John Evans' Blog

Game Theory – Fun Work

by on Nov.07, 2006, under Uncategorized

So I have this theory…Games people play are made up of tasks to perform. These tasks could range from throwing a ball so it goes through a hoop, to tapping buttons in the right rhythm, to planning a battle strategy for your virtual units across a virtual battlefield. Since I like strategy computer games, though, I’m going to be focusing on mental tasks. (Applying my arguments to other games is left as an exercise for the reader.)

But playing a game encompasses other tasks, too. Clicking the mouse in such a way as to select the exact combination of units you want, that can be thought of as a task. Or waiting for the game to load can be a tasks. In a larger perspective, leveling up your characters until you’re powerful enough to get to the next part of the story is a task.

All of these tasks are work. The interesting thing is that some of this work is “fun work” and some is just work. Game players expect to (are trained to?) put up with various bits of unfun work to get to the fun work. We just hope it’s worth it in the end.

What’s really interesting is that different people find different types of work to be fun. Depending on your tastes, you may enjoy a completely different aspect of a given game than someone else. For example, I know the old game X-COM: Enemy Unknown/UFO Defense has some devoted fans. I played it, and I enjoyed it. Yet, while it seemed like the focus of the game was the turn-based tactical battles, I saw those battles more as something to be endured. For me they were not-quite-fun work; what I really enjoyed were researching, constructing bases, planning overall strategy like that. (I bet someone out there probably thinks this position is heresy, but all I’m talking about are my personal gaming tastes. 😉 )

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but I was particularly inspired by a post on Penny Arcade today. To quote:

When a battle pops up between your party and let’s say some wolves in [Final Fantasy X] you just select attack on all your characters, maybe toss in a fire spell for fun and then watch the wolves bite it…Most of the time, it’s just you selecting the same moves over and over, occasionally dropping a healing potion. Well all that [Final Fantasy XII] has done is streamline that process. I’m not pushing “X” as much but I’m doing the same things. It was hard for me to get my head around at first because I wanted to believe I was doing more than that but I wasn’t. I wanted to believe that every fight in [Final Fantasy IX] really required strategy but it didn’t…You just grind through monsters until you hit a boss and that’s when the combat really gets interesting.

So what he’s saying is that the Final Fantasy games have a lot of “work” which basically doesn’t require any work at all. These “non-boss monster encounters” can be handled the same way once you familiarize yourself with the battle system. Basically, with the new battle system in FFXII, you can just sit back and watch them be taken care of automatically.

Which begs the question, why are they there at all?

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6 comments for this entry:
  1. angeldemonwoman

    Why? This is why

    Because they want to give the game something ‘fresh’ and new. Apparently, they do not realize how monotonous such a thing can be after a person does learn of how simple it may be.

    Perhaps some people tested and enjoyed the method, and figured that other players would.

    OR, they could just be turning the whole thing into an interactive movie. There are times when people feel like playing these games and times when they don’t. Part of playing an RPG is for the beautiful cinematics. The problem is that if the cinematics are far too common, the idea of it gets boring and old.

    There are times when, personally, I prefer to play a game like Dragoon (a little bit like Final Fantasy). This is just for the gameplay of running into random enemies and chopping them to bits with the awesome combos. The treat is for progressing through the story to get to a nicely done cinematic scene (which don’t really come until disk three… and I’m only on disk two).
    On the other hands, there are times when I’d rather whip out Morrowind to go out and do my own thing and not be controlled at all by annoying storylines and cinematics. If I want to blow up a whole town with pathetic shocking spells, I will, dammit. I’ll be my own god if I want, or I’ll run around helping people get whatever they want done. Either way, I still avoid the main storyline.

    All games have battles of some sort. If you do not want to deal with them, do not play the game. Simple solutions, right there.

    …You made me think, you evil little evil person, you.

  2. johnevans

    Bwahahaha! I made you think! Victory is mine. 😉

    You do make some good points. However…

    All games have battles of some sort. If you do not want to deal with them, do not play the game. Simple solutions, right there.

    I’m just asking, do these games have to have battles of some sort? You may have noticed that the Chaoseed games are attempts to go without them…

  3. angeldemonwoman

    Ah, but you mistook my meaning…

    Battles being the subjective term in what I said… I consider the insane amount of ‘researching’ in Phantasma to be a battle. The confusing things in Sthenos? Yes, a battle.

    I do not mean a physical battle between your party and some rabid creature, although that is included in the meaning.

    Therefore, ALL games have ‘battles’ of some sort.

    Your attempt to remove all sorts of battles from your games is futile. You cannot create a game with no battles… because then there would be no point to the game.

    Perhaps ‘challenge’ would have been a better word?

    And your games are usually much more of a challenge than I prefer playing. You put in too many hidden things that I have no clue how these people find them… it’s annoying as hell.

  4. johnevans

    The word I always use in this situation is ‘conflict’. But ‘challenge’ is good too. 😉

    I guess there are some things that are hidden, but…most of the stuff in Phantasma, say, isn’t. Do you really have to figure out what Prin’s Alectromancy does, if you don’t want to? It’s really just a sort of easter egg. Most of the important stuff is obvious…like, if you increase your Ecomancy skill, you can get more plants from your garden.

    That’s how it should be working, anyway…>_>

  5. angeldemonwoman

    Well… it is.

    It is working that way, I think I was more referring to your other games…

    Conflict… yes, that sounds better than both challenge and battle… although they are found in each others’ listing in a thesaurus somewhere… like the one in my head. 😛

    …I haven’t really… made a garden or anything. Black thumb, you know.

  6. morbid_curious

    You’ve just described the chief reason why I never got into the Final Fantasy game series. I just found the combinational of “zomg, surprise random encounter!!1” and the combat mechanics so annoying and forced that I lost any interest in finding out where the storyline was going and gave up. The signal-to-noise ratio of the game in terms of things that I found enjoyable versus things that I found tedious was just way too low to sit through.

    On the other hand, I just finished playing Jagged Alliance 2 the other day, after dragging it out of my archives a month or so back. In that game, the tactical side of things was varied enough to keep it interesting (I too suffered from encounter fatigue in UFO: Enemy Unknown and its sequels) over a longer period. It was interspersed with enough strategic screen work (planning, training militias, logistics, etc.) and exploration/mission/roleplaying elements to keep me well-motivated throughout.

    They did well to avoid things that could have been tedious – the ability to “auto resolve” fights when the enemy fought your town militias and none of your mercenaries were there in person, for example. The game’s not without its flaws here and there, but there’s a lot of good elements that made it worthwhile for me to play.

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