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  • Excerpt: What Makes A Game 'Epic' Or Even 'Great'?

    [08.28.12]
    - Lewis Pulsipher
  • [In this excerpt from Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish, game designer Lewis Pulsipher analyzes the semantics of a creating successful game, and discusses how to create an "epic" in-game experience.]

    While a game designer cannot deliberately set out to design a "great" game, a designer can set out to create an "epic" game, though this effort is just as subject to failure as any other game design.

    We're interested here in game designs that most players would call "epic", not in an individual play of a game that might be regarded as epic. I've played and refereed epic adventures of First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but I wouldn't call Dungeons & Dragons an epic game.


    "Define:epic" at Google gives this first definition: "very imposing or impressive; surpassing the ordinary (especially in size or scale); 'an epic voyage'; 'of heroic proportions'; 'heroic sculpture.'"

    Another dictionary meaning: "heroic; majestic; impressively great".

    In common among these definitions is feeling, rather than logic. Games can "feel" epic -- they emotionally involve the player. But once again, D&D emotionally involves the player yet is not an epic game, though there can be epic adventures. There's more than just emotional involvement required to make a game epic.

    Any and all definitions of anything, of any length, can be picked apart. As we're interested in characteristics that define an "epic game," our list must be fairly detailed, hence open to even more nit-picking. In the course of the discussion we'll see some of the things designers can try to do to create an epic game.

    Characteristics that can be divided into three categories: 1) scope, 2) player commitment, 3) tension and memorability. We'll briefly describe the characteristics, then talk about them in more detail with some examples. Epic games won't necessarily have every characteristic. That's the flaw of any detailed definition.

    1) Scope

    - Geographically and chronologically broad setting without feeling abstract

    - Represents a titanic struggle important to very large numbers of people and possibly many generations

    - Non-mundane theme

    - Story "arc" reflecting great changes

    2) Player commitment

    - Depth of gameplay including high replayability

    - Sheer length or complexity (or both)

    3) Tension and memorability

    - The gameplay reflects major changes over time, end-of-game gameplay feels very different from the beginning

    - Uncertainty about who's winning

    - Asymmetry

    - The game engenders "gaming stories" that you remember fondly and retell with pleasure (or chagrin!)

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