What Makes a Great Game?

ScreenLooker is meant to be more than another video game site.  It’s founded on a love of games, and its most important goal is to make games as good as they can be.

But what defines a “good game?”  One person’s idea of a great game could be mediocre or terrible to another person.  That’s not going to change anytime soon, and that’s completely OK.  We all play games for different reasons, and we all have different interests, preferences, and values.

Famous video game characters
Famous video game characters. (Divich32 via DeviantArt)

That being said, there are definitely games that are considered great by most people who have played them.  There are games that have had massive impact on the industry, shaping the visions of future creators as the years go on.  In fact, we talk about a lot of these games on this site, but that’s beside the point.

The point is, there are certain characteristics that a lot of ground-breaking games share — these can be anything from the way the games play to how they were created.  In talking about game design, you have to look at the whole picture — mechanics, art, and inspirations all have their own roles to play in a game’s success.  This little article is meant to serve as a sort of guide: a collection of observations of what we think great games do right.  Hopefully, it will provide a glimpse of how we look at games.

So what are our steps to success?  Let’s take a look…


START WITH MECHANICS IN MIND


Think of some of your favorite games.  Try to describe what playing them is like, and most likely, the first thing you think of is the game’s mechanics.  What does the game do that makes it challenging, or fun, or interesting?  Think of Super Meat Boy: the game consists solely of running and jumping past deadly obstacles like saws, rockets, and lasers.  The game’s controls are a bit floaty, but extremely responsive at the same time.  To make it through takes precise timing, wall jumping, and repetition.  These mechanics define every second of the game, and they make the game memorable.

Super Meat Boy art
Super Meat Boy mixes charm and gameplay to create a legendary experience. (BagoGames via Flickr)

 

To make it a bit easier, imagine taking a game and removing all the art.  Suppose it had no music, no textures, and no story, but played exactly the same way.  Does the game still feel special?  Is there something about the way it feels, looks, or controls that makes it impossible to mistake for any other game?  Is it still enjoyable?

If the answer is yes, the game is something pretty special.  Playing it is a unique experience, and it has a solid foundation for the designer to build on.


TRY TO BE ORIGINAL.


Everybody likes new things, and the video game industry is becoming more and more democratic.  We’re reaching the point where designers will try anything to see if it works, and that’s a good thing.  When making a game, you might want to consider giving it a personal flavor.  If you have an unusual vision for your game, try to figure out a way to do it.  Would you normally expect to see a dungeon-crawling game based around rhythm that blends a medieval setting with a pixelated, 70’s-disco art style.  Well, that game exists, and it’s called Crypt of the Necrodancer.  And it’s a fantastic game.

Crypt of the Necrodancer art
Crypt of the Necrodancer is a perfect example of a crazy concept made into an awesome game. (BagoGames via Flickr)

 

Creativity goes a long way in making a good game.  Even if the mechanics in your game have been seen before, giving it a lovable personality can still set it apart.


BALANCE YOUR RESOURCES.


I think it’s unfair how many fun games are criticized for being too short.  This might be understandable if the game doesn’t offer enough time for the price it asks, but a short game is not necessarily a bad thing if it means the game is good.  It’s important to avoid padding out your game with extra content that barely adds anything to the experience.  It may contribute extra time, but it only brings the game down.  Personally, I would rather play a game with personality and depth than one with 150 useless levels, or a gorgeous open world with nothing in it.

Morrowind title card
Morrowind is a beloved classic for RPG fans, an immersive virtual world.

 

Take, for example, games like Super Smash Bros. Melee or The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.  These are games from the early 2000s that look dated, and sometimes feel dated.  However, these games have huge long-time fanbases that will tell you they are better than other games before or since, because they were designed to be deep, rewarding experiences despite being smaller than their successors.


MAKE YOUR GAMES SOMETHING GREATER.


I ask you to think about your favorite games again, the ones that really stick with you.  How do they make you feel?  Heroic?  Excited?  Confused?  Inspired?  Try to think of a game in terms of the feelings you want to evoke in the player…what other media does your game associate with?  What do you want it to remind people of?

 

This is pretty broad advice, so let me give some examples.  Skyrim is one of my favorite games because I grew up with a love of Celtic architecture and lore, and I’ve been a huge Lord of the Rings fan since I was little, so the snow-peaked mountains and rocky mountainsides remind me of Middle-Earth.

The sprawling world of Skyrim.
Skyrim is a game that creates an extraordinary world and puts you at the center. (Obtained via YouTube)

The Jet Set Radio games are some of my favorites because I have a lifelong love of jazz, rock, R&B, and even electronic music; I grew up in the early 2000s, and I loved cartoons and comics growing up, but more recently, I’ve become taken with the quirks of Japanese pop culture.  Jet Set Radio mixes all these things so beautifully that it feels more like a lifestyle than a video game to me at this point.

Not every game is going to speak to everyone, of course, but as a designer, your job is bigger than just building a solid game.  You have to add a personal touch, a human element that makes a game a work of art instead of a science project.  Games that are labors of love are the ones that change the medium forever.

Games Through Different Eyes