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  • Writer's pictureRony Gankin

The DNA Of Fun In Games

Challenge, Approach, Triumph, and Skill (CATS)


It is often awfully difficult to pinpoint the exact benefactor of fun in games.

What makes a game fun as a whole but also captivating and memorable in its moment-to-moment experience?

Is it possible to achieve these consistently and yet maintain innovation and creativity during development?

Well, these are good questions and this article aims to tackle them all using a method I like to call CATS, deconstructing the making of fun into emotions and experiences all the while giving tools on how to recreate these in your own game.


I like to look at the different aspects of what makes a moment in the game fun with the CATS system, it is a system I use to try and isolate the interaction the game has with the player and vice-versa, using four different pieces in the puzzle:

Challenge - A lot of what’s fun in games boils down to decision-making, risk management, and choices

Approach - Variation is important, it allows different aspects to shine and also elevate one another, players deserve to have different approaches to gameplay

Triumph - Clear understanding of the high points of the game when it’s the most fun, allows for design centered around a game’s strengths

Skill - Lastly, it is important to clarify what makes a good player and also what makes players feel that they're good. This distinction is a foundation of a player’s enjoyment of the game

Challenge and Difficulty

Most people would agree that having some sort of challenge in a game engages them. A challenge isn’t necessarily a difficult boss battle, it can be a difficult collection task, a certain achievement, or a time goal. The common denominator here is tasks that are satisfying to complete.

Tasks that require an expression of skill which leads us to understand that challenge is individualized.

A person learning to read a new language might find learning a new song in that language challenging while a native speaker might find it simple or boring.

Additionally, the challenge is evolving, over a game’s course, players improve and progress, be it in-game or personally. This requires the game to also evolve and remain dynamic, constantly tuning the existing challenge or introducing new challenges.

Take for example Guitar Hero, it progresses both in the difficulty of the songs and the player skill required (through the introduction of more keys to play or different notes) as well as expanding the player’s list of songs, and available customization options

Once this is accomplished, players will be in a constant state of tension between playing well or failing (partially or completely), this tension leads players to enter what is referred to as the “Flow” state. A state where players become fully immersed in the game, fully engaged emotionally, and are at their peak.

So, the challenge is almost universally fun, it is the scale between frustration and boredom, which, when balanced, creates a tension that lets players enter a “Flow” state, engaging with the game on an emotional level and experiencing it at its fullest.

Approach and Sidetracking

The part of ‘Approach’ in ‘CATS’ is related to both varieties of gameplay and a variety of options. A supporting factor of boredom is repetitiveness and monotony, breaking these up is important to keep things fresh, engaging, and interesting.

More so, the variety in approach doesn’t have to be an overhaul or a complete change, using the same combat system with different weapons is still applicable here. Yet if neverending combat is the only activity in the game… well, it doesn’t matter how many weapons there are.

As such, the approach is double-layered. Mechanics require having multiple uses as well as variations of them.

A good example would be combat mechanics that can be used for puzzle solving as well, this integrates different pieces of the game as well as giving players multiple approaches to the same mechanics. On top of that, if these same puzzles can be resolved in another way, then we have multiple mechanics interacting with each other as well as offering substitutes to one another, creating a complete piece of content that is engaging and doesn’t get old.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution tackles this with its level design. Every encounter can be approached in multiple ways, often leading to completely different results or following options. This allows players to choose between different playstyles, engage in exploration and try different tools to complete their objectives

Triumph and Failure

Fun is often a part of success and games have plenty of it to offer, games are a collection of goals, short, mid, and long-term. These goals are used by designers to both guides and engage players. A major part of constructing these goals lies in their aftermath. What happens after a certain boss is defeated, a puzzle solved or a task finished is a question that cannot be answered with a simple reward as much like the real world, there’s more to goals than that. There may be consequences within the world, characters affected, or no rewards at all. These moments where goals are succeeded or failed, are climactic and are a notable point of the player’s journey throughout a game. They are small peaks of challenges that are followed by a period of relief, relishing in success and they also stress the weight of failure.

Failure in games is an important tool, it tests players, guides them in a different direction, and is as important if not more important than success, as, players are likely to fail more often than they succeed.

Triumph and failure are strong tools in keeping the balance of emotion between boredom and frustration, once again navigating players towards the much sought-after ‘flow state’ during gameplay and having fun playing a game.

In Rogue Legacy, whenever you fail a run, the character you played dies and their heir is to be chosen. Said different heir have their own classes, quirks, and disabilities which result in every run being unique and different from its predecessor as well as having the potential of either rewarding a player’s death with a horrible heir or replacing a character with an astounding new character

Skill and Progress

Lastly, an important aspect of fun is a meaningful progression through a game which has a multitude of ways to be shown. Yet the most important is in the player’s behavior itself. Players learn, improve and adapt as they play a game and this is part of their progression.

Often games will show progression through the character itself, sometimes the environment but rarely games have players interacting with the earlier parts of the game and receiving a perspective on where they started and where they are now.

This relative perspective lets players feel firsthand their progress, and accumulated experience with the game and also, enjoy a small power trip overpowering earlier content.

A great example is when games have a hub location players return to and can interact with. As the hub remain relatively of the same difficulty, as players progress and improve, they overshadow the challenges they struggled with early.

Allowing players to understand firsthand how good they have become is a great technique for showing progression, skill, and experience while also giving room for a power fantasy. Resulting in feelings of success and growth.

Neon White uniquely approaches this, every level has a completion rating (based on time, score, and other variables). Yet, it is not until players achieve the highest rating on a level that the global leaderboards open up. Once this is achieved, the times of all the players who reached the highest rating appear and another layer of competitiveness opens up, this time not against the game’s creators but against the game’s players themselves.


Fun is a big part of video games and is a big subject to tackle. What makes anything fun is very individual and changes a lot from person to person.

Games are tasked with identifying what it is that makes the experience they deliver fun and engaging and then pushing it forward, expanding and supporting it with various other mechanics.

CATS is a great system to break down mechanics and ideas to ascertain that they indeed are capable of eliciting the emotions or circumstances that then lead to players having fun.

As games are first and foremost made for entertainment, making sure your game is fun, is the core of success.

(Picture of The Battle Cats)

Games Mentioned

Guitar Hero

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Rogue Legacy

Neon White

The Battle Cats

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