Several months ago, Kotaku editor and game journalism impressario Stephen Totillo asked me to send him my thoughts on what makes a game good or bad. He included what I told him in an essay he wrote about the topic on Kotaku.
My response to his question was that there is no universal definition of what makes a game good or bad – in fact, it is part of a game designer’s work to define success for a particular game. This is complicated by the fact that games (in a classical sense) have no utilitarian function – they have no end outside themselves – as opposed to more functional forms of design like designing a fork or a car. Every game is a sort of system of pleasure, responsible for both stirring up needs and desires in players, and then frustrating and satisfying them in some way.
Stephen has his own answer to the question of what makes a game good or bad: for him it has to do with a game supplying “interesting choices” for participants. This is a great rule of thumb for designing engaging games, and in fact it’s very similar to the idea of “meaningful choice” – one of the central concepts of Rules of Play. Meaningful choice is simply the process by which a player is given choices, these choices have real outcomes, and the game communicates these outcomes to the player.
Actually, the concept of meaningful choice was almost my answer to Stephen’s original question about what makes a game good. But in the end I stopped myself from proposing even that basic idea. The problem with proposing a single model for a proper game is that any rule of “good design” is made to be broken, by some game or another, in some context sooner or later.
So yes, Stephen, “interesting choice” is a great way to understand what makes most games meaningful. And when I am teaching something like Introduction to Game Design, that’s the kind of model I use to help game design students understand the basic idea of engagement through choice and outcome in a game. So in that sense I’d absolutely agree with you.
But what if we took a wider view? Could we create a game that succeeded – despite giving players no meaningful choices at all? There may be some games that already fit this category: gambling games like slots or Roulette, or creation-based games like Exquisite Corpse. Perhaps in the end we’d no longer call it a game, but that is how cultural forms grow and change.
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Follow-up to some of the comments: The example of Guitar Hero is excellent – it does not appear to have choices because largely it is a contest of skill – which, like a footrace, does not appear at first glance to have any choices at all. Contests and games of chance (like Roulette) in their pure form do not have choices, but of course nothing ever exists in pure form. (Try telling Lance Armstrong that there are no strategic choices involved in a bike race!)