Making a successful computer game

I posted this on USENET in March 1994. Edited here for brevity and to remove the references to ancient games nobody has heard of. I still think the list holds, 15 years later.


As a genaralisation, here are some thoughts on how to write a game
people will play.

  • Don’t offer a ‘canned’ reward, like pretty graphics that you only see when you win. If possible don’t offer a winning condition at all.
  • Don’t ask the player to go through a long and tedious sequence of actions ad infinitum until they get it absolutely right.
  • Do give the impression that the player is accumulating something of value in the virual world of the game (experience, health, armor, spells, guns, rank, territory…)
  • Do encourage fantasy. All games except the abstract ones (Tetris) have a strong escapist element. Think of an escapist setting (dragons, space, racing), then hire a good artist to paint the graphics and a good writer to write the text. Make the player want to imagine being in the game. This is where the reward from seeing deeper into the game world is derived. Only add amazing graphics and sound if they enhance the realism of this fantasy.
  • Do be fair, if what you build is fundamentally a test of skill. Make sure the action is responsive and precise. Generate events randomly, so that problems have to be solved and not rehearsed, but without gross variation of difficulty. People play such games to test themselves, possibly against others. They will go on forever to correct their mistakes but not if the imperfections of the program deny them this reward.
  • Do present challenges that engage people’s natural skills. Fast spatial reasoning, driving, aiming, assesing risk and forming strategies are examples. Doing mental arithmetic, remembering trivia and repeating sequences of key presses are counterexamples.
  • Do encourage interaction between human players. Create a culture. Create hype. Have people debate the realative merits oh HA vs SD weapons over the internet. Make sure they hear of all the different theories on where to build your missile turrets. Tell them about the secret passage by the door on the left. People do almost everything for people in life. If they can’t compete head on, let them talk about it. This is by far the most important rule.
  • Finally, do be nice to the player. It’s one thing making an addictive game and another a game that people like to play. People will keep playing your game if they are treated with respect. They might still play it but will hate doing it if it’s just long, slow, and addictive.

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