Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Video Games: The perfect game

What does it take to make a video game perfect? Well, in my opinion, if a video game is perfect, it means that there is no reason to ever stop playing it. It offers unlimited fun. Not even another game makes you stop playing the perfect game, although you might play something else once in a while.

I have not yet come across a perfect game, because so far in my life, I have always eventually stopped playing a game. I only come back to old games once in a while, but I don't play these games for very long amounts of time.

Now it's time to face what I believe are the key factors in making a perfect game. Of course the video game industry does not desire this state of perfection unless they can still get money from you on a regular basis.

1. No major bugs or crashes

It does not matter at all whether your game matches all, some or none of the other criteria in this list if it has a big flaw like crashing once in a while.
I have seen really good games like GTA: San Andreas that had the potential to keep me playing for months and years, but something serious killed off all the motivation and passion I had for playing the game.
Nobody cares what the reasons for crashing are. You don't want to know the technical stuff as a player, you want to play, this is what you paid for. A game should be free of bugs when it's released, period.

2. The basics

While it is true that really good video games depend more on a fun gameplay than good graphics, a good video game nowadays should at least be on the same level as video games of the same year when it comes to graphics, controls, gameplay and so on. Some games have really bad graphics, other games have state-of-the-art graphics but are stupid in other ways. Some basic things must be right so that the game is playable.

3. Identification

It is a good thing for a game if the player can identify with the game. This is achieved by letting the player create a profile or at least enter his name, so that the game will be "his" game as opposed to, let's say, his brother's game when they share it.
The most rudimentary way of identification is the good old "enter your name" function. It helps a lot if you can at least enter your full first name, and if you have 8 or 9 letters to enter, that will allow most players to do so, or at least enter their nickname. Some games are even incapable of that and you only get 3 to 5 letters. This is parodied in the Simpsons where Milhouse wants to enter his name in a video game as "Thrillhouse" but only manages to write "Thrillho".

Identification can go further, of course. Some management games, for instance, allow you to enter your full name, birth date, marital status and to upload a picture of yourself. You feel more attached to the game if you are given the opportunity to fill the game with something that is unique to you.

4.  Ability to customize / Creativity

There are many ways games can be customized. Sometimes it's superficial, like only being able to change the background colour of a menu. Other times, you get an editor with which you can create entire levels or campaigns.
Some customizing is natural to the game, like being able to set up your own team in a sports simulation.
Whether it is natural to the game or not, offering a player to customize a game helps making it a lot more fun.
In "Age of Empires", I even recreated the Japanese game show "Takeshi's Castle". It was a hundred times more fun than the ordinary campaigns the game came with.

5. All kinds of extras

This includes all the things that are not mentioned in other items of this list. Extras, from my point of view, are all the little things that make a game more interesting. These can be so called "Easter Eggs". Easter Eggs are weird things that are programmed into the game, for example when the faces of the programmers appear in the game, or when there is a pop culture reference to something from outside the game.
Other extras are: Cheats you can activate, unlockables you can unlock (extra modes, special items of the game, etc.), hidden content and so on. As a player, you want to discover all these little things.
A good example of extra content is the game "Goldeneye" for Nintendo 64, which I have presented before. You can unlock cheat codes that make the game a lot better.

6. Sandbox gameplay / Non-linearity

A sandbox-style game is a game that gives you the opportunity to pretty much do your own thing. You are not required to follow a linear chain of events to "finish" your game. Instead, you can do as you please. Sometimes, sandbox means that you have infinite funds in a manager game. In a game like GTA: Vice City, the environment is also sandbox-like, in this case it means that you can discover the whole area on your own and do your own things.
I enjoyed this aspect of gaming a lot in World of Warcraft. While other players always tried to kill everyone, I went fishing and cooking all the time. It's up to you what you wish to do. Of course, that is only the case if the game programmers intended this to happen. I believe that, for a game to be perfect, it needs the sandbox style to be enjoyed in the long run.

7. Replay value or long play value

Some games go on forever and others are finished at some point. Even games that end at a certain point can be lots of fun to play again if the programmers know what to do. In Tales of Symphonia, for example, you can not see all cutscenes of the game in just one go. You must play the game many times if you want to see everything. The reason behind this is that different decisions you make have a different outcome everytime a decision is made. You are able to build relationships with other characters, but only your "best friends" are the ones who appear in the video scenes. Depending on who your friends are, you might learn about the different stories they have to tell from their lives. In some cases, a person who would be a traitor most of the time suddenly turns out to be loyal to you just because some decisions have been made differently, and someone else is a traitor. It took me years to find these things out, and sometimes I had no clue what possibilities were in the game. Therefore, you should always keep one or two of these secrets in the game to make people want to play a game again.
It's also possible in some games to restart the game, but to transfer a save state to the new game, which can be used to buy stuff in the new game that is usually not possible to be purchased so early.
For long-term games that don't end, it matters that there is always a challenge for the player. In football manager games, players end their careers but they are "reborn" and thus, the game can continue forever (at least in theory).

8.  Music and atmosphere

I have seen both of the two extremes: Games that have not much to offer but have a beautiful atmosphere and sweet music, and games that are so much fun but there is nothing to remember about them once the fun is gone... no nostalgia about them.

As I have said before, I have not come across the perfect game yet, so I stopped playing every game I ever played sooner or later. But some games have made it into my long-term memory. Surprisingly enough, not the games with the most hours played or the biggest overall fun factor are the most memorable, but the ones with the best music and most beautiful scenery are still in my head.

Sometimes I go to the storage room in my house and take out an old console that has been collecting dust. Then I play an old game for just one hour or two, and realise there is not much to play for. But I just play anyway because the music and landscapes are great.

A perfect game should also have great music and beautiful imagery.

 Games that came close

Pokemon: Very addictive, you could name your character after yourself, make your own team with Pokemon you chose, and even breed Pokemon. However, they never made the perfect game which would have consisted of a free-roaming world on a stationary console with good graphics and no restrictions as where you would go and what you would do. Instead, most good games were only on game boys and were pretty much over once you defeated the final bosses.

World of Warcraft: It comes very close to being perfect, because it has vast areas to explore and lets you choose many things to do, not only fighting, but also cooking, fishing, tailoring and so on. The downside is that it either costs you a lot of money to purchase new content and keep playing on an official server, or you have to find a private server, which is, according to most sources, illegal.

Various football manager simulations: Some of them were really good. But most of the times, there was a glitch that eventually killed off every save game. Other times, the game is really good but extremely complex, so you lose the love for the game and give up because you feel like this is not a game, but rather an office job you don't get paid for.

The Sims 3: This game comes up with the idea that you can live someone else's life and make all the decisions for the persons involved. You can create yourself in the game which offers identification, and there is a lot of customizability. However, you need to keep purchasing more and more expensive content so the game doesn't get boring. As surprising as it may sound, even the most exciting life gets boring once you've been through it.

Shenmue: You were able to walk around freely. It plays like real life plays... that means that you can even play other video games in the game! The game had really good music and a good atmosphere. On the negative side it was a little slow and eventually ended. The main story line was also linear, so you are supposed to get there and once you are there, you have seen it all.


A perfect game would have to be very customizable and make the player identify with it. It would have to be very stable, never break down, never crash, and have very solid graphics, controls and whatever else you usually take for granted in a good game. There would have to be many secrets, content to unlock and discover, cheats to use if you want to, and the game would need a game style that allows you to do everything you want to do. The music would have to be bombastic and you should have tears in your eyes from watching what is on the screen. You would never want to switch off your computer again. Something like that.

Which kind of game might turn out to be perfect one day? I don't know. From my taste of video games, I can imagine that I will eventually play a good football manager game that has no flaws and stick with it. Or maybe it will be a game like World of Warcraft, but then it has to be less expensive and never get boring.

If anyone has come across the perfect game and has been playing it for 5 years straight with no end to it, let me know.