What makes a hit game? Is it the narrative or plot arch? How about action or absence of it? Beautiful surrealistic landscapes or faithful setting reproduction, no matter how mundane? Or is it something much more pedestrian like simple word of mouth or people jumping on the bandwagon for fear of being left out on the water cooler conversation?

I’m not trying to cop-out here, but I say it’s a little of all of that and then some. Let me explain:

I’ll use the game I finished most recently as my first example, and that’s Team Bondi’s detective crime thriller, L.A. Noire. I loved this game on so many levels. The narrative was great, the plot arch was paced well (although I did have one issue, won’t get into it in this post, I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t finished it) and the settings really had me felling like I was a gumshoe in 1947 Los Angeles. The game oozed verisimilitude, and to me that’s paramount.

Unfortunately, as the game wore on, the detective work became somewhat mundane. I must’ve checked every picture, trashcan and desk in the entire city. By the last few cases I was simply going through the motions, picking up things I knew had no relevance to the case, but not wanting to risk missing that one case-breaking clue. Should Team Bondi or Rockstar be admonished for this play mechanic? In a word, no. Because that’s how it would’ve gone if I really were Cole Phelps investigating those cases. It’s not always going to be all glitz and gunshots, and that realism (while admittedly stretched my patience at the end) is what truly tied the rest of L.A. Noire together for me. As a matter of fact, it was quite refreshing to play a sandbox game that seeks to have the player uphold rules, rather than simply leave a swath of wonton destruction in their path.

The same for the Assassin’s Creed series. Many gamers decried the staleness of Altair’s pickpocket/listen/beat missions to gather information, but that’s what he would have done as an assassin in order to get the intel he needed. He surely wasn’t going to go around the Holy Land slaughtering Templars wholesale to get his information. Like L.A. Noire, Assassin’s Creed may have had some play mechanics that didn’t resonate with everyone, but it was the plot, setting, and actions that drew me in. We have far too many “me too” FPSes that task players with slaughtering armies of foes, not once taking into account the severity of their actions. In both Assassin’s and Noire, I’m overtly aware of the gravity of each situation. I see the mutilated bodies of victims as I search for clues, and I personally take on the weight of thrusting my wrist dagger into the lungs of an adversary, holding him quiet until he’s expired.

Another one of the reasons those games work so well is setting. As a writer, I believe setting is the foundation for constructing your character, plot and narrative building. Without it, the walls might as well come crashing down like a house of cards. With games, as in writing, players (readers) need to believe they are in the world that has been constructed for them. Anything that pulls them out of that world is a bad thing and risks losing them as a participant. For the sake of clarification, I use the term setting to also include ambience. Yes, it is possible to have setting without ambience, but any writer worth their salt will have both.

This is where a game series like Valve’s Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 shine. I know I’m not some twenty-something college co-ed named Zoey trying to keep myself and my three companions alive through the horrors of a zombie infested city, but I’m drawn in regardless. I wince as I see Bill take a blow from a rampaging tank, and I whisper quietly to Francis as I tiptoe past the hallway where a witch is wailing.

Few games can get by without some sort of action propelling the protagonist(s) against the antagonist(s), no matter how deliberately paced the plot may be. Heavy Rain is one title that immediately comes to mind. While on the whole the pacing is deliberately slow, the player must make some pretty gut-wrenching decisions along the way. As a parent, I’d like to think that I’d do anything for my kids, but I have to admit that I questioned myself for days after completing the game. Would I really be able to take a knife and remove my own digits? Shoot a man in cold blood who I knew was not involved in my son’s kidnapping? I’m sure I would do whatever it took, but just the thought that it was culled from my subconscious is unnerving. And that’s a good thing, it means the developer did its job admirably. Conversely, the frenzied and over-the-top action of Crackdown was a lot of fun as well. Who hasn’t dreamt of having superhuman abilities? Being able to take out an entire gang single-handedly or jumping from the top of a 5-story building and crushing the street below, forcing pedestrians to run and scream in fear were just two of the amazing feats the agent I’d become could perform. Not bad for a game that a lot of people were originally picking up to get access to the Halo 3 multiplayer beta. This definitely was a case where word of mouth made a game huge.

Based on what I’ve seen, I have to conclude that most multiplayer FPSes released these days fall into the “water cooler” segment I talked about earlier. I’ve not played competitively for quite some time, but it seems to me that little has fundamentally changed since the release of CS 1.6. Players today definitely seem more “me” focused than team oriented, and to me, that hurts the game. I also think that the multiplayer facet of many FPSes released now lack a coherent narrative and plot. To some people it may be enough to throw 32 of them in a map and let them riddle each other with rounds, but for me, not so much. I vastly prefer the single player experience because it makes me feel like I’m actually fighting for something other than to thump my own chest. Many of the non-gaming message boards I frequent talk about FPSes quite a bit (usually COD), and it’s never about the camaraderie or the tactical planning that goes into a successful multiplayer campaign, but more of the water cooler talk. That I can do without, but unfortunately, many of them can’t.

I do believe that development can be codified. Looking at certain developers, you know that when they release something, it’s going to have every “T” crossed and every “I” is going to be dotted. That’s not to say that every developer out there doesn’t give every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears to each project they individually work on. Quite the contrary. There are market factors at play that don’t always favor the dev teams as they strive to create the best experience they can. It is my sincerest hope that producers, and more importantly the game-buying public gets this and allows developers to do what they love. Let’s show the producers that we support longer development cycles if it means that we’re going to receive a vastly superior product at the end.

I’ve lamented a lot recently that my pile of unfinished games is growing larger by the month. This doesn’t bode well for me or the industry. What if I refuse to purchase the next installment in a game franchise until I complete the first one? There’s a lost sale there, or at least at full price. By the time I get around to getting the sequel, it might cost half of what it did at launch. I can remember a time when we’d get 3-6 must have titles released a year. Now it seems as though there’s at least 2 must have titles released a month. Multiply that across the 360/PS3/Wii/Mac/iOS platforms, and you can see why my “pile of shame” is hovering at about ~10 titles right now.

So, in conclusion, yes. I do think there is a quantifiable codification available in game development. Each dev team needs to find out what that means for them, and I hope that each publisher will give them that time in order to reach that understanding. I support longer dev cycles. I support crunch time being less crunchy. I ask that my fellow gamers do the same. Make that happen publishers, and I guarantee that everybody wins.