The design of video games has rarely been a subject of formal study. All too often today games are designed simply by looking at whatever is popular at the moment and copying it. The recent interest in classic video games has a basis in something more than mere nostalgia. There is a feeling that something has been lost in game design, even while graphics and sound are reaching new heights.
This document is an attempt to explore certain concepts of videogame design. It is not a formula for designing hit video games. I firmly believe designing games by formula leads to stagnation. However, I just as firmly believe that a good videogame must be built on a solid foundation. Thus I have divided the subject into several elements and written an essay on each one. I've gathered them together here for the benefit of anyone interested in game design.
This article was originally published to GameDev.net back in 2000. It was revised by the original author in 2008 and published in the book Design and Content Creation: A GameDev.net Collection, which is one of 4 books collecting both popular GameDev.net articles and new original content in print format.
The Element of Presence
One of the magical aspects of video games is the ability to simulate worlds in the machine. These worlds may be tiny or huge, simple or complex. This is an element I call "presence" which approaches the sense of virtual reality. I believe the word "immersiveness" has also been used by some to describe this phenomenon. A good videogame creates a feeling of being there, not just watching a video or a slideshow.
Now I will list the components that can aid in making a successful simulation, beginning with the most basic and important, then working up toward more sophisticated frills that can enhance the experience. Take this as a recipe for creating that element of presence in the game:
1. Movement and Collision
Among the first things infants learn are simple rules of movement and collision. Things bump things. These rules are closely tied to our sense of reality. It's why smooth motion and accurate collision detection are so important. The earliest video games, such as Space War and Pong, were built around movement and collision. One might even say that this is the defining character of video games. Although movement and collision are also seen in movies, notably in action movies, it's the idea of a movement directly controlled by the player, not merely observed, that makes a videogame what it is. The connection -- the more direct, the better -- between the players hand on the controls and an object moving on the screen is the basic magic that video games are founded upon.
Recently movement has become a special concern when working with networked games, where net lag is a factor. You need to make sure, as much as possible, that movement is smooth and each player sees the same the same collision events, despite varying time lag between servers and clients. Some MMOGs have dealt with this problem pretty well. Some other environments, such as Second Life, continue to have serious problems with movement and net lag. The game needs to be designed with this concern in mind from day one. It can't be fixed as an afterthought.
2. Internally Consistent Rules
Objects in the game should interact with each other according to certain rules. These rules should be simple and consistent enough for the player to figure them out and use them. He should be able to say, "If object A does this to object B, then it should do that to object C." These rules don't necessarily have to be the same as rules in the real world. The rules may be fantastic or abstract, but they must make sense within the context of the game. These are like the laws of physics in your game world.
The worst offenders in this respect tend to be scripted games, where the player is moved from one pre-determined event to another. The events are arbitrarily created by a writer, they don't emerge from the game mechanisms.
3. Freedom of Movement
The player should generally be able to move where he wishes, when he wishes, for his own purposes. Games that force the player along a fixed path at a predetermined speed lose some sense of reality. Likewise games that force the player to follow pre-written scripts also come up short. Instead, it is best to provide the player an environment and allow him to explore it. It's okay for the environment to be small, or for there to be obstacles for the player to overcome before reaching some parts of it. However, free movement within the bounds and rules of the environment is critical. Asteroids is a good early example: a game which allowed the little spaceship to fly all over the screen, as opposed to games like Space Invaders with mere side-to-side movement.
4. Real-time Action and Background Activity
The real world does not stop and wait for us to make decisions. Some games, especially adventure and strategy games, freeze in their tracks much like a cheap choose-your-own-adventure book. Real-time action does not mean you keep your player racing against the clock (unless it's that kind of game), but the game should not freeze while he decides his move. Things should constantly be happening in the background, regardless of what the player does. This background activity, even if only partly seen by the player, adds a tremendous sense of vitality and presence to the game.
The classic Atari VCS (Atari 2600) Adventure game stands out as an early and groundbreaking example of this technique. Regardless of the player's actions, the dragons and the black bat continued roaming about and doing their own things. The classic arcade game Defender was another early example, because many events occurred outside the main view. The player had to keep tabs on these events using a small radar display and respond to them.
5. Three-Dimensional Space
Every game example I've listed so far has been two-dimensional in nature. However, people have a natural ability to think in three dimensions. Adding three-dimensional space to a game makes it more stimulating and can enhance the feeling of simulating a world in the machine. At the time when I first advocated the move to 3D environments, console hardware was just beginning to become adequate for this. (It was shortly before the introduction of the Sony Playstation.) Today a more pertinent concern is whether mobile devices can support a 3D display.
In these situations one may find that polygon-based games can work surprisingly well without any surface texturing. One of the first game consoles to break into 3D game design was the Atari Jaguar. Due to some annoying hardware bugs, its ability to perform texture mapping was very limited. Games created using Gouraud shading, such as Battlemorph, were fairly successful and created a stylized visual experience that I found reminiscent of the old 2D vector graphics monitors. At the time texture mapping was a new, exciting and fashionable technique, and the Jaguar games were soon viewed as technological laggards. In today's environment texture mapping is ubiquitous, and it's the Gouraud-shaded games which I suspect would appear novel and distinctive.
3D space is not merely a question of graphics display. It's possible to create a game on a two-dimensional, flat playfield that is populated with 3D objects. Some early 3D games such as Doom followed this approach. Such games fail to live up to the full potential of presence, or immersiveness. Allowing the player to climb into holes or onto platforms enhances the sense of space. Allowing objects to rotate on multiple axes and move naturally in three dimensions is also helpful.
6. Continuous and Contiguous Space
When placing the player into a virtual world, breaks for loading or cut scenes are best avoided. Adventure and RPG games often have very expansive worlds, and they were long plagued by these kinds of breaks due to technical limitations. This has proven especially pertinent in the MMOG space, where such breaks also interfere with players trying to interact with one another.
The groundbreaking Everquest game is a noteworthy example. When it was new it presented one of the most immersive environments ever seen, with a true 3D environment, vast world, day and night cycles and weather. I remember well getting lost in the maze-like city of Freeport. Although it was easy to get lost, it was also tremendously immersive and compelling. A big flaw, however, was the division of the world into "zones", and the need to pause the game for loading when moving from one zone to another. Later games, such as World of Warcraft, have done away with the loading delay, making the boundaries between different regions much more transparent to the player.
A related problem is that of teleportation. Teleportation refers to any situation where the game removes the player from one location and drops him into another. This trick has been used in games for a long time, for convenience or as a way of working around technical limitations. However, teleportation breaks the metaphor of space and time that we're all accustomed to in the real world. It is anti-immersive. Once again MMOGs with their typically huge worlds provide a good basis for comparison.
Everquest had very little teleportation in the beginning. It was mostly limited to death effects: killed players respawned back at their home point. Traveling long distances required either using a vehicle (such as a ship) or running long distances, often through dangerous and unfamiliar territory. This made exploration a hugely challenging and engaging activity, and it reinforced the perception of a vast and coherent world. As the game was later expanded, teleportation points were introduced which made moving from region to region safe and trivially easy. Although this was certainly convenient, it destroyed the exercise of exploration which had been such an important part of the game. It also severely damaged the player's sense of time and distance, which are important to his sense of being in a cohesive world.
The designers of World of Warcraft notably went out of their way to avoid teleportation. They provided a system of convenient transportation around their world (via griffin rides), but designed it to avoid breaking the player's sense of distance and time. The griffins fly over the entire landscape between their origin and destination points, and the player gets a view of everything and everyone along the way. The griffins also will not take the player to any place he hasn't already reached previously by other means, thereby preserving the value of exploration. This is the best of both worlds.
As a counter-example, one may look at Second Life, where teleportation is the primary means of travel around the world. The character of Second Life is less like that of a landscape to be explored, and more like that of the WWW. Locations are bookmarked and called up like web pages. This metaphor works for SL because it is, at heart, not a game at all. It's a social environment, it's a communication tool. Convenience is far more important than trying to create a game-like experience.
Having worked my way through these six ingredients of presence, or immersiveness, I have to mention virtual reality in passing. VR is an idea that once seemed hugely promising, and then later was dismissed as a fad, a failed promise. I think it was perhaps written off too quickly, and that VR's time may come again. The recent success of Nintendo's Wiimote controller is a baby step back in the direction of VR. VR headsets and controllers would be the last element needed to create a fully immersive environment.
With true VR remaining somewhere in the future, we shouldn't fall into the trap of imagining that killer, state-of-the-art hardware is required to make a compelling game. The first four techniques I listed were all used to great effect in VCS Adventure, a game that ran from 4K ROM on a console with 128 bytes of RAM and minimal graphics and processing power. VCS Adventure became one of the most popular games ever done on the Atari VCS. Needless to say, these same ideas can be used far more effectively with even the lower end of today's hardware.
The Element of Chaos
A disturbing trend has been toward games where everything is pre-scripted. Each level is the same every time: same powerups in the same places, enemies in the same places following the same patterns. The game becomes a contest of pure memorization. Once all the secrets are found and the levels memorized, it's time to buy another game. This is something that particularly came to annoy me in one of my favorite series, the Call of Duty games. The game tries to give players a realistic taste of World War 2 combat, and it succeeds pretty well in many respects. Yet, ultimately, progressing in the game requires learning where the enemy soldiers are stationed and the best order in which to attack them. It's an exercise fundamentally unlike the chaotic and confusing flow of battle that the game otherwise recreates so well.
That's not to say there's no place for scripted games, or that it's not fun to explore and learn their secrets. That learning and exploration is the hub of their appeal. All the same, we are missing an opportunity for something even better. The missing element is chaos.
Chaos means that surprising things can happen at almost any time in the game. It means that simple objects can interact in unexpectedly complex ways. The player is absorbed not in learning preset patterns, but in learning how the objects interact. This is not only great fun for the player, but also a more efficient way to program the game. Instead of working to create level after level of pre-scripted secrets, the developer can just create interesting objects and turn them loose in the game environment. He doesn't have to create all the many (possibly hundreds or thousands of) interactions that can occur in the game. These interactions arise naturally from the objects themselves, including interactions the game designers may not have thought about.
At this point a couple of examples are in order. First, let's consider Cosmic Avenger. This was a coin-op game of the early 1980s, which was also ported to the ColecoVision. At first glance it didn't seem too different from the other pre-scripted, side-scrolling shooters of the day, such as Scramble and Super Cobra. But, Cosmic Avenger had a small chaos element those games lacked: The enemy forces could accidentally shoot each other. There were also enemy missiles that would home toward the player's ship and could follow it for quite some distance. This led to great possibilities. The player could lead homing missiles into hitting enemy ships or installations. Enemy objects could collide or shoot each other at unexpected moments. These reactions made the game richer.
Now let's also consider VCS Adventure once again. It appears superficially similar to lots of graphic adventures that followed, such as the Zelda series. However, there is a big difference: Games like Zelda were based upon pre-scripted encounters. They presented a series of obstacles which were always the same, located in the same places, sitting dormant until the player arrived to trigger them. Typically a certain screen in the Zelda adventures would have X number of type Y monsters which would appear and attack when the player character entered that screen.
By contrast, VCS Adventure had four creatures in the whole game: three dragons and a black bat. These creatures got a lot of mileage because they constantly wandered about the game world doing their thing no matter where the player was. There were some limits to their movement, such as entering or leaving castles. Still, there was no way to be sure when a dragon or the bat might pounce on you. They could attack when you were unarmed, and they could attack singly, or they could gang up on you. There was no way to know. Although the dragons provided the combat aspect of the game, the black bat was the most important chaos element. It followed a simple rule: it picked things up and carried them around. After a few minutes it would get tired of whatever it was carrying; then it would look for something new to pick up, and leave the old object.
For example, I might be hunting down the dragon with sword in hand. Finally I find the beast, but about that time the bat suddenly swoops in and takes my sword and leaves me holding something useless like a key. It's time to run for my life! Or, for another example, I might be returning to the gold castle with the chalice, which is the final goal of the game. Victory is almost in sight, but suddenly the bat swoops in and grabs the chalice away from me. The chase is on, and it might be another half hour of one thing after another before I get the chalice back where I wanted it.
And, perhaps the ultimate example of bat oddities was the Grand Tour. This happened when the player simultaneously killed a dragon and was eaten by it. The player was trapped in the dragon's belly, but sometimes the bat would come and fly off with the dead dragon, thus carrying the player along for a fast tour of the game playing area. I think it's unlikely that this was ever designed or intended by the game's creator; it was just something that emerged out of the game's rules.
In addition to all the above, there was an extra playing mode in Adventure which allowed the game to start with all objects in random positions. Under these conditions there was no way to know if the game could even be won. But, it added a tremendous amount of extra play value after the standard scenario had been mastered.
So, this is what I would like to see in more games: more randomness and more simple objects that can interact in complex ways. These chaos ideas can apply to a wide range of games, from arcade action games to adventure or RPG games, to strategy games.
The Element of Challenge
A videogame, like almost any game, is a contest. The player tests his abilities against the machine or against a friend or against both at once. So, it is critically important to create the right level of challenge and difficulty. A game should not be too easy, lest it become boring. Nor should it be too difficult, lest it become frustrating. And, it's also helpful if the game is accessible.
When Nolan Bushnell created his first coin-operated videogame, Computer Space, it did very poorly. People didn't understand how to play. His next attempt, Pong, was a giant success because it was more accessible. Anyone could look at the game and immediately see how it was played. Many of the great hit video games have had this trait of accessibility, such as Space Invaders and Pac Man. More modern examples would include basic scrolling shooters like Raiden, most racing games, and any pinball machine. That is one reason pinball is still around. Everyone knows how to play.
That's not to say complicated games can't be successful. There is a feeling of accomplishment that comes from learning a complex game. This is found among the players of fighting games with their rather abstruse system of control and "combos", and among players of computer role-playing games, and flight simulators. Even so, such games are naturally limited in the width of their appeal. These kinds of games can become very popular within certain circles, but they rarely reach widespread acceptance with the general public. This is the difference between hard-core game players and the average guy. And, it's a big part of why the rather simple game of Tetris was such a huge hit. It was too small and simple to intimidate people who are not really into video games.
It is interesting to observe that console games have trended toward being quite easy. Computer games tend to be more complicated and somewhat harder. The most brutally competitive environment for games has generally been the coin-operated space. These games have to be highly accessible, because they depend on luring random passerby into a game or two, but they also have to be hard enough to get the player to either leave the machine or insert more coins in a reasonable time frame. Economic incentive drove the design decisions about how hard the game should be.
Making a game simple to learn doesn't mean making it simple to master. I note again that complex interactions in the game are desirable: they give a game depth and staying power. But, these complex interactions should arise from simple objects and rules in the game. VCS Adventure, which I have already described as an example of chaos, also had very simple controls and was as easy to play as anything. The joystick moved your little hero, and the action button picked up or dropped objects. There were no statistics to track or inventories to manage, unlike more modern adventures. Anyone could pick up the stick and start playing.
Pac Man was probably the ultimate in accessible gaming. It couldn't be more obvious how to play. Children, grandparents, people who had zero experience with games could look at Pac Man and figure out in seconds how it worked. In today's market it would probably be pigeonholed as a mere "casual game". Yet, like almost all coin-op games from that era, it was pretty darn difficult to play and keep a game going for very long. The first maze wasn't too bad, but the difficulty ramped up quite steeply.
As for the more general issue of challenge and difficulty, the easiest way to address it is by adding difficulty settings or some form of adjustment the player can make to suit themselves. This is especially important when you look at the wide range of ages the video game market caters to these days. There is no reason to artificially limit your game to a narrow age group when you can widen its appeal by providing the difficulty adjustments. However, a danger of user-settable difficulty settings is that many players are lazy and will tend to play on easy settings, even to the point of boredom, rather than realize they would actually enjoy the game more on a harder setting. Giving them some incentive to overcome their laziness and use the harder setting is a good idea. By luring players onto the harder difficulty as soon as they are ready for it, you can extend the life of the game.
Some companies don't want to extend the life of the game. They feel they can make games to be solved quickly and cast aside, so the consumer can buy another. This policy is shortsighted and ultimately counterproductive. Game players eventually realize they are being ripped off. They become bored with easy, quickly solved games and migrate away from video games toward other forms of entertainment.
Multi-player options were, for a long time, badly overlooked. The thrill that comes from playing against a human opponent is wonderful. Even games that were otherwise rather bland somehow gain new life. I have long been a big advocate of game machines with built-in support for more than two controllers. In recent years, however, most of the multi-player game activity has moved onto the internet. This has opened up great new horizons, with MMOGs being the ultimate expression.
So, why is multi-player so great? One reason is that it brings a large chaos element into the game. I've already written about the benefits of unpredictability, and there's nothing much more unpredictable than a human being. The other player doesn't follow any preset pattern. The interactions between multiple players and other game objects can be far more complex and exciting than you would normally see in a one-player game. Also, there's a greater sense of competition against a human rather than a machine. At the same time, it's good to provide a handicap option in the multi-player games where the players are competing directly against each other (as opposed to the cooperative type), so that players of different skill can still enjoy themselves.
MMOGs have raised some new problems in terms of challenge level. Not only do they have players from around the world mixing together with different skill levels, but most of them also use a level-based game mechanic such that time spent playing the game is rewarded with increased abilities. Unfortunately, players vary a lot in the amount of time they can invest in the game, and therefore they advance at different rates. If only players of similar level can effectively play together, that hampers their ability to form long-term associations. Games such as World of Warcraft encourage players to band together into cooperative groups, or parties, but the groups are short-lived. Players have compensated somewhat by forming larger communities called guilds or clans. These can provide a ready pool of players to draw party members from. Still, it remains difficult to play shoulder-to-shoulder with your two or three best pals over the long run.
This is not optimal, and I regard it as an unsolved problem of the MMOG genre. Much of MMOG design is predicated on keeping players hooked for as long as possible and rewarding the investment of time into the game is one of the main strategies used toward that goal. However, if players can more easily maintain long-term friendships with other players in the game that would probably exert at least as strong an incentive to stay, if not stronger.
One possible option might be to make player abilities tied more to the amount of time the player has been subscribed to the game, or the amount of time his character has existed, rather than the amount of time spent online and actually playing. Thus characters created around the same time would tend to progress at the same rate and maintain similar abilities and be able to continue playing cooperatively over the long term. There could and should still be a skill element involved, so there would be something to be gained from practice and familiarization with the game. The difference in skills would then exist more in the players than in their online avatars.
The Element of Atmosphere
So far I have described only game mechanics. Some abstract games have succeeded on the strength of game mechanics alone, such as Qix or Tetris. However, it's much easier to engage the player's interest and enrich his experience by creating an atmosphere.
The first rule of atmosphere is that it must not sabotage the underlying gameplay in any way. That would be self-defeating. Instead, take the game and build a mood around it.
There are two general ways to create atmosphere: It can be done in the game itself, using the game engine, or it can be done with "incidentals" in the title and intermission screens. An advantage of moving some atmosphere elements (especially the more intrusive ones like music and video clips) out into the intermission is not to distract from the focus of the game itself. In the past this approach has also allowed the game designer to introduce a video experience that the game mechanisms and game graphics were not sophisticated enough to produce. With advancing technology, however, this has become less of a concern.
In-game graphics has always been the most important component of atmosphere. Indeed, much of the history of videogame design has been driven by advancing graphics technology. The debate over the importance of graphics and how hard to push hardware requirements (particularly on PCs) has been ongoing for years. Historically there has always been an argument that gameplay is more important than graphics; yet the actions of game designers seemed to say otherwise as they pushed hardware to its limits, seeking novel visual effects to "wow" the players. Some recent events suggest that we are hitting a point of diminishing returns in graphics, and that pushing the limits of graphic hardware may no longer be the best strategy for a successful game. Two examples will illustrate this trend.
First, Sony and Microsoft engaged in a technological arms race, both coming out with new game consoles at high price points: the Playstation 3 and the X-Box 360. Nintendo entered the market with their less powerful and less expensive Wii console and experienced huge success. An innovative controller, affordable system and quality games proved more compelling to gamers than polygon fill rates.
Secondly, Sony and Blizzard both began MMORPG games at about the same time: Everquest 2 and World of Warcraft. There was no doubt that Everquest 2 was more graphically advanced. It had higher system requirements and more detailed models. Yet, there were problems with the graphical content. Some models in the game were simply unappealing. Many game elements seemed uneven in quality or mismatched in style. By comparison, hugely successful World of Warcraft had graphics with fewer polygons, lower system requirements and a stylized appearance that some called cartoony (though to my eyes it looks more like an oil painting style).
When looking at World of Warcraft, we have to ponder the vast amount of content in the game. It took an army of artists to create all the models, environments and textures used in this game. Despite that, the style is so focused and coherent that you can examine objects all around the game world and easily imagine that they were created by the same artist. It's a triumph not of technology but of art direction. This will be the trend in future games: art direction will take center stage, and graphics display technology will be merely the canvas.
However, I do want to talk more about "incidental" graphics, music and other components. These would be title screens, between-level menus, FMV introductions and intermissions, etc. These must be made so the player can get past them quickly and get into the game without delay if he wants to. Nonetheless, these components can be used to tremendous effect for creating atmosphere. A good example of this was Road Rash 3DO. Still pictures are used in the menus and intermissions, and FMV clips with fine music for the title screens, start and end of races, and so forth. All these components combine to add tremendously to the excitement surrounding the game, but they don't interfere with the actual gameplay. It's a great example of how to take a game, which in this case already had solid gameplay and excellent in-game graphics, and then surround it with incidentals that raise it over the top and make it an extra special experience. This was tough prior to the advent of CD-ROM storage technology, because such incidentals would have squeezed out actual gameplay elements. Now that we have CD-ROM and DVD-ROM, storage space should no longer be much of an obstacle.
Another good example would be FMV clips embedded in the game at certain appropriate points, such as when the player attains a goal in an adventure game. Again, it's important to let the player quickly abort out of the video clip if he's tired of seeing it. A good example of how FMV could be useful is the Atari Jaguar game Alien Vs Predator. In the course of the game, the player will sometimes find computer terminals in which crewmen have recorded log entries. These are plain text. FMV clips could have been far more effective in creating an impression of the desperate last days on board the space station. It was impractical in AvP because of the limitation of the Jaguar ROM cartridge, but the advent of CD-ROM gaming allows these kinds of uses. Some games of the pre-CD-ROM era have used various kinds of animation to create these embedded sequences. CD-ROM and FMV allow us to do it better.
The use of FMV cut scenes has always come at a price, in terms of disrupting the player's sense of continuity and presence. The advent of MMOGs raises an additional problem: a cut scene would interrupt interactions with other players and break the sense of time and space that they all share in the game. As a result, more of the elements that would normally appear in cut-scene videos are being pushed into the game engine itself. This is a healthy development and has worked its way back into single-player games over time.
Sound effects are an important atmosphere component, just like graphics. Great sound effects can sometimes contribute more to the mood of the game than graphics do. For example, Alien Vs Predator on the Jaguar had fine graphics by the standards of its time, but the excellent digitized sound effects went perhaps even farther toward setting the mood of the game. In many cases, background sound effects are superior to music for setting a mood in the game. For that matter, even eerie silence can be useful sometimes.
Voice elements can cut both ways. Long gone are the days when any kind of voice in a game was a novelty. Now its value largely comes down to the quality of the voice acting. Miserable voice acting can easily do more harm than good. Good voice acting, on the other hand, can be compelling. In a game where scripted events are minimized, the challenge is to incorporate and trigger voice sequences in a way that makes sense. I could point to Command & Conquer Generals as an example of a game that did this pretty well, with heavy use of short "catch phrases" when various in-game events occurred.
Music can be used to set mood, but only with caution. Music is a powerful, and in some ways heavy-handed, tool. It is an arrogant way to set a mood. Rather than create an environment with graphics and sound effects and let the player react to it as he wishes, music grabs the player by the nose and leads him around, saying "THIS is what you should feel!" That's fine for introductions and intermissions. It's not so bad either for shooters or other heavy action games because there's really little doubt about how the player should feel. He should feel excited, and you can use the music soundtrack to pump him up.
For other kinds of games, such as adventure games, a constant background track during the gameplay is probably bad. It is better to let the player explore the game in his own way, and save the music for brief moments when something special happens in the game. Myst used music very effectively in this way. Most of the time it used sound effects to set the mood (and rather effectively, I should note) but used music when the player found some very special places in the game.
The element of atmosphere has always existed in video games. It's possible to pick out fine examples from the early 1980s, such as the beautiful opening screen of Phoenix or the intimidating aura of Defender. Artistic sensibility and attention to detail have always been more important than technology. Advancing technology sometimes opened new possibilities, but now it seems this happens less and less often as graphics have hit a point of diminishing returns. So, let's put this in perspective! As a designer you may be tempted to pour all your efforts into the glitz and glamour of FMV introductions, intermissions, high-detail models and the like while overlooking gameplay. The elements of presence, chaos and challenge should come first. When they are in place and working well, then it's fine to go back and tart up the game with atmosphere components.
It's been eight years since I posted the original of this document, and most of my revisions have been prompted by the rise of 3D graphics and the emergence of internet-based games. A vexing trend for at least a decade has been the Hollywood Effect intruding onto the world of video games. Games have become far more expensive to create. To make something commercially competitive on DVD-ROM requires a lot more resources than the old days of 8K ROM carts on the VCS. MMOGs increase the resources required by yet another order of magnitude. Because of the great expense, game companies become less and less willing to take risks. Increasingly they focus on well-worn genres and near copies of already successful games.
A counter trend, if one is to be found, may grow out of the shareware space and the proliferation of so-called "casual games" on mobile devices, as well as on computers and consoles. This phenomenon is not as new as it seems. Pac Man, I am sure, would be pigeonholed in today's world as a mere casual game, and today it fits well onto a cell phone (aside from the lack of a decent controller). Many game designers would be well advised to take a fresh look at those old coin-operated games, in which game play was often innovative and almost always finely tuned and balanced. They have much to teach.
I hope there will always be hackers making games on a shoestring in their basements, garages, and attics. Their product may not be as slick and glamorous, but we can count on them to turn out something different from time to time. This document is dedicated to them.