Whenever I hear discussion, or discuss about games, the generic term of good game comes out very, very often. It is as if there is some sort of silently agreed myriad qualification that a game has to achieve in order to be considered a good game. Of course, this is rather absurd and ultimately rarely serves its purpose outside circles that have a similar taste in titles. A shut group of RPG fans, especially the Japanese console variant ones, would have a common basis for a similar taste and values in titles they’d label as good games. The opposite would be true with equally shut group of European retro-action enthusiasts, who might consider the aforementioned RPGs as waste of time, money and effort. Yes both sides have good games, in which we can always argue that they’re good for different reasons.
Using the word good to describe something is rather lacklustre, unimaginative and at best, juvenile. In many ways, its the most common denominator in discussion to set any barriers, but even then its obtuse. As a descriptor, its terrible. Yet, because of standards we share across different cultures and are able to understand how some thing’s value is determined, we can attach good as a usual, generic throwaway term as an attachment. When we call a burger good, what we really are saying is something like This hamburger fulfills the minimum requirements of what makes a burger, with the expected greens at certain size and taste with proper meat patty that is not too dry or juicy to complement the overall flavour in minimally expected manner. The term is also the best way to avoid answering any direct questions about quality of any given product, like your wife’s terrible cooking. Better just say its good and eat it.
We have rather clear outlines how to determine whether or not, for example, a film is a good one by standards laid down by academics, popularity, post-perception and such. We can determine whether or not the film’s script is well written depending how well structured it is, how clear it is and how much new content it has compared to past stories. How well the film is filmed, in what lighting, how the angles have been used, are the actors convincing in their roles, are they able to convey the characters’ feelings and presence on the silver screen. How well the music has been composed, how fitting is the music for each scene, has the recording been done properly, have any of the player screwed up during the session. These are matters that are self-evident, something we all can see and hear, assess ourselves. Hell, schools even teach us to be critical readers and consider multiple points of views and approaches when consuming media, be it entertainment or not. If your reaction to that was School never taught me that, I wish you had gone to a better school.
We can apply most of these how to determine what makes a good games. Nice music and pretty pictures only take us so far however, as the whole aspect of game and play is something that is more or less completely ignored in standard education. Sure you have some, but how many of us are taught to consider rules of a game or allowed to change them to fit a better purpose? For example, did your gym teacher ever simply change the rules of the game to make it more interesting, or ask you if you’d like to build a new kind of game to play during gym hours based on existing models? Did you make your own board games and such during native language or arts classes? Surely you made up your own play rules during recess or when you became nerd enough to play Dungeons and Dragons to live through your geek fantasies, but all that’s is worked through yourself. Nothing wrong in that, but it shows that there is very small, if any, academical approach in early teaching regarding play.
In university or college you probably have played enough games to know what makes a good one. After all, you’ve spend more than few nights playing Halo and Minecraft to know how a good game is structured. Maybe even try to make a revolutionary RPG with RPG maker. We can apply some of rules from other fields to determine what makes a game a quality product, yet there are numerous things that are mostly for games only. Some reviewers, especially on the PC game side, put rather large emphasise on things like resolution of textures, fidelity of things and other more graphics heavy aspects of the game. However, all this is mostly appearance. In films and such we do see under the visible layer most of the time as it has to be present at all times on the screen. With games, we can’t really tell if the coding of the game has been competent, or if its completely bonkers. We only get to see and feel the end result, and often here the play design often steps in as well. For example, in some games moving your character is immediate, while in others there is a small pause as the character gets his legs in moving. Other might be more realistic for sure, all the while the other can be more usable and suit play better.
This is of course something I’ve discussed previously in some post from some five years ago. We can and should have academics determinants what makes a game a well made product, and coding is the backbone of it all. Nowadays with almost everyone using ready made engines this might be a bit moot, but even then we can discuss how those have been adapted for a given title. We should discuss not just how well graphics have been realised and what their fidelity is, but also the designs themselves and the well these designs have been realised. That is, after all, the core of the graphics first and foremost. The visual style, if you will, will always trump over how the graphics are. You can have a game with low graphics with great style, and it will always beat a game with great graphics but utterly boring and dull visual style. Brown and Bloom comes to mind from this very easily, doesn’t it?
Controls are another thing that probably will always raise issues. For some, A jumps and B shoots. To some, its the other way around. To some, there are no A or B, just geometrical shapes. The logic of well made controls is one third of button layout and two thirds of coding. A well placed control layout is key for intuitive and direct controls that should not take long time to learn, but long time to master. Coding requires how well the game recognises button presses and delays, and how that is translated as action on the screen. While this seems like dead simple procedure, and often is, I am completely sure you can name multiple games where the design of the game fights the controls. Be it through physics, overt animation or just broken controls themselves, we can determine the quality of controls in an objective manner with relative ease.
All that is of course academical. You know what you like and if someone with a similar taste says a game is good, you can more or less just jump in and be done with it.
However, this is just looking at the game in a sort of vacuum. While we can do this, and dare I say should, we should also consider games in their proper environmental context. For example, is something like Mega Man 11 a good value game? Perhaps not on the HD Twins and PC. The market for similar titles is rather full. However, on the Switch its always with you, portable, and easily started and stopped. The portable nature of the console, and the game itself, adds value. Of course you get value from game being perceived as of high quality production overall, that its a wanted game and so on. The value of the game is not the same as its determinant quality, but in terms of reviews, should that not be a significant part of whether or not the title is good? Not if the port has been well made, not if there are any additional content from platform to another or anything like that. Many mobile games are not seen as good games and berated for their nature. They may not meet unspoken goals of a good game, but very many of them meet the requirements of a game of value. They are, after all, always portable, always available, surprisingly often free or cheap (Muse Dash is like 4€ on the Android app store and contains 40 songs from the get go) with some DLC or in-game purchases or gacha.
It would seem that games that have better value seem to do better than good games themselves. The two are not exclusive, of course, but very rarely you you see any source discussing this topic. Everything is minimising loss and maximising gain after all, so you can trust the game industry knows how to deal with their consumers regarding perceived value of a game over how good it actually is. Otherwise certain big names would’ve already fell out of favour long time ago.