How to Make Games that just Feel GOOD to Play
What is your favorite video game? The one you can boot up at any point, jump right into, and have a great time playing? We all have at least one game, that just feels absolutely great to play. We get into a state of flow, and just bolt out a full combo in “Guitar Hero”, get a satisfying Pentakill in “Overwatch”, or hit a group of enemies with their weakness in “Persona 5” without breaking a sweat.
What all these events have in common, is that they just feel great to play. Outside of the overarching goal of reaching Platinum in ranked mode, or unraveling an intricate storyline, the act of playing just feels great. This “Game Feel” — coined by Steve Swink in his prolific book of the same name — is the quantification of how well your game provides feedback to inputs from the player. Games are sometimes described as being slick, or crunchy, or bulky, or zippy. These adjectives are coming from how the game feels to play!
I highly recommend you give “Game Feel” a read, as its one of the most influential game development books and has special value for small and independent game developers. You may be saying, “Game feel is great and all, but how do I make my games feel great?” I’m going to discuss some tips to improve your game and make it more compelling to players. You will be surprised how we can relate game feel concepts to many aspects of game design and development!
Find a Compelling Loop and Refine it
Let’s talk about Celeste. The game loop of Celeste has players scaling a gigantic mountain, while along the way clearing each individual screen. Each screen has a single strawberry that rewards players for taking risky and highly technical maneuvers to collect. This game loop feels pleasing to players because they have a short term goal (reach the other side of the screen and collect strawberries) and a long term goal (scale the mountain to its top). Its up to you to find a compelling loop that rewards each and every action.
In Celeste you are given a fantastic double jump / boot ability that just feels great to control. This allows you to perform tricky moves mid-air and gives your control of the character additional expressiveness. Every single action must feel pleasing to the player. A great game makes players want to explore your world without rewards.
Consider your Inputs Carefully
Another incredibly important loop to consider is that between the player and the game hardware itself. A player’s brain is firing off cognitive, perceptual, and motor signals constantly while pressing buttons on their controller or keyboard. These button presses are converted to some kind of feedback on the screen, which interacts with the game world you’ve created. Visual and audio (and some times tactile) feedback is sent back to our fleshy bodies for processing, and the loop begins all over again. This is happening on the order of milliseconds!
You can improve this loop in many ways! A comfortable control scheme (or even better, a customizable one), tweaking sensitivity of the inputs and understanding what inputs to use in the first place are just a few ways. If you develop mobile games, for example, players are tapping on a flat glass screen without tactile feedback. This is why vibration, polish effects, and audio punchiness are so crucial on mobile.
Most of the time, you will not want to add unneeded delay or sensitivity to your controls’ responsiveness. No player likes to notice delay and lag in their game, as this creates a nasty rift between the player and the world they are interacting with. Also, controls that sport simplicity and intuitiveness can allow players to express themselves more in game. Super Mario for example allows players to “accordion” multiple buttons to achieve new actions (e.g. a running jump, a crouch jump, etc).
Give Everything “The Juice”
If there’s a part of your game that is not taking Game Feel into account, you should just cut it from your game. This may seem very radical, but consider this — players are looking to be immersed in your game world and get a rewarding experience back in return. If something does not feel satisfying to do in your game, it will turn off your players and they will leave. There’s way too many games out there, and most players have limited time to play.
So when I say, “give it the juice” I mean you need to fold in game feel into every facet of your game — storyline, level design, artwork, music, game mechanics, the works! A game should be cognizant of its compelling points and highlight them. “Untitled Goose Game” for example knows how fun it is to quack in the face of a scared child, and plays it up by having him cower in a telephone booth and trip over his own shoes. You should strive for the environments in your game to be reflective of the uber-fun juicy game loops you’ve created!
Polish Like There’s No Tomorrow
All games, from ambiance-laden games like Limbo and The Stanley Parable, to cheery and lighthearted games like Mario Party and Fall Guys, have an aesthetic they are seeking to deliver on. They work to provide a sensation, an emotion, an excitement, through their polish effects.
Game designers use the term “polish” as an overarching noun for effects that are not vital to the core systems and mechanics of the game, but drive home their desired aesthetic. Graphics, sound effects, music, animations, and UI are some great examples of where designers look to polish the experience.
And you too should polish your game to the “nth” degree! Things like particle effects, or animation curves, color gradients and impactful sounds — they all make a difference when it comes to immersing your player. You may hear many game developers tell you that building the core mechanics is only a small fraction of the work needed to make a game. That is because the lion’s share of the work is in polish and tweaking. So don’t neglect it!
I highly recommend you read “Game Feel” — I am not sponsored to say this either! If you are an aspiring game designer or developer this is a must-read book that will make your approach to game dev way more effective.
If you are looking to start your own indie game studio today, you are in luck, as this is the best time to get started! Check out some of my other articles for more information on how you can start your career making games.