“Fun” is a vague, elusive, concept and often trips up new designers trying to define their goals. In 90% of cases, you can replace the concept of designing for “fun” with designing for “satisfying”. What makes Fruit Ninja fun? Hard to say. What makes it satisfying? The audio and visual delight of slicing into the fruit is definitely satisfying. The rewards for cutting multiple fruit in one slice are satisfying. The progression mechanics are satisfying. It’s a much clearer goal to aim for.
Satisfaction is that happy, pleased feeling you get when you do something that causes you to move from one state to a more desirable one. We feel satisfaction when we accumulate XP in a RPG, we feel satisfaction when we complete a level, we feel satisfaction when we solve a puzzle, we even feel satisfaction when we shoot an enemy and are rewarded with a delightful audiovisual reaction.
Designing a “fun” strategic decision is very vague. People often try and replace it with an “interesting” decision. This can work, but it can also lead you in completely the wrong direction. Interesting decisions are often characterized by their difficulty to get what you want without paying some steep opportunity cost. You often don’t feel confident you’ve made the right decision within a minute or two, which is how long most turn-based games like their turns to last, if the decision is extremely “interesting”.
Interesting decisions absolutely have their place, but most turns need that sense of completion that you gain from finding the correct answer (which means the decision is no longer truly interesting as you’ve successfully identified the correct option). This is what makes for a satisfying decision. Your mind was engaged, but then you identified an answer you’re confident is correct. This produces a similar feeling of satisfaction to solving a puzzle. Your strategy or tactic might be wrong of course, but as long as you think it’s right you still feel satisfied with your decision.
I often define “fun” as “satisfaction + flow state, often within a larger mastery loop”. Even that is cheating a bit, because the mastery loop itself feeds into your sense of satisfaction.
This is why the clicker genre works. Clicker Heroes is a well-executed satisfaction engine. It feels satisfying to see your numbers go up by giant leaps, and it feels satisfying to unleash your cooldowns and destroy a boss that you previously could barely damage.
Clicker Heroes carefully unlocks each new goal in heroes or upgrades to purchase the moment you can purchase the previous one, so you always have one more short-term goal to aim for (meaning your completion of the previous goal is instantly replaced with another goal, so you never feel truly ‘done’). The genre is minimalist, so all the game’s systems and design choices are transparent, without anything to distract you. Play for a few days (you’ll keep gaining gold even when the game is closed), because it steadily unlocks more features as you progress. You won’t get the full appreciation for the game’s design if you quit too son.
On the other end of the spectrum, Dark Souls. Dark Souls is designed to create the feeling of fiero, and fiero is basically satisfaction turbocharged. Just this weekend I introduced my theater-kid cousin to Dark Souls. He has almost no videogame experience at all, and each time he killed a boss he leaped out of his chair and shouted at the top of his lungs. That’s what Dark Souls does. It’s designed to give you that rush of exultant triumph from defeating a huge boss that previously seemed unbeatable.
That’s the beauty of Dark Souls, at least in its best areas. If you pay attention, study your environment, and don’t give up… Your satisfaction is guaranteed.