What makes playing a game fun? It’s a question that can’t have just one answer. Why would it? There are loads of different types of game design. Not counting the overlap you see in genre templates or iterating on after a successful game hits it big, games by nature won’t necessarily match up.
Fans eagerly waiting for the next scrap of info on the new Legend of Zelda may not care about a multiplayer-centric game like Overwatch. Survival horror players might not get anything out of a Witness or Obduction. DOOM is the polar opposite of something like Uncharted, which despite some trope-y similarities and the label of adventure” doesn’t really share all that much with Tomb Raider. The list goes on.
Games aren’t any different from any other medium, though. They have hooks – or they’re supposed to, anyway – and if they don’t, they won’t find an audience to connect with for very long. A recent example might be EA’s Titanfall, Respawn’s would-be Call of Duty killer that took futurist military gameplay (which Activision has now embraced, to greater and greater degrees), added a bit of parkour and giant mechs.
In theory, Titanfall was a great idea – and it’s likely that the multiplatform sequel will find some success where the original game just faded into the background. But what happened here? Depends on who you ask. Kotaku made the argument that the game lacked legs due to uneven map designs that didn’t always play to the game’s design strengths (or theoretical strengths) of acrobatic movement and the ever-appealing giant mechs.
It could also be that Respawn miscalculated in making the game exclusive to Xbox on console. The lack of attention from Youtube couldn’t have helped; possibly because the game didn’t do a great enough job to make it an attractive prospect for esports. In any case, while the original game maintains an active base of players, Titanfall’s audience can’t compare to some of the bigger games out there.
There must be a reason for that – and it’s likely one that isn’t the fault so much of games as of players. The dopamine drip of something new is a huge driver in the consumption of pop-culture, from the neverending barrage of comic book films to the latest Netflix binge watch. Games aren’t any different, especially among the so-called hardcore players.
In the case of Titanfall (or Star Wars Battlefront, or countless others), there’s a continual demand for something new. Multiplayer games in particular bolster their an ongoing appeal by adding DLC elements post-launch, hoping to keep players playing. If they don’t, or if whatever updates and changes aren’t interesting enough, a good deal of the audience just moves on to the next thing. And the next.
The issue of consumption happens with single-player games too. Take a look on social media after a new game, especially something that’s really highly anticipated, comes out. If you know people who play games at more than a casual level, chances are pretty high everyone’s going to be talking about and sharing experiences from whatever that may be.
The bigger the game, the harder it is to escape. (Fallout’s launch in November felt like it had so much social exposure I chose just to sit it out, playing other things.) But like everything else, once that content has all been picked through, it’s on to the next thing. It goes a long way towards explaining why publishers bank on strong sales right out of the gate – there’s usually no going back once they drop, unless there’s some further incentive further down the line.
Of course, this doesn’t happen to games that aren’t designed well. That’s where the idea of a hook comes in again, that je ne sais quoi that makes your brain say, “this is great!” In mobile (generally free-to-play) games, companies depend on old gambling crutches – basically something to reel you back in. Outside of that questionably authentic design space, you’re just left with the gameplay itself, even if what’s driving you to play more doesn’t necessarily change.
Whatever it is you’re playing, there’s some appealing element to it. Sometimes it’s really easy to spot, or is otherwise just obvious, like how DOOM wears its carnage, speed and instantaneous response on its sleeve. For whatever reason, there are few things more satisfying than the lightening-fast relationship between what you’re doing with a controller – moving and jumping and shooting – and seeing the graphic results on-screen.
In DOOM’s case, there are a combination of factors – the speed and lack of input lag to show action is vastly improved thanks to the game’s 60 FPS framerate, creating a more kinetic sense of interaction. Other times it’s not quite as obvious. You don’t play Uncharted for its shooting necessarily – not that it’s bad (and 4’s improves on its foundation considerably), but arguably the expectations of the adventure genre don’t put as much emphasis on the response factor that an FPS has.
You play Uncharted to, well, explore – or at least to get the sense that you’re doing so. The lack of waypoints and the kind of UI clutter that you often find in of games with an open-world map help provide that sense that you’re actually on some kind of globetrotting expedition, in turn subconsciously connecting you more with Nate Drake. The combat’s not bad either, but that’s not necessarily the draw – you also play for the storytelling, characterizations and set pieces, which cement the tone and presentation that makes the series feel like such a rollicking adventure.
In both cases, returning to play is based around that feeling of satisfaction. It is extremely fun to blow demon’s heads off, as it is to send Nate flying over a chasm with his climbing hook and rope into parts unknown. That sense of something new won’t be there once either game ends, but the design won’t have changed – it’ll still be a good revisit in time.
Really, what’s fun about gaming is subjective because what’s interesting or worthwhile is always changing. 2D Mario is a different platforming experience than 3D Mario; Silent Hill isn’t really fun at all, but it is incredibly engaging and that’s what it’s supposed to be. Dark Souls is a game of systems to master, with less of an overt emphasis on narrative linearity; The Witcher has systems and open-worldish freedom but a much greater emphasis on story.
Just like with any medium, it just depends on what you’re in the mood for. Only with a controller whatever you choose has an immediacy that you can feel.