Whoa! Back off there with the torches and pitchforks. Games need victory conditions, and I’d be a fool to say otherwise (a fool on the cusp of being stabbed and burned, at that). If a game isn’t winnable, it’s not a game at all; it’s just a toy.
What I’m saying is that a good game is not defined by its victory conditions, but by how you play it.
Playing to Win
Think about it: When you won those board games last week, did you say, “That was great when I earned the final victory point!” or “Awesome! The game ended and I owned seven territories!” or “Neato! Your life points are at zero!”
Probably not. The final moments of victory are generally not that interesting. It’s the strategy, tactics, and decisions leading up to those moments that are exciting, memorable, and… oh, what’s that word? Oh yeah — fun!
Would you still play to win, even if the playing wasn’t fun? Sure! I hear it all the time in trading card game circles: “I made a deck that wins a lot, but isn’t fun to play, so I only use it at tournaments.” Or take your standard MMO experience. In order to “win” (that is, level up to whatever your current target is), you have to perform repetitious, tedious tasks that might have been fun when you started playing, but around hour 200, it’s just grinding.
All this is as it should be. As players, we’re supposed to play to win. It’s our job to seek victory — even at the cost of our own fun.
The problem is, winning without fun is satisfying for a moment, but the game was boring the rest of the time. The winning was fun. The playing was not.
Designing for Play
As game designers, it’s our job to ensure that the player’s journey to victory is fun.
There may be many paths to victory, but ideally, they should all have interesting choices and engaging game play — i.e., be fun. If there is but one path, we should cobble it with smooth, rounded bits of fun spackled in place with fun cement. Then pave the whole thing over with fun asphalt, just to make sure.
“What does it matter?” you may ask. “If the player wants to sacrifice his own fun on the altar of victory, what’s it to us? Why should we care?”
Good question. And like most good questions, it can be answered in the form of a bulleted list:
- Winning is boring. By the time you make the final move, blast the final alien, or click the final cow needed for victory, the suspense is gone. The game’s already over. Yes, there’s a momentary thrill of victory, but it’s momentary. Now what? If the game itself isn’t fun, you’re probably not going to say, “Let’s play again!” You spend too much time having not-fun to get that little fun payoff at the end. Which leads us to…
- Losing should be fun. In a competitive game, there can be many players, but only one winner. Even in an MMO, only a very small portion of the players are “winning” at any given moment. What about the other 95% of the players? Are they having fun? Or just putting in time until they can win? The highest praise I can give a game is, “I’m losing and still having fun.” If the path towards victory isn’t fun, and only the victory itself is, then only the winner gets to have the fun. Which leads to the final point…
- Stories come from playing, not winning. Player stories, as I’ve mentioned before, are powerful tools for spreading the word about your game. You want to encourage those stories through fun game play. If achieving victory is boring, the stories are boring, and no one will share them.
Hollow Victories Lose Players
If you give a player the choice between interesting game play and an easy win, he’ll generally choose the easy win. He will choose victory over fun.
But after a while, he won’t come back.
People play games to have fun. If a certain game only lets them have fun when they win, it’s not a very efficient way to have fun. Why invest 20 minutes, an hour, or three days on a game if all the fun is in the last moments of victory?
There are more efficient fun-delivery systems out there. They’re called better games. And as designers, it’s our job to make them.