Today’s games come in shiny disc packing gigabytes of fancy graphics, great music and complex graphic engines made to be played in the latest high end consoles and PCs. And guess what? Most of them suck! They do. You spend upwards of $60 (U.S.) and in a day or so you are selling them back to the retailer at half the price.
Why? How come? What’s going on here?
Well, the problem is that many game designers forget or ignore the basic axioms of video game design. They are so wrapped up on their wide palette of shades or how well the new physics engine simulates a body reacting to an explosion that they ignore basic game play. Which brings me to my Axioms of Video Game Design:
- Game play is the thing: Yes, good, solid, basic game play. In fact, everything below this bullet point is about game play and the game experience. I don’t care how many compressed terabytes of data you devoted to the fairy forest of fire, if the game play sucks, your game sucks, and I’ll be asking for my money back.
- Easy to learn, hard to master: From the time of the one lever+red button joystick successful video games have followed this formula. I should not have to spend fiver hours wading through tutorials just to know how to start the game. I know that my controller has about ten different buttons, I shouldn’t have to use them all just to walk from Point A to Point B. I do expect that as I master the controls and the environment, the game challenge adjust accordingly. And please no cheap tricks like needing to reload a saved game 200 times in order to get lucky just once so I can finish the game, or stripping me of my hyper-space arsenal (and cash) mid way through the game when I’m facing a horde of enemies that are far tougher than the ones at the begging when I only had a crowbar. In other words, I turn on the machine, grab the controller and start playing, just that simple. Oh, for god’s sake, do play test the controller’s map, I’m playing a first person shooter, not Twist, ya twit!
- Save anywhere, at any time: Save Points? Really? At this stage of the game? Come on! I’m playing a game on a machine with a 300Gb+ hard drive and game etched on a Blue-Ray DVD. Remind me again why are we still doing the save point thing? I wouldn’t mind it so much if there was a mission save feature or quick save button, that way I don’t walk/run/ride back from the last save point to the beginning of the mission or have to do the whole thing over again because I failed to pick up that small note under the table that no one would know about unless they had a game guide on their lap.
- Getting my money’s worth: I paid good money for this game, I expect to get said money’s worth. That means that I expect somewhere between 30-120 hours of game time. Yeah, you heard me! At around $60+ (U.S. +tax) I should have at least one a full hour of game time for every $2 spent on your product. Either reduce the price to match overall game time or give me my money back! And again, no cheap tricks, like excessive travel times between locations, or unwanted detours or scenarios that have to be rebooted again and again, just to eat up time. I want ACTUAL game play, not long frustrating hours of wondering about. Which leads me to my next bullet point.
- Solid single player experience: “But it has great multiplayer!” Yeah, so what! Unless the game is specifically made as a multplayer game (MMORPGs for example) I don’t want to hear about. I want my solo campaign to stand on it’s own. Multiplayer is just something developers tack on the game. And believe me, there are so only many times I can play capture the flag or death match, been doing that since DOOM. A great multiplayer certainly gives depth to a game, I don’t deny that. But if that is all there is, then market it as a multiplayer/online game. Besides I find that if the single player experience is weak, then overall the game is weak, regardless of how many people you cram in a map on Xbox live.
- Stick to a core game mechanic: Sure, sandbox games are all the rage, but that doesn’t mean your game has to be one, especially when you pretend it’s a sandbox game but is so heavily scripted that if the player goes outside the lines, it’s instant death/game over. Layering game elements from different genres is fine, as long as they don’t disrupt game flow. I shouldn’t have to go from shooting zombies on the head to a coin collecting mini-game and then have to pilot a fighter plane. I’m sure it sounded great on the conference room, but in real life, not so much.
- Easy on the cinematics: Yes, I do have an N-envy-dia 54000 game card that can display a bazillion colors per dot on a 50ft. flat screen. Hooray for me! Explain to me (again) why I spent five hours of my life looking at cut-scenes or quicktime events? This is not a James Cameron movie, this is a game, and I want to play it! Sure, I can understand that you spent six months of your live (and a broken marriage with alimony to go with it) on getting the perfect shine of the darker than black hair on the hero’s love interest just right for that one cut scene. I understand, but I don’t give damn! There is a difference between pretty cut scenes and actual game play. Learn it, love it and good luck with wife #2.
- Sequelitis: Oh, so your last game was a run away success? Good for you! But you know what, that was back in 1992, this is 2010, would you mind changing things up a little? Please? I know that you want to go with what works. Makes perfect sense, and in the case of say, GTA, it worked. For awhile anyway. But the guys from Rockstar knew when they could not longer stretch a game any further and rebooted the whole thing. Also if I, as the player, I’m supposed to be playing the same character from the last game, why do I have to start at level 1 again, unknown, unloved, and broke? SSI did the whole character porting thing back in the 80′s with their gold box D&D games. I would think that with massive hard drives, online servers and game cards (those are still around?) it shouldn’t be much of a problem to just keep my character, right?
- Nail the ending: Don’t get nailed by the ending. You have plenty of space, and a huge budget, why don’t you hire competent writer’s to write a full, comprehensive storyline from beginning to end? You gave me 30+ hours of game play, why is it that you sucked the life out of the game in the last five seconds? I play games, in part, because I want to know what happens next just for the same reason I read books. A stupid, bland or nonsensical ending just ruins the experience. So dial back on the graphics budget and hire a half decent writer, please?
- Don’t over promise: I know you spent hours of your life developing this one game. Is that Wife #3 on the line? But enough with the endless sneak peaks, developer trailers and the like. More likely than not, either you’re going scare away potential costumers who don’t like or understand how complex the development process is or you’re going to over promise and disappoint when you fail to deliver.
- KISS: Above all else, Keep It Simple, Stupid! Start small and build from there. All gimmicks and hardware are useless if your basic game play sucks.
In fact, the popularity of retro gaming, online flash games and such platforms as Nintendo’s Wii and DS show that good game play, married with a solid story line and simple to use control scheme does will sell games. It’s just that simple. And it wouldn’t kill you to run your game through a video game cliche checklist before ship it out, just in case.