All game design should intuitively should rely on the following maxim: Games should maximize fun.
But where? and how? What is more fun and for whom? Who do you care about? When given a decision between making something fun for one kind of player or another, which kind do you choose?
One of the first questions asked when trying to design a game: why are we making a game? Or, more precisely, why will we make design decisions?
You can’t always make design decisions that appeal to the largest number of people because you don’t know what the largest number of people actually want. Game designers probably do not think of why they’re making design decisions in a broader sense—they might say “because this will be fun” or “because this will make money” but they won’t be able to answer much further if pressed. Game design is guided very much by intuition. Designers primarily refit concepts they’ve seen in other games into the context of their game—genres are in this way perpetuated by endless clones with slight variations. Without a more objective criteria for design decisions, “that which I think will be most popular” or “that which I’ve seen and liked before” are the main justifications for design on a broader level—as long as those justifications rule, clones are the order of the day.
When I approach analyzing a game’s design and judging the quality of certain design decisions, I open myself up to the patterns the game reveals to me. How do I play the game? Where are the developers trying to focus my attention? I start from a holistic view of how the game is put together and then look at more specific aspects to see if rough edges show themselves. I try to see what design decisions fit and do not fit with the patterns I noticed when looking at the game as a whole.
From here I can derive the “consistency” of the game design. A consistent design directs the player naturally towards what the game does best and doesn’t distract her with divergent quirks and mechanical dead-ends. Generally, games that have consistent designs are better games. Judging the consistency of a game is one way to get a feel for design quality while avoiding the multifaceted and ever-changing subjective nature of fun that gets in the while of “maximizing fun”. Consistency is still very subjective, but it is at least one step away from blind traditionalism and appeals to popularity to which so much game design seems to fall victim.