Old or new, the joy of video games can still be enhanced Building better games means looking backwards and forwards

Call of Duty - Black Ops Cold War | Raven Software

Video games have seen a surge in popularity over the last year, as people cooped up inside due to the pandemic turned to other sources of entertainment – and this pursuit of pleasure took many different forms. Some players looked for emulators to enjoy their favorite vintage games, while others clamored for new releases made for the next generation of platforms. Regardless of what games players chose, though, the most popular games all have something to teach developers.

What’s at the heart of top video games? While they don’t all need to have the same traits, the following features have been credited with making games both top sellers and engrossing plays for audiences of all stripes.

Five-star soundscapes

One of the most important features of a great video game is the development of appropriate and memorable sound effects and music. Such sound can be as simple as the computerized tunes that accompany a Super Mario run or as elegant as the soothing soundtrack to a newer game like Stardew Valley, the soundtrack to which is so popular as to be available for download separately. Sound is so valuable in part because, when players are engaged in the plot and action of a game, the soundtrack is often an unnoted and yet emotionally connected secondary layer, and designers working on new games should prioritize this feature.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Creating community

When video games were first becoming popular, a major part of what made them a community experience was gathering in arcades and other social hubs to play with friends. Later, players largely staged multiplayer events by using multiple controller hookups to one terminal, and today gamers build community on a global scale. The popularity of such features is obvious in top-grossing games like Call of Duty, but are increasingly available for inclusion in games by smaller developers. With help from development tools like Beamable, any developer can introduce friend lists, teams and guilds, and multiplayer functions.

App-based upgrades

Apps are obviously a newer addition to the gaming world, but today they play an integral role in how we experience some of our favorite narratives. Of particular importance to quality app-based gameplay, though, is the ability of third-party developers to offer games via major app stores. In fact, it was a serious shake-up when Apple banned Fortnite from its app store, and they’ve further frustrated players by pulling Xbox and Stadia games – moves that could negatively impact the platform’s mobile gaming dominance.

Mario and Luigi

Compelling characters

Finally, when players think about what they love in a video game, compelling, carefully created characters rank high on the list. These can vary widely, from the fairly simple, timeless figures like Mr. and Ms. Pacman to the beloved creatures of the Pokemon world, who were recently re-released in the New Pokemon Snap. Other long-time favorite characters include Link and other members of the Zelda universe, Mario and Luigi, and, more recently, the assorted campers from Animal Crossing, but there’s always space for new characters to capture the popular imagination.

Much like a great novel or a top-grossing movie, the features that make a great video game are fairly consistent but able to be transformed into an endless array of new stories and experiences, and that’s what makes these forms so exciting. By studying the most popular games, developers can gain greater insight into what makes new narratives work. 

So often, it’s not the bells and whistles of augmented reality or high-end graphics, but the simpler elements that drive popularity.

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