What's in a game?
By Christopher McMullen
Months of development work? Thousands spent on advertising and PR? More annoying bugs than you can shake a stick at? Or all of the above; though the latter doesn't usually go down to well with gamers. Games come and go at the Games Domain Review and it's up to us to sort out the classics from the crap. But what makes a good game? At the GDR, each reviewer has their own views on what makes a game stand out from the crowd. But, barring a cash bribe, there's a number of things that can make or break a game .Here's the top ten things that I look for in a game, and that many of the folks at the GDR look for.
It's hard to say exactly but what makes a game really playable, but it's easily the most important aspect of any game. Ideally, a game should have you coming back for more, time after time. It's that indefinable something that makes a game fun to play, rather than a pain, and makes a reviewer want to keep playing it after the review has been written. A game should be captivating, not frustrating - if you get it right, you'll know about it.
2. Accessibility and Usability:
A game should be fairly easy to pick up and play - it shouldn't be necessary to read through a two hundred page manual before you can even get anywhere. If the game is particularly complex and comes with a huge manual, a quickstart section should be included. Also, if the game is pretty complex a la Theme Hospital or X-Com on-line help (preferably identifying buttons and so forth) and tutorial sessions are a major bonus. The controls should be intuitive, easy to use and not over-complex.
3. Graphics and Sound:
Impressive graphics and sound will always fare well with reviewers, and admittedly myself - the more spectacular, the better. However, they should also be clear - it should always be possible to tell what is going on. Likewise, the perspective from which you view the action should enable you to see the various obstacles or items which you need to deal with. A typical example is the isometric perspective used in many games. When characters go behind walls, they are often out of sight. Some games deal with this by rotating the screen or making the walls transparent. The point is that the player should always have the best view of the action possible. If I can't see what's going on, I get pissed off pretty quickly. And as far as sound and music go, make them add to the atmosphere, not detract from it.. music should be a part of the gaming experience, not overriding and intrusive as it is in some games.
A game will get credit for being original - that could mean being a completely new concept, or putting a new spin on an existing genre or idea. The point is that to be original, a game should separate itself from other games in that genre, and not just retread old ground. The long awaited Dungeon Keeper is a combination of strategy, management, and the whole Dungeons & Dragons scenario, while Carmageddon is a new violent twist on the racing game genre.
This relates to whether or not a player will still be playing the game a month after buying it. It'd be impractical to actually play a game for months before reviewing it, so after playing it a while, reviewers have to their best to estimate how long people will keep playing the game for. A tip is to make the game different each time - employ 'AI', or somehow change the levels each time. Make it so that a game is never the same twice. Various things can boost the longetivity of a game, such as a multiplayer mode, different characters, add-ons, such as the downloadable tracks and cars that Ubisoft has made available for Pod.
How well does a game run on a standard entry level PC? Can the detail level be lowered to accommodate slower PCs? Does it take advantage of any 3D accelerator cards? All of these are considered when reviewing a game. While a game may look graphically stunning , it's not much good if it runs like a dog on anything less than a Pentium Pro.
6. Bugs and problems:
Or rather, lack of them. Sadly, it seems that few games are released without a few minor bugs. But I can live with that. What really lowers my opinion of a game is finding that it contains irritating major bugs, that cause real problems, yet must have been spotted during testing. I know of several games that have had no less than five patches released to fix bugs that must have been known about at the time of release. I'd rather have a game set back by a month than end up with buggy software. Releasing patches at a later date is not an acceptable alternative to releasing bug-free games.
Documentation can be of great importance, especially when it comes to deciding how well a game is received by a reviewer. I'm not just talking about flight sims either. I've had lots of fighting games coming with manuals that don't list all the special moves. Why? Working out complicated keypresses isn't my idea of fun. Would you produce a flight sim and leave some of the keys out? Course not. As far as other genres go, documentation should cover everything you could need to know about a game, including storyline, keys, the enemies you'll encounter and anything else you can think of. With an index and contents, too. And it's no use providing a two hundred page manual full of information, and leaving the player unable to find what they want to know. It should be possible to dip in and out of the manual at your leisure. If there are a lot of keys, a quick reference card is a must. As one GDR Reviewer puts it.. 'I want docs. Not online docs but real, on paper manuals. Something that I can read in bed. One thing that really alienates me to a game is bad or non existent printed documentation.'
Okay, while a storyline might not be of prime concern to beat-em-up players, or shoot-em-up players, there should still be some sort of storyline present. As far as adventure games are concerned, a solid storyline is critical to the game's success. A storyline should be rapidly evolving, carefully written, without plot holes or inconsistencies to spoil things. Twists and turns also go far to earn the respect of a reviewer - personally, I thought Harvester and Darkseed 2 provided some real shocks towards the end of the game, and I'm not just talking about gore here. One GDR Reviewer says 'I want a good storyline. Think Last Express- innovative, beautiful, plays so damn well, scripted wonderfully- its perfect. Companies should take this game and LEARN from it.'
While installing a game wasn't usually too much of a problem under DOS, with the advent of Windows 95 installing a game has become a lot more complicated. As far as gaming goes, there's little that annoys me more than installing a game only to find that I'm offered no installation options, half of the games files are dumped in my already bulging Win 95 directory, the game doesn't come with a custom uninstallation option, and to cap it all, it installs Direct X onto my system without asking. Damn you, Bill Gates! A game should give the user a full range of installation options, depending upon the disk space the user has available, and should remove every associated file when it's uninstalled. It also annoys me when after installing all an entire game onto my HD, the game still demands I have the CD in my drive to play (even if the game doesn't use CD music). Your average pirate would be round this so called 'copy protection' in a flash, so what's the point?
There you have it - ten points to take into consideration when designing and creating your gaming masterpiece. Bear in mind, many of these are geared towards my own thinking, but some of them are pretty much universal. Happy coding..
Copyright Chris McMullen 1997