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Designer's Notebook: Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!

March 13, 1998

Lately I have been playing a number of old games, and I’ve noticed something interesting in comparison with today’s games. The technology has changed enormously, of course. But some of the design mistakes we made in the past are still being made in modern games. The same irritating misfeatures and poorly-designed puzzles that appeared in games as early as fifteen or twenty years ago are still around.

Herewith a list of game misfeatures that I’m tired of seeing. This is a highly personal perspective and your opinion may differ, but to me, these are a sign of sloppy, or lazy, game design.

Boring and Stupid Mazes

The original text adventure, Colossal Cave, had two mazes. One was a series of rooms each of which was described thus: “You’re in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” The other was a series of rooms described as, “You’re in a twisting little maze of passages, all different” (or “You’re in a little twisty maze of passages, all different,” or “You’re in a maze of little twisting passages, all different,” etc.). These were the prototypical boring and stupid mazes. Colossal Cave was the first adventure game ever, though, so I cut it a little slack. But that was over twenty years ago; there’s no longer any excuse for doing that now. Somebody gave me a copy of The Legend of Kyrandia a few years back, and I played it with some pleasure – right up until I got to the maze.

Mazes don’t have to be boring and stupid. It’s possible to design entertaining mazes by ordering the rooms according to a pattern that the player can figure out. A maze should be attractive, clever, and above all, fun to solve. If a maze isn’t interesting or a pleasure to be in, then it’s a bad feature.

Games Without Maps

I have a notoriously poor sense of direction inside buildings, so maybe it’s just me. Still, in the video game world where all the walls and floors use the same textures, places look too much alike. In the real world, even the most rigid cubicle-hell office building has something to distinguish one area from another – a stain on the carpet, a cartoon posted outside someone’s cube. I played Doom and had a great time. I fired up the Quake demo, found out there was no map, and dumped it. I want a map. There’s no reason for withholding a map from me unless it’s just to slow me down, and that’s a poor substitute for providing real gameplay. Bad game designer! No Twinkie!

Incongruous or Fantasy-Killing Elements

Sometimes an adventure game will present you with a puzzle, or other obstacle, that is completely outside the fantasy you’re supposed to be having. In my opinion, that’s a case of the designer running out of ideas, and it’s disappointing to the player. If you’ve taken me away to a magical world where I’m a heroic knight on a glorious quest to rescue the fearsome princess, don’t make me sit and play Mastermind with the dragon. If I absolutely must play a game with him, it should be Nine Men’s Morris, but frankly, it would be more appropriate just to thrash the scoundrel soundly.

This leads quite naturally to my next complaint, which is…

Pointless Surrealism

A number of games have come out which eschew the standard SF/fantasy worlds and instead plunge the player into a twisted and disturbing realm of yadda yadda yadda. Let me tell you something about the capital-S Surrealism of the capital-A Art world: it’s not just randomness. Real Surrealism seeks to shock the mind into a new awareness of [ the human condition | the nature of God | the meaning of compassion | etc. ] through the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated objects and ideas – the key word being “seemingly.” Although appearing bizarre and perhaps even nonsensical at first, true Surrealism is informed by an underlying theme.

I haven’t seen any surrealism in computer games that could claim such noble goals. Most of it has looked to me like somebody said, “… and when you reach the control room of the Doomsday Machine, there’ll be a clown in there! Yeah! That’ll be cool!” Surrealism is like prose poetry: easy to do, but extremely hard to do well. “It’s surrealism” is not an adequate excuse for a poorly conceived vision in the first place.

Which takes me effortlessly to…

Puzzles Requiring Extreme Lateral Thinking

These are puzzles of the “use the lampshade with the bulldozer” variety. The designer may think he’s being funny or even surreal, but he’s really just being adolescently tiresome. It’s lazy puzzle design – making a puzzle difficult by making its solution obscure or irrational. You can add to the player’s play-time by creating ridiculous obstacles, but you’re not really adding to his or her enjoyment, and that’s supposed to be the point.

Puzzles Permitting No Lateral Thinking At All

You come to a locked door. The obvious solution is to find the key, but it’s also the most boring, so maybe the game provides some other way to get it open. But like as not, there’s only one solution, whatever it is.

In text-adventure terms, this was known as the “find the right verb” problem – you were dead in the water until you figured out exactly what verb the game was waiting for you to say. Break? Hit? Smash? Demolish? Pound? Incinerate? And a lot of games today have the same problem: an obstacle which can only be overcome in one way. The game doesn’t encourage the player to think; it demands that the player read the designer’s mind.

In the real world, think of all the things you can do with a locked door:

  • Find the key
  • Pick the lock
  • Force or persuade the person who has the key to open it
  • Trick someone on the other side into opening it (maybe just by knocking!)
  • Break the door down, burn it, cut it, dissolve it with acid, etc.
  • Circumvent it – go through a window instead, or cut a hole in the wall.

The list is limited only by your imagination.

OK, I know this is a tall order. As a developer, it’s difficult and expensive to think of all the ways that someone could try to get through a door and to implement them all. Still, now that we have the have the power to create “deformable environments” – that is, your gunshots and explosions actually affect everything in the real world and not just your enemies – it’s time to add a little variety to our worlds, to reward players who do some lateral thinking.

Puzzles Requiring Obscure Knowledge From Outside the Game

I owe this one to my friend, the genius puzzle-master Scott Kim ( I didn’t think of it until he read a draft of this column and pointed it out to me. This is a cheap trick, and even more irritating than inside jokes. No, I don’t know the name of the third track on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and if it’s vital that I know it for the game, then the game is just weird. (Trivia games like You Don’t Know Jack are of course excluded from this gripe – with them you know what you’re getting into.)

A Switch in One Room Opens a Door In Another Room A Mile Away

Nor does it have to be a door – I mean any item which affects a game obstacle a long way off. Doom was guilty of this a lot, but the worst example ever was in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an Infocom text adventure. In that game, if you didn’t pick up the junk mail at the very beginning of the game, it was unwinnable at the very end. This misfeature is profoundly and pointlessly irritating. With the exception of refineries and nuclear power plants, in most places in the world the knob for a door is – wonder of wonders – in the door. It’s another example of lazy puzzle design, making the problem difficult not by cleverness but artificially extending the time it takes to solve it.

Only One of [some large number] of Possible Combinations Is the Right One

More lazy puzzle design. At the end of Infidel, which was another Infocom adventure, you had to do four things in a certain sequence. The number of possible combinations is 4! (four factorial, or 24). There was no clue whatsoever as to the correct sequence; you just had to try them all. Yuck. Yet another time-waster with no enjoyment value.

Kill Monster/Take Sword/Sell Sword/Buy A Different Sword/Kill Another Monster

...or in other words, the canonical RPG experience. You may have heard John F. Kennedy’s joke that Washington D.C. is a city of southern efficiency and northern charm. Well, in my opinion most RPG’s combine the pulse-pounding excitement of a business simulation with the intellectual challenge of a shooter. I play games of medieval adventure and heroism to slay princesses and rescue dragons; I don’t play them to spend two-thirds of my time dickering with shopkeepers. I want to be a hero, but the game forces me to be an itinerant second-hand arms dealer. Earning money by robbing corpses doesn’t make me feel all that noble, either.

You Have 30 Seconds to Figure Out This Level Before You Die

With the length of time most games take to load their core modules, this isn’t clever or challenging; it’s just frustrating. If there’s a trick to the solution for which no clues are provided, then it’s just another annoying trial-and-error time-waster. If clues are provided, then you need a reasonable amount of time to think them over. The military doesn’t charge blindly into unreconnoitered territory – or if they do, they usually regret it. Expecting your player to do it is unreasonable. If you’re going to place your player in imminent danger from the very first second she sees the screen, then at least one out of every three of her possible choices should lead to safety.

Stupid Opponents

Another thing I’m tired of is stupid monsters who lumber towards you until you shoot them. This was the Doom technique, and that of a million video games since the dawn of time. Instead of providing you with an intelligent challenge, the game seeks to overwhelm you with sheer numbers. Yawn. Space Invaders may have been brilliant and addictive in its day, but it’s time to move on.

So let’s get imaginative! How about some cowardly monsters who take one potshot at you, then run away to fight another day? Or maybe some monsters who duck in and out of cover? How about one that runs off at the first sight of you and brings back half a dozen friends – if you can nail it on its way out, then it can’t raise the alarm. Or what about some who try to sneak around and come up behind you? Or who offer direct battle, but run away when they’re injured, rather than fighting idiotically to the death? Maybe we could have some monsters whose job is to lure you out of cover so their friends can shoot at you. (That was the role of the flying saucer in the original coin-op Battle Zone.) Or even – gasp! – some monsters who are smart enough to do all these things, like, say, people are! Zounds!

None of these ideas are new; it’s just that we don’t see them that often. Why? Laziness again. Dumb monsters are easy to program. Smart ones aren’t. And it’s easy to balance a game with dumb opponents. You just figure out the appropriate ratio of monsters to “health” powerups. To make the game harder, you change the ratio. But it’s boring. Let’s put a little thought into monster design, give our customers a new challenge.

Two other things I’m tired of – these are aesthetic rather than design elements, but I’ll throw ’em in for good measure.

Poor Acting

Bad acting is a distraction, no less in a computer game than in a movie theater. It breaks your suspension of disbelief. When a bad actor is surrounded by good actors, it’s especially noticeable, and you find yourself praying that their character will be killed off. And most of the acting in computer games is still pretty poor.

Fortunately, this is a problem that will probably take care of itself in the end. Competition will force us to develop some competence in this area. If we can manage to get up to the TV-movie-of-the-week level, I’ll be happy. John Gielgud and Katharine Hepburn’s talents would be wasted in a computer game, where the point is supposed to be interactivity anyway. It’s better to do without acting in a computer game than to include bad acting, and usually cheaper and easier as well.

Neat, Tidy Explosions

Look closely at a picture of a place where a bomb went off. It’s a mess. A real mess. Things are broken into pieces of all sizes, from chunks that are nearly the whole object, to shrapnel and slivers, down to dust. And they’re twisted, shredded, barely recognizable. Things that are blown up by a bomb don’t fall neatly apart into four or five little polygons – they’re blasted to smithereens.

I suppose for the sake of our stomachs we’ll have to preserve the TV and film fiction that people who die violently do so quickly and quietly rather than screaming and rolling around; but I don’t see any need to pretend that high explosives are less than apallingly destructive. Bombs ruin things – lives and buildings. They leave the places they’ve been shattered and unattractive. Let’s tell the truth about them.


Scott Kim tells me that I’m being a bit harsh by labeling some of these misfeatures as “lazy” puzzle design. He points out that puzzle design is hard work to begin with, and unless you’re quite familiar with the games of the past, it’s easy to make the same mistakes again without knowing it. In addition, a lot of people come into puzzle design from other fields like programming or art, and so don’t have much experience at it.

I’ll buy that. But now that you have this handy list, at least you needn’t make these mistakes, right?

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