I got an e-mail today from a developer who’s having trouble making any of their prototypes fun. I’m posting my reply here in case it’s of help to anyone else. This developer was writing because they liked Gunpoint, so that’s why all my examples are from that.
I would suggest three things to bear in mind:
1. Don’t judge one prototype mechanic against a whole finished game
I don’t know if you’ve played the early prototypes in the DLC, but the first versions of Gunpoint didn’t have much going for them. I had you trying to jump on guards who turned around at random intervals, killing you instantly. By itself the jump wasn’t particularly interesting, but once I’d got it useable that’s when I added stuff like pouncing on guards and punching them, climbing on walls and mantling round corners. I didn’t know if any of these things would be particularly good, but as it turned out the punching bit was an unexpected highlight. It still wasn’t what you’d call ‘a fun game’, though, it needed years of thought and design and testing and redesign to make it all hang together.
For a long time the Crosslink was just a theoretically interesting idea, most testers just said it had ‘potential’. It was pretty empty by itself, and it took a long time and lots of trial and error to design levels that managed to present interesting obstacles to your rewiring ability, without forcing you down a single path.
2. Fun doesn’t come from game logic / mechanics alone
The first thing that really felt ‘fun’ about Gunpoint was that endlessly punching guards thing, which isn’t mechanically interesting at all. There was no advantage to doing it, I just didn’t see a reason to prevent you. I found a sound effect of a belt being whipped, and drew an incredibly crude 2 frame animation, and something about the suddenness of that with the weirdly slap-like noise was funny, and being able to do it as rapidly as you could click was satisfying, and it worked. But the punching is not a good idea, it has no interesting implications or consequences, I just got lucky with the sound effect and some placeholder animation. So don’t expect an idea to feel fun right away if it doesn’t have those trappings yet.
3. Figure out some smaller, specific, achievable goals
‘Fun’ is a big nebulous thing with many components, and it’s hard to approach without breaking it down. You’ll have to figure out for yourself what specific types of things you find fun, but as an example my checklist is something like this:
Single, inherently satisfying actions: eg. throwing yourself through a plate glass window, or punching a guard in the face. These don’t have to be smart or interesting, and they usually only get fun once they have sound and maybe some basic animation or tweaking of their presentation. It’s quite easy to stumble on these through random experimentation.
Some kind of special player ability: pretty much every game idea I get excited about starts with the words “You can…” For me it usually ends up being something you can’t do in real life, but it doesn’t have to be too far fetched: I love Hitman, and that game’s most outlandish ability is “You can dress up as other people”.
Problems with many solutions: whatever it is you can do, I want a) some problem that can be solved with it, b) more than one way to do so, and c) interesting differences between the solutions. C is the tricky part.
If you can figure out what your components of fun are, just pick one and see if you can achieve it. Don’t worry if the other stuff doesn’t arrive fully formed around it, each part might need its own journey through experimentation, testing, revision.
Hope that helps!