Why are really good games fun? Here’s an attempt to deconstruct one in detail. PopCap’s Peggle: a Masterpiece of game design.
I tend to like a certain kind of game. Half-Life, Call of Duty, Halo . . . See a pattern there?
A lot of my friends play similar games. You know – hard-core gamer types who stay up nights, pulverizing avatars with high-powered weaponry, bouncing through extraordinarily detailed 3D environments, hearts rapid-firing adrenaline-laced blood through their arteries.
A while back, one of these guys told me I had to play Peggle. This caught me like a blind-side tackle, because the guy is a hard-core programmer and gamer, who also plays linebacker in an American Football team on the side. It seemed more than a little out of character.
Like, this Peggle? With the silly colours and cartoon characters?
I couldn’t believe him. So I got an iPhone shoved into my hand and played the first level.
And I understood: Peggle is a masterpiece of game design.
I love Peggle. If you haven’t played it, I recommend you try the free demo on PopCap’s page. There’s an online version too.
Here’s the three reasons why Peggle is fun.
1. Simple Concept
Peggle is a game where you shoot little balls at a grid of blue and orange pegs. Hitting a peg gives you points. You win a level by hitting all the orange pegs in 10 shots or less. There’s a little more to it – like, if you hit a lot of pegs, you get an extra free shot – but that’s pretty much it. It’s a concept so basic that even my mother, who doesn’t really do games, understood and engaged with in seconds (she has now ditched Soiltaire for Peggle as her new favourite). If Peggle was a toy, rather than a game, you’d see how it worked immediately. That’s a far cry from something like Call of Duty. Unless you’re already used to first-person shooter games (and therefore part of a restricted audience) your first experience of play usually involves getting killed repeatedly until you figure it out. Needless to say, this is off-putting to most people.
2. Playful Design
Hand-in-hand with the game’s simple concept is its playful product design,both visual and sound. If PopCap made frogs, they’d look like this:
While Call of Duty, for instance, looks like this:
But it’s dressing, not function. Whatever the colour, both frogs are eqally poisonous – just as a game can be equally fun, regardless of the way it looks. But the way it looks definitely affects the feelings you get while playing – see Raph Koster on ‘Execution Tetris‘ for an example of this.
In Peggle, the whole design is meant to be casual and happy, not too serious. Not serious at all, in fact. It’s all so silly it’s almost impossible to keep a straight face looking at it. Goofy ‘Peggle Masters’ helping you. Magic powers you can unlock. Trip-happy electronic music. Little bouncy balls that go ‘bink, bink . . . bink bink BINK!’ in an ascending quasi-orgasmic crescendo. And that ridiculously over the top ‘Extreme Fever!‘ sequence with the rainbows and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. When you win, it feels like the game LOVES you.
In Eurogamer’s words:
the PopCap effect is unmistakable, coming on like a descent into a warm bubble bath, soothing and familiar – a combination of simple mechanics gently deconstructed until they feel like second nature, and a lush, colourful presentation riddled with positive feedback and unexpected jokes.
This design was implemented with extreme attention to detail. Even the game’s control menus are fun to manipulate! The designers have added a tone to each option, so scrolling through the menu makes musical notes like running a stick along a marimba. It makes you want to play around with it, to make more fun noises.
And that’s why product design matters: it makes you want to play with it.
3. Addictive Core Mechanic
Beneath the simple concept and the silly look, Peggle contains a basic game mechanic of staggering addictiveness. It’s addictive because it combines two principles of game design: interesting decisions and variable rewards. Peggle combines skill with random returns in a way that tweaks your satisfaction/addiction response in just the right way.
There’s really only one decision you can make in Peggle (“Where shall I shoot my ball?”) but it’s an interesting decision. You can plan and theorize, and once you get good enough, you can set up some pretty interesting bounces. But really, there’s a great degree of luck involved. That’s where the second principle comes in: variable reward. If you just got the same outcome every time you hit a ball, the fun would dry up pretty quickly. As it is , you never know where your shot might take you.
It’s like rolling the dice, or throwing the roulette ball – only the way you throw can make all the difference in the world. The net effect is that you get to take the credit for all those crazy bounces and slides that set you up with 100,000 points. You get to say “See? That was me! I did that!”
You didn’t, really. You were just lucky.
There’s skill involved, sure – but in Peggle all you can do realistically is maximize your luck. So you’re always waiting for one more shot, just one more – because maybe, just maybe that’ll be the one shot you needed.
Also they’ve added a bit of a levelling-up mechanic (become a Peggle Master), and the all-powerful “Collect ’em All” mechanic with the challenges at the end.
Taken together, all these features generate just the right kind of experience: funny, casual, distracting, rewarding and addictive.
That’s why I think that as a piece of game design, Peggle is a work of art.