A Modder’s Perspective: ‘A Theory of Fun for Game Design’ by Raph Koster

Games are fundamentally important to society. You and I might know this but a lot of people dismiss them as frivolous, childish pursuits that people are supposed to grow out of. Even people who enjoy them might undervalue them – or just not really understand why fun and games aren’t just important for psychological wellbeing but vital to human development as a whole. As game theory develops, says Koster in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, the central component of “fun” is being lost – and with it, the very essence of what games by their nature are trying to achieve.

Games are Education. Raph Koster – the former Sony Online executive who previously developed Ultima Online – says that games aren’t a medium at all, but just a broad facet of a defined pedagogical structure. The medium – which doesn’t seem to have a name – includes fire drills and tabletop disaster recovery exercises. Play, whether it’s playing cops and robbers in the back garden as children or deciding which team-mate to save in Mass Effect, is our brain’s essential What If impulse. We put ourselves instinctively through simulations from infancy onwards because each game has a lesson to teach us and it is through this that we learn and develop. The lesson might not be obvious: GTA IV is not teaching us how to murder criminals, but rather how to judge time and space in the driving. The lesson is the same as the Snake game you get on old mobile phones.

Koster suggests that through this system of practicing and learning, we use and even rewire our brains to help us to solve problems, and our brain rewards us for our efforts with endorphins when we succeed. This is why we enjoy playing games, and the essential driver of that enjoyment is of keeping the problems challenging and exciting but recogniseable enough for us to think we can succeed. Our brains make us seek the quickest, simplest solution – even if that’s “cheating” – and will tell us to give up if we predict failure in our next attempt. The role of the designer is to keep the challenges unpredictable so that the player thinks that they might succeed. A guaranteed outcome is boring, whether that’s to win or lose.

So how does that apply to mods?

What Is Modding?

The most immediate example that springs to mind is Dance of the Three-Legged Guar, as it’s something I’ve felt uncomfortable with for a long time. I might have set clear objectives for the story and characters and locations, and on the whole I’m happy with what I’ve done on those, but the mod itself – as a complete experience – is lacking because it isn’t fun enough.

My first course of action – and by far the most prolonged – has been to give the beta to “test audiences” of players and ask them their opinion. The problem is that while they have been broadly complementary, nobody’s said “this bit’s boring” at any point, and that worries me. All games have boring bits and – according to Koster – boring the player is the very worst thing a game can do.

Mods Are Not Games

That might seem obvious, but mods aren’t a complete experience in themselves. No mods for Bethesda games can alter the core mechanics of the game because those bits are hard wired. The mechanic is the game: the rules governing the actual actions that the player makes. The story is not the game, though many players seem to think so given the passionate forum posts on the subject.

Think of something like Zuma. I love Zuma because Zuma understands fun almost perfectly. I get the same feelings playing Zuma as I get playing Fallout 3: an initial sense of awe and delight as I’m exposed to the sights and sounds of the game, and then I’m eased into solving problems of increasingly difficult nature. Zuma has only two problem-mechanics: spotting colour patterns, and aiming at those that match before the line reaches the target. Fallout 3 has several: puzzles (judging the “ideal” response that matches your character type and is most likely to lead you to a successful conclusion); inventory preparation (combat); and searching (exploration).

Zuma and Fallout 3 then progress in the same manner: they take these mechanics and present them to the player in a variety of different contexts so that it feels like a novel experience every time. These changes of environments, or progressions in the story, are referred to as “dressing”. Each character in Fallout 3 presents different dialogue and with it different puzzles, but as a player you will be trying solutions that have previously worked in order to solve the next riddle. “Do I blow up Megaton or disarm the bomb” might seem like a slightly more complex problem than matching a line of gems in Bejewelled, but the process is the same – you’re matching up the likely response that will persuade the person to help you. The crucial factor in both Zuma and Fallout 3 is that both games increase in difficulty as they progress, which again introduces novelty. If you can make a repeated experience harder, it presents a fresh challenge.

Mods change the dressing, but they do not change the mechanic.

Mods Can Be Art

Koster simply believes that the difference between entertainment and art is that art is better. He says:

“Consider a game in which you gained power to act based on how many people you controlled but you gained power to heal yourself from attacks based on how many friends you had. Then include a rule that friends tend to fall away as you gain power. This is expressible in mathematical terms. It fits within an abstract formal system. It is also an artistic statement, a choice made by the designer of the ludeme.

Now, the tough part – the game’s victory condition must not be about being on top or being at the bottom. Instead, the goal must be something else – perhaps ensuring the overall survival of the tribe.”

Koster has apparently unwittingly, more or less, described the plots of Fallout and Fallout 3. To briefly use those games as illustration, they both use the same dressing, but some people only like the first game and others only like the third. If you don’t like the combat, dialogue and exploration then there isn’t a mod in the world that will make you enjoy that game. If you enjoy the fundamental mechanics, then you can apply almost any dressing you like and continue to enjoy the game. Mods simply take what’s there and build on it – from full flights of fancy like The White Wolf of Lokken Mountain to small weapon and house mods.

Mods do not have to be big or particularly ambitious or to change very much, but as the “dressers” of the game, it is important for us to strive for the level of art in what we do, simply by making them the best we can.

Mods Need To Do Something New

The problem, I realised, with Three-Legged Guar is that it wasn’t challenging the player. The rest of the “dressing” was there, but if the player does not face a challenge in every scene, they are going to get bored.

I’d striven for a new mod experience, and I think that the story and locations etc. had achieved that, but I’d overlooked the fundamental point that the player is playing a game, not simply reading a story or watching a sitcom. Playing on expectation in a positive way is fundamental to the game experience – if it’s too unlike what is expected the player will switch off, and if it is too familiar they will “grok” it (intuitively understand it) immediately and it will thus present no challenge and be boring.

My call to action for that mod, and all future mods, is to build in puzzles and combat and searching at every stage (not just at the end) because that is what the player wants and expects. Rather than passively clicking through dialogue to get to the next stage of the story, conversations should include some risk of failure at strategic points: saying the wrong thing. Rather than just showing off a new location where the story advances, the player should have to find something there. Combat situations should introduce new threats that the player has not faced before. Yes, to an extent those things are there, but often not in the right places and not frequently enough. There’s too much story with too few challenges on the part of the player. For the mod to be fun, it needs to use the mechanics of the game to create different, solveable challenges – often with more than one right answer. The point of the mod is not to tell the player the story, but to present problems in a fun and interesting way.

All of this, of course, ought to be second nature, but I notice it a lot in mods there is too much emphasis on one aspect or another. In my mod, attention to story and character came at the expense of level design. In other mods, the combat situations are fantastic but the story is lacking. Ideally, a mod should place a character in a beautiful environment and then give them a really interesting challenge to overcome, working with rather than trying to ignore or circumvent the core mechanics of the game.

Modding Is Playing

Perhaps the most revelatory part of Koster’s book was a grid marking out the different way audiences interact with various media. In music, the collaborative constructive process is co-writing a composition with someone. The competitive action is busking. The solo action is practicing. In gaming, the collaborative constructive process is team game design. The competitive action is commercial game development. The solo activity is modding. Koster says:

“Interaction is possible in all media. Interacting with stage-based media is termed “acting” and interacting with prose-based media is termed “writing”. There’s been a lot of discussion in professional game design circles lately about “the surrender of authorship” inherent in adding greater flexibility to games and in the burgeoning “mod” community. I think the key insight here is that players are simply “interacting with the medium.” In other words, modding is just playing the game another way …”

I think I’ve always known this on an instinctive level, but seeing it spelled out consolidated my opinion on the matter. We’re ultimately playing to have fun, because our brain is designed to reward us for solving problems, but the biggest problem our community faces is in creating those enjoyable experiences for other players based on the giant toy the devs have given us. It’s in the process of solving those design problems where we find our rewards. The construction set is a meta-game, but also part of the game. We are enjoying the mechanics and constructs and rules of the game in a productive rather than experiential capacity. In puzzling out ways to entertain – and educate, and make art for – other players, we’ve found another way to have fun.


One Response to “A Modder’s Perspective: ‘A Theory of Fun for Game Design’ by Raph Koster”

  1. Hardcore Gamers Blog » Blog Archive » An Overview of A Theory of Fun (Raph Koster) Says:

    […] A Modder’s Perspective: ‘A Theory of Fun for Game Design’ by Raph Koster […]

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