The Gameplay Is The Gameplay. Always.

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of leading blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on game design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Most of the talk around games tends to focus on climate. It’s about finding the right customers, funding, platform, business model, partnerships, metric and discovery solutions, technology, route to market and so on. How we play the Game of Games, as it were.

In this context, we often think of the product as something that needs to fit into a mold. We think of them as television executives think of shows: They need to fill certain slots, address certain markets, encourage specific behaviours, and so on. To borrow a TV term, we think of them in terms of format first and content second.

By format I mean that the game has to conform to some conventions. Perhaps it needs to be free-to-play and support dual currencies because that works in many other games. Perhaps a session needs to be playable in two minutes because research has shown that many mobile games work better when they can be played in this way. Perhaps it needs to be filled with friendly graphics because the target market of yummy mummies (has that phrase gone stateside yet?) is generally believed to find realism, violence, and gore turnoffs.

There are two sides to this format argument. The nays say that these kinds of restriction prevent innovation and creativity. In part this might explain why indie game developers have mostly not engaged with new platforms like the iPad and Facebook, preferring the more awkward but liberal canvas of the PC. The yays, on the other hand, say that innovation and creativity are important, but at the end of the day games is a business. And metrics show that the market behaves in semi-predictable patterns, so the job of game development is to match those patterns.

Of course, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. If you reject format thinking entirely, you may make something fantastically creative (such as Proteus) but which may not be viable in the long term. On the other hand if format is entirely your master then you’ll become trapped in that commoditised space where your games look and act the same as everyone else’s (such as the bulk of casual, social, and casino games). Then scale will be your master.

What’s interesting is that those from both sides of the aisle will almost always say that the first rule of making games is to make sure that the game is fun. Without a fun game there’s no rule two. What neither side will do, however, is elaborate on that statement.

This is because “fun” is traditionally thought to be difficult to define. It is a very general term that can mean enjoyment, excitement, delight, learning, amusement, adventure, the thrill of the new, the mastery of things or just simply laughter. It is also easily co-opted, such as when studios “prove” that the energy mechanic in their game is “fun” because it drives a lot of repeat visits (which is a bit like saying that because people watch television shows with breaks, this must mean they love commercials).

Some game designers have attempted to square this circle by sub-dividing fun. Nicole Lazarro developed a popular model which separates fun into four “keys” (hard, soft, people and serious fun) as a way of explaining different ways to approach game design. Others (such as one by Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek) break fun down into eight or more types, such as fantasy, discovery, expression, etc.

The problem with such systems is that they become justification tools. If fun is breakable into various sub-types, then it follows that you could mix-and-match those types with equal success. This is just not true. Games that do this often show large drops in users, generate reviews where players will say the story was enjoyable, but the game wasn’t fun, and so on. Successful game design always eventually comes back to realising that one of the kinds of fun is more important than the others. In Lazarro’s system it would be “hard fun.” In Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek’s, it would be “challenge.” The others are joys which emerge when the fun factor is sound.

So, fun is: the joy of winning while mastering fair game dynamics. And if we accept that the first rule is that a game must be fun, then it’s a hard limit. For many innovative game developers who want to push boundaries, this is very difficult to admit or accept. Nonetheless, it’s a universal law (a “creative constant“), which applies to all games. Whether you are in social, casino, gamification, casual, console or indie the gameplay is the gameplay, and it’s always driven by fun. It has been so ever since the first sports and Senet (the oldest known board game) were invented.

But the good news is that understanding that fun is a constant frees us up from thinking that format is, too. In fact the rules of format change all the time. We are all very busy trying to understand what shape the games business will have in any given year, what devices people will play on, and where the money can be made. Many games conferences are filled with talks and panels that are all about market opportunities, distribution and all those other climatological concerns. And yet none of that matters as much as it appears to.

Format wisdom has a short shelf life and is often over-interpreted. The recent success of Supercell is one example. Right now that studio is in the same blessed space that Rovio occupied a couple of years ago, where analysts are whirring around them trying to decode the magic of their success. Many other studios are picking Clash of Clans apart as we speak and trying to figure out the magic of its business model or distribution. There will be some  valuable insights derived from so doing, but in the main it’s just a fixed data point in a dynamic system. Clash of Clans is fun, and its release is well timed. Its success is not likely to be any more mystical to understand than that.

Just because players wilfully engaged in a format one year does not mean that pattern will repeat for all time (as Zynga has discovered to its cost). Just because it seems as though they will buy Christmas trees in games does not mean that every game needs them. As with interpreting the movements of the real-world climate, the pro-format types are over inclined to over-interpret the significance of runes and draw too-narrow conclusions. This inevitably leads them to making clones of successful games and be unable to think creatively.

Those indies who understand that fun is more important than format invent successful new games every year. Those iPad developers who are willing to experiment with format to create fun are the ones who catch Apple’s attention and become successful. The guy who invented Minecraft (Markus “Notch” Persson) didn’t just create a giant virtual world in which you could make stuff, he made it challenging. When Will Wright created the Sims, he didn’t just make a game about living in a virtual house. He made it difficult to live successfully. That’s why both of those franchises have sold millions of copies.

The fun factor is about more than making a game is amusing or full of pretty rewards. If your game is a dynamic system to be mastered and won, then you can go nuts. If you can give the player real fun then you can afford to break some of those format rules, and that’s how you get to lead rather than follow the market. If not then be prepared to pay through the nose to acquire and retain players. Your format strategy won’t matter as your game will lose users regardless of what you do.

And the climate is only going to get hotter.