Mar 10

2017

How We Judge a Good Game—Part 1

Posted by: Rachel E. Towers | Comments (1)

As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games. We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices. These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.

If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.

Since we announced the contest and posted our game design guidelines we’ve received a number of questions that show some folks interested in entering the contest are having some difficulty understanding the connect between our judging rubric (below) and the game design documents.

  • Original, Interesting Characters, 15% of score
  • Original, Interesting Setting and Plot, 15% of score
  • Conflicting Goals with Satisfying Endings, 15% of score
  • Balanced, Intentional, Interesting Choices/Options, 15% of score
  • Inclusivity, 10% of score
  • Prose Styling, 10% of score
  • Creative Stats, Consistently Applied, 10% of score
  • Length and Coding Efficiency, 5% of score
  • Overall, Judge’s Choice, 5% of score

In order to draw that line a little more closely, consider the following analogy: our guidelines are like a recipe. You need to stick to the recipe or the cake will fall, or won’t cook through. Now, that doesn’t mean every game is alike: some games will be almond cakes, some will be sachertortes, some red velvet, some will even be babka or Boston cream pie. But almost every cake is made with flour, sugar, butter, right?

So too, with our guidelines. In determining the winner of the contest, each game will be scored based on the judging rubric above, and while there is a lot of variation in the types of games that can be submitted, games which don’t hew to our guidelines in some very basic ways will likely receive a 0 in the category they fall short in. Such a score in any one category is enough to ensure your game will not win the contest, because the game will have failed in such a way that no amount of high scores in any other categories would allow it to win.

First, you should study the guidelines document closely before you begin writing your game, but to supplement that over the next few weeks we’ll be giving you the concrete ways in which the Guidelines connect with our Judging Rubric. For this week, we’ll begin with a couple of the most commonly asked points, Inclusivity, and Length and Coding Efficiency. We’ll also cover one of the earliest design decisions in a game, the Setting and Plot.

Inclusivity (10% of score):
To be inclusive games must, at a minimum, not be gender or orientation locked. That means that a player must be able to play as male or female, and gay or straight if either are at all mentioned. It is, however, an option to omit these things (i.e. never mention the player character’s gender and/or have no romances). If a game does offer romances, they should be equally satisfying no matter the player character’s gender and orientation. Games that offer trans, nonbinary, romantic asexual, aromantic, polyamorous, and other gender and orientation options can score higher in this category.

Additionally, non-player characters should have a mix of ethnicities, genders, orientations, and other other marginalized groups. They should also not play into stereotypes of race, gender, ethnicity, etc. For instance, leaders shouldn’t all be men and shouldn’t all be white; nurturers and victims shouldn’t all be women; criminals shouldn’t all be people of color; same-sex romances shouldn’t all end in tragedy; women shouldn’t appear only as motivation or reward.

The details of how this is expressed of depends on the game, of course. If your game is set in feudal Japan, for example, the absence of characters of African descent is not a problem. Likewise, if your game is in a setting that was historically single-gender (as in the case of Choice of Broadsides), then it’s possible to have the majority of NPCs be the same gender, so long as there’s an option for the PC to genderswap the environment. However, unless there is a specific, compelling reason not to do so, games should include substantial diversity.

Games which include plenty of robust, inclusive characters can score higher in Inclusivity, while games which do not make a substantial effort to include diversity are likely to score low in this category. Games which force the player to play as a preset gender or orientation, or which reinforce negative stereotypes, will receive a 0 in Inclusivity.

Length and Coding Efficiency (5% of score):
To understand what we mean by length, you need to first know what we measure the total length of a game by the number of words in ChoiceScript files, including code. (This is the “length” we use in most places.) We then also measure the average number of words that players read each time they play; we call this the “playthrough length.” We’ve found one of the biggest factors in how well a game is received, is just how long it is. Players simply tend to rate our bigger games more highly than our smaller ones.

At a minimum the total length of your game must be 100,000 words without repeating large swaths of text. Games that are longer without repeated text, and that efficiently use *goto, *gosub, *fake_choice, and *if/*else commands to ensure that text is not repeated unnecessarily can score higher in this category. Games which are longer without feeling drawn out, or that otherwise feel as though they are precisely as long as they need to be to tell their story, can also score higher in Length.

Of course, this is all about how much different text a player can possibly see, so while longer games will tend to score higher, a game which repeats large amounts of text or code, or has large amounts of code that adds little to the story, will tend to score lower, and may possibly receive a 0 in this category depending on its total length. Games which are under 100,000 total words will receive a 0 in Length no matter their playthrough length.

Setting and Plot (15% of score):
The setting and plot of your game should have a certain level of originality and creativity without becoming inaccessible to a larger audience. A good way to measure this is by seeing if you can give an “Elevator Pitch” of your game. Try to condense your game down a single sentence, and see if it’s both understandable, and still feels interesting. If it’s extremely easy to explain your entire game in a single sentence, or you can do it by just pointing to a genre or another story, it’s possible your game may be lacking originality. If you simply can’t, then your concept might need to be simplified a bit.

Consider the following examples: all of these games’ elevator pitches are creative, but grounded enough to be understood with a single sentence pitch.

Creatures Such As We: You play a tour guide on the moon who is obsessed with a video game.
The Orpheus Ruse: You play a psychic spy who can inhabit other people’s minds and bodies.
Versus: You play an alien who can travel through time and space, and absorb others’ powers in a game of intrigue.
For Rent: Haunted House: You play a real estate agent who must rent a haunted property or risk losing their job.

Sometimes games may embrace the tropes of their genre, but even then they should still find distinctive stories within those frameworks. For instance:

A Midsummer Night’s Choice: You play a Shakespearean-style child of a nobleman who escapes to the forest to find true love.
Psy High: You play a high schooler with supernatural abilities who foils an evil plot.
The Hero of Kendrickstone: You play a novice adventurer—warrior, wizard, rogue, or bard—just setting out in the world.

Games with a gripping premise make readers curious (without confusing them!) and which execute that idea well, with good cohesive plot development and a clear, well developed setting, are likely to score higher in Setting and Plot. Games which are very difficult for the player to follow, or which are devoid of engagement and creativity, are likely to score low in this category. Games that lack any real setting (such as collections of short stories, or mechanics based dungeon crawlers) may receive a 0 in this category.

Next time we’ll continue explaining our Rubric by seeing how a baseball cap will help us to explain Creative Stats, Balanced Choices, and Conflicting Goals with Satisfying Endings.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for these tips. I am design visual novels for language learning. Even though it is educational, the whole point is to engage students. So these tips are essential. Thanks for helping my team get started on this project. I won’t enter any contest, but these criteria are very helpful. Your inclusive definition is essential.

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