A while ago someone sent me an amazing YouTube link. It described a challenge called Tower to Tower, in which Halo fans would use grenades and warthogs to leap to the top of a tower, then use more of the same to leap across an immense gap between it and another tower. The challenge was to complete this second leap and stay alive.
The video (set to Don’t Stop Believing by Journey) shows many attempts and the eventual completion of the challenge, a full seven years after it had originally been conceived.
It’s an epic example of the same sort of drive that leads players to try to reach Donkey Kong’s kill screen, master all combos in Killer Instinct, or any one of a thousand unrecorded feats of skill. You might roll your eyes and chalk up that sort of drive to the obsessive nature of a few players, but I think that’s the wrong lesson to learn. Instead, consider it as a lesson in the power of delight.
Professor Noriaki Kano created a model of customer satisfaction that described how all attributes of any product could be separated into three types: Threshold, Linear or Delightful.
A threshold attribute is one that the audience considers to be mandatory, while a linear attribute is one that is considered an upgrade. To the FPS player, the ability to strafe is a threshold attribute, while a better rocket launcher is a linear attribute. Over time, linear attributes tend to become threshold attributes, and so developing more linear attributes describes most kinds of innovation. Most developers use this approach. If I create a WWII shooter, then you create a better one. If you invent a physics-based puzzler, I create a similar one. If you create a racing game with crash zones on the cars, I make a slightly shinier one.
Whole genres have developed in this manner, acquiring the various trappings of convention and being pushed along by developers out-innovating each other incrementally. Indeed, the drive for higher fidelity in graphics is possibly the greatest example of outdoing the competition bit by bit.
Delightful attributes are different: they substantially increase satisfaction. In games, ?this translates to the sudden experience of the unexpected in the expected. The game that genuinely scares, surprises, amuses, inspires or impresses in a way that you just didn’t see ?coming is high on the delightful scale. One of the delightful attributes in Halo, for example, was the comical robustness of the physics. You could stick grenades to people, sit in warthogs and be blown around yet survive. You could even discover that the tops of those towers were really there and not some boring border to the world. Plenty of FPSes have vehicles, grenades and fancy weapons, but Halo made feats like Tower to Tower possible.
Delight is not the same thing as achievement. The social and mobile gaming industries tend to describe games as click-reward engines where badges and achievements are inherently delightful, but this misses the point (by about a mile). Achievements are simply rewards doled ?out for completing tasks set by the game, and badges are a visual representation of that. They’re fun (depending on the game) but expected. They could be described as a linear attribute at best, perhaps broadening the game out in small directions or adding a bit of structure.
Delight is much more personal than that. It comes from two sources. The first is the game engine. The player discovers an unexpected strategy, a way to use the physics in an amusing way, or masters a difficult and impressive feat. These sensations closely link to the feeling of ‘fiero’ (from the Italian for pride) that Jane McGonigal describes in Reality Is Broken, and they are driven from a personal sort of goal setting.
The second source of delight is numina. Numina is a catch-all term for creative qualities ?of the game (such as visuals, text, music, etc) that induce cognitive leaps on the part of the player and encourage her to infer that there is more to the game world than is visible. When you encounter “the cake is a lie” in Portal it is hilarious but also manages to convey a sense of a world behind the game.
Both sources of delight have the sense of an authorial voice. They tell us that this is a game that cares, and if we sense that a game is delightful then we start to look for more delight within it. ?We become more engaged in the game world because of that authorship, and that’s when we allow ourselves to believe in it. Audiences are looking for signs of the human among a sea of product. They don’t just want to be entertained, ?or to pass the time. They want to experience the feeling of delight, which is another way of saying they are looking for magic.
Most games only ever manage to be fun for ?a little while because they are merely innovative, and that’s just not good enough any more. We live in a social age where people share clips on YouTube of amazing leaps between towers in Halo, and games that permit that sort of zeal are increasingly the only ones that anyone talks about.
So if you want to make the game that changes the world, forget linear improvements. Nobody cares. Focus on delight instead.