Satisfaction Guaranteed!

March 31, 2010

As a game developer I always ask myself what makes a game fun. The “fun” word sounds so abstract and is so subjective from one person to another. A lot of things can be fun in a videogame: exotic environments, impressive sound effects, entertaining story, funny characters, particle effects, and so on. However, some games have all of that and can still be not that fun. So what exactly makes a game satisfying? Where does the SATISFACTION come from?

I’m sure everyone has a different vision of this. That being said, my idea of the source of satisfaction in games is not abstract at all. I think that a lot of game developers have this conception too but they simply never put it into words. Here it goes.

To be satisfying, a game has to make the player go through this “achievement loop”:

  1. Challenge: The player is facing an obstacle and he has limited means to overcome it.
  2. Trial and error: This is the hard work (making the player suffer a bit is very important). The player tries to overcome the obstacle in various ways with the tools he has.
  3. Learning: Having tried his tools, and probably failed while trying, the player learned to use them.
  4. Success: The player overcomes the challenge. He feels that he accomplished something and that hard work paid off. This is the moment when the player is having fun, he feels satisfaction. The player thinks: “Yeah! I’m good at this game!”
  5. Loop back to point 1 with a gameplay situation of increased complexity/difficulty.

This looks like a recipe, but it’s not. It can be applied in many ways in any kind of games, but it’s not necessarily easy to do well.

This loop can be found in micro situations of any classic game. Let’s apply this loop to the very first gameplay situation of Super Mario Bros:

  1. Challenge: Mario encounters a Goomba slowly walking towards him.
  2. Trial and error: Mario tries various strategies. He walks straight through the Goomba and dies or he clumsily jumps too early and dies again.
  3. Learning: Mario now understands better how to move and jump.
  4. Success: Mario jumps successfully on the Goomba and crushes his ugly shitake face. He is victorious!
  5. Loop back: Mario will now face a greater challenge.

However, when the game has nothing new to teach to the player, it can no longer loop and therefore it becomes repetitive and eventually boring.

In my opinion, a lot of current generation games have problems keeping the player interested because they try to create satisfaction in an artificial manner. The typical game features an overpowered character facing ridiculously simple gameplay situations (because Gameindustryasshole thinks that people only like easy stuff). So what happens is that when playing the game for the first few minutes, you feel like a God, you’re blown away by your own level of badassness. But not long after, when you realize that the game has nothing new to teach, it starts feeling tedious. And worst, when you fail in that game you don’t learn anything and you feel like an idiot because you weren’t supposed to fail.

This loop can also explain the classic or cliché videogame principle tagged to a lot of addicting games: “Easy to learn, hard to master.” Because the hardest a game is to master, the longer the “achievement loop” can go on and still be fun.

I’ve read the book “A Theory of Fun for Game Design” by Raph Koster a while ago. It most certainly influenced this post, so I encourage anyone to read it.


  1. Speaking of that first screen of Mario, there’s a good Iwata Asks interview where they discuss how that first level was designed to teach you the basics of the game in such an engineered, methodically thought-out way: http://us.wii.com/iwata_asks/nsmb/vol1_page4.jsp

    But yeah, to go along with the presenting of the challenge > achievement loop, I think it’s also important to have a goal clearly visible or in-mind to persuade the player to keep playing. Like in Super Mario where you have a world map that shows you how far you need to go before you get to a castle, or in Megaman where you see the 8 boss characters get crossed out one by one and know that Wily is waiting afterwards, or in 3d games where you can see where you need to go and have to figure out how to get there. It’s the carrot on a stick that makes you want to go further and beat the challenges.

  2. Thanks for the link, that’s a nice interview! And it kinda supports my post 🙂 I like how Miyamoto is always so down-to-earth in his comments. His ideas are always based on simple observations or pure logic.

    And yeah I agree with what you say about setting up a goal and reminding it to the player. It tells the player that hard work will pay off if he doesn’t give up. It’s always satisfying to see Dracula or Dr. Wily’s castle collapse at the end – it’s the ultimate result of your efforts! But I also think that some very good games can keep you interested just by making you wonder what it’ll throw at you next (Super Mario Bros. 3 made me feel that way, back in the days).

  3. By this logic, Battletoads for the original NES was the most fun game ever made! Mwaha! …honestly, though, I always loved it for the exact reasons you’ve pointed out: almost every level was something new, you had to learn and adapt to move forward, and *good lord* was it challenging! I stuck with it for almost a full year before I finally completed it, and it was one of the most satisfying games I’ve ever finished.

  4. Shame on me! I never even finished Battletoads… I was stuck at the pipe level where you’re chased by a giant gear, if my memory serves me right. But yeah, this essay about satisfaction might not be perfectly clear. I didn’t necessarily mean that the game needs to constantly throw entirely new game mechanics at you, but rather new situations that teach existing core mechanics or that require skills that were previously learned. I’ll try to write something more clear and shorter about this someday.

  5. Goombas are not mushrooms, dear sir… they are in fact CHESTNUTS. GraaarrrrggGGHHHH NERD RAGE ATTACK FORMATION ALPHA SCRAMBLE ALL UNITS

    *remains a virgin*

  6. […] a while ago. It most certainly influenced this post, so I encourage anyone to read it.(Source:pixeltao) 分享到: QQ空间 新浪微博 开心网 […]

  7. Please open links after reading the reply.

    Wizorb has most of it and Ninja Senki too, but why is there not enough satisfaction? You are on the right way, but missed a detail. The part that crushes the satisfaction is the factor “frustration”.

    1. The player loses his progress and has to start over from a far away place. He has a longer way after he loses. The way to the goal will be longer and longer, the player is frustrated and lose motivation on the game.
    2. The player know, that something work wrong and loses because something went wrong (bugs, etc.).


    In the above part you are right. The modern gameindustrie makes it wrong to make a game tooooo easy. They don´t want to have the frustration in the game. But in old times the games are often too hard. The secret to make a game good, funny, challening, but not frustrating is to implement the parts above. There only a few games, that has both and the games that has both, are really good.

    There are only a few games, that get this point. One of this games is VVVVVV. An C64 retro Remake. This game is highly challenging and even if you die over thousand times even on the easiest difficult, the game is not frustrating. Try it out. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: