In order to make a great video game, these six elements need to come together into a cohesive whole: Gameplay, Story, Sound Direction, Art Direction, Technical Quality, and Game Balance.
- Gameplay – The first element required to make a great game is great gameplay. Now, gameplay as a concept is pretty difficult to pin down with a definition, but in my opinion it goes something like this — whether or not player input is both sensible and enjoyable in the context of the game being played. For example, in a stealth game you would expect the player character to control fluidly and rapidly in response to player input. You would expect a trained assassin to react quickly to changes in a situation and have access to a wide variety of tools. In contrast, if you were playing a horror game in which the player character was a bystander, you can expect the player character to be less fluid — he or she may stumble a bit when running, for example. To use a real game, Witcher 3 can be considered to have good gameplay because in performing various inputs, you actually feel like a monster hunter. You track down the monster, prepare to fight by using various oils and potions, and then fight to hopefully kill it and claim your rewards.
- Story – There are a variety of ways in which a game can accomplish crafting an excellent narrative. More traditionally, this is a accomplished through a memorable twist, engaging with a cast of intriguing characters filled with personality, or attempting to bring to light serious issues in an immersive way. The Knights of the Old Republic games did this to a great degree with *SPOILER ALERT* Revan’s reveal, memorable characters like Jolee Bindo and Kreia, and tackling the mysterious Force in innovative ways. As game development became more polished, so too have story-telling strategies. More specifically, gameplay and story have become more interlinked. The popular Undertale made classic RPG elements such as grinding experience and getting progressively stronger feed into the fabric of the story.
- Sound Direction – People tend to underestimate how much a good-sounding game can make the whole experience. The more limited your preferred genre, the more important sound becomes. Visual novels, which usually have limited gameplay elements, can be made so much more immersive with good music (see Muv Luv Alternative’s “For Those Who Depart” to get an idea.) The theme music to Halo: Combat Evolved became absolutely iconic to the game itself, as it did for the Elder Scrolls games and Castlevania amongst others. Sound doesn’t stop at soundtrack, either. Good sound also relates to things like the sound of reloading guns, the sound of cutting through an enemy, and all the various little things that bring the game to life in its own right. If I don’t get a visceral sound from slashing a foe in two, I will most certainly be less satisfied with the game even though I may not realize why at the time.
- Art Direction – While art direction might be considered more subjective, there are elements within the art of the game that definitely contribute to a game’s success. If the color palette of a game is too samey, I may not be able to tell where my characters or the enemies are on the screen. A game that’s too vibrant and colorful can be nauseating to play for a significant period of time. If too similar to other titles, the game might not stand out in comparison. If the characters look dull or uninspired, you’ll have lost some interest. UI design also factors into art direction. If you have to unintuitively go through a bunch of tabs to do what is demanded of you in game, that can detract from a player’s immersion. For all its praise, it was really annoying to have to go through a billion tabs to cook the food you wanted in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
- Technical Quality – If the game does not run smoothly on the systems it was designed for, you can bet that will detract from a game. This can be anything from stutter to absurd loading times to frequent disconnects if the game requires online functionality. At the release of Hearthstone’s latest expansion, Journey to Un’Goro, players could not log in reliably the first day. Games like Watchdogs had cars load in to where you could literally see them appear from thin air. Gamers can and will take issues with these flaws resulting from lack of foresight or failure to optimize before launch.
- Game Balance – Though primarily an issue in games where players compete with other players, good game balance is pretty important. In League of Legends, for example, if one character becomes too dominant, players will be frustrated. Item, skill, and character interactions cannot be overlooked or some flaw will be found and then exploited. In games which new characters are expected to appear, the characters must be tested against and with characters thoroughly enough that a character not be oppressive.