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

By Lewis Pulsipher [08.28.12]

[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!)


Discussion:

1) Scope

Geographically and chronologically broad setting without feeling abstract:

"Sweep of history" games that involve many centuries and countries or the world, such as Britannia, History of the World, and 7 Ages, are generally regarded as epic. So, too, is Civilization, both the original board game that preceded the computer games and the computer games. Yet other games with big scopes are not epic, for example Vinci and Risk, because they feel so abstract that the Areal world@ no longer feels present. Real-time strategy computer games are generally too short to feel epic. A short game with the same subject as a long epic might not feel epic: for example, I've designed a 90-minute version of Britannia (admittedly leaving out the Roman conquest) that is unlikely to feel epic to most players.

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

Age of Empires, the Total War series, and Civilization meet this criterion. Some Napoleonic games might qualify here, perhaps even some American Civil War games, certainly a vast World War II game like Axis & Allies. War of the Ring, Master of Orion, Sins of a Solar Empire, and Twilight Imperium qualify, even though the struggle is not "real"; it can be fictional, as long as players suspend their disbelief and adopt the fiction. In all cases these are great "slugfests."


Medieval II: Total War

Non-mundane theme:

You're not likely to regard a game about selling real estate as epic (Monopoly!). Nor a game about building a house. Nor a game about eating fish. Many people expect "epic story elements" from an epic game, such as becoming king or saving the world. Many video games and action movies involve saving the world, to the point that anything less seems mundane to some.

Story "arc" reflecting great changes:

A great story isn't necessary to an epic game, and certainly many games with great stories are not epic. Yet in some epic games, the game "story," what it represents, reflects major changes over time. It is a saga with beginning, middle, and end, so that the situation at the end of the game is very different from the beginning, almost like it's a different world.

2) Player commitment

Depth of gameplay including high replayability:

This is clearly open to differing opinions about depth of gameplay. The video games we've been citing have deeper gameplay than most other video games. This is another case where Vinci and Risk fail my definition, as there is little depth to their gameplay. But you could argue the same thing about History of the World.

Sheer length or complexity (or both):

Civilization is one of the most widely acknowledged epic games. Can you have a two hour Civ game and retain the epic feel? Many would say "no." Can you drastically simplify what the players do without losing the epic feel? Hard to say. It seems that length, rather than complexity, is part of the mystique of the epic game.

An epic game need not be both very long and very complex. I cite Britannia-like games here, as Britannia is lengthy but not complex. But an epic game will very likely be at least one or the other, very long or very complex.

Oddly enough, often this means no role assumption is involved!

In role-assumption games, you can conceive yourself as taking on the specific role of an individual person. For example, you might be a squad leader, or a castle builder. It's too much like something you might do in the real world, and we rarely think of the real world as epic! In many epic games you cannot name a specific individual that you play, at best you might take on the roles of a series of individuals (kings, presidents, generals). Perhaps a game (as opposed to a D&D adventure) feels more epic for the very reason that you cannot identify with one (mortal) person.

In the many video games where you have an avatar, what you're doing is so personal and immediate that the "epic feel" often isn't there. In many epic games you don't even play just one nation, but several. You have an "omnipresent" (though not omnipotent or omniscient) point of view.


3) Tension and memorability

In the following list of characteristics related to tension and memorability, we might keep in mind a trait of many popular video games, "immersiveness." Yet a game can be immersive without being epic... Immersion: "state of being deeply engaged or involved; absorption."

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

Another way to put this, is by the time you get to the end of the game, it seems very different from the game you were playing in the beginning. In computer Civilization or a typical RTS, you usually begin with a very small force, work through exploration and expansion, optimize your exploitation of resources, and finally engage in a huge war. "Sweep" board games tend to feel this way. In Britannia, for example, in the beginning most players are trying to survive the Roman conquest with a healthy nation, yet give the Roman some trouble. At the end, all are concentrating on who will be king of England, and often trying to kill opposing candidates. These require different kinds of strategies. In History of the World, players begin in a relatively small area, but by the end are acting all over the world.

Further, what was an important and useful move early in the game might be a weak, poor move by the end. That is, there may be an increase in "power" and scope of the things the player can do.


Civilization V

Uncertainty about who's winning:

If you certainly know who's winning at a particular time, a multi-sided game becomes subject to all kinds of defects such as king making and sandbagging. This tends to annoy players and reduce tension, and may be another downfall of Risk and Vinci.

If it's a two-player game and one player is obviously winning, the other will probably resign/surrender from the game, no epic provided. A long, drawn-out struggle in chess might be called "epic," but the game itself is not.

Point games can be a problem. The plastic Hasbro version of History of the World added secret scoring bonuses in an attempt to obscure who is in the lead. In Britannia the nations and colors score at different rates, at different times, so it's never quite clear even to experts who is in the lead, by how much, until the game ends.

Asymmetry

In asymmetric games, each player has a different starting position/situation. The opposite is symmetric, a common characteristic of "Euro" style games and multi-sided video games, where each player starts with an identical position. Abstract games tend to be symmetric, and tend not to feel epic.

Most epic games are historical or pseudo-historical, and history is rarely symmetric. So we may only be seeing a symptom, not a cause, in this characteristic.

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

Some games result in memorable sessions, some do not. They are more than games, they are "experiences." This goes back to the idea of "immersion," of buying into the game. It leaves out most "Euro" board games, which tend to be somehow inconsequential: games, not memorable experiences.

This is certainly a characteristic of "great" games, and is sometimes a characteristic of "epic" games.

"Great" Games

Now what makes a game "great"? Not good, not a flash-in-the-pan, rather an all-time great game. A game is great if you can (and want to) play it again and again with great enjoyment over many years, if you can almost endlessly discuss the intricacies of good play, if you can create many variants that are also fine games.

Obviously, a game is not "great" to everyone. Chess is a great game, but many gamers can't stand to play it (though a great many have tried).

Longevity is important. A new game may be "great", but we simply cannot tell until years have passed, no matter how much we like it when it comes out. Perhaps not every great game is great by current "design standards", but it may still be a great game in terms of how it has affected people and the enjoyment it has given to people. "New" certainly doesn't mean "good" and "old" certainly doesn't mean "bad". In other words, ignore the "cult of the new" so prevalent in today's gaming tastes.

Popularity is not a criterion. There are many popular tunes, movies, games, books, that disappear from our notice in a year or two or three. Great games should continue to be loved year after year after year, just as great novels, movies, music are enjoyed perennially.

If a game is one of hundreds that people might want to play, can it be a great game? No, it should stand out from the crowd. If you play a game just to kill time, then the fact that you=re playing it certainly doesn't make it a great game, no matter how many times you play. It's not "oh, yeah, we can play that" it's "I'd love to play that"--again, and again, and again. If you can spend your valuable time playing this game or thinking about this game, when you have other valuable things to do, then it may be a great game. If lots of people don't play it hundreds of hours each, over many years, can it be a great game?

Yes, video games become "outdated" in a way that tabletop games rarely do, but that doesn't prevent many people in the 21st century from playing 20th century classics like Pac-Man, Missile Command, Mega Man, and so on.

One person, speaking of the video game Left 4 Dead, highlighted the memorability of great games: "the hours we spent were well-invested because we came away with incredible water-cooler moments: the perfect Smoker pull off a precarious ledge, pouncing on the last survivor inches from the safe room, heroic sacrifices to save incapacitated teammates and last-second 'Get to the chopper' leaps into rescue helicopters."


Left 4 Dead

If it's a game that can reasonably be played solitaire even though it is designed for more than one player, then a great game will be played very often solo, by a great many people.

Can we summarize the above? Perhaps you could say, if a game is played by a great many people, who love to play it, who play it for hundreds of hours (by each person) altogether over the years, who can still enjoy it many years after it was first published, then perhaps it is a great game.

Is Monopoly a well-designed game? Definitely not. Is it a great game? Here you can argue that it is played by default, because it's traditional, rather than because people truly want to play it. Nonetheless a case can be made that it is a great game even though it's a weak design.

Further reading: Hobby Games: The 100 Best and Family Games: The 100 Best, both edited by James Lowder.

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