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Self-Sabotaging Fun in Games

We're back with another dip into the pool of game design, or to be specific, the human interface with the design in the form of if games allow you to or promote you to self-sabotage your fun.

First, let's define what the heck self-sabotaging fun is.

Callin all ya'll...

In short, I define this effect as any time you take an action to make the game less fun for yourself. You may read that and think, "Wait, why would I do that!?" It's more common than you'd think. Sometimes it is a built-in mechanic that makes the game less fun, sometimes it is just your decision making that does so. I'll provide a few examples:

Many survival games are the most fun when you are struggling to get by. Unfortunately the first thing you do in many of these games is set up a system to... well, survive. Thus eliminating the struggle and by following the game's intended path you have sabotaged the fun. This is, generally, bad design, but it hasn't stopped many successful survival games.

On the flip side of this, maybe you find a broken combo in an RPG or rogue-like that turns the challenge of the game into a cakewalk. This feels great at first, but you'll probably soon find the game is a lot less interesting. You have effectively self-sabotaged your enjoyment.

Even the way in which we acquire games can be self-sabotage. It's very hard to get real data on this, but consider: A person who pirates a game is less likely to enjoy that game than the person who paid for it. No, it isn't some secret money does buy happiness loophole, it's that when you pay for a game you're more likely to put more effort into learning the mechanics. As a result, you'll spend more time with the product and are more likely to enjoy that same game compared to if you had just received it for free. This connects to the earlier topic we covered on the death and rebirth of the game demo.

What can we do about it?

Well, first I want to state very clearly that fun is subjective and how people play games varies immensely. For instance my good friend puts all the cheats on in Baldur's Gate so they don't have to deal with combat getting in the way of their story and so they can always succeed at every roll they want to. For me this is the exact opposite of why and how I play, but that doesn't mean they are having less fun than I am. In this article I am going to focus a little bit on "challenge is fun" in examples but I want to be very clear that this is not the only way to have fun nor is it the only way to self-sabotage your fun.

With that in mind we can say there are still two sides to this coin: What the developers do and what we as players can do.

Heads I win...

For the player, the important thing is to know what you find fun. Most of the time you'll ruin your own fun by feeling you "have" to do something. You "have" to use the new OP item you just got or you "have" to save the innocent people. To avoid self-sabotage from the personal level you need to identify your source of enjoyment and then come at the game from that maximize fun mindset. Don't make it about winning, or being powerful, or even following your own moral code unless those are the things you find fun. 

Anytime I can repost this image, I will.

From the personal level it's all about restraint from doing the things that will feel fun for a moment and then ruin the next 20 hours of your game, and let me tell you from my "too many hours" spent gaming, it's hard to avoid sometimes.

Tails You Lose...

For the developer, the most important thing is to give players options on how they want to play. A classic example of developers mistaking their idea of fun as opposed to the player's idea of fun is to make a single player (or even some multiplayer co-op) games difficult to cheat. One of the many things Baldur's gets right is how much flexibility it gives people to create the experience they want, but it would have been prevailing game design thought twenty or thirty years ago that allowing people to cheat is cheating them of the "true experience" or some BS.

Another is what I mentioned above, where the game spends of lot of time and energy creating a fun gameplay loop and then the player's job is to get out of that loop, with survival games being a great example, but traditional JRPGs (like old-school Final Fantasy) have the same issue: Get powerful so that fights are boring.

Many games even limit how players can communicate, afraid that toxic behavior will limit people's fun. That may be true, but the opposite is also certainly true: Some player's fun is in the communicating and community building. And we all know they'd communicate best with a ModMic or Kimura (See how I effortlessly slid that shameless plug in?)

In short: Consider all the ways a player can have fun within your gameplay loops and paths and do your best to keep all those paths open to the player throughout the experience of the entire game.

And lastly, for clarity, this kind of "let them cheat" mentality does not extend to multiplayer competitive experiences where your fun probably comes at the cost of another player's.

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