.

share|improve this question

11 Answers 11

up vote 19 down vote accepted

One design goal that I've seen be pretty successful is to get players into a tight retry loop.

It's very disheartening as a gamer to be playing something, lose, and then have to go through a lot of rigamarole to get back to where they were. "Just one more time" isn't really what people think if it takes them a few minutes to get back to the fun stuff.

Some examples in various genres that try to get the player back into the game quickly:

  • "rewind time" in games like Dirt 2/Grid, or Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
  • near-instant retry in games like Canabalt
  • quicksaves that are frequent and generous in pretty much most modern games

I realize this is sort of meta-level on the fun factor, but it does help keep people glued to the game for a longer period of time.

share|improve this answer
+1 for Canabalt. The key is addictiveness. – aviraldg Jul 17 '10 at 2:00
An automatic save point just before the hard challenge is perfect in this kind of situation and I really love games like God of War where there always seems to be one before places you are likely to die in the first try. This keeps the pace and motivation up! – Michael Barth Jul 18 '10 at 8:30
Save Points are to Video Games as Protection is to Rock climbing. – Clay Nichols May 4 '12 at 20:31
I disagree with this answer completely. Addictiveness and fun are two separate things – Jeff May 4 '12 at 22:04

I recently did some research on this and talked to Dr. Clayton Lewis (computer Scientist in Residence @ CU Boulder). Much of my answer comes from the copy of Engagement Analysis he gave me.

To make popular games, Look at Engagement not Fun
Fun is poorly understood. Engagement is the real path to popular games and easier to understand.

It's more useful to think about this in terms of Engagement rather than Fun. They are very similar, but you can have one without the other (answering Stack Exchange questions isn't exactly fun, but it is engaging). There are plenty of people playing Solitaire and other games where it does not appear they are fun but they are engaged. (This is also why Csikszentmihalyi talks about Flow rather than Fun. His definition of Flow is very similar to Engagement. And Engagement is the more powerful force here. It's what keeps them coming back for more, which is, after all, the goal.

Factors that Encourage Engagement

  • Competition. For some people, competing against someone face to face, or against a highest score list, or against a personal best, promotes engagement.
  • Goals with tuned difficulty level. If a gamelet's goal is too easy to attain the game will be boring; if too difficult, it will be frustrating. Since people get better with practice, especially in an educational gamelet, there has to be some way to escalate the difficulty to compensate. Many games do this with explicit levels; some do it with automatic difficulty changes based on player performance.
  • Peer Validation - This is one Dr. Lewis didn't have in his Analysis but I think it's very very important. The Facebook Like button, the Voting on StackExchange (on this very QA site) are all driven by Peer Validation. To have someone else who has the same deep interest in some obscure topic (like What is Fun) Like your Answer is incredibly motivating. Its what keeps folks taking Instagram photos. Put another way :
    If you posted a photo of a falling tree on Facebook and no one Liked it, did you really post it?
  • Partial reinforcement. Though it violates common sense, it is very clear from a great deal of data that rewarding someone for their behavior occasionally creates much more dedication to a task than rewarding them consistently. This is related to difficulty level: if you win every time the game is too easy; if you never win you can get discouraged, but if you win occasionally you may stay with game for a long time. So, in a game design, partial reinforcement is a reward that is given only occasionally. Note that partial reinforcement is a good example of a powerful factor in engagement that doesn't seem to relate to fun or enjoyment.
  • Observable progress toward the goal. Engagement seems to be increased if you can identify clear progress as you approach the goal, even if you don't ultimately win. If you are just randomly drifting around in the game, and then with no warning you find that you've won, that doesn't build engagement as effectively as an extended process in which you feel you are working your way towards the goal.
  • Emergent gameplay. Dr. Lewis talks about Emergent Events but I went to a WikiPedia definition of Emergent Gameplay and found it very useful. complex situations in video games, board games, or table top role-playing games that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics. I think most people would call this "hacking the game". Deus Ex is often cited as a game responsible for promoting the idea of emergent gameplay,2 with players developing interesting solutions such as using wall-mounted mines as pitons for climbing walls. In many solitaire games you may be able to play off a bunch at cards on one play, also if you have set things up right. In Tetris, you can hope for a cascade of level clearances. Having these things happen may act as intermediate rewards during play, and help to sustain your interest. (Again, the partial reinforcement idea says these things will be more effective if they don't happen too often.) In game design, an emergent event is something that is positive, that results from user actions (not just randomly), is extended in time (not just a short sound effect or a bump to the score), and gives a sense of progress with reduced (or no) effort.
  • Cycles of tension and release. In baseball, it happens all the time that a team makes progress, say by getting a runner on base, or even by having a batter get ahead in the count, only to have the batter make an out, or the inning end. In soccer, a team may have a promising attack on goal, only to have a shot saved and the ball cleared. It appears that these cycles of nearing the goal, with heightened tension as it approaches, followed by release, as the apparent progress dissipates, build engagement. Interestingly, analogous cycles seem to be important in music (see ), and in screenplays (see ). The fact that these cycles are so universal in film (even "serious" films like "Frost/Nixon", as well as potboilers like "The Golden Compass", have this in a very obvious way... the struggle upwards, with sucess looking possible, then the episode of despair, it's hopeless after all,and then the culminating triumph) suggests that this may actually be the most important of the engagement factors. Emergent events may also play into the cycles: watching an emergent event releases tension. Observable progress towards the goal is also important: it doesn't matter if there is a cycle, if the player can't tell there is one.
share|improve this answer

What are some ways to improve the fun-factor in game design?

Iteration on your design. Seriously, that's the best way I've seen. Allow time in your schedule to playtest the game on your own, watch playtesters with the game, and then modify the game based on your results. Every time you do this, the game gets a little better and a little more fun. The more iterative design loops you go through, the better the final game will be.

The flip side is, know when it's time to kill an idea. Some things are just not fun no matter how much you iterate (I've heard this referred to as "trying to polish a turd"), and you just have to go back to the drawing board and start again.

So in practice (in my experience, at least) it's a lot of trial-and-error, mostly, and when you do manage to find the fun it's pretty obvious that you found it.

share|improve this answer
Great thoughts. I plan to abuse playtesting much more with my current project. – David McGraw Jul 21 '10 at 22:24
It can be good to isolate your design as much as possible from the engine, so you can iterate on it even when things like graphics and cameras are not implemented properly. You could call this a prototype stage but I'd have the designers run it in paralell with the start of the programmer's project. – tenpn Aug 5 '10 at 8:06

Zynga games are an interesting case because they are NOT fun as it is described in Flow or is present in a game like tetris or space invaders. It's not about matching skill to challenge. Frankly Farmville is not "fun" at all in that sense.

Instead, Facebook games are designed to be engaging, which is subtly different. An engaging game is one that draws people to come back to it regularly, and there are several factors that can increase the level of engagement. In the case of Farmville, it's a combination of Relatedness and Autonomy that really keeps the players coming back. The autonomy (which is a fancy way of saying allowing a player to have their choices be reflected in a game) comes into play with the aesthetic elements of building a farm featuring the crops and decorations that each player wants. This is inherently satisfying. Relatedness is even more important for Farmville, as people come back because Farmville is really a channel for being social with other players. Features such as gifts between players encourage social reciprocation, and the every-two-hours pacing encourages players to come back and "keep up their garden", and be a good citizen. The 3rd pillar of engagement is increasing competence, but FarmVille isn't really about that.

I recommend this gamasutra article as a good overview of the interaction of those factors to create long term engagement. Basically it's about applying concepts from the field of motivational psychology to game design, and I think it goes a long way to explain why games like Civilization and RPGs are as compelling as they are.

share|improve this answer
Self reference in comment so you can safely ignore it, I wrote ( up some notes on a conference presentation given by the author of that gamasutra article, and they get into some additional depth. – Ben Zeigler Jul 17 '10 at 4:28
This is a humorous article about why some games are so addictive (and why people keep grinding or even spend money for the newest shiny armor):… – bummzack Jul 18 '10 at 15:23
I heard it phrased "Farmville catches players in a web of social obligation", or something like that. – Jonathan Fischoff Aug 5 '10 at 5:24
Well its not just about autonomy, Its also about content. People are shown a list of things that can be unlocked if they do something. So curiousity encourages them to complete. – Quakeboy Jan 5 '11 at 18:47
Zynga games are popular because they use heavily metric-driven methods of conditioning and creating light addictions. Yes, there is some level of draw from the aesthetic elements, but the majority of it is based in psychology of compulsion and conditioning. And I would definitely never use the word "engaging" to describe them, as that's an entirely different concept in game design, as Zynga games tend to focus on the opposite of engagement. – Attackfarm May 6 '13 at 22:54

What makes Zynga games on Facebook so popular?

I read an article a while back about Zynga, and the thing that stuck with me is that they approach what they do completely as an empirical science. Their back-end systems are set up to track tons of metrics about their games. They know which ones gets played the most, by whom, how frequently, which features get the most play, etc.

Using that, they are in a constant feedback loop of refining their games to improve the metrics they care about. It's not that they have genius game designers, they just have a well-oiled process for responding to what the players are doing.

share|improve this answer
This seems "unethical" to me, though I can't pinpoint why. +1 in any case. – Robert Fraser Aug 20 '10 at 2:58
It's unethical because the metric-driven approach doesn't limit itself to serving the users and enriching their lives. It can be, and is in Zynga's case, used to tap into psychological processes that are more manipulative than enriching, and serve to exploit users, which is an unhealthy and unethical business style. – Attackfarm May 6 '13 at 23:06
@Attackfarm I can't see what's unethical or manipulative in a "let's improve our game fixing it in regard to what our customers please the most". – Shoe Oct 16 '13 at 19:18
I would refer to my answer above in that metrics aren't limited to serving users, but I'll clarify. The methodology in certain companies is not to "fix what pleases our customers the most". Rather, it's to remove barriers that stop players from entering into a cycle of conditioning and reinforcement, all for the ultimate goal of maximizing microtransactions. Game design, fun, pleasure are all ignored (by these certain companies/philosophies) while conversion rates and attrition rates are the prime motivators. Manipulation becomes a science to serve profit. How could that be ethical? – Attackfarm Oct 24 '13 at 1:57

In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book Flow, he talks about the area between the players skill and the challenge. The key is to keep the player in this area. As their skill increases so should the challenge.

If there is too much challenge then the player may give up. If the player is too skilled they may get bored.

share|improve this answer

You should check out Gamefeel by Steve Swink. His thesis is basically that a lot of the fun in a game comes from the way the avatar moves, interacts with the world and "feels". You should tune speed, acceleration etc to this end.

share|improve this answer

I have seen a couple of things in the past where I have seen a crowd majority buck their heads. One really sticks out in my mind:

Little Challenge
In a prior project, I leaned against the word 'casual' a little too much. I imagined people picking up this game and simply solving a simple feat and moving on. I didn't integrate any kind of losing mechanism per say, but left that for the player to determine. A 'did the player meet his/her expectation' type of situation.

Judging from the feedback I received I see not giving a clear losing mechanism a mistake and a missed opportunity. It seemed that those players who wanted a way to lose actually enjoy knowing they've lost.

I guess that may sound obvious, but I wasn't quite thinking about it that way.

Reward a Player
By nature humans are always trying to achieve that next best thing. I think there are some instincts at play there. At a young age our mind was a buzz when we got a new toy, for example.

So in a game I imagine that a player who is given something along the way will improve the fun-factor. I assume this is exactly what Achievements are targeting - a direct reward.

share|improve this answer

One good read that has stayed with me for a long time is Richard Bartle's Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs.

When designing for "fun", I always tend to envision some distinct playing styles that I want to cater to.

share|improve this answer
I would encourage fleshing this answer out by talking about the player styles yourself; which ones you cater to, which ones you accept ignoring, and so on, rather than leaving the 'meat' of this answer hidden behind the link. – Steven Stadnicki Oct 2 '13 at 19:17

I need to add to many good answers that indeed you have to look at engagement rather, but it is close to fun, and is what you want, what makes people play your game.

Though, a word about rewards. A reward is an extrinsic motivation, and a reward is not going to engage your player if the process to it is painful.

You need to keep that in mind, intrinsic motivation is what gets people to play infinitely to something. Like the legos, its not because you have finished your car that you are happy it is because it was "fun" building it, and learning about its insides and whatever psycological event.

Intrinsic motivation is achieved when you fulfill basic "needs" (versus "wants"), and needs related to motivation are known to be "relatedness", "skillship", "autonomy".

  • relatedness : this is collaborative gameplay, serious sam, tower defense, world of warcraft...

  • skillship : feedback that you are developping skill. headshot in shooters, better timing in racing, frags in multiplayer deatchmatchs...

  • autonomy : open world, freedom of choice, better physics...

This is not a personal view, this is all psychology related stuff, you can watch the presentations given at GDC and CEDEC by the people in the know, that is what they mention.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.