Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

[Archive] Game Design: Is Freedom Not Fun?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 31, 2015

This is a revised version of a post from the old blog, lost in a security clamp-down last year. Since it’s referenced by one of the Wizardry 8 articles and the topic is still quite worthy of discussion, I thought I’d post it now.

Randy Smith, a lead designer at EA, once wrote about how choice and consequences are out of vogue in today’s game designs. He cites Ultima V as an example – a game that freely let you shoot yourself in the foot, go off the beaten path, make bad choices, and get clobbered by them.

Smith stated, “Today, this sort of thing is considered bad and wrong, and we’ve developed some of our most sophisticated design around preventing it… Why do we do all this? Because games are supposed to be fun, and fun only happens when you are pointed directly towards it, when it’s neither too easy nor too hard to get, and when you’re told ‘good job’ upon acquiring it. We’ve brilliantly succeeded in eliminating the interstitials, stripping away everything but fun.”

Is this a good thing? Is this the right thing? Randy brings up the “games as art” argument, and suggests that being led around onto exactly the right path, rendering our choices irrelevant, might not be the evolutionary Utopia of gaming that we really want. Smith continued, “I worry that in the course of evolution we created a philosophical divide with exploration, choice, and consequence on one side and goals, scores, and balance on the other. I’m not sure the two sides are equally vital for producing unique, relevant works. Are we so hooked on the escapist fantasy of an uncomplicated life, of reverting to the safety of childhood, that no other games should be made? Have we explored alternatives?”

In her commentary article “Hold My Hand,” Scorpia contends that stripping away choice and marking the path for the player every step of the way doesn’t necessarily refine the “fun,” either. “is so much direction really a good thing? Does having to think about the game and what we’re doing somehow take away from the ‘fun’? I certainly enjoyed playing Ultima IV. But it wouldn’t have been as much of a pleasure had Hawkwind (or anyone else) been directing me through the game. ”

Later, in comments, she notes “Funny, when I first started gaming – and with some pretty tough adventure games – I never felt intimidated. And back then, I wasn’t doing it professionally, either.”

Is this just a matter of audience? The games of yesteryear certainly had technical limits as to how much they could “guide” the player – they even had to pack crucial data into manuals for lack of RAM on the system. But in the 1980’s (the era of Ultima IV and V and many text adventures), the gamer was a niche audience. Today, games are mainstream.

Perhaps only a small niche of players like figuring this stuff out for themselves?

I don’t know. I’m sort of a middle-of-the-road gamer. My gaming history is littered with titles that I never completed because I got stuck at some point — stuck, frustrated, and the game ceased to be fun. However, some of the most fun I’ve had in games has come from puzzling my way through challenges. I absolutely loved solving the Babel-Fish puzzle in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I have a threshold of pain and confusion where I really do want some hand-holding and some good guidance. But I’m much happier – and having more fun – when I am able to tackle those challenges on my own.

I had way more fun white water rafting as a kid than riding roller coasters, too. Am I just an exception? A niche?

Or should this be the next evolutionary change games take a “helping hand” rather than hand-holding. I think I’d really prefer that. Of course, this assumes that the game is actually made in such a way that it allows players to chart their own course… including going off-course. Many times, due to development costs for content, designers are loathe to create any aspect of the game world that the player isn’t required to see, which enforces a linear design.

Editorial Note from 2015: It feels like today, a few years after this article was originally posted, we’ve really gone two dramatically different ways, without a lot of room in-between: Either tightly scripted and linear, or wildly open-world. In the former case, in some games it feels like we need that hand-holding just to know what the designer had in mind for us to complete the level, although this is usually disguised by the level design. Still sucks that you are really robbed of any options than to do it the designer’s intended way, though.


Filed Under: Archive, Design - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Infinitron said,

    Randy Smith, EA? The Looking Glass Studios guy?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The original article is gone, but here’s the internet archive page:


  • Felix said,

    I always say interactivity is what makes games *be* games, so a linear experience where you’re led by the nose from end to end lessens the medium. But one of my favorite games ever, Photopia, is exactly one of the latter, and it would never work as anything but a game. It seems hard to reconcile the two viewpoints, until you realize that interactivity itself *is* a medium, that can be used to convey a mood, theme or message. But it has to be used deliberately, not struggled against as if it was an undesirable side trait of games rather than the whole point.

  • Maklak said,

    I’ve gotten most of my enjoyment from open and interactive games, such as Morrowind, Gothic, Bloodlines, Dwarf Fortress, 4X and simulation games. But I guess, I liked Dungeon Siege 2 as well and it is as linear as they come. Yeah, getting stuck is frustrating, but my favourite activity is just wandering around and exploring anyway.

  • Mr Horse said,

    Those who would give up essential freedom to purchase a little fun, deserve neither freedom nor fun.

  • Tesh said,

    I’d second the idea that games *are* interaction. i’ve written about it more than once. Barely interactive QTE and cinematic game design just doesn’t work well for me. I’ll play Minecraft over any highly scripted game any day. I’m glad that there’s a spectrum and a wide variety of options, but I lean heavily to the freedom side.

  • Infinitron said,


    “He spent time on the Steven Spielberg collaboration code-named LMNO (videogame) at EA’s Los Angeles studio, which was eventually canceled.”