Most people I know, people that have played more than smartphone  games, can usually pick out at least one game that truly has left a big  mark on them, and everybody does it with ease. Knowing that sometimes we  agree on how great a particular game was, can we define what makes a  game great?

I’m assuming you relate to this concept of having a  favourite game or having played one in the past that you really, really enjoyed.

I could tell you at least two titles that have  marked me and that I would gladly play when I’m bored (or when I have  some free time), but mine would differ from yours. What matters is that  they are very distinct from each other: one is a Real-Time Strategy game  and the other is an MMORPG. One is played with modern tanks and  infantry, and in the other you play a medieval character. They were both  great for me while still being very different, but can we identify any  patterns? Is there any recipe for a great game?


To answer this question I want you to meet Marcelo.  We met at college and we talk a lot about games because he is an avid  gamer. He is particularly fond of trying out every game he can get his  hands on, and by doing so he has become somewhat of an expert in the  matter. In order to keep trying out new games and being able to sleep at  night, he never plays a game for too long, only enough to finish it.  For that reason, most games that heavily rely on ranking in leaderboards  or that are otherwise repetitive like Counter Strike or Dota 2 get  deleted soon enough. But still, I’d say he is probably the wisest person  I know that can answer the question. But for someone that has played  literally hundreds of games, can there be any great ones?

I have  asked him before if there had been any game he found to be particularly  good, any one that stood out from his collection. I can’t exactly say it  in his own words, but it was something like:

There are plenty of great games, each one uniquely different.

It  might also be interesting to note that Marcelo isn’t in it for the  graphics. He plays on his very humble notebook or on a PS4. Pretty  graphics, if his hardware can take them, are nothing but a bonus.

So  my theory is that there is a pattern out there, something that makes a  game great other than pretty graphics, and I’m definitely interested in  knowing what it is.


In my head, I imagine a list of  specific characteristics that combined would make a perfect game. Games  we think are great have at least one of those characteristics, and  again, my plan is to list as many as I can.


And so I’d  like to present you the key features that me, Marcelo and other friends  that later joined the discussion agreed on what makes a game great,  expanded by my own thoughts about them.

NOTE:  I’ve been told that this list mostly relates to MMORPGs, which doesn’t  surprise me because I’m currently interested in learning more stuff  about them. Take it with a grain of salt, knowing that there might be  some important topics left out for other types of games.

Longevity

Game  designers have to make their game playable for as long as possible to  make a great game, not only to reap profits. If it’s a dead simple game,  they can add leaderboards with a touch of social media and try to  create some competition (i.e. flappy bird), or, if it’s a full fledged  MMORPG, create bosses, PvP arenas and loads of other things to do once  players reach the maximum level. Aside from skills and character level,  there should be other trainable skills like smithing, riding, mining,  etc. Some players compete in more aspects than just PvP, and having more  aspects they can compete for is a big plus.

Overall, it seems  that easy mobile games like Temple Run or Subway Surfers, despite being  highly repetitive, are played for a long time in search of the highest  score. However, outside of the mobile world players are very less  susceptible to repetitiveness inside games if there isn’t any reward  like ranks. I can give you an bad example of this: something that  happened with an MMORPG called Metin2. A while back players waited for  over a year for a new expansion with two or three new maps, but when the  development team delivered, tens of players quitted. The reason was  that aside from dungeon bosses and new gear, every game monster was a  reused model from previous maps, with new names and higher stats.

Also  important to mention is that it’s easy to keep players around if  they’re already familiar with a certain game. It is not uncommon for  players, after reaching the maximum level and when feeling bored, to  start over again, using a different character so they can play with a  new class. For this to happen, there should be enough differences  between classes in order to make people wonder what it would be to play  other classes, but not so much that players have a hard time remembering  what each one does best.

Another thing that could take up an  entire book chapter is easter eggs. As soon as players find out that  there are hidden easter eggs, they will scour through every map corner  in order to find them. This is something that you will generally want,  because it counts as one thing they can do when they start to feel bored  with the game. Creating engaging side-stories or showing teasers about  untold game lore are good examples of how easter eggs can keep players  busy for a while. There are many examples of game companies that have  done this right, but I’d say Rockstar and Blizzard are good examples. To end this topic, I’d like to give an example Marcelo gave me while  playing Uncharted 4. In the game you have to play a PlayStation 1 game  made from the same game studio as Uncharted, one that was pretty famous  back in the day: Crash Bandicoot. Only someone that has played Crash  enough to know it was made by Naughty Dog will understand the reference,  but since the game was a lot of fun it wasn’t particularly risky.

Character building and customisation

Like  I said before, games should have different character types. Some games  even change the way a certain character looks depending on the class the  player chooses, which adds a layer of customisation! Imagine, you  choose to be a dwarf, but later you decide to choose the wizard class,  so you get a pointy hat for example (let’s hope the game designers have a  little more taste than that). On the other hand, there are also games that let you choose how your  character looks from top to bottom — eye color, height, hair style, and  everything in between. That way characters become unique to players, and  by making characters their creation, players get more attached to the  character.

I’ve mentioned this in the previous section, but it  also fits in this category. Players should be able to build their  character upgrading the traits they like best. If in the real world  there are a dozen ways to make money, so should it be in the virtual  world. A diverse environment might imply an exponentially harder  implementation, but players will welcome the choice between a large  number of options to farm in-game currency.

Gear modifications and upgrades

This  is just a cool idea we’ve had from our experiences with past games that  I wanted to append to this section because I believe it is justifiable.

People  get attached to things easily, and even the best designers sometimes  make terrible looking armour and weapons. But maybe they’ve got it right  once, and players want to keep using a certain sword for how it looks  despite having better options. Games could also allow players to keep  enchanting their gear in order to make it last longer if they so desire.  There already are games out there with several versions of the same  armour where only the color changes, and players respond to that in a  very positive way. The keyword here is to make everything a personal  choice, so that players’ identities can be much more than their online  nickname.

Game feedback

I know, this sounds very abstract, but I’m going to focus on specific features.

To  create a truly immersive experience, games need a touch of realism so  that hours of gameplay feel like only minutes have passed. For this to  happen, the world they play in must react to them. If they get hit, the character they’re playing is expected to flinch. If  they use a skill, they might expect the enemy to get knocked back or to  scream in fiery agony. What I see here is a need for feedback, a need  to see that what they do is making a visible impact on the virtual  world. While this is present in most modern RPGs, doing it and doing it  right is very different in terms of user engagement. This area is  particularly grey, since what is engaging for me might not be for you.  It is noteworthy, nonetheless.

Sound is also very important,  although mentioned in detail elsewhere. There is a plethora of things  that can be done with sound only on the client side! You can add heavy  breathing when the character runs out of stamina, you can use different  walking sounds according to the type of terrain the player is on, and so  on. If you sit down for a couple of minutes with a pencil and a  sketchpad you’ll list out a bunch of sounds that could be added to even  modern games. Character sounds, in my opinion, contribute vastly to how  immersive a gaming experience can be.

Market and trading

Most  multiplayer games will have trading systems where players can exchange  items for gold. The way the market system is implemented will influence  the game’s success: some games even allow auctions, but what matters is  that there should be a rich buying and selling environment, where  players can make or burn fortunes.

This also depends on the game’s  business plan, but there’s a particular genre that requires a dedicated  paragraph: free to play games. These games have an “Item-shop” where  players can get access to paid gear, mounts and vanity items. There are  some games that do this wrong because they give too much power to paying  players, effectively transforming the game into what is usually called  “Pay to win”. Don’t get me wrong, paying players should definitely be pampered in free  to play games, but we should look at good examples and follow  them — all items in the Item-shop should be tradable. If players want to  spend their allowances in a game and sell the items they buy for  in-game currency, then so be it. I mean, after all, they are the ones  paying for the servers and basically telling the development team they  did a good job. League of Legends somehow manages to have an Item-shop  filled with vanity items: they give no bonus to paying players! Making  paying players look cooler than others without making them overpowered  is not a bad business model. Paying players are noticeably cooler, but  other players can also enjoy the game without seeing unfair advantages.

Another  thing I find myself wondering is the market value of game items. If I  started playing a week ago, I can’t even begin to understand what my  gear is worth, or if I’m being ripped off when buying or selling items.  So why not display online information about the current market value for  each item? It sounds hard to do, but all you really need to do is store  the average value at which items are sold at, and that would give  newcomers a good idea if they’re being asked for a fair price. This is  something that I’ve not really seen implemented, but that’s something I  imagine World of Warcraft might have.

Graphics and game art

I  could not mention games without mentioning graphics! Graphics have been  improving for years, but making a multiplayer game with awesome  graphics is a challenge. Developers (and designers) should work for  players with the best hardware in order to build a “future-proof” game,  but it must perform graceful degradation so that people with lower grade  hardware can still enjoy it. A lot of the impact that game scenes have  is directly related to graphics quality (high resolution textures, good  shaders, etc). Despite being something players obviously care about when wondering  which new game to play, I’m not going to dive deeper into it because I  believe content overcomes appearance when it comes to games (and many  other things for that matter).

Game story

Like  graphics, this is one topic I could not skip. Lore will always be  something that game fans will pay attention to, and just building a game  out of thin air could be a total disaster if there isn’t enough effort  put into creating the backstory for it. Gamers also enjoy good stories,  and I dare to say that producing a game with a pre-defined and well  thought out lore is a lot easier than adding things as you go. If there  is a story, all the game has to do is follow it.

Even if  developers don’t invest in lore, the main story has to be really good.  There are plenty of games out there with poor graphics that people play  for the story. It should be good enough on its own, and one way to tell  if people are enjoying it is to check how many players are following the  story through quests. If they’re not, either the rewards are poor or  the story just isn’t engaging.

The Challenge

Let’s  take a moment to think about Flappy Bird. Personally, I think it is  boring and impressively frustrating, but there’s no denying how viral it  became; and although I’ll never get why people spent so much time  trying to get the highest score of their friends, they did. The fact  that the game was so challenging is partially why people played so much.  It’s just something weird people do, I guess… 🙂

Some people just  appreciate the challenge, and that’s important in simple games. Flappy  Bird isn’t the only game in this category, there are many like it:  World’s Hardest Game (1 and 2), The impossible game, or even Dark Souls!

OST and Music

I  couldn’t even estimate how many hours of my childhood were spent  playing Command and Conquer games, but there has been something that has  stuck with me to this very day: the soundtracks. All of them.

Tiberian  Sun, Red Alert 2 and Generals all had amazing OST. The soundtracks just  made everything so intense that you wanted to play for a little longer.  It was truly astounding just how perfect the soundtracks fit with the  gameplay, and I don’t know if it’s just me in all my weirdness or if  this is normal — but listening to any soundtrack I get all these  memories about playing the game that were just awesome. Well, just  thinking about it makes me feel kind of old, but I‘d like to see if I  can make you feel it too.

There’s a good chance you’re a game geek  like me if you’ve read this far, and if you were more than a baby in the 90s then you probably remember this tune:

Pokémon Red, Blu and Yellow opening themes.

Huh, how about those memories? I hope that worked with you, but if not, you were probably born after these masterpieces!

Soundtracks  give you more than nostalgic memories, they set the mood. They build  momentum and make you aware of the game’s state. You might be in a fight  with a very intense music, and you know there are no more bad guys once  the music fades. The opposite is also true, if you are strolling  through the woods and after hearing some voices a battle music starts  playing.

Other skipped topics

I  have purposely skipped talking about what makes a game good for playing  with friends or in a group, and I’d also like to talk about game and  combat mechanics. The problem with these topics is that each could  produce another blog post by themselves, and I don’t want to take up any  more of your time. If you feel I should write a follow-up story about  this, please let me know.

I really appreciate you reading this far. As a token of my appreciation, here’s the end of the post.

Now seriously, thanks for reading!

I had a blast writing this. I’ll see you on the next one.