So we’ve been having a bunch of new developers contact us over Twitter and Facebook, asking what’s the most important part of designing your game. The answer we give is effectively “everything”, but after we all have a good laugh, we proceed to tell them that there are three things essential to creating an enjoyable experience. To share our experience with the community, we’re making the post here, a small treatise as to what we believe makes a wholesome experience for the players.
Q: What makes a good game?
A: In short, a good game is one that’s fun, reveals itself to the player in a natural progression through immersive gameplay, and has an acceptable challenge.
That’s the TL;DR version. Time to get verbose!
1. Natural Story Progression: You don’t get more esoteric than this, because what works for one type of game won’t work for another, but we’ll try to be as succinct as possible here. A story progresses naturally when the transition between the parts of the game are seamless. Let’s use Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past as an example.
You start the game in bed during a storm, waking up to some strange girl talking in your head. You notice your uncle is gone. This is an adventure game, so it makes sense to go outside and (a) figure out where your uncle is and (b) find the owner of the mysterious voice. You eventually end up finding  your injured uncle, who, after notating that you and he heard the same voice, bequeaths unto you the family sword and shield. As this is an adventure game, there is no reason not to take the weapons and continue exploring. You eventually end up rescuing Zelda and bringing her to the chapel for safety. Prologue done. Player engaged.
But let’s take a closer look at those progressions. They make sense because it’s an adventure game. The player wants to explore locations and fight monsters. If this had been a survival horror game, the reasoning would have been quite different. Link would have needed to be pushed out of the house, possibly by something terrifying and deadly, and instead of moving forward from a sense of adventure, it would be out of a desire to live. The game, and thus its progression, would be vastly different.
What does that mean for a designer? Well, when you’re creating the outline for your game (and if you don’t create some sort of outline, you should), you need to ask yourself what motivates the character, and thus the player, to move through each part of the game. For each piece, look at what is happening and ask yourself the following questions: (1) If I was here, knowing what the character knows, what would I do? (2) Is that a reasonable reaction given the personality of the character? (3) How does this move the story forward?
For #1, if you cannot rationally put yourself in the character’s shoes and come to the same conclusion, you need to rethink what happens next. Maybe your character needs to go into the foreboding fortress of doom; but if you cannot see yourself doing it, given all the information they have, it might be time to beef up the motivation.
For #2, if the reaction is completely out of character, either change the reaction or give a highly compelling reason to have the character, well, break character. Maybe they’re scared of spiders, and a giant spider is standing between then and their goal. Normally, they are fearless, but in this instance they have to find a way around the arachnid.
For #3, and this is the most important bullet point in this post, if what you are having the character do does not move the story forward or grow them, scrap it. If you take nothing away from this post, take this… it’s a hard lesson I’ve had to learn as an author and Teal’s had to learn as an editor. If it doesn’t move the story forward in some way, if it doesn’t grow your characters, it doesn’t belong in the game.
We could go on for hours about this topic, but it’s time to move on.
2. Immersive Gameplay: This is a lot more grounded in reality, but still so very often overlooked as being not very important. Immersive gameplay is getting the player into your story and keeping them there, holding onto their attention and making them want to play “just one more hour”. This is accomplished through a variety of techniques called hooks. There are actually a good many number of these hooks, but we’ll go over the most popular:
Initial Hook – So very, very vital. This is the thing that draws your player in at the very beginning, whether it be an immediate crisis, a daring situation, or an epic, cinematic opening. Just starting with a guy waking up and going to the bathroom doesn’t work. Starting with a stranger walking down a dirt road doesn’t work either. Now, the guy going to the bathroom and the police knock on his apartment door? That’s compelling. The stranger dripping blood as he trundles down the road? Also compelling. Do something to grab your player’s attention within the first thirty seconds of your game, or you risk losing them.
Story Hook – This is where you take the attention of the player, which you grabbed in your initial hook, and drag them into the story. This doesn’t have to be something explosive or off-the-wall, but it does need to be something that keeps their attention and follows a natural progression. Like that guy in the bathroom? How about he jumps out the window onto the fire escape and makes a break down the alley. Or if the wounded stranger starts to self-narrate how he got that way, and the next thing we know we’re in a saloon and a gunfight is about to break out? Do something to pull them into the next scene. Speaking of that…
Scene Hook – Each scene needs to pull the player into the next scene. Period. If a player reaches a part of your game and can walk away without a second thought, you’ve already lost them. Even if you’re game is in multiple chapters, hook them from one chapter to the next–a bad guy cutscene, a reveal just for the player, anything. Just get them to keep playing.
Character Hook – These can be a lot of fun, as they are essentially the bits here and there that define characters. Give the player something about each character that makes them (a) want to see more of them and (b) give a heck what happens to them. We could easily go on for another 3000 words about sympathetic characters, but we’ll save that for another time. Just hook the player into the characters. Like that guy who jumped out the window? Maybe he’s on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. The wounded stranger? Maybe he’s looking for his long lost child. Give us something with each character that we can relate to and we’ll be drawn into their story.
Final Hook – Every story has to end, but how yours ends is paramount to whether or not a player will ever pick up something of yours again. If you just drop the player, they will hate you. If you give a downer of an ending with no hope, they’ll have no desire to play the next game. And if you lie to or betray the trust you’ve built up with the player, they will do all they can to destroy you. So end the story with a powerful, decisive something. It doesn’t have to be a complete victory, or a “good” ending. Some of the best games we’ve ever played have had bittersweet endings. But give the player something decisive and something that gives them a sense of accomplishment.
3. Acceptable Challenge: This is another topic we could literally go on about for hours. But to keep it really short, this is about game balance. Your game cannot be too easy, or your player won’t take it seriously. And it can’t be too hard, or the player will give up before finishing it. There is a fine middle ground and you must always tread it.
In an RPG, this means balancing character stats, enemy stats, gold drops, item drops and prices, weapon and armor strength, states, and types. Whew.
Fortunately, with RPG Maker, there are resources to help balance your game, and we have a community of people to help; but the best way to test out if your game is balanced is to just play it. If you find yourself getting through the game too easily, or have too much trouble, your players will. And if you’re just whizzing through since you know all the tips and tricks? Get someone else, a friend or a member of the community, to play your game. They’ll tell you. Just don’t release a game that you haven’t tested for balance (or tested in general, for that matter).
4. Fun: This is, at its core, the most important, and is the one thing we cannot teach you. No one can. But fortunately, if you’ve followed the three other points above, chances are your game will be fun to play, because it will guide the player through an enjoyable and unforgettable experience.
Now go make your game good!