December 30, 2007

Defining "Good" Games

It's almost four o'clock in the morning, beginning the last third of a noon-to-noon LAN party. Right now I'm surrounded by a bunch of hardcore gamers and geeks playing Team Fortress 2 and a variety of obscure Warcraft 3 maps. I've decided to take this opportunity to poll this sample of the hardcore gaming public about "what objectively makes a good game". After a lot of argument about the proper use of the term "objectively", I got an interesting set of answers.

Seung said that the measure of a game is the quality of its storytelling and pacing.

Jason claimed that pure and simple "fun" was the main criterion, but replayability (offering a different experience with each play) is important.

Tom M. said that a good game includes "original" game mechanics and a strong sense of progress through the game, represented through either new gameplay opportunities or an unfolding story.

Barnett's sole criterion was value; a good game keeps him entertained for a long time.

Tom L. listed gameplay as the most important aspect of a game. His example was the game Tales of Symphonia, which he characterized as having poor storytelling but fantastic cooperative multiplayer battles.

Derek said that replayability was his only measure of a game's value. A good game keeps you coming back. He hasn't played Portal, but he speculates that it's not "worth it" unless he can play through it several times.

David told me that a good game will be either a short and difficult test of skill or a longer, easier, more involving experience.

Jack plainly listed his three criteria: challenge, fun, and creativity.

And Jonathan said that a good game is defined partially by its "polish" (how well-implemented the game is) and mostly by its "concept" (the originality and quality of the ideas underlying the finished game).

So now let's try to draw deep meaning out of a tiny and undoubtedly flawed opinion sample:

I was surprised that so many of my friends emphasized replayability or game length as a measure of how good a game is. I tend to consider replayability a matter of quantity rather than quality. While quantity might influence purchasing decisions, it doesn't affect how "good" I consider a game. I think that the disconnect might represent a basic difference in how we think about games. My vision is often informed by movies, probably because I envy film's combination of popular appeal and artistic reputation as a medium. I tend to think of more narrated games like Deus Ex or Half Life 2 or Portal as the games that are closest to realizing greatness. Some of my friends tend to think more of games like Defense of the Ancients or Starcraft multiplayer or TF2 that can be played over and over again without losing any freshness. This conceptual difference mirrors that between the proponents of art-through-narrative and those of art-through-mechanics.

Several of my friends mentioned creativity and innovation, but in general this was in reference to gameplay and game mechanics. What most struck me was that nobody mentioned anything about the type of emotion or effect on the player that the game engenders, except mentioning "fun". As Warren Spector noted, other media are applauded upon creating experiences that are distinctly not fun but are otherwise enlightening or powerful. It could be that the focus on fun is why games are not widely considered a "serious" medium. Of course, most games are intended to be light entertainment, and few aspire to be high art, but it bothers me that the possibility of artistic potential doesn't even enter so many minds.


James Nicholls said...

Interesting post. I reckon that good games from an objective point of view are a matter of whether the game has fulfilled the potential of the core concepts in the game. This works well for Sports games as it means you can judge how much a developer has done to make the sport entertaining when played on a console.

The downside to this is that if the concept for a game is bad you could still judge the game to be good if it fulfilled the potential of the lame concept. I'm not sure there is any way to measure objectively how good a game is.

One thing is true though, generally game critics usually agree on average whether a game is worth 9/10, with variations of around 0.5 points above or below the score. There must be some sort of criteria, even if we can't define it.

Wayne the Man said...

It's because games are meant to played, not looked at.

Games are an interactive medium. For a game to have a high emphasis on "artistic value" (read: trying to push your buttons to evoke what the designer considers to be appropriate emotional responses) is as inappropriate as for your friend to keep trying to deliberately get you to laugh, cry, or feel some other specific emotion every time you have a conversation with him. It would get irritating.

You want an sharing of ideas when you interact with someone... not to just sit there and be someone else's emotional plaything. That's what movies and books (non-interactive) media are for.

This is not to say games should have no plot or story. But if you seem to think the narrative or the artistic quality should be paramount, I've got a truckload of artsy, high-polished games that play like crap to sell you.

E McNeill said...


That's an interesting point; I hadn't really thought about structuring judgment around genre or core concepts, but it seems like an obvious consideration now. A good comedy makes you laugh, a good tragedy makes you cry. But I wonder if there is a more general statement that can be made about good art.

I'm sure that I'm over my head, but it's interesting to think about!

E McNeill said...


I disagree. Games can "share ideas" with the player, but they still have to have something to say.

Interactivity doesn't mean that the game has to cater to whatever the player wants. A designer can make a point by offering a choice and delivering certain consequences. That's what I mean by art-through-narrative, not a linear story that is forced on the player.

Further, I contend that a lot of games already try to push emotional buttons. The choice of music, scenery, and all the individual details that make up most game worlds are designed to make a player feel a certain way. Games don't often go for crying or laughing, but excepting the most minimal of games, they manipulate emotions as much as other media.

Not that that's a bad thing. I also think that my friends try to manipulate my emotions in everyday conversation. Again, they don't often try to make me cry, but they'll often try to persuade me, make me laugh, cheer me up, or affect my conscience.

Emotional manipulation is entirely natural. And if you accept it in other media, why not games?

AC Ek said...

Think about it in terms of immersivity. The best games are the ones where nothing in the game takes you out of the game experience (factors outside the game... that depends on the gamer, I suppose)

It's the same with a book, or a movie - if a game can make you forget the medium (game) and then can make you focus entirely on the experience of playing, it's probably going to be a good game.

On the other hand - a bad control scheme, sub-par storytelling, poor art, or even a lack of something that makes the game truly great can all take away from the immersion.

Educational theorists talk about the idea of "flow": it's a state of mind that brings about absolute concentration, usually happening when the brain is engaged in some type of challenging, intrinsically worthwhile task (writers, artists, even engineers trying to solve some type of mechanical problem). The outside world slips away, and the consciousness shrinks down only to the task at hand. It's what lets writers go on a 5-hour marathon of typing without stopping for anything, and it's even what lets marathon runners (to re-use marathon in the sentence) run for the entire 26 miles - at some point, "flow" has to happen.

In my mind, a good game (or book or movie or even a writing stint) is one where as little gets between me and the experience as possible. There are no internal distractions ("This doesn't make sense" or "What? That's totally out of place), which in turn lets me minimize external distractions

E McNeill said...

@ac ek:

The only exception I can think of is Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, the controversial title that made a point to constantly remind you that you were playing a game. But that example is very much an exception, and I agree that in general, immersion is important.

I'd note, however, that I don't think that the excellent game flOw
is especially fun or meaningful. It's fantastic at causing the state of flow, and it deserves a ton of credit for that, but I don't think that the state alone is enough. Perhaps it's necessary but not sufficient?

James Nicholls said...

@ac ek

Flow is a good concept for games, films and books. I think that getting to that sort of stage while playing a game does indicate that the developers have done something right.

The trouble with suing that kind of immersion for saying how good a game is, it differs from person to person, some people have a far larger capacity for it and for each person it is activated by different things.

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