What makes a "good" game?

January 15, 2009

What makes a good game?

This question might be as hard to answer as "Define Fun?". Yes, it's very easy to give examples of good games -- consider Halo and Magic: The Gathering, to name two easy examples. But without working up much of a sweat I'm sure I could find people who hate either or both of these examples.

...clearly we're not talking about an exact science.

Examples of good or fun games are out there but they don't really answer the question. Two video game titles I produced were turned down by other equally qualified Producers as being junk, or unsolvable. They didn't see the "fun" or how either game would be a big seller. They were dead wrong: one sold 750,000 copies and the other won Game of the Year from two magazines. So clearly we're not talking about an exact science.

Often I have been part of "submission evaluation". This means I get to look at all the crazy stuff sent in to publishers. Most of the stuff is silly, non-publishable ramblings that always end with "my friends think this is great".

My two best examples of this are "SludgeMaster" and "Chase". In SludgeMaster, presented to Broderbund, you are the controller of a sewage treatment plant. Your job is to channel the "sludge" through the correct pipes so that it would be treated and turned into drinkable water. This was a product that cried out for "scratch & sniff", but it was not to be.

The second example is more typical. This was a two page submission to SEGA from a father and son. It read in part: "The player gets in a car, the Genesis controlled car takes off and the player car chases it". I can't exactly remember how they stretched that to two pages, but they did.

From every bad idea, there can come a great idea.

Both companies' policy at the time was to not respond to submissions that were not going to be produced. I think that's always the wrong policy. From every bad idea, there can come a great idea.

Recently I had a contract with a board game company to produce a game using their established format. I created a game based on fears or nightmares. Basically, I interviewed about 50 people and took notes on what scares them. Although they don't bother me some people are very scared of clowns, and spiders give me the willies, so both of these concepts were incorporated into the game.

I went on vacation for a week and when I came back another designer had added a card: "The Police officer grabs the young black man in a headlock and holds his Glock to the young man's head". I'm not sure how this designer felt this was a "common fear". Although the idea of some other designer adding needless violence to one of my games IS one of my nightmares, I really don't think the general public has this fear.

The designer said to me, as a way of defending his card: "There's violence everywhere". Which implies that violence equals fun, and adding this card would make the game more fun. Which leads to the sub question of our topic: "Why do people play games?"

I believe people play games to get away from the humdrum, and violence, of real life. That doesn't mean my games aren't violent -- they just don't depict violence the way you see it in the news. We can't get away from violence, but we can defocus it so that violence isn't the main goal. Let's remember that in Magic: The Gathering the goal is to kill the other wizard by lowering his life points from 20 to 0. In most D&D combat situations, the NPCs die, sometimes horribly.

So an acceptable amount of violence, depicted in a correct manner, does not take away from a game, but it doesn't automatically make it good, fun game to play. There are plenty of examples of good games where there is no violence at all. Settlers of Catan is great example; there are armies, but no war is required to win.

...part of what makes a game "good" is personal preference.

I think we can say that part of what makes a game "good" is personal preference. But really, only part. Most people have a genre that they just don't like, for whatever reason. I think we could go so far as to say that a larger percentage of people who play games can determine that a game is "bad," than will agree a game is "good".

After 25 years of making games I can play a game, video or paper, and know if it's a fun game within a few minutes. Some people must play the entire game to know for sure. I think it's like people who read movie script submissions at the major studios -- the script has to hook them in the first 3 minutes. Games are the same way for me: I'll give you 3 minutes, but if I'm not motivated to keep playing, I move on.

Games don't have to have a lot of "fiddly bits", as one designer puts it, to be good. They do need to have qualities that make sense. If in D&D I am in a sword battle and the NPC pulls out a BFG Rocket Launcher, I think there's a leap in "sense" that I'm not willing to make. Every time you ask your audience to suspend their belief system, you risk losing the game players who forked over their hard earned cash. The more their belief system is stretched, the more likely it is to snap, and then you have a game few will play.

As a game designer, we can't look at all the negatives as a method towards deciding if our game is "good". If we were to take that path, we'd end up with the melba toast of games, a game that doesn't offend us, but won't excite us much either. As a matter of fact, we can accept a few negatives, if the positive side outweighs it.

To answer the question, then, is to really not answer it. Given time we can more easily define what makes a bad game, but what is left over isn't necessarily a good game. Game design is not like cutting fat from a steak, it's about redefining what a steak is.

I'd like to challenge you to play your favorite games, try a couple of new ones, and then write me and tell me what you found to be fat, and what you found to be steak in each game.