What Makes a Great Game? The Key Elements of Successful Games

From Asteroids to Grand Theft Auto, video games have been around for awhile. With massive game worlds and story lines fit for any big budget movie. Video games have come along way since their birth in the late 70's and are one of the most popular forms of entertainment today. So what makes successful games? Asteroids was extremely popular when it was created, but today it probably wouldn't catch someone's attention for more than a few minutes. Let's look at some examples of successful games in the past to identify the key ingredients that, when added together, create a memorable and appealing experience that can hold up to today's market.

Great Gameplay Edges Great Stories

Gameplay This might seem contradictory to what you've heard in the past. Typically you'd hear story always comes first in any game and without a great story you can't have a great game. While this is for the most part true, gameplay is really neck and neck with story and is just as important for achieving a great game. In some cases, a hit game can be built entirely on great gameplay without much of a story. For instance, the mobile hit game Angry Birds doesn't really focus on drawing you into the story, but it has incredible gameplay. Story is important, but it doesn't always translate to a fun and challenging experience for the player. A game can have an awesome story, but if the gameplay is bad there'd be no reason to play it. Games at their core are meant to be interactive, a way for a person to immerse themselves in the world. Unlike a movie where you're just along for the ride, a game gives the player complete control. If the control you give them is clunky and not fun to play then you won't have a great game. It doesn't matter if the gameplay is complex or simple, it needs to be solid. It should feel like it's doing what it's meant to do, with clear controls and good feedback to the player. Look at the Call of Duty series, especially from Modern Warfare forward. Some would argue the story has never been the games strong point; players often don't even bother playing the campaign because they're there for the multiplayer. Call of Duty is a great example of how gameplay determines the success of a game. If it's a blast to play, people will want to play it. That's not to say Call of Duty's story is bad, in fact they were one of the first games to provide the cinematic experience that kept the player's engaged throughout the campaign, but the solid gameplay and multiplayer has always been its selling point.

A Great Story is Still Vital

Story Even though we just talked about how great gameplay trumps a great story, it's important to point out that the story still plays a key role in a game's success. A great story can keep the player immersed in the world you've created. They should feel attached to the characters and want to continue playing to see how the story unfolds. Story and gameplay are both vital for having a great game. While gameplay is important and, in many cases can drive a game without much of a story, it doesn't always save a game. This especially holds true if the game is a single player-only experience like the Batman Arkham series. For games like that, the story is more important than games that have multiple types of gameplay, like multiplayer. You should know what type of game you want to create and what experience you want to provide the player. A game is a way to tell a story in an interactive setting. Think about the most immersive games you've played and the chances are pretty good it's the story that drew you in and made you want to keep playing. Games like Batman: Arkham Asylum may be limited in the overall gameplay they offer because there's no multiplayer element, but they still attract thousands of players because the story is so well told and the gameplay that is there in the single player experience is solid. Try to find a mix of both, great story and great gameplay. Look at Grand Theft Auto 5, the story was great and kept the player interested and connected to these fictional characters, but the gameplay and multiplayer experience was extremely well executed as well, making it the highest grossing game of all time.

Great Art Style

Graphics are extremely important for any video game; it's what the player sees. Everything from the environments, the characters and even the lighting all play a role in the look and feel of the game. As hardware advances so do the graphics being presented to the player and more and more games are gravitating toward a hyper-realistic experience to help immerse the player.

© 2013 Ubisoft Entertainment. All Rights Reserved. Tom Clancy's, The Division, The Division logo, Ubisoft and the Ubisoft logo are trademarks of Ubisoft Entertainment in the U.S. and/or other countries.

For instance, look at Battlefield 4 or the upcoming Tom Clancy’s The Division. Those games boast some very realistic graphics and they fit the world and style of gameplay the designers wanted. However, great graphics don’t always translate to an extremely realistic experience. For a game to be great graphically doesn’t mean the graphics have to be a certain style.

Graphics also don’t ensure a successful game. For instance, Ryse: Son of Rome had some of the most realistic and beautiful graphics in any game to date, however the game did not receive a lot of positive feedback from the community simply because the repetitive gameplay and the combat designed around quick time events.

Ryse © 2013 Crytek GmbH. All Rights Reserved. Ryse, Crytek and all related titles, logos and characters are trademarks of Crytek GmbH.

It’s important to point out some of the most iconic and visually appealing games don’t have realistic visuals; it’s the uniqueness which sets them apart. For example, the Ratchet and Clank series is an extremely popular game series that went for more cartoony graphics which fit well with the type of gameplay and story.

Another great example is the side scroller LIMBO, one of the most popular indie games which was entirely in black and white silhouette. Sure, the graphics weren’t realistic like Battlefield 4, but it was unique and fit the story and style of gameplay.

LIMBO © 2010 Playdead. All Rights Reserved. LIMBO, Playdead and all related titles, logos and characters are trademarks of Playdead.

The most important thing to remember is that your game art style should fit the story you want to tell. For a game to be great visually doesn’t mean it must be grounded in realism, but rather help to enhance the overall experience. That could mean going for more cartoony graphics or more realistic, whichever fits your game.

The Player Should Work for It


A game needs to be challenging for the player. Of course, not impossible to finish but it should be difficult enough to keep the player engaged. You don’t want a game that can be completed with no effort in a short amount of time. Gamers like to be challenged, when they complete a level or mission they want to feel like they had to work for it and like they accomplished something.

This can mean a challenging map or level that’s not always easy to figure out where to go, causing a little more exploring and thinking on the players part to figure out how to advance in the game or a boss that needs some clever strategy to defeat.

A great example of this can be found in the Halo series. You play as a super-soldier in high tech armor with shields and even overshields, however you can’t always run out into a horde of enemies with guns blazing and expect to survive for very long. When the enemies group up it presents much more of a challenge, there are also powerful enemies that are more difficult and stronger meaning you can’t just jump into the fray without a game plan.



Different players enjoy different games. Not everyone likes Call of Duty and not everyone likes story-driven games like The Last of Us but they both accomplish what they’re trying to provide for the player while having enough of each key element to be successful. If you’re wanting to create your own game, make sure you’re considering these key elements to help you make the best game possible. Remember gameplay and story are two of the most important aspects of a successful game; once you have the story established it can help you create an art style that will fit the world.

If you have any questions or want to share your own thoughts on what you think makes a great game post them in the comments below!

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