I know what you’re thinking. “You’re so smart, why don’t you tell us what makes a successful game!” Okay, fair point. It’s worth saying at the outset that any attempt to explain what makes a “good” game is, by definition, going to vary based on the kind of game being developed.
That said, there are some general rules of thumb I’ve observed over time, especially as a result of interviewing so many developers and dissecting their work. In no particular order, here they are.
Outside the echo chamber:
It’s very tempting to design the exact game you would like to play. And although that can be a valid choice (especially if there exists a large audience who has similar tastes to you), it’s worth considering the potential market for your game. What sort of players are you going to target? If they are fans of a particular genre, what is it about that genre they gravitate to (more on that in the next point)?
Look for consistency within a genre:
This is perhaps more a prompt for you rather than a direct answer. Highly successful titles also generally happen to be great from a game design perspective. A good starting point, though, is to take a group of highly successful games within a genre and consider which design elements are consistent across these games? Of course, it’s valuable to stand out within a genre as well—but not to the point where the experience is highly confusing or unintuitive.
Understanding the appeal of your design:
Think about your own project. What are the key factors that you expect to be appealing to players? Once you have defined the unique appeal factors, ensure that players can easily figure them out. Many games—especially indie titles—are unique and contain special appeal factors of their own. But where a lot of games fall down is that they fail to “onboard” players such that they can easily see these factors; the best games don’t take long to get players invested in them, and they rapidly build on that early momentum.
Polish and attention to detail go a long way:
This may sound obvious, but it’s so very important. Even the best games can be dragged down when they are full of bugs that get in the player’s way, or if they feature a user interface that is difficult to understand; always make sure to iron out as many pain points as possible in your design.