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

October 9, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

When I wrote the first Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie column over 10 years ago, I thought of it as nothing more than a personal list of gripes -- published today, forgotten tomorrow. I didn't expect so many people to take it seriously, and to be so eager to offer examples of their own.

After last year's column I got a flood of new suggestions from frustrated players and developers, so here are nine new Twinkie Denial Conditions for the ninth installment of Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!

Failure to Explain Victory and Loss Conditions

This is a bad one -- one of the worst. Unless the game is an open-ended sandbox toy like The Sims, the player must know what he's working towards -- the victory condition -- and, even more importantly, what he must avoid -- the loss condition.

Tim Elder of Blue Alto (big up for using your real details, Tim) writes, "I was playing through the single player missions in the Dawn of War expansion Winter Assault when I got to an Eldar mission that involved blowing up an Ork power generator to cause a distraction. My first time through the mission, I read the mission briefing, which stated that we didn't have enough troops for a full assault, so we had to blow up the generator to bring the Orks to it, and we could go around them."

"My troops approached the generator, killing the small numbers of Orks along the way, and all of a sudden the screen faded out and a message popped up saying 'You have failed the mission.' Huh? Why?"

So he tried something else, and got the same response. And again, and again. "Reload after reload and I still have no idea why I failed the mission, even after once having destroyed the stupid generator. Surely win and loss conditions should be well spelt out, so that the player knows what they need to do, and avoid doing." You're damn right they should. It's one of the most basic principles of design. Bad Game Designer! No Twinkie!

Time-Constrained Demos

Most of the Twinkie Denial Conditions I write about have to do with poor gameplay, controls, balancing, or content. This one's a bit unusual -- it may even be a marketing decision rather than a game design issue. Rob Allen writes, "Take the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix demo, for example. I was admiring the tasteful surrounding of the academy when, lo and behold, 'You have one minute remaining.' I dashed all over the place to find what I was supposed to do and, again, got the screens telling me to buy the game. Why would I want to now?"

EA Games' Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

"The thing just annoyed me by presuming that I wanted the game bad enough to eat up my bandwidth to get the intro screen, and that would make me buy it... Don't even get me started on the pointless mini-game that I could not finish that sapped up 10 minutes."

Now, you might say, "Tough! You can't complain about something that was free." I would disagree, though. Lots of web-based games are free; that's no excuse for delivering a crummy experience. And Rob's got a point about bandwidth. With Comcast announcing that it is placing a hard limit on users' data transfers, we're going to have to think carefully about how many gigabyte-sized demos we're prepared to download. If they eat up the download allocation we have to pay cash for, demos are no longer free.

We already know the demo is going to be limited anyway -- it'll only include part of the content and part of the gameplay. Why force us to quit after a fixed amount of time? The longer we play, the more likely we are to get involved and want to see more. Compare this with Doom. Id gave you the first ten levels, which you could play as much as you wanted.

It was brilliant and made them a fortune. Suppose the Doom demo had stopped in the middle of the first level with the words, "You're out of time. Go buy the game." People would have yanked the floppy disk out of the drive and set fire to it. They certainly wouldn't have bought it in such numbers.

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Haig James Toutikian
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Bless you Ernest Adams! :D Another great addition to the series! I especially agree with Demos - a demo is the closest way to actually previewing the game without being the entire game and if it's not done properly, then, as they say "first impression is the only impression" chances are player's won't purchase the game.

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Some good and some questionable twinkies, but there's one thing I absolutely disagree with:

"People play games in order to overcome challenges, make interesting choices, and generally express themselves"

That's a very limited (and oldschool) view of games. Yes, simplistic and unchallenging games are generally crap, and QTEs are abused these days, but there's value in letting the player enjoy executing a series of moves just because they are cool and fun to watch, even if there's no challenge, choice or self-expression.

Allen Seitz
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The false interactivity and the setting the player up to fail TDCs have similar examples. The real issue there is being frustrated in trying to do something that the game won't let you do. But setting up scenes where "you must ___" are okay if the player's expectations have been managed. I remember a Disgaea game with one of those unwinnable RPG battles. It started with the main character saying something cowardly like "Wow look at the size of that thing! We're gonna get crushed!"

The DKC example wasn't quite the same thing. That's breaking established game rules on a whim. (Probably also a TDC, I can't remember.) But DKC is good for a reason. All of those off-screen barrels either had 'signs' or they were only 95% clipped by the edge of your TV. Or they were visible for a quarter of a second as you flew by them at 90 mph. Then it was just a matter of going back for them. All of the levels were designed to be run through once at full speed and once more by crawling with your spider sense on.

Jason Bakker
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"Another example is in many RPGs, with impossible battles where you're punished for actually trying to win through the wasting of healing items but rewarded for losing because that's what the story wants you to do."



I agree with this in theory, but in practice, the part in Deus Ex where player death is part of the story worked for me very well (as in, it was a huge surprise when it didn't reload, and instead I had awakened in an strange environment).

Did anyone get frustrated by that part of Deus Ex? One important difference to the "impossible boss battle" is that you are not necessarily led to believe that the encounter in which you inevitably die is going to be that much harder than the rest of the game - that after you happen to die there, you may think "Wow, that was hard", but by the time you've thought that, you're already progressing through the story.

Lufia II on the SNES also had a player death that I thought worked well in the context of the larger story and was an interesting thing to happen (I remember being pretty wowed as a kid) - although I must admit that I probably used up quite a lot of stuff trying to get through it the first time.

Arjen Meijer
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Ahhhh something to start the morning with, get a hot cup a coffee.

Thanks Ernest!

Jim Conrad
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Maurice Kroes
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I giggled when I saw the Harry Potter example. Me and my girlfriend played it and were really annoyed by the marble minigame that lasted 90% of the demo time and wasnt even fun. Although a timed demo like skate. worked pretty well in my eyes.

Good read anyway :)

Jason Seip
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The above "Setting the Player up to Fail" section brought back some vivid memories of playing Quake 4. It's been a while since I played it, so someone correct me if my memory is incorrect, but I remember an encounter in which I was destined to fail that I think could've been handled better.

I don't think at this point it is a spoiler to mention that early in the game the player gets captured and partially turned into a Strogg (the cyborg bad guys). This capture occurs during a boss fight that you cannot win. Here's the problem: if you take too much damage and die too early in the boss fight, that's it - you're dead. Reload. You have to survive long enough to make it to the stage of the battle in which your defeat triggers the whole captured-turned-into-cyborg cutscene. Which probably sounds like a bad idea already, but I'll give you an example to explain why it is: I DID die early in this encounter the first time I played it. So coming back in and trying again I assumed the boss could be defeated, even though I was overwelmingly outmatched. Or at the very least, I had decided that I couldn't let myself be killed. So I took cover, I unloaded every last bit of ammunition I had, and still I fought on, trying to survive as long as I could. Eventually I got tired of hiding with nothing left to throw at my enemy, so I let him kill me. Cue cutscene. Cue remorse over 20 minutes of my life wasted.

Razien Bordello
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Great article.

I'm really pissed by modern shooters. They are clearly built for consoles (which, imo, is horrendous, as you have to use a turning device for aiming purposes), and then ported to PCs. So we get games with huge aiming sights (and spreading bullets), AI that make large sidesteps, and clunky button layout.

Razien Bordello
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I also encoutered the fail method in some RPGs. Then, one solved it quite easily: it didn't allow me to use items, and recovered any used magic power after the fight. I still fought for my life, giving the effects the designer wanted to give, but didn't feel cheated after the fight.

Gregory Austin
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I have to agree with Stone about the ending of Shadow of the Colossus.

The entirety of the game is about holding on and stubbornly refusing to quit. In the ending you can hold on for a long time, but you eventually have to let go. I believe that the act of the player giving up during the ending is exactly what makes it so moving.

Maurício Gomes
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Star Ocean 2 has more or less the serious item wasting problem...

On that game, non-winable fights at a point become quite common, how they work? You fight, fight and fight and after some time the enemy just flees, and the screen shows: timeout.

I tought: Nice solution, so I get rewarded for fighting properly and I do not need to know if I was supposed to beat him or not.

Then in a single cut-scene I was supposed to LOSE the fight, but I did not knew, and I beated the boss like mad, spammed items, fought it with every inch of my soul, expecting that at least it would time-out like bosses before and that.

But no! The boss started to manage to kill my characters, I still ressurected them, after a while the mana items to give to my healer depleted, after a while he killed the healer, but I still fought valiantly, started to heal myself heavily with items, even inneficient ones that are supposed to be used in the creation of other items...

After a 30 minute long fight he managed to kill me after all my healing and MP items (and some other items too, like bombs and stats changing items) depleted.

And then I see a crappy cut-scene where he kicks me into the water, and other characters run from him and jump into the water too, to me land ashore in the last island of the planet (where the final fight of the planet is).


Bob McIntyre
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Ninja Gaiden Sigma did a slightly better version of this in the battle at the end of the second level. You fight this big ghost in samurai armor, and there's no way you're going to win. He does tons of damage, is way harder to dodge than what you've seen so far, and you have a puny weapon and a tiny life bar. Plus he has one unblockable move that wins the fight automatically if it hits. The first time I fought him, I chugged down a ton of healing items. They sort of make up for this by giving you several healing items at the very beginning of the next level, which is a level you can't revisit after completing it, so these items really are windfalls, which mitigates the sense of waste somewhat. In addition, it is technically possible to beat him, and doing so unlocks the next difficulty level; the only other way to unlock the next difficulty level is to finish the game, which I think is actually easier. If you do beat him, there's an alternate cutscene, but of course he still still "wins" the fight.

Still, I think that they made it better first by giving you a reward for "winning" the ultimately unwinnable battle, and second by replenishing your stock of wasted items immediately following the fight.

Johnny Rockett
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re: Setting the player up to fail - it's very annoying. I've been put in that position time and time again... either by hopping into a game and being forced to fight an enemy I can't beat [and of course, wasting every item I have], or an enemy I CAN beat, but have to figure out on my own HOW, or by something like fighting my way through waves and waves of enemies only to realize that they don't stop respawning, and there is another way you're supposed to progress through the level [find an exit, solve a puzzle, etc.]

The directions to the game should be clear, you should know when you're trying to kill something that can be killed, and if you as a developer REALLY want a player to figure out how to beat the enemy, at least give a hint. Don't make me have to look up a FAQ just to learn that the only way to beat Psycho Mantis is to take the controller out and plug it into a different slot.

re: Saving just before you die - Set save points in non-danger areas are okay, but sometimes you can forget to save at one, or you might be saving in a totally different place from where you're supposed to be [yay for dying and having to trek all the way to the objective], or may just not see it entirely. Multiple saves is also okay, but in my own experience, I tend to forget to make a "backup save" for so long that if I do screw up my main save I have to go back so far that I don't want to play anymore, though alternating saves usually helps.

Checkpoints are a great way to solve this problem, especially if you have the option to either load from a checkpoint or your own save point. I also like when there are other ways to save yourself from doom, like in Prince of Persia, with the ability to reverse time to before your death [though it's limited, so you might not always be able to save yourself] or like in the new Duke Nukem 3D for Xbox Live that records your progress for the entire level and allows you to replay at any point, but this borders close on the "repetitive loading" method of cheating in games, where dying is irrelevant as you can just load up a save from seconds before until you get it right.

These things aren't easy, but developers really should put more time into these key aspects in functionality. Someday they'll learn. Until then I won't be jumping into any pits looking for secrets.

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Psycho Mantis can be beaten without switching the controller port. He dodges two attacks, then gets hit by the third one. Also, the game will tell you directly to change controller ports if you use the codec to ask for help. On top of that, if you die two or three times, the colonel will contact you on his own and tell you. That is not "setting the player up to fail." That is you not learning that you're supposed to use the codec to call for support and advice. The game tells you to do this right up front and introduces a whole team of different people who all have tons to say about different topics; it is your fault for not listening.

If you're fighting waves of endlessly-respawning enemies, it's probably because it's a puzzle and you're supposed to find another way around. Unless the game has repeatedly forced you to fight 200 bad guys in a row, or has somehow told you "your mission is to kill every last ghoul with your holy sword," it's your fault for not recognizing the pattern. For example, there are multiple scenes in Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones where you are the Dark Prince and you get mobbed endlessly by bad guys who come out of places that you cannot enter. Killing them will sustain your health meter, but they never stop coming. You need to find a way out of the area. The real purpose of the bad guys is to buy you time while you figure out where to go; they're actually there to help you. The game doesn't mislead you into thinking that killing them is going to get you out of trouble. You know by that point that the Dark Prince has a life drain on him and if you don't find your way to water to return to normal, you'll eventually die. If you somehow manage to forget that information, it's your own fault.

There's a big difference between "setting the player up to fail" and forcing the player to figure something out. It sounds like you just give up to fast, or flat-out refuse to think. Seriously, you found out about the controller-port trick on Psycho Mantis by looking up a FAQ? That means that you didn't exhaust the conversation with the colonel before you went online. You actually left the game to look for help instead of using the game's built-in hint system. Furthermore, you went for help without even trying the battle two or three times on your own, because if you had been using continues, the colonel would've contacted you. Not to mention that it's actually possible to win without it anyway.

So basically, you must have given up without asking the game for help and without even trying very many times. That's not the game's fault. That's the player's fault.

Reid Kimball
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I think the end of Shadow of the Colossus (interactive bit that we're all referencing) is excellent. Though, I know others who didn't understand failing was part of it. I think those cases, they were too rigid in their expectations of what a game and how one plays a game is supposed to be like.

Another example is in God of War 2, but that one I think works better for everyone because the animations of Kratos change dramatically to communicate that he's getting very weak and it's impossible to fight properly. It's clear the end is near and that it's intentional because the animations changed.

Jacob Corum
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Ah...Timed demos. I didn't even know those still existed. You make a very valid point from a commercial point of view; but I still have fond memories of playing a demo over and over again trying to get as far as I could before my time ran out. Some games have a cap on how far you could go (lame), but when your freedom is determined only by your skill the experience become much more rewarding.

Jacob Corum
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If I remember correctly, wasn't the original Metal Gear Solid demo timed?

Steven An
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I'm not convinced about the forced-failure thing myself. It certainly can be done incorrectly (who didn't try a few times to survive the ambush in Deus Ex?) and that results in frustration. But when done right, it's a pretty powerful tool IMO.

SOTC's ending is one of my favorite endings because of that part. It made you feel very tragically helpless, and contrasted well with the rest of the game in a very real, interactive way. I can understand why some may interpret it as another challenge and actually try to survive (the thought did cross my mind), but for a good number of people, it was clear that it was helpless. So, it's a matter of how to do it well. You need to communicate to the player, yet don't do it too soon since you want that realization of helplessness. A very subtle, interesting issue indeed.

Tracy Seamster
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Another timed demo...Virtual Villagers. If you didn't pay for the game, your villagers ran out of resources and died of starvation. =o That's really putting the pressure on!

Shane Hendrickson
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'One Man Science Team' might want to revisit Donkey Kong Country. Last time I checked, if you needed to jump down a pit or break any other rule to attain a secret, there was some sort of a hint telling you as much. One single banana just barely visible at the bottom of the screen, or a partially obscured barrel, they were there. I'm pretty sure that a large number of us found every secret without having to resort to 'jumping into every pit in every level.'

Serious lack of research: bad game designer, no twinkie!

Kathie Jauregui
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Oh man finally!! Bad A.I. is my biggest turn off from a game. Beyond Good and Evil is one of my favorite action adventure games but the A.I.s in there tend to tick me off. When you have a parter he is supposed to help you is he not? Well its not really helping when you have to watch your butt and his in combat. It sucks because if your A.I. dies you die as well. And it's not particularly fun when I finally get to where i need to be and I have to backtrack because he is stuck behind a wall. Thank you Earnest Adams!!! Well proved point there.

Matthew Bockholt
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"Setting the Player Up to Fail"

I have a story about this that I like to share with people, to remind them that even really good games can get it completely wrong. If you haven't played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, then this will contain spoilers (though nothing serious). If you are obsessed beyond reason with the game you may not want to read this... =)

At one point in the story line you are forced to fight with the main bad guy (I forget if it is Revan or Malak). This fight, however, you are not meant to win. You are meant to lose. If you do any significant damage to him the Sith Lord freezes your party and runs away. You give chase and fight him again, although he has regained some health. This continues until he has won (at which point I'm not sure exactly what explained below).

However, since this is an RPG, and one that includes the possibility to grind, it is really impossible for the designers to tell what level the player's characters would be during this first encounter. I'm of the type of player that doesn't mind doing some mindless grinding to get a bit ahead of the difficulty level, and I especially enjoy this if there are abilities that I'm desirous to unlock (too many games don't let you get the best abilities till right near the end when you only get to use them for a very short while, but that's another story). So in my case, I had done lots of grinding, and upon meeting up with the Sith Lord for this first encounter I was likely far beyond what the designers had expected. With my first hit I took the enemy down to 0 health. He froze my characters and ran away. I was annoyed. I had one shotted him! How did he have such amazing power? But I followed. This process continued, with me one shotting him every time we caught back up to him. He never had a chance to hurt us even a little bit, but still continued freezing us and running. I was infuriated. After doing this for about 30 minutes I realized that the game was not going to let me win. Finally I had to go in to the menus to turn all of my companions passive, and then not do any attacking to let the Sith Lord win (which I only did to confirm my suspicions).

As soon as I verified that I had been set up to lose (and unreasonably considering the circumstances), I instead turned off the Xbox and declared myself the winner. I had saved the galaxy, the Sith Lord was dead. I never played KOTOR again.

Why didn't they just make this one enemy scaling? His level should have been "Character's Level Plus X", with X being whatever number made sense so that he WOULD be unbeatable. Players should never have to go completely against what the gameplay is in order to progress. Even in Donkey Kong at least those secret areas that you had to jump down pits to find were extras, secrets, optional. But.. forcing players to do something that they should never consider doing? No excuses.