What Makes A Game Appealing?
Why did I just buy that game? I sat up in bed one night, thinking: what is it that makes you squeal each time your character dies in a game? What is it that manages to make your heart pump like a Formula-1 turbocharger, and your palms sweat like cheese in the sun? What makes a game captivating? It sounds easy, but it certainly isn't an easy answer.
Why did I just buy that game?
I sat up in bed one night, thinking: what is it that makes you squeal each time your character dies in a game? What is it that manages to make your heart pump like a Formula-1 turbocharger, and your palms sweat like cheese in the sun? What makes a game captivating? It sounds easy, but it certainly isn't an easy answer.
To start with, there's type, the factor of whether the actual core concept of the game is solid and stimulating. "You're a guy with a selection of guns out to kill other guys with guns" or "Conquer the world starting with a soldier, a worker and a settler at the dawn of the bronze age" are typical. Obviously a game's type has to be aligned with the player's preferences.
Then, there's playability - how well is the interface between player and game? Does the player have to go through complicated menus in the middle of combat to change an often tweaked setting? Is there an obvious miss-out in game realism, like an AI enemy chilling out and not reacting to another who just fell dead besides them? Is the selection of a unit too difficult due to small size?
These all add up to make the basis of a game - the things that keep a good player coming back. But what makes a player play a game in the first place?
To my dismay, a few moments later, the phone rang. It has a disturbing tendency to do that when I'm pondering. Upon answering it, I was unimpressed to hear the familiar voice of my friend, George. His amazement was easily apparent by his speech-type; it was fast, hurried and without pause: "OhmyGod! Haveyouseen thenewWarcraftIIIdemovideo? It'ssoamazing! Theeffectsare solifelikeI almost peedmself!" and for the better part of the next hour we were discussing visual and sound effects.
It was around here when I heard the sound at the back of my brain go -click- as it engaged. "The videos in Starcraft look dated nowadays by comparison" he said, "but for their time they were amazing." How true, I thought... but why is this the case? We all have seen sci-fi movies of the past that made us cringe, aaah, gap and squeal with the realism they had. The Fly, Willow, Ghostbusters, Star Wars. The list is endless. They all made you think that it doesn't get any more real. They captivated you...
That's what brings a player to a game in the first place... Everyone at E3 presentations comments on "the amazing graphics" or "the incredible music" of this or that new game. They often go crazy over "the life-likeness" and "the realism". A game, just like a real person, leaves you with an impression once you come into contact with it. You never think someone might be a great emotional support or a fabulous conversation partner when you meet new people. No, your first thought is "Nice legs".
Same thing with games: the introduction video will have a much more lasting impression on you than a look into the game. Look at the people in a game shop next time you're in there: they all pick up a game, look at the screen-shots on the back of the box, and then either decide to keep reading the description, or put it back, never to be seen again.
You often find yourself ending-up with games that aren't all they're wound-up to be, that weren't worth the time, let alone the money you spent on them, but you almost never find yourself with a game that is amazing without any impressive and immersing effects when you first saw it. Even if that was a picture in a margin mini-article of your favorite game-mag, or the screen-shots on an unofficial website.
How do you measure immersiveness? How do you gauge how absorbing a game is? This surely must be an issue the gaming industry is eager to get it's hands on. What makes a game engrossing is, in my opinion, it's realism with respect to anything similar the subject has ever experienced. If the realism of the visual and audio effects from the big screen are less or equal to that of the game's, then it is good enough to absorb the player into it. It means that little imagination needs to be provided by the player for her to feel part of the game, to really believe they are "in there". This is not to say that less realistic games aren't as absorbing; it just means that being immersed takes less mental effort on the gamer's behalf, and is thus more appealing to less imaginative players.
This explains why Pac-Man used to be something you could drone into in the 80s. People would complain that video-games could cause brain-damage and induce a vegetative state when I was young. And indeed, as far as the state was concerned, they did! I remember endless hours glued to the screen of Bubble Bobble, or playing Snakey ad infinitum on my green 14" screen Amstrad (I was quite proud of that one, I programmed it myself!), in much the same way players nowadays adhere to their 19" plasma screens at 1280x1024 to play Asheron's Call, Operation Flashpoint or Mechwarrior 4.
There we have it - the reason the world's gaming industries are all raving over better graphics, more accurate sound-effects and more realistic movements and artificial intelligence. Next time you're gappin' at some graphics, stupefied by some sounds or rendered dumb by comparison to some intelligent computer-controlled reaction, keep in mind, it's only an effect, and it might be pretty good, but does it have substance? Will I return to this game again and again? Because, at the end of the day, playability will keep you addicted.