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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.
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 (http://www.scottkim.com). 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.
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.
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?