Pursuing Excellence


Awhile back, I argued that making an excellent game should be a game developer’s #1 priority.

I also suggested that in the absence of marketing dollars:

mediocre games usually fail,
good games often fail,
and excellent games rarely fail.

These ideas were a little more controversial than I expected.

There were two common responses.
One of them was: “Who gets to decide what’s excellent? Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?”

So I thought I’d write a followup post to explore what it means make an “excellent game,” and hopefully arrive at some practical applications that will help us in our everyday development.

The other of the two common responses was:

But mediocre games make millions all the time!”

So here’s an opening thought question: why is it that we have no qualms about labeling a game “mediocre,”  but the concept of excellence is relegated to the realm of philosophy?

If a game can be objectively bad, can a game also be objectively excellent? Are there no concrete goals and standards we can make for ourselves in pursuit of excellence – or do we really just throw our hands up in the air and say “Just do your best and love what you do!” and then hope other people enjoy what we make?

Before I go any further (and lose anyone who was hoping for a practical discussion here,) let me be clear that pretty much everything I say is through the lens of games as a business. Forest and I have quit our day jobs in hopes of making a living by doing what we love. So, I’m interested in “excellence” in terms of academic thought – but also in practical business terms: what makes a game highly valuable to a paying audience? When I argued that pursuing excellence should be priority #1, it’s because I think this is what makes the most business sense – and is incidentally more fulfilling.

Maybe we just need to be more specific.

So what is an Excellent game? 

In terms of games, I would suggest that Excellence is a transaction that happens between a game and the player.

To put it another way, a game is – by definition –  meant to be played, and a game proves itself to be excellent when an audience finds it to be so through play. You may disagree, but perhaps that baseline definition can get us out of the realm of philosophy a bit, and back towards practical working discussion.

Stephen Totilo recently argued (repeating a definition coined by Sid Meier) that what sets apart “good games” from “bad games” is that the good ones have interesting choices. He added after talking with Dylan Cuthbert and others that good games also have “Merihari,” – a Japanese word that’s roughly translated as a combination of rhythm, balance, and distribution. However, others are quick to point out that games such as Guitar Hero involve little meaningful choice, and would probably be appealing even without the little choice that is there.

I think Stephen is onto something here, but perhaps his definition is too narrow. “Meaningful choice” is a trait that we have come to value highly – but it’s not an essential trait, and it’s certainly not the only trait that matters.

The curious thing to me, is that perhaps there are no essential traits for games that are considered excellent.

Do all excellent games need to have interesting choice?
No – as pointed out already, games such as Guitar Hero are highly engaging without it. Bit.Trip Runner is another great example.

Accessibility, perhaps?
No: Minecraft is certainly not accessible, and people surely consider it to be excellent.

Great Graphics (whatever that means)?
Certainly not.

I don’t think so, although this is a very powerful trait.

For any given trait, someone could point out a game that doesn’t have that trait, but that’s considered excellent by many people.

So what do excellent, highly valued games all have in common?

Well, without exception, they always find something to be really good at.
And usually, these quality traits are both easy to identify, and surprisingly common.

For example, Minecraft is really good at player choice and exploration – better than most other games. It provides an infinite world that’s infinitely modifiable.

Half-Life is arguably very good at pacing, optimal challenge, technical competence, storytelling, and a lot of other things – some objective, some subjective. Some would say it’s “more than the sum of its parts,” and that all these “great” traits add up to excellence.

The point is – nobody ever considers a game excellent if it excels at nothing. And if a game really excels at something, this  can often (as is the case with Minecraft) make up for a multitude of sub-par traits, provided these lacking elements don’t get in the way of the player’s experience too much.

So what’s my point with all of this? This is, after all, meant to be a practical article.

First:  Pick something your game is going to do really well. Don’t settle for “pretty good” in this area, shoot for best in class. Don’t try to be best in class at something that your team can’t pull off – but don’t be fooled into thinking that you can’t be best in class at anything. 

Second: Think about some of the other quality traits that you and others value in games, and perhaps pick some of these as secondary goals – or at least measure your game’s execution on these traits as a helpful experiment. Maybe you’ll identify an area that’s seriously lacking that you hadn’t really considered, or perhaps you’ll identify a trait that it’s actually pretty darn good at. Ask yourself what would take this particular trait to the next level and make your game worth talking about!

Third: For Pete’s sake, don’t make a game that you hope others are going to like. You’ve got to either know exactly what you like to play and make that, or you’ve got to be an expert at knowing what others want through years of experience and research. Developers have been successful with both methods, but one of them is intuitive and fulfilling, the other is difficult, expensive, and often unfulfilling.

Common Traits of Excellence

To wrap things up – here are a few traits that I think we as players and developers have come to recognize and value in games, in no particular order. Don’t read this as a list of things to put in your game – read it as a list of potential traits that may or may not be good goals for you to pursue. Some of these traits will make your game appealing to wider audiences. Some will make it more appealing to specific niche audiences. Some will make your game more interesting to talk about to journalists, and some will make it easier to monetize. Some will be more helpful on mobile platforms – others would feel really out of place there. Make no mistake: there is an an intersection of art and business here!

  1. Accessibility – the ability for a player to play your game without much instruction or confusion.
  2. Technical achievement  – can your game make people ask: “how did they do that?”
  3. Resonance in aesthetics – Can your game relate to your audience in a way that brings back memories of their childhood or their everyday life? Or is it made up of abstract elements that mean nothing to them at the outset?
  4. Resonance in gameplay  – Do the mechanics and objects of your game behave in a way that people will recognize? (For instance, compare Angry Birds’ slingshot to that of the ramp mechanism in Trucks & Skulls. Which resonates better with you?)
  5. Pacing – are the elements of your game introduced properly? Is there always something new happening?
  6. Intensity management – does your game have highs and lows, managed in ways that have proven to be effective?
  7. Fun  – A big topic, admittedly. But when you play your game, are you “having fun” with it?
  8. Social connectedness – For instance, does your game have a chatroom, or level sharing features?
  9. Competitiveness – does your game measure the player’s skill against other players?
  10. Addictiveness – again very subjective – but also measurable. How long to people play it on average, and how often do they come back?
  11. Visual appeal  – do you like the way it looks? Or do you find yourself thinking “well, at least it has good gameplay…”
  12. Humor
  13. Optimal challenge  – are people completing it? Do you get bored while you play because it’s too easy?
  14. Frustration. I added this after playing Spelunky. I think games can taunt a player with their difficulty, and turn this into a desirable trait, provided the mechanics are consistent and learnable.
  15. Uniqueness – This can be big in terms of PR and immediate appeal. Does your game give people an experience they’ve never had before?
  16. Variety of visuals
  17. Variety of player actions
  18. Expressiveness –  does the game allow the player to express herself in some way?
  19. Creative Gameplay – does the game allow a variety of solutions to the problems it presents?
  20. Longevity – how much time can one reasonably spend in your game without getting bored?
  21. Simplicity – for example: can it be played with one thumb if it’s a mobile game?
  22. Mastery – can one “master” your game if she is skilled enough and do measurably better than a beginner?
  23. “Storytelling”
  24. Randomness  – this can be a strength if used properly, and can affect longevity, challenge, etc.
  25. Emergence – do the elements of your game combine in unexpected or unpredictable ways?
  26. Fairness – does your game ever make the player fail despite the player’s perfect execution? (this usually results in a “bad” type of frustration.)
  27. “Tightness” – see Daniel Cook’s article on the subject.
  28. Emotion – does your game have characters or elements that humans will relate to in an emotional way?
  29. Interesting choices – is the player asked to make decisions, where the “right” choice isn’t always the same one?
  30. Use of Rhythm
  31. Use of Reflexes
  32. Use of puzzle-solving – is the player asked to think about how to solve a problem?
  33. Use of Memorization
  34. “Polish” – this is a fuzzy one. Experience helps.
  35. <enter your own here!>

I hope this was helpful. The goal is to help us look at our games through more objective lenses. Of course, “Excellence,” like beauty, is ultimately in the eye of the beholder and will defy explicit definition. But I think it’s critical to our success that if we want to make games that are worth talking about, worth buying, and worth remembering and playing 10 years from now, we need to identify the quality traits that each of our games will excel at.

So – what is your game excellent at?

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