If there’s a secret formula that guarantees a fantastic video game, I don’t know it. And if I did, you best believe I’d be selling it to game developers.
But while there may not be a secret formula, there are definitely a few key elements that tend to produce a product that challenges and enthralls for days or months or even years.
Here they be.
1. A HERO
A hero should either be fully developed and as fleshed out as possible so that gamers feel that they know this person. A hero like Joel, from The Last of Us, who makes his own choices according to his values, the player taking him through his story almost as an active viewer.
Otherwise the hero should be a neutral as possible, almost a non-entity that the player can project himself or herself onto, someone like Master Chief from Halo, literally faceless and rarely speaking, so the gamer feels they themselves are the hero.
A hero should never be something in between. Someone we sort of know but don’t care about, and maybe even resent a bit—think Desmond from the Assassin’s Creed series.
2. A GOOD STORY
A boring story sucks in any medium.
If gamers get bored with the story why would they keep playing the game? I need to believe in the world, need to be drawn in, need to want to know what will happen next.
If I’m skipping all your cut scenes to get on with the game, then your game play might be good but your story is clearly crap. And filling the void in plot with f-bombs—Rouge Warrior—or raunchy so-called jokes—Duke Nukem Forever—won’t cut it.
A game with a weak plot may offer some potential for fun, but will never be truly great. It certainly wouldn’t be worth playing a second time.
3. A STIFF CHALLENGE
A great game has to hard but not too hard. People don’t enjoy failing over and over again. It irks them. An irked gamer is likely to hold a grudge—talk to anyone who played Zelda II: The Adventures of Link.
A great game should be challenging but beatable, it might make you replay a few sections or bosses but should always offer hope that it can be beat. Gamers need a glimmer, something to cling to.
On the other hand a game that is too easy to beat is no fun either—think Spiro the Dragon, or LEGO Star Wars—not for long anyway. Have you ever heard anyone say, “That game was great, it was so easy”?
I didn’t think so.
4. VISUAL STIMULATION
To be a great game it has to look good—at least for its time. Graphics have long been the “wow” factor for games and if your game doesn’t wow gamers then it will never be considered great.
A visually feast goes a long way to giving a game depth. It’s easy to get lost in a beautiful game, even when just wandering around exploring the world. In some ways great graphics take the pressure off the game play.
But games that look shitty, that are poorly rendered, sloppily designed, with pixilation and graphic glitches, they’re more distracting that entertaining. If you played The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you know the drill.
5. MANAGEABLE CONTROLS
Sure controllers that have multiple joysticks and a dozen buttons, but it doesn’t mean that game developers need to use all of them all the time. Or in combination!
It shouldn’t take a degree in computer engineering to control and play a game, intuitive and responsive should always be the buzzwords.
Because if you make you game too difficult to control, or to master the controls, no one will get far enough into it to know if it’s great.
And if you absolutely insist on using all the buttons make them worth it, make me want to push them.
6. VARIATION IN GAMEPLAY
There is nothing worse than putting in hours on a game doing the same missions over and over again but in different colors or with extra enemies. I’m looking at you The Godfather: The Game—how many times can I strong-arm a shopkeeper, and why does every family own the exact same mansion?
The laziness of reusing backgrounds and enemies is really kind of insulting. Games like this become dull and tedious to play, which isn’t a phrase you regularly read in glowing reviews.
If you want your game to be placed among the greats you’re going to have to give gamers some variety. Unless you’re making sports sims, in which case you can pretty much release the same game with updated rosters and sell out.
7. A SENSABLE ENDING
Nothing, and I mean nothing, ruins a good game like a shitty ending. After putting in the 10 or 20 or 50 hours required to beat your game, or series of games, that last thing I want is some convoluted nonsense ending.
I don’t really care how you choose to wrap your game up, you can kill your hero for all I care, just make it good, and make sense!
Consider the time and energy your company put into making it, the time and energy gamers put in getting to the end, and earn it. Make it worth it.
I shouldn’t be able to just run under the boss and rescue the Princess without even having to fight him.