Wednesday, November 01, 2006

What Makes a Game Good?

Outdated, go here.

I've run scads of live games. RPGs, LARPs, card games. While I can't claim they were all good, they have almost all been popular.

I spend a considerable amount of time trying to figure out why person A loves the game but person B dislikes it. And I think I now know. I'm going to tell you in as short a post as I can, as an apology for the extremely long posts earlier in the week.

The thing that makes a game good is the underlying rule set.

Everything else is fluff.

"Blah blah blah, heard it."

No, please understand: everything else is meaningless.

I run games with the weakest, least-defined plots, the most irritating overhead, the most infuriating lack of GM guidance. Yet they are unfailingly popular and a majority of the players enjoy them. They go to astounding lengths to work around the nearly infinite weaknesses in the actual GAME...

Because I provide the rule set. And the rule set provides the gameplay.

If the gameplay is deep enough to keep the players interested, they will invent something to do. They will make a plot. They will ignore irritations and gleefully tackle self-motivation.

Your job is to provide a killer rule set.

Everything else is fluff.

13 comments:

Mory said...

You're wrong. There is no one formula for a good game- a good game is any game which does what it tries to do well and entertains the player, in any fashion, while doing so. A game with the most oversimplistic rule set can still be incredible if it has a brilliant story on top. A good Myst game could succeed without any of its puzzles or interactivity solely on the basis of its world design. The shallow and flat-out boring gameplay of Mario Party makes for a great game because it makes for a great social experience.

Sure, games can succeed solely with gameplay. If that's what a game is trying to do, more power to it. But that's hardly the be-all and end-all of game design.

Craig Perko said...

Give me an example of a game that holds up well despite a lack of good play mechanics.

Patrick said...

I think you're rigth in a Zen truism kind of way, but as far as non-live, digital games go the fiction is extremely important to the game's popularity. Look at Diner Dash, the game's mechanics are great, the timed queues line up to a consistent reward schedule that explodes with multithreaded tasking later on, plenty of depth and so on. But if you replaced the satisfied faces of the customers with the image of a clock fading out, you'd have a prototype, not a succesful IP.

Mory said...

Name pretty much any good Japanese RPG, and you'll find a boring, repetitive mess of gameplay which wouldn't be fun for five minutes if it didn't have a good story justifying its existence. It's gameplay is only worth anything in that it allows the story to be there.

I've already mentioned Mario Party, which I have had a lot of fun with. But if you look only at the gameplay itself, it's not exactly impressive. A bunch of shallow minigames, separated by a primitive board game in which you spend a quarter of the time hitting dice blocks and the other three quarters watching other players hit dice blocks. The gameplay is good because it allows you to arrange a fun party around it. The gameplay, without the social context, is worthless.

The majority of Riven (and in my opinion, the part of the game most worth playing) is walking and looking. Deep.

I'm not saying these are bad play mechanics- they're good because they serve the more important stuff well. What that important part is depends on what the game is trying to achieve: it could be story, or socializing, or world design. But the play mechanics in these cases are not the most important parts of the game.

In fact, you could have a good time without any gameplay at all. The story of an RPG could be detached from its gameplay and still be enjoyable; socializing can certainly be fun without minigames; Myst's worlds could be appreciate in some sort of real-world 3D model.

Craig Perko said...

Re: Patrick:

What, you mean, like the half of the top-selling casual games whose pieces are represented solely by colored blocks?

Graphics are good for that initial appeal, and they're good for giving marketing a hook, but give me an example of a game which has lasting appeal despite poor gameplay.

I can give you dozens of examples about games with poor graphics but solid gameplay. Cake Mania, for example, has really crappy graphics. Puyo Puyo has only enough graphics to make it unlikely to make your eyes bleed. Zuma, too.

Craig Perko said...

Re: Mory

I'll post about it. :)

Patrick said...

I'm afraid you are wrong about the best sellers, each and everyone is distinguished from the competition by a compelling fictional pull. I'm not argueing that you can make a beautiful game that plays like crap and have it sell well, it'd be very hard to find examples of such that last very long on the seller charts. What I'm argueing is that you need BOTH in order to hit. You do rules very, very well, and thats why I love working with you, but the whole reason why production involves multi-person teams and sums of money is that production values are needed to deliver a game's rules/play into the public imagination.

Consider your earlier essay on how rules aren't the end-all, just a buerocracy towards a focus which gains meaning from the outside. It seems there is an inconsistency here.

Craig Perko said...

The art is simply an initial pull. I'm talking longevity.

Show me a casual game with some longevity that relies on graphics. To my knowledge, the best-selling long-term casual games are things like Solitaire, sudoku, bejeweled, bookworm...

Awe-inspiring graphics, all of them.

Craig Perko said...

Oh, as to the bureaucracy thing, I'm actually building up to that. :)

Patrick said...

I'd argue that Diner Dash relies on graphics to reinforce the social metaphor of the gameplay, and that this strengthens the game as you get more involved.

Another thing you have to consider is a casual game that gets a lot of traffic but doesn't move a lot of units (or is copied in various forms, I mean there's a underwater Bejeweled, a Jungle Bejeweled ect.)versus a casual game with the holistic pull, something lasting, that drives the hundreds of thousands of unit conversions that the Diner Dash franchise has enjoyed.

Also, you can play lots of Sodoku for free, but Zen of Sodoku is doing well for its graphics AND how those graphics reinforce the feedback of a smooth user interface (and kudos to Charlie Cleveland for implementing that sublte but significant competetive advantage).

I think we're practically in agreement, just not theoretically.

Craig Perko said...

Sure, why not.

Mory said...

Casual games usually don't have much meat on them, so to speak. You only play 'em for a few minutes at a time, so there's not enough time to do anything really meaningful with it, and the rule set is, as you say, all that matters. But casual games are hardly indicative of the rest of videogames.

Craig Perko said...

You still haven't given me a good counterexample.