Small Touches Make a Great Game

Jul 26

Everything you read about game design stresses the importance of gameplay over aesthetics. Most game designers suggest working out the structure and rules of a game with crude paper sketches and mock-ups before ever considering what it will look like.

From The Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman:

Early prototypes are not pretty. They might be paper versions of a digital game, a single-player version of a networked experience, hand-scrawled board and pieces for a strategy wargame, or a butt-ugly interactive mock-up with placeholder artwork.

I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that game aesthetics are not important. The point they are trying to reinforce is that no amount of flashy graphics are going to make up for crappy gameplay. I suspect that the reason people harp on this point so much is that a lot of games are approached with an aesthetic idea in mind, with no thought given to the way the game will actually be played.

But I’ve also seen a lot of games online that are well conceived and offer good gameplay, but are missing that little something to make them great. Often this can be attributed to the creator’s lack of artistic skills, but sometimes the missing element is not so easy to pinpoint.

I’ve begun noticing the small details in my favorite games that make me want to keep playing them. Here are a couple of my observations:


Makos Screenshot

Play Makos at GameSheep

Makos isn’t really what I normally consider a great game, which makes it a good example for the point I’m trying to make here. The object of this game is slide rows of colored, um, ‘forest creatures’ to make matches of 3 or more. This is essentially the same game as Fairies or Chuzzle. But while the graphics in Fairies are beautiful, I don’t find it nearly as compelling as Makos for one simple reason—sound.

The payoff for making a match in Makos is more than just scoring points. I am compelled to keep playing this game because I want to hear the noises of the creatures screaming with glee every time I free a group of them. The ‘donk’ sounds when I score a combo are also incredibly satisfying. The game would still be okay without the sound, but it would be the kind of game you play once or twice and forget about, instead of the kind of game you keep coming back to play.

Rocket Mania

Rocket Mania Screenshot

The Popcap game Rocket Mania provides another example of good use of sound. Rocket Mania is a fun and challenging puzzle game where the player must connect a line of fuses from matches to fireworks in order to launch the fireworks. I think I would enjoy playing this game even without the sound, but the sound of launching a bunch of rockets is a really great payoff. It makes you really feel the launch, like you’re actually shaking that fireworks shack every time you set one off.

Unfortunately, some of the sounds in this game also work against it. The talking dragon that congratulates you when you make a combo is incredibly annoying.

All the snazzy special effects in the world can’t save a crappy game, but attention to small details like sound effects and graphics, when used appropriately, can take a good game and push it into the category of greatness.