[I’m not working on the game this week, instead I’m doubling up on my other work so I can spend a full week on the game next week. But I’ve had one little anecdote bubbling around in my head. Indulge me, it’s short.]
I had been hired at Turbine to work on the sequel to Asheron’s Call. I was an engineer through and through; I’d been coding (non-games) for nearly a decade and I was pretty good at it. I was hired as a senior engineer, and I got right to work on coding the game engine.
But the game had a troubled development cycle with lots of changes of direction. As the vision of the game changed, the team got less excited. “This isn’t a sequel to Asheron’s Call at all!” became a quiet undercurrent. It was around this time that one of the producers grabbed me at random as I was coming back from lunch one day and asked me to preview his presentation. He was working on a pitch that explained what Asheron’s Call 2 was all about, and he needed to refine it by getting feedback from people like me. I was happy to oblige, so I followed him into his office.
He then closed the door and began his impassioned pitch about why the new game direction was fun. I was a bit of a hard sell: I had specifically come to Turbine to work on the sequel to the game I loved, not to just “make a good game.” But I was willing to hear him out.
At one point, he mentioned that they were removing the Stamina bar. “In Asheron’s Call 1, you have three bars: Health, Stamina, and Mana. That’s dumb. You just end up using spells to convert stamina to mana to health to stamina to health and so on. We’re simplifying…”
I interrupted there, and said, “but that’s fun!”
He looked a little taken aback. “No it isn’t! Why is it fun?”
And… I couldn’t explain why it was fun. I was an engineer, not a game designer, and I hadn’t spent years thinking about why things are fun. I just knew that it was fun.
He figured it was because Asheron’s Call 1 was my first MMO. “People always get stuck on what their first MMO did.” But no, I corrected him: Asheron’s Call was my third MMO. I’d played a little bit of UO and a ton of EverQuest. I knew what else was out there, and I knew that Asheron’s Call 1 was fun in different ways. I just couldn’t explain why.
That was an important day for me. I don’t believe I could have changed the course of the game at that point — it made no difference what I said or didn’t say. (All I did was cause him to focus on other design elements for his presentation.) But it was important because I realized I wasn’t a game designer, despite thinking I was. I’d played tons of games, I knew all the mechanics they used. But here I was, unable to defend the simplest concept. It was frustrating.
It changed how I played games forever, and not necessarily for the better — when you study everything to see “why is this fun”, you sap some of the fun out of it — but I think it’s the critical skill that game designers must develop. Just that. The rest of the job is details, but you have to be able to articulate why something is fun… or at least why it could be fun.
Nothing is fun for everybody, and nothing is fun in every game. A lot of times I can only recognize fun by watching others: there’s plenty of genres I don’t enjoy, so I can only hypothesize about why they’re fun. And I may often be wrong. But the act of thinking about it is what’s important. If you don’t even think about it, all you can do is unconsciously mirror what you’ve seen before. You can’t put disparate elements together (let alone try brand new things) with much hope of them being fun.
I think I can now defend why Asheron’s Call 1’s three separate energy bars were fun, but I’m not going to bother doing so. It’s beside the point. The point is… screw that producer. My MMO’s going to have three bars. No — four bars. No. Five.