Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What makes a game good?

What makes a game good? It seems like a straightforward question, but there's definitely not a straightforward answer. There's probably no single answer to that question either, but the debate will continue on.

Often it starts with a simple comment like, "The more I think about it, the story makes the game," or, "It's all about the controls." Some even chime in with, "The graphics make it good. That's why people keep buying the same game with better graphics..." Inevitably, someone comes along with, "No way, it's the gameplay that really matters."

This is usually followed by everyone else agreeing that, "Oh yeah, it's definitely the gameplay."

What does that even mean?

For some, it's the responsiveness of the controls, for others, it's the mechanics and rules to the games; another group consider it the speed and action of the game.

Tic-tac-toe is a game, but I've never heard anyone say that it has poor gameplay (or good gameplay for that matter). We could apply to some of the previous definitions:

  • The controller response seems slow, since I'm using a piece of chalk instead of a pencil.

  • Tic-tac-toe is too slow, there's not enough action.

  • The game's rules are so shallow that only a limited number of possibilities exist, so the game gets boring fast.

While I'm inclined to think that most people associate the gameplay with the third option, it doesn't explain everything.

People will say point-and-click adventures have good gameplay. What? Myst was one of the highest-selling games in its time. You point, then click, then watch something happen. Then you point, click, and watch something happen.

The Sims is a game that you don't really have to play. Throw a bunch of variables together, sit back, influence a couple of things, and see what happens. Yet it's still considered a good game and was a huge seller as well.

So, the problem with using gameplay is that it's an all-encompassing term that doesn't have a specific definition. It's too broad to have any real meaning in discussion of what makes a game good.

Now, it's way easier for people to define what doesn't make a good game. Arguably, you could say that if it doesn't have all the things that make it a bad game, then it could be good. Well, at least it probably won't be a bad game.

Before I propose anything, let's see where we're at:

  1. It can't be the story. Games like Tetris don't have them and are still considered classics.

  2. It's not the graphics, an ugly Tetris is still Tetris and people still like it.

  3. It's not the controls, since playing a highly-responsive game of tic-tac-toe is still tic-tac-toe.

  4. Gameplay is too vague of a word to accurately describe what is good about a game.

Here's my goal: Find a set of criteria that is necessary for a good videogame. This should be valid regardless of the type of the game; it should work on everything from Tetris to Deus Ex to Virtua Fighter. With any luck, it'll be applicable to non-video games as well.

Alright, so down to business. What makes a good game?

First step: the rules or game mechanics. What makes one game different from another? The rules. Really, that's it. In a game, you're defining that things need to be done in a certain way or in a certain manner. In tic-tac-toe, we know the rules: You play on a 3x3 grid, with two players placing alternate symbols (usually an O and an X) on the grid.

The groundwork is laid, and we have to work within that. Tetris has a defined set of rules about fitting blocks together. Fighting games have a set of rules about what attacks can work against certain defenses, how long an attack takes to happen, ho much recovery time there is for an attack.

For a first-person-shooter, rules include gun damage levels and reload times.

Even point-and-click adventure games have rules. Maybe the most simple of all: click on a clickable spot.

If the rules are absolute shit, then the game will be absolute shit. Ever find yourself in a game thinking, "This is dumb, why would I have to do/want to do this?" and answering the question by never playing again? Regardless, there must be rules in the game.

Next on the list: There needs to be an objective or a goal. Now, the objective doesn't have to be "become a supreme being that can kill anything in its path." It might be something as simple as making it to the end of the level, seeing what's around the corner, or just outdoing (racing, fighting, whatever) your opponent.

If a game has no objective, then it's going to get bored fast. Ever play though a level while someone is building it. Maybe they post it to a website and say, "Tell me what you think of it so far." You get into the level and there's a hallway. You go down it, and there's nothing. That's it, that's where the level stops. There's no ending as such, it just simply stops.

How long do you think you'll play? My guess: 20 minutes tops. The average adult attention span is 20 minutes. If you can't find an objective or goal in 20 minutes, then you'll quit the game.

I see these goals working at two levels: a micro and macro level. Usually there's the "get to the end of the game" major goal, whether that's getting through all of the levels, obtaining the highest score, or collecting every single piece of the puzzle.

Micro level objectives would be done on a smaller scale, such as opening the next door or making sure a block fits in the correct position.

Let's take the empty level just mentioned and add a couple of doors to the empty hallway. Now you may ask yourself, "What's behind that door?" There's an objective - see what's behind the door. So you head over, and there's nothing. "Ok, what's behind door #2?" This has already made the game more interesting than the previous build.

Tic-tac-toe, with no goal, would end pretty fast. Just putting Xs and Os on a grid can only be entertaining for so long with no purpose.

Ok, so let's put #1 and #2 together. Now we have rules and an objective. This is where things may start to become fun. You have to accomplish an objective within a certain guideline or set of rules. Going back to tic-tac-toe, players will alternate turns placing their respective symbol on the grid until the grid is completely full or a player gets three of their symbols in a row. How you reach that goal is up to you. You've got place your symbol in a spot that allow you to get three symbols in a row.

This ties in with my next point: There should be problems and solutions. The human mind is brilliant at problem-solving. That's what it was designed to do, and whether people like to acknowledge it or not, they do seem to get joy of solving problems successfully. Some games implement this in a pretty straightforward way, explaining to you the goals and the solutions. While in others, the problems and solutions are little less so.

In an FPS, the problem is that there's a bunch of enemies that don't want you to reach your goal. The solution: kill'em all.

In Tetris, the problem is that these blocks don't fit exactly right every time, and you don't want them to fill up your screen. The solution: try to create horizontal lines of solid blocks so that they're removed.

Back to tic-tac-toe, the problem is that while you're trying to get three in a row, your opponent is doing the same while trying to block you. The solution: Be the first to get three in a row or block them from getting three in a row.

Building off this, we need interest. Now, I do believe that problems and solutions can be enough to build interest, but this isn't always the case.

Seeing the same old story every single time or the exact same problems and exact same solutions over and over would get old, too. So, another way to add interest is to let the player experience new things. In a platformer, this could be a new level. In an FPS, this could be a new monster with new challenges. In an adventure game, this could be a door that was previously closed off now opening up. Even being able to see the same old area in a new light with the addition of a new gaming element could do the trick. "Now I can jump higher and access different parts of level."

The fun in solving a problem comes from figuring it out. There's a tension that is built up, and then released when the problem is solved.

Games need tensions and releases to keep people interested. Some games, like fighters and FPSs will do this within their rules, by getting players into high tension situations. Having very little health in either game type while taking on a challenging (but defeatable) opponent will make for a tense situation. If you make a mistake, you're done.

Other games may have to pursue this through different means, like the plot or story. I think this is why in some games, the story seems like an essential element, yet others don't need a story at all.

A good narrative, whether is a book or a movie, is all about taking the reader for a ride. How's that done? With dips and valleys, with tensions and releases. Engaging music is the same way. Constant white noise, with no peaks or dips, is not interesting. A sports game, where the home team is simply blowing away the competition is not nearly as attention-grabbing as a game where the teams are battling back and forth. Don't believe me? Just listen to the crowd react when their team pulls ahead by one point with one minute to go.

So now, we've got some rules, we've got an objective, problems and solutions, and now tensions and releases. Only, if you give a person the option between taking a tense situation or an easy one, they'll most likely choose the easiest. If the results are the same, what is the point of trying the harder way?

So for the last ingredient, we'll add in risks and rewards. A game needs to reward players for playing the "right" way or by taking extra risks and accomplishing out of the way tasks.

For Tetris, this is built in. "If I build a hole for this particular shaped block, and that block pops up soon, I'll be in the clear." If the gamble doesn't pay off, then the player is in some trouble. There's a risk, but the rewards make it worthwhile.

Even in tic-tac-toe, there are tensions and release. "I put a symbol here, either I win with one more turn or my opponent will win. It all depends on how astute they are..." Is it worth the gamble? Let the player decide, but allow them to make the call, to feel the intensity in the air, to get the enjoyment of figuring out the solution and successfully win the game... or lose it all.

Clearly, this isn't the end-all, be-all, as I do have a couple of lingering thoughts:

First of all, why isn't tic-tac-toe the best game ever? It's very shallow and lacks the complexity to provide enough thought-provoking situations. Between experienced players, it's a draw every time.

Now chess, on the other hand, may be one of the most popular games of all time because of its complexity. Complexity is certainly important to an extent, but I think this is a topic for another day.

More specific to videogames are the controls. I think the important issue with controls is they don't hinder playing the game. The first issue is a technical one involving latency between the controller and the game. If Guitar Hero took a second to register button-pushes, no one would play it. The second is with the complexity of the controls themselves, which I think points the same direction as the tic-tac-toe to chess comparison and is best left to discuss another time.

To hear a little bit more from someone who actually knows what they're talking about, former Sonic the Hedgehog developer Hirokazu Yasuhara speaks to Gamasutra about the psychology of game design.

(Somehow this had to tie into Sega, right?)

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