Tales from the Dev Side: Why is Conflict Fun? by Adam Spragg

Although his Hidden in Plain Sight was not an overwhelming success on Xbox Live Indie Games, Adam Spragg still received near-universal kudos from critics for his efforts.  Even my infamously cold heart warmed to it as I played with three interns who probably hate me and call me mean names behind my back.  I’m betting on “Take-a-Bath-rine” although I won’t rule out “Catheterine.”  If they had known my alias was “Kairi” I’m sure it would have been “Cry-ri.”  Which is absurd.  I beat them like 20 games to 1.  If anything, I made them cry.  Or maybe I’m being paranoid.  They probably didn’t call me anything too mean.  I can deal with Catheterine.  I’ll call off the hits.  Well, maybe.  I’m guessing I won’t get my deposit back.

Okay, so maybe I don’t handle conflict (real or imagined) as well as I should.  Adam views conflict differently.  In this very philosophical installment, Adam shares his thoughts on how conflict is the chief reason for a game being fun.  And you know what?  I think he’s on to something.

Why is Conflict Fun?

by Adam Spragg

So, you’ve paid your dues.  You’ve learned how to code, studied the XNA framework, and walked through the code samples.  And now, you’ve created the broad strokes of your first Xbox Live Indie game.  You show it to a couple of friends, and while they’re impressed that you’ve actually created a game that is running on an actual console system, alongside the likes of Call of Duty and Halo, they just don’t really have the reaction that you were hoping for.  After five or ten minutes of humoring you, they say “Hey, that was pretty neat!  Ok… who wants to play Madden?”

That’s when the realization dawns on you.  You’ve made a game, and while it has kind of the same concepts as other games you’ve played, it just doesn’t really feel that fun.

It’s an easy trap to fall into.  You spend so much time on the technical side of things, and designing what you think will be a great game, but when you actually play it, it’s just missing some magic spark that gets people excited and want to keep playing.

What is “fun”?  And how to we make a game that people want to play?

This is quite literally a million dollar question.  Anyone making games today, from one-man indie developers to multi-million dollar studios are trying to create fun games.  Fun creates buzz.  Fun sells.  Fun makes money.  And making games that people enjoy has some transcendental appeal, too.  It just feels good to make something that brings other people pleasure.

Let me classify some of the major genres of video games, and do some free-form thinking about what words come to mind with each.

Platformers — Danger.  Manual dexterity and timing.  Overcoming obstacles.
Sports — Skill and strategy.  Time management.  Winning and losing.
Adventure games — Exploration.  Puzzle solving.  Engaging story.
FPS — Combat.  Tactics.  Strategy.  Exciting and visceral.
RPGs — Exploration.  Advancement and achievement.  Combat and rewards.
MMORPGs — All the above plus wide scale social interaction.  PvP.

There are other genres, and sub-genres within each of these, but one common thread that exists in all games (and indeed, perhaps all narrative art forms) is CONFLICT.  I believe that Conflict is critical to making fun games.  It’s not the only thing, to be sure, but it’s a big one, and I think it’s worth taking a closer look.

So what, exactly, do I mean by Conflict?  CounterStrike, sure.  But Tetris?  What I mean is that the player is given some sort of problem that needs solving, or challenge that needs to be overcome.  It means that the state of the game world is incomplete or unsolved or generally unresolved.  In combat or fighting games, the conflict is self-explanatory.  There is an opposing player or team that is trying to defeat you.  You’re trying to defeat him.  Conflict.

In an adventure game, conflict is presented in some sort of narrative.  Bad guys have done something bad, and you are the only one who can save the world.  Conflict.

In a puzzle or arcade game, the game world is in some general state of disorder or incompleteness.  Your job is to solve the problems as presented, typically under some sort of time pressure.  Conflict.

One interesting aspect about Conflict is that it exists in multiple scales.  At a game-wide level, the narrative might be that the Princess has been captured, and you need to defeat the Big Bad Guy to save her.  Or you want to beat all the songs on Expert level guitar.  Or you have started a full NFL season in Madden with your favorite team.  This is the widest scale, and is the framework for the game as a whole.

Sort of like the closer look I took. At the interns' controllers. While we were playing. That's right, I cheat. I'm only as fair as I'm forced to be.

But the Conflict can exist at smaller levels, too.  A single dungeon, level, song, or mini-game.  These are smaller, bite-sized challenges that together form the meat of the larger conflict.

And the Conflict even exist in moment-to-moment gameplay.  Jumping over a lava-filled pit.  Killing a single bad guy.  Hitting the right notes.  Avoiding the rush, targeting the right receiver and completing a pass.  Even smashing a crate to see if there is an ammo pack inside.  All these are tiny little challenges that only take a second or two to complete.

So what?  That’s all pretty obvious.

I think this is where many game developer stop thinking about it.  We’ve played a million games.  We’ve jumped on more Goombas than we can count.  We’ve killed bad guys, saved the world from certain destruction.  When Quentin Tarantino is asked if he went to film school, he’s quoted as saying “No, I went to films.”  We’ve played the games, we have experience with what is a good or bad game.  That should be enough, right?  Perhaps.  But I think there is some value in diving a little deeper.

Why does Conflict matter?  How do we get from Conflict to Fun?  The answer is Tension.

Conflict creates Tension.  When we are involved in a state of Conflict, we don’t feel comfortable.  In fact, we feel uncomfortable.  We feel unresolved and unsatisfied.  When you are running along a level in a platformer, and you see you have to jump over a lava-filled pit, at some tiny level your body says “Oh crap, I don’t like this!”  Seeing a wall of notes falling down the screen, and being expected to push the right buttons and strum the guitar at the right time is damn stressful.

But here’s the thing.  Resolving that tension FEELS GOOD.  Every time we jump over a pit, kill a bad guy, or solve a little puzzle, we get a little spurt of pleasure juice in our brains.  Beating a mid-level boss, or finishing a whole song on Expert level Guitar for the first time feels even better.  And completing an entire RPG by destroying the ultimate evil and saving the world is the culmination of all of it.  We feel exhausted and totally satisfied.  (This sort of begs the question “Why not just use huge levels of conflict all over the place?” and milk it for all it’s worth?  I think the answer is that this conflict/tension/reward system needs to be ramped up appropriately.  You can’t just put the pedal to the floor the whole time.  We need periods of rest between moments of immediate conflict.)

So that’s it.  Conflict creates tension.  Resolving tension feels good.  The real trick is parceling out these bits of conflict/tension/resolution in an appropriate manner.  Too little, and things are boring.  Too much too soon, and it can be overwhelming.

Conflict exists at many scales:  Course, hole, and each single shot.

In my first game, “Bad Golf”, I created a pretty straightforward 2D golf game.  I knew I was supposed to make the game with various levels of difficulty, but I didn’t really understand why.  I just kind of created what I thought would be a kind of fun game without much thought about why I was making the decisions I was.  And I got a pretty decent game out of it, but when I showed it to my friends, their reaction was mostly of the humoring “Hey, this is kind of neat” line.  And they were right.

In my latest game “Hidden in Plain Sight”, it wasn’t until after the fact that I realized why I (and thankfully a few others) have found the game to be so fun.  In each of the game modes, I consciously tried to put the player in some state of internal conflict.  This was by design.  In Death Race, for example, each player is involved in a footrace.  Players want to cross the finish line first, but also have the means of eliminating other players from the game.  So, if you walk slowly, you don’t look suspicious, but you probably won’t be the first to cross the line.  If you try to be the first, you risk looking suspicious and getting shot.  Instant tension.  Likewise, Ninja Party:  do you touch the statues to try to win the game, knowing it could put a target on your back?  Conflict!  Tension!

Each round is played relatively quickly.  Tension is generated over the course of a single game, ramping up slowly, and building and building.  There is a countdown timer in most of the game modes, and while this rarely comes into play, it provides a little more tension.  Each game round ends with some sort of resolution to this tension.  Someone makes a break for the finish line, or a ninja breaks cover and kills the other.  The Conflict is resolved and everyone laughs (win or lose) and briefly reminisces about what they did or should have done.  People breathe a little easier, and it just feels good.  There is this beautiful, fleeting moment of satisfaction, only for a few seconds, and then someone says “Again, again!”

I’m not saying “Hidden in Plain Sight” is perfect, by any means.  But in watching others play it, and analyzing some of the comments I’ve received, I’ve spent some time thinking about why this game feels “actually fun”, and I attribute it to at least a semi-successful implementation of a Conflict/Tension/Resolution cycle.

Watch the players carefully.  You can tell exactly when the tension is released.

I’m not an expert.  Please don’t take my word on any of this.  I’m sure there have been a million books and papers written about the theory of fun.  But as a developer, I wanted to share a little of my insights and lesson that I’ve learned.  Think about it for yourself and see if it makes any sense, and I hope it helps you create better games.

Check out Adam’s games Bad Golf and Hidden in Plain Sight.

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The most read Xbox Live Indie Game critic in the world.

7 Responses to Tales from the Dev Side: Why is Conflict Fun? by Adam Spragg

  1. Those gameplay videos would make a great marketing campaign. As my friends know, this Hidden is probably the XBLIG I recommend most, and lately, play most.

    I can add a technique I’ve used to create tension. Have an NPC tell the player something mysterious, dangerous and urgent early on. In screen-by-screen games like mine, it helps to have a reason to to want to go to the next screen. Some story-conscious player are especially sensitive to this, and I’m lucky enough to have a few for friends who let me know when I am dropping the ball in this department… because I am not what you would call a story-conscious player.

    • Adman says:

      Kind of a tangent…

      In an RPG or adventure game, I like the idea of a player starting out near the end boss, or near some hard area of the game. They may even try and fail to go in that direction. Then, later in the game, they revisit that same starting area, and are now able to go in the direction that was too difficult for them before.

      It provides a neat sense of “see how far I’ve come!” The stuff that used to be difficult is now easy, and the stuff that used to be easy is now quaint. “Isn’t it funny how I used to be so scared of those guys…”

  2. In my opinion immersion is important as well. That feeling you have when your solely concentrated on achieving an objective and blocking everything else out of your head is what makes games fun for me. Conflict also creates immersion, so the two definitely go hand in hand :)

    • Adam says:

      Conflict certainly isn’t the only route to fun. Immersion can be important as well, and I’m sure a series of articles could be written about how to create and immersive environment. That’s a really interesting topic!

  3. Pingback: Tales from the Dev Side: 150,000 Served Edition – May 2, 2012 « Indie Gamer Chick

  4. Good insights into the way fun works, and I definitely think you have a point. Sadly I can’t play Hidden In Plain Sight because all my indie-playing friends are in other countries.

  5. Pingback: Interview with Adam Spragg – Developer of Hidden in Plain Sight « Indie Gamer Chick

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