Why Engine Games Suck, or, Why Game Design is About Rules

by ynniv

What is a game?

[game] noun: a form of play or sport, esp. a competitive
    one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck (Oxford English Dictionary)

Games are fun – thats why kids play them.  Games are about exploring the possibilities of your surroundings, devising a limited set of rules, and then interacting with your environment as limited by those rules.  A ball, some people, and a flat surface can turn into golf, football, soccer, kickball, baseball, or basketball.  All of these share the same basic elements, but otherwise differ widely due to the application of a (generally) small set of rules.

Engines are games without rules.  They are generally based on other rules that are too boring for us to care about, like the rules of physics, sound, or computers (graphics engines, sound engines, etc).  Sometimes, engines are made that try to make creating games easier – these are called game engines.  They usually tie together all the other engines that you might want to use, and provide a framework to base a game upon.  Some game engines are the Quake, Quake 3, and Doom 3 – any of these can be purchased, so that you can write a game using them.

Sometimes, game engines are released as games – like Doom, and Quake 3.  These games tend to get a lot of hype – look at the smooth rendering and high framerates of Quake 3, or the 2.5D environment simulated in real time in Doom.  Unfortunately, these games tend to have short shelf lives.  Doom got the best run of this, due in part to factors outside of gameplay: being the first game massively distributed over the internet, and the relative adolescence of computer games in general.  Ultimately, they tend to have a short shelf life once the hype wears off.

Ground breaking engine games are tough, and then generaly come out poorly.  I think the reason for this is the same reason as any ground breaking software development project: breaking new ground requires research, experimentation, and analysis of your experiment.  Once you’ve figured out the lay of the land that you have recently created, you can now devise a structured environment to play in, ie a game.  Games will always be about imposing rules, because rules are the essence of games.

Games that have great engines

doom, doom 2, doom 3
quake (1,2,3)
grand theft auto Vice City
sim city

Poor Games Good Games
doom                   doom 2
quake quake2
quake3 Sim City
doom 3 GTA Vice City


Used New Engine Used an Existing Engine
doom                   doom 2
quake quake2
quake3 GTA Vice City
doom 3
Sim City  

    Whats different with Sim City?  It was written to be a simulation of
    demographic forces, and was later turned into a game.  It also took
    years to develop.

2 Responses to “Why Engine Games Suck, or, Why Game Design is About Rules”

  1. Graham says:

    Engine games probably come about because people are excited about the technology (completely valid, it’s exciting to play a game with new interactions) but forget to add the game, the specifics and goals. My approach (as a novice) would be to make lots of little prototypes with your proposed interactions until you find a ruleset and story that makes it worthwhile and fun.

  2. Stephen says:

    I would consider Half Life 2 to an engine game that contrasts with Doom 3. Both showed off their terffic new graphics engines, but Half Life 2 (though very difficult IMO) was far more successful as a game. Gameplay was extended far beyond run and gun to vehicles and puzzles. The antlion level where you had to avoid touching soil was a nice play on the rules of the game.

    I agree with Graham in that good games nowadays probably come from lots of experimentation. Growbot wasn’t a good game, but I think there was a good game a few dozen generations away :). What a game designer needs is a good prototyping and evaluation environment. Sounds like a fun project!

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