Some Guidelines for Fun Games

Gavan Woolery 10:19 am on April 22, 2011 Counting comments...

Short post today due to work constraints, but I think it covers something that a lot of companies (apparently) don’t take into consideration.

Roughly 90 out of 2,400 PC games reviewed on Metacritic scored 90 percent or above.  (Similar figures apply to other platforms.)

In other words, less than 4 percent of games have received decent universal acclaim.

(I would have to admit that having universal acclaim is not always that great, in all types of media – many of my favorite games and movies have scored in the 80 percent range, or even 70 percent.  But nonetheless, there is something telling in how many bad reviews there are.)

You might say: “well, making fun games is hard.”

Making a game is hard.  Making it fun is only a little bit of additional work.  There is a concrete science behind game design that mostly boils down to an understanding of human psychology.

But it gets even easier than cracking psychology books – just look at game reviews.  What do people like in games?  What do they dislike?

Admittedly, a large part of this problem is due to how tight deadlines are in the industry.  Once a game is functional, it gets shipped.  Too often, whether or not it is fun seems to be an afterthought.

Another part of this problem stems from the fact that a large portion of the game industry is run by people who do not know how to design games.

So, I am going to make it very easy…at the bottom of this article, I have provided some guidelines.  Follow them (at least somewhat), or fail.

Orions or Magic the Gathering.

  • Never engage the player with the same scenario.  Chess always starts out the same, but gradually shifts towards a random scenario based on player actions.
  • The game should always be balanced, but not so balanced that all of the game elements are more or less equal.
  • There should be a decent amount of probability involved, but not so much that it is the primary factor in the game (Texas Hold ‘Em involves too much probability, IMHO).
  • Likewise, the player should always feel mostly in control of their fate – that is, whether they succeed or fail.
  • The game should abstract something from the real world (or a sci-fi / fantasy world).  Sudoku is challenging, difficult to master, and has many permutations, but it can wear thin quickly because it does not engage the mind on any level other than a mathematical/logical one.
  • The game should never waste your time.  This means having to repeat too much, travel too long, grind to slowly, or do other boring, time-consuming tasks.
  • Artificial constraints are bad.  Let players do what they want to do – even if it means killing and robbing NPCs.
  • Interactivity is good, even just a little bit.  Players are pleasantly surprised when objects actually respond to them.  In Ultima 7, you can move around almost any object in the world, bake bread, go fishing, and do a variety of other things (mind you, this was roughly two decades ago).
  • Emotional engagement is good.  I remember when I played Master of Orion, I found myself getting pissed at the other species, and I felt like I was pissing them off whenever I did something bad to them.
  • Hard-coding and scripted events are bad.  Gameplay should be emergent and based on simple, solid abstract principles from which random permutations can be easily derived.
  • Instead of throwing 100 incompetent enemies at a player, throw one very challenging one at them.
  • If you are making a game that revolves around horror, take away the player’s ability to defend themselves most of or all of the time.  This is very effective.
  • Even outside the horror genre, the player should never feel too at-ease (unless they are in a safe area).
  • Saving and loading can destroy challenge, but checkpoints are not always a good alternative.
  • Players want more than just good path-finding from your AI.  But at least have good path-finding if that is relevant.
  • This one is going to be controversial, but…realistic graphics are bad for fun, but good for telling a story or increasing immersion, where appropriate (as with a movie).
  • Unrealistic (or stylized) graphics provide more visual stimulus than realistic graphics do, because they provide a unique stimulus.  Imagine if you ate pizza every day – the stimulus would wear thin, obviously, and you would get sick of it.  We experience reality every day, we use games to escape it.
  • ASCII is not a good substitute for graphics.  I enjoyed all of the Rogue games as much as anybody else, but forcing players to decode ASCII characters ups the learning curve and limits what you can display visually.
  • Bright colors provide more stimulus than drab palettes.  This does not mean they have to be overly-saturated, but players tend to enjoy bright, varied palettes that make use of most of the color spectrum.  There are some cases where bright palettes are not always appropriate (but hey, if Plants vs Zombies could do it, why can’t you?)
  • Minimalism tends to be effective, in every area of game design and visual design.
  • Reality is not necessarily a good model for all game mechanics – much of reality is boring.
  • Plot/Story design should consider the concepts I laid out here.
  • [Feel free to add your points in the comments below and I will try to add them in here.]
  • There are many more points I can address but I will not try to think them all up at once – you can help me with that.

    At minimum, a game should be easy to learn, difficult to master, always challenging, and have many permutations both in the scenarios and the rule set.