John Seguin

Techy | Musician | Info Geek

What makes a great solo video game?

After a few decades of playing video games on a regular basis, I've come to the conclusion that there are essentially three elements that make a great solo video game.  The reason I highlight "solo" is that in multi-player land, there are some additional elements that I think make the game work and that may weigh differently against the elements I present below.

The three elements, in equal weight, but in ORDER of impact are production value, mechanic, balance.

Production Value here refers to the overall look, sound and feel of the game.  It is that glossy look that says "I'm a state of the art game and not something made in 1996" (which, really, was not that long ago... but remember that some land mark games came out around then such as Quake 1 (1996) or Myst (1993) or 007: Goldeneye (1997) )  This "production value" however, goes far beyond the graphics engine to also the audio production (my department!) and the games performance.  This last bit is something I often see overlooked in that the game may create great still screenshots, but if it doesn't run consistently smoothly in frame rate, audio cues, etc, the player will quickly tire of waiting for the game to "catch up" to them.


I recently played a fantastic time-management casual game called "Ranch Rush 2" on the Mac.  I found later than an iPad version had come out and since the game was mostly a click-click-click type of game as you direct your character around your ranch to harvest bananas, sheer llamas and so on, this seemed like a perfect game to port to the iPad.  Unfortunately, this led quickly to frustration as I found the rapid tapping required that was simple with the mouse on the PC was hugely frustrating because of how the game would strangely allow you to click "in between" objects, which would allow your character to travel there... but then do absolutely nothing.  This quickly diminished the fun of the game as it no longer was a matter of the players skill in "time management" but of "how precisely can you point your fingers on the screen?"  Oy.

Animation should also not be overlooked, as should a balance between very capable 2D and 3D artists.  I realize that is becoming more and more common for game makers to save costs by purchasing pre-build 2D or 3D "sets" to build their games on.  This is perfectly fine, so long as you can be sure to match them very, very well to resemble a game built from scratch.  Make sure to get a second set of eyes to look at your finished product to see what they think about the art.  Although we are all taught never to judge a book by its cover (or a game by its screenshots) we all do, and so the investment and effort is very worthwhile in this department.

Once the art and animation have been absorbed by a player, the audio component, almost invisibly, will make or break the next impression.  Good game audio is similar to good film audio in that is should help immerse the player in the game without drawing unwanted attention to itself.  It should be a driver of emotion and not used as a highlight on its own (exception, of course, for so-called "music games" like Rock Band, Guitar Hero, etc.).  Horrible voice over, cheesy or low-fi or misplaced music can ruin an other wise promising game before it begins.  Even sound effects placement, a job taken on by some indie developers, is not as trivial as it sounds as it often needs to be subtly shaped to match exactly the animation that is present in the game.  This is not always a trivial task.

Mechanic. Many game developers associate game mechanic with very simple casual games, but this applies to ALL games - its just that larger and more sophisticated games may have multiple mechanics.  Take a recent favorite of mine - the Gears of War series on XBOX 360. At first blush, this game looks like "oh, another first person shooter", but it introduced a few very interesting game mechanics that will surely (if they have not already) be copied by others.  One of the coolest is the way that the player can press a button to dash towards cover and essentially crouch in order to reload and so forth and then press another button to come out of the crouch and then fire on the enemy.  Then, when done firing, the player goes back into a crouch.  Similar types of strategy had been used by FPS players for years, but Gears of War created a way to make this process less cumbersome and more precise thereby introducing a new mechanic to this common move and thereby greatly improving the enjoyment of the game.

If the mechanics you are asking your player to perform are cumbersome or too repetitive, you will hopefully notice quickly.  The mechanic has to be easy... but varied.  No matter how gorgeous your graphics and music are, if the player has to click in a circle the whole game, things will get boring quickly.  So think about what you are asking the player to do.

Balance This element is also sometimes overlooked.  Game makers who put together a cool mechanic with terrific production values are there saying  - "hey!  It looks like a game and feels like a game!  Whip up some levels and let's ship this thing!".  The problem, is that without rigorous play testing to ensure proper balance, you will NOT present a challenge to your player.  Although some folks play games to have something mindless to do, most of us play games as a mental (and sometimes, physical!) challenge.  Having us BARELY win or loose by a little our first go at it is much more preferable than making it so easy that you are just "going through the motions".  Even more challenging is making the balance such that it PROGRESSIVELY gets more difficult as you work through the game.  Nonetheless, this is a valuable addition and once the game is completed, it gives the players a keen sense of accomplishment and they remember why they started playing video games in the first place.

Sound Design: A Primer

Hi everyone and welcome to my quick talk about sound effects in games. Hopefully this article can help you get started working on adding some noise to your game so that its not just some pretty graphics demo!

To start, play your game. A lot. Stop thinking about the bugs you need to fix... what's left to do... and definitely stop patting yourself on the back for your brilliant algorithm that took six days to create that works perfectly. You need to start thinking about "Joe Gamer" who doesn't really care about your sleepless nights and who just expects a good time and great production values.

This can be very hard to do. If you need to, invite some friends over and have them play it. It's always fun and a good experience to WATCH other people play your game and see how they react to it. Many folks do betas where they get written feedback -- but nothing beats actually WATCHING someone play your game.


Now that you are somewhat removed from the direct action, imagine the sound you WANT to hear while playing. This, of course, varies wildly depending on what type of game it is, the market you are aiming for, your budget, etc... but try to imaging, budget aside, what you WANT to hear.

Start making a list.

The list

When you make this list, makeup some name and then be sure to have a descriptive sentence or two. Two days from now when you write something like:


You are going to have a hard time remembering what you were thinking. Something better like:

boom - this is the core sound for my bomber man clone.
The boom should be short, loud and deep without a bunch of shrapnel sounds.
Perhaps explore variations.


Have you ever noticed when playing your favorite FPS that not every bullet hitting something sounds exactly the same? This is, of course, on purpose, but must be thought about in your sound design list. Take this into account. Give descriptions as to how the variations should be different. Remember -- the more you get on paper the easier it will be down the road.

Two Roads Diverged in the Road...

Great! You've made it this far. At this point, you basically need to decide whether you are going to do this yourself or hire a sound designer to work on this. Don't worry -- if you start working on this and you figure out that there is just no way you can do it, you can of course still hire one. (I myself have completed several projects that the programmer/designer started and needed help with...)

How do you hire a sound designer? They may have a demo reel. This is great if you are asking them to make sounds for a radio drama, but more importantly you want to see how their sound is used in gameplay. Ask to see if they have a game that's out now that maybe you can download the demo to, etc.

Working with a Sound Designer

The list you have created is really going to help as its the places where you really think sound would work. To get REAL value from a sound designer though, send them the list but then ask THEM where they think sound work well. These people tend to think very much in sound and will likely come up with some differences that you can discuss with them. Hopefully, this will only better your project.

Sound designers typically charge by the sound effect. This price, as in most art, varies widely based on experience, quality, reputation, etc. The "type" of game you are working on can also affect the cost. If you are doing something that is largely going to use existing sounds (you need a bunch of car noises for your racing game, for example) they are most likely not going to go outside and rev up 18 different types of cars that they rent for the day and field record them all. Unless, of course, you are EA or whatever and paying them $100,000 to do this! They will probably get their source sounds from a sample library.

The majority of sound designers should give you a quote for the "package" -- the cost of all of your sounds put together. They have worked out time estimates for the work on their end, etc. and should be able to give you a fair cost. Watch for clauses about re-works. Most will not charge for them unless they become excessive (an ambiguous term...) or drastly deviate from the original design that was agreed upon. (Your space FPS now takes place in the old american west!)

Do it yourself!

Wanna give yourself a hand at doing things yourself? Even if you wind up using a sound designer, familiarizing yourself with the tools and language of sound design can help you become a better director/producer and so is well worth the effort.

Creating original sounds from scratch using only synthesizers is a serious challenge and beyond the scope of this article, but finding existing sampled recording and making them work for you is a good task to attempt.

After you have your list, try to narrow down the sound you need. Let's say its a puzzle game and there's "stone blocks" that get pushed around on a stone floor. Well, when the player pushes the block it would be nice to have some sort of "stone on stone" sound, correct? Well, in sound design terms, you are looking for a particular kind of friction. Probably, concrete on concrete. Armed with a batch of words that may work, I would recommend using an online reseller of sound effects. My current favorite is:

Trying a bunch of different keywords combination, I finally sound something that may work -- I used the terms "rocks friction" and got three choices. I've copied the link to the third one below for your convenience:

Notice that the sound quality is terrible. This is on purpose, of course, because they want you to PAY FOR the good ones!

Their order/checkout system is a little weird, so I'll save you the trouble -- this sound is about $4.70. That is a ROYALTY-FREE price. Sure, you can get "cool cartoon sfx" for $10 on CD... but chances are good that they are not royalty-free, meaning you cannot use these sfx in your game without paying royalties!

From here, I'd probably select the exact sound here from the set, edit it and EQ a bit in order to emphasize the bass and add some reverb to be approriate for the space (are you in a cavern, or just in a room...?)

That, of course is the minimum you can do. Often, creating the right effect may mean blending several existing elements or using common sounds in uncommon ways (in order to create a unique potato-gun-like sound, I used the sound of a toilet plunger being popped on a linoleum floor and sped it up and varied the pitch to make it sound like a bizarre machine gun!)

Have fun!


John Seguin is a composer and sound designer for award-winning video games and film. His recent sound design credits include "Bounty" by Eclipse Software and "Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa" by Pocketwatch Games. You can visit his website at and he can be reached at