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Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.


By me. Uses Adaptive Images by Matt Wilcox.

Heat Signature’s Launch, And First Player Legend

A Leftfield Solution To An XCOM Disaster

Rewarding Creative Play Styles In Hitman

Postcards From Far Cry Primal

Solving XCOM’s Snowball Problem

Kill Zone And Bladestorm

An Idea For More Flexible Indie Game Awards

Teaching Heat Signature’s Ship Generator To Think In Sectors

What Works And Why: Multiple Routes In Deus Ex

Natural Numbers In Game Design

Naming Drugs Honestly In Big Pharma

Writing vs Programming

Let Me Show You How To Make A Game

New Heat Signature Video: Galaxies, Suction And Wrench-Throwing

What Works And Why: Nonlinear Storytelling In Her Story

My Idea For An ‘Unconventional Weapon’ Game

From Gunpoint To Heat Signature: A Narrative Journey

The Cost Of Simplifying Conversations In Videogames

What Works And Why: Invisible Inc

Our Super Game Jam Episode Is Out

What Works And Why: Sauron’s Army

Showing Heat Signature At Fantastic Arcade And EGX

What I’m Working On And What I’ve Done

The Formula For An Episode Of Murder, She Wrote

Heat Signature Needs An Artist And A Composer

Improving Heat Signature’s Randomly Generated Ships, Inside And Out

Gunpoint Patch: New Engine, Steam Workshop, And More

Distance: A Visual Short Story For The Space Cowboy Game Jam

Raising An Army Of Flying Dogs In The Magic Circle

Floating Point Is Out! And Free! On Steam! Watch A Trailer!

Drawing With Gravity In Floating Point

What’s Your Fault?

The Randomised Tactical Elegance Of Hoplite

Here I Am Being Interviewed By Steve Gaynor For Tone Control

Heat Signature: A Game About Sneaking Aboard Randomly Generated Spaceships

The Grappling Hook Game, Dev Log 6: The Accomplice

A Story Of Heroism In Alien Swarm

One Desperate Battle In FTL

To Hell And Back In Spelunky

Games Vs Story 2

Gunpoint Development Breakdown

Five Things I Learned About Game Criticism In Nine Years At PC Gamer

My Short Story For The Second Machine Of Death Collection

Not Being An Asshole In An Argument

Playing Skyrim With Nothing But Illusion

How Mainstream Games Butchered Themselves, And Why It’s My Fault

A Short Script For An Animated 60s Heist Movie

The Magical Logic Of Dark Messiah’s Boot

Arguing On The Internet

Shopstorm, A Spelunky Story

Why Are Stealth Games Cool?

E3’s Violence Overload, Versus Gaming’s Usual Violence Overload

The Suspicious Developments manifesto

GDC Talk: How To Explain Your Game To An Asshole

Listening To Your Sound Effects For Gunpoint

Understanding Your Brain

What Makes Games Good

A Story Of Plane Seats And Class

Deckard: Blade Runner, Moron

Avoiding Suspicion At The US Embassy

An Idea For A Better Open World Game

A Different Way To Level Up

How I Would Have Ended BioShock

My Script For A Team Fortress 2 Short About The Spy

Team Fortress 2 Unlockable Weapon Ideas

Don’t Make Me Play Football Manager

EVE’s Assassins And The Kill That Shocked A Galaxy

My Galactic Civilizations 2 War Diary

I Played Through Episode Two Holding A Goddamn Gnome

My Short Story For The Machine Of Death Collection

Blood Money And Sex

A Woman’s Life In Search Queries

First Night, Second Life

SWAT 4: The Movie Script

What Makes Games Good

A few times lately, non-gaming friends and relatives have asked me: what’s the appeal of games? Good question! The people who don’t ask it seem to assume it’s something terrible, like bloodlust, or it’s some unknowable new drug they will never understand.

It’s also a useful one for anyone involved with games to ask. It’s one game critics like me should be able to answer reflexively. It’s one developers should answer before they start making something. And it’s one gamers should probably think about before writing a one-star Amazon review saying ‘lol ass’.

I’m sad to say that on the press side of things, we haven’t really got anywhere. Half of us apparently think games meaningfully break down into “Presentation, Graphics, Sound, Gameplay, and Lasting Appeal”. And the other half believe they’re unquantifiable pixie dust and anyone who wants even the faintest idea of their merits should have to read 3,000 words of waffle.

The former is confusing a game’s component parts with what the whole achieves. The latter is just giving up. It’s not that games can be captured in a few metrics, it’s that they still can’t in 3,000 words. So instead of abandoning analysis, let’s just be smarter about where analysis stops.

It can’t stop at words like ‘gameplay’, because those aren’t useful: tell me a game has good gameplay, and all I really know is that you like it. Are your actions in it satisfying on some tactile level? If so, great. We don’t really need to know why they’re satisfying, just to say ‘it feels good’ is far more specific and useful than what we had before.

That’s what I mean by being smarter about where analysis stops. Keep asking “Why is that good?” until you hit the primal, instinctive pleasure response you’re having. It’s not impossible to keep going, but it’s more neuroscience than critique past that point.

I’ll try to explain six things that can make a game great, for me. Games don’t need to do all of them well, sometimes one is enough. But the hope is to cover every kind of draw they can have. Every game I like, I like because it does one of these things well.

1. Challenge

How much you enjoy tackling what you’re being asked to do.

Challenge is about what a game asks your brain or fingers to do, and whether it’s something you enjoy struggling with. Personally, I don’t like struggling with anything that requires extreme precision or reactions, like Super Meat Boy. But I love struggling with mental problems, like the time-bending of Braid.

Obviously difficulty is part of it – either extreme makes it hard to engage with the challenge. But just as importantly, difficulty is a way of pacing rewards. It makes games enjoyable by spacing out the dopamine kicks of success, so that you never get bored of getting them, nor of waiting for them.

A game like Tetris has a simple challenge – SORT THESE SHAPES – but a well-paced one. Its mechanics naturally make satisfying successes frequent at first, then rarer and harder the longer you play. There’s never a time in Tetris when clearing a line isn’t satisfying.

2. Feel

Making individual interactions convincing and pleasurable

When you fire a virtual gun, feel is the sound of the shot, the muzzle flash, the recoil of the weapon model, whether it offsets my aim, the reaction of the target, and what all that suggests about the unseen parts of the interaction: the weight of the bullet, its hardness, where it hit, how that felt, what damage has been done.

But feel is just as important in non-violent games. Bejeweled is incredible at it: I know exactly how hard a topaz is despite the fact that it never touches anything, just from its sound and motion. The sound of four gems forming a super-gem, and the glow that gives it, makes the thing feel dense, pregnant – all reinforced by the cathartic boom when it goes off.

If you’re ever wondering why a PopCap game succeeded despite being suspiciously similar to an existing game that was only moderately popular, it’s because the first game got the challenge right and PopCap added the feel.


3. Freedom

The extent to which a game reacts to your choices with interesting results

A game that put you in an infinite empty field would have a lot of freedom in the ordinary sense of the word, but it’s not just about maximising options. Freedom is about how many different options the game has an interesting response to.

If the result is just “Your character moves a bit in that infinite field”, that’s not interesting. In Deus Ex, though, your choices about how to approach a wide-open level all lead to meaningfully different situations. The front door gets you into a dangerous dance with a patrolling bot, the side entrance exposes you to a lot of guards, the rear gets you a key to the building. Shooting attracts guards and results in a big gunfight, stealth keeps things under control but gives you more threats to think about in the long run.

There are more complex reasons why those choices are particularly compelling, and more complex ways that the sub-options within them interact. But basically, a big reason Deus Ex is great is that it gives you a lot of options, and has something different to offer you whichever one you pick.

DeusEx 2009-11-28 20-07-54-34

4. Place

A world you want to be in

It’s funny how many people can’t see the point of games, but see traveling as one of the most enriching and exciting pleasures of life. I love both, often for the same reason and in the same way. Stepping off a zeppelin in Durotar is as clear and fond a memory getting off a plane in Zimbabwe.

Mirror’s Edge is a good case study, because place is the only thing it does perfectly. It shows how an urban environment can be as visually exciting and artistically inventive as a different planet. It had an incredible vision for its setting, and the tech was bent and boosted to show it dazzlingly. The place glows, and my desire to be there outweighs every problem with the game’s mechanics.

MirrorsEdge 2008-12-16 02-20-54-14

5. Promise

The temptation of further possibilities

You could claim this doesn’t count, that the mere promise of something interesting or better is not a pleasure in itself, just the anticipation of one. Nope!

On its most basic level, the promise of ever-better items and stats keeps RPGs interesting way beyond the sell-by date of their challenge and feel. But promise can also be the anticipation of story developments, new puzzle mechanics or unknown abilities.

Most of my time actually playing Dawn of War 2: Retribution was before I unlocked the particular abilities for my heroes that turned them into a perfectly co-ordinated killing machine. But long before I had them, they were making the game exciting just by sitting there, greyed out on the character sheet, promising.

Retribution - Promise

6. Fantasy

The appeal of playing this role

This is different to story – I think Mass Effect 2’s story is outright bad, but I love being a badass lady space captain zooming around the galaxy punching robots and telling people to fuck themselves.

For some reason ‘fantasy’ has become a slightly shameful word, while ‘escapism’ – trying to get away from your life – is accepted as normal. I think discovering new places and ideas is healthier than vegetating in front of some glossy people making out on TV. I don’t play games to escape my life, I play them to explore new ones.

MassEffect2 2010-01-25 21-12-00-45 cool

Why isn’t Story on there?

It’s a little personal, of course. But for me, the pleasure of a good story is in making this alternate life interesting (Fantasy), suggesting a rich world (Place), and keeping me wondering about what’s coming next (Promise). If it doesn’t do any of those things – even if it’s Of Mice and Men – it doesn’t make a good game. So it’s not a pleasure in itself.

How does this help?

An early version of Gunpoint’s plot was an attempt at a good story, rather than a good Fantasy. The player was involved, but his role wasn’t a very exciting one, and there was no hint of a world beyond this plot.

Deciding on this list made it dramatically easier to see and solve those problems in a total rewrite. I started with the Fantasy – being a spy for hire – and built everything around that. I’ll get a bunch of other stuff wrong, but that’s one less.

Just Cause 2

Has it also helped you understand why you love, hate or only like certain games?

It’s also helped me understand why I love, hate, or only like certain games.

Why isn’t Just Cause 2 my favourite game ever? Great Feel, amazing Place, but it doesn’t have Promise like the others do. There’s no sense that anything interestingly different will happen if I keep playing.

Why do I never stick with World of Warcraft? Amazing sense of Place, no Feel. Why don’t I like the Witcher games as much as people tell me I will? I hate the Fantasy, I don’t want to be this guy, in this world, doing this.

And why is Minecraft so popular? Under a traditional notion of challenge, it has none. But it does rarefy its rewards well, and that’s what Challenge is really about. Minecraft is great at Challenge, Feel, Place, Freedom and Promise, so it’s not surprising it appeals to a pretty broad audience.

Tree Island

This list is a first stab at something I’ll keep working on as I write about and try making games. I hate the feeble attitude that games are too complex, too new, or too arty to quantify their appeal in specific or useful ways. Because it’s hurting our ability to understand them, to explain them to people who don’t get them, and to make them better.

More ,

The_B: I really enjoyed reading this. It's hard to really add anything meaningful in a comment space - think this may be a good mass blogging subject to broach across most games writers to be honest - but I will say that part of it myself is constantly asking "Is it fun?" If something about a game is fun to me, no matter what component, then it gains positive feelings from me in that respect.

Rossignol: But what about lastability? :(

Tom Francis: I guess... *shades* it didn't last.

Hovercraft: Goddamn it Tom, I wish every game journalist was as thoughtful and eloquent as you. Great list.

I completely agree on #4 with respect to Mirror's Edge, but Place is also responsible for my favourite single-player game of the last five or so years, Metro 2033.

It got mediocre reviews which focused on its less-than-spectacular action, at least relative to stuff like CoD4 and HL2. But I was so massively infatuated with the game's world that nothing else mattered. Turns out that post-nuclear apocalypse Moscow is somewhere I love to be.

Jonn: ...I never finished that Darwinia level.

I should get on that.

(I love that game.)

Fish: This works fairly well for a singleplayer game, but what about competitive multiplayer games? #4-6 don't really apply to, say, TF2, CS, or Melee

Octaeder: It's good to hear that said about escapism. I heard a podcast a while back asking people about why they game and 90% cited escapism. I found that pretty depressing.

Tom Francis: Hovercraft: cheers! Haven't played Metro, now I want to.

Fish: As I say, a game doesn't need all of them to be good. To me, though, 4-6 do apply to most multiplayer games. Some of my favourite maps are my favourite maps just because they're such cool places to fight in. Most multiplayer games are now built to use Promise as a long-term hook, particularly TF2. And I definitely get a kick out of playing the role of the Spy, or the homicidal Russian simpleton with a minigun.

Urthman: These are great categories. I think another piece of this is how the best gaming pleasures are a mix of these categories.

The pleasure of exploration in a game like Gothic 2 is a mix of having a great sense of Place (the world is both beautiful and interesting to look at) plus Freedom (you have real choices about where to explore that yield real rewards and other outcomes) plus Promise (there are tantalizing areas that are just off limits for various reasons) plus Challenge (monsters and other kinds of fun obstacles stand in your way to explore some places). If the Feel of moving and climbing around were better (as fun as say a Spider-Man or Prince of Persia or Mario 64) and if I liked the Fantasy a little more (being that guy in that world is okay, but could be better), then that exploration would be an ideal gaming pleasure.


Tom Francis: Urthman: That sounds great. Yeah, I think some of the resistance to breaking games down like this is that people think it means games just do one or the other of these things. Of course they do lots at once, and they combine in amazing ways. The headshot in Counter-Strike is a masterclass in Feel, but it only stays special because the Challenge makes it rare. If you just line up some bots and execute them, it loses its appeal much more quickly.

checkers: Fascinating stuff. I find it particularly interesting you dismiss the idea of fun being unquantifiable: other mediums have more or less given up on providing any quantitic mark apart from overall score out of 5 (if that). Do you think games are special, or nobody thought about this in the early days of CD reviewing and it's too late to change everything now?

PS: Your two paragraphs starting "I’m sad to say" are gold.

Dave McLeod: Have you read Reality Is Broken? It gives the impression that games are at a basic level reward machines. That is, the way to make a game fun is to provide lots of things that are rewarding.

In terms of generating concepts for future games, that's not a particularly helpful. But it's a useful start for reducing playing experiences that were positive. Like you, weapon-feel and headshot-analogue moments come up a lot.

I saw a recent talking-head on the new Sonic Generations game, where he said something like "this is just like Sonic 1 / 2 / 3 because the more you avoid obstacles, the faster you go, so that reward mechanic is still there". Which made me think about how I've felt about various platformers that I've liked / disliked. And then it made me think about my mindless speeding displacement activity in LA Noire, dodging traffic in order to go faster, and how that seems to be satisfying, rewarding.

And then once I broke it down like that I enjoyed it less, incidentally.

I played WoW for the first time recently, because McGonigal keeps talking about it as a great 'reward machine'. And it strikes me that there are plenty of things like levelling, items, reputation, damage pop-ups, enemies-to-kill, places to see (and achievements for seeing round numbers of places), that mean that there is something generically 'rewarding' happening about every 5 minutes, at least in the early game.

Regarding story I'd love to see a game that's pretty terrible with a story that forces me to finish it. LA Noire is actually pretty much this, I think.

People (mostly ones that write for Gamasutra) talk a lot about 'Flow'. This seems to be what it is to not find something 'too easy' or 'too difficult', but 'just right'. The next time I see this knowingly referenced to as an idea somewhere I will remember to comment it here.

Rereading what you say about feel, and the examples you give, makes me think that many games where the 'feel of play' is satisfying can be reduced to a bunch of visual / aural rewards.

About Freedom, have you played Heavy Rain? In many cases it feels like Quantic Dream just create mundane environments (living rooms, supermarkets, expensive apartments), think of as many things that a person could do in those environments, assign them animations, lines of dialogue and controls, and leave it. It feels very much a domestic analogue to missions in Deus Ex.

Hopefully you've played this - ...t-unlocked

Caleb: I find it interesting that you don't like WoW due to a lack of Feel, because as you've described it, I really enjoy its Feel and more importantly, I suspect WoW's distinct Feel is the reason I have a hard time playing other MMORPGs (combined with the amount of time and money I've allready sunk into WoW). Every time I try to play a different MMO (with the exception of EVE Online, which is so wildly different), it just makes me want to play WoW again...

Jason L: Dave McLeod: If you want to read more the originator of 'flow' as psychological jargon is a dude whose name is so impossibly Eastern European that copy-pasting will misspell it; I remember his book of the same title as being pretty good. The foremost proponent of flow as a determinant of game design is Xinhua 'Jenova' Chen, founder of ThatGameCompany and sole/lead author of Cloud, FlOw and Flower so far.

http://www.jenovache... ...theory.htm

Tom Francis: Caleb: Yeah, I should probably have said 'I don't like its feel' rather than claiming it doesn't have it, which is pretty absurd.

What I mean is that my weapon does damage even when it didn't hit the enemy, missiles seek if I try to dodge them, sometimes my most devastating attack does no damage because the enemy 'Evades' it when the AI can't figure out how to get to me, and a level 65 bear that looks much like a level 5 bear in terms of physical strength is for some reason 3,500x tougher and stronger.

In other words, nothing most other MMOs don't do too.

Dave/Jason: Yeah, Flow's a great definition of a certain difficulty level that doesn't interrupt the experience. My definition of Challenge disagrees with whether that's ideal. I think it's important that the type of challenge is one you like so much, you're happy to struggle with it if its difficulty exceeds your abilities for a while.

There are big chunks of Portal I breezed through in a 'flow' kind of way, grasping what was required of me quickly, and getting better at the same rate the puzzles got harder. But if the whole game was like that, it wouldn't have been all that special for me.

I love it because it occasionally showed me something that was just completely impossible, until I bashed my head against it a few times. These bits absolutely interrupted the experience, but because the challenge was of a type that was really fresh and suited to what my brain enjoys, I loved struggling with it, and it's what made the game special for me.

I expect even Super Meat Boy fans have a bumpy experience with that game: it's virtually a series of brick walls. But if you like the type of challenge, that's what makes beating them more satisfying than other games.

Chris: Fascinating stuff, I really appreciate this level of thinking about something which a large majority think is a total waste of time. Taking the time to think about games this way makes them a richer experience.

I came to a similar conclusion about why I've sunk so much time into them a while back. Seeing what's over the otherside of a hill.

One standout moment for me fairly recently was in a game called "The Void", which is clunky and unforgiving yet oozes atmosphere. The first section you start in is a colourless island with strange protrusions emanating from it, a broken green house and a large, gnarled tree in the center. Slowly walking around the island I looked back at the tree to find a woman peering out at me from the inside a hollow in it, wearing a silk night dress and lipstick.

P.S. you nailed Just Cause 2 on the head for me right there.

Chris: P.P.S. Hey I've never played Deus Ex, should I? (that's probably gonna be a silly question)

dual_barrel: Nice article. Thanks.

Sooty: What does Tom think of Terraria?

Tom Francis: Cheers!

He is planning to try it this weekend! Mr Senior tells me it's good.

And yeah, you should play Deus Ex. But if you bounce off it, in three months' time there'll be a more obviously appealing version of it out.

Alex: This was an excellent read, and very truthful.

Chris: Be careful with Terraria, after downloading it I thought I made a wrong move, but I gave it some time, and now I'm finding it hard not to keep digging a little deeper. Especially since I just found a chest with a double jump treasure inside. I think numbers 2 and 5 are strong in it, 2 being the sound of mining through stones.

DaveMongoose: A fantastic read :).

I find that 'freedom' and 'promise' are two of the aspects that appeal most to me - often I'm near the end of a game then get bored because these two start to run dry.

With Braid, one of the things I enjoyed most was the relationship metaphor conveyed through the books at the start of the worlds - would you count that as 'Place', since it's adding context to the gameplay?

“The former is confusing a game’s component parts with what the whole achieves. The latter is just giving up.” « The Talking Stove: [...] this post about what makes games good, PC Gamer scribe Tom Francis has basically unlocked every achievement in Games [...]

Bret: Well, know you've been fiddling on twitter, but I figure one more input wouldn't hurt.

Chrome makes the web layout look bad and insane. Still.

Bret: Now it works!

Also, good post. I probably will have more to say once it's properly processed.

Tom Francis: Sweet! I literally solved that one in my sleep. I suspect there's some caching going on that's causing the glitches to last longer for some. If anyone's still seeing a mess, do let me know.

MartinJ: It looks good in my Opera now (was broken yesterday) but I liked smaller pictures better. I think the general rule is that break images in blog posts can be wide but shouldn't be too big overall ... or maybe that's just me.

What I'm talking about is the first images from what I assume is Darwinia and Half-Life 2. The rest are fine; they're wider than they're long.

I'm not not-hungover enough to make an actual reply about the post. Maybe laters!

The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun: [...] of history would have been different.”PC Gamer’s Tom Francis has a go at defining what makes games good: “A few times lately, non-gaming friends and relatives have asked me: what’s the appeal of [...]

Chris: For me the right hand info boxes are overlapping the main article, and there's a bit of space free on the left hand side. I'm using the latest Firefox but a relatively small screen (22.5 inches I think) and 1680 x 1050 resolution. If no one else is having a problem then ignore me!

McDanger: I'm having the same issue as Chris, on a 1920 x 1080 resolution, except I don't have any space on the left but the info boxes are overlapping.

MattM: I like this approach to criticism but my first instinct is to try and find things what aren't covered. So now I am trying to think of games that succeed in ways that don't really fit into those seven categories.

I really enjoy the terror generated by certain horror games. In Silent Hill and Amnesia you creep around trying to avoid notice or end up running around desperately trying to escape. I love this sense of terror. These games also create a sense of loneliness. In general I might refer to it as emotional impact. A games ability to make you feel strong emotions.
Emotional impact could include things like games that cause you to feel hate towards antagonists, attachment to A.I. partners, loss when people or places are destroyed, and so on. The sense of pride in ownership over player designed or built elements might also go into this category. I don't think this really fits into any of the existing categories.

Tom Francis: Dammit. I might have to revert. Last try: does it happen on this page?

http://www.pentadact... ...3-post-500

And what browser/version/OS are you using?


Alfie275: Good article! I would write something witty here but I've no idea what. So I'll just say: Gunpoint update plox.

Chris: Still happens sorry, using windows 7 64-bit home premium, firefox 4.0.1

Tom Francis: Nevermind then, reverted. CSS parsing really is just random. Same browser, same version, same OS, wildly different results.

Saul Alexander: Great article - I've showed it to my co-conspirators and intend to keep looking back at it as we attempt to build our game.

Just on the concept of "story" - I think you're absolutely right that having an strong plot (which many people think of as "story") probably isn't one of the major definers of a good game, and that a game's story is in fact much more tied up in the Place and so on.

I'd suggest that Challenge can perhaps be even more important to story than many of the more obvious factors - our struggles to overcome obstacles become the story that we tell ourselves or others about our experience in a game.

@MattM: In regards to "emotional impact", I think that's something that comes from all the other factors. In fact, it's fairly synonymous with "story", which could also be summed up as "experience".

What you're describing could be a combination of Place, Fantasy, Feel and Promise (in this case, the promise of scary things just around the corner), as well as a different form of Challenge (pushing through the fear).

Tom Francis : « What makes games good » » Ceci est un jeu: [...] L’article est disponible à cette adresse : http://www.pentadact... [...]

Rou: Hey, I really liked your article and I'm trying to find a new way to review games (until I find a new way I will continue to do it the old way). Just wanted to say that you inspired me and I feel I'm one step closer to making non-traditional reviews.

Tom Francis: Matt: Yeah, there's room for expansion there. Place and Fantasy don't necessarily mean a *nice* world and a *powerful* role in it, so being vulnerable in a scary place could come under that.

But there are definitely some types of emotional engagement that don't fit well into these categories. Humour, for one.

If I really like Alyx in Half-Life 2, hanging out with her is part of the Fantasy of that game, so that's covered. But if what I love is her relationship with her father, and I don't care about my role in it, that's a new thing.

Games are so diverse that there'll always be new and clever ways for them to appeal, and covering all those specifically would turn this into a pretty long and unwieldy list. Right now these appeals have been rare enough and minor enough for me that I feel OK leaving them off.

I'm hoping games will soon screw me on that, and make these things so great and so uniquely gamey that it no longer makes sense to sideline them. Humour, horror and emotional investment in character are all areas where games could put non-interactive media to shame, and I think they eventually will.

Rou: Also, is there any way to subscribe to rss feeds for the articles on the site only, not the comments?

Tom Francis: Cheers! Yeah, sorry, Firefox used to make that easy to find but the latest version obfuscates it again. I've added a manual link to the feed in the top left panel now - a few people have asked lately.

codicier: It's nice that you have drawn a metaphorical line in the sand, and seem prepared to to make a case for more practical but vigourous way of deconstructing games.
The best thing to me about this article however is that is really got me thinking about my own opinions of what makes a good game, and how that relates to writing about them.

I'd add another to your list, which is Personality.
I know that this is a very fuzzy sounding quality but what I'm trying to describe is the sense that a choice has been made by the creator. They have deliberately closed off certain possibilities, and emphasised others.
Either through cranking the volume up to the metaphorical 11 and drowning out any discordant tones, or by attempt a kind of noise reduction using iteration to find discordant tones and then minimise them while at the same time emphasising that which resonates.

That the thoughts off the top of my head, now I'm dash off to attempt to put my thoughts down in a more thorough manner.

Von Epp: Just an FYI, Scott Adams (Dilbert creator) just happened to take a crack at explaining why games are fun as well.


Some misses, but some interesting thoughts as well.

Recommended Reading « [...] this week PC Gamer’s Tom Francis has written a good article on what makes games good. It’s very nice to see games through the eyes of a journalist and understand that [...]

Roundup of Unusual Size: Tropebusting, Fan Portals and the Seven Pillars of Game Design (Now with more Nightmare Mode!) : Nightmare Mode: [...] a useful, practical and far-encompassing list of what makes games good by Tom Francis. I have few critiques for his observations [...] | Superlevel: [...] What Makes Games Good games development [...]

Chris Livingston: Something else interesting to consider is how some of the items you mention can fade away after the first time through a game, but the game still remains entirely fun and playable. Plants vs. Zombies, for instance, has tons of Promise initially, with all those grayed-out cards of the plants you don't have. But I still love playing through it repeatedly, because even though the Promise is gone and the Challenge is a bit diminished (I know how to beat all the levels, though it still takes a lot of reflexes), the PopCap Feel remains as strong as ever. And there's some Freedom as well (can I beat a level without using certain plants I relied on last time?) And actually, there are always rewards (finding new plants for the Zen garden) -- so there is some Promise left after all, I guess.

That's another reason why leaving off Story was probably a good idea, in terms of the games we enjoy playing more than once. When you replay something like Half-Life or Bioshock, the Story doesn't really enter into it. It's still there, and still enjoyable, but you already know it and it doesn't really provide anything new to the experience, unless it's a game like Mass Effect or some other RPGs that can give you different story elements depending on which choices you make. And that's probably covered by Freedom (can I be a complete dick this time?), Promise (what happens to the story if I'm a complete dick this time?) and Fantasy (will I enjoy being a complete dick as much as I enjoyed being a hero?).

Bret: Yeah, Chris has the right of it. And the answer on "Complete dick" is often yes, for whatever that says about human nature.

Hmm, now I'm bothering applying this to games I like.

X-Com's got a fair deal of freedom and promise is fairly good. And fantasy is fairly decent, I mean, who doesn't want to run their own alien fighting above the law PMC?

Hippies, probably. Challenge is solid, and for its age, it does place alright.

Admittedly, place is a kind of dismal, eastern Europe feel no matter where you go.

And feel is great for Blaster Bombs.

Yeah, seeing why I like it so much.

Feel's a bit bad for Fallout 3 and New Vegas, but place makes up for it.

TooNu: I think sometimes a game just 'clicks' and there is nothing anybody can do about it. Timing is key. Also as everyone is different, you can only understand what makes games good for yourself, not to everyone. Lastly, If there was a predetermined set of ideals for games then every game would be good.

This was a very good read, I enjoyed it.

Pod: >Most multiplayer games are now built to use Promise as a long-term hook, particularly TF2. And I definitely get a kick out of playing the role of the Spy, or the homicidal Russian simpleton with a minigun.

I'm kind of suprised to read that, given how you stated escapism isn't a quality you seek in games. The same with your comment re: the witcher. I'm definately not into games for escapism, and when I play Heavy in TF2, I don't thnk I'm a Russian simpleton, but rather a slow moving class with the ability to absorb large amounts of damage as well as deal out a reliable amount. The "human" face of the heavy never really leaks through to me, except possibly on the kill cams or when we're all boxing each other during warm-up.

This Week In Video Game Criticism: Clone Wars And The Fate Of The World | Freelance and Blogger Jobs World: [...] his personal blog, Tom Francis looks at ‘What Makes Games Good?‘ listing 6 different types of ‘appeal’ that are found in games. It’s a [...]

The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun: [...] irresistible tempo that hooked me and kept me coming back.” Hey, it’s that feel thing from last week being elucidated.John has written his last “They’re Back” budget games column for [...]

A Way of Breaking Down Games « Augmented Vision: [...] of offering nothing but criticism, Francis proceeds to elucidate the best system of game metrics I’ve ever seen. I may adopt these wholesale if I ever do a real review: it’s an impressive [...]

Aerothorn: This is the best system of breaking down games I've ever seen - and I was just about to give up and fall into the "pixie dust" category. I'm sure to intergrate this into any further reviews I write (with full credit to you!).

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FuzzYspo0N: Brilliant, sir.

Designing The Next Project – iGotIt Games Blog: [...] other day I came across an article, What Makes Games Good, which is an outstanding [...]

angel: this is a very clever set of categories, well done sir.

other than that, I´m not sure I fully understand number 1 (challenge).

"How much you enjoy tackling what you’re being asked to do."

surely that´s just another way of saying "are you having fun?" which would be too general a category...

Tom Francis: Thanks.

"What you're being asked to do" isn't the same as what you end up doing, or what happens to you, or where you do it.

I might have phrased it too vaguely in an attempt to avoid repeating the word challenge: really it's "How much you enjoy the challenge of what you're being asked to do."

Jon: Excellent Article.

I agree that the current state of game reviewers don't do enough to explain why a game is good. In fact with a lot of major sites its frustrating because when they focus on those metrics, they tend to review games as great that aren't really that great, and miss some gems. How often have we seen the "great graphics" review? This method is light years better than what we currently see at game review sites.

It also even gives a good method of looking at games as works of art. And interactive art they can be, that raise questions or can strike emotions as good as movies. But at the same time I can't help but to this this is still just a better metrics method and there still is something missing. Ben Croshaw speaks of games having souls. I agree that there is something unquantifiable by metrics, but moments, and how a vision comes together.

Whether you like Ebert or not, if you look at his approach to reviewing movies, there's not necessairily a rating of metrics but a consummation of all his experiences at the movies. Games are the same in many ways, though Ebert doesn't seem to agree (probably because he is scared of the demise of movies), but they differ in that their interactive nature they need souls to really come alive. That's why I'm more in favor of the contrarian approach to looking at games as I think it is the future of reviews, though the traditional approach though I think it will still have a place. Again excellent article.

Jason L: The To Be Fair files:

1. To be fair, 'great graphics' can be a major component of Feel and Place. They're a convenient rhetorical target, but...they do actually matter.

2. To be fair, last I heard Ebert had made himself a nonissue by saying (summarised) 'I was wrong to dis games without any knowledge of the medium. The idea of playing games so I could know what I'm talking about fills me with irrational ennui and disgust. Therefore I'm sorry and will shut up about games.'

Fotis Jannidis: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have to admit I am very doubtful that nowadays it is even possible to say something interesting and adequate on this general and abstract level. It's like asking 'what is makes good literature?' - the field is obviously too diversified and complex to come up with any answer which either couldn't be refuted easily or which is so very abstract (like: the topic must be interesting) that it is not really useful. In my opinion the situation is quite the same with computer games. For example I think it is quite fruitless to discuss the question whether computer games need to have a (good) story. Tetris is a great game and Dragon Age 1 also. The first doesn't need a story and the appeal of the second relies heavily on the story. To conclude from these observations that stories are kind of optional for games misses the point: for some genres stories and the way the player is involved in them are very important nowadays, for other genres they are not. So I think it is safe to assume that our analysis will be more interesting if we limit its scope, for example on specific genres or even smaller groups of games. Maybe the world of games is just too rich nowadays to be described fruitfully by a very limited set of abstractions.

Fraternal Struggles | The Vibrant Popular: [...] pleased and take on the game’s challenges as you saw fit. Tom Francis, in his list of “What Make Games Fun“, defines Challenge, Feel, Freedom, Place, Promise and Fantasy as the key factors in making [...]

Best writing about video games journalism | Gameleon: [...] And finally, a bit of an old one from the always excellent Tom Francis of PC Gamer UK on his own blog discussing what makes games good. [...]

Charlie Moritz: Very nice article - I think for me the promise of future awesomeness always keeps me interested in a game. For one thing Heroes of Newerth and DotA keep me intrigued with the idea that I can beat other players by reaching unparalleled levels of power - obviously there is a limit to this but I suppose DotA kind of fits the Fantasy, Challenge, Feel and Promise, so its no wonder it is becoming such a popular game type.
Anyway, good stuff!

sinister agent: I like games when they are good because they have good gameplay and graphic and the gameplay is good.

blake warren: this does explain how well a game is but not how to write a nice neat paper on how well the game was played and set up to write about. I am the creator of cool math games website and i was looking for something to help me write a good review on my own website but youur website was horrible at telling me how to do that and i know who you are and i am a fan of some of your woek but this is just piddiful work comming form a man like yiurself, but i happen to have had some bad reviews my self and let me tell u do not let it bring you down because it had brung me down and i quit for a year but when i showed up a couple months later i had felt better about my self so you can be happy because i am one of your fans yea i know it sounds stupid but i am just trying to point you in the write direction as a great writter and auther and publisher

Chuubacca: lalalalalallalalalalalalala

What Makes A Good Video Game? « Teach Games: [...] principle probably misses many more factors that affect the enjoyment of a game. An article on the Pentaduct website suggests there are 6 elements that could make a game ‘good’, challenge, feel, freedom, [...]

MUZBOZ: Great! Thanks!

Sly: Excellent piece of writing. 100 percent with you on Mirror's Edge - I really really want to just be there! The nicest, most amazing and coolest city ever (plus it doesn't ever rain there)!

Single Ideas, Simply Implemented: Rapid Video Game Development Philosophy « Alien Fiction: [...] means thinking in terms of near-immediate implementation of ‘good gameplay‘ – rather than waiting years to develop unnecessarily-elaborate art assets, and other [...]

Danni: i love this.

Melissa: this is cool.

Hopeyy: this is a legend

Oliver: this helped me loads

nate: Hey, I just stumbled on this article and think it's really cool. You know, in one way, it's just categorization, and it's easy to dismiss that, except that the categories that are generally used in discussions like this aren't particularly useful. Like you suggested (and Jason L made explicit), graphics aren't important in and of themselves, they are important in service to other elements (typically place and fantasy). And everybody's always arguing about story in games, without realizing that story refers to multiple things (maybe in contradiction to Fotis, I think a great deal of work has been done on subdividing the important parts of stories-- it's just that most of it was done a long long time ago!)

I'm also a little shocked at Fish's idea that CoD games don't involve place or fantasy. These are games that are referred to, with a wink, as "click on people's heads," but I think that formulation of the CHALLENGE of these games, and how it so clearly doesn't describe the sometimes joyful experience of play, makes it clear that other elements are essential to these games. Playing CoD, even multiplayer CoD, isn't just about clicking on people's heads, it's about pretending to be a (rather theatrical) soldier. Just like when I was a kid, playing war (or cowboys, or cops and robbers). If you distill multiplayer shooters to just their challenge, you're missing a lot of the appeal. There's a reason that their developers spend so much time and money on art design!


Josh: Thanks Tom. This was great.

jonathan herrington: cool

jonathan herrington: fun

Sean: I wonder if most of the emotional/interpersonal aspects of games that are being quoted would fit under Feel? What makes them so impactful is that they feel real. Much like how recoil makes a gun feel real, accurate emotional responses from characters make story/dialogue feel real.

Sean: Which brings up the simple definition of Feel: "Things and people reacting in a believable, realistic, and/or satisfying way." Sorry for the double-post and for bringing up a topic that has probably been dead for a long time!

jurgy: that is so true but I think you need to add the choices is a big part to what makes a good game

w00t zum Sonntag: Let’s make a game! | Superlevel: […] ? Tom Francis […]

What do we get out of video games? | Augmented Vision: […] I said above, this is a loose framework, in the vein of Tom Francis’ “What Makes Games Good.” It’s not a prescriptive rubic, and I think the most valuable take on a game is often […]

Mr. Boy: I like this, but I believe something slightly different. Has anyone heard of the MDA framework? It talks about the core play aesthetics, or the the underlying emotive reasons someone would play a game.
You've listed a few aesthetics, as well as noting something that every game should have: depth. These aesthetics you mention are definitely there in Gunpoint but not necessarily in every game. For example, JRPGs are great for Narrative (aesthetic), and WRPGs are great for Expression (aesthetic). We go to different genres for different reasons. Gunpoint has got good Fantasy, Expression, and Challenge (aesthetics), and has a lot of depth, so it fulfills your criteria. But not all games do. Sure- technically, if all games fulfilled all the aesthetics they would be better. But we shouldn't say that these make games good; we should say that the more aesthetics a game fulfills and the more Elegant a game is, the better the game.

So maybe check out Extra Credits and watch their episodes on Aesthetics of Play and Depth vs Complexity.

Note: A good story doesn't mean a good Fantasy. You can be an incredible ordinary character but the game can still deliver a good drama.

The Mechanics Behind A Successful Cloud Video Game – Cloud Information: […] so many different cloud games available for play these days, it becomes of paramount importance to offer content that is not only challenging and exciting, but also varied. Cloud games are made […]

The Mechanics Behind A Successful Cloud Video Game | UC3: […] so many different cloud games available for play these days, it becomes of paramount importance to offer content that is not only challenging and exciting, but also varied. Cloud games are made […]

Katie: Great Post! We as game developers are often so focused on technical issues that we forget the basics of good game design. Thank you for reminding everyone what it really is all about!

Qualities that Good Gaming Storylines have | tylerwilliams789: […] Francis, T. (n.d.) What Makes Games Good, Retrieved from http://www.pentadact... ...ames-good/ […]

Darren – PC Gamer subscriber before you all buggered off: This isn't a deep question. Games are a choice. I like to spend my spare time gaming. My wife likes to spend her time watching soaps. She likes to be entertained without interaction. Sitting there watching "stuff" makes her happy. She spends most of her day running around doing house-y stuff so I can respect that.
Personally,I find sitting in front of a tv without personal input boring; I am not entertained.
But that doesn't make my choice better, just different.
What makes gaming good is the same as what makes alcohol good or heroin good or Eastenders good. We all just do the things we want to do to bring happiness to our own lives. It's escapism for those that choose to escape from reality in that way.
Games aren't good. Games are just games. Humans are f*ckin brilliant

Darren – PC Gamer subscriber before you all buggered off: Ok, ok, I read the title of your essay and answered without reading the essay itself. Your real question now seems to be "What makes good game?" not "What Makes Games Good".
And you know, it's a bugger. Because you probably played games as a child that were graphically awful (or just text adventures) but you had an imagination that could add colour to the crappy little 8-bit thing you were playing at the time.
And those are OUR golden days; days that everyone flippin developer in the world these days seems madly eager to recapture. Unfortunately, said developer is not appreciating that we don't have those kinds of imaginations anymore; we can't empathise with a few pixels the way we used to. They don't look like a hero, they look like a blocky piece of crap in a games that's too difficult and not actually offering value for money.
Sorry, I'm waffling. I'll stop

Just started my WordPress; here’s 27 pages to read. | Henry Webster: […] In my 27-page paper, titled Videosyncrasies, (inspired and heavily influenced by a post that Tom Francis wrote on his blog) I attempt to deconstruct common notions of good or bad […]

Justin: So theoretically, if someone were to write a review using this, how would one illustrate these aspects of a game quickly? As you mentioned, alot of people just skip the review in favor of the score. You could just give numerical values to each, but how would you show how 2 or more categories work together without words? Otherwise, this was a gteat read.

What Makes a Game Fun? Meteor Fury: […] perfectly describes what a challenge is when we are discussing it in the context of game play.  In Tom Francis’ Blog he describes what challenge is like in a game and I think it is a pretty good and precise […]

Yarra: You can like it or not

Yarra: What. You like

Joshua James Timothy: hey Guys, i'm a game creator, i agree.
I read this because i was confused about what game that i need to make, and then i google about that, then i found this. Some games like GTA, Harvest Moon, Batman Arkham, are really interesting cause they have all the elements needed to be a good game.

Best Social Media Games | Hottest Game News, Game Reviews & Rumors | […] What makes a game fun? […]

Programming – design your own video game | lets talk about math: […] http://www.pentadact... ...ames-good/ […]

What makes games good – overview | Notes by Timothy Coish: […] the single greatest article on game design, tucked away on his fairly small personal blog. The article serves as the foundation upon which I am building my own, more refined, model of games. I cannot […] | Superlevel: […] What Makes Games Good games development […]

hots boost: I did enjoy reading this article as it brought memories from the past when I was a gamer. I like the fact graphics is not mentioned here. Not that it is not important, but involvement in a game depends much more on the plot than on the visual part of the product. Hopefully the industry will realise this soon.