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  • Paul Dean

What Makes a video game "Fun": A theory for delivering success in a fraught industry


Introduction and Hypothesis.


It’s 2 AM and I’m absolutely glued to my TV playing 'Helldivers 2'.  “For Democracy” my character screams as I call down endless ordinance to lay waste to hordes of terminid (bug) enemies before me.  I’m flanked on both sides by some of my best friends, also contributing equal shares to the chaos with rockets and hellfire of their own.  Our mission is simple: traverse a desolate planet together and ward off the terminid’s advance through various sub-objectives over the next 45 minutes.  The premise behind 'Helldivers 2' really isn’t much more complex than that.  Yet, within mere weeks of its launch it commanded a spot at the top of the charts for both Steam and PlayStation, far surpassing the anticipated reach of the game by hundreds of thousands of players.  It is so successful that the developer team had to scramble to dramatically expand their server capacity to withstand the voracious player demand to join into the fray.   Over the years I’ve become far more selective with where I spend my time in gaming, but the mythos of 'Helldivers 2' had spread like a mind virus I could not immunize myself against.  All of the hype surrounding the game is not misguided, it is outrageously fun to play.



Helldivers 2


In the same universe, several other major titles have dropped to far less fanfare.  Ubisoft reportedly spent over a decade crafting ‘Skull and Bones’, and Rocksteady Studios promised the next generation-defining live service game in the form of ‘Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League’.  The launches of both these highly anticipated games straddled 'Helldivers 2' by a week on both sides, condemning it to be yet another forgotten casualty of the ruthless release cycle.  Instead, both ‘Skull and Bones’ and ‘Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League’ instantly became pariahs for their unimaginative gameplay and lazy design while Helldivers 2 stole their core audience overnight.  What on earth happened?

What is the secret sauce that makes a video game wildly successful?  How can one game boast overwhelming success well beyond its shelf life while another parroting the same formula only suffers derision and hemorrhages its budget?  The gaming industry and pundits alike are all grappling with these questions with no clear answer in sight.  In 2023, widespread layoffs and colossal live-service game failures have catapulted this very issue to the forefront of gaming discourse.  The lack of clear answers to what actually affects the long-term health of a game signals a tumultuous future.  Even the fundamental question of what makes a game fun seems to elude public consensus.  Upon deeper reflection, I realized that I have struggled to find a concrete answer to this question, so I took several steps back and attempted to sequence the genome of an enjoyable game.

            Video games are already dominating the entertainment industry, and their reach is only increasing each year.  Modest estimates suggest that well over one billion people play regularly, while more bullish accounts assert that over half of the world does.  It is true that these statistics often get muddied with the mobile game player base as well, so for the purposes of this paper I am only referring to more conventional games played on consoles and PC.  However, even when considering the lowest estimates, such staggering prevalence makes the task of defining “fun” both daunting and mystifying. 

            With very rare exception, it is generally not feasible or even possible to deliver a gaming experience that excels in all aspects of delivery.  The industry is in fact a business enterprise limited by many of the constraints of a conventional corporation.  As such, there will always be a cost-benefit analysis to the marginal utility of adding additional features to a game.  In an ideal world, publishers will create a fun game with a level of investment that captivates players in the long term while simultaneously generating a healthy profit.  They will rarely unilaterally apply this investment into one core value proposition, but rather into several areas to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.  However, a game for everyone is a game for no one, so it crucial to invest in a level of depth in a few targeted areas rather than no depth in a hundred.

            I ruminated on my last 20 years of gaming to better understand why I loved the games that I did, and rejected the ones I did not.  I’ve played on nearly every console of the last generation and the genres of the games I’ve played vary substantially.  Pinpointing singular elements that led to a stand-out game was not consistent, further complicating the exercise.  I decided to chart a list of my most cherished games and their associated strengths, and then conduct a similar process for the biggest disappointments and their shortcomings.  I began bucketing traits into mutually exclusive categories, ultimately resulting in five central pillars.  The most exceptional games demonstrate both precision and imagination in each pillar, but success does not necessitate investment in all five.

            Very few games, if any, can score top marks across all pillars.  However, it is exceedingly uncommon for a game to thrive if it fails in three or more of these chief tenants.  The ultimate aim of the gaming establishment should be to achieve both profitability and to develop exceptional games, but interestingly these two characteristics do not always go hand in hand.  In my analysis I found that some titles generated lucrative profits in the short term before falling apart spectacularly, while some incredibly fun games struggled to even recoup their initial budgets.    As such, my hypothesis is as follows: in order to deliver a video game that is both enjoyable and financially profitable, its creators must invest heavily into at least three of the following core pillars: narrative, progression, collaboration, entertainment value, and community trust.


Pillar 1: Narrative (Player Immersion).


            Until quite recently, delivering a compelling story through a thoughtful campaign was practically mandatory for a game’s success.  With some limited, notable exceptions, a lack of an engaging narrative world for players to immerse themselves in would spell doom for a title.  For most of gaming’s history, it has not been possible to hide poor writing and narrative behind impressive technical features like graphics, and the success of older games (even in the modern era) show that is possible to design a wildly successful game without possessing the most impressive technical components.  A game’s narrative consists of three key elements that build on one another: story, environment, and music.  These crucial components of narrative success can be achieved in myriad ways, and they are not limited by genre or platform.

Even if you don’t fancy the fantasy lands of dragons, were-bears, and shapeshifting succubi, it is still undeniable that the character arc of the protagonists in the ‘Witcher 3’ or ‘Baldur’s Gate 3’ rival those in top television programming.  If the grueling and tragic world of gangsters is more appealing, ‘Grand Theft Auto V’ delivers Oscar worthy performances. In an interview with Ned Luke (voice of Michael in ‘GTA V’), the actor reflected on his decision to audition for the role: “I was like, ‘I’m not going to do a video game. What would I want to do a video game for? I’m an actor.”  When his agent clarified the game was from Rockstar, one of the most respected companies in the industry for storytelling, he responded “who the hell is Rockstar?”  All it took was reading the script for him to change his tune entirely and rush headlong into the role.

            Storytelling isn’t always confined to the pages of a script.  Crafting the proper atmosphere through extreme attentiveness to minute details of the environment can tip the scales where words are lacking.  For those who tip-toed through the USG Ishimura in the original ‘Dead Space’ title, you will know that complete silence from the main character only intensifies the sense of dread as you round every corner.  Slowly but surely, the ghastly details of the crew’s fate become revealed over the course of the game, all without a word from the protagonist.  You can only truly experience this horrifying, captivating tale once, like watching a stunning film in IMAX for the first time.  By precisely constructing all other elements of the game, the developers were able to truly create an immersive experience in the absence of dialogue.

Music can also be transformative in the absence of dialogue.  Although FromSoftware titles do have limited dialogue, it is by no means a driving factor for telling the story.  Beyond the stellar gameplay and fantastic surrounding world, the genius of their games lies a layer deeper.  The incredibly creative enemy designs and challenging combat could have delivered an outstanding experience on their own, but FromSoftware employs an accompanying music score that makes it feel simply exhilarating.  Listen to the track for Ludwig the Accursed from ‘Bloodborne’, Sir Alonne from ‘Dark Souls 2’, the Abyss Watchers from ‘Dark Souls 3’, or the Godskin Duo from ‘Elden Ring’.  The sheer talent of the composers compliments the games so well that it enshrines the memory of overcoming those difficult boss challenges forever.  Using another analogy from cinema, think about a decisive movie moment without the music.  The gravitas of Obi Wan and Qui Gon Jinn’s duel with Darth Maul in ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’ is somewhat lost without John William’s and the London Symphony Orchestra delivering the Duel of the Fates to accompany the scene.



Abyss Watcher from Dark Souls 3


            The present narrative landscape in gaming is changing dramatically.  Many AAA games now treat the narrative as an afterthought as they vie to pull other levers to engage with gamers in the hopes of creating a fun experience. Circumventing a powerful story, well-crafted world, or phenomenal music bears risks to a game’s health, but there are other viable avenues for creating an engaging game.


Pillar 2: Progression.


            Sense of achievement dominates most other emotions that video games elicit.  Overcoming a hurdle through defeating a boss, making the correct dialogue choices, or strategically selecting the right stat distributions for an encounter all instill a feeling of accomplishment.  If achievement is the end goal, then the road to get there lies in the preparatory steps whereby the player learns and builds the fundamentals that ultimately lead to them prevailing over the challenge.  This comes in many different forms that are all too familiar to most gamers.  Leveling up, allocating skill points, acquiring new tools, enhancing a weapon, the list goes on.  Even more familiar is the feeling of frustration and wasted time when the activities required and their repetitiveness are out of balance (i.e. the grind).

            There is no easy path to creating a progression system that maintains equilibrium between fun and tedium.  Fail on one end of the spectrum, and players will steamroll the content with impunity.  The “easy” difficulty descriptor in ‘Halo 3’ sums up this experience appropriately: “laugh as helpless victims flee in terror from their inevitable slaughter. The game basically plays itself.”  As entertaining as this may sound, a game playing itself has a tremendously short lifespan as players move on to more stimulating offerings.  On the other end of the continuum, a progression system that is too long in the tooth will breed resentment as players feel their time investment isn’t adequately rewarded.  There are dozens of games in circulation that are lopsided in this regard, and any gamer can immediately point to the ones that they abandoned for either of these reasons.

            So what does the delicate, correct balance look like and what is the path to get there?  As consultants often say to the endless annoyance of their clients, it depends.  Even more confounding is that the level of patience varies widely from player to player, making the balancing act ever more fragile.  While some masochists may enjoy spending twelve-hour days mindlessly chopping down maple trees in ‘Runescape’, many players would prefer a slightly less arduous road to level advancement.  If there is a long path with extreme investment, the reward must be commensurate with that sacrifice.  As such, a successful progression engine will devise challenges that players can only overcome with the proper resources, and the steps to attaining those resources must themselves be rewarding. 

            ‘The Binding of Isaac’ of is dungeon crawler game that encapsulates this balance masterfully.  When starting out, the player controls a seemingly hopeless character with limited chance of survival against the armies of Satan.  However, as one progresses through deeper and deeper layers of the dungeon, new abilities and skills soon manifest.  Although the most likely eventual outcome will be death at the hands of a higher tier boss, restarting the journey allows all previously acquired upgrades to be potentially found sooner than the last playthrough.  This methodical approach allows incremental progression into the game, all the while making the process enjoyable and challenging.  The immediate utility of finding a new power or character augmentation can tip the scales immensely, making the investment instantly gratifying and laying the groundwork for future use.  However, some games are not as agile in implementing engaging progression mechanics.



The Binding of Isaac


            Many games take the unfortunate approach of gatekeeping content behind flat, numbers-based progression systems.  In recent ‘Assassins Creed’ titles, the player may explore the incredible open worlds of ancient Greece or Egypt from the beginning of the game.  However, they will soon find that an early voyage to Crete to face off against the minotaur will be impossible as their blows glance off its hide and inflict zero damage, no matter how skilled they may be.  Conversely, traveling to the beast’s lair after over leveling and beating the game will humorously result in the legendary man-bull falling over after one strike.  The damage model leading to such disparate experiences bases its calculations solely on player level, irrespective of proficiency at the game.  While such a system may sometimes have a place, it can be incredibly frustrating to be barred from advancement simply because the number above your character’s head is lower than the game wants it to be.  Ironically, the vast potential of an open world experience is hamstrung by the most archaic means to make it linear.

            Clearly, progression is a complicated tight-rope walk that developers must traverse to create an experience that is both fun yet challenging.  Putting the thumb on the scale on either side can instantly sink the enjoyment for the player base.  An even balance is tantamount to a game’s long-term health, and there are multiple avenues to get there.  It the grind is too burdensome, then one of the potential ways to alleviate the pain is to enjoy it with a friend.  Innovative, cooperative gameplay is rapidly transforming the industry to that end.


Pillar 3: Collaboration.


            Although the idea of LAN parties seems comical now, they are undoubtedly some of the fondest memories players have of their early days of gaming.  Collocating in a best friend’s basement and working together to topple AI controlled legions in ‘Age of Empires 2’ necessitated thoughtful collaboration to prevail.  Or, take the couch co-op experience of playing ‘Halo: Combat Evolved’ side by side with a sibling.  Fleeing from the Flood together demonstrated that in adrenaline rushes can be shared in gaming.  On the lower intensity (but no less enjoyable) side, deliberating over mind-bending puzzles together in ‘Portal 2’ set the standard for what true teamwork entails.  For many, these core memories are the foundation of their experience with video games.

            Fast forward to the present, and there are very few games that do not include a multiplayer component.  In fact, some more recent titles have forgone adding a single player campaign entirely, such as ‘Call of Duty Black Ops 4’ or ‘Battlefield 2042’.  Clearly, major publishers observed that the early fondness for playing with other real people engendered an expectation that future success will be anchored in multiplayer potential.  It is no wonder that in 2008, a small bonus mode unlocked at the end of the ‘Call of Duty World at War’ campaign ended up becoming a multiplayer staple in the franchise.  That innocuous Nacht der Untoten (Night of the Undead), which was a simple, co-op zombie wave defense level has ballooned into a major selling point in one of gaming’s largest franchises.



Nacht der Untoten from Call of Duty World at War


            Why is it that even half-baked multiplayer-centric games can outsell some of the most thoughtful singular player experiences?  The answer is simply that humans yearn for connection and interaction with other people.  Whether that relationship is an alliance working toward a common goal or a bitter rivalry in the heat of a competitive shooter, most gamers seem to draw more meaning from the time they spend engaging with other people. 

The current poster child for live service success, Bungie’s ‘Destiny 2’, has created numerous masterpieces that bring together six players to solve difficult combat and puzzle encounters.  These encounters group together to form a raid, and to date there is little to no competition that can replicate the design.  As the team traverses through each challenge, each player is tasked with a unique responsibility.  Any failure to execute properly will cause the group to fail, raising the stakes in a way that is incredibly rewarding (and sometimes frustrating) for all involved.  ‘Destiny 2’ also adeptly weaves narrative and progression into the design of their raids, harnessing the potential of three core pillars into one capstone cooperative activity.  It is the underlying reason for the game’s longitudinal success, and the envy of many live service mimics that have since failed.  In addition to the sheer fun of playing activities like raids, they can also be exceptionally enjoyable to watch, further increasing the reach of a game via streaming platforms.


Pillar 4: Distinct Entertainment Value.


            ‘Twitch TV’, the predominant streaming platform for video game content creators, boasts a higher average live viewer count than all US cable news platforms combined.  The reach of the leading ‘Twitch’ channels is astounding, and the platform is rapidly growing.  In the year of its founding, Twitch had a modest 3.2 million users per month.  In 2023, that number stood at 240 million.  This trend clearly demonstrates that the value of video games extends beyond simply playing them.

            Of course, 240 million people have diverse tastes and preferences for the types of content they choose to watch, but closer examination reveals insightful trends.  ‘Call of Duty Warzone’, ‘VALORANT’, ‘League of Legends’, ‘Counter-Strike’, ‘Apex Legends’, and ‘Fortnite’ consistently dominate the top ten most streamed games list.  In most of these games, the principal aim is to outlast the competition on the field of battle until one player emerges victorious.  Although simple in concept, augmenting the equation with modern large server capacities introduces a level of distinctness previously never achieved.  One lobby in ‘Call of Duty Warzone’ holds 150 players, and thus gives an individual 149 variables they must account for when entering the game.  With such variability, no two games of ‘Warzone’ will play the same, and the high-octane combat and stakes make it especially enjoyable to watch.  The unknown outcomes, real human interaction at every turn, and split-second decisions provide a source of riveting entertainment that rivals the most popular tv shows.  Viewers become invested in these streamers in the same way that they become invested in characters.  Notably, all these components are missing from single player adventures.  No matter how fantastic the cinematography in ‘Alan Wake 2’ is, it just won’t be a game that people want to watch.



Call of Duty Warzone players deploying


            So why is having unique entertainment value important versus purely delivering a solid gameplay experience?  For a game to be successful in 2024 and beyond, it must possess elements that make it commercially viable for streamers to invest their time into.  The reach of renowned streamers is vast, and having a game broadcast to millions of people a month through this medium is crucial in solidifying its lasting place.  If nobody wants to watch a game be played, how likely are they to want to play it themselves?  The most popular streamers and content creators serve as large conduits of community sentiment and have an outsized influence on the voice of consumers.  The final pilar bridges this gap between voice of the community and the architects of the game.


Pillar 5: Community Trust.


            A previous section reminisced back to the days of early gaming, and while nostalgia has its place, much has changed over the past 20 years.  It is humorous to envision developers publishing articles in the early 2000’s addressing imbalances in cavalry unit health in ‘Age of Empires’, or  responding to complaints about grunts in ‘Halo’ throwing plasma grenades further than an MLB player.  In the present, however, this is precisely what gamers have come to expect from developers.  Gone are the days of releasing a title in its first and final form on launch day.  Players are more invested than ever, and it behooves perceptive creators to listen to them well.

            Within the hallowed walls of any AAA publisher, player sentiment can be an enigma when mired with business metrics.  Players can shout from the rooftops and decry perceived problems, but if the key performance indicators are trending in the right direction, this feedback seems irrelevant.  While it is impossible to please all customers, actively ignoring widespread player critiques is short-sighted, and de-coupling them from tangible business outcomes is chief among them.  Step inside a steering committee with a group of executives to see how this may play out.  They will review all the revenue generating drivers (i.e. the in-game cosmetic store, gross sales, and subscription-based sales), then cross reference that with sales projections and determine who to berate or congratulate for any deviation. If any of those metrics are underperforming, where does player sentiment factor into the equation?  It is difficult to imagine a product manager explaining to a C-suite executive that the reason sales are underperforming this month is due to imbalances in the game itself.  Executives typically don’t speak the language of gamers, but rather that of business where the traditional levers exist outside of the game itself (i.e. marketing or pricing).  However, given the profound impact that the community now has through their content creators and the ‘Reddit’ hive mind, issues plaguing a game can rapidly escalate and reach millions of potential buyers to dissuade them from making an initial investment.

            The launch saga of ‘Diablo 4’ provides an excellent use case for how a publisher can transcend the corporate-consumer divide.  Upon launch, the game received unending accolades and adulation from its players.  A mere month later, the tone soured overnight as Blizzard Entertainment Inc implemented a wave of balance patches with the launch of the game’s first season.  Rather than gaslight the fans who had shown unwavering support since launch, the developers held multiple fireside chats to address concerns and rebuild the trust that was lost.  The end result was a new series of patches that brought the game to a high point shortly after.



Inarius, one of Diablo IV's many antagonists


            Unfortunately, the above scenario is fairly detached from the typical reality.  The ‘Destiny’ franchise has always held a close place in my heart, and the past year’s events have been excruciating to watch.  A botched expansion launch, rapidly declining player counts, and widespread layoffs have all plagued Bungie Inc for over a year.  At a moment when sentiment was particularly low in the ‘Destiny’ community, I attended the GCX 2023 Conference event in Orlando, FL to see if I could glean any insights on the path through this dark chapter.  Many of the game’s most storied creators and influencers were in attendance, as was the principal community engagement team from Bungie.  The Bungie team hosted a panel, and even addressed the elephant in the room that they needed to do better by their players and engage more with the community.  On the final day of the conference, I met with many of ‘Destiny’s’ top content creators and was flabbergasted to hear that none of them had been approached by any of the Bungie staff during the event.  The community engagement team at Bungie is the connective tissue between the players and the company, and the fact that they were in the same room and didn’t converse is just vexing.

            Regrettably, this is not too surprising, as publishers currently do not seem to place much stock in investing in community trust.  The disconnect between what gamers want and what the corporate world delivers can be jarring, and the solution is straightforward.  Voice of the customer is king in nearly all enterprises, and for one reason or another it gets lost in translation in gaming.  Listen to the people who care the most about the product, nurture that relationship, and build something spectacular together.


Conclusion.


             Perhaps it is untenable to expect that a game will be able to establish a compelling narrative, progression system, collaborative play, entertainment value, and community trust all in one title.  Very few games even bother to invest in them all to begin with.  Attempting to juggle five flaming knives at once will generally result in dropping them all, but methodically selecting three for careful handling can yield marvelous feats.  My theory is that any game that can build three of the five critical pillars will be successful.  Fail in three or more, and collapse will be imminent.

            To put this theory to the test, I examined many of the greatest successes and failures over the past decade.  Although adherence to the principles of the pillars can be slightly subjective, I did not find a single game that failed to conform.  If a highly anticipated game had poor reception and performance (‘Starfield’, ‘Fallout 76’, ‘Battlefield 2024’, ‘Anthem’, ‘Red Fall’, ‘The Division’, ‘Skull and Bones’, and countless others) then it failed in at least three pillars, often more.  On the other hand, the top successes of the past decade all overdelivered on three or more pillars (i.e. ‘Minecraft’, ‘Grand Theft Auto’, ‘PUBG’, ‘The Elder Scrolls V:Skyrim’, ‘Call of Duty Warzone’, ‘Fortnite’, ‘Legend of Zelda the Breath of the Wild’, and many others).

            Gaming has become a multibillion-dollar industry, and the risks of investing in a title are enormous should it fail.  It is baffling then that so many new titles with the backing of the largest studios seem to fall flat.  With all the dollars at stake, it would be prudent for industry leaders to conduct post mortems on the failures and detailed case studies on the successes.  There is little justifiable reason for hundreds of millions of dollars to evaporate into a dead-end game that nobody wants to play in the first place.  Build a genuinely immersive narrative.  Design thoughtful progression systems that reward and value time.  Create experiences that players can engage in together.  Make core loops that are entertaining.  Foster trust within the community.  Just as importantly, allow people who actually understand what makes or breaks a game to direct important decisions during the game’s development.  Though challenging, it is absolutely possible to make a game that is both immersive and economically successful, despite how difficult some corporations have made it seem.  The answer key is in front of those that control the purse strings, they just need to look at it.


Elden Ring

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