Hypothesis on Good Game Design

A good game is something that is not trivial to create. There are a lot of skills that go into creating a good game, from the artwork to the sound, and programming. They all work together to hopefully create something that is compelling enough for people to enjoy and spend time with.

This last point – creating something compelling – is the least understood, and most critical. Good art is subjective and even 8 bit graphics (Tiny Tower) can power multi-million dollar games. Royalty free sound effects and music can be had for just a couple bucks. Custom programming can be done cheaply through outsourcing sites like oDesk. Directing all these efforts to create something “FUN” is an aspect of human psychology that fewer people understand and can translate into something tangible.

Perhaps one of the most important books I’ve read, which I continuously refer back to is “Influence” by Robert Cialdini. It’s a book about the triggers that make us want to buy things and what we find valuable.

The same psychological triggers that are used by salesmen, and marketing teams in business I believe also play a big role in making a game compelling.

Reciprocity is the impulse most people have to pay back favours and it plays a huge role in why the freemium type game is more profitable. Give people something valuable and they naturally feel indebted to you. Rewarding players of a game with coins or upgrades is a way to compel them back into the game if they haven’t played in a while.

Making use of Commitment and Consistency well is difficult but it can make a game incredibly sticky. Take a look at the MMOs for a good example of how far players will go to maintain a commitment to a character or proving that they are an avid gamer. Sometimes their commitment to a game can override their commitment to family and health.

A good game has Scarcity. Tiny Tower and other Sim type games are all about scarcity and very in your face about it. You have limited resources to build floors and it takes real time/money to get those resources. The scarcity imbues value on the floors you build in Tiny Tower. Scarcity also is present in non-sim type games. Jetpack Joyride has scarcity in the number of coins you collect – it takes time and skill to collect coins in the game – that makes the other things in the game such as new legs, shoes, upgrades etc. have value and therefore worth collecting. The thing to note is that by removing the scarcity it kills the fun in the game – cheating by giving yourself unlimited funds effectively inflates away the value of everything in the game. God-mode removes the scarcity of life and very quickly can turn something fun into something tedious.

A successful game also should have Social Proof. The success of Angry Birds is not due to it having amazing graphics, or original game-play, and the programming isn’t particularly impressive. Angry Birds is successful because people know other people that play it. There are 20M likes for the game on Facebook. When someone gets their first smart phone and asks friends what games they have generally Angry Birds is on the list. Scoreboards in games are a form of social proof. A high score poses a challenge to people eager to beat a friend but it also is proof that other people are playing the game. To be part of the club you need to be playing too.

Likeability can be used in games to great effect. In the indie game development world liking the developer translates into people that know them playing more to support their hard work. In game likeability is more associated with the artwork and characters in the game. The birds in Angry Birds are vastly more likeable than the 100’s of similar catapult games out there.

Thinking about these factors when creating a game will pay dividends when players can’t put down your next title.