4 min read

Games Are Devoid Of (Insert Problem Here)

I discuss what "really" is the key ingredient missing from the best games.

I've been seeing a lot of dissent from gamers, professionals and bloggers about games lately. Jenova Chen mentioned in a recent Gamasutra article that he believes connecting with a player's emotions is the next big step for games. Countless blog posts on Gamasutra have dealt with the issues of morality in games and how they can be implemented. There is an undercurrent of disapproval about games' execution and their lack of a universal 'magic' element that will make them a surefire hit. These are interesting debates but I think everyone is overlooking is the consumer.

The question should theoretically be: how can I as a game designer deliver the best experience possible to the player? Not, how can I push the boundaries of technical excellence and immersive narrative storytelling. It's this desire of trying to reach beyond what has been executed successfully that has led to sacrificing gameplay elements and as a result--producing worse games.

A lot of great non-digital games are really simple to play and hard to master. Chess doesn't require immense concentration to master its ruleset yet it takes years to become truely good at it. At its core it's a really simple turn-based strategy game. Because of its difficulty threshold, Chess is never "mastered" and isn't discarded like many video games are. Chess also offers a social component with each game played in addition to each game playing slightly different from the next. It supports the player concocting strategies, executing them, and learning from their consequences. What's the other element Chess doesn't have? Story.

In the end, Chess is fun. Chess has solid gameplay and doesn't suffer from imbalanced mechanics. Chess is also a good investment. Buying a Chess board offers years and many hours of entertainment. I don't even think of the "cost" of Chess, it's simply a staple that must be owned.

If a play experience is and continues to be so gratifying, then it will continue to hold great value for the player. I never pondered whether I should have bought Super Mario 64, Heroes of Might and Magic III, or Starcraft. The thought never trickled into my mind about "trading in" or auctioning off those games. All of those games I listed are arguably extremely replayable with enjoyable variations on each play session.

A game should function in a similar way by creating elegantly simple gameplay mechanics that are fun when they're performed a lot. The play environment should only accentuate these mechanics and provide challenge. If the player is doing one action a lot, it should be fun. In Chess, the player is only moving pieces. That action is fun because of the strategic foresight needed to perform a successful move and the gratification of that success.

In Portal, the player is going to be shooting a lot of portals. It doesn't become stagnant because of the variety of ways in which these portals can be used and portals also reduce the repetitiveness of movement across given rooms. It's drastically more fun to shoot and move through a portal to go to a subsequent area than to simply walk there. 

So, if games are trying to strive for "meaningful" experiences but force players to do repetitive actions that don't continue to be fun, then the game's longevity will surely suffer as a result. This in turn can explain why so many games are being traded in after so little time spent on them. I've pretty much omitted discussing any of the story elements that are supposedly "needed" for a game to be great. Maybe the secret of a great game lies within how sustainablly enjoyable it is not what subtext is hidden within a dialogue tree?

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