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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!
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!
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.