I’ve never played Gears of War, but this article at Slate makes me want to, especially the part about how the designer’s main credo is to concentrate on what makes a game fun, and make every aspect of that fun.  E.g, a shooter consists mostly of running, shooting, reloading, and taking cover, and (according to the reviewer) it succeeds on making each of those activities satisfying.  There’s even a minigame for reloading, turning a frustrating few seconds’ wait into something engaging.

Now, on the whole I think they’ve got the right idea.  Something you play for fun should be fun!  We can start by asking what are you doing as you go through the game.  Does it match what the game is supposed to be about?  Some games have a certain mismatch:

  • GTAIV.  About: gangsterism.  Main activity: driving.
  • Left 4 Dead Vs.  About: survival.  Main activity: dying annoyingly.
  • Far Cry 2.  About: the moral anomie of being a merc.  Main activities: driving, taking out checkpoints, doing A and B in order to get malaria pills.
  • Assassin’s Creed 1.  About: stealth assassination.  Main activity: getting in highly public fights in the streets; attracting comment by dashing up walls; riding a horse.
  • Civ 5.  About: Building a civ and destroying enemies.  Main activities: shuffling units around, hating on Napoleon for backstabbing you before you were ready to attack him.

By contrast, look at a few games that get this exactly right.  In games as diverse as Borderlands, Portal [1, 2], Mirror’s Edge, and Batman: Arkham Asylum, you spend almost all your time doing what the game is about and what it’s good at. 

Partial mismatches are partially bad.  Mass Effect 1 is worsened by having to spend way too much time managing a very lackluster array of weaponry, not to mention trivial side missions that feel like they were stamped out by an AI.

The next question is whether that activity really is fun.  A combat game with a boring combat mechanic needs work.  Dragon Age Origins is an example here.  If you play as a warrior, you spent a lot of the early levels just watching your warrior fight, since you haven’t earned many fancy moves yet.  And the decision to use dice rolls instead of aiming throws away a huge opportunity to rely on player skill.

Mirror’s Edge gets it right; the game is about moving from point A to point B– the story and combat elements are just distractions.  And the mechanics of doing so, the puzzle elements, and the visceral feeling of being there all combine to make it compelling.

However, I’d disagree with the article in one very important aspect: frustration is part of what makes a game fun.  Call it “challenge” if you like, but if you’re not frustrated fairly often, it’s not challenging enough.  E.g. the early levels of Fallout 3 and Fallout NV are my favorites, in part because you’re a weak nobody who eagerly picks up single stimpaks and a handful of ammo.   Portal 2 wouldn’t be as fun if there were no moments where you thought “Damn, I just don’t have enough portals to make this work.”

But it’s a weird balance.  I found Prince of Persia and Braid too frustrating to play.  I’ve been replaying Dead Space at medium difficulty, and I’m happy that I was able to get past the point that defeated me before.  But it isn’t fun to have a boss fight and be completely out of rifle rounds.

Diversity is key, too.  Repeating the same thing over and over gets dull (so I’m not sure I’d like Gears of War after all).  A mixture of stealth and combat works wonders, and I might as well plug Beyond Good & Evil again for not only including both, but throwing in a few more diversions, such as racing and photography.   Half-Life 2 also mixes up the combat with vehicle sequences and puzzles, as well as varying the enemies from soldiers to zombies.  Portal 2 introduces new puzzle elements as it goes.  Borderlands mostly relies on its awesome array of weaponry; the weapons vary in interesting ways and there’s the constant draw of hoping for a really good one in the next chest.

I basically tired of Fallout NV because I hit a part of the game (starting with Freeside) where all there is to do is run from one person to another talking (and the writing in the game is just not stellar enough to make this work). Despite its gorgeous level design and fascinating villains, I think Bioshock falls down in this area too; it’s just shooting and zapping.