Why some games just drive us mad.

This Game Sucks!

A statement we’ve all used at one point or another in our gaming life. It doesn’t just relate to video games, sporting events, and drunken late night pool hustling. It relates to everything in us that is human. We as humans weigh everything by how much we gain. A game is designed for entertainment, fun, excitement, and ultimately to distract you from everything else that exists that ISN’T. As soon as it stops performing these distractions it becomes, well it immediately begins to suck. Why does it suck? The reason a game sucks is because it doesn’t satisfy you in its design.

What makes a game truly a game?

Proper game design has three distinct core concepts. Skill, Reward, and Story. I call it SRS. I know what you are thinking. Chess is one of the most famous and long lasting games of all time and it doesn’t have a Story. Well you are dead wrong. Chess has one of the most elemental of stories in its foundation. My army challenges your army to a duel to the death. It’s a gentlemen’s game fought on the battlefield of war. When I slay your king I win the war and all bragging rights over you until our re-match. Bobby Fisher is a glorified war monger.


Skill is the most variable element of SRS in that it envelopes what most people confuse as player ability. Game Design skill is much more complicated than the output abilities of those that play games. This of course can have a factor on skill and how it is incorporated into a game. Most often we see this element of player ability being righted by difficulty levels on video games. You are a noob, a regular person, or a freak hardcore gamer, or at least that is what I see when I read easy, standard, and hard mode on the screen.

Skill in a game is the balance of strategy required to overcome the variables of the game. Strategy might relate to jumping up a block wall in Mario, or dancing the funky chicken on dance dance revolution.

Strategy also comes into play when making decisions on our aforementioned chess board. The variable of how much required skill, how often you use skill, and when you use skill in a game can be one of those crucial points to making or breaking that game for the player.

I often tell the story of when my girlfriend was playing the demo for Batman Arkham Asylum. After about ten minutes she used my now favorite phrase. This game sucks. It lead me to wonder why with such amazing graphics and intriguing story that after only ten minutes she would come to the conclusion that the game deserves a delete. Some of you might love the game, but for her it failed to meet “game” expectations. So why did it fail her?

The game required her to push a button on the controller whenever a light would flash for batman to perform his fight sequences. Basically she felt like she wasn’t controlling the situation, but was just watching a movie that required her to press a button from time to time that got her to the next scene. After thinking about it I agreed the game sucked too. It now didn’t meet MY expectations of a game, and I really like Batman. It just wasn’t fun. Though it had a ton of Story and Reward, it just failed in the Skill department.

Ultimately skill is the reason I got into game design in the first place. I was sick of feeling locked in during a table top rpg game or mmo level based role playing game. The idea that your character is what it is until you gain experience to hit the next level is over time rather boring. You feel locked into a mold or a holy trinity that has no individuality in a world where being an individual is the whole point.

Do some of my game systems have a leveling element, yes, do some have a progressive character build, well of course, but at the end of the day working in more options to keep from feeling stagnant and boring is always a goal. There are no perfect games, though I would argue the first Super Mario Bros to be near perfection.

Skill dominance in game design is one of the reasons FPS games have become so popular. Options in the moment. Skill in a game gives you the potential to create choices for a player. Do I jump over the turtle monster or steal his shell to kill more turtles.

Poker is always a great game to reference in terms of skill. Part chance, part luck, part strategy, but at the end of the day it’s entirely based on percentages. The reward is most commonly money, and the story is the card face value. Do my Queens beat your Kings in number or is my low straight not powerful enough to overcome your trip Aces. Either way the game is dominated by skill and keeps people coming back for its rewards. Gambling itself is a reward.


Story as I’ve said before is something that can be as simple as a battlefield where pawns, bishops, rooks, and knights come to defeat a king. Every piece has its potential of defeating every other piece and as a story it makes the outcome ever changing and interesting. Some games have too much story in my opinion and are often distracting. Other games incorporate their story seamlessly with skill and reward.

One of my favorite current games out there is Left 4 Dead, 1 or 2 both are of the same cut. The computer game requires players as a group to work together to survive a level in the game. They have limited ammo, limited health, and are most commonly scared out of their minds to turn a corner in fear of being eaten by a horde of zombies. The Story is everywhere in this game, and never takes a back step for the game play aspects of skill and rewards. Finding the balance in SRS is what has made that title so successful.

Other games have managed to make a simple story concept and blossom it into a marketing enterprise. Angry Birds, Farm-ville, and almost every RTS (real time strategy game) on the market. World of Warcraft started as an RTS game where you farmed resources to build an army of Orcs or Knights to take out the other armies on the map. It has become a massively multiplayer game and possibly the most profitable game of our generation, possibly, I have no time to research the actual numbers.


What makes WoW so great is not its level grind game play or even the story which is to some arguers trite and simple at best. It is great and profitable because of its rewards. Rewards in WoW are given during level ups, from loot, and in the form of new environments and monsters for the player to engage with. The game play is simple. The story is skip-able, but the rewards keep people dishing out month after month cash from their wallets. When the gaming publisher world finally figured this out we were bombarded with mini app games that have soaked up millions.

Rewards can be simple or complex and do not always have to be a physical commodity. A game that bases itself on rewards is relying on those rewards to meet the satisfaction of the player. This requires a lot of balance and weight to the rewards aspect of a game. Keeping this element simple is almost always the better goal. I’ll reward you for winning the game of chess by giving you satisfaction. It is  un-measurable, but almost always efficient because of the skill required to win.

In a game like Left 4 Dead or one of its Zombie killing cousins, DAY-Z the reward is surviving and finding loot because of your skill to survive. Day-Z makes for a wonderful example of Reward in a game because when you die you lose everything. You don’t level up in the game, but you gain more loot the longer you survive. This reward benefit is measurable by the stuff you’ve acquired, almost like real life where we judge the success of a person by the things they own. What’s your Net Worth? No seriously what is it, because I might need to crash on your couch soon.


Finding a middle ground of all three is ultimately what makes a game NOT suck. Chess finds the weight balance between skill, reward, and story by limiting reward to winning and limiting story to set dressing. Skill is entirely what makes up the game, but without the reward and story you are just moving stones around on the ground.

Checkers, the abridged version of chess, is in my adult gaming mind something that sucks. It is boring, to me, because it does not meet my intellectual need for skill, but it does meet the skill of a six year old learning about strategy. You still use the term “King me” and gain rewards by doing so or jumping your opponent’s pieces. It’s not enough for me, but to my six year old cousin it’s the greatest moment of the day to stomp me in a game of checkers, and yes I let him win. At least that is what I tell people on the internet.

When designing a game the designer needs to take all of SRS into account. Do they have a 33.333% balance of all three, or is their game more geared towards skill than it is story? Can they re balance their game to give weight to the appropriate sections? This of course assumes that the game in question actually functionally works mechanically. A topic i will probably write a separate article on entirely.

A good deal of testing is done for any major AAA title these days, often with a particular audience who are geared towards that titles weighted SRS value. FPS players like skill and could care less about the story. Their reward is for blowing the head off a less skilled player. Strategy games and RTS games are geared towards a more intellectual crowd who get a kick out of dominating over the course of a long battle. MMO’s are all about rewards and players that want an immediate i.v. fix of loot every 4.5 minutes. MMO Junkie is a phrase given out like candy as something good, I want to send the lot to rehab. I think reward personally should be more smoothly integrated into story and skill, but then what do i know.

All in all remember who your target audience is. My girlfriend hates shooters, but she loves Lara Croft games. Why? The story is better, and the reward of the scenery plays more to her than the reward of blowing someone up with C4. This is to say in context she also loves Twisted Metal, a game that pits killer cars against one another in a death match. Point is can anyone play your game from any audience? If you can convince me to play rainbow princess pony dress-up then you’ve done your job. The fundamental ethics of me playing such a game on the other hand are all wrong.

At the end of the day you should ask yourself one question. Does this game suck? Most likely to someone it does. If you made that game...look at your SRS and fix it until its perfect.

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© 2019 T. Julian Bell