dhmstark

design for real people

Why I Made A Game That Isn’t Fun

October 2019

We’ve all played mobile games that get steadily more hostile towards the player as time goes on. The kind of game that wants so desperately for you to become a paying customer that it puts increasing roadblocks in front of you. Pay to skip the wait. Pay to remove the limit. Pay to get a boost, skip the ads, make the numbers go up faster.

Sandstorm is a game that was sparked by a conversation about the intentionality of these kind of mechanics, and the idea that a game could be purposefully unfun.

Background

Some background - in the early days following the Cookie Clicker craze, I wrote a game called CivClicker - one of the seminal games in the genre (though now long forgotten), it blended the clicker mechanics of incremental games with worker management and tech-tree progress inspired by god games. Not a mobile developer myself, and happy to get the game in front of more people, I licensed the game to a company so that they could make a mobile port.

The port was, to no-one’s surprise, awful.

The company had taken the core game and tried to bake in mechanics to monetize it. In their case, they chose delay mechanics. Want to research a new tech? You need to spend the resources, and you need to wait a day. Pay to buy ingame currency. Spend ingame currency to skip the wait and get it instantly. Not uncommon, and at the beginning of the game basically just an inconvenience.

But it steadily got worse. Mechanics that in the original game were carefully balanced to provide a sense of progress were gated off behind increasingly long delays. Active play became impossible - it ended up more like something to check in on once a day and press some more buttons so I could check in tomorrow. I eventually quit playing after a while, deeply frustrated with the experience and lamenting that my name had been connected with it.

The experience, originally created to provide a sense of steady and fun progression, had been ruined by a lack of intentionality in design - or rather, a perversion of that intention, designed to manipulate and coerce. The game wasn’t designed to be fun. It was designed to suck you in, and then hurt you until you paid up or left.

On a roll after finishing this year’s js13k, I wanted a quick project that would tide me over until the judging. A conversation with a friend about the experiences above sparked an interesting idea: what if a game was designed with those kind of anti-fun delay mechanics as the core experience? Would it be fun at all? What would it tell us about game design, about play, and about players?

Games As Art

I’ve always been a proponent of the creation and analysis of games as art pieces. As interactive media, games are in a unique position to communicate certain ideas, feelings, and messages from creator to audience, or even from audience to audience.

What does it mean to say that delay mechanics are unfun? Well, to start with, we are making a bunch of assumptions about what “fun” means. There’s a sense, and I think it’s common, that games should be interesting, stimulating and above all, responsive.

A game that feels unpredictable, or has floaty controls, or doesn’t give you a sense of control is hard to stick with. Elements of polish like sound and visual effects, screen shake and controller rumble are all designed to give direct sensory feedback to the player. An unresponsive game is almost synonymous with bad design - or perhaps more accurately, responsiveness is seen as a mark of well-executed design. Game feel is a nebulous term but everyone knows it when they encounter it, and it seems to me that responsiveness is core to good game feel.

A delay mechanic by its nature disconnects the player’s action from the outcome. It cuts the feedback loop, the Skinner Box lever-reward connection that drives so many game interactions. Just one more turn. Just one more level. The core loop, the 30 seconds of button-reward-button-reward gameplay that’s designed to be addictive, to hook you. It’s all cut short by the delay.

This is of course why the delay ramps up. They don’t start you out waiting for an entire day. They start you out with 30 seconds. You can wait half a minute, can’t you? Then the next one is a minute. Then two. Then five. And so on - until you’re checking in once a day to see if your countdowns have finished and you can keep playing the game, or else you get frustrated and pay to play now.

But what does a game look like when it deliberately eschews the conventional wisdom of action and immediate reward. Could such a game even be fun to play at all? Honestly - I think the answer is no. But the experience, and working out why, is illuminating.

Designing An Unfun Experience

Indie dev means a lot of interation and a lot of playtesting your own game. The very first work I did on Sandstorm was to implement the input delay that I wanted to overshadow the entire experience.

The idea was to have the user operate a Mars rover, with realistic delay between input and action (the end result was a bit more complicated than that, but broadly speaking that’s what ended up happening), so I started out with a delay of 182 seconds - the time required for light to travel the theoretical minimum distance between Earth and Mars of 54,600,000km.

This input delay immediately got in my way. I couldn’t implement movement or other controls while having to wait 3 minutes before even getting a response: that would be madness. And it was! But it showed me something important. Even testing it once I knew it was working was torture. My brain expected instant response. It’s been trained by years of clicking buttons while staring at screens to demand it.

And so I did what anyone would do, if they could. I turned it off.

Not only that, but I kept the delay off most of the way through development. I did turn it on again occasionally to check that it was still working the way I wanted, and that the experience I was building in my head matched the experience I was expecting the player to have. Each time, I turned it off again - I justified that to myself as it getting in the way, slowing me down, and acting as a pointless obstruction to development, all of which are definitely true. There was a nagging feeling at the back of my head that it was unfun and I should get rid of it.

I wondered if anyone would want to play a game like this. I’m not sure I wanted to, and I made the damn thing. But it was important to me that the game exist in that form, unapologetic and with no way to turn it off. I wanted it to exist as an object model of what not to do; to take a cute and simple game and make it almost literally unplayable. And I wondered what it said about me, that I couldn’t play my own game. It was a challenge.

Themes And Rewards

When I originally envisioned the game, I thought about it having a quiet loneliness and isolation to it. “My battery is low and it’s getting dark”, a poetic interpretation of Opportunity’s final communication with earth, perfectly encapsulates the feeling.

These are themes that have been weighing on me personally as someone with PTSD and depression, and I wanted to communicate them through the game. On the surface it was a perfect vehicle for it - a lonely Mars rover isolated from literally everyone, having to survive on its own and with a “connection” to an operator, the physical limits of which stretch the definition of the word.

But as I worked on it and contemplated what the delay actually meant, and what the experience of the player was actually going to be like, I realised that the player wasn’t going to be the lonely one. The player was the operator, experiencing frustration, forced to wait, needing to exercise patience. And so the themes shifted away from the melancholic and towards the phlegmatic. I still connect with the rover on a personal level, but the game is - in the end - about the player.

There are fragments within the game that can be collected, bearing quotations. There’s a Bennett Foddy-esque quality to them, an external reminder of the metanarrative of the game. Unlike Getting Over It, though, I didn’t want to interject myself and my feelings into those quotes. I might be intentionally putting the overall experience in front of the player, but my intent was to keep them disconnected from both the game and the experience of the game - to act as external anchoring points and opportunities for reflection.

There’s no achievement or bonus for collecting all of them, by the way. In fact, the game doesn’t care if you collect any of them. But they’re there, and require no small amount of dedication and patience to collect. The rewards are, much like the reward for finishing the game, largely intrinsic.

Conclusions

Ultimately, this is a game about overcoming the way games have trained you to expect an immediate response. If you want to see the end, you need to be patient. If you can stand to be with your own thoughts, then it might even be a meditative experience. However if, like me, you can’t play it without switching to something else - well, I don’t blame you. It’s deliberately unfun.


Sandstorm is free to play on the author's website.