How Do You Make a Great Video Game?

While the focus of this book is on the design and implementation of a game engine, it is important to appreciate how different components can contribute to the creation of a fun and engaging video game. Beginning in Chapter 4, a “Game Design Consideration” section is included at the end of each chapter to relate the functionality of the engine component to elements of game designs. This section presents the framework for these discussions.

It’s a complex question, and there’s no exact formula for making a video game that people will love to play, just as there’s no exact formula for making a movie that people will love to watch. We’ve all seen big-budget movies that look great and feature top acting, writing, and directing talent but that bomb at the box office, and we’ve all seen big-budget games from major studios that fail to capture the imaginations of players.

By the same token, movies by unknown directors can grab the world’s attention, and games from small, unknown studios can take the market by storm. While no explicit instructions exist for making a great game, a number of elements work together in harmony to create a final experience greater than the sum of its parts, and all game designers must successfully address each of them in order to produce something worth playing. The elements include the following:

  • Technical design: This includes all game code and the game platform and is generally not directly exposed to players; rather, it forms the foundation and scaffolding for all aspects of the game experience. This book is primarily focused on issues related to the technical design of games, including specific tasks such as the lines of code required to draw elements on the screen and more architectural considerations such as determining the strategy for how and when to load assets into memory. Technical design issues impact the player experience in many ways (for example, the number of times a player experiences “loading” delays during play or how many frames per second the game displays), but the technical design is typically invisible to players because it runs under what’s referred to as the presentation layer, or all of the audiovisual and/or haptic feedback the player encounters during play.
  • Game mechanic(s): The game mechanic is an abstract description of what can be referred to as the foundation of play for a given game experience. Types of game mechanics include puzzles, dexterity challenges such as jumping or aiming, timed events, combat encounters, and the like. The game mechanic is a framework; specific puzzles, encounters, and game interactions are implementations of the framework. A real-time strategy (RTS) game might include a resource-gathering mechanic, for example, where the mechanic might be described as “Players are required to gather specific types of resources and combine them to build units which they can use in combat.” The specific implementation of that mechanic (how players locate and extract the resources in the game, how they transport them from one place to another, and the rules for combining resources to produce units) is an aspect of system design, level design, and the interaction model (described later in this section).
  • Systems design: The internal rules and logical relationships that provide structured challenge to the core game mechanic are referred to as the game’s systems design. Using the previous RTS example, a game might require players to gather a certain amount of metal ore and combine it with a certain amount of wood to make a game object; the specific rules for how many of each resource is required to make the objects and the unique process for creating the objects (for example, objects can be produced only in certain structures on the player’s base and take x number of minutes to appear after the player starts the process) are aspects of systems design.
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Casual games may have basic systems designs. The unexpected global phenomenon Flappy Bird from .GEARS Studio, for example, is a game with few systems and low complexity, while major genres like RTS games may have deeply complex and interrelated systems designs created and balanced by entire teams of designers. Game systems designs are often where the most hidden complexity of game design exists; as designers go through the exercise of defining all variables that contribute to an implementation of a game