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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Game Design: What Makes A Good Game?

We've talked at length about certain facets of good games, but we've never really crystallized what makes a game great.  It's easy to say that Game X is "good" and Game Y is "bad," but what makes them good or bad?  What is the objective of a game, and what are dealbreakers for games?  These three things end up tying together to make a great game, and you can't have one without the other.

1)  Controls.

The amount of enjoyment you have with any given game is directly related to how well the game controls.  Why do controls matter so much?  If your controls are poor, you cannot progress in the game with any degree of enjoyment.  This stymies the more important part of game design.  Controls can make a good game great (Super Mario Bros) or a great game merely good (the Gothic series).  However, controls mean different things for different genres and it's important to note what those things are.

For instance, in a stereotypical RPG, walking around in an overworld or in a dungeon doesn't require fancy controls.  You can get away with weird control quirks, like a slow walking speed or sluggish movement controls.  What you absolutely CANNOT get away with is poor menu design, since 90% of the game resides in those menus, battle or otherwise.  Likewise, a game like Resident Evil can get away with slow movement if you don't have to use fast reactions.  If you have to be able to react fast and you're not allowed to due to the sluggish controls, you've ruined your game.

Conversely, some styles of game rely solely on their controls.  Platformers have to be virtually pitch-perfect with their controls.  There can be no delay, no lag time whatsoever.  You have to have full and total control over the character at all times or risk ruining the experience greatly.  The Sonic games have demonstrated this:  Why the overall idea of the game might be okay, the controls usually lead to Sonic careening off a cliff or making some horrible mistake and getting killed.  Sonic games are now universally loathed.

2)  Challenging yet attainable goal achievement.

We've talked on this blog about the importance of goal achievement and how it adds to the overall satisfaction of a game.  There's a constant push/pull dynamic in gaming.  You want the player to progress, but at what degree and how fast?  Is it complicated or easy to progress?  Make the game too difficult and the gamer feels stupid and stymied.  Make the game too easy and the gamer doesn't feel they did anything special, which is the whole point.  They need to take you along, teaching you the skills necessary to proceed and then making a situation where you're able to use those skills.  Make those skills too complex and you've once again stymied forward progress.

I'm going to hold up Super Mario Galaxy as my example here.  If you take a person who's never played Galaxy and drop them into the final level, they'll be lost and die repeatedly.  Eventually, they'll give up and say, "I hate this game!  It sucks!"  However, for someone who's played Galaxy from the beginning, while the ending is challenging it's not horribly so.  You've been trained transparently throughout the game on what you need to do.  You understand how gravity works, you understand how to get Bullet Bills to work for you, and you understand how to defeat Bowser because you've done it already to varying degrees.

I'm going to use Mario 64 as my bad example.  There's one star on the Rainbow Road level called "Wall Kicks Will Work."  To get this star, you eventually get to an area where you're supposed to leap at a stone wall and hit the B button at the correct moment to send Mario flying in the other direction.  Sounds easy enough, but the timing and angle of the jump has to be perfect or Mario ends up just flinging himself against the wall and falling down.  It's much harder than it sounds because the game demands that you do it in a certain way.  You MUST kick and time your kick at the proper time and angle or risk failure.  It's frustrating and makes you not want to get that star.  Nintendo realized their error and fixed this skill in Mario 64 DS.  Now, the star is called "Wall Jumps Will Work."  You need to merely fling yourself at the wall and let Mario grip onto it as he slides down (which he does automatically), and then hit Jump again while he's sliding.  There's no mystical button press or strange timing involved.

Circling back to controls, this demonstrates that when you make your controls too difficult it stops people from enjoying the game.  When the taught skill is easier and more intuitive to use, goal achievement proceeds, satisfaction in the game rises, the gamer's self-esteem rises, and you've made a fan for life.

3)  Anticipation.

Great controls and good goals mean nothing if there's nothing to strive for.  This is where you can lump all the other supposedly "necessary" things about games:  Story, graphics, music, the works.  Those things are all in service of anticipation.

For instance, let's say you have marvelous bump-mapped graphics with full-screen AA, but everything in your game is grey and brown.  There's nothing special to see, and each level, as beautiful as it is, looks the same.  Will you continue?  Probably not.  There's nothing to look forward to.  Now, let's say that you have a less-detailed world but you're constantly handed new, inventive tools that you can use to manipulate that same environment.  Will you continue?  More than likely.  You'll be looking forward to the next tool and what else you'll be able to do to the environment.

The same applies with story.  The only thing a story is supposed to do in a game is provide anticipation.  That's why Final Fantasy VII's story worked: You wondered where it would go next and what was the true nature of Cloud, the protagonist, and Sephiroth, the antagonist.  That's why you didn't mind grinding levels or sitting through unskippable cutscenes.  They doled out just enough to keep you wondering up until the grand finale.

It's also why Half-Life's story works.  If you take Half-Life out of the video game realm and put it into the same terms of a book or a movie, the story falls flat.  However, in the sense of a video game, it's darn near perfect.  You don't know what enemy or challenge lies around the corner and you're eager to see the inventive nature of the game.  You want to find out what's going to happen next, and that makes the story good.  It's why Suda51's games still attract followers even if the design isn't always right.  You never know what audacious trick he's going to pull out from under his hat and that keeps you anticipating the next twist.  It's also why 2-D platformers really have to bring something new to the table to be interesting.  We've seen ice worlds and fire worlds and desert worlds a hundred times, so there's no anticipation.  They really have to try in order to give us something fun to see.  It's why a game like Kirby's Dream Land 3 is awful:  Once you've gotten past the first world, there are no new powers to see and no new ideas.  You don't care what happens next.

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If these three things seem a little simplistic, it's because, at it's heart, game design is a simple idea.  Give a person an obstacle course, the tools to manage it, and a reward at the end and they can't resist it.  Give a person a frustrating obstacle course, unwieldy tools and no bonus at the end, and they'll avoid it.  All the ancillary things that people THINK are important: Graphics, music, cool flashy combos, downloadable content and all the other buzzwords of the moment need to be in service to the three things listed above or they are worthless.