[MUD-Dev] Art vs. Fun

Koster Koster
Wed Dec 12 08:29:44 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Michael Tresca

> The below post provides an interesting perspective on the art of
> game design. I've personally experienced the failure of my "art"
> as something players find fun -- it's a hard reality to swallow.

I know of two rebuttal columns from MUD-Dev members. One is mine at


start quote--->

by Jessica Mulligan
September 11, 2001

As one might imagine, Just Give Me A Game, Please caused something
of a stir. To which I say, "Good." One of the purposes of this
column is to get people talking about the issues because that's one
way change happens, and Lordy, do we need some change in this

When discussing change, however, it is important to know all of the
issues, and it is important that those directly experienced with
them speak up and take a stand. As well as being my own vehicle for
using Three Stooges Fu on the insanities of the online and computer
game industries, I also consider BTH an industry forum. And that
means occasionally giving up the podium (as tough as that can be for
a limelight hound like me).

Hence this guest column, The Case For Art, written by Raph
Koster. If you don't know who Raph is, you've been obviously been in
a coma for the past five years. He was a senior game designer on
Origin Systems' Ultima Online and is currently the Lead Designer on
Verant's Star Wars: Galaxies. Raph is also not shy about making his
opinion known, as I discovered when we were working at OSI together
a couple years ago. He's not rude or even (generally) loud about it;
he's more like Aikido, melding with the opponent and redirecting his
energy to more useful purposes. Now I have this vision of him
dressed in robes and saying to a junior designer, "When you can
snatch the game mechanic from my hand, time for you to leave."

And he makes a pretty darn good case for art in this column. Read
on, and if you want to know more about him and his work and
interests, Raph's personal Web site can be found at


The Case For Art
By Raph Koster

Henry James wrote, in "The Art of Fiction," that the first
obligation of a story is to be interesting. And Jessica Mulligan, in
her Biting the Hand column of a few weeks ago entitled "Just Give Me
a Game, Please," made the case that the first obligation of an
online game is to be fun.

Now, I wouldn't know to draw the parallel unless I was an artsy type
myself.  There's no hiding it, no denying it - I mean, Jesus, I'm
quoting Henry James. I've spent time in the ivory towers of creative
writing programs, I've waited nervously in anterooms for my turn to
play piano in front of a critical groups of music profs, I've
worried over the right shade of gray to use in a still life of
well-polished bones and bottles, and I've even done poster artwork
for theater productions. Many might say (well, why ignore it: they
did say) that Jess' article meant, well, me.

But when Jess asked if I'd write a rebuttal, I had to think about
it, and ask other people's opinions. You see, it's sort of
fashionable to put down being artsy, these days. After all, the
public's image of art is religious icons dipped in excrement, it's
tediously boring French films, it's dumping cases of type on a page
and calling it poetry. These days, you can read about Art (with a
capital A, of course) and substitute in this phrase: "pretentious,
incomprehensible, shallow, manipulative, boring crap." Why sign up
to defend something that has that rep?

Well, it's a valid rap. I have no tolerance for artsy crap. I find
pretentious, overly craft-driven, self-referential, obscure,
tangled, and weighty books to be garbage. Same for movies. I don't
like most foreign films. I think it's the problem with poetry
today. It's why jazz lost its audience. Why nobody cares who is
writing the Great American Novel. And this may be the shortest
rebuttal in history, because I agree with the premise that the first
obligation of an online game is to be fun.

Nonetheless, I'm here to make the case for art. Because unlike Jess,
I think that it's something that the game industry, and especially
online games, need now more than ever.

    Art or Entertainment?

First off, let me dispose of the false dichotomy that plagues all
these debates. Art and Entertainment are not in opposition. Now,
I've got a broad definition of "entertain" (and here you can
substitute in any number of words that all mean roughly the same
thing: captivate, intrigue, command attention) but I think most
people do too. Art that does not entertain is bad art. Games that
are not fun are bad games.

This does not mean that good entertainment is necessarily
art. Entertainment is hard. Most people suck at entertaining
others. It's a goddamn hard skill to learn, and if it weren't, we'd
have many more stand-up comedians in the world, a heck of a lot more
mimes, and we wouldn't have 500 channels with nothing on, boring
radio and lame movies every summer weekend. Entertainment is hard
and there's nothing wrong with trying to master just that.

But art offers more than just something that is compelling. Art can
do many things: entertain, challenge, teach, explain, amuse,
inspire... Art subsumes entertainment. Which is why we often preface
"entertainment" with "mere."  It's a small part of art. A vitally
important one, certainly, because frankly, art which doesn't
entertain is art which is going to spectacularly fail at
accomplishing all the other things in that list.

So let's definitely cheer on the notion of Entertainment. It's a
tough road to go down in the first place (how many crappy boring
games were released last year?) and if all we manage is to
entertain, then we should be justifiably proud of the work we've

But that doesn't mean we scorn the desire to go further. To take the
next step and say, "well, that's hard enough, so I am going to
settle for doing just that part, because then I know that I will
please the audience..." - if that gets adopted as our national creed
then we might end up with our media filled with emptyheaded
blow-em-up movies, endless "reality" shows, and lots of bubblegum

Oh wait, that already happened.

Art doesn't just offer pretention. In fact, when you see a
pretentious artist, you're probably seeing one of three kinds of
people: a poser who doesn't know what being an artist is actually
like; someone on a government grant; or an actual genius, in which
case you should just avoid talking to them. (Most geniuses aren't
very civil.)

There's a difference between being pompous and being an artist. I
don't know how many working artists (of whatever sort) you know, but
most of the pompous ones can't make a living. Artists have to speak
to people.  Otherwise, they can't afford to do it again. And out in
the real world, people who want to make a living at being artists
know this (their other chance is to become snootily pretentious and
live off of government grants, of course, but those are then the
people you probably haven't heard of).  Real artists know that you
can't forget entertainment, because it's what gives them their next
meal. Heck, they even have a term for that lengthy period of
learning they go through, when they learn their chops and learn how
to entertain. It's called "paying your dues."

    So what does art offer?

The single biggest thing that art offers is an emphasis on craft.

All the arts are half science. When you go to learn to be a visual
artist, a painter, say, don't think you get handed a beret and a
brush and told, "express yourself on this canvas." No, it's more
like you get handed some sheets of colored paper and some glue and
told, "read these 40 pages on luminance, weight, and color theory,
then create a visually balanced design using one big square and one
little square." It means sitting and learning the difference between
a major and a minor scale. And then between modal scales and the
major and minor. And then about non-tempered scales. And then about
Neapolitan sixths and false cadences. It means classifying clumps of
words into trochees and iambs and knowing why it matters that a line
ends in a spondee.

Art means you develop terminology and language. Class clowns
entertain (well, mostly because at that age, our standards aren't
yet high enough).  It's done instinctively. People who are serious
about a craft talk to others about their craft. They work hard at
defining what it is they do, how they do it, and by formalizing and
classifying their practices, they discover new ways to do
things. And they respect their history (a favorite theme here at
Biting the Hand).

Art brings perfectionism, because the goal of the entertainer is to
do well enough, but the goal of the artist is to do better. I was
once working on a drawing that was 2x2 feet in size, for three
weeks. Midway through the third week, I was erasing a bit near the
corner and the paper tore, just slightly.  Not all the way through,
just enough to make the surface perceptibly rougher than the rest of
the sheet. My art professor's reaction? "Oh, that's a shame, now
you'll have to start over." Be nice to have those standards in our
game launches, yes?

The other big thing that art brings is ethics. Yes, there is such a
high-flown phrase as "the responsibility of the artist." 
Entertainment is notoriously irresponsible. My current poster boy
for a lack of cognizance of the impact the arts can have on people
is what happened at the Woodstock concert redux, when Limb Bizkit's
performance actually whipped the crowd into a greater frenzy. The
responsible thing to do would be to calm the crowd down (in the
1960s an equally ugly concert ended with a death, at a place called
Altamont. But Mick Jagger at least had the sense to try to persuade
the audience to settle down).

    OK, now you ARE getting artsy. Do we need that stuff?

Silly question. Of course we do. Badly, in fact. The last few
columns here at Biting the Hand have been about the need for common
terminology, the need to launch titles that are polished and not
buggy, and the need to be honest and respectful of your customers.

Ragging on those developers who speak of "using storyline to encode
ethical systems" and "teaching moral lessons through gameplay" in
times when we are under fire (and in lawsuits!) over tragedies like
Columbine seems foolhardy.  And surely we're not saying that games
cannot aspire to the level of your average men-in-tights superhero
comic book? Isn't this why the Ultima series is revered by gamers? 
Isn't this what popular novels do? Movies?

We're making virtual places here, and there's other people on the
other end of the line. When we put in a feature, it's there for
player A to use on player B. And when we choose to ignore
pretentious phrases like "encoding moral values" and thus abdicate
our "responsibilities as artists" we're not only doing a disservice
to the players, but to the whole industry which is struggling for

When we criticize game developers for using phrases like
"communicating an expression to the audience" or "artistic
differences," surely we don't mean that all RTS games have to have
the same ruleset. There are people out there-many-who buy a game
because a particular team, designer, or company made it. That's what
the above two things mean. Why are they "artsy?" Or is it just artsy
to talk about it?

     Then what's the issue?

Forgetting that there are people out there. You see, the pretension
and pomposity comes about when you let those things above get in the
way, and you forget to entertain or even to respect the audience.

But that's bad art.

All innovations in game design are going to be "experiments." And
yes, when you play a game, you're stuck playing it with the features
that the programmers and designers put in there. And it isn't
necessarily the best way for the game to work. But you are playing
the game they made, not the game that you wish were there. And yes,
they have to decide what to put in, and yes, they are going to
decide based on their own best judgment, make trade-offs, and yes,
even have a "Vision." It wouldn't get done if they didn't. This
issue is really about is features and decisions that don't pan
out. Or that players don't like. Yes, these do happen, and sometimes
a designer may choose to not have a feature known to be fun in favor
of trying something new.

The choice is simple. Have the old, fun way. Or try something
new. Sometimes the new thing turns out to be fun. Sometimes it
doesn't, and now we know. If we choose the door on the left every
time, we'll eventually end up with only one game. Yes, it is a bad
thing when un-fun features are in a game. But that is the price of
progress, and I am not afraid to say it.

So I say, hooray for Art. If it means that this medium we love might
develop and grow, if it means that we'll learn enough about it to
have common practices, if it means that we will demand perfectionism
and also depth of content and theme, manage to respect our audience
along the way, and still always make things fun, absolutely heck
yeah. I'm not going to be ashamed to be one of "those people" called
out in Jessica's article, and hopefully neither will you.
<---end quote

The other is Travis Casey's at


start quote-->

#15: What's Entertainment?
by Travis S. Casey
August 24, 2001

I don't usually like to use a column as a place to rant, but Jessica
Mulligan's last Biting the Hand struck a nerve in me. So bear with
me this time around.

Jessica's column was about game designers wanting to create Art. Her
argument, boiled down, was that trying to create Art results in game
designers forcing players into their "pre-ordained" vision of what
the game should be like, and ignoring what the players might
actually want. She continues on to say that, instead of Art,
designers should try to focus on Entertainment instead.

There's a few big problems I see in this philosophy, though. First
off, what's Entertainment? Or, to ask it in another way, whose
Entertainment should be focused on?

Different people find different things to be entertaining. Some
people find football fun; some others think they're crazy. Some
people find going to plays fun; some others think they're
crazy. Some people find killing imaginary monsters in a D&D game
fun; others think they're crazy. Some people find investigating an
imaginary conspiracy in a game of CORPS fun; others think they're
crazy. As Abraham Lincoln might have put it, "You cannot entertain
all of the people all of the time."

Thus, early on in setting up a game - or any other kind of
entertainment - you have to ask the question: who are we trying to
entertain? There are a lot of possible choices here. Let's take a
look at a few of them:

"I'm trying to entertain myself, and others like me." This choice
has one major thing going for it - namely, the designer generally
knows what he/she likes. The primary danger here is that the design
will wind up being aimed at too small a group; the designer and a
few others like him/her will like it a lot, but the vast majority of
people may not like it at all.

"I'm trying to entertain as many people as possible." This choice
has the advantage that, if you succeed, you'll have a huge
audience. The primary disadvantage is in that statement - if you
succeed. Such an attempt all too often winds up coming out as
designed-by-committee homogenized pap, which no one strongly
dislikes, but no one strongly likes either.

"I want to entertain this group." The key here is picking the group
you want to entertain, and then finding and listening to
them. Sometimes the designer will be a part of the group, which
takes us a bit closer to the first model, but the designer in this
case recognizes that he/she is only part of the group, and seeks
input from others. A problem here is finding a representative sample
of the group you're aiming at - often a group of people will think
of themselves as representative of a larger group, but find that
they're wrong. However, even if the design misses in that sense, it
tends to still be fairly entertaining to some group of people.

If Entertainment is your only goal, then it often seems natural to
pick the second option - but I strongly believe that is the worst
option to pick.  It's the hardest to do, and even if you succeed,
there's a good chance that, while you'll have a large potential
audience, a lot of them will have other games they'll like better.

Personally, I think of the first option as the artistic option -
making what you think will be good, and hoping that others will like
it as well. I'm intentionally not capitalizing artistic there,
because the person doing this often doesn't have their mind on
creating Art, but the attitude of "if you don't like it, you're not
who I'm doing it for" strikes me as an artistic attitude.

A closing thought on this part - while a single game designed
following option #1 may not appeal to a lot of people, it's often
possible to take what works from it and use it to make other games
with broad appeal. A game designed following #2, on the other hand,
generally isn't much use in this way.

Online Games Aren't Just Games

The second problem that comes in with the idea of just making it
entertaining is that an online multiplayer RPG involves a lot more
than just entertainment. To look at some of the other things, it
involves, let's think about another form of entertainment quick - a

A concert is definitely entertainment. However, putting together a
concert involves a lot more than just the entertainment - you don't
just select a popular band or set of bands and then go. One thing
you want to do is make sure that the selections you've chosen will
work well together, which goes back to the previous point of
selecting who you're trying to entertain.  However, there's also a
lot of support work that needs to be done. The bands have to be
gotten to and from the concert, a venue needs to be selected and
arranged for, parking needs to be accessible, there need to be
concessions, there's a need for security, etc.

An online multiplayer game is the same way - it's a form of
entertainment, but there are other things that need to be
handled. Just as unruly fans at a concert have to be handled, there
needs to be some way of handling unruly players - which is what
leads to the idea of player-run justice systems, the very thing
which seems to have touched Ms. Mulligan off. Now, some people may
have ulterior motives in creating such a system, but that doesn't
mean that there aren't practical applications, nor that such a thing
doesn't even bear talking about - which is the impression that
Ms. Mulligan's article left on me.

One thing that strongly distinguishes online multiplayer games from
many other forms of entertainment is the investment some people make
in them - in terms of time, emotional attachment, and even
money. Ms. Mulligan seems to associate player justice systems with
PvP games, but a player justice system can make sense even in a
non-PvP environment - even if the game doesn't allow attacking
another player character, there are still ways to harm other
players. (And I don't mean just ways to attack them indirectly -
such things as exploitation of bugs and harassing other players can
also be included.)

In the end, what I'm saying is simply this: focusing on the idea
that a game is Art can be a bad thing - but so can focusing on the
idea that a game is Entertainment. It should be remembered that one
can have multiple goals - you can try to create a game that is both
Art and Entertainment. And, lastly, just because some people give
artistic reasons for pursuing a particular course doesn't mean that
those are the only reasons for following it.
<---end quote

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