26 January 2011

What makes a good game? - by Jamie Mann

      Posted 01/25/11 10:14:00 am  

The games industry has been developing and evolving for over 30 years now, and in that time a lot of games have come and gone; while it's impossible to put an exact number on it, there's probably been somewhere around a million.  However, of these, there's only a handful which have earned the mantle of being a great game, from classics such as Space Invaders and Pac-man to modern hits such as God of War and Wii Sports.

Do all of these great games have something in common?  It seems unlikely - after all, if you look at the movie industry, Seven Samurai has very little in common with Airplane!, but both are considered to be classics.

However, games are not movies: where movies are a passive medium, games are an active medium: the player is expected to participate.   As a result, I think it is possible to define a relationship between all of the great games, though the definition is quite wide-ranging and does get a bit stretched at times.

Better yet, this definition can be summed up in a single word.

Depth.  Or more precisely, optional depth.

Note that this isn't the same as complexity: exploring depth may mean dealing with more complex elements, but games which only offer complex gameplay are generally relegated to niche markets.

Nor is it the same as adding more content: shallow gameplay is still shallow gameplay, regardless of whether it takes one hour or two to work through the content.

Instead, I'd define "deep" games as those which offer multiple gameplay elements which the player is free to use either individually or collectively.  And the greatest games are perhaps those where the player integrates these options in realtime, adapting and improvising on the fly.

However, this sort of definition is both dry and vague.  So, let's take some examples of "classic" games and see if/how they offer depth.

Pong is perhaps the oldest mainstream classic game (Space Wars doesn't really count, by dint of being restricted to academia/big business) - and it's also perhaps an exception to the rule, as there's virtually no depth to the gameplay at all.  On the other hand, it can be argued that Pong became popular mostly because of it's novelty and few people tend to play it today.

It took Arkanoid (by way of Breakout) to add true depth to the concept, with its multi-angled bounces, bonus items, gambolling aliens and multiple brick types.  Fundamentally, you're still bouncing a ball off a bat, but there are both realtime and long-term elements for the player to pick and choose between.  Do you get the powerup (at the risk of missing the ball)?  Do you try and target a specific path through the bricks to maximise destruction?  Are you ready to deal with a ricochet from an alien?

By contrast, Space Invaders is only a little bit younger, but offers a great deal more depth.  The core goal is to shoot all of the aliens, but the way in which you do this can have a knock-on effect.  You can take out the bottom row, eliminate the "leading" column or simply strike at targets of opportunity, but each of these carry a risk, especially as the aliens speed up their movements.  You can hide beneath the shields - which restricts your aim - or try to dodge between bombs.  You can try and take out the UFO for bonus points, but this leaves you vulnerable for several seconds, thanks to the single-shot gun.  There's many potential strategies, and the player is free to explore all - or none - of them.

Similar applies to Pac-Man.  You can just move about the game collecting dots, but you can also play strategically, manouevering through the ghosts to grab the power-pills and bonus items to maximise your score.  The true stroke of genius in this game was to make each ghost behave in a different way, increasing the number of potential strategies: the player can choose to "taunt" Pinkie while running away from Clyde.

Robotron offers a similar, if more flexible experience: the player is freely able to move about the arena and is also able to actively target and kill enemies at any time, in any direction.  However, there's multiple types of enemy, each with their own behavioural patterns, and there's also the humans which can be optionally rescued.  The only way to deal with this is to treat all of these elements as a gestalt, adapting your tactics on the fly to deal with the ever-changing landscape.

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