What Is a Game, Anyway

(This is a multi-part series about our perspective on game design. Hopefully this will give you some insight into how & why certain decisions are made.) One of those topics that comes up again and again as a game designer is, "What is a game, anyway?" Is Tetris a game in the same way that Call of Duty is a game? Is Candyland a game in the same way that Settlers of Catan is? Why? Why not? There have been many, many attempts to clarify what is and what isn't a game, and it's a discussion that will continue from now until the end of time. There will never be one definition.

That said, I've been designing games for 15 years, now, and I think the best definitions are ones that are useful, and to that end, the most useful definition of what a game "is" is this:

A game is when a user is presented with a compelling choice that allows him or her to make an informed decision that has consequence.

The most important bits are highlighted in bold. Let's go through that in order:

  •  Compelling: The player has to care about the decision they're making. This can be done through narrative, like when I care about which character I save in Telltale's Walking Dead game, or it can be done systematically, like when I care where the piece goes in Tetris so that I can maximize my score. If a player doesn't care in some way about what they're doing, nothing else matters at all.
  • Informed decision: The player has to be able to understand why they are choosing one thing over another. If I have to make an arbitrary choice without any useful information, it's not actually a useful decision for me to be making (one reason that character creation and difficulty selection at the very beginning of most games is, IMO, a mistake). If I have a choice to go right or go left, and there's no way to even begin to understand what the consequences of that choice might be, that's not good. If that's all you present to the player, then there's nothing for the player to actually affect in any meaningful way.
  • Consequence: The game has to react in some way to the things that the player does. If there's no reaction, and things would just continue as they were, there's no reason for the player to do anything at all.

Now, not every decision in a game has to be informed. Not every action has to have consequence. Not everything has to be compelling in and of itself. But there has to be something in there that has all three of these qualities for it to be useful as a game, and the further you can dive down into those three elements, the better your game gets.

Take something like Team Fortress. Open that up in another window, and look at the characters on that page, if you're not already familiar with them. Which one, would you guess, takes the most bullets to kill? It's fairly easy to "read" the characters quickly. There's one guy who's bigger than everyone else. In the midst of chaotic action, you can read immediately which characters are "fast", which characters can likely do a lot of damage, and which are going to take a lot of firepower to knock down. Contrast that with a game like Call of Duty, where a character may have a perk that makes them harder to kill that is invisible to the player trying to decide who to shoot.

TF2 was one of the first games to go really overboard in making the characters exaggerated in the name of "readability", and one of the game's big strengths is that it's really uniquely stylish (compelling), the characters' design helps you understand the character's strengths and weaknesses (allowing you to make an informed decision about what to do), and every time you successfully kill someone, because you made an informed decision about who to target and how, your score goes up (consequence). It's not just a shallow nod to these things, it goes from the character design to the lighting to the animation to the overall multiplayer structure of the game.

So let's stop there for this first entry. I'd like you to think about the definition of a game, and if you've got an example of a game that doesn't work with that definition, throw it up here and let's see. But I think the definition's best use is as a razor, which is a concept we can talk about next.

See you next time.