Most people I know, people that have played more than smartphone games, can usually pick out at least one game that truly has left a big mark on them, and everybody does it with ease. Knowing that sometimes we agree on how great a particular game was, can we define what makes a game great?
I’m assuming you relate to this concept of having a favourite game or having played one in the past that you really, really enjoyed.
I could tell you at least two titles that have marked me and that I would gladly play when I’m bored (or when I have some free time), but mine would differ from yours. What matters is that they are very distinct from each other: one is a Real-Time Strategy game and the other is an MMORPG. One is played with modern tanks and infantry, and in the other you play a medieval character. They were both great for me while still being very different, but can we identify any patterns? Is there any recipe for a great game?
To answer this question I want you to meet Marcelo. We met at college and we talk a lot about games because he is an avid gamer. He is particularly fond of trying out every game he can get his hands on, and by doing so he has become somewhat of an expert in the matter. In order to keep trying out new games and being able to sleep at night, he never plays a game for too long, only enough to finish it. For that reason, most games that heavily rely on ranking in leaderboards or that are otherwise repetitive like Counter Strike or Dota 2 get deleted soon enough. But still, I’d say he is probably the wisest person I know that can answer the question. But for someone that has played literally hundreds of games, can there be any great ones?
I have asked him before if there had been any game he found to be particularly good, any one that stood out from his collection. I can’t exactly say it in his own words, but it was something like:
There are plenty of great games, each one uniquely different.
It might also be interesting to note that Marcelo isn’t in it for the graphics. He plays on his very humble notebook or on a PS4. Pretty graphics, if his hardware can take them, are nothing but a bonus.
So my theory is that there is a pattern out there, something that makes a game great other than pretty graphics, and I’m definitely interested in knowing what it is.
In my head, I imagine a list of specific characteristics that combined would make a perfect game. Games we think are great have at least one of those characteristics, and again, my plan is to list as many as I can.
And so I’d like to present you the key features that me, Marcelo and other friends that later joined the discussion agreed on what makes a game great, expanded by my own thoughts about them.
NOTE: I’ve been told that this list mostly relates to MMORPGs, which doesn’t surprise me because I’m currently interested in learning more stuff about them. Take it with a grain of salt, knowing that there might be some important topics left out for other types of games.
Game designers have to make their game playable for as long as possible to make a great game, not only to reap profits. If it’s a dead simple game, they can add leaderboards with a touch of social media and try to create some competition (i.e. flappy bird), or, if it’s a full fledged MMORPG, create bosses, PvP arenas and loads of other things to do once players reach the maximum level. Aside from skills and character level, there should be other trainable skills like smithing, riding, mining, etc. Some players compete in more aspects than just PvP, and having more aspects they can compete for is a big plus.
Overall, it seems that easy mobile games like Temple Run or Subway Surfers, despite being highly repetitive, are played for a long time in search of the highest score. However, outside of the mobile world players are very less susceptible to repetitiveness inside games if there isn’t any reward like ranks. I can give you an bad example of this: something that happened with an MMORPG called Metin2. A while back players waited for over a year for a new expansion with two or three new maps, but when the development team delivered, tens of players quitted. The reason was that aside from dungeon bosses and new gear, every game monster was a reused model from previous maps, with new names and higher stats.
Also important to mention is that it’s easy to keep players around if they’re already familiar with a certain game. It is not uncommon for players, after reaching the maximum level and when feeling bored, to start over again, using a different character so they can play with a new class. For this to happen, there should be enough differences between classes in order to make people wonder what it would be to play other classes, but not so much that players have a hard time remembering what each one does best.
Another thing that could take up an entire book chapter is easter eggs. As soon as players find out that there are hidden easter eggs, they will scour through every map corner in order to find them. This is something that you will generally want, because it counts as one thing they can do when they start to feel bored with the game. Creating engaging side-stories or showing teasers about untold game lore are good examples of how easter eggs can keep players busy for a while. There are many examples of game companies that have done this right, but I’d say Rockstar and Blizzard are good examples. To end this topic, I’d like to give an example Marcelo gave me while playing Uncharted 4. In the game you have to play a PlayStation 1 game made from the same game studio as Uncharted, one that was pretty famous back in the day: Crash Bandicoot. Only someone that has played Crash enough to know it was made by Naughty Dog will understand the reference, but since the game was a lot of fun it wasn’t particularly risky.
Character building and customisation
Like I said before, games should have different character types. Some games even change the way a certain character looks depending on the class the player chooses, which adds a layer of customisation! Imagine, you choose to be a dwarf, but later you decide to choose the wizard class, so you get a pointy hat for example (let’s hope the game designers have a little more taste than that). On the other hand, there are also games that let you choose how your character looks from top to bottom — eye color, height, hair style, and everything in between. That way characters become unique to players, and by making characters their creation, players get more attached to the character.
I’ve mentioned this in the previous section, but it also fits in this category. Players should be able to build their character upgrading the traits they like best. If in the real world there are a dozen ways to make money, so should it be in the virtual world. A diverse environment might imply an exponentially harder implementation, but players will welcome the choice between a large number of options to farm in-game currency.
Gear modifications and upgrades
This is just a cool idea we’ve had from our experiences with past games that I wanted to append to this section because I believe it is justifiable.
People get attached to things easily, and even the best designers sometimes make terrible looking armour and weapons. But maybe they’ve got it right once, and players want to keep using a certain sword for how it looks despite having better options. Games could also allow players to keep enchanting their gear in order to make it last longer if they so desire. There already are games out there with several versions of the same armour where only the color changes, and players respond to that in a very positive way. The keyword here is to make everything a personal choice, so that players’ identities can be much more than their online nickname.
I know, this sounds very abstract, but I’m going to focus on specific features.
Sound is also very important, although mentioned in detail elsewhere. There is a plethora of things that can be done with sound only on the client side! You can add heavy breathing when the character runs out of stamina, you can use different walking sounds according to the type of terrain the player is on, and so on. If you sit down for a couple of minutes with a pencil and a sketchpad you’ll list out a bunch of sounds that could be added to even modern games. Character sounds, in my opinion, contribute vastly to how immersive a gaming experience can be.
Market and trading
Most multiplayer games will have trading systems where players can exchange items for gold. The way the market system is implemented will influence the game’s success: some games even allow auctions, but what matters is that there should be a rich buying and selling environment, where players can make or burn fortunes.
This also depends on the game’s business plan, but there’s a particular genre that requires a dedicated paragraph: free to play games. These games have an “Item-shop” where players can get access to paid gear, mounts and vanity items. There are some games that do this wrong because they give too much power to paying players, effectively transforming the game into what is usually called “Pay to win”. Don’t get me wrong, paying players should definitely be pampered in free to play games, but we should look at good examples and follow them — all items in the Item-shop should be tradable. If players want to spend their allowances in a game and sell the items they buy for in-game currency, then so be it. I mean, after all, they are the ones paying for the servers and basically telling the development team they did a good job. League of Legends somehow manages to have an Item-shop filled with vanity items: they give no bonus to paying players! Making paying players look cooler than others without making them overpowered is not a bad business model. Paying players are noticeably cooler, but other players can also enjoy the game without seeing unfair advantages.
Another thing I find myself wondering is the market value of game items. If I started playing a week ago, I can’t even begin to understand what my gear is worth, or if I’m being ripped off when buying or selling items. So why not display online information about the current market value for each item? It sounds hard to do, but all you really need to do is store the average value at which items are sold at, and that would give newcomers a good idea if they’re being asked for a fair price. This is something that I’ve not really seen implemented, but that’s something I imagine World of Warcraft might have.
Graphics and game art
I could not mention games without mentioning graphics! Graphics have been improving for years, but making a multiplayer game with awesome graphics is a challenge. Developers (and designers) should work for players with the best hardware in order to build a “future-proof” game, but it must perform graceful degradation so that people with lower grade hardware can still enjoy it. A lot of the impact that game scenes have is directly related to graphics quality (high resolution textures, good shaders, etc). Despite being something players obviously care about when wondering which new game to play, I’m not going to dive deeper into it because I believe content overcomes appearance when it comes to games (and many other things for that matter).
Like graphics, this is one topic I could not skip. Lore will always be something that game fans will pay attention to, and just building a game out of thin air could be a total disaster if there isn’t enough effort put into creating the backstory for it. Gamers also enjoy good stories, and I dare to say that producing a game with a pre-defined and well thought out lore is a lot easier than adding things as you go. If there is a story, all the game has to do is follow it.
Even if developers don’t invest in lore, the main story has to be really good. There are plenty of games out there with poor graphics that people play for the story. It should be good enough on its own, and one way to tell if people are enjoying it is to check how many players are following the story through quests. If they’re not, either the rewards are poor or the story just isn’t engaging.
Let’s take a moment to think about Flappy Bird. Personally, I think it is boring and impressively frustrating, but there’s no denying how viral it became; and although I’ll never get why people spent so much time trying to get the highest score of their friends, they did. The fact that the game was so challenging is partially why people played so much. It’s just something weird people do, I guess… 🙂
Some people just appreciate the challenge, and that’s important in simple games. Flappy Bird isn’t the only game in this category, there are many like it: World’s Hardest Game (1 and 2), The impossible game, or even Dark Souls!
OST and Music
I couldn’t even estimate how many hours of my childhood were spent playing Command and Conquer games, but there has been something that has stuck with me to this very day: the soundtracks. All of them.
Tiberian Sun, Red Alert 2 and Generals all had amazing OST. The soundtracks just made everything so intense that you wanted to play for a little longer. It was truly astounding just how perfect the soundtracks fit with the gameplay, and I don’t know if it’s just me in all my weirdness or if this is normal — but listening to any soundtrack I get all these memories about playing the game that were just awesome. Well, just thinking about it makes me feel kind of old, but I‘d like to see if I can make you feel it too.
There’s a good chance you’re a game geek like me if you’ve read this far, and if you were more than a baby in the 90s then you probably remember this tune:
Huh, how about those memories? I hope that worked with you, but if not, you were probably born after these masterpieces!
Soundtracks give you more than nostalgic memories, they set the mood. They build momentum and make you aware of the game’s state. You might be in a fight with a very intense music, and you know there are no more bad guys once the music fades. The opposite is also true, if you are strolling through the woods and after hearing some voices a battle music starts playing.
Other skipped topics
I have purposely skipped talking about what makes a game good for playing with friends or in a group, and I’d also like to talk about game and combat mechanics. The problem with these topics is that each could produce another blog post by themselves, and I don’t want to take up any more of your time. If you feel I should write a follow-up story about this, please let me know.
I really appreciate you reading this far. As a token of my appreciation, here’s the end of the post.
Now seriously, thanks for reading!
I had a blast writing this. I’ll see you on the next one.