What Makes A Good Game?

I have been asked another large and tricky question to answer.  What makes a good game?  I could answer this on a number of different layers, theoretical, practical, in relation to an actual game!  I am going to relate this through a number of topics and discuss them at a practical layer.  I will talk about my experiences with the games I play (largely Pathfinder, Traveller and Fate) as well as to the game I am making (Detritus).  This means that this post is my point of view only.  What makes a good game is entirely subjective to the individual, but if you value my point of view, by all means read on.  This also means that this post is likely to be a long one, so go get a coffee, coke, tea, milkshake, milo, twinkie, tim tam or whatever and get set for a long read!

Theme

Is theme important to me?  I have to say it is but we have to attach theme to genre first before exploring why it is important to me.

Genre

Excellent game!

Described as a class or category of artistic endeavour having a particular form, content, technique, or the like; OR genus; kind; sort; style.  These definitions come from my dictionary app on my iPad and they essentially point toward categorising (in our case RPG’s) games under a kind or type.  There are several well established categories in RPG’s and these are similar to categories of fiction but a little more broad.  The genres I can think of off the top of my head are;

  • Fantasy: pertaining to anything set in a mythical world or mythical past utilising low technology weapons such as swords, bows and armour loosely based on the medieval period of our own past
  • Sci-fi: Anything that pertains to the future or futuristic endeavours.  Largely focussed on space travel and the like but in reality can be anything that involves futuristic technology (like a Doctor Who game set on current day Earth)
  • Modern: Generally relates to games that fall within the scope of our own time or near the same time as our own.  The game is, of course, a fictional story set in the world as we know it today, or a world set in the same timezone that may have an altered reality
  • Supers: Pretty much think of your super heroes and villains duking it out and that is what falls into this genre
  • Horror: Any setting intended to engender fear in the player as they investigate the darker things in the world.
  • Anthromorphic: A system that humanises animals.  This is normally attached to other genres for a setting but it is any game where the players take the roles of intelligent non-human creatures like Michtim.
  • Historical: Is set in a historically accurate setting of our world with a fictional story.
  • Universal: A game that attempts to give you a set of rules that you can apply to any genre.
  • Steampunk: Advanced machines set in a historical period (traditionally 19th century) or fantasy world.
These genre’s can be combined to give a bit more specificity e.g. Earthdawn is a Fantasy/Horror or Call of the Cthulhu in the 1920’s is a Historical/Horror.  So the genre of the game gives you an idea of what you are getting before you even open the cover.  I play Pathfinder (Fantasy), Fate Core (Universal) and Traveller (Sci-fi).  The game that I am making falls more into a Modern/Steampunk/Fantasy genre, but we will investigate this as we delve further.

How Do Theme And Genre Interconnect?

The theme of a game is the (dictionary app again) unifying or dominant idea or motif.  In essence the genre is the broad categorisation of a game and the theme is the more specific application of that genre.  I would describe Pathfinder’s Fantasy genre as high magic filled with heroic deeds.  It is focussed on broad style campaign arcs in a rich world full of all types of different adventure.  Conan would likely not exist in Pathfinder as his is a much more bleak survival type of setting.  My game Detritus is a comment on waste in a consumer driven world and the cost to those around us.  It is set in a reality connected to our own modern day world where people who get forgotten are transported to, along with all the things that we forget along the way.  

Does Theme Matter In A Good Game?

Fate and universal systems in general
offer some interesting curve balls in
this discussion!
Yes, and no.  Theme can be exceptionally important in a game.  I play games where there is the ability to tell a story and has a strong theme.  So clearly in relation to me it is important.  Or is it?  Because I play Fate and Fate is a game providing a Universal system, and therefore no default setting, genre or theme.  So if you look at it from that perspective, theme is not important in the least.  I think the truth is, for me that theme is exceptionally important.  I love systems that have rich, complex and mature themes.  I have bought Michtim to introduce my son to RPG’s and I chose that one specifically because it has a rich theme to investigate and also learn from.  I am writing Detritus because I love role playing but I also have an issue I want to present in this format that I hope will resonate with it’s players in the long term.

So why Fate then?  A generic system with no set genre designed to enable roleplaying.  I think the answer is two fold.  The first answer is that it’s theme is roleplaying.  Pure unadulterated roleplaying in a genre and theme of your choosing.  I love roleplaying and (as you have probably noticed by now) have a lot to say on the topic.  The second reason is that it is a system that I can apply my own themes to.  One set of rules, many messages.  So though it could be argued that Fate is themeless I would challenge that opinion.  


Rule Set And Mechanics

Although a rule set and mechanics are two different things, they are two different things that work hand in hand.  The rules set are the laws that the game wants to enforce and the mechanics are the way the game actually enforces it.  Consider Pathfinder as an example.  The game wants to state that the player takes on an “ordinary” humanoid character that is grounded.  Yet the base character has a skill they can invest in called fly meaning that it is not impossible to fly.  To enforce the “regular” character idea there are a limited number of ways that you can utilise that skill and it is through the use of spells, riding on a flying creature or using a magical item.  So the rule is players can fly but the mechanics restrict this to only certain situations.  The ability of flight is not native to any player at the beginning of the game.


So, the definition of the two may be shades of grey but they exist.  Every game maker sits down and decides what experience do I want my player to have?  From this question they create the rules set that will allow this experience to achieve some kind of reality.  Once this rules set is created the game designer then decides how, in nuts and bolts (or dice and paper) they will enforce these rules in a system so the player comes to that experience.  Sometimes a game can begin with a good rules set but have a complex system that does not suit the rules set and it is in these cases that many people will cry that the rules are too complex, or the system is impenetrable.  Other times the system is exceptionally good but just does not provide the experience the game was designed to provide.  In most cases this results in a game that is considered boring or bland.  

The one thing that I have to say on this is that the mechanics must provide the experience.  If we sat down to a game of Earthdawn and you did not become a little nervous as you headed into an apparently unopened Kaer then the system would have failed to provide you that experience.  In Traveller when my players are readying for a Jump to a different star system if they do not get a bit anxious about their navigation then the mechanics have failed again.  In my game I have spent a good deal of time attempting to mirror the mechanics of the rules to the experience that I want to engender in my players.  I want this to be a bleak, desolate place where all that are left are survivors fighting what seems to be a hopeless battle.  Every increase that you can gain gives you something a little extra in hand for not only the character, but the player as well.  Small things make big differences and that is what I want my game to say.

The system can be a make or break for some players!


System to me is less important to me than are theme and production quality.  With a bad system you can always circumvent it to make it usable and to give the experience that you want to provide.  There is an argument, of course, that why would you bother with a poor system when there are many others out there that work so well.  There is a certain validity to this argument, although my return argument would be that theme is very important to me.  I might like the theme that a game is attempting to display and therefore I am going to want to look at material from that very game.  I would much prefer custom theme material from a game AND buy the good system game and play it with those rules.  

I have this argument on a fortnightly basis as I prepare to play Traveller.  There is a long story to why this is the case but we play Classic Traveller, the one that came out in the late 70’s and into the 80’s.  The rules are straightforward, but really poorly written.  They are given a task to enforce and they enforce it.  In some cases the mechanics of this utilise some serious formulae and you kind of have to have a good level of education (or understanding of maths) just to run the game.  There are also a LOT of rules.  The skills to the game are spread out over at least 9 game books that I know and I have not yet got all the books yet (I am reliably informed by Marc Miller that the CD is on the way).  I love the theme of this game (interplanetary travel and exploration space opera!) but struggle at times with the system.  Every fortnight I ask myself why not switch it to the Fate system?  I should, and maybe one day will do this.  At the moment though I do not want to lose players because many of them are playing the game because they used to play it and it takes them back to the time where they had fun playing Traveller.

Game World Setting

The world of the game and the focus of the player character classes or abilities is something that I think should be reflective of the theme largely.  This is not always the case and some games can provide interesting juxtapositions putting together two styles, one in the theme and the other in the style of the world or the characters.  Imagine playing in a cartoon world where all the characters are children’s cartoon favourites and then they are suddenly faced by some kind of encroaching doom that is taking over many of the inhabitants of the world.  That kind of juxtaposition can provide interesting play opportunities.

Game world setting can be really infectious!


On the whole though the game world setting and the opportunities for character play are set up to support and promote the themes and genre of the game.  To me this is an important balance that needs to be right.  The setting, supported by the mechanics need to suit and they must be interesting.  In Detritus I have a unique world setting where you play in a world that was purpose built to store the detritus of other worlds away.  it was also purpose built (sadly) to house the races that would eventually arrive on the world through no fault of their own.  The game world of Detritus highlights the waste of the world as the majority of characters learn to repurpose the junk in steampunk fashion by turning things that were intended for other purposes into functional pieces for themselves to use.  You might say that those that make their way to the world are expert recyclers and know that there is use in every piece that they find.

You could say that the game world and the player abilities are actually the thing that refines the theme for the player’s perspective.  There may be realms of meta information in a game but in reality it is the experience of the player that they form through their character that truly forms the experience for them.  This is of course directly related to the game world and the details that the GM provides of it.  In my opinion, the more detail a GM can read about a world the better they will be able to depict it.  But of course this again brings up the thorny question of Fate again.  It does not provide a world and yet it is an extreme success in the independent game industry.


To me, the success of Fate in this arena is the level of investment that a player has in the game alongside the GM.  The suggested way to play Fate is to build the world interactively along with the players as they build their characters.  The way they then play the game is to use their skills and abilities to narrate a portion of the story.  So when the player decides they are going to go talk to the sage that knows how to destroy the ring of doom the GM does not have to have a sage NPC prepared, the player makes one up on the spot after they make their ability check.  This means they form an invested relationship with the environment around them and see that not only as a character, but a player as well gets to define the world around them.

The Product

It would be awfully sad of me to admit that the presentation of the product itself makes me want to buy it.  But it does and I like to think of it as making me human, not sad.  I love the professional looking work that some games put out.  Pathfinder does this really well, all colour pages, slick artwork.  But you do not need the pulling power of Paizo to make a beautiful book.  Michtim by +Georg Mir is such a beautiful presentation that after purchasing the PDF I had to have the book.  And it lived up to expectations in every way.  That book is illustrated by the author and is a credit in the way it is laid out and organised.  The art of course do not need to be colour and I have many beautiful game books that were black and white (or greyscale).  

Original well presented art is always
a bonus!

But of course fine art and a consideration of layout is a strong allure to a gamer.  If you like having the book itself on hand, a well presented index or table of contents is a must for me.  Separation of rules to setting is also something that I like to have.  Some games try to give you information about the theme or setting as they are telling you a rule and in these cases it can be nearly impossible to find the information again.  This frustrates me the most.

I have recently been buying games more in PDF format for my iPad.  It is cost effective and does not take up physical space which is awesome.  But I am a sucker for a boxed set or a special edition book and will attempt to get my hands on any that attract my attention.  I really miss the days where every single game had it’s own box.  Every now and again though a game will release a box set or you will have a special edition release.  I know for a fact that I have some definite plans on how I would like Detritus released in a hardcover, but I will save the details for that closer to the time that I am looking at a release.


So to sum it all up from my perspective.  A good game is a game that allows the player to tell a meaningful story  inside a well themed environment.  The game setting is rich with detail and background but yet still allows interaction on behalf of the player and the games master to create a world together.  The rules are best if the mechanics and ruleset work together to create an experience I want to achieve.  To add something else, I love a game that has all the material you need in one book.  I am OK with getting sourcebooks as long as they continue to fill the previous conditions and add something to the game.  I actually prefer them just to add more flavour to the theme and setting over rules although I have warmed to the idea of added rules rounding out a system.  I used to be a core rulebook or no rule kind of guy but I have to admit that there is a lot of rich material out there to draw on.  I really am not overly fussy on rules as I am confident enough just to change what I do not want.

Need to do a proper title soon 🙂

From this you can assume a little bit of what Detritus will be like.  It will be a rich focussed theme and setting with a functional rule set.  Hopefully the rules will be a set that I would love to play and that they bring the experience of a survival horror to the game.  It will be released in PDF format and a limited print run may also occur depending on the support the game is getting around release time!  So, that is what I like to see in a game.  When I say that a game is good then it has done well on most of my criteria.  What is your take on what a good game is?  Hit me up in the comments.  Until then keep rolling!


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