Studio Blue

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So we've been having a bunch of new developers contact us over Twitter and Facebook, asking what's the most important part of designing your game. The answer we give is effectively "everything", but after we all have a good laugh, we proceed to tell them that there are three things essential to creating an enjoyable experience. To share our experience with the community, we're making the post here, a small treatise as to what we believe makes a wholesome experience for the players.

Q: What makes a good game?

A: In short, a good game is one that's fun, reveals itself to the player in a natural progression through immersive gameplay, and has an acceptable challenge.

That's the TL;DR version. Time to get verbose!

1. Natural Story Progression: You don't get more esoteric than this, because what works for one type of game won't work for another, but we'll try to be as succinct as possible here. A story progresses naturally when the transition between the parts of the game are seamless. Let's use Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past as an example.

You start the game in bed during a storm, waking up to some strange girl talking in your head. You notice your uncle is gone. This is an adventure game, so it makes sense to go outside and (a) figure out where your uncle is and (b) find the owner of the mysterious voice. You eventually end up finding your injured uncle, who, after notating that you and he heard the same voice, bequeaths unto you the family sword and shield. As this is an adventure game, there is no reason not to take the weapons and continue exploring. You eventually end up rescuing Zelda and bringing her to the chapel for safety. Prologue done. Player engaged.

But let's take a closer look at those progressions. They make sense because it's an adventure game. The player wants to explore locations and fight monsters. If this had been a survival horror game, the reasoning would have been quite different. Link would have needed to be pushed out of the house, possibly by something terrifying and deadly, and instead of moving forward from a sense of adventure, it would be out of a desire to live. The game, and thus its progression, would be vastly different.

What does that mean for a designer? Well, when you're creating the outline for your game (and if you don't create some sort of outline, you should), you need to ask yourself what motivates the character, and thus the player, to move through each part of the game. For each piece, look at what is happening and ask yourself the following questions: (1) If I was here, knowing what the character knows, what would I do? (2) Is that a reasonable reaction given the personality of the character? (3) How does this move the story forward?

For #1, if you cannot rationally put yourself in the character's shoes and come to the same conclusion, you need to rethink what happens next. Maybe your character needs to go into the foreboding fortress of doom; but if you cannot see yourself doing it, given all the information they have, it might be time to beef up the motivation.

For #2, if the reaction is completely out of character, either change the reaction or give a highly compelling reason to have the character, well, break character. Maybe they're scared of spiders, and a giant spider is standing between then and their goal. Normally, they are fearless, but in this instance they have to find a way around the arachnid.

For #3, and this is the most important bullet point in this post, if what you are having the character do does not move the story forward or grow them, scrap it. If you take nothing away from this post, take this... it's a hard lesson I've had to learn as an author and Teal's had to learn as an editor. If it doesn't move the story forward in some way, if it doesn't grow your characters, it doesn't belong in the game.

We could go on for hours about this topic, but it's time to move on.

2. Immersive Gameplay: This is a lot more grounded in reality, but still so very often overlooked as being not very important. Immersive gameplay is getting the player into your story and keeping them there, holding onto their attention and making them want to play "just one more hour". This is accomplished through a variety of techniques called hooks. There are actually a good many number of these hooks, but we'll go over the most popular:

Initial Hook - So very, very vital. This is the thing that draws your player in at the very beginning, whether it be an immediate crisis, a daring situation, or an epic, cinematic opening. Just starting with a guy waking up and going to the bathroom doesn't work. Starting with a stranger walking down a dirt road doesn't work either. Now, the guy going to the bathroom and the police knock on his apartment door? That's compelling. The stranger dripping blood as he trundles down the road? Also compelling. Do something to grab your player's attention within the first thirty seconds of your game, or you risk losing them.

Story Hook - This is where you take the attention of the player, which you grabbed in your initial hook, and drag them into the story. This doesn't have to be something explosive or off-the-wall, but it does need to be something that keeps their attention and follows a natural progression. Like that guy in the bathroom? How about he jumps out the window onto the fire escape and makes a break down the alley. Or if the wounded stranger starts to self-narrate how he got that way, and the next thing we know we're in a saloon and a gunfight is about to break out? Do something to pull them into the next scene. Speaking of that...

Scene Hook - Each scene needs to pull the player into the next scene. Period. If a player reaches a part of your game and can walk away without a second thought, you've already lost them. Even if you're game is in multiple chapters, hook them from one chapter to the next--a bad guy cutscene, a reveal just for the player, anything. Just get them to keep playing.

Character Hook - These can be a lot of fun, as they are essentially the bits here and there that define characters. Give the player something about each character that makes them (a) want to see more of them and (b) give a heck what happens to them. We could easily go on for another 3000 words about sympathetic characters, but we'll save that for another time. Just hook the player into the characters. Like that guy who jumped out the window? Maybe he's on the run for a crime he didn't commit. The wounded stranger? Maybe he's looking for his long lost child. Give us something with each character that we can relate to and we'll be drawn into their story.

Final Hook - Every story has to end, but how yours ends is paramount to whether or not a player will ever pick up something of yours again. If you just drop the player, they will hate you. If you give a downer of an ending with no hope, they'll have no desire to play the next game. And if you lie to or betray the trust you've built up with the player, they will do all they can to destroy you. So end the story with a powerful, decisive something. It doesn't have to be a complete victory, or a "good" ending. Some of the best games we've ever played have had bittersweet endings. But give the player something decisive and something that gives them a sense of accomplishment.

3. Acceptable Challenge: This is another topic we could literally go on about for hours. But to keep it really short, this is about game balance. Your game cannot be too easy, or your player won't take it seriously. And it can't be too hard, or the player will give up before finishing it. There is a fine middle ground and you must always tread it.

In an RPG, this means balancing character stats, enemy stats, gold drops, item drops and prices, weapon and armor strength, states, and types. Whew.

Fortunately, with RPG Maker, there are resources to help balance your game, and we have a community of people to help; but the best way to test out if your game is balanced is to just play it. If you find yourself getting through the game too easily, or have too much trouble, your players will. And if you're just whizzing through since you know all the tips and tricks? Get someone else, a friend or a member of the community, to play your game. They'll tell you. Just don't release a game that you haven't tested for balance (or tested in general, for that matter).

4. Fun: This is, at its core, the most important, and is the one thing we cannot teach you. No one can. But fortunately, if you've followed the three other points above, chances are your game will be fun to play, because it will guide the player through an enjoyable and unforgettable experience.

Now go make your game good!
 

mara_vertin

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Really interesting and helpful. Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences.
I especially like the part about the "Final Hook". I played many games which seem to have a bad ending just for the sake of it. And I'm not interested in playing these games ever again. I don't mind a bitter ending but I must have the feeling that it couldn't have ended any other way, that it is right to have no happyend (according to the rule of old dramas).
 

Kes

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What you have written about are not Mechanics as such. So...
[move]General Discussion[/move]

Please note, this is a discussion thread, so it could well be that replies will be quite wide-ranging. I, for example, would add at least one more aspect.

Decide who is your intended audience. This will influence your game play considerably. It will also help you to be consistent in your approach.
 

Studio Blue

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@Kes Thanks for the heads up! We'll be more careful in choosing the correct forum. :)

And we like your "Decide who is your intended audience." That is one of the more vital steps during pre-planning. If your game is going to be aimed at young players, the way you handle its execution is going to be far different from if the audience is more adult-oriented.
 

bgillisp

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I second that Decide who is your intended audience a lot. I've seen many games on here recently where the difficulty for the game is too hard (as based on many comments), but the developers refuse to listen to the feedback as they don't think it is too hard. The problem is, in that case, the game was made for an audience of one...you the developer. If you want to make a game that you want the public to play, you need to make a game the public wants, which means a fair but fun challenge. This might mean in the end a game you find a tad easy even, as you know all the ins and outs of your battle system.

I had to learn this lesson myself with an Unlimited Adventures Module I made back in 1996. I thought it was just the right difficulty, but my friend thought it was for sadistic players due to how brutal the battles were. Even my first release of my demo had this same problem (you can still see some of the comments on this on my game's page), until I stepped back and looked at it more and remembered I'm not making the game just for me.
 

cabfe

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If you don't have fun making and playing your own game, who else will?
It's easy to spot a work, of any type, that wasn't done with the heart.

If something doesn't work, don't force. Redo.

If you feel something is odd but don't know what, redo.
Your brain knows when something is not right, even if you can't put words on what exactly isn't.

If you have a part you like but it doesn't fit, cut.
Kill your darlings.
 

Studio Blue

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If you have a part you like but it doesn't fit, cut.
Kill your darlings.

Words from Stephen King, I believe, and absolutely true. If you're not willing to cut large swaths from the game that don't work (or don't belong), then you're doing it wrong. Heck, if you're not willing to can everything that doesn't work and start over, you're doing it wrong.

@bgillisp Yup, agreed on all accounts. If you're making the game for yourself, don't release it to the general populace.

We're going to go back to revisit the tips post (on our blog site) and add in Kes's suggestion. Very insightful!
 

Marquise*

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I'm stepping in... I'd like to see where this could leads for different devs. I mean we already have the inverse of that topic somewhere. :3

I know there isn't a plain simple single recipe to make a game. Because all tastes are in nature. Still, there must be a good diversity of angles on the question somewhere. ^^
 

Marquise*

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@bgillisp Awwww... *cybermental pats on the back* They did that a LOT with Fallout 4! They got a wee bit of left overs not playing in the game of the actual content than can be accessed trough mods, but they should reactivate/complete/finish that with some CUTSCENES DLC!
 

bokunoyuki

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If you want to make a game that you want the public to play, you need to make a game the public wants, which means a fair but fun challenge. This might mean in the end a game you find a tad easy even, as you know all the ins and outs of your battle system.

@bgillisp We all want others to play our games, but I don't like the phrase "make a game the public wants." I believe you should make a game that YOU want to play, because this product of your hard efforts is ultimately for you. The key word is "accessibility." Streamline your mechanics and convey them more clearly to the player, but you don't have to necessarily make your game easier. Of course, if the wide majority of players are having a problem (the game Catherine was patched because Japanese players found the game too hard), maybe tone it down a bit XD
 

Failivrin

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I like @bgillisp's insight about writing for an audience of one. It is a balancing act, of course. Because ideally the game should be something that both you and your audience can enjoy.
Stephen King definitely had a lot to say on the subject of revision. This line is rather humbling:
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”
 

cabfe

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@Failivrin - That King's quote is really interesting. Without knowing, I'm probably doing something similar in that I write my story as I like it and then I reread and fix it when I place myself in the player's shoes, looking for weaknesses or shortcuts and the like.
 

lianderson

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That kill your darlings thing is good advice. I had a long cutscene towards the end that I just wasn't feeling. So, after having it for almost a year, I just decided to cut it. Game has become better for it. Less can be more.
 

Marquise*

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@lianderson It might be tearsomely sad to have a hidden director's cut on the floor. But true, I remember how the final of the Lord of the Ring looked on big screen. :3
 

Wavelength

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I second that Decide who is your intended audience a lot. I've seen many games on here recently where the difficulty for the game is too hard (as based on many comments), but the developers refuse to listen to the feedback as they don't think it is too hard. The problem is, in that case, the game was made for an audience of one...you the developer. If you want to make a game that you want the public to play, you need to make a game the public wants, which means a fair but fun challenge. This might mean in the end a game you find a tad easy even, as you know all the ins and outs of your battle system.

I wanted to speak specifically to this because I've been doing a lot of deep thought recently about what the purpose of challenge is (using the word "challenge" in the sense of having obstacles that must be overcome to progress) in a game where progression (of a story or adventure) is the main purpose that the player plays.

You make a great point that sometimes, the difficulty was perfect for an audience that consists of only the developer (who knows all of the game's tricks, mechanics, and enemy patterns upfront). But sometimes the difficulty was also perfect for a wide audience - if only the game's enjoyment and purpose were centered around battle mastery, and its mechanics were designed as such!

Take, for instance, the video game based on Pokemon Trading Card Game. It was perfectly reasonable to get wiped out by an AI opponent (even from "unfair" happenings like a bad card draw), because the game's enjoyment was supposed to come from competition, strategy and challenge (using the word in the sense of difficulty this time), and because - understanding that the player will frequently lose matches - there was no penalty whatsoever for losing; you just challenge the opponent again a few seconds later, play another (still interesting) round of cards, and continue your (relatively unimportant) adventure when you beat them. As the player I enjoyed losing 30% of my matches, because the real possibility of losing made every match far more exciting.

Now, take an RPG in the style of Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. Narrative and exploration are far more important aesthetics of play than challenge (again in the sense of obstacles to overcome), and possibly because of this, the mechanics of the game play these aesthetics against each other - losing a battle means a Game Over and progress lost. You have to retread the same ground without exploring new ground or experiencing new story, just to get back to where you were, and the main reason you want to beat the boss that just beat you is because you simply want to move on. It's not like a tough TCG opponent where beating the opponent on your fifth attempt makes you feel heroic. It's more like having to do a homework assignment five times because your teacher failed you on the first four attempts.

For this reason, I highly recommend to developers that they think about whether challenge is adding anything to the experience for players. If not, then make most of the game's challenges/obstacles relatively optional, or if that's not in your bag of tricks because you're telling a very linear and all-encompassing story, then at least err decidedly on the side of 'too easy' when it comes to the difficulty of anything that can gate the player's progression through your game.

I guess that brings me back to a thought that I have about the original post:

4. Fun: This is, at its core, the most important, and is the one thing we cannot teach you. No one can. But fortunately, if you've followed the three other points above, chances are your game will be fun to play, because it will guide the player through an enjoyable and unforgettable experience.

It's so true that no one can tell you how to make your game fun, but I also think you guys have sold yourselves a little short by limiting your advice about a "fun" game to two lines. Fun is not something that "just happens" through a game's existence; it's something that (I believe) needs to be engineered. A game designer should be designing her gameplay around the question of "how do I want my player to derive enjoyment and excitement from my game?".

Is it through strategic choices, through power fantasies, through visceral action, through reward treadmills, through becoming intimately familiar with likable characters, through overcoming challenges, through exploring a world, through competition, through cooperation and teamwork, through the satisfaction of building and customizing things, through tangible sights and sounds, through mastery of difficult skills?

These are just some of the goals that a designer can choose that will lead to a "fun" experience. Once she's decided on a small set of these goals, she should design as much gameplay as possible around allowing the player to hit these high points often, and she should be willing to remove or streamline anything that doesn't contribute to these goals.

Especially in the genre of RPGs (and also in 3D Platformers and MMOs), I often see games put together all of the "checkboxes" - in the case of RPGs, I mean stuff like large bestiaries, sidequests, gear treadmills, minigames, sokoban puzzles, character classes and subclasses, item crafting, explorable fields and dungeons, multiple unique battle mechanics, & epic 30-hour narratives with large casts of characters and competent writing. The designers put so much work into their game, and the end result is a medicore and forgettable RPG. Why?

I think it's because the designer never specifically thought about how their game was going to provide enjoyment to the player. They always assumed that if their game included the features and mechanics that superb, memorable games include, then their game will be just as great. They want to create the next Michaelangelo's David, and they end up creating a slab of quarry stone with some nice clothes thrown on as an apology. They never thought about how to sculpt the experience to really show off the parts that are fun, and cut away the parts that are extraneous to this particular experience.

I understand this sentiment was already there in most of your advice, but I was so surprised to see the phrase "if you've followed the three other points above, chances are your game will be fun to play" because it draws designers away from thinking specifically and directly about how they are going to make their game fun.

===

By the way - to Steel & Teal, I've watched little bits of your First Impressions videos, and just wanted to say I really like them, partially because of the good ideas and advice you give, but mostly because your passion for gaming and for trying new games really shines through in your videos. Both of you have this infectious glee in your voice when you see things you like, and it makes it such a pleasure to listen to you. :)
 

Studio Blue

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By the way - to Steel & Teal, I've watched little bits of your First Impressions videos, and just wanted to say I really like them, partially because of the good ideas and advice you give, but mostly because your passion for gaming and for trying new games really shines through in your videos. Both of you have this infectious glee in your voice when you see things you like, and it makes it such a pleasure to listen to you. :)

Thank you so much! That really means a lot to us. As you can tell, we love doing this and will continue doing it. :)
 

Jiffy

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One of the biggest thing since I think of when creating a game is "What type of game is this?" An RPG? FPS? This greatly helps with that whole problem of people throwing every game mechanic possible into their project.
 

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