Let’s face it, our industry is a complex one. There is no shortage of theories on what makes a game a success or a failure. The fact of the matter is that all the theories are valid to some extent but none of them are a silver bullet. This entry will not be either.
What I can do is help you to understand this medium that we are working with. I’m going to put forth two notions that can encompass what it is we do and within these ideas, all is possible. These two notions are the cost/benefit analysis and a philosophical argument known as the sorities paradox.
The cost benefit analysis is the notion that we humans make decisions based on the cost and benefit to us. For the user, the benefit is a great entertainment experience. The costs are varied and many starting with the purchase process right on through to the final moments of the game. This is an important idea to grasp and apply. The user is seeking entertainment and we are promising it, and here lies the great responsibility of our craft.
As with any promise, breaking the promise is the greatest crime that can be committed in the eye of the user. The more you promise, the greater the benefit to the user, the more cost they are willing to deal with. All the little pieces of under delivered promise erode at the users cost tolerance.
It is important to examine the analysis beyond the confines of the games space in order to make good judgments in its design. For instance, frustrating controls are always weighted too heavily on the side of cost for the user. A frustrating control scheme causes a player to lose time in his life, which for many in this day and age is quite precious. The benefit for overcoming the frustration is a continuation in dealing with it, which compares poorly to the cost of ending your game and starting someone else’s.
So why are we compelled to play? The game of life, the game of love, and indeed the most compelling facets of our existence to the extent of existence itself, is a win/loss scenario. Without the risk of loss or the reward of gain, we are not compelled. The degree to which we are compelled is proportional to the person’s perceived gravity of the scenario. Somewhere in that perception of graveness there is a line that denotes the experience as entertainment.
This brings us to the second notion and the stumbling block for many. All the great questions of gaming, success in the creation of your game, all the methods and metrics, they all come down to trying to deal with the infinite degrees to which you can achieve an end and compel a player. I believe it’s time to blow the dust off some of my old philosophy texts and apply some millennium old thinking to our medium; the Sorites paradox.
I’ll briefly overview what the Sorites paradox is. It is an argument that deals with the point at which individual items become another whole item. When do individual grains become a heap of grains? One grain does not make a heap. Adding one more grain to the first grain does not make a heap, and so on.
As you continue to add grains, at some point you have a heap but you can never satisfactorily discern at what precise point you went from “not a heap” to “heap”. It is important to truly grasp this paradox because it applies almost universally in our medium.
When Metal Gear Solid 4 was released, there was some furor over the lengthy story sequences. The complaint was that there was not enough “game” in it and too much passive viewing of the story. This is a complex example because there is a great number of little cost benefit analyses for the user. It also clearly resides somewhere in the middle of the Sorites paradox. Some may not feel enough “grains” exist in its “heap” of interactivity and therefore they felt unsatisfied. Many though felt it had a very good mix of elements. I for one enjoyed it tremendously.
You can break MGS and all games down into their “heaps” based on the promises made to the player. If you are making a game that promises to be an experience that blurs the lines between cinema and gaming, then you’ll need to have some sizable heaps that reside in those two realms. With that in mind, I would say the MGS was right on the money.
So what we have then is the promise of benefit for the player and a sliding scale of elements that deliver on that promise to varying degrees.
Relevance increases the perceived benefit in a game. MGS played this card very well by starting the game off in a location that is very reminiscent of our current war torn world. The game even made use of more common connections to the real world in the way of their licensed content. I love my iPod so seeing one in game elevated my attachment to the game thereby increasing the benefit of playing it. They even had a ballistic smorgasbord of licensed weaponry.
However, in MGS this relevance was an additional benefit to the experience rather than the main benefit. They could have greatly reduced the "grains" in this "heap" and still delivered on their promise.
For some games, the relevance is everything and the amount of reality required to achieve the promise can be quite sizeable. In a game like Gran Turismo, the reproduction of real world cars translates to the player as a close approximation of what it would be like to really own such a car. I may not have a Ferrari in my real garage, but I derive similar feelings of gain by viewing my virtual Ferrari in my virtual garage.
A close examination of the series bears this out. When you view your cars, there is precious little to distract you from that experience. The replays are akin to a gearhead's wet dream. That series is all about the dream automotive ownership experience. It is not however a game about the real racing experience. The lack of car damage issue is something that, in this case, fits perfectly because GT is an automotive dream world prisitine in all regards. "Authentic racing" is best tackled elsewhere.
Sports games live and die through the use of real connections. When your favourite football team (I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan btw) wins in the virtual world under your command, the feeling is quite powerful. Taking the NFL 2K series as an example, once the series lost the NFL license its relevance was eliminated and the player no longer experienced those intense feelings as he had with the license in place. The game had all the same game play "heaps" in place, but nothing could make up for that one lost element.
Adding all of this promise and relevance is not necessarily the answer to success. What it does is allow you the developer, and the user, to hedge your bets. A failed promise in one area can be made up for by over delivering in another.
Tetris is a good example where there is the least degree of abstraction in the notion of cost and benefit. In Tetris, you the player are the only winner or loser. There is no character for you to connect with. There is no virtual good for you to acquire. This absence of abstraction lends itself to less complexity. It so very obviously promises very little but it delivers on its promise.
At some point in the process of development you are probably going to have to deal with “They”. “They” are the money folks who have a lot riding (cost/benefit again) on the success of your game. As my friend Reid Schneider commented in his interview on Army of Two "They would really like your game to be 10% more Grand Theft Auto." "My response to that is, 'what the *#$% does that even mean?” Very succinct there, buddy.
“They” are risking quite a lot in this game called game development and when they feel they are going to lose, or at least win less than they had hoped, they begin looking for the numbers to start easing their minds. We all need to embrace the reality that the creative choices in the development process are not the place to begin dealing with numbers. None the less, it is imperative that as a creator you keep the numbers in mind.
Numbers and figures are for production. How many people do we need? How many days do we need? How many dollars do we need? In these areas, numbers can and indeed should be given. These numbers are not arbitrary. It’s common to read in the forums that a game filled with bugs is referred to as “not finished”. The market generally feels that the arbitrary pile of that which constitutes a game does not include a pile of bugs.
To wrap up, this entry is merely a helping hand. There is no magic bullet solution for how to develop a winner in terms of gaming. We are blessed, and at the same time cursed, with a medium that allows far reaching variety. In the mix that makes your game whole you will find something that resonates with the user.
The sensibilities that dictate to you exactly when you’ve moved from grain to heap is an artful skill. There is no measure that can be used to dictate the outcome.