Game Design. Now we arrive at the heart of the matter. Game design is one of those all-encompassing terms. We could easily spend a hundred pages or more looking at every mechanic and the right and wrong ways to implement them. While that would certainly be educational, it doesn't answer the main question of this article: are there correlations in design that affect game quality?
To start, we need to understand one of the basic fundamentals of what separates a game from other forms of entertainment. A game is made up of a series of rules that the participants must agree to, and adhere to, for the duration of the time played. Now, there are basic rules that every game follows: how it's played, how to win, how to lose, etc. The ones we want to focus on are the rules that define the game set by the designer.
When you are playing a Super Mario Galaxy game, you don't question why Mario can dress up as a bumblebee and fly around or wall jump, as the rules allow Mario to do those things. On the other hand, you can't double jump as any class other then the scout in Team Fortress 2, because the rules won't allow that. The problem is breaking the rules of the game.
Before we discuss rule-breaking, one distinction has to be made; hacks and mods are not a part of this discussion, as they rely on outside software to be utilized. Rule-breaking can be simply defined as the following:
Content that circumvents previously established rules or design.
A real world example of rule-breaking can be seen when children are playing. If you have ever watched, or been a part of, a game where the child changes the rules constantly to keep themselves from losing, you can remember how frustrating that can be -- and you can see the correlation in video game design.
Rule-breaking can occur in several situations, each of which needs to be examined. The first case -- and it's where bad game design comes into play -- is when the designer breaks their own rules as an attempt to challenge the player. Another definition for this kind of difficulty is "cheap".
Cheap difficulty can be a frustrating experience for gamers, as it shows the fallacies of the design. One famous example is from the game Gun, which came out in 2005. Gun was a third person shooter set in the Old West. From the beginning, the game establishes the standard rule set of a third person shooter, with one being that headshots do extra damage.
All this is fine for the majority of the game until the player reaches the final boss. The final fight takes place in a cavern with the big bad guy, who is wearing armor that covers his chest. Naturally, you would assume that means that he cannot be hurt by chest shots, but shots to the head would work. That is not the case, and players will find that no matter how many times they hit the boss in the head he won't go down. Instead, the player has to shoot the dynamite the boss throws to cause a cave-in that kills him.
Boss fights, by their nature, break the rules of the game to give the game a challenge, as the player is fighting a unique threat. The problem with Gun's fight is that the challenge of this fight goes against the rules that were established in the world.
Rule-breaking doesn't just happen in boss fights. One of the common annoyances of the Grand Theft Auto series' mission design are missions where the player is told to kill someone, but that person is invulnerable until the script of the mission gives the go-ahead. Once again, this breaks the rules of the established world.
Another example of rule breaking was from the game Bayonetta, which was mentioned in my earlier article on Darwinian Difficulty:
At the start, the player is introduced to the concept of "Witch Time". By dodging attacks at the precise moment of impact, the world slows down for the player, allowing for an increased window for attack. Slowing down time also allows players a chance to hit enemies that are more agile then the player.
However, halfway through the game, the designers introduce "gold-plated" enemies, whose attacks will not trigger Witch Time if the player dodges them. Because Witch Time is one of the only two ways of avoiding damage for much of the game, players are left severely handicapped while fighting these enemies.
The concept of "infinite spawns" also relates to this section. In most games, it's never established why enemies can just spawn infinitely in some areas without a way to stop them other then getting past the spawn trigger. This issue becomes more troublesome with games that take place in the real world, as it is not only breaking the rules, but also breaks the immersion of the setting.
While rule-breaking by the developers is usually a form of bad design, it is a different matter when the player performs it. The Disgaea series is known for having a massive amount of post-game content, in the form of extra-hard maps and extreme boss fights. To aid the player, the designers implement multiple systems designed to boost the capabilities of the player's units to obscene levels. If the player decides to use these mechanics early on, they will break the main game's difficulty. Instead of being cheap, this form of rule-breaking rewards the player and encourages them to learn (and exploit) the game's mechanics.
The collectible card game genre also benefits from rule-breaking as its advanced rules and cards always involve some layer of rule-breaking that players can use to their advantage. Because the breaking can occur between the players themselves, it is far more acceptable within the confines of the genre. Expert-level play can become a tug of war between players affecting the rules and one upping their opponent to try and get the advantage.