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It’s hard to be serious and fun at the same time

Pretty fun review of an upcoming Christian RTS game: dorkbot talk I attended earlier this week. The quote is about the fact that “Serious Games,” a new genre focused on learning or imparting ideas in addition to creating fun, often suck:

I confess I did not expect much of the game. The history of Christian computer entertainment is not particularly, uh, blessed. The games have tended to be numbingly boring side-scrollers in which the action serves merely as a clumsy deus ex machina to entice kids to reading dollops of in-game scripture.

They suffer from the tragic flaw of all “serious” games, which is that they get so wrapped up in honing their message that they don’t notice until too late that, yikes, the gameplay sucks. Play is an incredibly precious thing, and an extremely difficult thing to craft. Forcing it to serve moral instruction is like dipping it in formaldehyde.

It turns out that making things fun is very, very hard. The typical way that a game starts is not by building menu systems, installation programs, etc., but rather trying to perfect a very small slice of the program: The Core Mechanic. Basically whatever you spend 99% of your time doing, you try and prototype that really fast. In Pong, it would be moving the paddle around trying to bounce the ball back. In Mario, it’s jumping. In Zelda, it’s moving around the map exploring and occasionally hitting things. You spend months experimenting with, and refining, the core mechnic until it’s shiny. Popcap did a presentation of this which showed their mastery of this process of creating fun.

As an aside, web developers have a lot to learn about this. Rather than building things like user management or database caching or other infrastructure, web applications should probably be built from their innards out. So if you were building Digg, the most important part is to make the 90% lurker view of browsing from page to page of articles fun and interesting, then the 9% of folks who comment and vote useful, and then the 1% contributors to make posting articles really easy. Anything else is should probably be built later.

Ultimately, if you prioritize learning (or function) over fun, you might end up with what you wished for, an educationally-packed yet boring game.

Anyway, at the dorkbot talk, the Popcap presentation showed a complete focus on fun at the expense of pretty much everything else. The “Serious Games” presenters were instead very academic, and focused more on abstract educational ideas and didn’t really even talk about fun. Something tells me they won’t be releasing any games through EA :)

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