“Finish Him!” the announcer demands as your enemy struggles to remain on their feet.
You call upon your chilling, elemental powers and freeze them in place. You then follow up with a powerful kick that shatters their body into icey meat shards. The announcer roars “Fatality!” You have won. Sub-Zero is your name.
Round 1: Fight! The fatality finishing move has been an iconic staple of the Mortal Kombat fighting series since its inception. These over-the-top, brutal attacks are not just a symbol of victory, but a display of… well, creativity. In a violent, but loving kind of way. The fatality animations in Mortal Kombat 11 are ridiculously detailed and complex, and it’s amazing to think about how much effort must go into killing someone, from a game development standpoint that is…
The fatality is just one example of when developers go over-the-top with concepts to deliver unique experiences that draw more players in. The fatality itself has nothing to do with gameplay balance, but it is very satisfying to initiate and flex on your opponent. This is an example of what I like to call FUNdamental Design (thank you, I stayed up all night thinking of that one). Good game developers know that they must be thoughtful and innovative if anyone is going to buy and play their games. This is the ultimate challenge that developers are faced with, because if players don’t enjoy the developer’s games, players won’t recommend the games, and that denies the developers one of their most powerful tools of advertising: word of mouth.
Of course all games are supposed to be fun to play, but making a “fun” game isn’t as simple as it may seem at first thought. Afterall, “fun” is subjective, and can highly differ from one person to the next based upon many factors such as personality disposition, age, culture, religion, philosophy, gender, and worldview just to name a few. Developers know this, which leads some of them to tailor their games for the masses, whether it be through cultural inclusiveness, genre-spanning gameplay, or diverse level environments. This approach of trying to appeal to diverse crowds can potentially create more problems than the benefits are worth though, because it can lead to an imbalance between quality and quantity. The result can be a game that has plenty of scale, features, and content, but the core mechanics are generic or unpolished.
One would expect developers to ask themselves questions like: - “Where can we do something unique?”
- “Will this content retain its appeal after the player has encountered it for the first time?”
- “How do we keep the audience’s attention between points A and B?”
- “Do the player mechanics feel responsive and intuitive, and do they facilitate rhythm in the gameplay?”
Game elements like locations and settings, items, powers, 3D models, skins, special effects, weapons, enemies, side quests… there are plenty of games that have all of them these days. The truth is that they are only quantitative assets unless they are combined in a meaningful way. Otherwise, a game that has all of these things is essentially just a sum of its different parts. Ghost Recon: Breakpoint is a recent example of this issue, because while the developer managed to put out a massive game with a lot of potentially interesting features, they failed to do anything new or captivating with everything they built, and subsequently failed to connect with players. Good developers don’t just compile features, they synergize them, and that is what makes a game fun.
The development process has to begin with consideration to how a sum of features can culminate into a game that players want to experience time and time again. Fun primarily stems from engaging, detail-oriented gameplay, but it can be greatly enhanced by story elements, good world building, immersive settings and other emotional stimuli such as clever sequences of events that lead to the “epic gamer moments” we so often describe.
Get Higher, Faith A grappling hook can be unlocked midway through the game, which can then be used to swing from one cluster of buildings to the next. The grappling hook is overly simple, but serves as a means for accessing higher difficulty sections of the city. Swinging from one point to another is easy. There’s nothing particularly interesting about it until the final mission.
The player is tasked with scaling “The Shard,” which is the tallest building in the city, but there’s a twist. The Shard is structurally unstable and the player must use the grappling hook to escape from collapsing sections of the building, and to swing from platform to platform as the building disintegrates at dizzying heights above the ground. This is all made far more intense by the game’s responsive movement systems and immersive level design. I felt my heart sink several times as I nearly fell off of narrow or collapsing platforms, and sensation only grew as I progressed higher and higher.
In this instance, the generally boring grappling hook was made a lot more interesting by the level design, because it took the game to new heights, literally. It also allowed the game designers to create a unique mission that utilized the advanced climbing mechanics in the game, though that’s not to say that The Shard is an amazing mission. It could have been less predictable at times, but it was still one of the more memorable missions in Catalyst, because it felt like a natural culmination of gameplay mechanics and is certainly thrilling if you’re afraid of heights like me. Perhaps that’s why I liked the mission so much. The Shard can be scaled very rapidly with the grappling hook, and it’s so damn tall that the ground rapidly becomes a distant sight. Before I knew it, just looking downward was ample reason to make me swear.
Of course the whole concept of scaling an unstable skyscraper is absurd, but Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a video game about free running across the tops of buildings after all. The concept is thrilling and that’s why we want to play it. Every time I try to describe this game to someone, I struggle to pinpoint what draws me to it. I love the art design, the setting, and the music, but I hate the plot, and have always felt like the overall game failed to meet its full potential. The game has superb movement mechanics though, and it’s clear that the developers placed a lot of emphasis on them. Despite all of these pros and cons, the result just feels good; it feels fun to string together movements and traverse the environment with unmatched speed.
For a game built around free running, it was critical for the developers to nail movement above anything else. By doing so, they established a basis for FUNdamental design. I don’t even have to be doing anything in particular to enjoy the game. Those simple filler quests that challenge players to collect points in a short time frame are captivating, because they apply focus and conditions to already satisfying gameplay, and that is FUNdamental design at work.
Mirror’s Edge: Simple. Satisfying.
Games like Mirror’s Edge Catalyst demonstrate the importance of responsive controls and fluid player mechanics. When players are able to comfortably traverse a level while attacking, healing, interacting, and generally staying focused on their objective, it makes the game so much more enjoyable. The Doom series is another popular example of this approach to game design.
Welcome Home, Great Slayer The 2016 Doom reboot and Doom Eternal are designed to promote a playstyle of perpetual fast-paced demon slaying. The system relies upon a suite of aggressive enemy types, compact arenas, and positive kill feedback (which awards health, ammo, and armor for specific types of kills) to keep audiences constantly engaged. It’s a fitting system for the franchise, and works really well, because once players learn the rules, they don’t suffer from running out of ammo or get forced into a tough checkpoint where they are stuck with low health. Players remain in control of the situation as long as they are able to work in conjunction with kill feedback, and that lets them focus their fury on the demons instead of their controllers or keyboards.
Did I Ever Tell You The Definition of Insanity? Sometimes FUNdamental Design is just about giving players a sandbox level, a general objective, and a bunch of options. Throw in some antics and kooky characters and you’ve got a game. The Far Cry franchise has always followed this philosophy. Far Cry 3 wasn’t the first in the series to capitalize on mayhem, but it was one of the most successful entries. The game drops the player on a beautiful tropical island with a rich history, an abundance of wildlife, and a small army of psychotic bandits that are happy torture or kill them. Add in a suite of sweet weapons and equipment, unique locations, satisfying gameplay mechanics, and it’s a recipe for destruction. Oh, I just get excited thinking about this game.
Taking over hostile outposts was a staple activity of the game, and it hardly ever felt repetitive, because of layout variations between outposts and the freedom awarded to the player. I remember one outpost situated in the middle of a field of tall grass with guard dogs lurking about. Solution? Molotovs everywhere. The whole field went up in flames before I charged in. Another outpost was lightly defended, but the second I tried to take control of it, a massive armored caravan rolled up and mowed me down. Solution? Land mines for the next time they tried me. Every outpost presented a new challenge, which made the game substantially more fun and most importantly, memorable.
There was a lot more to Far Cry 3 than taking outposts though. The main story missions often felt personal, hilarious, over the top, and even... trippy. Those of you who played the game should distinctly remember being given a flamethrower during one mission and being told to burn down the bad guys’ weed crops while Jamaican dubstep blared in the background. The protagonist got really baked in the process, and the POV even became hazy.
At other times the story even sent us into settings straight out of a secret agent movie. I remember descending down a stairway to discover an absolutely massive grotto that opened up to the sea on the far end. There were boats, dozens of enemies, and even cargo ship containers full of contraband all crammed in there. It was very cinematic and climatic as I (single-handedly?) stormed the pirate den and shot the conveniently placed explosive barrels everywhere. Look I never said this game was realistic, but it was a lot of fun.
Killing one of the faction bosses was basically just a big acid trip where I was forced to navigate all of these wild illusions until I finally stabbed the bad guy and came back to reality to see that I had actually killed him… yeah try to blog about that one. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets Far Cry.
You see, Far Cry 3 was what Ghost Recon Breakpoint wasn’t. They are similar games in a way. You (the player) are on an island with plenty of bad guys, plenty of weapons, and plenty of situations, but Far Cry 3 pushed the envelope, while Breakpoint just tried to push the player along. Far Cry 3 was more about the journey, while Breakpoint was more about the destination. Except the destination was the next level of gear. Or the next repetitious grind for whatever. It was just an endless cycle of mediocre design that left me perpetually wondering when the game would get better. FUNdamental design recognizes that filler and recycled content must be used sparingly. Innovation or at least variety is key.
Welcome Back to Delta Let’s take a look at a campaign that made every single mission an over-the-top, adrenaline-pumping experience: Gears of War 2. Many fans consider this game to be the highpoint of the series and for good reason. The gunplay was excellent, the story was epic (and a massive step up from the original), and every single level introduced a new challenge. The gameplay designers kept things fresh with a variety of unique arenas throughout the campaign as well as a consistent introduction of new enemy types. There were all kinds of boss fights too, from staff-wielding locust generals to weird shark-like creatures that tried to sink the player’s boat like something straight out of a Jaws movie. Hell I’m not even scratching the surface. There was a lot going on in the campaign, and situations often went to shit, just when I thought it was quieting down or a moment. The pedal to the metal approach of the story paired with the smooth gameplay mechanics kept me engaged to the very end. What’s more impressive, is that this game still holds up as an incredibly worthwhile experience even in 2020.
The reason Gears of War 2 succeeded like it did, was because the game ran on synergy. I’ll be the first to admit that duck and cover mechanics can be really tedious and boring, but the developers made it work by combining it with it with highly aggressive AI and weapons that encouraged the player to be aggressive too. After all, who wants to hide and shoot when there’s a chainsaw attached to their gun? Mission designers also forced the player into inescapable situations with limited cover from time to time or forced path movement which turned the game into a run and gun experience. Combat was very dynamic, and it complemented the pacing of the story perfectly. Gears of War was a blast to play, because the gameplay elements worked together so efficiently. Like a squad. Ah.
I Need A Weapon Now before I wrap up this discussion, there’s one last game I want to talk about, and it’s Halo 5. More specifically, the Warzone Turbo multiplayer playlist, which was unlike anything that came before it. It’s a game mode that’s led to some of the most epic multiplayer battles I’ve ever seen
If you’re unfamiliar with the Warzone game mode, or worse, are mistaking it for the Call of Duty Battle Royale, let me fill you in. Halo Warzone is like the classic “8v8 Big Team Battle” playlist, except it’s 12v12 plus unique weapon variants, vehicles, powerups, and abilities that can be requisitioned with points that players accumulate throughout the match. Turbo takes that concept and multiplies the requisition point rate by several fold. It means everything’s on the table. All of the most powerful weapons and power ups are in use at all times, and things can get pretty crazy as a result.
Warzone Turbo isn’t for everyone, but it is decisively different from traditional Halo multiplayer. The unique allowances in the mode open all types of new possibilities, especially for team gameplay. Players can turn into walking juggernauts with legendary rocket launchers and overshield combinations, team rush with Banshees, or spend the entire match popping speed boost power ups then sliding around at absurd velocities while attempting to hit no scope snipes. The developers deserve to be commended for including something so ridiculously brave and controversial in their game. Turbo completely changes the normal dynamic of Warzone, and that’s why I like it.
The Party’s Over Well all good things have to come to an end, including this blog. I’ve played a lot of games over the years, and gathered these thoughts about what exactly makes games fun and interesting. Everything seems fresh until you’ve played enough games and start to see the same patterns. There are a lot of generic titles out there and we certainly don’t have time to play them all. My advice is to recognize what’s worth your time, and enjoy it to your heart's content. Don’t settle for games that aren’t finished, which developers promise will… eventually improve. Play what’s fun and support the developers who have the same level of passion as you!