Monday, December 29, 2008

The Definitive Gameplay Theory

I touched on this one one of my previous posts, and decided it was worth expanding into a whole thread dedicated to the subject: what makes a good game? This seems to be the gold nuggets that every developer and publisher strives to achieve, and few actually reach. Numerous, more experienced developers have written loads on this subject, and since the notion of gameplay and game design is clearly very close to my heart, I'm taking on the mantle of taking these lofty notions of theme, gameplay, and story and boiling it down to its most distilled essence.

Pure, unadulterated game design theory for the masses.

So, with that said, the first, and arguably most important, aspect of game development is gameplay. Good or even great gameplay will allow developers to slip in other areas (art, sound, story, etc.), because gamers won't really care about anything else. If the game is fun to play, then the game will sell.

Which leads me to my first theory of game design, The Definitive Gameplay Theory, which states: If the play experience provided by the game is clear, specific and refined, the gameplay is definitive and therefore desired.

The definitive theory is observable in numerous games of all stripes. Since games as entertainment have existed since antiquity, it has been the games that fullfilled the three criteria of the Definitive Gameplay Theory (Chess, Go, Backgammon) that we still play and enjoy today.

But with the speed of development, use and discard of games these days, the Definitive Gameplay Theory illustrates how the best games on a year to year basis achieve immortality. So, to illustrate: let's look at three great games to come out in the last five years and see if the Theory can be put to the test:

Tetris: the epitome of the theory. It doesn't get more clear, concise and refined as using random geometric shapes to balance between building and eliminating an ever growing base of fallen pieces. The game is simple, elegant, and definitive.

Grand Theft Auto Series: while the GTA series has always been linked to its gangster storylines, the gameplay has always been built around a huge open world as the primary focus. Since the days of the P200 GTA that shipped on 3.5" Floppys as shareware, the GTA series has always pushed the envelope when it came to content, whether it be controversial dialog or technological with it's massive cityscapes.

Final Fantasy Series: Classic Final Fantasy has always centered around turn-based combat. The RPG elements are there to lend depth and control to the player, but in the end, it's turn-based gameplay writ large. By following a stream of menus, the players perform the functions needed to play the game. Based on the original Ultima series (which, in turn, was based on Dungeons and Dragons), Final Fantasy core gameplay is easy to use and get into, thus, making it accessible to play.

So, how does this translate into making a good game? It means the best developers pick one (at most, two) core gameplay features and ensure that they permeate the entire game experience, polishing them to a high sheen and ensures that they are essential to the entire game. These features are typically genre defining conventions, and often are technologically driven to differentiate the new game from previous, current or future competitors. Limiting innovations to one or two features ensures that these gameplay crucial features recieve the time and attention needed to polish them to a high sheen.

Too often, as been my experience, developers and publishers alike push for more and more features, expecting that the shotgun effect - throw in as many features as possible and hope something sticks (something I call the 'Network TV Casting Effect'). The games that sell the best aren't a shotgun but a laser beam.

No comments: