The last few months of a game’s development is a magical time. Ideally, everything is coming together, the team is firing on all cylinders, and the experience is getting better by the hour. Bugs are getting fixed, the build is more stable and performs better, the art is looking polished, and playtest results begin to climb to their highest levels right as the game is locked down. The difference between those last precious moments of post-production, where everything is happening too fast to follow, and the months (often years) of glacially slow progress at the beginning of a project are so stark, they create the perception that a switch has been thrown, that the game has suddenly become fun. The designer’s new-found power to affect change, and the positive feedback from the rest of the team, leads to a feeling of vindication and exhilaration. Finally, all the hard work has paid off and the game has crossed the Fun Barrier.
It is tempting, after the flush of this experience, to look back on a game’s development as a power curve. To retroactively smooth out the experience so it fits a nice mathematical progression, making the outcome of a fun game inevitable from the start. To pretend as if the only unknown was if the game would cross the Fun Barrier before the project ran out of time or funding. To ensure success on the next project by figuring out how to increase the exponent on the power curve, to work harder and add features faster, to run more playtests and balance earlier, so the game has time to reach the steep end of its exponential curve.
The problem is that fun doesn’t really work that way. A player experiences fun as a binary switch, either they are having fun at a given moment or they aren’t, like a square wave. There’s no such thing as almost fun; an experience doesn’t gradually go from 90% enjoyable to 100% fun in a continuous curve. A game gets better because it sustains a fun experience for longer stretches at a time, with less unfun gaps in between.
An experienced game designer is sensitive to very short, almost subliminal moments where a mechanic is actually fun. Even in an early prototype phase, they can detect these snippets and predict with confidence which mechanics have potential and which ones don’t. So, instead of finding ways to be more effective at polishing hopelessly dull gameplay, they can quickly abandon mechanics that never display those glimpses of greatness and focus exclusively on eliminating or minimizing the unfun gaps in those mechanics are already fun in spurts. This is why exceptional designers tend to produce simpler, more reliably enjoyable games with fewer mechanics that feel almost effortless to play. And why the vast majority of average games are released with an abundance of features, but subject players to hours of tedium or frustration as they labor to find fleeting moments of fun on their own.
I’m a little confused by that graph – does the X axis refer to time during development, or time during a play session?
It sounds like what you’re saying is that early in development, a game will be fun for brief spurts, or in certain controlled situations, but have many edge cases where it’s not fun. And that the design polishing process is removing those edge cases, so the game is fun the whole time?
Or are you saying that over the course of development the game alternates between periods of intense fun, and then variables are tweaked, and the game gets unfun for a few days/weeks. And that the process of development is narrowing in on the correct tuning values so the game leaves the “fun zone” less and less frequently with each new designer build?
Well, it’s more metaphor than math, but your first explanation is closer to my point. The second one does happen during development, but it happens in ways that everyone on the team can see for themselves. The times when the game is only fun for one moment out of an hour of play, or where the only fun mechanic is obscured by a pile of broken features, those are the times when it takes a talented game designer to capture that moment and extend it across the entire game.