Insurgency Sandstorm (2018) – One of the best gun-plays for a shooter ever designed (more on this in a future post).
I want to talk about gameplay and why it is the most important thing for a game to get right.
There are thousands of things a game has to get right, in order to be a polished product. Graphics, sound, foreground rendering, background textures, muzzle flashes, reload animations, AI mapping and movement, the list goes on and on.
So what makes gameplay so special? What even is gameplay?
Gameplay is about as subjective as humour. It all boils down to how you “feel” and “engage” with the game. It’s the cumulative whole experience you get when you play the game.
I like to define it as, “are you frustrated playing the game or are you smooth in the game?”
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) – That godly soundtrack hits me every time I play this level.
Frustrated vs Smooth.
Everything else is secondary. You can have the most jaw-dropping graphics, but if your actions in-game are clunky and things aren’t reacting the way you want to, you’ll hit the refund button. You’ll start blaming the game for messy encounters. The gun doesn’t seem to hit the bad guys. The jump to a platform is inconsistent. The braking in a car seems 5 milliseconds off, causing you to crash into a wall.
The game is at fault.
However, if you find yourself performing smooth reloads, crisp transitions between enemies, and then get killed by a lucky RPG, then you are at fault.
That is what defines gameplay to me. Where you are to blame for your mistakes, not the game.
If you need good examples of excellent gameplay, look at Call of Duty Modern Warfare (2019), Titanfall 2, Cuphead, Gran Turismo Sport, all of them titans in their field because of extremely solid gameplay, that is backed up by incredible graphics, sound mixing and excellent level design.
Call of Duty excels at making guns feel violent, explosive and addicting. Shooting a gun in Call of Duty Modern Warfare (2019) is a stimulus to the reward part of your brain.
Titanfall 2 mastered movement as a concept, an incredibly difficult venture that not even Mirror’s Edge could completely nail, and it was designed around parkour. Titanfall conquered parkour, made it easy, made it fluid and added guns.
Cuphead allowed gamers to experience old-school run and gun arcade games, simple mechanics, made challenging by bosses and level design.
Grand Tursimo Sport, isn’t a simulator like Assetto Corsa, but it isn’t arcade-y like Need for Speed. It rides the line between the two, drawing in players from both realms and does so with class, elegance and reverence for motorsports. The driving is smooth, and engaging, really allowing you to feel the power of the car beneath you.
There are dozens more examples of good game-play across a myriad of genres. You would know, because those are the games you revisit the most.
Gran Turismo Sport (2017). As a casual racing fan, this hit the spot between simulator and arcade. Couple the racing experience with the ability to unlock cars in an organic way (and create some awesome wallpapers), truly elevates it above other fun racing games.
How you interact with a game, is what allows you to revisit classics. You don’t mind the terrible graphics, the bizarre AI behaviour and the slightly outdated controls, because the gameplay experience is so fun.
On a personal note, as a child, I grew up on Battlefield games. My very first experience was Battlefield Vietnam. I loved it, not withstanding I come from a refugee background directly impacted by that War, but because the game was so vast, so completely free, an incredible sandbox to play in.
I discovered hidden alleyways tucked away in thick jungle, how to collapse logs to destroy tanks, sniper spots atop ancient cities and how awesome it was to see my younger brother fly in with a Huey and annihilate the enemy I marked with yellow smoke.
I didn’t mind that the M16 took nearly 3 seconds to reload, the bizarre aimbots that the enemy AI had, the way how if you shot the driver in a BTR, the turret gunner would spin around and shoot and never move the vehicle. These were minor quibbles in a game-play experience worth revisiting over and over again.
Battlefield Vietnam (2004) – The game is janky, lacks the polish of BF2 (the greatest) but it still holds up as a fun, silly, authentic Battlefield experience.
There is also a formula to good gameplay that I’ve noticed. Things should feel intuitive from a control perspective, but developed enough to make you test the game’s universe. An excellent example, is Assassin Creed II (2009) which expanded the controls in the first AC game, but didn’t rework the already intuitive controls.
The platforming in AC2 was surprisingly precise and how you controlled Ezio Auditore in combat and stealth felt incredible. Parkour was natural and believable, failed jumps more an issue of the player than the game logic. His arsenal was expansive, allowing players to really explore how they approached problems in the game.
Contrast that with later Assassin Creed games, where a lot of the platforming became oddly counter-intuitive and arsenals grew so large, that players ended up using a fraction of what was available, and you can see why AC2 is still regarded as the peak assassin experience.
Assassin Creed 2 (2009) – Collecting all the feathers in this game … irked me more than it should. Lucky Renaissance Italy is just gorgeous, and Ezio’s outfit isn’t bad either.
But what about when the game breaks? Does gameplay still reign king?
Of course this is where it gets a lot more subjective. You may be entirely turned off by bugs, lag, blue screens and a whole host more issues, but if there is something in there that keeps you rebooting the game, in spite of these issues, then I would say, yes, gameplay still rules supreme.
One such personal example for me, is the PC version of Earth Defence Force 4.1 – The Shadow of New Despair (2016). My version lags like crazy whenever there are too many bugs on-screen, and I’ve had a couple of crashes.
And then there’s the issue of missions being repetitive, the animations are wonky, the graphics are sub-par, the voice acting is atrocious and your mouse gets tired from clicking at everything on-screen so much ….
But the sheer gratuitousness of the game, the insanity of the gameplay and the ridiculousness of the situation keeps me rebooting that game for some giant bug killing action. The gameplay is just so good, I keep coming back for more.
Earth Defence Force 4.1 – Shadow of New Despair (2016 – PC) – is just about the most video game that ever video-gamed.
In essence, what this article is all about, is an appreciation for the hard work that game developers put in, to make good games. Games that don’t make you work for it, to feel like a badass or a natural at something, because the game-play is intuitive to understand, easy to learn, and hard to master.
That, at its core, is what defines good gameplay. When you play something for the first time, and it feels smooth. This allows you to appreciate all the other elements of the game, like graphics, soundscapes, AI behaviour and map design, because at its’ core, the game is good.
Gameplay is the one thing that must be nailed correctly, because everything else will follow how much care you put into it.
Battlefield 1 (2016) – An example of gameplay being good, but not good enough to overcome its’ predecessors brilliance, like Battlefield 2 or 3. Sure it’s pretty, but the customisation leaves a lot to be desired and there is something about the gun-play that is oddly dissatisfying.