For many games the fun is in the winning, and so when a player is losing the designer needs to take special steps to prevent the entire experience from falling apart. However, there’s a whole other category of games, ones where the entertainment is found primarily in the doing. Those games point toward a different, and very powerful, way to help a losing player have fun: make the core game experience inherently enjoyable.
Rock Band is a game about singing, pretending to be a guitar shredder, and banging on drums. Although it’s very challenging, Rock Band is a great time even when the player is not doing well. Part of that is because the game has easily measurable goals short of winning: to get a little further in the current song before the crowd boos the player off the stage, to survive the crowd’s ire to the end of the song, to master the song and keep the crowd cheering all the way to the end.
Much of the reason Rock Band works, however, is because the activities it asks the player to do are fun completely independent of the rewards on offer. People just plain like singing! The crowd’s cheering, the score at the end—those are nice, but they hardly matter. Players would sing without the prospect of any reward (and in fact they do, all the time—how many people sing along with the car radio, or in the shower?). Rock Band is fun, not just because it has finely-tuned goals short of winning, but because it’s an excuse to do something that’s fun without any incentives at all.
The same goes for playing guitar (I played in college, and I assure you, no rewards were in the offing) and drums. Drumming is literally a socially acceptable way to hit things with sticks. That’s something people want to do so badly that they do it even when they’ll be punished for it, as countless broken windows resulting from baseball games played too close to the house will attest. Certainly part of the fun of drumming in Rock Band is achieving the goals the game sets out, but those goals don’t have to carry too much of the weight. The player will have fun even if she never reaches them, because drumming in Rock Band means getting to hit things! With sticks!
Jenga, a modern classic among dexterity games, provides another example of this dynamic at work. For those who have never played, the only game pieces in Jenga are blocks, which start the game on top of each other to form a tower. Players take turns removing blocks, trying not to knock over the tower as they do so. Whoever topples the tower loses.
There is only one sub-goal in Jenga, which is to get through the turn without knocking over the tower. One might reasonably wonder whether that would be sufficient to keep players who don’t see themselves winning entertained.
Yet when one plays the game one discovers that the relative paucity of intermediate goals doesn’t matter, because the things the players do are so much fun. Jenga is very tactile, involves lots of dexterity, and frequently has players laughing as they try to catch a tower that’s swaying perilously. Even the moment when a player loses can be entertaining, as it involves a great crash of blocks (loud, but not so loud as to frighten children) and stuff flying everywhere.
Compare Rock Band and Jenga to the average CRPG with a menu-based combat system and conversation trees. A CRPG like that has to do an enormous amount of work to be fun, providing many different goals short of winning, because the fundamental activity the player is engaged in is moving an arrow up and down followed by pressing a button. With winning far in the distance and an unenthralling basic mechanism, the average CRPG relies heavily on carefully placed sub-goals to keep the player engaged.
Of course, many CRPGs—yes, even menu-driven CRPGs—are great fun, just as entertaining as are Rock Band and Jenga. The key is in how these games provide their fun. We are accustomed to the sort of sub-goals that we see in CRPGs: story progression, gaining experience levels, collecting items. Rock Band and Jenga point to another way to amuse players who will not win, at least not for a long time: give them something inherently fun to do.