It’s something every gamer seems to know when they pick up a new game, but it’s not something easily quantified or described: Is this a good game? Reviewers point to everything from graphics to sales to replay value and a list of features, but are any of those accurate measures of what makes a good game? I’ve given this question years of thought and here are the three essential factors that I think make up a good game.
Above everything else, I think there are three universal factors that must be present in any game, from the smallest indie hit to the biggest AAA titles, in order for it to be a good game: Control, Compulsion, and Character. Other writers have their own opinions, from minimum requirements on how much money you need to spend to system availability and first-party support, but I think my definition is more inclusive, explanatory, and practical. Furthermore, I think this vocabulary is important to helping us all talk and think about games in more coherent terms.
Here’s how it all breaks down.
Control is what a game feels like when you play it. From the inertia and sliding of Mario’s running and jumping to the way Link’s sword clangs off of a hard surface in A Link to the Past, control is the feedback you get from pressing buttons and interacting with the game world. How responsive is your input when you try to do something with your character? Does it feel like you can actually change the game environment or are you more bound to the restrictions of the game?
Also known as friction, and described in great detail by Tim Rogers in one of my favorite and most influential game design posts ever, control is the bread and butter of any game. Control is what turns a combination of compulsion and character, which we’ll get to momentarily, into a game rather than a semi-interactive movie or storybook. You might also call control “mechanics”, describing it as the set of actions you can take while playing a game.
Control can be seen at its most basic level in fighting games, where having good friction by itself is almost enough to make the game great. Does your character do what you want it to, when you want it to? How does it feel when that kick makes contact with your opponent? Did it have that satisfying crunch you were looking for, or was there an absence of good feedback? I would bet money that any fighting game player can point out good friction and control even if they didn’t know what they were describing.
Beat-em-ups also put control at the forefront of the game experience. Historically, games like Double Dragon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (especially Turtles in Time) have had very crisp controls, giving you quick responses to every punch, kick, and swing of your weapon. A modern example of a beat-em-up with fantastic control is the popular Castle Crashers, by The Behemoth.
Control isn’t all buttons and it isn’t all direct actions, either: There needs to be a complementary set of audio and video to reinforce good control. If the right interactions are happening but the sounds or the visuals are off, the feeling of control can be completely disrupted. Try playing God of War with the sound off, for instance, and you’ll find that it just isn’t as fun or as satisfying because you’re not getting those visceral cracks and crunches as your weapons make contact.
It can also be combination of indirect elements, too. Take, for instance, the interface of a iOS. The way the menu pages scroll back and forth, how you can swipe up and down in a list using velocity controls, and the satisfying slide of changing a toggle switch are all good examples of effective control. If you could incorporate compulsion and character into navigating the iOS interface, it would probably be a fun game because it just feels good.
Strangely enough, wonky control is one of the biggest elements holding back many iOS games; some games absolutely shine with the unique capacitive touch interface while others are floundering for lack of a d-pad, analog sticks, thumb buttons, and shoulder buttons. When iOS controls either get more accommodating or iOS developers start getting more creative, I guarantee there will be more great iOS games.
Controls aren’t enough by themselves: You have to have a reason to play a game and that’s where compulsion comes in. What is it that compels you to pick up title A over title B, or even title A at all? This is a bit broader and more abstract than control, but it’s no less important. Games have been made with excellent control and character but failed for lack of compulsion.
So what is compulsion, then? I think it can be a number of different things, from high review scores and a good reputation to intriguing visuals or a captivating story. Compulsion can even be an interesting game mechanic.
On one end of the spectrum, take a game like the Deus Ex: Human Revolution. This game has a lot of background going for it, including the reputation of following up on the hugely successful original (let’s forget Invisible War for a moment), excellent review scores, and a conspiracist storyline that follows in the footsteps of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. On top of that, the world in Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one that just begs you to explore it. Then, once you’ve picked up the game, the augmentation system, optional missions, meaningful achievements, and wildly varied styles of play beg you to not only play more of the game, but to play it repeatedly.
From the other side, take a game like Minecraft. The voxel visuals are as bland as PC games from the early 1990’s, there is no storyline, and Notch was just another indie name with no real background or history. With Minecraft, it’s the mechanics that count. From building up a fortress limited only by the boundaries of your imagination to the creative group projects players have gotten involved in, the biggest compulsion for playing Minecraft is to just get more of the game mechanics. What new, impressive creations can you build next? Minecraft has the same compelling appeal as a giant, limitless box of virtual LEGOs and for some people that’s more than enough of a good reason to play and keep playing.
Compulsion can also be subtle, such as in the case of games like Canabalt. Canabalt’s one-button mechanic is fun, but countless clones have copied it without success, so what extra spices make Canabalt compelling? The dark soundtrack by Danny Baranowsky is a start, but so are the dystopic animations in the background. What is our hero running from? What kind of world is this? These are also aspects of character, but I care about playing as this character and imagining what’s going on in this world whereas I couldn’t care less about some miner running through a cave while collecting coins.
The third part of the gaming triforce is character, or what makes one game stand out from the rest. Character is everything from the soundtrack and art style to the storyline and icon in the App Store. How can I immediately tell that this is [Game] and not [Other Game]?
Mega Man has great character, for example. When you hear the music, you know you’re listening to a Mega Man game. Mega Man’s helmet, even with all of its variations, always looks like Mega Man’s helmet. Even the color scheme helps set Mega Man apart from similar-looking games. When you know, beyond a doubt, what game you’re looking at with barely any information at your disposal, you know that you’ve found a game with exceptional character.
Take the following examples:
Chances are that even if you’ve barely played any video games, you can still identify the franchises depicted in the above minimalist art, if not the specific characters, despite the lack of very much information. These are all examples of great or exceptional levels of character.
Character is just what makes your game unique. Great art style is important, but so are mechanics. How quickly would you recognize Tetris, for example, no matter what visuals and sounds you added to it? What about Portal or Angry Birds?
Having enumerated and described what I believe are the three pillars of great games, I think it’s worth pointing out the logical implications:
1) If you have solid control, strong compulsive factors, and unique character, you will have a great game.
2) No great game lacks control, compulsion, or character. There are no exceptions.
Does having control, compulsion, and character guarantee succes? No, it guarantees a great game. Not a day goes by where great games go completely unnoticed. This isn’t a formula to sell lots of games, but rather a formula by which to make quality games. Is a quality game more likely to sell than a bad game? Yes, but the relationship is probabilistic and not deterministic; likelihood is not a guarantee.
Keep these in mind when you’re playing games and see if they make sense to you.