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  • How To Measure Fun For Game Designers

    - Roman Szomolai
  • Disclaimer: Ideas in this work may or may not be the same as my current or previous employers and or colleagues. Most of the ideas here are not my invention and are either widely accepted pieces of knowledge or are part of referenced literature in the end. Major influence on work is from the book by Dougles Hubbart: How to measure anything. I just humbly synthesized these ideas to more condense form in hope that it will help future game creators. I hope that you will have "fun" and if so, please write me your opinions on [email protected], or as a comment here.

    Is this game fun? I don't know, I don't care.

    I mean, I kinda care, otherwise I would not write about it. Nevertheless, there exist many theories and definitions of fun, and each of them is failing on one or another front. Good news is that we don't have to know what fun is. How many of you actually know what kilogram really is? It used to be a weight of one liter of water, that times are long gone. Nevertheless, we still use kilogram to weight objects around us. If I tell you that the object's weight is 500 kg you will probably imagine something of car-size. If I tell you that I lost 20 kilograms, you would see it as a big weight loss. We don't need to know what exactly something is to use it in measurements. We just need to know how a kilogram (or in our case "fun") manifests in the world. This is especially true about intangible things like opinion, religion, happiness, love, anger, health and fun. Intangibility never stopped us, why it should in case of fun?

    Now, considering not only what fun is, but how it actually manifests in the world; somebody can say "I have fun when I try something several times, before I get it right, I feel challenged that way." or somebody may frown, grip the controller very tightly while retrying the same passage for several minutes; is any of this fun? I don't know, but I know that in my game part of fun should be being challenged and this seems like players are being challenged. Things that are happening in the world like players actions or players expressions, that we can observe and therefore measure are called proxies. They are not directly thing that we are interested in but, they show us the right way to it

    We don't need to know precisely what x is to measure it. We need to know how x manifests in the world so we have proxies to measure.

    Scientific method for dummies

    First, a quick detour to school. Why are we going to stand on scale in the first place? We have some internal (folk) theory of how our weight is connected to our physical condition. Kilograms within a specific range means healthy, outside of it means unhealthy.

    We as humans have tons of such theories about everything around us. We have internal theories (sometimes called mental model) describing why objects fall to the ground or why our friend behaves a certain way. Thanks to these theories we can predict that will happen if we throw a ball in the air and tell our friend to catch it. 

    Theories are clusters of hypotheses that should be coherent with each other. A hypothesis is an explanation of how x is connected to y. If x happens then y should always react the same to that event. Hypotheses in theories are interconnected; that means that if we know what is the relationship between x and y and we also know what is the relationship between y and z, then we should be able to deduce the relationship between x and z. 

    Cases in which we know truly what the relationship between x and y are very rare. In practice more often than not we are not trying to get a true relationship but as close to true as possible. Closer to this case we are, the better hypothesis we have. By getting better hypotheses we are getting better theories. If the hypothesis is not good enough we scratch it and come up with a new one. A hypothesis that does not improve our theory is not good enough.

    Once our hypothesis is good enough (or better than starting one) we update our theory. Once we have updated theory we can set up a new better hypothesis based on it, and then the whole loop starts again. With internal theories, we do this automatically and unknowingly (simplified base for learning). Once we make it explicit we can do it way more effectively and generally better. That is a very simplified core of the scientific method. When we are inquiring about the connection of our proxies and "fun" we are using very same core principles. We as game creators to this all the time, so I think it is time to take the next step and make it explicit.

    How can we do this next step? Well first we have to set up our hypothesis and then we have to measure it! This is the end of the detour, now we can look at proxies that helps us with measuring.

    Using proxies

    When we stand on a scale, information that we receive is a number. Do we really care for the number or do we care for the idea that this number represents - in case of a scale it is our health. Essentially, Measurement is an approximation of one phenomenon to another, till we get to an approximation that we understand intuitively (or rather something that is already part of our internal theory). That is the power of proxy. Proxy is a phenomena about which we have enough intuitive understanding. Yes, different people can have a different intuitive understanding of the same topic. Junior designers would argue about who is right, experienced designers would set up an experiment for their theories and then measure the outcomes. 

    A great theory with bad measurements will lead to worse results than a weak theory with great measurements. Bad measurements will improve theory only a bit (if at all) while good measurement can move theory by miles (this is iteration once again, you probably heard of that before). How do we know measurements to choose? Measurements have parameters:

    • Accuracy - Let stand on a scale once again and weight ourselves. If we weigh ourselves on several different scales, and each show approximately the same number, then we know the number is accurate. Accuracy is the degree of truthlikeness of our measurement 
    • Precision - If you stand on the same scale a few times in a short time. It may happen that you will see bit different numbers. These can show you how precise the scale actually is. Closer together these numbers are more precise the information is. 
    • Granularity of measurement - If you stand on a scale do you really care about grams or kilograms? If your decision is "should I eat cake today" kilograms will be good enough. On the other hand if you are a professional bodybuilder with a very precise diet then yes, grams can be very important for you. When you are weighing your medicine even milligrams may be a line between cure and poison.  

    For sure you can imagine, that each measurement can have different degrees of each parameter. Imprecise but accurate weight will show +/- 25% of the real value each time you step on it. Scale with rough granularity will show only kilograms and precise but inaccurate weight will show exact numbers each time but it will be exactly 8 kilograms off. In each case you will not know exactly what you wanted to know but you will be closer to the truth than before. 

    So why not always have as precise, as accurate and as granular measurement as possible? Well, because it is expensive; in terms of money, time and actual know-how. Measuring salt for your home cook dinner will be very different than measuring salt for royal wedding main course by a professional chef. Different situations require very different degree of measurements. This all depends on the decision that you are making.


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