I've got a great new idea for a game; it's called 'The Grind'. It will be a tremendously immersive experience, with jaw-dropping realism, deep economic model, and reality bending paradigm shifts outside of the box! When you start the game instead of a main menu there is your virtual supervisor, Lou, to criticize you for slacking off lately and maybe who tells you that you're playing the game an extra hour today just to get caught up with everyone else. Then, as the game starts, you're presented with a list of misordered numerical data which you need to transcribe into spreadsheet form over four or five tedious hours, while Lou occasionally appears on screen and tells you what a terrible job you're doing. After finishing your assigned sheet you deliver your work to a department head who promptly informs you that this was not the sheet she was after, and that the data was all wrong, and human resources can get someone competent at the snap of her fingers so you just better go back and get it right, by God! Doesn't this sound like fun?Of course, in my overtly sarcastic game design I've forgotten what really should be the mantra of game development: Games Should Be Fun. Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of game developers have forgotten that as well these days.
In our unholy quest to realistically replicate the world in the digital landscape of our thinly disguised destruction daydreams, we seem to be ignoring that it's the real world we're trying to escape in the first place. I think Pyro touched on this point recently with his scathing critique - he likes it when I call him scathing; it makes him feel edgy - of the MMORPG genre, and you want to know something, folks? Pyro is right! MMORPGs, by and large, aren't fun games, which is not the same as saying you can't have fun playing them.
Lately, several of us have been traveling the lands of Everquest's Norrath in an organized weekly group. We've been having a fantastic time as we huddle in dusty corners wading through more corpses than you'd find behind a Georgia crematory. The surprising, and perhaps sad, thing is that the actual fun is not had in dealing that death, or exploring, or organizing our tiny battles, but in the exchange of our self-proclaimed witty banter. In the long run, the software is only the skin and the excuse by which we congregate, and it is during the short silences when we get down to the business of actually playing Everquest that we have the least fun.
The problem is, Everquest is not a game. It's not even really a pastime as much as it is a diversion or perhaps a task. And so it goes with many games, not just those in the MMORPG genre. I'd argue the same of games that eschew fun for the sake of realistic difficulty. Games like flight simulators packaged with manuals that would give an unabridged dictionary an inferiority complex; that make the apparently not-so-simple act of maintaining flight on a mildly breezy day so complex that one needs a Ph.D. in aerodynamics just to operate the flaps.
I'm reminded of Lum the Mad in his first experience playing World War II Online, perhaps the achetypal response to developers who replace fun with complexity. The chat transcript of Lum's journey into developer Cornered Rat's nightmare vision of ten thousand infantry all standing around trying to figure out how to aim their rifle (link) conveys nicely, I think, how any average player feels when they realize fun was never a consideration for the game they've started to play. Also it contains the classic line, as Lum tries to figure out how to fly his plane, "I WILL TAXI TO VICTORY".
I hear gamers talk about skills, about how through diligent work they've mastered the AWP kill, or dogfight multiple bogeys in Falcon 3.0, or craft designer silk wookie pants, and I increasingly think, why would you work that hard on a game? In the end, the point of every game should fundamentally be to have a good time, and the value of any given gaming experience is only measured in how much you enjoyed the process. And, I'm sure, for some small segment of the gaming population crafting high end items to accumulate in-game wealth is a laugh-riot from start to finish, but it appears to me that most of the gamers with the most 'skill' for any given game are the ones most bereft of any starry-eyed love for the actual software. Development of 'skills' - and I persist in using quotes around the word in an effort to highlight how very not a skill gaming really is - seems to steal the light from our eyes, hollow out our cheeks, and leave us resentful and cynical shells.
It's just this simple. Think of the most fun game you've ever played, and think of the pure feeling you had just being in the game. Not trying to finish, not trying to develop your character, not struggling through frustrating level after frustrating level, but simply enjoying the software itself.
Now, think about how very few games you've played that give you that feeling.