What makes a good game?

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Graham Nelson

May 18, 1993, 6:43:54 PM5/18/93
[Graham asked me to post this for him as his posting software current does not
distribute his articles correctly - gdr]

What makes a good game?

1. The Plot

The days of games which consisted of wandering around doing unrelated things
to get treasures, are long passed: the original Adventure was fun, and so
was Zork, but two such games are enough. There should be some overall task
to be achieved, and it ought to be apparent to the player in advance.

This isn't to say that it should be apparent at once. Instead, one can
begin with just an atmosphere or mood. But if so, there must be a
consistent style throughout and this isn't easy to keep up. "The Lurking
Horror" is an excellent example of a successful genre style; so is "Leather
Goddesses of Phobos".

At its most basic, this means there should be no electric drills lying about
in a medieval-style fantasy. The original Adventure was very clean in this
respect, whereas Zork was less so: I think this is why Adventure remains the
better game even though virtually everything in Zork was individually

If the chosen genre isn't fresh and relatively new, then the game had better
be very good.

Plot begins with the opening message, rather the way an episode of Star Trek
begins before the credits come up. It ought to be striking and concise (not
an effort to sit through, like the title page of "Beyond Zork"). By and
large Infocom were good at this. A fine example is the overture to
"Trinity" (by Brian Moriarty):

Sharp words between the superpowers. Tanks in East Berlin. And now,
reports the BBC, rumors of a satellite blackout. It's enough to spoil your
continental breakfast.

But the world will have to wait. This is the last day of your $599 London
Getaway Package, and you're determined to soak up as much of that
authentic English ambience as you can. So you've left the tour bus behind,
ditched the camera and escaped to Hyde Park for a contemplative stroll
through the Kensington Gardens.

Already you know: who you are (an unadventurous American tourist, of no
significance in the world); exactly where you are (Kensington Gardens, Hyde
Park, London, England); and what is going on (World War III is about to
break out). Notice the careful details: mention of the BBC, of continental
breakfasts, of the camera and the tour bus. More subtly, "Trinity" is a
game which starts as a kind of escapism from a disastrous world out of
control: notice the way the first paragraph is in tense, blunt,
headline-like sentences, whereas the second is much more relaxed. So a lot
has been achieved by these two opening paragraphs.

The most common plots boil down to saving the world, by exploring until
eventually you vanquish something ("Lurking Horror" again, for instance) or
collecting some number of objects hidden in awkward places ("Leather
Goddesses" again, say). The latter can get very hackneyed (got to find the
nine magic spoons of Zenda to reunite the Kingdom...), so much so that it
becomes a bit of a joke ("Hollywood Hijinx") but still it isn't a bad idea,
because it enables many different problems to be open at once.

Most games have a prologue, a middle game and an end game, which are usually
quite closed off from each other. Usually once one of these phases has been
left, it cannot be returned to.

2. The Prologue

In establishing an atmosphere, the prologue gives a good head start. In the
original mainframe Adventure, this was the above-ground landscape; the fact
that it was there gave a much greater sense of claustrophobia and depth to
the underground bulk of the game.

Sometimes a dream-sequence is used (for instance, in "Lurking Horror"), or
sometimes simply a more mundane region of game (for instance, the
guild-house in "Sorcerer"). It should not be too large or too hard.

As well as establishing the mood of the game, and giving out some background
information, the prologue has to attract a player enough to make him carry
on playing. It's worth imagining that the player is only toying with the
game at this stage, and isn't drawing a map or being at all careful. If the
prologue is big, the player will quickly get lost and give up. If it is too
hard, then many players simply won't reach the middle game.

Perhaps eight to ten rooms is the largest a prologue ought to be, and even
then it should have a simple (easily remembered) map layout.

3. The Middle Game

A useful exercise is to draw out a tree (or more accurately a lattice) of
all the puzzles in a game. At the top is a node representing the start of
the game, and then lower nodes represent solved puzzles. An arrow is drawn
between two puzzles if one has to be solved before the other can be. For
instance, a simple portion might look like:

/ \
/ \
Find key Find car
\ |
\ |
Start car
Reach motorway

This is useful because it checks that the game is soluble (for example, if
the ignition key had been kept in a phone box on the motorway, it wouldn't
have been) but also because it shows the overall structure of the game.
The questions to ask are:

How much is visible at once?
Do large parts of the game depend on one difficult puzzle?
How many steps does a typical problem need?

Some games, such as the original Adventure, are very wide: there are thirty or
so puzzles, all easily available, none leading to each other. Others, such as
"Spellbreaker", are very narrow: a long sequence of puzzles, each of which
leads only to a chance to solve the next.

A compromise is probably best. Wide games are not very interesting, while
narrow ones can in a way be easy: if only one puzzle is available at a time,
the player will just concentrate on it, and will not be held up by trying to
use objects which are provided for different puzzles.

Bottlenecks should be avoided unless they are reasonably guessable:
otherwise many players will simply get no further.

Puzzles ought not to be simply a matter of typing in one well-chosen line.
One hallmark of a good game is not to get any points for picking up an
easily-available key and unlocking a door with it. This sort of low-level
achievement - like wearing an overcoat found lying around, for instance -
should not be enough. A memorable puzzle will need several different ideas
to solve (the Babel fish dispenser in "Hitch-hikers", for instance).

4. Density

Once upon a time, the sole measure of quality in advertisements for
adventure games was the number of rooms. Even quite small programs would
have 200 rooms, which meant only minimal room descriptions and simple
puzzles which were scattered thinly over the map.

Nowadays a healthier principle has been adopted: that (barring a few
junctions and corridors) there should be something out of the ordinary about
every room.

One reason for the quality of the "Infocom" games is that the version 3
system has an absolute maximum of 255 objects, which needs to cover rooms,
objects and many other things (eg, compass directions, or the spells in
"Enchanter" et al). Many "objects" are not portable anyway: walls,
tapestries, thrones, control panels, coal-grinding machines and so on.

As a rule of thumb, four objects to one room is about right: this means
there will be, say, 50-60 rooms. Of the remaining 200 objects, one can
expect 15-20 to be used up by the game's administration (eg, a "darkness"
room, 10 compass directions, a player and so on). Another 50-75 or so
objects will be portable but the largest number, at least 100, will be

So an object limit can be a blessing as well as a curse: it forces the
designer to make the game dense. Rooms are too precious to be wasted.

5. Rewards

There are two kinds of reward which need to be given to a player in return
for solving a puzzle. One is obvious: that the game should advance a
little. But the player at the keyboard needs a reward as well, that the
game should offer something new to look at. In the old days, when a puzzle
was solved, the player simply got a bar of gold and had one less puzzle to

Much better is to offer the player some new rooms and objects to play
with, as this is a real incentive. If no new rooms are on offer, at least
the "treasure" objects can be made interesting, like the spells in the
"Enchanter" trilogy or the cubes in "Spellbreaker".

6. Mazes

Almost every game contains a maze. Nothing nowadays will ever equal the

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.

But now we are all jaded. A maze should offer some twist which hasn't been
done before (the ones in "Enchanter" and "Sorcerer" being fine examples).

The point is not to make it hard and boring. The standard maze solution is
to litter the rooms with objects in order to make the rooms distinguishable.
It's easy enough to obstruct this, the thief in "Zork I" being about the
wittiest way of doing so. But that only makes a maze tediously difficult.

Instead there should be an elegant quick solution: for instance a guide who
needs to be bribed, or fluorescent arrows painted on the floor which can
only be seen in darkness (plus a hint about darkness, of course).

Above all, don't design a maze which appears to be a standard impossibly
hard one: even if it isn't, a player may lose heart and give up rather than
go to the trouble of mapping it.

7. Wrong guesses

For some puzzles, a perfectly good alternative solution will occur to
players. It's good style to code two or more solutions to the same puzzle,
if that doesn't upset the rest of the game. But even if it does, at least
a game should say something when a good guess is made. (Trying to cross the
volcano on the magic carpet in "Spellbreaker" is a case in point.)

One reason why "Zork" held the player's attention so firmly (and why it took
about ten times the code size, despite being slightly smaller than the
original mainframe Adventure) was that it had a huge stock of usually funny
responses to reasonable things which might be tried.

My favourite funny response, which I can't resist reprinting here, is:

You are falling towards the ground, wind whipping around you.
Down seems more likely. ["Spellbreaker"]

(Though I also recommend trying to take the sea serpent in "Zork II".) This
is a good example because it's exactly the sort of boring rule (can't move
from the midair position) which most designers usually want to code as fast
as possible, and don't write with any imagination.

Just as some puzzles should have more than one solution, some objects should
have more than one purpose. In bad old games, players automatically threw
away everything as soon as they'd used them. In better designed games,
obviously useful things (like the crowbar and the gloves in "Lurking
Horror") should be hung on to by the player throughout.

8. The Map

To maintain an atmosphere throughout it's vital that the map should be
continuous. Adventure games used to have maps like

Oriental Room -- Fire Station
(megaphone) (pot plant)
Cheese Room

in which the rooms bore no relation to each other, so that the game had no
overall geography at all, and objects were unrelated to the rooms they were
in. Much more believable is something like

Snowy Mountainside
Carved Tunnel
Oriental Room -- Jade Passage -- Fire Dragon
(buddha) (bonsai tree) Room
Blossom Room

Try to have some large-scale geography too: the mountainside should extend
across the map in both directions. If there is a stream passing through a
given location, what happens to it? And so on.

In designing a map, it adds to the interest to make a few connections in the
rarer compass directions (NE, NW, SE, SW) to prevent the player from a
feeling that the game has a square grid. Also, it's nice to have a few
(possibly long) loops which can be walked around, to prevent endless
retracing of steps.

If the map is very large, or if a good deal of to-and-froing is called for,
there should be some rapid means of moving across it, such as the magic
words in Adventure, or the cubes in "Spellbreaker".

9. The End Game

Some end games are small ("Lurking Horror", or "Sorcerer" for instance),
others large (the master game of the mainframe Adventure). Nonetheless
almost all games have one.

End games serve two purposes. Firstly they give the player a sense of being
near to success, and can be used to culminate the plot, to reveal the game's
secrets. This is obvious enough. But secondly they also serve to stop the
final stage of the game from being too hard.

As a designer, you don't usually want the last step to be too difficult; you
want to give the player the satisfaction of finishing, as a reward for
having got through the game. (But of course you want to make him work for
it.) An end game helps, because it narrows the game, so that only a few
rooms and objects are accessible.

The most annoying thing is requiring the player to have brought a few
otherwise useless objects with him. The player should not be thinking that
the reason for being stuck on the master game is that something very obscure
should have been done 500 turns before.

10. And Finally...

Finally, the winner gets some last message (which, like the opening message,
should have something amusing in it and should not be too long). That
needn't quite be all, though. In its final incarnations (alas, not the one
included in Lost Treasures), "Zork I" offered winners access to the hints
system at the RESTART, RESTORE or QUIT prompt.

Graham Nelson <ga...@phx.cam.ac.uk>

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