[The latest installment of Ernest Adams' Designer's Notebook series once again takes a close look at major and minor design flaws made by developers -- when it comes to interface, A.I. behavior, or pure game design -- and highlights them so you know what to avoid doing.]
Welcome to the 12th installment of Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! I think we're having a positive impact, folks -- many of the games mentioned in this edition are fairly old, so it's just possible that newer games are starting to avoid the worst design mistakes. I'd like to hope that this gripe-fest is helping. However, old or new, we can always learn from the errors of the past, so I'm going to go right on documenting them. As always, thanks to my many contributors, and you're welcome to send more complaints to email@example.com.
As usual, I've tried to mix and match between small things that are incredibly annoying (but easy to fix) and larger, harder problems. This year we have eight.
I read fast, and I don't like to re-read something that I've just read five minutes ago. Waiting for text to... scroll... slowly... by... drives me nuts, especially if it's text I've already seen.
Joshua Gault wrote, "This is most annoying when you save, then there is a long conversation between you and some guy, and he turns out to be the boss.
"This is particularly bad at the end of all of the Mega Man Battle Network games. I don't like breaking my A button from anger because I must retry the boss, which requires me to go through four pages of text."
It's very simple: non-interactive text should be interruptible, just as movies should be.
Oh, and don't put save points before long non-interactive sections, either -- text, cinematics, or empty regions the player has to walk through. But you knew that one, right? I mentioned it last year in Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! XI.
The flip side of the foregoing is text that goes by too fast. Shairi Turner wrote, "I have a problem with dialogue moving too quickly. We don't all read at the same speed. While I may have found pressing X or clicking to be tedious in the past, I miss it when it's gone." This is a basic accessibility failure. (Most games have terrible accessibility.)
You need two buttons: Advance to Next Page (which should happen instantly, not in a slow scroll or worse yet, a letter-by-letter display -- TeleTypes were old news by 1985, okay?) and Jump to End, which should take the player to the next point at which she has to take action or make a decision.
I've always thought that explicit alignment systems, a la Dungeons & Dragons, were kind of pointless anyway; they constrain role-playing and discourage enacting characters with flaws or complex personalities. Is Hamlet good or evil? Well, he killed Polonius, so I guess that makes him evil. Whew. I'm glad we've got that sorted out.
It's even more of a problem in computer RPGs that keep track of what you do, but only in a simplistic way. Luke Bainton wrote,
Generally, you have to decide from the outset whether you're going to be the white knight or the black knave; you will only get benefits from relentlessly pursuing one or the other. On top of this, the contrast between being "good" and "bad" is usually so far divided it's impossible to relate. In BioShock your choices are between being a loving caretaker for the rest of your life or turning into a comic-book supervillain with destroy-the-world intentions. I have no desire to do either!
The concept of neutrality is usually poorly implemented as well. In some games it means you need to balance good acts with evil ones, which gets hard to swallow. Roughing up one pedestrian for a few coins and then helping another across the street doesn't make you neutral, it makes you schizophrenic.
If you want to track the player's behavior and generate consequences for it, by all means do, but the consequences have to be proportionate to the activity. And if you're interested in rewarding moral, or immoral, behavior, it's better to do it via some in-world system than an arbitrary alignment. For example, if players want to be evil, let them join the Crime Guild and work their way up, gaining benefits as they go. They shouldn't be thrown out for the occasional act of virtue, nor should they be thrown out of the Heroes Guild for a little burglary in a good cause.
While we're on the subject of alignments...
The example for this goes back a way, but it's a good one. Benoit Girard chose to play a good Jedi in Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, but...
You could get a powerful Jedi mind control trick allowing you to change an enemy into a neutral NPC permanently. You could use it to neutralize your opponents before killing them (not very Jedi-like), or just neutralize them and continue exploring the current level.
In a Bespin level, you ended up in an arena-like place where dark Jedis would attack you, and from which you could escape only after defeating them. The problem is that the appearance of the dark Jedis was triggered by the slaughter of all the other opponents in the level... something I figured out after more than half an hour trying to find the secret exit I might have missed somewhere in the level, while a bunch of formerly-hostile NPCs were walking around randomly.
So Benoit, being a good Jedi, courteously neutralized all his opponents without killing them, then couldn't find the exit because it didn't exist yet. The only way to get out was to massacre all the harmless neutrals in cold blood, thus triggering the appearance of the dark Jedi, and then kill all of them before the door would open.
And we wonder why some people are concerned about violence in video games. Note that this is what you're supposed to do when you're the good guy!
I already covered Illogical Victory Checks back in Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! VIII, and this is certainly an example. (Normally, you don't have to kill people to unlock a door.) But apart from that, it compels the player to violate his alignment, requiring him to do something that the game has told him not to do.
Lying to the player about how he's supposed to play the game is almost never a good idea. (Yes, I know about Shadow of the Colossus, and I'm not convinced.) Worse yet, it fails to recognize lateral thinking. Benoit neutralized his opponents without shedding a drop of blood. That should be rewarded, not ignored.
It's one thing to put the player in a moral dilemma for dramatic effect. But this was no dilemma, it was just bad level design... and a Twinkie Denial Condition.