The Anatomy of Fun

Teaching/mentoring part-time at a game college is an interesting gig, to say the least. I have complete freedom when it comes to curriculum-with the result that I’ve put together lectures based on what I’ve learned. You’d be surprised at what you end up learning about a subject when you need to teach it. Teaching means that I have to prepare, which in turn involves reading, analysis and ‘research’, which mostly means that I have to take out time to keep track of what new and interesting games are out there.

To analyze a game, I break it up into it’s components, and I’m not speaking as a designer here but as a player. Why was that particular game fun but not that other one? Players are individuals with differing personalities and preferences, and everyone’s idea of fun will be slightly different; but is there a ‘kind of fun’ that turns specific players on? I think there is.

In the beginning of each course, I teach students the Four Fundamental Categories of Play, as explained by Roger Callois in his 1961 book Man, Play and Games or as I like to call them the




Competitive play, the expression of skill. A game where the player’s hand-eye coordination, balance or even mental prowess is all that matters. A first-person shooter would be almost purely Agonistic. So would Chess. Statistically a male-dominated trait, this taps into the primal Alpha instinct of getting ahead by force. Most games have a reasonable dose of Agon, casual games admittedly less so. Some examples of Agon-dominated games:



Super Meat Boy

The game we were making would definitely be skill-based.


Chance-based play, the play of luck. Snakes and Ladders would be an example of a game that is won or lost purely on the basis of chance. The slot machine, if you could call it a game, would be a purely Aleatory game. Many games seem to be biased towards luck, such as the draw of cards at Poker or Teen Patti, or even the roll of dice in a board game like  Settlers of Catan- but one finds that luck can take you only so far, and a skilled player always beats the lucky one because luck runs out, skill and experience adds up. Here’s a video of a slots game for iOS:

Slots Casino 

I wanted to incorporate some degree of luck into the game as well.


Role-playing, make-believe. The player(s) enters the Magic Circle, the game universe. Mary the pastry chef is now Meradeth, the Half-Elf leading a formidable troupe of legendary warriors. Mimicry affords players release from their lives and environment; if one can craft one’s own character-so much the better! It is the fiction that leads the way, that makes the player identify with her/his character and immerses the player in the game. Here are some Mimicry-heavy games:

Fable III

Grand Theft Auto V (Warning: bad language!)

We had a game mechanic, now we needed to weave a fiction and create a world around it.


This is the physical sensation of vertigo. If you’ve ever been on a roller coaster or any kind of amusement park ride, this is the kind of fun you’re paying for. It’s what makes a racing game fun, that maintenance of delicate control in a world rushing past at high speed. This kind of Fun comes from moving really fast in real life, or in a game world. Here are a few examples:


Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit


It is said that to realize the world one has to realize the self :).

I’ve been analyzing myself as a player to figure out what I like and why, because as a game-maker I need to understand the player for whom I am creating a game.

I (and I realized this while I was thinking about, and writing, this post) am something of a skill-grinder. If I like a game, however hard it is, I will do whatever it takes to get better at it. I’ll die a million miserable deaths but will respawn each time and play that level again just for the pleasure of improving-my hand-eye coordination and figuring out the perfect timing and position for that jump. How it looks matters only up to a point.

I’ve tried (hard) to get ‘into’ RPGs, but nah. Role-playing games, mimicry-heavy with customizable multidimensional characters, beautiful and immersive environments and a strong narrative….nope. Try as I can, I can’t buy into the fantasy or really get involved with the story or character. I don’t really enjoy exploring gorgeous game worlds either.

I’m no gambler, either. At cards, I prefer the deviousness of Bluff (Cheat) to the chance and bluster of Teen Patti.  The last time I went to a casino was in Vancouver. I played the slots for a while, lost twenty bucks and fell asleep on a couch.

I really really like roller-coasters. At Disneyland, I did the Indiana Jones (Backwards!!) ride two times back-to back, and during my fourteen years in the merchant marine I was never seasick.

That makes me an Agon-Illinx type of guy/gamer. There you go.

So what now? Well, I thought I’d make a game for my kind of gamer. Heavy on the skill and vertigo, and light on luck and story. This seemed logical, as my target demographic would be very close to my own tastes.


In 2010 and 2011, I was part of two consecutive game projects that didn’t make it.

The first was a project that I started while still at Gameloft- a TF2-esque team-based online multiplayer game that I still have salted away for when I have a million or two to put into it. The reason it failed? One and only one-Scope. It was (is) a truly awesome game, but way too big for a team of three working part-time. We had put a decent amount of work into it before we went our separate ways. That was…

Lesson #1. The importance of Scope.

The most common mistake, apparently, and one that I repeatedly make. I think that at the root of this mistake lies an ego that refuses to understand that like any other discipline, making video games needs to be learned gradually. You can study about it, you can hear about it, but you’re never going to figure it out ’til you do it. And you have to start small, if you’re doing it on your own or as part of a small team. There is a (subconscious) assumption that “I know how to play it, so I know how to make it”. The scope of the project has to match the resources (time, money, team) and that is easier said than estimated. A thorough risk analysis of any project based on what you know, is always a good idea.

The second project was one that I started with my students. It struck me (and this was by no means an original idea) that I could fulfill my game-making ambitions by involving my students in a project. I would have creative control, a willing and enthusiastic team and I wouldn’t have to pay any salaries or rent or bills. They, in return, would graduate with a live title at the top of their resume- if the game did well I’d even pay them! Win-win for everybody! Right?

Lesson #2: Motivation and Vision.

The concept we came up with was interesting enough. A side-scrolling 2D game with a hot-air balloon that would surf air currents, collecting objects and avoiding enemies. It needed prototyping and proving, but it had the germ of a really good game. We had two good programmers who delivered the prototype on time, but by that time the rest of the team was falling apart. We had six artists with creative differences among them, with the result that there was zero output. Design-wise, we were at a standstill. I would have had to pretty much do all the level design and everything else myself, and also hire somebody to do all the artwork. By the time I got around to deciding to do this, the programmers (also students) had moved on to other jobs. It was 6 months and all we had was a very un-fun prototype on the iPad. I decided to pull the plug.


I hold myself responsible- I wasn’t able to motivate my team or ‘Hold the Vision’, and had delayed some crucial project-saving decisions like hiring a 2D artist to complete the work. There was also too much democracy at work within the team, where I let some crucial (design and otherwise) decisions be made by committee that I should have made on my own. If a team member is showing a lack of commitment, give him/her a chance to improve, even two chances. If there’s still no improvement, fire him/her and either do it yourself or get someone else.

There is a initial euphoric phase in every project cycle when everyone is simultaneously motivated and enthusiastic, and there are phases when this enthusiasm starts to flag. Team members quit or fall sick, a few realize that it’s turning out to be harder or taking longer than they expected, and then the question raises it’s head-“Am I wasting my time?” In my experience, every self-motivated project needs at least one team member to be unreasonably optimistic, or at least seem to be- that guy is usually me, but this time that wasn’t enough.

In the beginning

My first experience of making a game was at Vancouver Film school. I was one of a five-man team, and we took five months or so to make a wacky little side-viewing 2D game using Flash where you control two characters: Wally, the one-eyed Vampire Walrus and Joe, the seven-armed Pirate Octopus. Behold the trailer:


My primary role was level designer, but I also got to write some of the low-level code in AS3 and created most of the the 3D/2D environment assets. It was a wonderful, nerve-wracking, back-breaking yet exhilarating project, the lessons of which are still seared into my mind.Prime among these: Keep The Passion and Mind The Scope.

After graduating from VFS in June 2009, my aim was to find work in the video game industry in Vancouver, a task made very difficult by the fact that I did not have a work visa. While I looked unsuccessfully for a company that would not only be willing to hire me straight out of design school but also make the (extraordinary) effort to sponsor me for a work visa, I put my ‘other’ skills to work trying to make some cash.

First, I thought I’d making my fortune picking blueberries. It’s a thing in BC- you go to a farm and they give you a trough. Pick ripe berries all day, and you get paid by the kg. Turned out that I spent five hours and twenty dollars commuting to the farm and earned thirty dollars picking berries. I decided to seek my millions elsewhere.


I was good writing resumes, so I started by plastering these flyers all over downtown Vancouver and posting ads on Craigslist. I used to meet clients at Starbucks, get their details and make their resumes, cover letters and bios, at $30 a pop. “The Perfect Resume”, I called it.

I was starting to make half-decent money at this when a resume I had written for myself hit the spot.I was ‘hired’ as a QA Intern at Piranha Games. I worked 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, for free, testing a PS3/PC/Xbox NASCAR racing title for four months. It was a good gig, all the same. I got to participate in a live project, participate in scrums and work with some really smart developers. Also, free Coffee, Bagels and Cream Cheese!! The pantry was always well-stocked.

After this, a resume I had posted on caught the eye of some HR folks and I moved back to India to work as game designer at (the now recently deceased) Gameloft Hyderabad, where I handled the the transition from a single-screen mobile phone to the dual-screen Nintendo DSi of these two games:

Crystal Monsters (Nintendo DSi)

Date or Ditch (Nintendo DSi)

I had to re-do most of the screen layouts and figure out what to put on two screens that was previously on one, write some design documentation and make some decisions on graphics updates. Not really the forefront of creativity, but at least it said “Game Designer” on my employee ID. Right after this, the studio stopped doing creative work. After spending six months on Facebook and playing Left for Dead 2, I was shifted into Production (porting). I quit within two months.

“I’ll make my own games”, I said. 

Just before I quit, I’d started teaching game design part-time at Backstage Pass school of gaming. I would teach the Diploma class after work, from 7 to 9PM. It was great, because

(a) I got to interact with students that played waaay more games than I did.

(b) When you teach, you’re also learning- for yourself, and your students; it’s a two-way interaction, and

(c) I now had an alternate source of income. This turned out to be a crucial factor.

The other significant development was that I had decided to start a business of my own in cooperation with a family friend. It had nothing to do with games or even software- I’d supply frozen food to hotels and restaurants. At that time, I imagined that I’d do it for a while- a year or so, and then get into making games full-time. It’s been two years now, and I’m still doing it.

MNR Card-1