How to build an AMAZING game
There are a lot of game out there that are considered a success within the industry, they make a ton of money and players enjoy them but the truth is very few of those games are amazing. Look at the Battlefield series, (not counting 4 yet, still working on the review) or Call of Duty. Both of these series are highly successful but none of them with some of the earliest in the series could be termed amazing and even those are close. So what makes a game amazing?
First I think we need to define amazing in this context. Games today are judged on a lot of criteria, the most talked about but in truth one of the least important is the graphics of the game. In fact I think in some ways we are seeing graphical quality, especially so called realism, becoming more a detriment than a help as so many game devs focus on it to the exclusion of other aspects of the game. Other criteria used by many reviewers are also length of game play, game play stability and the mechanics of the game. These all play a part but to me they are contributing factors, not actual criteria.
For me what makes an amazing game is the water cooler test. The water cooler test is basically how much the game generates conversation outside the game itself in the players. How much does the game impact you, the experience move you. All the above criteria can work toward this goal but in the end they are not the actual test of what makes a great game. Many games over the years have scored highly in most of these categories and others but yet fail the water cooler test, they do not impact us.
So if the criteria points are not what makes an amazing game, then what does? That is hard to describe because it is a combination of so many factors and the way they balance together, an amazing game is truly more than the sum of it’s part. Over the last couple of years two games have leapt out at me as amazing. One is genre I have always loved and another a genre I typically avoid. Both have a play style, making use of first person, that is not usually high on my list. Yet each game has drawn me in the keeps me coming back and the way the companies did it where from two different approaches.
First up is Skyrim, arguably one of greatest games of all time. Bethesda created one of the most open world play styles ever seen, more open and in depth than 99% of the MMOs on the market including the ones that have been around 5 years or more. While Skyrim scored well on the bullet point check list it was not those checks that made the game great. In fact, as strange as this sounds it was not anything Bethesda did that made the game great.
What truly took Skyrim from a successful game to an amazing game was the open environment for game modders. Because of the solo play nature of the game Bethesda was able to allow the game modding community dive headfirst into the game and stand back. While Bethesda did produce some DLC the real expansions of note to the game came from the games community. This community energy and imagination tied to an open world design that embraced the additions resulted in what is truly an amazing game.
Doubt how amazing the game is, lets apply the water cooler test. I found people in businesses that never played a video game in their life talking about Skyrim. The TV industry embraces Skyrim and used it in more than few prime time shows, even the games little terminologies and quirks became a part of our society. I know almost no one who does not get an arrow in the knee joke. The game so impact players with their own little stories and adventures that these where talk in more than a few break rooms and not just the gamers joined in.
The second game shares only the game play perspective in common, in every other aspect it is almost at the other end of the scale, Borderlands 2.
Looking at the two games they are very different in a lot of aspects. Where Skyrim worked at a high detail graphics approach, BL2 went with a stylized comic book art system. Skyrim was about swords and magic while Skyrim is about guns and a mutant or two. Skyrim had a serious tone to it’s storyline and BL2 is literally a dive into sophomoric humor. Skyrim has a wide open play style that allows the community to expand the game and BL2 has a narrower adventure system with no community modding being supported.
Yes with these differences in many ways BL2 is just as amazing as Skyrim. Gearbox find a near perfect balance of the Diablo style of action RPG and then blended it with the FPS genre to create a game that is very successful. What makes BL2 amazing is as equally the opposite of Skyrim. Where Bethesda basically took their hands off the game and let the community run wild, Gear box kept control but kept giving the players more.
Through a combination of a micro transaction system and a player base reward system using their SHIFT feature, Bethesda gave to the players and just kept giving. In fact we have commented on the current contest Gearbox is running through the SHIFT system which gives players a chance to win as much as $50,000 just for playing the game, that’s an incredible thank you to the fan base.
What about the cooler talk criteria? While BL2 has not made the inroads culturally that Skyrim has made, with gamers the fan base is actually a bit more intense. One of the features BL2 has is co-operative game play. You can jump in with friends or even strangers and share the worlds gaming experience. This has a MMO type feel without the mess that comes with most MMO game play. It is common for me to talk with friends about a battle I fought in game, or something funny one of the characters in the game said and how great it tied into an event at the moment. This game demands you talk to friends and share experiences.
Now while these two approaches might seem to be at opposite ends of the scale, they resulted in the same effect, the created an intensely loyal and extreme active community. Each of the communities are actually growing despite both games being at the point when most games are in a bargain bin for $9.99. Both games continue to drive discussions among the fan base as well as outside the fan base, in fact both are actually picking it steam it seems.
The lesson to be learned from both games is that it is not enough to give a community a game, you need to interact with it. Now Bethesda did this in the most passive method possible. They made a game and let the modders have at, basically taking their hands off. They gave tools to the community as well as a solid base structure to work around and they they got out of the way. This removal was in it’s own way a powerful interaction with the community and they responded. Gearbox took the opposite approach and engaged strong and direct with the community. They have been super open about the game as a developer and they have made a point of giving a ton to the community.
This commitment however to the player base is something lacking from most other games on the market. There are some that approach this level but they always seem to pull back short of going for broke at either end of the spectrum. We as gamers and consumers should demand this kind of support or direction from our game developers. They need to make the community, as much as the game, their focus to create a truly amazing game.