Difficult Questions About Videogames: How Can You Tell if a Videogame is Rubbish?

Difficult Questions About Videogames is a book about contemporary thinking and opinion on video games. In this excerpt, James Newman and Iain Simons touch briefly on their methodology in putting together the book, and include responses on the presence of badness in gaming.

Difficult Questions About Videogames is a book about contemporary thinking and opinion on video games. In this excerpt, James Newman and Iain Simons touch briefly on their methodology in putting together the book and provide their reasoning behind one of the questions they asked and include a choice selection of the responses they received.

Methodology, Progress, Caveats

For around a month we talked about what questions we'd really like to ask. Once agreed upon, a contributors guide was written and a website created. Fairly early on, we decided that email was going to be the principal contributing conduit, in the absence of any significant resources for travelling around and interviewing. This also gave us a continuity of response that individual personality relationships couldn't pollute. Email addresses were procured from company sites, weblogs and the kind support of a few partners who advocated our project to the esteemed members of their address books.

The following is one of the questions we asked:

How Can You Tell if a Videogame is Rubbish?

There is an oft-repeated convention in the developer interview,

"What are your top five favorite games?"

There appears to be a very shallow pool of excellence from which the usual answers are drawn. Zelda 3, Super Mario Bros 3, Defender… A small, elite collection are endlessly (and rightfully) celebrated again and again. We are running out of adjectives with which to prefix Miyamoto's genius. He's great, but our hands hurt from clapping. So, just for a chapter, we're going to ignore the 'brilliant' and turn our attention wholly on the 'rubbish'. For there is a rich, deep seam of rubbish to mine - and perhaps it forms a fantastic resource.

We chose this negative qualification in this question for a very deliberate reason. The use of a blunt, catch-all dismissive like 'rubbish' tends to form the beginning of our critical language. It's lazy, it's value-driven, it's inarticulate and it's ubiquitous in the conversational language of every player. Surely there must be other ways of learning 'great' than just studying 'greatness'? Aren't we supposed to learn from our (and others) mistakes?

Let us be clear. This is an investigation into the presence of 'rubbish', not the absence of 'brilliant'…

…Our arrival at this question was not prompted by the concerns of the consumer. For the player, it should come as no surprise that rubbishness is measured in terms of the equally nebulous value-for-money, or in relation to audio-visual presentation, the integrity of the code, the generosity of the rules, the flexibility of the simulation… The question was suggested from meetings with developers. What had fascinated us throughout our discussions and interviews with the people who make the games we play and discern as brilliant or rubbish were two associated questions. The first emerged as a managerial issue. Today, the demands of current videogames hardware systems are such that the large team of diverse individuals is practically inevitable. How do you manage a team of people with increasingly specialized roles who perhaps know nothing of each other's work and who don't, perhaps can't, have a sense of the overall vision? How do you keep them all pointing in the right direction? How can you predict what is going to work before you actually play it?...

A selection of answers:

* * *

You don't want to play it anymore. The shorter the playtime spent, the worse the game. If there was a perfect formula for this then someone would get rich very quickly :)

I simply made games that I thought would be a challenge to play but fair. I also tried to avoid violence and make my games family friendly for all ages.

--Scott Adams

* * *

It's funny - and sad - that we have such a scant aesthetic understanding of videogames that we'd even have to ask this question.

But we do, and we should ask it.

Like film, art, and literature, videogames should do something to their players. They should elicit a response. That response can be cathartic, emotional, social, political, kinetic, even anaerobic. But it has to do something. The truly rubbish games don't speak to players in any way.

They seem to think that games are mechanical affairs.

--Ian Bogost

* * *

Nobody plays it, or if they do to the end, they don't want to play it again. And even if they play it, they don't want to admit that to anyone else. And during the game they have to force their attention NOT to wander. For me, one example was Myst. Conversely, if I am sweating in an air-conditioned room after 10 minutes of gameplay, that is a good game. A game that your attention cannot help but be focused on.

--Erik Champion

* * *

A videogame is rubbish if one or more of the following are observed in the course of playing it:

1) Its content is inexpertly created or presented. This includes some or all of: badly-rendered, clichéd, or sophomoric artwork (including user interface artwork); dull, repetitive, clichéd, or badly-played music; badly-written, clichéd, predictable, hackneyed, incomprehensible or juvenile text or dialogue; badly-acted scenes recorded by live actors, whether in audio or video. This also includes visual errors caused by poor display technology, e.g. "skating" characters, objects projecting or passing through what are supposed to be impenetrable walls, unrealistic physics in realistic environments, and so on.

2) Its responses to the player or players' inputs are inconsistent, unpredictable, or too slow to enable the player to achieve his goals.

3) The design of its menus and inputs is inconsistent, awkward, unobvious, counterintuitive, or require a long time to learn.

4) Understanding the goals and internal mechanics of the game requires more time to learn than the player feels is justified by the entertainment that it offers.

5) It is too hard, i.e. the probability of a player of reasonable experience achieving a given goal in the game is still below 50% after the player has attempted the goal ten times.

6) The computer running the game crashes in the course of playing it.

7) A large number of the game's challenges can only be solved by trial-and-error or brute force. This encompasses a variety of design errors far too great to list here.

8) Any game that does not allow the player to save his or her progress, on a gameplay device equipped with a save mechanism, at the player's own convenience and at any time of the player's choosing, is rubbish.

--Ernest W. Adams

* * *

Bad videogames can be judged based on lack of passion. Therefore, any game that does not produce high-pitch shouting, sore thumbs or instants of introspection, is technically rubbish.

--Gonzalo Frasca

* * *

First, the useless answer: you can't. All you can tell for sure is whether, to you, a videogame is rubbish or not. I'm sure we've all played games that got terrible reviews and word-of-mouth that we actually kind of liked, and we've all seen games that got great reviews that we didn't enjoy at all. Everyone's different, and what's a joy to you may be a chore to someone else and vice-versa. Which is an important thing to remember: all too often I've run across opinionated game designers who think their aesthetic represents The Truth, and if a game they didn't like gets good reviews and word of mouth they wonder how so many people can be wrong.

Now, the useful answer: there are games that appeal to a large number of people and games that appeal to very few; just like ice cream comes in chocolate, mint, and anchovy flavour. If you go around saying, "anchovy ice cream is rubbish," you won't find many people who disagree with you. So, if the question you're asking is, "Will this game be a hit?" or "Will lots and lots of people like this game?" the best thing to do is to playtest and be receptive to feedback. If everyone you try the game on seems to love it, the game probably isn't rubbish. What you can't do is say, "I like this game therefore everyone else will like this game." You're operating from a very small statistical sample there. (But it is a good place to start. You always have to start making something you'll like and then see if others like it too.)

If some people like your game and some people don't, you may still have a hit. Believe it or not, there's a huge number of people out there who don't like GTA, one of the most successful games of all time. And there's a huge number of people who don't like The Sims. And so on. I don't think videogames have an equivalent of chocolate ice cream, a flavour that absolutely everyone likes. Even Zelda and Mario have their detractors: "I don't like puzzles," and "I don't like platformers."

The answer you'd really like would be for me to tell you how to anticipate how the public is going to feel about a game before they even play it. There's guidelines you can apply here, but it's really all guesswork until you get your game into the hands of playtesters. For any guideline I could dream up, there's a game out there that broke that rule and still worked. Still, some of my guidelines would include:

  • Is the game the best at something? Does it have the "best graphics" or "best sound" or "best stealth gameplay mechanic" or "best World War II simulation"? Here's where it's nice to do something novel and unique; if your game is the only game that offers a new core gameplay mechanic, your game is by definition the best at that until a competitor usurps you

  • Is what your game is best at something "cool?" Here we get into small sample size problems again - what you think is cool may not be what someone else thinks is cool. But you can poll people and find out, even before you start developing a game, whether most people think an idea is cool or not. If it does, then all you have to do is pull off the execution. (Which is no small feat! I've bought many games that sounded great from reading the high concept on the back of the box only to discover that their great high concept was turned into an exercise of frustrating tedium.)

  • Does the game make the player feel like a hero? You look at the top titles and you'll see this recurring theme through almost all of them. It doesn't matter if your player is a warrior or a quarterback or a spy or a spaceman or a master criminal, he still feels like a hero. Even GTA makes you feel like a hero. The player does something heroic, something cool, and then says, "Look what I did."

  • On the execution side, you can ask: is the game always fresh? That is, a player should never be forced to repeat the same challenges multiple times. Many games violate this rule by providing save checkpoints that are too infrequent and the days of customers putting up with this abuse are coming to an end.

  • A game should not have Shelf Level Events, meaning moments that make the player put the game back on the shelf, from where it may never return. These can range from a challenge that's so difficult that the player gives up to a bug that prevents them from completing a section. On the difficulty front we're always in a quandary: if you make your game too easy, you lose the hardcore players who thrive on a challenge. If you make the game too hard, you lose the masses. It's important to err on the side of too easy, here: talent is not a bell curve, but a power curve. There are lots of people at the low or no-talent end of the graph, and only one person -- the champion, the best player of your game in the world -- at the other end. Since you're the one who designed the game, you're probably fairly close to the right yourself, which means a challenge that's just right for you is going to alienate most of your players. I've found that even if I make a challenge so easy that I can complete it 100% of the time, it still stymies the people who have only been playing my game for a few hours.

The only way you can tell for sure is playtesting.

--Jamie Fristrom


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