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[Veteran designer Ernest Adams reviews nine more game design mistakes in the tenth anniversary of his long-running 'Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!' series, ranging from psychic AI as exemplified in Oblivion to magic perfect cover in shooting games to the ongoing reliance on grinding in MMOs. For those looking to read previous instalments, here are links to #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, and #9 in the series.]
Another year, another collection of game design errors. I've got a whole mail folder full, and I'm always eager to hear about more. I'm so busy with my regular work that I don't get the chance to play the variety of games that I would like to, so every year I count on submissions from you loyal readers to find the broken ones for me.
We'll start with two from role-playing games sent in by Kris Kelly. (Why are so many Twinkie Denial Conditions in RPGs? Complex game mechanics, probably.)
Kris's own words are perfectly clear: "In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the guards are so good at their job, they instantly know when you've committed a crime (i.e. killed someone in a building, stolen something), even when they were never in the area. They'll sometimes run all the way across town to try and arrest you.
"Another Oblivion issue is the stolen items thing: merchants will happily accept items you've 'liberated' from the corpses of your enemies, but if you take a candlestick in, you can't even offer it to them, never mind get refused."
The underlying design problems are actually different here. The psychic guards have access to global information when they really should have access only to information about their local region. The other is that the merchants have a peculiar sense of morality: they condone mugging but not burglary. What's that about?
This one is particularly bad because it violates the player's perfectly reasonable expectation that an enemy can't be in two places at once, and ruins a clever ploy.
Here's Kris again: "I can only think of one occurrence of this, but I'm sure it happens in other games. In Neverwinter Nights 2, there's a large battle involving fire giants and a red dragon. You are expected to fight on the side of one or the other but I, being a sneaky type, decided to start the battle on the side of the red dragon and then sneak out while he was fighting the giants and raid his lair.
"I wander over to his abode, loot sack at the ready, only to be confronted by a fully-healed un-harrassed-by-giants red dragon who is hell bent on fighting me, I beat him up a bit (and he reciprocates), then decide to go back to the giant fight (because it was easier) and there he is again, fighting the giants and fully healed once more."
Neverwinter Nights 2
Look: a dragon is either guarding its lair or it's fighting giants somewhere else. Not both. Clearly the designers implemented two dragons and led the player to believe they were both the same. Not fair and not fun.
Level Designs that Over- (or Under-) Use a Game Feature
Pascal Luban, a French freelance game designer I've known for many years, writes:
"A great game feature does not make a game, it is the way it is implemented that does. The best game feature is not enough to support a game by itself, because the best feature eventually becomes boring when you have done it too many times in the same circumstances. I see that on a regular basis in games.
"The level design does not create unique situations tailored to the use of the unique game mechanics of the game. That's why level design is so important: because it allows designer to create diversity and challenge around a given mechanism."
Pascal was reluctant to name names, but he does mention as an example a famous shooter in which the player has super-jump or super-strength abilities, but none of the levels make good use of it.
I've often said that game designers determine what sorts of "LEGO blocks" the game will be made from, but level designers actually construct the game out of those blocks. If the level design doesn't make good use of a feature, then the feature is wasted. If it is used too many times in exactly the same way, then it becomes tiresome.
An example of good design with a limited feature set is Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic only had two moves, jumping and super-spinning, yet the level designs offered enough variety to keep the game interesting.