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What makes a game great?

The line between an art and a science is a bit weird with video games. In an odd way the industry meshes the two together so intrinsically the games we get from the process ends up with some of the most incredible pieces of work that any medium could produce. Typically we think of coders hard at work, but then there’s also the artists who deliberate constantly on the design of every fine detail. Then there’s those who work the story; creating a tale of adventure, action, love, death, and almost everything else.

But how do we get there? Triple-A titles establish mass collaborations putting so many minds together that so much wide-spread thought is put in to making the most successful game possible.

However, indie games are a bit different. These small tight nit teams are reminiscent of the classic studios behind the vast majority of games before the 2000s. Some aren’t even teams. Lone developers handle everything to make a game that — while less visually impressive that the triple-A games — plays amazingly. For all these creative and skilled developers only a few seem to make it out and really hit it big.

Indie teams and triple-A developers can both offer great games — albeit very different types of games.

For these indie teams each developer have something special that triple-A titles simply can’t match — personability. Top indie games like Braid, FEZ, The Binding of Isaac, Don’t Starve, and many more all share common ground in that they’re made by small teams but the quality of each of these games is astonishing when you look at some of the massive disappointments that the major developers and publisher roll out. The biggest key for these games to become successful is the devs making the game they simply want to make. They have no one to answer to but themselves — and for many that’s often the harshest critic. In turn, the amount of attention to detail and care that these basement-dwelling geniuses can input into their creative process is simply incredible.

Everything is followed closely and with developers working alone or in small groups, the envisioning of a project can change as they make the game. This is what makes indie development special. This is what can lead to great outside-the-box games like FEZ or Braid.

But one of the most critical factors that almost all popular indie games and popular triple-A games is the focus on a character; a primary protagonist for players to follow and observe or manipulate the story of.

Iconic characters are crucial to long-term success.

Mario and Luigi are one of the greatest duos ever serving as an icon for the Nintendo brand since the 80s.
Mario and Luigi are one of the greatest duos ever serving as an icon for the Nintendo brand since the 80s.

The idea of having a stand out character has long been a crucial part of game success. Since the early 1980s Nintendo has led the industry with its collection of iconic characters like Link, Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong, Samus, and many more. Every one of these characters has been the star to incredible stories and flourishing franchises that has helped shape the entire gaming industry. Today, the best stories come from those that can incite an emotional level of caring from the player towards the character.

An iconic character alone doesn’t bode too well though. Next comes the quality that most people impart their highest level of standards — gameplay. Most triple-A developers have this down to a science of following successful formulas and trends to create the highest-selling game they can. Franchises like Call of Duty, Halo, Grand Theft Auto, all sports-related franchises, and many others have games that are realistic or have high graphical fidelity.

Another quality that these top games all have that is also broken down into a repetitive formula by the triple-A devs is ‘challenge.’ The balance between hard and easy is one of the most critical design aspects that any dev must deal with. Some push the envelope in both directions with games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne being prime modern examples of this as the game teeters a careful edge between frustrating gameplay and challenging but rewarding gameplay. Many mobile developers trend the opposite way offering mindless games to kill time and not take very seriously. While these devs have success they are still the outliers as most need to find the perfect middle ground where a challenge is faced, a reward is given, and progress is felt to be made.

Challenge must be met with a sense of accomplishment and success.

Bioshock Infinite has one of the greatest stories in all of gaming.
Bioshock Infinite has one of the greatest stories in all of gaming.

But for truly popular games the most popular aspect always comes back to a story. Even in multiplayer games like Call of Duty or Halo, setting the environment, narrative, and mood of the world bleeds over into how players can approach the online experience that is quickly gaining more traction than the standard campaigns or single players that used to be the keystone of everything in a great game; not to say a story is important anymore though. It’s simply that players enjoy having an experience to be shared with friends. However, the prevalence of a game story/lore will always be important in the creation of a franchise. Giving players the opportunity to get attached and captivated by the world they explore helps the game expand beyond just a fun game and grow into a universe to be immersed in.

So there’s clearly so many ways to approach making a game, but there is a systematic approach to the creation of art. Sometimes boundaries can be bent or even broken with success, but from almost the entire history of the video game industry the the same trends have been followed among the greatest games to ever release. And it’s clear that even if you aren’t part of a triple-A team you can still make a game that’s just as enjoyable to play.

Though it’s important to keep in mind — this industry is only 30 (perhaps 40 depending on your view) years old. It’s very young in this world of video games, and maybe a developer will find a way to successfully break one of these “rules” to make a great game that stands out and breaks the confines of what is expected of a prototypical video game.