It's happening again, and probably not for the last time. I've been happily clicking away with my virtual cards in Magic 2014 for roughly a month now, but soon it'll be over. Not the game itself, there are still a bunch of cards to unlock, and the multiplayer side of the game should stand on its own and add some of that oft-mentioned ”replay value”. But what has run dry is my interest in the game, and I don't specifically know why that is.

I'm a bit of a completionist when it comes to badges, achievements and other hidden content, but my OCD doesn't seem to extend to actually completing games. In fact I rarely completely finish games, rather my interest tends to taper out just before the finish line. And apart for some very few sublime classics, I very rarely replay games either. This contrasts interestingly with my approach to other entertainment mediums comparative to games: I wouldn't stop watching a film just before the ending scene, nor would I quit a book before the last page. What makes games different?

If games are approached as a form of art, any given game is then seen as a cultural object to be appreciated and experienced in its entirety in order to fully glean its significance and meaning. In this sense not finishing a game can be interpreted as an ignorant refusal to learn the designer/auteur's intended message. On the other hand, games can also be a form of disposable entertainment: they exist to be picked up and used for just as long as they remain fun and interesting. In this approach the artist's intention and message are trumped entirely by the audience's whims and cravings. Quitting a game before it is finished simply means that the game couldn't provide enough fun for the player to motivate completion.

Obviously, as is the case with most dichotomies of this kind, strict adherence to either extreme complicates things unnecessessarily. The truth lies in the middle ground, but it must be understood that in today's over-saturated market the audience tends to write the rules. There are more new games available now than before, and games in general are more accessible than ever. Monetary affluence, platform accessibility and even time are non-issues for gamers today: if you want to play something new, you can, with little effort.

From a designer's perspective the current buyer's market means that getting someone to actually complete your game is a growing challenge. In the end this comes down to an equation of fun vs. content: if the game doesn't contain enough fun to hold the player's interest for long enough for the content to be experienced, something has gone awry. Clearly, this approach may be slightly outdated for some game types, for example it translates poorly to the modern f2p-model. The basic principle remains the same however: your game must contain enough fun for the player for it to carry out your intended goal, whether that goal is telling a story or getting a set number of micro-transaction pings.

Here we obviously run into the issue of fun being subjective: every player has their own idea of fun. For example, I clearly derive little pleasure from the actual completion of a game: a short demo video and the end credits don't have enough pull for me to actually finish a game I've experienced otherwise. A good example of this is Psychonauts (by Double Fine Productions). I liked the game all in all, but once I made it to what seemed like the end-boss (Oleander's death tank thingy, for those concerned), my interest dwindled, and I've never gone back. Luckily, the concept of fun is not entirely subjective: there are similarities and parallels between people, and paying attention to these communal undercurrents means that you can craft your product to better entice your target audience.

Based on understanding the target demographic's idea of fun, a designer has a plethora of tools to use to sculpt the gaming experience to accomplish its goals. Rewarding the player in various ways (cutscenes, plot development, hidden content), getting them involved in the game through social means (highscore lists, multiplayer, guilds) and creating the illusion of accomplishment (badges, achievements, rare loot) are all important methods of prolonging the game's playtime. In the end, everything hinges on the fact that games are increasingly a disposable means of entertainment, and it is getting more and more difficult to create hooks that hold the audience for longer than a moment. The game world of today is not a library full of books to be read from cover to cover, but rather an art gallery: the audience moves from painting to painting, merely glancing at others, and examining some more intricately. The vibrance and balance of your brushstrokes determines how much time is spent in front of your masterpiece.