I've noticed that it has become more difficult for video games to capture my attention lately. I blame growing up. But actually, I blame only myself and my personal need for video games to offer me something profound. In fact, I think the only reason anyone would ever play a video game is to gain something spiritually satisfying. Yes, we play video games for fun, but the question I intend to answer is the following: what makes certain video games fun for some people and not fun for other people? Why do we personally choose to play the games we choose to play? I've been dwelling on both the question and its answer for a long time, and I believe the answer is "incentive".
INCENTIVE FOR THE PLAYER INCENTIVE FOR THE AVATAR
These are the two categories under which every single video game ever created falls.
So let's discuss each form of incentive separately:
Incentive for the player - "If you play this game, you will gain skill".
We know that there are some video games out there that require skill, practice, and repetition. We know there are games that are designed to force the player to improve their skills in order to overcome challenges. We know there are games that require us to become better at its end than we were at its beginning. If you, as a gamer, are drawn to these types of games, then you prefer games where the incentive is for the player. A game where the incentive is for the player is a game designed with the progression and fluency of the "player" in mind. These games can be identified as having minimal or no story, a multiplayer mode(s), a scoring/ranking system, or a competitive push.
Still don't get it?
Super Smash Bros, Mario Kart, Tetris, Super Mario Bros, Mortal Kombat, Guitar Hero, Bejeweled, Flappy Bird, and Angry Birds are all games where the incentive is "if you play this game, you will become better at it/ you will become better than your friends/ you will achieve a higher score than other players/ you will be the best player". The magic behind these games is that when they're being developed, game developers can devote more time to the game's ability to entertain instead of the game's cinematic appeal. The games mentioned above are all examples that are simple in concept, but are played aggressively and religiously. The best games where the incentive is for the player has players playing for dozens, sometimes even hundreds of hours as they each compete and practice and train in order to become the "best". The end goal of these games is determined by the player, not the game. Do you want to be the best Tetris player? If you do, that's awesome, but remember, no one told you that you had to - you set that goal on your own. The problem with these games though is that if the gameplay doesn't compel people to play, then nothing else will. No one will bother competing at a game liked by 0 people- a game that simply isn't fun. Why would anyone want to waste their time becoming good at a game about which no one cares?
Incentive for the avatar- "If you play this game, your avatar will gain skill".
Then there are some games where we fall in love with a character, or grow to loathe an enemy, or decide that we want what our avatar wants. If you are drawn to these games, then you prefer games where the incentive is for the avatar. The avatar is the character you play as on the screen, and these games involve the gamer pushing the character around from place to place witnessing what he/she witnesses and feeling what he/she feels. These games can be identified as having a deep story, deep characters, motives, and choices with an emphasis on progression or working from a beginning to an end. It is important to note that it may not be necessary for the player to gain any skill at all while playing these types of games. To elaborate, I am borrowing the term "avatar strength" from youtuber Egoraptor, which he describes as a technique used by game developers in order to create the illusion of progression- a game that becomes easier not because the player is becoming more competent, but because his avatar is becoming more capable (stronger, faster, etc.). For example, imagine you're playing a game where your character wields a sword that can kill a given enemy in 4 hits. You then reach a certain point in the game where the sword gets upgraded as a part of the story, and now you can kill that same enemy in 2 hits. YOU did not become better at the game, but your avatar did. Because you played the game, the avatar gained skill. The magic behind these games is that you get the chance to relate to a character in a world to which you would never ordinarily be exposed, you get to watch a story unfold, you get to feel empathy and patience and attachment to characters for a short while, which are all profound feelings! The problem with these games though, is that if the developers fail to create an avatar worth caring about, then the game probably won't be very good. I recently played Tales of the Abyss, a game where the incentive to play was exclusively for the avatar Luke whose purpose in the game was to fulfill his destiny as the chosen hero. Luke, though, was an asshole, refused to develop as a character, and was an absolute displeasure for me to have spent 12 hours with. Why the fuck would I want Luke to gain anything? I didn't care about my avatar, so I didn't like the game. Tales of Symphonia, Assassin's Creed, Resident Evil, and the Paper Mario games, however, are all games in this category that established more likable characters, and were more popular because of it.
Now for the surprise category: the games that consider both types of incentive, games that emphasize the progression of the story AND the acquisition of skill to the player. Examples? Some of the best games out there: The Halo games, Legend of Zelda games, The Last of Us, Resident Evil 4, the Metroid games, Pokemon, and the Final Fantasy games. These are all examples of games where the skills acquired by the player contribute just as much to the gaming experience as the game's characters do. I care about Link in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess because he is a good guy, looking after the children of his village while harboring affection for the mayor's daughter. At the same time, though, I feel personally empowered as the player when I find the double claw shot item and am able to spend hours zipping around Hyrule as a character who at that point becomes essentially Spider-Man with a sword. Both Link and I experience the same thrill by riding Epona the horse through the open fields of Hyrule, and we both feel the same grief when our partner Midna has to return to the Twilight Realm at the game's end (SPOILER HAHAHA). The perfect video games consider incentive for both the player and the avatar.
So why did I write this essay? I don't know. To arrogantly exhibit my comprehension of the video game world? I suppose. But really, I hope that someone finds this essay and it makes them realize that the formula for what definitely makes the perfect video game will become cracked soon enough as long as we keep asking the right questions. At the very least, I hope it gets you guys to consider what you love most about your favorite video games and learn to appreciate them for things you never saw before. And maybe, just maybe, reading this essay has helped you guys realize your own gaming preferences and in the future will now have a better understanding of what you look for in a video game. Time for me to get back to Smash Bros. Thank you!