Since I started doing gamedev a few years ago, I’ve been looking at games a differently. Instead of just enjoying a game on the surface level, or praising the individual technical or artistic contents, I’ve tried to think about what makes the game engaging.
Most game journalism has focused on the pieces that compose a game: Graphics, Sound, Writing, Technical innovation, etc. And each game was matched up against its genre peers (FPS, RTS, RPG, etc). Add everything up, and if it was as good or better than its predecessors, it was deemed a good game.
More recently, game journalism has started to look under the hood at the experience of playing a game. How does the player feel when they are engaged with the game? Do they feel a rush of adrenaline as they dodge bullets? Or perhaps smug superiority as they out-maneuver an opponent in an empire-building campaign. How are these feelings fostered, improved, grown? What’s the balance between pure gameplay mechanics (the things that “test” the player), and spectacle (the things that “reward” the player)?
I’ve started thinking about games falling along a spectrum with two axis:
Engagement vs Feedback.
Engagement rates the emotional pull of a game.
Purely Visceral games (1.0) are full of in-your-face sight and sound, and connect at a deep almost biological level with the player. Much of the gameplay becomes intuitive or through muscle memory. Modern FPS (Call of Duty) are a good example
Purely Cerebral games (0.0) are more abstract and don’t involve any emotional engagement. Gameplay is more contemplative. Puzzle games are a good example.
Feedback rates the level of interactivity of the game.
The idea came from this great blog post by Daniel Cook: http://www.lostgarden.com/2012/07/building-tight-game-systems-of-cause.html
Tight Feedback Loops (1.0) occur in games where the player has lots of control over the game world, and in turn, the game world reacts directly to the player. This forms a “tight” loop. Games with tight feedback would be Platform Jumpers, some FPS, and fighters.
Loose Feedback Loops (0.0) occur in games where the player has less control of the gameworld. Much of the gameplay is passive or reactionary to things displaying on the screen. Quick time events, cutscenes, and point and click adventure games are all good examples.
We can graph games on this scale and some interesting relationships start to show up.Most modern AAA games fall into the Upper Right quadrant (high Feedback, high Engagement). However, lots of games are starting to lose Feedback as they include more cutscenes and QTEs.
Web and mobile games usually can’t compete with the high Engagement of AAA games, so they go towards the other end of the spectrum, low engagement and feedback. Something like Farmville has cartoonish graphics that are representations of the game world, and uses a turn-based play structure, so there’s very low Feedback and Engagement. Tetris, on the other hand, has very low Engagement, but decently high Feedback. The player feels in control of the game.
Indie games are an interesting story. They usually can’t compete with AAA games in Engagement (very stylish games like Limbo being the exception), but they can experiment drastically with the Feedback loops in the game. Minecraft and Super Meat Boy give the player enormous control over the game world, to great success.
One thing to note about Feedback – the tighter the loop and the more control the player has over the game; the more skill comes into play. For competitive games, this can lead to sub-cultures of elite players that operate on a different level from beginners (fighters, Quake, Starcraft). By reducing the feedback in more popular shooters like Call of Duty, the designers have opened the playing field and made the game more accessible.
What does this mean?
The spectrum doesn’t say anything about the quality of the games that fall into the various quadrants. There can be excellent games at any point on the map. What it does say is how the game will feel while you are playing it.
My favorite types of games usually fall in the middle. I like decent engagement, but sometimes I like to sit back and reflect on my avatar, the game world, etc. I don’t want everything thrown in my face like a Michael Bay movie. Similarly, I like to have a decent amount of control in the game, but not to the level of twitchy obsession (Starcraft, Quake).
There are certainly other criteria which could be used to rate gameplay, but these two (Feedback, Engagement) have been super helpful to rate what’s out there, and build better games.