The Five Games You Wish Modern Designers Would Play and Why

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Matt Barton
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If you were in charge of the "modern designer school," what are the top five games you would insist that EVERY would-be designer play and be tested on? In other words, what are the CLASSICS that you think it's a travesty or even a CRIME for a modern designer not to know about? Imagine a designer who had never played Pac-Man, or Dungeon Master, or X-Com, or DOOM, much less Satan's Hollow. I know I'm being a bit PEDANTIC here, but we all know time is limited, so if you had to choose FIVE games for EVERY designer to know by heart, what would they be?

Here's my five, with explanations:

1. Zork. I think Zork is an exercise in what can be accomplished with limited resources. The designers were FORCED to work without graphics of any kind, and yet they made one of the best adventure games of all time. How did they do it? How did they anticipate what players would enter as commands? For me, Zork is an amazing achievement that will live forever, and I'd laugh at anyone calling him or herself a "designer" who had not played it.

2. Rogue or Nethack. Again we come down to the simplicity of audiovisual presentation and being FORCED to work within extreme limitations. Here we have the CRPG game boiled down to its essence. If you can figure out what makes these games so compelling and addictive, then you're well on your way to becoming a great designer. It's not just doing more with less; it's making LESS a virtue to be aspired to. A lazy, untalented designer kicks back and depends on the audiovisual team to make up the difference. A better designer knows that he or she must make a game that'd be fun to play even if you were limited to ASCII. When you succeed...IF you succeed...You get something as incredible as Rogue or Dwarf Fortress.

3. Tetris. For me, Tetris represents the ultimate logic of the question: "What can videogames do that other mediums can't, and why aren't we doing more of it?" Tetris is oddly like a boardgame, yet if you've tried to build a real-life Tetris set, you realize the genius here. Tetris takes full advantage of the medium in a beautiful and amazing way. I liken Tetris to a musical act. Anybody can sound good with autotune, a full studio band, synthesizers, etc. But it takes a TRUE talent to keep thousands entertained with nothing but a mic. Tetris is that person.

4. World of Warcraft. How many billions of players does it take for people to realize Blizzard has stumbled upon the ultimate secret sauce? It's very simple. You just need to realize that what makes a game addictive is not ATTAINING the prize, but rather the quest after it. If you drag that out and punctuate it accordingly, you end up with a game design to make Pavlov proud.

5. Wii Sports. In the military, they talk of "multipliers." In the world of gaming, a guy who you like to play games with is a "multiplier," making a boring game fun, and a fun game orgasmic. No AI will ever compete with your best friend, who knows what you like and all the little inside jokes that made you friends in the first place. Wii Sports is to gaming what a high five is in real life. We are social animals, and Wii Sports brings it out.

Now imagine if a designer could combine ALL FIVE. Imagine it...

Now, sound off below. I want to know what five games YOU wish every designer would play. Who knows; perhaps your list will be on a syllabus one day. Now is not the time to be lazy. Let us know your picks right now!

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Bill Loguidice
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Speaking of NBA Jam, the

Speaking of NBA Jam, the latest XBLA and PSN release of the game, NBA Jam: On Fire, is probably the best version of the game I've ever played, to the point where I feel confident in calling it one of the greatest action games ever made. If you have an Xbox 360 or PS3, I highly recommend you check it out. I don't know how different it is from the previous retail release for the Wii, 360 and PS3, but it's my understanding that some minor, but noticeable game balancing tweaks have been implemented. If they have, it shows, as there is none of the frustration of previous NBA Jam games that I've experienced vis-a-vis cheap AI, which makes all the difference in perfecting the experience.

And just as a point of clarification, I do classify this as an action game. It has action elements, fighting game elements, light strategy, etc., all in pro basketball trappings. You don't really need to know anything about basketball to enjoy the game, which is why I'd say it's an action-sports game, not a sports-action game.

The only criticism I can levy at the game is that the menus are dreadful. Very dense and hard (at least for me) to understand. The actual gameplay is tuned to perfection, though.

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clok1966
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It think we all have valid

It think we all have valid thoughts on this, and since we all differ some it just shows, things are not the same to each of us. Kieths point about conditioned fun is very valid. Three are alot of things we are basicly programed to think are fun.. I never understood the SIM thing.. There are choices to be made.. and they effect teh game, but deciding to mow the lawn and then having a 'accidnet" as you didnt budget time for a bathroom break just isnt my type of fun.. but some will love that. And tht is the real meat of it. Deep meaningfull game play is not something I really should discuss. in all honesty.. I can find short amounts of fun in almost any game. A couple of personal favorites of mine are (even to me) waht i call MINDLESS fun.. no reason to do it, its repatiative, there is little to no challange.. but man i like to do it.. Earth Defence force .. giant bugs.. kill um all, rinse and repaeat with bigger bugs or robots.. in most "level" its not even hard.. but 1-2 hours of it .. i could almost play it anytime. Im a huge L4D2 player.. but whilei enjoyt het game so much.. the people playing it how are total dumbass's frustrate the crap out of me at times.. and YET i plug away? WHY? I complain its no fun when a team game devolves into a mess.. yet i stay.. maybe it comes down to I just cant think of a better thing to do? mnay many interesting thoughts here.

Keith Burgun
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>I would like to know what it

>I would like to know what it is about WoW, from your perspective, that has allowed it to attract maintain such a huge subscriber base?

A few things. A large part of it was Blizzard simply being in the right place at the right time. Which isn't to say that they shouldn't get the credit for knowing that it was the right time to create WoW. I think that they saw Everquest and their own Diablo, and probably observed the addictive "must consume +1s" behavioral effects the game had. Everquest was a great example for them, because it was really successful, despite having sub-par marketing (its visuals looked HORRENDOUS). I think that the guys at Blizzard said, you know, people really like chatting and being social online, as well as grinding in these games, even though they weren't marketed well. If we give Everquest the BLIZZARD TREATMENT, it's all over. And they were right. They made a really nice looking game with a solid UI, marketed it well, and the rest is history.

So, WoW was a huge success, but not because its game-play sections were great. More because it was marketed well, looks nice, and it's VERY easy to get addicted to (in fact, it's designed to be addictive specifically, which is different than a game that is designed to be interesting).

Rowdy Rob
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What is WoW's hook?
Keith Burgun wrote:

>"WoW IS FUN! Just ask the bazillions of WoW players. :-)"

Ok. I think you need to maybe be reminded of what a logical fallacy is. If an argument is FALLACIOUS, that means that it is broken; it carries zero weight. I have indicated several times and even linked to the wikipedia page for this specific fallacy, that states this: just because many people think something, does not mean that it is true. You can keep trying to use this argument as many times as you like, but each time it will have the same amount of impact - none.

What I was clumsily trying to say is that, logical fallacy aside, I think there is something going on in WoW that keeps millions of subscribers consistently entertained for long periods of time. I'm not going for "impact" or "win" so much as asking you (and others) an analytical and perhaps philosophical question: Why?

On a personal note, I am not a WoW enthusiast. I played it up until I achieved level 5 (I think), but was not enthralled by it. It was fun for a while, but the MMO aspect actually took me out of the game, and I never went back. (I might go back at a later date.) I encountered a situation where I actually had to wait in line for my turn at killing a quest-completing orc commander! That was quite bizarre, and my "turn" never came up in my play session. To me, that was a flaw. The "amusement park" analogy seemed to fit.

Yet WoW has millions of subscribers who consistently play it for long periods, years even. It is the largest success in the MMORPG industry. Matt chose WoW as a "must play" game for budding game designers because it was successful in this regard. What's going on here? You didn't like it, and I lost interest in it quickly, but maybe it just wasn't up my alley. Matt and Clok were great enthusiasts of the game.

I will directly ask you, right now, for your personal, informed opinion. You are a game designer, a passionate game player, and an intelligent game analyst. You obviously have strong opinions about WoW, and have maintained that it is a deeply flawed game (or NOT actually a game). I would like to know what it is about WoW, from your perspective, that has allowed it to attract maintain such a huge subscriber base? What keeps these subscribers coming back for more? What is the hook?

Game designers, in general, want their games to be successful, and to be enjoyed by as many people as possible. WoW has achieved large success in this regard. What's happening here? As a game designer/analyst who is not in the "WoW" camp, I think your perspective would be quite interesting and enlightening.

Keith Burgun wrote:

>"Heck, about the "small nuggets of fun" remark, I feel this way about many games, not just WoW. "

NOW we're starting to agree! This is a problem that can be improved upon, but only once we start looking at the fundamentals of what games are and what makes them fun.

We are both videogame enthusiasts, so we probably agree on a great deal of things, actually. What we disagree on here might seem like trivial minutiae to some.

Keith Burgun wrote:

As to Bethesda, I think they are so bad at designing games that it's insulting. Here's my article on why I hate Oblivion so much: http://expensiveplanetarium.blogspot.com/2011/06/why-i-dont-like-oblivion.html

There's some compelling arguments in your article. Some of it I agree with, particularly your analysis of the "dialogue" engine. Other parts, I have no recollection of experiencing in the game, or not enough information about to disagree with (mods and such).

I quite enjoyed the dungeon-crawling aspect of the game. The part of Oblivion that killed it for me was the wandering around in the towns looking for a particular person to "talk" to. It didn't really occur to me until I read your article that a large part of the buzz-kill was the lack of fun in the NPC interactions.

Keith Burgun
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>the interface was

>the interface was interesting, in the sense that it didn't respond as I expected and thus required my attention.

That is not, at all, what I meant. I did not mean that the UI is more fiddly and annoying. I meant that there are decisions which have an impact on whether or not you succeed in the game. Preferably these decisions are interesting with ambiguous right answers. A clunky, unclear, or difficult to use or understand UI, like the one in Daggerfall, is never a good thing.

Matt Barton
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Keith Burgun wrote:

In my opinion, games that simply pacify the user and "kill the time" (Diablo, Farmville, or the game-parts of WoW) are not as fulfilling because they don't provide real interesting choices and challenges. They work on a different level than an interesting game - they essentially EXPLOIT human behavior patterns. I would *never* try to take someone's right to play such things away from them, but I do think it's entirely within my right to say that not only are fulfilling games *better*, but that those people would be better off playing fulfilling games.

So by "interesting," I assume you mean games that constantly or regularly break us out of the zone and force us to recognize them as games.

I would respectfully submit, though, that the more "mindless" the game is, the better. To wit, consider my recent struggles with Daggerfall and Ultima IV. I was constantly reminded I was playing a game because the interface was interesting, in the sense that it didn't respond as I expected and thus required my attention. It was like getting into a car that had a series of buttons, levers, and dials instead of a steering wheel and gas pedals. Sure, I could drive such a contraption, but certainly not while "zoning out" like I normally do while driving a regular vehicle. In short, an interesting game might be one in which I am asked to use my brain, stepping out of the game to rationalize, destroying the bridge.

That said, I think we can agree that if the purpose of a specific game is only to distract or perhaps mesmerize, it is not fulfilling. At best it is only distracting us from things that are even less fulfilling. A better game would perhaps keep us firmly in the zone, but also carefully guide us towards something illuminating while we're there.

For example, World of Warcraft might change as we become more and more absorbed, becoming gradually less reliant on our input, the physical actions diminishing as the mental connection grows, the audiovisuals becoming increasingly abstract and formless as the state is maintained. In practical terms, this might mean a player could find himself staring at a blank or perhaps solid white screen for hours in "real time," but arrive from the experience with a new understanding of his place in the universe.

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Keith Burgun
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The thing is, I generally

The thing is, I generally agree with you, Matt, but there are some things which are simply more fulfilling than others. An extreme example would be playing slots. If a child of yours was playing slots for 4 hours a day - beyond the actual monetary COST problem - you would probably be concerned that, even if he was enjoying himself, he might not be getting a lot out of it.

I do think that within the scope of "things that we can do that are fun", there is a gradient of "things that are more fulfilling" and "things that are less fulfilling". Fulfillment is when you can take something away from the experience - when you have learned something. In games, it's often when you've experienced a true feeling mastery. I could not do that before, and now I can. Good games spark the imagination and set it wondering about the possibilities for next time.

In my opinion, games that simply pacify the user and "kill the time" (Diablo, Farmville, or the game-parts of WoW) are not as fulfilling because they don't provide real interesting choices and challenges. They work on a different level than an interesting game - they essentially EXPLOIT human behavior patterns. I would *never* try to take someone's right to play such things away from them, but I do think it's entirely within my right to say that not only are fulfilling games *better*, but that those people would be better off playing fulfilling games.

Matt Barton
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I have to agree that there

I have to agree that there are certain terms we like to use, such as "fun," which do seem to trivialize it. I don't know who would call Moonlight Sonata, Nude Descending a Staircase, or Metropolis "fun," but for some reason most of us consider "fun" the highest goal of videogame design. On the other hand, we quickly get pretentious if we abandon this aspect and puff ourselves up with academic nonsense. Imagine a designer calling her work a "digitally aesthetic interactive experience" instead of a game. Pshaw.

The utilitarian philosopher Bentham had something to say that might be relevant here: ""Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry."

Substitute "videogames" here and we might reach a similar thought. Pleasure is pleasure. If you enjoy playing Tetris but hate listening to Mozart, so what? It's not like the one pleasure is somehow better than the other.

I agree with this sentiment, but not for the same reason as a utilitarian. It's not enough just that you prefer playing Tetris to listening to Mozart. Rather, what matters is the kind and value of experience you have doing one or the other.

Stepping away from some of the present discussion, I'd consider whether a game enlightens us. Does it help us lose our ego and put away the humdrum distractions of everyday life (i.e., enter the zone?) Does it expand our consciousness? (epiphanies or "aha" moments?) In short, does it help us discover truth?

Anyone can play a so-called addictive game and be "amused." But it clearly takes a determined mindset and at least some preparation to play a game for a higher purpose. I fully believe a person playing Tetris could, given the right mindset, begin to lose consciousness of the graphics and activities, recognizing something in the gameplay state that could illuminate hitherto darkened passages in that person's mind. It is almost like a trance or meditation. Slowly, the falling, rotating pieces take on a great, profound significance, and the person is not "just playing a game" but is experiencing the fragmentation of reality and, perhaps, gaining some recognition of what lies beyond everyday experience. I have had this happen to me on countless occasions, and am undoubtedly a better man for it.

Likewise, it is not hard to imagine someone being transported to another realm of consciousness by playing an aesthetically rich game like Riven or Rez.

I am a bit frustrated with critics who seem to obsess over the rules or mechanics of a game. These seem to me like the scientists who see a field of flowers and observe nothing more than a collection of cells, properties, and chemicals. To boil a game down to its "rules" and pretend like that is the essence is not only silly, but destructive to truly understanding what makes a game possible, much less what could make it enlightening. Imagine calling oneself an artist just because you have memorized a set of "rules" about how painting "ought to be done correctly." What a miserable painter you would be!

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Bill Loguidice
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Analysis
Keith Burgun wrote:

Well, Bill, what if I think that I have identified what I believe to be fundamental flaws with many of today's popular video games? I should just not say it, since it might offend someone? I think games will only start to improve when we ALL start asking hard questions about where the enjoyment is coming from - which I am sorry to say, very few people are doing. And it's easy to see why few are doing it.

I agree with the fundamental flaws angle, but I think that needs to be balanced with an attempt to understand why large groups of people enjoy it, perhaps even when they have a full understanding (either consciously or subconsciously) of said flaws. I think that's what you're saying, but I haven't seen it in your dismantling of games like WoW.

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Keith Burgun
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Well, Bill, what if I think

Well, Bill, what if I think that I have identified what I believe to be fundamental flaws with many of today's popular video games? I should just not say it, since it might offend someone? I think games will only start to improve when we ALL start asking hard questions about where the enjoyment is coming from - which I am sorry to say, very few people are doing. And it's easy to see why few are doing it.

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