The Most Important Properties of a Video Game

An example of a farm in Stardew Valley

Recently, I’ve been playing Stardew Valley.  Like Minecraft, this game is unusual in that it was created not by the typical team of programmers, but rather by a single individual. Four years ago, the creator of Stardew Valley graduated from college, but couldn’t find a programming job. So, instead of working at Starbucks, he decided to live off the kindness of his girlfriend and create his own game to sell on Steam for a sub-$20 price.

The outcome for him must have surpassed his wildest expectations. Since the game came out last year, estimates are that it’s made over $40 million.  That would be a so-so result for a company spending $15 million just to create the game, but remember, this is one guy, not a gaming company. He doesn’t need to pay a portion of that money to anyone else. It all goes to him.  (Which results in my wife asking me, “Hey, haven’t you spent about 4 years writing books? How’s that going?”)

It’s noteworthy that this one fellow created everything in the game—the design, the code, the graphics, and even the music. The result is a farming game that looks like something created in the late 1980s. As you can see above, the graphics are vivid and bright, but pixilated, like the game was designed for a bulky 640×480 CRT monitor. In a way, Stardew Valley proves that the thing that matters in games isn’t the flashy graphics that are used to sell every new video game console. Rather it’s the game play.

So the success of Stardew Valley has got me thinking about what makes a game compelling.  A few things immediately spring to mind.

Small victories

In general, I think for a game to be compelling initially, it has to have a lot of small and medium victories, akin to a slot machine giving out a lot of small payouts. In Tetris, the small victories are whenever you finish a line or a level. In Candy Crush, they are when you create or use a special candy, or when you finish a level.  In Call of Duty, it’s when you shoot someone or win a game.  In Starcraft, it’s when you build a particular building or unlock a new capability.  In Civilization, it’s researching a particular technology, building a wonder, or capturing a city.

These small victories both give player a feeling of success, and—because they’re small—encourage the player to keep playing another few minutes so they can achieve the next small victory.

Drudgery eliminated by “cool” expanded abilities

The second thing that makes a game appealing is when each victory gives the player expanded abilities, often eliminating annoyances that are artificially built into the game itself. For instance, in most farming games, you need to water crops or wait for the crops to grow. There’s no programmatic “need” that requires the player to click all over the screen to water their beets or have a real-time delay between when the pumpkins are planted and when they grow.  However, this artificial constraint ensures that a reward for a small victory will have significant value to the player. If the reward is a automatic sprinkler, so the player doesn’t have to waste time walking all over the screen to water plants with a watering can, then that sprinkler has real value in eliminating the artificial drudgery of manual watering.

The interesting thing about this sort of reward is that you wouldn’t think that building drudgery into a game is a good idea. Why would someone want to play a game if it’s drudgery? However, in this case it works, because that drudgery provides the player with the incentive to look for rewards that will eliminate their suffering. (Yes, they could just stop playing the game, but if they only need a small victory to eliminate that suffering, why wouldn’t they do that instead? The sunk costs of quitting would be high.)

Requiring resource allocation decisions (that often don’t matter)

Finally, most good games require the constant allocation of resources, forcing the player to prioritize one path over the other. At the same time, often, these decisions don’t matter that much, in the sense that the player can often “win” by multiple paths, and often can’t “lose” by choosing the wrong path. Instead, the winning conditions will be different and the results will look different (e.g. lots of cows instead of wheat in farming games, a big army instead of a bunch of museums in Civilization).  But, when it comes down to it, you’re allocating resources to solve small problems, and, through solving those problems, you’ll hit a victory almost regardless of how you allocate those resources because almost all reasonable paths lead to victory.

Of course, that isn’t true for all games. Tetris has no equivalent to a resourcing decision. In Civilization, if you completely ignore your army, Attila, Shaka, or Genghis will raze all your cities and you will lose. But it often seems to be true—even in Civilization, a minimal army is often sufficient to keep others at bay long enough to loot the archeological treasures of other civilizations.

And, though it seems strange, “resourcing decisions that don’t matter” is a feature, not a bug. It allows the player to focus on the aspects of the game that they like, ignore the rest, and still end up victorious. In effect, the player is customizing their gaming experience in favor of the type of game play they prefer. Some people like to be snipers, some people like the big explosions resulting from rockets and grenades, and some people just like to shoot people with a big gun. Call of Duty is open to all these types of game play.

The bottom line

To me, in combination these features make games compelling, leading to the “one more turn” aspect that keeps gamers playing until 3:00 AM on a weeknight. It would be interesting compiling a list of key features, and then deliberately designing games around those principles. (In fact, I imagine thoughtful gaming companies are already doing this.)

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