Friday, March 5, 2010

Making the Perfect Video Game

Several times since the inception of These Gentlemen, readers have poised the question to us; what exactly makes us qualified to discuss certain topics? Why should our opinions matter to them? While I may not have the perfect response to them in all situations, I feel very comfortable letting you know I am eminently qualified to render discourse on this.

Virtual entertainment is a large and growing field. Since the days of Intellivision video games have fascinated our society, giving rise to juggernauts like Nintendo and Sega. Wherever there are winners, there are losers, however, and the story of video games is rife with cautionary tales like that of the N-Gage or Turbo-Grafx 16. Out of all those just mentioned, only one is still actively engaged in the ongoing "console war," a bid by the three major video game companies of today (the other two being Sony and Microsoft) to monopolize our virtual entertainment. That company is Nintendo. Why? I will tell you.

Because of this guy:
It's-a me!

The introduction of the game Super Mario Bros. in 1985 not only propelled Nintendo to instant success, it revitalized the entire video game industry. The popularity of Mario and his adventures through the Mushroom Kingdom spawned a slew of sequels and spin-offs. One of its sequels, Super Mario Bros. 3, became the best-selling game not packaged with a console in history, selling 18 million individual units (the original still holds the crown for most sales overall; there have been 40,230,000 copies of Super Mario Bros. sold worldwide). The character Mario has easily become the most recognizable video game character of all time, which leads us to the topic at hand.

Why do people like Mario?

Because his games are fantastic.

Nintendo has many other franchise players; The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, Kirby, and Metroid to name a few. While they have also made their mark on the industry, Mario stands head and shoulders above them as a titan of the video game world. What makes his games so amazing? The fact that they have almost universally excelled in 6 different areas which make them unforgettable.


While you might not typically think superior graphics when imagining the original Super Mario Bros., it did everything it could with what it had at the time. As technology advanced, so did Mario, from the more animated Super Mario World all the way to the fully 3D and richly designed landscapes of Super Mario Galaxy. With today's technology, especially the incredible Playstation 3 processor, games are increasingly expected to offer us a feast for the eyes when we play.

Graphics engines of note in today's world of 3D games and high-speed processors are found in many first-person shooters emphasizing realism, like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, or in action-adventure games like Uncharted and Batman: Arkham Asylum. Others go with a more stylized approach, such as Sega's Valkyria Chronicles, or the cartoon-like renderings of Borderlands. These last two are examples of games emphasizing a design choice and making the world work around it, rather than trying to make the game as life-like as possible. Rather than try and strain the limits of today's technology, they embrace it and make their graphics like a signature for their games.

Regardless of the choices made, those making them are aware that in order to compete in today's world, you have to stand out. Mario's design and the worlds his games take place in are so ingrained in the social gaming conscious by now that with every new layer of detail Nintendo places upon them, the wonder of discovery is rekindled. The closest contender to this used to be Sonic the Hedgehog, but in all his future iterations Sega failed to capitalize on the upgraded graphics to make the games look any better while simultaneously keeping them fun -which brings us to the next category.


Simply put, the ease with which you are able to control and enjoy the game. Make a game too complicated, and you'll end up with something completely unplayable. With a few upgrades over time to account for Nintendo giving him extra gadgets, Mario has always consisted of the basic controls; Move, jump, duck. Gran Turismo, the best-selling racing series, follows this same principle; speed up, slow down, turn. This simple formula keeps it easy to understand and intuitive for new gamers. Another aspect of gameplay involves challenges within the game itself; enemies with a specific way to defeat them, the ability to act freely rather than within a constrained set of rules for playing, and of course, puzzles.

There are a plethora of games out there which excel in one of these areas without necessarily mastering them all. Portal, for example, utilizes a unique element which emphasizes a novel gameplay idea and how to use it to solve puzzles. The popular Lufia series also mixes traditional Role Playing elements with complex puzzles for the player to figure out in order to advance. Even fighting games are judged by their gameplay; not so much in solving problems, but in how difficult it is to use the controls to execute special moves and combos. BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, and Super Street Fighter 4 are examples of how rich that particular genre can be in this area. Outside the fighting genre, Atlus is especially known for putting out games with creative gameplay features, such as those found in Odin Sphere and Trauma Team.

Of course, too much emphasis on a robust system can be a bad thing - let us never forget that Pac-Man, Pong, and Tetris established the basis for gameplay which is still used today. Gameplay needs to be involving enough to get us to pay attention, yet simple enough to not be frustrating. A combination like that can easily take over a Federation Starship.

Replay Value

When you beat a game, do you get the urge to play it again? And in doing so, does it offer you a different experience from the first? Will it again upon a third playthrough? This is the question of replay value, a driving force behind video game design since Chrono Trigger put in the New Game+ option.

Some games today, like Assassin's Creed, have failed at the replay aspect. They quickly become repetitive despite creative beginnings, and thus become a struggle to simply finish and put away. Others try to force replay value, adding unlockables such as advanced difficulty modes or bonus levels only available after first beating the game, like in God of War. Genuine replay value, however, comes from being able to make choices in the game that affect the way the rest of the game is played. For Mario, this can boil down to something as simple as "do I finish the stage or do I take the warp zone?" For Commander Shepard of Mass Effect, these decisions not only affect what happens in Mass Effect 2, but also exactly how he's going to get down and dirty with some hot alien babe.

What it comes down to is offering the player a legitimate choice on how to play the game. Once they explore one avenue to its ultimate end, the promise of being able to go back and explore how things would unfold if different choices were made lures players back. Sports games of the Madden or NBA Live series are known for their replay value, and so are open-ended games like Disgaea.

Of course, beyond secret dungeons, extra items, or the chance to blast through the game from the start with all the weapons you had at the end, replay value always comes down to one element.

Was this game really, really fun to play?

In the case of Mario games, the answer has always been "yes."


I'm not going to go so far as to say "everybody knows it," but it's not hard to find someone who can recognize this without much difficulty. Mario did something else with its inception; it created a theme song you can hum, whistle, or sing out loud if you know the words. Soundtracks are a key element in any successful franchise; Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Rocky; they all have a classic musical score that enhances the moments on screen and lets the people watching walk away with something memorable. The same holds true for music in video games.

Don't underestimate video game music; memorable tunes from games are not unusual to hear reproduced by entire orchestras, or in some cases orchestras are formed specifically for that purpose. A good soundtrack can provide such an enormous benefit to a game that in some cases, notably Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a 5-star game seems almost average when bereft of its musical accompaniment. Music enhances the feel of the game, and helps draw you in to the action just like it would in a movie. Games of the horror genre like Dead Space and Resident Evil rely on creepy, subtle tones to produce their sinister atmosphere. Grand Theft Auto lets you listen to hours of pre-recorded songs on the radio while cruising Liberty City for hookers and blow. Mario, and games like it, are typically upbeat and catchy tunes, but video games are capable of producing touching orchestral pieces, silly sing-a-long songs, or even producing an original soundtrack by well-known artists.

The right soundtrack can make a decent game good, and a good game truly great.


The goal of many video game companies these days is to create a memorable character that people will want to play as over and over again. Lacking brand name success such as that of Castlevania or Final Fantasy, a personality that sticks with an audience can be just as stimulating for sales. Some achieved this success early on with recognizable characters like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man, others have wallowed in a lower tier of success, like Devil May Cry's Dante or Ninja Gaiden's Ryu Hayabusa. While characters are not always necessary depending on genre (fighting games can get away with as little characterization as possible, racing simulation games don't need it at all), those looking to build a series need an antagonist to focus their story around.

Characters are increasingly cookie-cutter these days. Here's a few examples of themes you'll see repeated.

Grizzled soldier

Under-dressed femme fatale

Tortured hero with dark past

Something unbearably cute

As the ability to incorporate great writing into games increases, so to does the expectation that characters be well-written. Mario's cast of characters is colorful, recognizable, and enjoyable. The challenge today's successful game designer faces is not only making a memorable character, but making one unique in a landscape filled with knock-offs and derivatives. Of course, a major part of making an audience care about the antagonist is their motivation - which brings us to the next factor.


In the beginning, a complex story was by far the exception to the rule. Games like Mega Man or Castlevania offering explanation for the motives of their characters in the course of the game was a new concept - even Role Playing Games Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior only gave you a single conversation with the king describing your overall quest at the beginning of the game, and the rest was up to you. By and large, the story was either unnecessary (who cares WHY Pac-Man is in the maze?) or simply implied (my Princess is in another castle - okay, so I'm looking for a Princess, and she's been kidnapped by one of these dragon-things. Got it!).

Since then, story development has come a long way and plays a deep part in the enjoyment of our games. RPGs go especially far with this element, with the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII purportedly like a movie unto itself, albeit one you have a modicum of control over. First-person shooters are by-and-large exempt from this rule, but even they sometimes offer depth by incorporating a plotline that we receive updates to, or even the occasional twist. Other game franchises follow the idea of a story arc over several games, such as the saga of Sam Fischer in Splinter Cell, Master Chief in Halo, or Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid.

The idea is to keep people invested; if they become interested in the story, they might overlook other less enjoyable factors of a game so that they can make it to the next plot point. Certainly there are any number of people whom have continued a game of Silent Hill 2 because they want to know how it ends, long after the silent, fog-filled streets seem repetitive. A good story separates can affect characters, replay value, and even help gloss over issues with gameplay. While not the #1 factor of a great game, understanding the characters you're playing and the backstory of the world you're in helps a player feel a connection to a character beyond gripping the control pad.

To wrap up this investigation, I can only say that I don't know if a successor to Mario's crown will ever emerge. Many game designers through the years have rendered amazing efforts to excel in all 6 fields, yet somehow still fallen short of the simple element of fun present in the plumber's video exploits. Will there ever be a game that so artfully and easily presents us with a gaming experience we will keep going back to, over and over? Perhaps, or perhaps not.

Oh wait, never mind. Here it is.

No comments: