October 26th, 2005
I'vefinally gotten around to getting my own domain. I've transferred all the posts from here to the new blog at http://www.raphkoster.com, so update your bookmarks! This particular page will now fall silent, but the blogging continues (and somewhat more actively!) over there.

October 21st, 2005
Thanks for the kind words, David Jaffe! Your blog post is now on the Press page... :)

October 19th, 2005
Cover of Training Fall presentation I did the Training Fall 2005 keynote yesterday. Getting to Long Beach was a nightmare--the rain was torrential at times, and traffic moved incredibly slowly, even when I took the toll road. I had allotted 3 hours to get there, but I barely made it. As I drive around trying to find parking for the convention center, it's already 10am, and the talk was starting at 10:30. I was supposed to already be in the hall doing a sound check! I ended up having to pay $20 for a $5 parking spot because I didn't have any smaller bills on me, and I snuck into the conference through the loading dock, thanks to a helpful maintenance guy and an understanding security guard.

But in the end, it went swimmingly, and my hosts were incredibly gracious. The presentation is now hosted on this site. Enjoy!

Next stop, the Austin Game Conference next week...

Dr. Richard Bartle, First Penguin of online worlds, has written a very flattering review--it's up on the Press page.

Almost forgot--the second printing of the book is out. It has a bunch of reader reactions in the back, plus the two factual errors that have been found (Mussorgsky/Ravel and Deathrace 2000) have both been fixed.

October 3rd, 2005
I just got an image of the planned cover for the Korean edition!

October 3rd, 2005

CSSW1 is done, and next I will be off to Web 2.0. While I was at CSSW (which was a lot of fun, by the way), I got word that Game Informer did a review of the book. Short but sweet, you can see it to the left.

While at Indiana University, I learned that Thom Gillespie there has been using the book in his classes. One of these days, it'd be nice to get a list of all the schools that are using it as a textbook...

I'm pretty exhausted from travel already, and it's barely started. Otherwise, I'd spend more time coming up with a blog entry. :P

August 27th, 2005
Whew... I think I am going to be on the road a lot. Upcoming speaking engagements in chronological order:

And I didn't mention it, but I'll be going to the Game Designers Workshop for the first time in years, since it'll be in my backyard. But you can't come unless you're invited. :)

The Internet is a small place. My wife, who plays Discworld MUD, has found someone to translate those Dutch reviews. So hopefully I'll find out what they say sometime soon!

Jessica Mulligan did a brief review in English, which makes my life much easier. It's posted up on the press page now.

August 21st, 2005
I've spent three weeks mostly on the road--speaking at Microsoft Meltdown, off on vacation, then off at a company meeting. And the week since I got back has been pretty crazy-busy!

Paraglyph Press, my publishers, and I have been talking about a follow-up to AToF. If we do what I am thinking about, it is going to be a large project. But it'd also be a lot of fun, I think.

The book is about to go back to print with the few pesky factual errors in it fixed. I have copies of the Chinese edition in my hands, and hopefully I'll hear more about the Japanese, Korean, and other international editions soon. In the meantime, it still seems to be popping up internationally. Anyone read Dutch? 'Cause I found this mini-review:

A Theory of Fun
Dit boek is een leuk "weggevertje". Het gaat over het begrip 'Gameplay' en waarom spellen eigenlijk leuk zijn om te spelen. Het laat duidelijk zien dat het een onderwerp is waar je met gemak een boek over kunt schrijven dat nog lekker weg leest ook.
Machine translation seems to indicate that this is something somewhat nice.

This review definitely is:

Computer Games Online review

July 21st, 2005
I don't know how I missed it, but Scott Miller of 3DRealms just posted a review on his blog, and it's a good one. I've added it to the Press page.

In the thread, I tossed in some notes to clarify the discussion:

Wow, thanks for the kind words, Scott!

A few notes on the discussion:

David Freeman didn't write the foreword to my book, Will Wright did (for the US edition--Masaya Matsuura of Parappa the Rapper is doing the Japanese foreword). I did blurb David's book, however.

Discussing novelty versus patterns versus puzzles versus learning is tricky without delving into the cognitive science that I spend the first couple of chapters on in the book (trust me, it's not very dry despite being science!). A lot of people get hung up on the concept of "puzzle" thinking that I mean a literal puzzle such as a crossword, what you find in an adventure game, or even Tetris. From a cognitive point of view, humans tend to be pattern-matching machines. EVERYTHING around us is a "puzzle" in that sense--we're attempting to match patterns to it and arrive at "chunks" or abstracted understandings of the sensory input we receive.

Novelty matters because if something isn't novel, we already have a chunk for it. We will, in fact, STOP SEEING the object, in a very literal sense--our eyes will literally feed our brain the assumption rather than the actual sensory input.

Yes, rollercoasters can count, because they are providing a sensory experience that we must learn to interpret. Riding the same rollercoaster will eventually grow boring too, because we will have absorbed and chunked together the experience. This is why I tend to separate out visceral reactions, such as your stomach dropping out on the coaster, from "fun." You can get a visceral reaction in circumstances where there is no fun, and vice versa. They are often paired, because managing our own body's reactions is a tough cognitive puzzle indeed (which is why doing sports can often be fun).

Pacing is tough, because everyone has their own chunk libraries, their own life experiences. It's basically a given that there is no one correct pacing.

Delight is my term for aesthetic appreciation. It seems to be more related to that moment when you successfully apply an existing chunk you have learned, rather than to learning. It's still immensely valuable and important to design for (for one, it provides a sensation of mastery) but it really does get tiresome pretty quick.

Lastly, a few folks have mentioned that it seems the book applies beyond games. It is in fact being used in educational fields, e-learning and professional training in particular, and has also attracted attention in areas such as graphic design. Since it is rooted in cognitive theory, a lot of it really is generically applicable. It may actually be more useful for showing to non-gamers to help them understand why you dig games, than it is to gamers. I leave it up to you, but please buy lots of copies. ;)

Hey, I gotta work it, right? ;) Come to think of it, Scott's mention probably explains the spike in Amazon ranking and hits the website got over the last few days.

July 20th, 2005
The book will be available in China tomorrow, on sale at ChinaJoy, which is the Chinese equivalent of E3.

Yesterday, I found that it was briefly the #1 selling game programming book on Amazon. Neat. Boy, it bounces up and down the charts a lot there. (It's #7 today). I have proof though!

The IGDA is holding some sort of raffle for a copy of the book; if you're using a freebie account on the IGDA website, and you're registered as a designer, and you upgrade to a full IGDA membership, you will be entered to win a copy of the book. You should join the IGDA anyway, so what are you waiting for?

July 12th, 2005
The Chinese edition is in press as we speak, and is supposed to hit the street in time for ChinaJoy next week. Alas, I won't be there. I was supposed to be, but I'm not going this year after all--just too much traveling.

However, I'm adding the introductions to the Chinese and Korean editions to the excerpt page so that readers in the rest of the world can read them. Also, you may have noticed that the cover to the Chinese edition now graces the front page. You can look at a giant version here if you like. Anyone who knows what my Chinese name translates to, let me know!

I've started seeing some press coverage in China as well.

Editions still to come: Japanese, Korean, and Italian. Once I know more about those, I will post about them as well.

July 7th, 2005
A couple of press hits today.

First up, there's this interview at NextGen which is mostly about the theory of fun and how it can be applied towards opening up new audiences for games.

The current games can be daunting to new players. “Look at what's happened to the RTS market,” Koster says. “You have 300 buildables and 500 vehicles and your tech tree is enormous. To a novice, that's just overwhelming. It's like teaching a kindergartener to read with the Encyclopedia Britannica.

"New genres are exciting because that implies that they open new markets. It's based on how games and brains work. Focusing only on the kinds of games that already exist really only caters to your existing base."

Secondly, and less related to the book, is the streaming videocast of the IBM MMOG conference I took part in about a month ago. You'll need to register for free here, and then go here to watch it. This talk is mostly about what I call "Moore's Wall," which is the notion that the advance of technology has in some ways been a barrier for us in game design, rather than an enabler, because of increasing costs. This has also been Slashdotted and blogged about. It may seem less related, but taken in tandem with the above interview, might form a more coherent picture of some of the issues facing the industry today.

I can't end this post without offering condolences to any Londoners who might be reading. :(

July 6th, 2005
I'll never understand the vagaries of Amazon sales. Yesterday and for the last few weeks, ATOF had been slowly slipping down the charts--the doldrums of summer, I thought, with no orders from universities for their classes, no press attention, and so on.

Today, it's in the 3500's on the charts, and the #12 bestseller in the computer and video games section.

I am told that Tim O'Reilly has a mystical formula that he can use to determine sales figures with exactitude based on Amazon sales rank data. From where I sit, it's gotta be a heck of a formula, and probably involves eye of newt.

July 1st, 2005
Time gets away from you, and you forget to blog.

I spoke at Supernova 2005. I will be speaking at Training Fall, and at Microsoft Meltdown.

I added a few more reviews to the site.

May 24th, 2005
And more May 24th...

Anyone read Dutch? 'Cause there's this review... Freetranslation.com renders the conclusion as "...as an introduction for the practical side of the ludologie an absolute must-property." I think that's good. :)

(Also, is tic-tac-toe really called "Butter, Cheese, and Eggs" in Dutch?)

I have gotten my second Wikipedia link, and this time it's as the only cited book reference in the "Game Programming" article on the French Wikipedia. Very cool.

Over on Machinima.com a bit from the book is serving as the starting point for a discussion of whether machinima can be art. The answer had better be "yes," duh, especially coming from that crowd! I don't see why anyone would think that machinima couldn't be art given that it's essentially an animation technique, and we know that animation can be art...

Lastly today (I hope), the Detroit News seems to have reprinted the editorial from the LA Times. At least, they reprinted around half of it. It almost reads like they ran it through MS Word's auto-summarizer--which is not a knock, that tool is surprisingly good.

May 24th, 2005
Hurray, E3 is over!

Latest press spottings of the book:

May 15th, 2005
I've got the front page of the Opinion section of the LA Times today! It's mostly a brief summary of the content in the book, put in the context of E3, which is about to start in LA. I imagine the link will soon vanish behind their pay-for-archived-articles policy, so read it while you can...

For the curious, see if you can spot which paragraphs are mostly the editor's words and not mine. :) (The title's not mine either).

It's unfortunate that the editors chose to attach a sidebar with the old "MMOs are addicting" theme on the side of the article. It's not entirely apropos, given the subject of the editorial itself.

May 5th, 2005
The interview I did with PC Gamer UK has been posted in its entirety on the Games Radar site.

May 4th, 2005
Been a litle while here--but there's plenty of news.

The book is now also going to appear in Italian. I don't have a timeframe for this, but it's still pretty exciting.

Masaya Matsuura, designer of games such as Parappa the Rapper and VibRibbon has agreed to do the foreword for the Japanese edition. The Korean edition will feature a new foreword that I am writing aimed specifically at the Korean market.

The current print run is almost sold out! So the book is going back to press. I'll get to fix those two egregious errors in the end notes (Debussy and Ravel, and whether Deathrace inspired the movie or vice versa).

A few speaking engagements are coming up. I'll be on a panel at Supernova 2005. Not much to do with the book, though. The one that is is Training Fall, which is mostly about e-learning. This will be a version of the original "Theory of Fun" talk.

I am starting to get email related to the book. Of course, it's hard to send me email since I haven't actually published my email address on the website. Maybe I should have a forum for discussion here somewhere? Hmm.

Lastly, I have to point to Steven Johnson's new book:

He recently wrote a wonderful little bit on games on his blog. I asked him whether he'd read AToF, and his reply was that he came across it very late in the process of writing, but he'll be recommending it to people as he does his book tour. Much appreciated! I very much enjoyed his earlier books, so I am looking forward to this one.

April 20th, 2005
I just returned from China and Taiwan. All too brief a trip. To my dismay, I find that apparently, even Microsoft has read the book!

Today I got word from Keith, the publisher, that the book will be translated into both Japanese and Korean, for publication in those respective countries. Exciting news! The book does seem to be going international--I've been asked to speak in Finland and Tokyo this year. I've found book reviews in Hungarian. It even seems to be selling well and getting good reviews on Amazon.co.uk.

April 7th, 2005
Looks like today, the site has been invaded by the French! Among the discussions of the book and the related presentations, we find:

  • Piqué aux jeux which mostly describes Will's Spore, but which spares a paragraph near the end to talk about the Grammar of Gameplay presentation.

  • Some discussion over at the Gaia guild's forum, which seems to drift into a discussion about videogames taking up time versus TV.

    Both quote phrases from the book in French--somehow, they sound much nicer.

    «Un jeux ne pourra pas être une oeuvre d'art tant que les jeux n'auront qu'une solution.»

    «Le fossé entre ceux qui veulent que les jeux amusent et ceux qui veulent que les jeux soient un art… n’existe pas.»

    Board Game Geek has also been discussing "A Grammar of Gameplay." By and large, the geeks like it, which is nice. They're a tough crowd. :)

    A mini-review of AToF has popped up on the Learning Circuits blog. This is the blog for the American Society for Training and Development. I was surprised to see the very positive reception the book has gotten among the e-learning crowd. I've been asked to speak at MIT, at various e-learning conferences, at conferences on training, and so on. On Sunday, there's a game design brunch up in LA which is spending the day discussing game design atoms. The list of folks coming is impressive--I hope to make it.

    I've added a bunch of reviews from folks like Dan Arey of Naughty Dog, and Dave Sirlin of Backbone to the Press page.

    March 30th, 2005
    A quick blog hit at Dispataching the Dungeon Master--the hits from the AToF talk at GDC keep on coming...

    The mention on Slashdot led, of course, to a nice little jump in book sales and to a ton of inbound traffic... I really must find a way to arrange for that to happen every month. :)

    March 29th, 2005
    And more... some belated coverage of GDC has popped up on Harold's Corner, a French-language blog. Among the highlights he cites are:

  • La conférence passionnante de Raph Koster, lead game designer sur Star Wars Galaxies et Ultima Online.

    Raph a écrit une "théorie du fun", disponible sur Amazon. Son discours intitulé "une grammaire du gameplay" est disponible online en totalité içi. Raph propose de se poser véritablement la question de ce qui est véritablement fun, et pourquoi le jeu est-il si important (voir les travaux de Huizinga et sa théorie sur l'Homo Ludens).

    "What's fun is exercising your brain." A méditer...

  • Today I received in the mail from Tim Edwards a couple of copies of the April 2005 issue of the UK PC Gamer magazine, with a wonderful 4 page interview based on Theory of Fun, including lots of cartoons. I think the DVD on the mag cover even has a copy of the presentation.

    March 29th, 2005
    The crud is amazing, because it will not go away. :(

    Today brings a brief mention on Gamasutra of the Grammar of Gameplay talk as one of the highlights of GDC--well below Will's Spore talk and the "Burning Down the House" session, of course. :) There's also a mention on Slashdot that says "probably my most amused moments during the conference" (along with Daniel James' talk on Puzzle Pirates).

    There's a tiny, tiny bit of discussion there as well:

    I find this stuff incredibly interesting. The presentation there tries to reverse-engineer the concept of fun. In one of Terry Pratchett's recent books, the Auditors reverse-engineer everything to atomic level to attempt to gauge appeal, and it gets lost. Although Raph's talk is trying to break things down into atoms, there is also an insight from realising there's certainly more there than just atoms and associated verbs - the atoms in themselves are pointless. You can press a button, you can move a mouse, you can get the timing right. But it only begins to matter when you make atom-agglomerates - molecules - that it begins. His timing sequence for a quake gib is a molecule. It's a sequence of events where each atom is connected in a particular order and in a particular way. These molecules can all add up in his parallel - multiple occurences of sequences, some work, some don't; the target there is to get as many viable molecules as possible, and from that 'win'. Or they can go in series - a polymer molecule, where the win comes from how long you can make your molecule; the argument there is then whether a beautiful molecule is a pure chain, or a branched chain, or sheet, or however. We're going a little deep into this analogy, but it still makes sense. He says in the presentation that he hasn't got a clue what to do with it. I wonder if I could get hired by the first crew who do, because I bet it'd be an incredibly interesting way to make a game.
    and the reply:
    I've been an admirer of Raph Koster for a long time, because he's one of a very few people (like Will Wright, Dr. Cat, and JC Lawrence) who are actively thinking about our assumptions related to games and gaming. Raph's particular angle at the moment is to examine what exactly we mean when we say a game is "fun", so the idea of breaking a game into its component atoms isn't so much an end in itself as a mechanism to identify the larger patterns of the game. Up to the present point in time, when we've examined games, we've done so in macro-fashion: the field of play, the player, the enemy, the avenue of advancement. However, when you start breaking things down to their atomic natures, Raph seems to think (and I tend to agree) that these macro-elements of the game will resolve themselves to a few repeating patterns. Once you have those patterns, you can then examine how combinations of those patterns make a game fun, and how much fun they produce. I also think Raph is after this for the right reason -- to make games more fun, as opposed to the industry's goal to make more money by determining the "formula" for a hit game. There are some people I *won't* name who are geared in that direction, and while I appreciate the need to look at this angle (the game industry advances by trial-and-error, with each successful game paying the bills for several failures)... I think the question of "what will make more money" is much less interesting than "what will be more fun". I also think "more fun" is more often attached to "more money" than the other way around.
    As it happens, I know of at least one effort to try to run with the game design atoms idea with a small designers' gathering to try to take a whack at expanding on it. We'll see if anything comes of it--I'm invited, but might have to be out of the country that day... :(

    March 16th, 2005
    I am back from GDC. And I bear with me THE CRUD. THE CRUD has also infected multiple members of my family. THE CRUD is to be feared. I heartily recommend running in the opposite direction should it seek to make your acquaintance.

    Because of THE CRUD I have had to turn down a lovely opportunity to speak at ETECH this year on serious games, A Theory of Fun, and whatever else might have fit into the 45 minutes. This sort of sucks, as ever year I see ETECH happen in San Diego and I never get to go.

    I have many many stories from GDC. Alas, THE CRUD prevents me from actually relating any of them. The talks related to the book seemed to go well, though I think there are significantly more mixed reactions to A Grammar of Gameplay than there were to the keynote for Serious Games, which was basically the familiar old AToF presentation again.

    Nonetheless, there was a lot of coverage. Witness:

    Theory of Fun keynote:

    Instanced vs Persistent panel:

    Grammar of Gameplay:

    Enough for now, this pesky fever won't let me stare at a screen for very long...

    Oh, before I forget: I did a signing at the bookstore, and we sold out there. :) And I am supposed to speak at SUPERNOVA (but I need to dig up the link). And I have posted the slides for A Grammar of Gameplay.

    February 13th, 2005
    Lots of discussion of fun over at Terra Nova--some of it references the book.

    And I don't know how I missed it before, but here's a review in Italian. "il tutto condito dagli stilisticamente poco convincenti ma molto divertenti fumetti" indeed! I'll have you know that the cartoon's style was intended that way! Surely the Pascal, Shakespeare, and countryside pics show that it was a conscious choice? :)

    In fact, a bit of trivia for you: the scene of the farmhouse and cows is a portrait of a spot in Rueschlikon, Switzerland (outside of Zurich).

    February 10th, 2005
    Oddest review ever. Alan Sondheim on Usenet posted a lengthy set of book reviews, all interrupted by quotes from the police scanner he was listening to at the time:

    A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Raph Koster, Paraglyph, 2005. What can I say? This is exactly it. I don't have any units available for this job. Supposed to be a private house. One item. Dispute. Call for help Greene Avenue. This book reminds me of the late Wittgenstein, deceptively simple, concerned with the habitus of game-play, expectation suites (my term), player/human concerns within and without the game-world, and so forth. I'll be using this for my own virtual work this summer; I recommend it as a way of clarifying intent, structure, and phenomenology of one's work. There is text only on the left-hand page, illustration on the right, but the cost is relatively cheap at $23. Armed man. "Even if players can see through fiction, the art of the game includes that fiction."

    February 9th, 2005
    More reviews have popped up. Slashdot posted theirs, accompanied by the usual Slashdot comment thread full of vituperation. :)

    With the endless rehashing of game and design concepts currently in circulation and parent groups growing ever more shrill at the release of morally ambiguous titles, Raph Koster’s book is a refreshing read. The book is an unpretentious examination of what it is that makes a game a game. He steps beyond the dehumanizing aspects of game mechanics to look at games and their designers in a broader societal context. If for no other reason that that, Theory of Fun is worth a look to read the opinion of someone who gives a damn.
    The Slashdot review resulted in a big spike in sales on Amazon.com, and the book landed at #2 in the Game Development charts. Unexpected and pleasing, of course.

    Another interesting take, which raps me for overemphasizing cognitive science, is the one by Steven Shaviro:

    I feel I learned a lot from Theory of Fun in Game Design; Koster provoked me to think a lot more than most academic books tend to do. (I hope that doesn't seem like too backhanded a compliment). It's only against this background of general enthusiastic approval that I will note what seems to me to be the book's major limitation. That is its overall assumptions based on cognitive psychology...
    Lastly, a brief five-star review from the Midwest Book Review.

    I spent Monday up at USC, invited there by Amy Jo Kim, who with Tracy Fullerton is teaching a class there on multiplayer game design. It was refreshing to be in front of students again--it's been a long time--and I very much enjoyed it. I can easily see myself going back to teaching again someday, if I can just get out of having to grade papers...

    February 1st, 2005
    The previously referenced review at Wallo World turns out to have been a version of the BlogCritics.org review!

    February 1st, 2005
    The GameDev.Net review is up now!

    A number of media have their "bibles". These are the books and references that practically define how that medium works.

    ...It's a book I sincerely believe _everyone_ should have read at least once in their lifetime. It's that important.

    ...what Campbell and Vogler did to storytelling, Koster has done to _play_. This is a seriously important work. It's a pop-science book that makes use of the very theory it espouses. And it works. It works exceptionally well. By the time you've read through it, so many pieces of the game design puzzle will have clicked together in your head that you'll sit there wondering how someone could get so much knowledge across in such an easily swallowed pill.

    ...This book is history in the making. It will be referred to in seminal books whose authors have not yet even been born.

    OK, so it might be a little over the top. :) But hey, I'll take it!

    January 31st, 2005
    More reviews and commentary have popped up!

    Michael Feldstein has some very positive things to say:

    ...one of the best work-related books I’ve read in quite some time. It is also one of the strangest. Written in a simple, plain-spoken style with relatively few words on a page and an illustration on every facing page, printed in a shape that is wider than it is tall, the book feels very much like a children’s book. But don’t be fooled. The level of sophistication, both in the narrative construction and in the content itself, is impressive. The result is that you can plow through this book very quickly and yet absorb some very rich and subtle concepts.
    The forums at IndieGamer have also been discussing it, though as do many other sites, they veer into talking about Star Wars Galaxies instead... *sigh*

    Over at Wallo World, a blogger uses the book to poke at the recent case where a school decided not to sponsor a Halo 2 tournament. He's also got a more detailed review of the book up:

    This entertaining and innovative book is ostensibly for game designers. Personally, I think it is more than that: it’s a primer for anyone interested in games, both for how they work and what we think of them. Written by Raph Koster, the chief creative officer for Sony Online Entertainment, it isn’t an artificial or inflated study in how to build a particular kind of game. Instead, it is a wide-ranging intellectual foray into what games mean, both to individuals and society, and how they operate on a host of different levels...

    Koster clearly wants to reach a point where games are recognized as a form of artistic expression, and he is trying to articulate a worthwhile conceptual framework to explore what games really mean, both to us as individuals and to society as a whole. Some portions of the book are more clearly directed to game designers than others, but on the whole I’d say that there is much in A Theory of Fun for Game Design to interest even those who would rather play games than design them.

    Even the Nonprofit Online News gets into the act:

    Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun for Game Design is an important book. On one level, it's a manifesto for social responsibility and artistry in game design. On another level, it's an insightful exploration of human motivation and learning with extensive application to the worlds of grassroots education and activism. One example: Games will turn people off if they are too difficult, as well as if they are too easy. There is a sweet spot where people are in a zone of greatest learning and effectiveness. I think the same holds true for social change work.
    Looks like GameDev.Net has a review ready as well, but the link doesn't quite work yet. [link fixed now] And a while back I forgot to mention that CliffyB declared the book "fascinating."

    January 30th, 2005
    Reviews and commentary are starting to pop up all over the place. An interesting one is Nick Montfort's review over at Grand Text Auto. Generally speaking, I think arguing with reviews is a waste of time. But posing questions and me answering them does seem fair game! :)

    Koster describes at the beginning of a paragraph on page 38 that we don’t think we can drive a car just because we know the rules of the road and what the controls do. (Of course, driving a car is not low-stakes, so it isn’t a game, but let’s continue.) Board games, on the other hand, “have fairly few variables, and so you can often extrapolate out from the known rule set.” He goes on to offer what he calls an important insight for game designers: “the more formally constructed your game is, the more limited it will be.” (Emphasis in original.) This is a claim, offered without real argument or even an explanation of what it means, that just seems immediately either wrong or meaningless. Chess is just about completely formalized, yet it has provided centuries of not-very-limited novelty and play. Salen and Zimmerman’s lucid and thoroughly argued concept of games is that their formal systems provide the only possibilities that are there in the game at all. And, what does it even mean to have one game be more formally constructed than another? Should such a game have more rules? That wouldn’t make it more formal, of course, that would just make it more intricate. To make a game less formal, we’d have to somehow have “informal rules.”

    There’s also not much of a hint about what Koster means by “limited” by the middle of the paragraph, but the following sentences provides a clue about that term and also about “formally constructed": “To make games more long-lasting, they need to integrate more variables (and less predictable ones) such as human psychology, physics, and so on. These are elements that arise from outside the game’s rules…” So a less limited game would be one that is longer-lasting, and less predictable. A few problems, though: (1) Creating such a game involves things that come from outside the game’s rules - these are exactly the things that the game designer doesn’t control. (2) Well, wait: actually, physics is “designed in” to computer sports games, and Jesper Juul, in his dissertation, makes a strong case that real-world physics should be considered part of the rule set of real-world sports, albeit an inflexible part. This means physics isn’t really outside the rules, it’s just something we chose to include by designing a sport instead of, for instance, some verbal game. (3) What does it mean to “incorporate human psychology?” How can any game played by a human not do this? How does a board game such as Risk not incorporate human psychology? Or is Koster referring to some other sort of board game, even though the rules of Risk are simple and one might be able to extrapolate Australia strategies and such from them?

    My response:

    Nick's on the right track when he cites Jesper's treatment of physics. Many games do NOT design physics into their ruleset. (In fact, most sports games will design in only a fraction of actual physics). You can have also games that simulate a broad array of physical activities without simulating physics.

    Physics has a lot of rules. We might like to conveniently label all of them under one word, but the fact is that physics is complex, really. It also permits all sorts of interesting behaviors, if fully implemented. Were sports games to REALLY include phsyics, you could set fire to other players. But they don't, and you can't.

    We can think of physics as being an "included ruleset" similar to an included file in programming. (That is exactly how commercial physics engines work in games, after all). They provide a wide array of behaviors in a "blackbox" fashion--we only know the API, the interface to reach the behaviors. I consider them "outside the game rules" because they are never explicitly codified.

    From a game design point of view, a game which makes actual use of physics is "including" a vast array of rules into its game without explicitly defining them. There is an assumption that a common frame of reference is shared, and that therefore everyone will know what's up.

    Physics is just one example of the sort of "imported ruleset" that games frequently use. All head-to-head games import human psychology as an additional ruleset defining how opponents make decisions. If you can communicate with the other player in any way (such as by seeing their face), a whole host of new and poorly defined game rules come into play. These generally complexify the game experience, without really complicating it since we are used to dealing with things like facial expressions.

    An example of this at work would be bluffing in poker. The difference between a bluff done by a computer based on an algorithm and a bluff done by a human you cannot see, versus a bluff done by a human you cannot see and a human you can, is quite impressive. Poker played against humans (versus poker played against a computer) is a far richer game.

    In the book I reference game design atoms briefly. In the list of core elements of a game mechanic I cite "a challenge to overcome." Formally constructed games tend to have defined all the challenges in advance. Less formally constructed games have more variables. Games which import rulesets which are full of ambiguity have a lot of highly unpredictable variables.

    The easiest way to do this is to make another person the source of the challenges. The way to limit the ambiguity is to formally limit the possible challenges they can offer; to expand it, reduce the formal strictures on the challenges presented. Hence the statements in the book.

    I am beginning to think that I either needed to write a simpler book or a considerably more in-depth one. :) Certainly most of the reviewers seem to be asking for more in-depth.

    Nick also gets the second No-Prize for spotting an error, correctly pointing out that Deathrace the game was based on the movie, and not the other way around. I could swear that's what I wrote, but the printed copy says otherwise. Ah well.

    Also appearing today is a review of sorts on Terra Nova. This one seizes on yet another individual sentence from the book and builds a mini-essay's worth of contemplation out of it:

    ...Its hard to disagree outright [that "The best test of a game's fun in the strict sense will therefore be playing the game with no graphics, no music, no sound, no story, no nothing"], there are simply too many examples. However, in its generality, to me, it feels like a cookie-cutter with acute corners. Perhaps, it goes back to a process view of fun that I perceive to be less forgiving of the aesthetic weight of the "game world nouns" themselves. Is exploration in virtual worlds fun because of the process of search or because of the delight of discoveries? In Raph's words on page 95 "people often take DELIGHT in things that are not challenges." Yet if "(d)elight, unfortunately, doesn't last (94)." does that necessarily mean, that its only process that can hold it all together? Just questions.
    I think my answer would be that yes, it is process that holds it all together. However, I'd point out that it is the same process that holds together a great novel or a powerful film. Instant aesthetic response is not what lasts in any form of art (the more sustained process of teasing out the hows and whys of the aesthetics can last quite a while however--but that isn't mere delight anymore, it's actually what I call "fun" in the book). He also says

    if play must culminate in cheating once grokked... it sounds to me that play as defined is not sufficient. I wonder, and would like to know more.
    I don't assert that play culminates in cheating, but rather that play culminates in not playing. Cheating is merely a way to bypass the game. It is play at a meta-level. As designers we dislike it because games are meant to teach a certain set of things, and when you choose to solve the problem by bypassing those lessons, you have avoided learning what we sought to teach. We're not always conscious of it, but that's what seems to lie at the heart of the resentment of cheating. And, as I point out in the book, the danger is that cheating, like cheating in school, may get you past that particular challenge, but then not provide you with a generically applicable tool to use when you encounter similar challenges in the real world.


    Are we, all players, mercenaries, and don't the dandelions along the way count for something?
    Alas, humans in most situations seem to be bad at spotting the dandelions. That said, I do believe we can build games that teach the lesson that dandelions are worth observing, and that mercenary is not all we should be. But it's an uphill struggle, I suspect.

    Cory over at Second Life offers some brief commentary, and wonders,

    I'm disappointed that he didn't cite sources in a more academic fashion. This would have had the advantage of allowing readers to go off and learn about different ideas in more depth and also reduces the "I think" effect. Having spoken with Raph, I know that he's read the source material to back up many of his ideas and assertions, but wihtout citations they tend to come across as opinions. This reduces both the impact and the value of the work. Perhaps this was a decision by his publisher? If so, it is one that he should have fought. Raph's book is a quick read and worth looking at. It will leave the interested reader hungry for more and provides the casual reader some interesting discussion topics about games and their place in learning and society.
    No, actually the opposite--the original version of the book had no citations or footnotes whatsoever, as it was intended as a more casual piece. The addition of endnotes came at the request of my editor Ben Sawyer. Certainly the more academic crowd seems to be asking for more material like this, though the gamers who read the book don't tend to. I suspect there's simply a case here of different audiences wanting different things out of the book.

    OTOH, the last sentence of Cory's there is exactly what I had hoped the book would accomplish, so it's all good.

    I hear the Slashdot review should appear this week. I look forward to maxing out my bandwidth again. :P

    January 17th, 2005
    Looks like the book has landed on at least one syllabus as required reading! I spotted this today. I'm technically an adviser to the MIME program, but I've never actually gotten out there. :(

    Today also saw Jamie Fristrom, he of Gamasutra columns and Spider-Man 2, write up some notes on the book. It's an interesting take on the discussion of formal game design versus experience design. I don't think that I quite meant what Jamie seems to be reading into what I wrote (which is probably my fault, not his!). As I wrote on the blog,

    I don't intend to come across like the dressing is unimportant, or only relevant to mass market games. Chapter 10 is all about how experience design matters, for example. I even use almost your chess example, only with go instead. I also say "The dressing is tremendously important. It's very likely that chess would not have its long-term appeal if the pieces all represented different kinds of snot." ;)

    In the book I make the distinction between the person in charge of the formal abstract parts of games (what I called the "ludemographer") and the person in charge of the game experience (call them the director, if you like).

    The avenues of enjoyment beyond ludemography that the director taps into are well understood. They are story, they are art direction, they are music, etc. The thrill from getting the headshot, the tactile feel of real go beads on a wooden board. And even though they are well-understood, they aren't EASY--so I think it's perfectly valid for you to spend a lot of time thinking about those things.

    I argue that the fun brought by pure ludemography is the core of gameplay and the part that is not as well understood as it should be, and that's what the bulk of the book is about.

    I'd definitely argue that 2d versus 3d brings in a whole bunch of new formal abstract qualities to a game, btw. :)

    From a practical point of view, I'll allege that if you have a fun game without real art, it can only get funner with better art, as Noel says. But as a corollary, if you have an unfun game, adding better art is not going to help.

    Other places in the blogosphere where discussion of the book has popped up include here, where the poster says,
    Raph (Ultima Online) Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design is well worth checking out if you have an interest in the how and why of game design. It’s billed as Understanding Comics for video games, though I don’t think it quite lives up to that (the brilliance of Understanding Comics is in large part that it’s a demonstration; you’d have to make a game about video games to match it). Still, Raph is very smart and knows video game design. You can also check out an early comic form of the book (4.7Mb pdf).

    Alas, a videogame that explained videogame theory was beyond my budget, and I doubt that my employers would have found it a commercially rewarding project. :)

    January 15th, 2005
    Oh dear, over a month since the last update.

    The book seems to be doing well. There's some active discussion over at Grand Text Auto, which is an excellent blog focusing primarily on interactive storytelling and the narratological side of game studies. A lot of the discussion centers on whether the definition of fun in the book encompasses all forms of games, such as footraces.

    There’s a heavy load of assumptions that goes into “fairness.” For example, competitive games of all sorts make use of leagues and handicapping in order to try to make things “fair,” and we take those for granted. In the case of athletics such as our hypothetical footrace, our hidden assumption is that training is part of the race, and training has rules that cannot be broken. And interestingly, training is a heavily cognitive task.

    If training were not part of the race, then doping would be acceptable. But the magic circle clearly does not encompass only the moments between the starting gun and the finish line.

    If that whets your appetite, head on over to take a look.

    A special No-Prize goes to Richard Bartle, for being the first to spot an undeniable major factual error in the book. I refer, of course, to the bizarre mental slip that resulted in my conflating Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's piano work Pictures at an Exhibition (Ravel's orchestration being of course the version of the piece we know best) with Ravel's orchestration of his own Bolero, which was NOT written by Debussy as the book states. I plead cognitive failure, my chunks were in disarray. I shall now have to pore over Richard's book in order to find a comparable egregious error that I can hold over him.

    A review of the book accompanied by more discussion has appeared at Grimwell.com.

    Raph didn’t just lay out a mental snack here, but one heck of a banquet, and it’ll be quite awhile before I’m done digesting it all. What you see here is a meager sampler platter that’s a far cry from experiencing the main course. Dropping the food analogy: my summary glosses over the ideas in this book, but can not adequately cover every one within without becoming as long as the book itself. (Besides, I imagine Raph could explain these ideas better than I could.) I would recommend everybody from avid gamers to the remotely curious to grab a copy from Amazon... At $13.59 a copy, you’ll find few better bargains.

    Overall, I learned a lot from The Theory of Fun in Game Design, much of it helped to bring the thoughts of this gamer into alignment with the big picture of what gaming is all about. I’ll never look at game design in quite the same way again.

    The discussion is quite stimulating, with comments such as Slyfeind's question, "If games are destined to be art, why aren't we there already? Or...are we?" The commentary also touches on what play is. Worth reading.

    I am promised a review from Slashdot, but it hasn't appeared yet. Nor, to my knowledge, has the interview I did with the Kansas City Star resulted in anything. Sigh. I am confirmed now as doing the opening keynote at the Serious Games Summit at the Game Developers Conference however. I have added reviews to the Press page as I find them.

    December 2nd, 2004
    Today I got my author copies in the mail. They look wonderful. I can't wait until the book gets cruelly savaged on the Net. :) Those of you who pre-ordered, I am told that the books will show up as shipping as soon as they get from the printer to the various booksellers. It should be in the next couple of days!

    I spent a very nice couple of hours with William Huber during an abortive visit to UCSD. We discussed a lot of the material that the book covers... I believe I will be heading back to visit with Natalie Jeremijenko and her class and other faculty there sometime next week.

    Gamasutra is excerpting a chapter from the book on their website starting on Dec. 3rd... I am also giving a version of the original presentation as part of the Serious Games Summit day at the Game Developers Conference 2005.

    As you may have noticed, the website has been updated. Among the changes: there's a Resources link now with ways to get every book, game, bit of music, and piece of artwork mentioned in the book. Think of it as an interactive bibliography. The press quotes have been moved to their own page along with the press release for the book. Lastly, the excerpts have been improved with Will's foreword, a few of the cartoons, and a sample of the endnotes that accompany chapter one. The Stuff link is also now fairly populated. I've successfully ordered a few penguin t-shirts and mugs of the cartoons, so if you're tickled by the artwork, there's the crass cash-in for you.

    November 2nd, 2004
    Well, I'm all done voting. I'm also almost done proofing! Last night, we printed out the whole thing, both sides of the page, so what we got was something that closely resembled the book. Then for the first time, both my wife and I went over it with red pen, rather than doing editing on the computer... there's something about that change of venue that makes it easier to see mistakes.

    It looks like a couple of pages are running a bit long, so there will be just some minor touch-ups, but nothing too drastic. We're pretty excited.

    In other news, there's actually stuff up in the Stuff section now--a mug, some shirts, and some mousepads. I'd love to hear what sort of stuff people might want...

    I've also updated the front page with a bunch of quotes about the book that I have gotten from various folks. A special shout-out goes to Loren over at The Incremental Blogger, who commented on the book in his blog, saying,

    The ISBN classification will call it a book about game design, but I'm guessing that the creativity and concepts will inspire designers and doers of all types.

    The book's genesis comes from a presentation that Raph gives on game design (5MB PDF). And no, this isn't any ordinary PowerPoint slide presentation. Raph trades bullet lists for ink drawings. Words are limited to "See Jane run" simplicity. The result has a decidedly Lawrence Lessig feel about it and grabs your attention. And as a Tablet PC enthusiast the style shouts out "Tablet PC" to me.

    The book is equally visual. It's loaded with Raph's illustrations. But it's not all drawings--although with Raph's conciseness that would be equally compelling. The manuscript is also filled with easy-to-read prose that's interwoven with friendly insights and cerebral theories. I'm not finished reading the manuscript yet, but I just had to point out the book now. It gets the creative juices flowing.

    Glad you liked it, Loren!

    October 24th, 2004
    Sorry for the lack of updates--I was on the road all week.

    I am up to chapter 11 (of 12) in the edits and rewrites. The copy editor has made it up through chapter two. I expect that we'll have finished all the edits by the end of this week. I've updated the excerpt page with the new text, which hopefully reads exactly the same only shorter. I also put a table of contents on there.

    It's amazing how much editing can tighten up text. The downside is that I have been cramming a lot into the endnotes. They are getting rather long. Hopefully that won't be a problem, but I guess we'll see! So far, the endnotes range from discussing Laban's notation system for dance to describing the effects of dopamine on the frontal cortex to a careful description of the gameplay in Defender.

    My first CD, After the Flood, has been re-issued with a new bonus track--or rather, an old track that we didn't include on the MP3.com edition because of space. The new edition also includes a lyric sheet in the booklet. You can hear little snippet samples on the website there too.

    I'm having to redo one cartoon because we want to avoid any hassles with trademarks. If anyone has any ideas what would make a good cartoon to represent Grand Theft Auto, let me know. :)

    Oh, and before I forget... signing up for the newsletter will let you get notified when stuff goes up on the store.

    Sign up to receive the newsletter!

    October 17th, 2004
    Over on Grimwell.com there's a discussion about the book and some of its ideas. Some quotes:


    Learning is fun. But so is doing--so is applying knowledge. I continue to play games (and enjoy them) after I've learned everything there is to know about them.

    In fact, the only games that I stopped enjoying due to knowledge (or familiarity) were the ones I worked on. In those cases, I think testing the game 100 hours a week for 6 months in debug mode at .004 fps was the most important factor, not my insider knowledge.

    Edit: Actually, I partly take this back. I've stopped playing new games, not because of my knowledge of that game, but because of my knowledge of the genre. I knew after only an hour or two of play that this game would not offer anything I hadn't already seen before.

    This still doesn't explain why I'd re-play Planescape or Deus Ex ten times or more, even if I was taking the same path through the game and had read every guide and walkthrough... Gaining knowledge is only part of my motivation.

    I know for myself, Learning is the end and all of "fun" in these games. I enjoy the fighting and socializing, but when I quit a game, it is always because I feel like I've learned everything I've wanted to. This doesn't mean I know everything, nor that I'm all that good at what I do know. It simply means I've looked ahead and see nothing more available to do but apply what I already know.

    Unfortunately, that means for me Learning has a built in warranty.

    In a player skill game, that's not as big a problem. I can learn everything I need to know in an FPS or RTS shooter fairly quickly. But to become good at applying that learning requires manual practice.

    Not so much in MMORPGs though. The need for me to respond faster hasn't always grown as much as my need to respond smarter. Which is that warranty.

    I've been kicking around the idea of a game that is about learning. Albeit this may have been because of long hours studying math books thinking, "There's gotta be a less boring way to learn math than this!" Yes, I know there's math games already, but they're generally geared towards kids or the fun trappings are removed.

    It's got me thinking, if we could combine a first rate education with the addictive mechanics of a MMORPG, we'd have a lot more brilliant people walking around.

    Castle in the air or realistic goal?

    Learning isn't the core fun for me. It's a factor, but not the biggest one. I'd put at least two things far higher than Learning:


    I'm always up for a game of Tetris, even if I can't "learn" anything from the game or improve my nearing-middle-age reflexes any further. Why? It's fun. And I might "win," even if I'm playing against myself.

    Is just hanging out with friends fun? How about going to a concert? I don't learn much, especially if I drink... But I have more fun than any game can provide. This is Belonging and closer to the core of most on-line games than Learning.

    And I usually get Bartle typed as ESA or EAS. If I, as an "explorer" don't place Learning first, who does? I enjoy figuring out the game, but I wouldn't consider it my primary motive.

    If learning is the core, how come it's so hard to make educational games "sticky"?

    If you're interested in joining the discussion, head on over..

    I turned in two chapters of edits, plus the first two chapters of endnotes late last night (VERY late). It's amazing how much tighter you can get your text if you work at it! The endnotes are something that a lot of advance readers have asked for, so I am going back through my research to put them together. It's been fun, because I keep finding things I forgot to mention. I haven't settled with the editor whether or not the endnotes will take this form in the book, but if not, I'll toss them up on the website.

    In other news, I think I need to get real blog software. I installed the one that came with the web hosting, and I am not impressed... I can't get it to point to a page other than the index, and I can't customize it as I would like, either.

    October 15th, 2004
    Today Stratics.com ran a little blurb for the book. They said it was a "sure-to-be-great book." Hmm. I better get back to rewrites.

    I hooked up the little Amazon.com thingy so you can order the book through here. I mentioned before we're in final edits... I got back a ton of edits from the publisher, the editor, and also from some friends who are reviewing the book for me (Thanks, Dave!). So that's what I am doing all weekend...

    October 14th, 2004
    Well, I've gotten a web host, I've gotten a domain name, and I am halfway through making the website. The old-fashioned way: coding HTML by hand. Horrible, isn't it? But at least it's forcing me to keep it simple!

    I sent a copy of the manuscript to Cory Doctorow, he of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and of course, BoingBoing. He said some very nice things about it on the blog, and BAM! the book pre-sales rank on Amazon went from somewhere in the vicinity of 2,844,936th to somewhere in the 400's. It's slipping back down now, but that's made me catch the promotion bug!

    I am going to try to keep this blog updated semi-regularly with status of the book, emails or reviews or whatever that get written about it, and maybe that way those who are interested can follow the progress of the book from final edits through to when they get it in their hands.