The anti-game

So last week I went over on my ankle and as a result I couldn’t go surfing this weekend. Fantastic waves or not. Having some free time I hobbled around the house doing a few chores and with my free time I messed around with a few games.

I realised that the worst thing a game can be is boring.

Crashing randomly, installing viruses or reformatting your hard drive would all consign a game to “do not buy” but more than anything else a game should not be dull. That’s their primary purpose, to alleviate boredom. You can talk all you want about improving reaction times, online socialising or¬†practising real world skills, if it’s not fun, no one will play it (with the very large caveat that different people have different concepts of fun).

This got me to thinking about other ideal attributes of games I would like to see.

  1. Quick start up: if I have to click through 5 different screens and connect to two different online services (GTA IV I’m looking at you) before I can actually get playing I’m not going to play that game very often. Going straight to the last saved game is what I really want.
    Bonus points if there are minimal/no loading screens or you’ve got something small for me to play with while I’m waiting (actually, I believe the reason this isn’t more common is because Namco own the US patent on it).
  2. Quick shut down: I don’t have a lot of free time. The last thing I want is to have to go do some song and dance to save and then shut down the game. Loading screens while ending programs is a bad thing. Just disappear when I click that X. (props to Mount & Blade with their “Alt-X” quick shutdown key combo)
  3. Bonus Points for automatically saving the game state as the game progresses. I would be a happy man if I never had to intentionally go to the “save game screen”. That way when I shut down I don’t have to worry about losing progress. If I’m closing the game, treat it as if I’ve just said, “make me an auto save, right here, and then shut down”. This should of course be done as a background process, allowing me to get on with whatever I was quitting the game to get onto.
    Extra Bonus Points: don’t have in-game modes which are not saveable.¬†e.g Battles in the Total War series and Mount & Blade, football matches in Football Manager. Is the game state so complex as the be unrecordable? Why won’t you let me save the damn thing? There’s nothing like having to quit an hour long battle and lose all that progress.
  4. ALT-TAB: learn it, love it. Gone are the days of single tasking computers; you are not the only program running. I’m often doing work with some little game in the background (Football Manager 2010 being the prime example). It’s nice to have it so that I can jump in and out as required. Letting it sit there while I’m working, picking it up when I’m idle. It doesn’t demand my full attention and I’m in control of it’s progress. Not the reverse.
    Bonus Points running in windowed mode, automatically pausing (and saving) as it loses focus, not requiring 90% CPU time.
  5. Short Form Gameplay: This one is a bit more conceptual rather than technical. If I only play a game for 10 minutes I want to feel that I’ve achieved something. I shouldn’t have to play the game for 30 minutes just to get into it. Being very clear, this does not apply to all genres but does to most. My actions should be clear and significant.
  6. Long Form Gameplay: and while we’re in the land of make believe I would like long form games to be more adaptive. A.I. to be smarter and storylines to mutate to accommodate the actions of the in game entities.
  7. <edit>Social Network Tie-Ins: make all these optional. I don’t want to have to log on to Facebook to play Tetris. I understand that there are social games (the prime example being Farmville, or any of the popCap games), that these are a massively successful genre and that they are good games in their own right. But keep your web 2.0 out of my single player game if you please. I don’t care about achievements. I don’t care about rankings. I just want to play bloody game. Again, sometimes it’s nice, but stop with the bloody popups. Imagine you’re crawling down a monster infested sewer in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. when you get a popup “John is playing …..”. Suddenly you’re no longer in the head of a desperate renegade from the law. You’re a player of a game.

Now not all of these are suitable for all game types. But you’d be surprised how universal they are. Anything except FPS’s could apply and FPS’s are only excluded because they rely so much on immersion to succeed (that and they have pretty high performance requirements and so tend to take over the PC).

I also admitted to myself something which I’ve subconsciously realised for quite a long time. I’ve started the same project over at least 10 times since 2002 and I always get stuck in the same place, run out of momentum and give up in frustration.

So with all this in mind I’m going to take a lesson I learned from the Moratalla series. I’m going to use the (imagined) compulsion imparted by publicising my progress. Yes, I’m going to make a game and I will try and have it fulfil as many of the above points as is possible.

So, I’ll have a new series starting up. I’ll get going with a tutorial on getting a working basic game engine up and running (this is more for my benefit to remind myself how to do it). Then I’ll branch off into discussing game design and finally I’ll go through finishing the game (just like that).

I just hope that this series goes better than that following the proposed promotion but eventual relegation of the Moratalla soccer club. It is almost certainly doomed to failure due to lack of time/interest. But fear not, there are literally hundreds of simple game making tutorials out there on the web. I’m just hoping to use this as an opportunity to talk about what I think are good ideas for computer games and hopefully illustrate them as well.

Yeah, definitely doomed to failure.

Image is from Flickr user kevindooley

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