What makes a game fun?
Everyone enjoys different things, but generally, it boils down to mental stimulation. It’s fun to try new things and have new experiences. Adventure games create a vast world for you to explore. Platformers, puzzle games, or any game with multiple levels – engagement is created with increased difficulty and new interactions that challenge the player to think in new ways and come up with new ideas. And when you finally beat a level, you feel a sense of achievement.
There’s no fun if there’s no challenge
When I used to play games competitively, I always tried to find opponents who were at least on par with me, if not better than me. Yes, it might be fun for one or two games to completely crush a weaker player, but for me, that becomes very boring very quickly. On the other hand, I could spend hours playing with someone who was around my level. Each game provided a new challenge, a new opportunity to make changes to my gameplay and come up with new strategies. I would have to constantly be thinking, learning, and adapting – and this was what could engage me endlessly.
Not everyone is like me; some people would be happy to spend hours destroying new players, even just using the same tactics over and over. For these people, perhaps the feeling of power and competence is enough; there doesn’t have be much thinking involved. But I believe many people like to be challenged, and challenged in a particular way. For example, it may be challenging to read and fully understand a lengthy legal document, but most people wouldn’t find it fun.
What kind of challenge is fun?
To be fun, a challenging task needs to be:
The first is straightforward – if a task is too hard or impossible, eventually you give up. There’s a nuanced question about what is “too hard”, and that varies from person to person. Indeed, I suspect many of the later levels in Path To Oblivion will be too hard for most people. I’ve tested the game with some people who I consider to be quite intelligent. All found the hard levels to be hard, which is what I wanted – I’m always annoyed by games that have a “hard” difficulty setting that ends up being easy. However, some even found the later medium levels a bit too difficult. That prompted me to put hints on this site, and I’ve tried to design hints in a way that reduce the difficulty without completely removing the challenge. Adjustable difficulty is always good, and easier to implement in games like RPGs. Here, I let you adjust the difficulty by choosing how extensively you want to use the hints.
The second is more subjective. I’ve touched on it above – the ideas of novelty, of creativity, of inviting new ideas and strategy. Let me illustrate further.
For me, many games that exist today are either too easy, or they are hard for the wrong reasons (that is, they fail to be stimulating). The problem is especially bad in the RPG genre (as much as I love RPGs). For example, some games have a boss who does so much damage in one attack that it kills your entire team. The only possible way for you to win is to grind against weaker enemies repeatedly, level up, get more health (or better equipment) and try again. That, to me, is poor game design. It’s hard to beat the boss, but not in an engaging way. On the other hand, consider a boss who also deals huge amounts of damage, but the damage can be mitigated based on the positioning of your characters or the sequence of actions you used over the previous turns. This boss is still difficult to beat, but allows you to win so long as you play smart. The challenge lies in tactics and strategy rather than repetition and hours spent – a much more fun challenge.
Making Path To Oblivion Challenging in the Right Ways
Repetition without variance is one of the fastest ways to kill enjoyment. In Path To Oblivion, there are often one or two “tricks” to each level. These are elements of the level that make it difficult to solve, and once you’ve figured out the trick, the level becomes much easier. I try my best to avoid reusing the same trick in different levels, and even if I do, make it only a small part of the level, so the challenge remains novel. The goal is that each level feels different and presents you with a challenge you haven’t encountered before.
Contrast for example, only making larger and larger levels. In a sense, the levels become more difficult to complete – but if you can use the same heuristics, and just apply them on a larger scale, it is not mentally stimulating. I have tried my best to avoid this in Path To Oblivion; even in all the larger levels, I embed new tricks so that no level feels too similar to the last. There was one hard level I designed that I later removed because I felt it was just a large level without a unique or interesting feel to it. Solving it just felt tedious.
This is why some of my favourite levels are the hard levels that have only yellow tiles. What those levels show is that, to make a level challenging, you need neither a very large number of tiles nor a large amount of added complexity from new concepts. You can make something that is challenging and engaging even just from a small assortment of basic components.
My favourite level from a design standpoint. A very small number of tiles, and none of the more complicated tiles – yet still a difficult level to beat.
Path To Oblivion’s Level Progression
Path To Oblivion starts simple, then gets harder with each new level. I’ve tried to create a manageable but challenging difficulty curve, with difficulty increasing from level 1 to level 8 in each level set. I’ve put a lot of time into crafting levels and ordering level difficulty, changing order several times based on observation and feedback.
Bonus level difficulty is a bit widely distributed, partly because those levels were added later in development. In any case, I try to use achievement points values to denote relative difficulty across all levels and level sets.
Path To Oblivion – Replayability and Broadening the Appeal
What happens once you’ve beaten all the levels in a puzzle game? Typically, the answer is you’re done with the game – there’s nothing left to do.
I’ve tried to mitigate that with randomly generated levels, hoping this provides more replayability. Of course, even with randomly generated levels, after playing long enough, they start to feel fairly similar, and perhaps repetitive. To try to make the repetition a bit more fun, I’ve got some achievements to give you a goal to work towards when doing the random levels. As all RPGs have taught me, repetition is always more fun when you have goals to work towards.
I’ve also implemented time trials. The intent is for the speed aspect to keep you engaged. Though there may be repetition, there’s a constant challenge of moving not just accurately, but quickly. Perhaps this also helps broaden the appeal of the game, because now the game tests not just your logical thinking skill, but also your ability to process situations and act quickly. Time trials are also where continued experience and familiarity with the game really come into play (whereas the levels are mostly about novel challenges). So, perhaps this appeals a bit more to those who enjoy spending time with a game and seeing their investment pay off as they perform progressively better and better. I hope this also helps keep the game engaging for people who may be turned off by the difficulty of the later levels, providing a different way to keep you stimulated.
Why did I write all this? Partly because I want to show how much time I’ve spent thinking about the design of this game and trying to make it fun (even if I ultimately failed to do so), and hopefully that gives you more reason to try my game. Partly because, in articulating my philosophy, I scrutinize my decisions and check whether my line of thinking makes sense. Partly because maybe someone out there might find this interesting.
As always, feedback is welcome.