This is a question which can instantly evoke a sense of dread in the game design fraternity. This is largely due to the assumption that any designer worth his/her salt should immediately know the answer and regale the inquisitor with definitive pearls of wisdom on the subject. But the truth is, there is something quite slippery about game design and no clear answer for the question above. In fact trying to do so could be compared to attempting to nail jelly to a wall. So understandably game designers can suddenly look a bit broken when asked the question. This is largely because it involves summoning every ounce of every experience they’ve ever had and distilling it down into a few choice words on how they try to make things fun for people. In other words it’s a bit of an impossible ask, but hey, I like a challenge so my very own distillations on what makes a good game are below:
Engagement - Players should care about everything that is happening during play. Great games demand attentiveness to the clear and subtle shifts in game-play to achieve success:
“I have to pay attention or I’ll lose”.
Meaningful Choices - The decisions that players make during play should affect the outcome of the game. The more this impact registers with the player/s, the greater the sense of attachment they’ll have to it. People tend to care more for things they’ve had a greater influence on.
“Everything that I and other players do, matters”.
Purpose - Everyone likes to feel they have a purpose and games are no different, players will ask questions like; why am I doing what I’m doing? Why is it important? Any confusion in this area will detract from the game experience. The best games have clear goals. People don’t like to feel that they’re having their time or effort wasted, having a clear and meaningful purpose alleviates this.
“I know what I have to do and it’s important”.
Depth - There should always be something more for players to learn, either about the game or themselves or indeed other players. Mastery of ones actions is a compelling proposition for people because it reveals a refined view of things that can give us advantage over others. Great games have plenty of depth that allow for players to demonstrate this.
“Playing this game gives me a sense of empowerment”.
Accessibility - Players should never feel overwhelmed. An accessible game will always make the player/s feel in control whether a beginner or an expert. The best games reveal complexity with mastery rather than front-loading a player from the start.
“I feel like an expert at this game”.
Bounceability - This denotes the positive feeling players get at the end of a game where they strongly feel they can do much better next time they play. This is often combined with immediately wanting to play again and is tied very closely with the qualities of addictiveness. Evoking this from a player is a very strong sign of an awesome game. Not only does the player feel like they’ve learned from the experience but critically they also feel it is instantly actionable.
“Next time will be different, I’ve got this sussed”.
Player Expression - Everyone is inherently unique, games that allow players to demonstrate individual expression, talent or flair tap into an innate human disposition to show societal value. People enjoy games that allow this to be demonstrated in an obvious way.
“That chess-master clearly has an incredibly logical mind”.
Flexibility - Fantastic games can accommodate multiple approaches and still deliver. Well balanced mechanics form a self regulating system that always give a fun experience that feels unique to the player/s.
“I always have a fun game”.
Value - The best games give players multiple returns on their investment and I don’t mean financially, I mean in time and effort. This can be tangible, but more often it’s intangible; either way players always feel like they’ve got something out of the game. They feel rewarded for playing.
“I’ve got so much use out of this game”.
That final point is where I’ll end because it is one of the most crucial. What has value to people is that which is useful to them. This sounds cold, but actually, what is useful to people comes in many guises as well as games. Great music, art, films, poetry, people, theatre, books, TV alongside many other mediums found across our collective cultures are all useful because they help people find meaning to their own lives. They refine and distill messages, stories, emotions and lessons, they allow people to frame their own life experience in a meaningful way. Ultimately, this is all that people are searching for. The joy of each medium is the way in which it does it. The question we have to ask ourselves as game developers is how do our games fulfill this function? How are they useful to people? I hope this article has gone a small way to explaining how the best ones do.