(Having Fun is a reoccurring series about the importance of fun in game design. To check out the other articles in the series, click here.)

As analytical gamers, when we move to the field of design we often try to set our emotions aside. We’ve taught ourselves to look at game aspects on their own merits, carefully carving out a bookshelf in our mind for what matters. Even when it comes to what makes a game fun, we can sit around for hours and coldly debate what is and isn’t enjoyable.

But you know what? Sometimes, you should just run with what feels good.

What feels good in a game is crucial to making something fun. It doesn’t really matter what you’re doing as long as it makes the person doing it happy without the person on the other side slouching in disgust.

Here are some examples of things that “feel good” in gaming:

  • Rolling a natural 20 in Dungeons and Dragons
  • Pushing all of your creatures forward to “alpha strike” in Magic
  • Casting a big creature in Magic
  • Slaying Xeron, Duke of Lies or Avatar of the Fallen in Ascension
  • Buying the first province in Dominion
  • Putting train pieces on the board in Ticket to Ride
  • Catching a mafia in Mafia
  • Using a grandiose bluff in Mafia and having it work
  • Completing a quest or raid in World of Warcraft
  • Leveling up in practically any RPG
  • Solving a puzzle
  • Getting a cool, new item in a video game
  • Using any game tool, in any game, in a cool way nobody else would expect

There are far, far, far more examples throughout gaming than those (and feel free to post your examples below) but hopefully that gives you an idea of what I mean.

When one of these things happens, it just feels good. The game isn’t necessarily forcing you into doing it (though in some cases, like leveling up, the game is) but either way it’s something you had to put effort in to accomplish. Your work paid off. It’s like the game giving you a cookie as a reward for your time and/or skill.

A great example listed above is rolling a natural 20 in Dungeons and Dragons. When you roll a 20, it just feels great! It’s like fate has smiled on you, and now the game is rewarding you. You get a little bit of a bonus. Moreover, you just snap into a happy mood.

Why are all of these things important? Well, first off, they make the game fun. They make you happy for playing them. Second of all, they make players want to continue playing. Out of all the games you could be playing right now, you chose this one. Every time you level up or complete a quest in World of Warcraft, it feels good enough that you want to hop back out there and fight some more monsters. When you do a raid on Onyxia’s lair with a bunch of guildmates and take down the savage dragon, watching her writhe as she falls before picking up some of her loot, that feels good. You want to do it again. You want to go back.

For a game to have replayability, for someone to talk well about a game, for someone to want to try a game and buy it, it needs to be fun. The easiest way to convey that is to have the player do things that feel good. You can’t wait until you’re twenty hours into the game to reveal that, either. Generally, people I play Mafia (some of you might also know it as Werewolf) with get hooked pretty fast. Why? Because the first time you take down a Mafia, you get that “feel good” feeling that makes you want to come back to the game. Everyone cheers, people high five their neighbors, and as they’re “sleeping” in the night portion of the game, they wear a huge smile. Even if they die that night, they’re okay with it. They accomplished something. Their spirits are high.

The same is true for alpha striking in Magic. Normally, new players are very conservative of their creatures. They’re afraid to attack. However, I’ve noticed alpha striking is one odd exception. Even if you’re a brand new player, pushing all of your creatures forward is something that feels strong and fun to do even if you might end up losing some of them. It just creates a powerful feeling.

That idea doesn’t only pertain to alpha striking. While some newer players might be hesitant to attack and trade off creatures, that doesn’t mean attacking with a single creature dealing damage doesn’t feel good. In general, I believe most newer or even intermediate Magic players find attacking with creatures much more fun than fighting wars of instants and sorceries. I would imagine that’s why in recent years Magic R&D has tried to tether Magic closer to creature combat. Attacking with creatures just feels good.

Similarly, so does casting big creatures. When you cast a Terastodon you feel mighty. You just summoned a gigantic elephant by your side! A San Diego zookeeper has nothing on you.  Now if it gets countered or killed that good feeling is instantly whisked away. (Though, it’s interesting to note that in a WoTC study they found players felt far worse if their card was countered than immediately Doom Bladed.) But as long as that Terastodon gets to attack once, even if it dies in combat, it feels good.

Different players find that different things feel good. For example, Johnny might care a lot more about using a game tool in unexpected ways than Timmy would. But overall as human beings, I feel a lot of these notions overlap. Even if you’re a hardcore D&D player, you still get a twitch of excitement whenever you roll a 20.

When you’re designing a game element and debating whether it’s fun or not, just consider playing with it. See how it makes you feel. If it makes you feel good, there’s a good chance others will feel the same.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

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