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What Makes A Good Video Game?

Games are a matter of personal taste, so says Wolfgang Kramer in his essay about boardgames. The same can be said for video games. Often at the start of a games design course I’ll ask my students what games they are currently playing, what their favourite games are and what types of game they like. They usually express a liking for a particular genre, such as RPG, strategy, sports or shooter. Personally I like action-adventure games like Tombraider or Resident Evil, but I also play shooters, adventure games and strategy games. I don’t have a strong preference, but there are certainly some games that I never play, such as sports games (except for a bit of Wii 10 pin bowling every now and then).

So, we can’t always say that a particular game will have mass appeal, as people tend to have fairly strong preferences for genres of game. This should come as no surprise because the same is true of other forms of entertainment such as movies, books and sport.

On his website Mark LeBlanc identifies ‘8 kinds of fun‘ which can be seen as ‘reasons’ for playing games. It’s not really adequate to say that we play games for ‘fun’ and a much deeper analysis is required. What is ‘fun’ for some is ‘pain’ for others.

Whatever the reasons for liking video games, some games become popular while others sink into obscurity; some hold the players attention and others send them running to the game store for a trade-in.

The idea of ‘Flow’ in games was first proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi over 20 years ago. This simple idea suggests that players of a game gain most enjoyment when their abilities are matched by the challenges in the game and they reach a state of ‘energized focus’. The principle is explained in the diagram below.

Achieving ‘flow’ would likely be the aim of most game designers, however this simple principle probably misses many more factors that affect the enjoyment of a game. An article on the Pentaduct website suggests there are 6 elements that could make a game ‘good’, challenge, feel, freedom, place, promise and fantasy.

So, ‘What Makes A Good Game?’ is a difficult question to answer, but something that a game designer must try to reconcile. Perhaps enjoying your own game would be a good start, and it’s certainly a good discussion point for a games design class.

Further reading

Designing Good Games (zipped pdf) is a document from YoYo games, publisher of GameMaker.


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