在早前的文本冒险游戏《Colossal Cave》中就有两个迷宫。一个描述为：“你在一个充满各种类似的曲折小道的迷宫中。”而另外一个则是“你在一个充满各种不同的曲折小道的 迷宫中。”这就是典型的无聊且愚蠢的迷宫设置。因为《Colossal Cave》是第一款冒险类游戏，所以我们不可能对之要求过高。但是想想这是一款20年前的游戏，我们更没有理由 直到现在还延续它的做法。有人跟我推荐了《凯兰迪亚传奇全集》这款前几年发行的游戏，虽然我也感受到了游戏的乐趣，但是当我再次遇到迷宫时，这些乐趣也就淡然无存了。
我非常缺乏方向感。特别是在电子游戏世界中，如果墙壁和地板都使用同样的纹理，那我更难分辨方向了。而在现实世界中，即使是办公大楼中的任何小隔间也拥有区别于其它隔 间的标志，如地毯上的污点，某人座位上的卡通海报等。当我在玩《毁灭战士》时我感受到了很棒的游戏体验。但是我却不喜欢《Quake》这款游戏，因为它未能给玩家提供游戏地 图。游戏没有理由取消地图，除非它的存在会影响玩家的前行速度，并且这么做便不能将真正的游戏设置展现在玩家眼前。
有时候，冒险游戏会呈现给玩家一些不协调的问题或障碍。我认为这是设计师江郎才尽的表现，并且会因此让玩家对游戏感到失望。如果游戏将玩家引入一个奇幻世界，并且玩家 在游戏中扮演的是英雄骑士的角色需要拯救出美丽的公主，但是游戏却未设置与英雄斗争的恶龙形象，这便会因此破坏游戏的沉浸感。而对于《Nine Men’s Morris》这款游戏， 我认为如果它只是设置玩家打击恶棍会更加协调。
我从来没看过哪一款电子游戏的超现实主义能够设置如此宏伟的目标。大多数游戏都只是在说“当你到达Doomsday Machine的控制室时，你会看到一个小丑站在那！很酷吧！”其 实，超现实主义就像是一篇散文诗歌：很容易做，但是却很难做得好。一个构思拙劣的游戏内容不能将“这是超现实主义”作为借口。
这是一种低级做法，就像是我不知道《Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band》（游戏邦注：披头士的热门专辑）中的第三首歌的名字，但是游戏却对我提出了这个要求，如 此看来这只能说明游戏设置太过怪异了。
这里我指的是任何能够影响远处游戏障碍的道具。《毁灭战士》在这方面做得并不好，但是最糟糕的例子还是《The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy》（Infocom旗下的一款 文本冒险游戏）。在游戏中，如果玩家不能在一开始就接收垃圾邮件，他便不能在游戏最后获得胜利。这种糟糕的功能设置也是一种怠惰的谜题设计，它人为地延长了游戏时间， 而不是让玩家凭借智慧取胜。
大多数游戏加载内容时都要经过相当一段时间长度，如果仅为玩家提供短短数十秒时间思考对策，这绝非一个聪明或者具有挑战性的设置，它只会让玩家感到挫败。如果游戏未提 供任何线索，那么这便是另一种浪费时间、让玩家盲目试错的方法。而如果游戏提供了一定的线索，也需要给予玩家一定的时间进行思考。任何军队都不会盲目地进入一片未经侦 查的领域。所以你也不要期待玩家会这么做。如果你在游戏的一开始便为玩家设置了一些危机，那么你需要确保至少为他们提供一些安全的选项。
所以让我们发挥想象力！为何不让一些胆小的怪物向你乱射然后逃跑，而后再伺机报复？或者让一些怪物在遮掩物间迅速进进出出？为何不让一个怪物在第一眼看到你时就逃跑了 但随后会带来一些同盟——如果你能够在它的逃跑过程中抓住它，那么它就不能向同盟发出警报了。或者头一回一些怪物鬼鬼祟祟地逼近你？或者一些怪物向你发动直接进攻，但 是却因为负伤而逃跑，而不是一战到底？也许我们可以提供一些怪物去诱惑玩家走出遮盖物，并发动同盟共同发起扫射。或者提供一些足够聪明且能够像人类一样可以执行任何任
幸运的是，这些问题最终都会遭到自我“瓦解”。这个领域中的激烈竞争总是要求我们发展出一些新能力。就像是如果能够获得电视剧或者电影的演技提名，我们会非常高兴。但 我们并不需要John Gielgud以及Katharine Hepburn（游戏邦注：这两者都是早期著名电影演员）这样逼真的表演，因为电脑游戏应该具有交互性。比起在电子游戏中添加糟糕的表 演，还不如直接取消这种表演，这样做反而省钱省力。
当然，从商业的角度上看，发行商不会关心这种问题。对他们来说，5年或10年前的游戏已经没有商业价值了。玩家更愿意将金钱花在新游戏上，旧款游戏的盈利能力已不复存在。 但是从游戏编程的角度来看，这就是是编程方面出现了偏差。如果你的游戏运行速度过快，影响到游戏体验，那么就意味着你在设计时没有考虑到游戏运行速度的问题。更糟糕的 是，你浪费了最宝贵的资源——CPU周期。利用额外的CPU时间，你可以实现许多目标，比如：
3、生成更多多边形。许多游戏为了能在较慢的机器上运行，选择削减3D引擎生成的多边形总数，这样势必会影响到画面质量。选择相反方向的做法会如何呢？以高端机器为目标硬 件设计游戏，然后通过内置缩放程序来适应现今使用的硬件。随着硬件的升级，游戏的视觉效果会变得越来越好。当然，除CPU时间外的内存及其他硬件资源可能会带来问题，但这 种技术依然值得研究和尝试。
我负责编程的首款游戏需要在4.77 MHz 8086到25 MHz 80386间的硬件上运行，因为这是款多人游戏，所以必须保证在各种设备上的运行速度是相同的。为实现这个目标，我将游戏 中所有内容的基础都设定为计时器。主循环以尽量快的速度运行，使游戏对键盘和鼠标的反应速度达到最大化，但所有的显示程序都与计时器绑定，它们只在计时器有盈余能力时 运行。尽管我没有尝试过，但是我认为这款游戏在我的400 MHz Pentium II上将会以同样的速度运行。
许多设计师不喜欢“保存游戏”选项，因为这样玩家任何时候都可以通过读档来纠正自己犯下的任何小错误，这意味着玩家会更快地通关，失败的可能性也会变小。简单地说，玩 家会跳过设计师打算让他们体验到的痛苦和失意。这种想法真得很糟糕。仅仅因为在临近结束时犯个错误而不得不重玩整个关卡，这会让人感到愤怒和乏味。难道游戏设计师制作 游戏只是为了让玩家体验挫败感吗？
在游戏领域中，僵局指你需要某种资源来构建生产机制，以创造出更多的同种资源。我最早在玩《工人物语3》时发现了这个问题。我没有足够的石头来建造采石者小屋，但是没有 采石者小屋我无法获得更多的石头。事实上，出现这种情况并非《工人物语》游戏本身的错，因为游戏之前给了我足够的石头，只是我把这些资源用在其他的建筑上了。当然，某 些情况下，僵局可以作为游戏的失败条件。比如在战争游戏中，如果玩家失去了所有的建筑单位和惟一能够生产建筑单位的建筑物，那么系统会在察觉到这种情况后告知玩家他失
游戏的经济模型越复杂，产生僵局的可能性就越高。《工人物语3》有着非同寻常的复杂模型。当我面临僵局时，我的社区依然繁荣发展而且并未受到攻击，所以不能算是游戏失败 ，只是在游戏中犯了经济错误而已。幸运的是，游戏提供了一个工作区，我可以通过摧毁其他建筑物来回收原始材料。最终，我摧毁建筑物获得足够建造采石者小屋的石头，于是 游戏就又可以继续进展下去。
当我开始玩《印第安纳琼斯与恶魔机器》测试版时，我走不出游戏中的首个房间。这种类型的游戏我玩得很少，因为它们往往需要高频率按动键盘和鼠标，但是我觉得自己可以尝 试下LucasArts的作品，他们可能不会要求玩家在游戏中展现良好的手眼协调能力。在首个房间中，我尝试了所有可能的解决方案，依然一无所获。我连第1个房间都出不去，难道 不算个失败者吗？最终我放弃了，去网上查找攻略。
我知道电子游戏中的物理学并不同于现实世界，或许拖动巨型石块是个可以接受的概念。但是，我总是认为关于印第安纳·琼斯的游戏中的元素应当会类似于现实世界。解谜游戏 确实涉及到横向思维，但是横向思维本身需要一定的限制条件。对我来说，我会排斥显然违背物理学的内容。我认为横向思维的扩展程度取决于游戏题材，但是在我无法容忍上述 游戏的设计方法。印第安纳·琼斯是人类，不是超人。
像这种充斥着白日梦式的救世主题的电脑游戏实在太多了，毫无意义的末日情节就是典型的症状。我不当热血少年已经好多年了，我再也不会被这种情节欺骗了。也许这意味着我 已经长成一个无趣的成年人了，已经消受不起这么宏大的想象了……但是，老实说，边跑边叫征服世界的人是疯子吧。我想更准确的说法是，我只是不关心世界的命运罢了。我不 想统治世界，也没兴趣拯救宇宙。那任务实在太艰巨的，不是一个人就能胜任的。所以，不要把这些重任交给我，我不想要。
所有故事都需要戏剧张力，但戏剧张力是怎么来的？是创造一个情境，把读者/观众所关心的东西或者人置于危险之中。类似的，所有游戏都需要目标，我们所谓的“游戏张力”就 是由玩家希望达到的目的创造的。戏剧张力与游戏张力的相似性是电脑游戏通常具有故事元素的主要原因。但如果你想想优秀的文学作品中的故事，被置于危险之中的极少是像世 界命运这么重大、这么不可估量的东西，相反地，是某个人的生命和幸福。狄更斯的作品中就富有真正的张力，比如，David Copperfield能否幸免于Uriah Heep的阴谋诡计？这种 张力比各种“地球就要被小行星撞毁”的电影强多了。甚至，我们在看那些电影时产生深深的同情也不是因为整个地球危在旦夕，而是电影的主角们及他们的命运。以《When Worlds Collide》为例，地球和其他人都完蛋了，但我们的主角逃出升天了。谢天谢地！真是圆满的结局！
我想，《模拟人生》的成功非常清楚地告诉我们，游戏不一定要拿拯救世界当主题，毕竟许多人都不想的。大伙儿忙着洗碗刷锅、扫地洗衣，哪有空关心世界。并且许多人也很高 兴做这些琐事，Maxis（《模拟人生》的开发公司）不正是靠它发家致富的嘛？我们不要求游戏让我们去拯救世界，我们只想拯救我们所关心的人。事实上，如果不以“拯救世界” 为题，我们能做出的游戏会更多。
这个再明显不过了。如果设计师故意把屏幕的可选择区域做得极小，那么，他的游戏只是浪费时间的无聊谜题。如果设计师是偶然犯这样的错，那么在测试时也应该发现这个悲剧 。游戏测试员有一个问题：他们是经验丰富的玩家——玩了几百小时的游戏后，他们太了解这款游戏了，他们可能不会发现让非硬核玩家组成的大众市场困惑的设计错误。随着我 们设计的游戏越来越针对非硬核市场，我们需要能站在非硬核玩家的角度发现问题的测试员。
寻径是指，让一个单位从这里移动到那里，并且路上要避开障碍的过程。寻径过程会出现许多种错误，但最让人郁闷的莫过于单位被什么东西卡住，死活走不出来。原版《帝国时 代》就因糟糕的寻径而遭人诟病，直到发布解决问题的补丁。你命令一伙人去某地，他们卡住了，原地打转，直到你给他们新命令或移除那个两岁小孩都知道怎么过去的小障碍物 。这种问题除了让人郁闷，还破坏了玩家的沉浸感和对游戏的敬意。
2、步兵不应该被己方设备阻挡。在现实世界里，如果一队步兵要通过一排己方的坦克，他们就能通过，即使这些坦克紧紧排列成一条线。步兵可以从坦克上翻过去，或者从坦克之 间的缝隙爬过去，无论什么方法，总之能过去。坦克虽然会让他们通过的速度减慢，但绝对无法阻止他们通过。这就是普通步兵的优势——他可能没有太多装备或火力，但他比其 他单位更加多才多艺。不要因为寻径问题而抹煞他们的这个优点。
3、单位群应该过滤与大小接近于他们自身的障碍，穿过大障碍时应该保持整体。作为一般原则，团队应该一直在一起，走大致相同的路径，但不至于所有单位都挤到右手的树旁边 。有多少次你选中一组士兵，命令他们走到某处，却发现其中两个士兵自己跑到另一条奇怪的路径上去了？原因是这两个士兵把其他士兵当作障碍而不是自己归属的整体。他们的 AI似乎太“聪明”了一点。你必须平衡他们的自由度，用坚持与群体呆在一起来改进个体的路径（过滤树、岩石、小山或建筑）。
进入导航点作为行动命令的一部分。当你的寻径出现漏洞时，这就是你的“逃生办法”，通过进入导航点，玩家可以避开寻径问题。显然，最好第一次就做好，但用导航点解决寻 径问题至少让玩家能够继续玩下去而不是因为受挫而放弃。总之，导航点通常是有用的。关于寻径的书太多了，所以我就不再赘述了。大多数寻径问题都是测试和调整没做好导致 的。所以请尽量做好测试和调整；糟糕的寻径会让玩家马上判定你的游戏“太蠢”。
不要那么做。太丑太俗了。让你的美工做得更精致一点吧，如果你没有足够的多边形，那就把它们放在一个矩形上吧。是的，你越接近它们，它们就会像素化，除非你对它们使用 锥形纹理技术，但你的墙体也要这么做；我们习惯这样了。记得《毁灭战士》中地上死尸只有一个子画面吗？当你走到尸体的另一边时，尸体仍然面朝相同的方向，好像它们的眼 球就画在纸上似的？记住，这没什么，我们其实不在意。树也是一样的，事实上我们更不在意树的朝向，除非它与玩法有一定的关系，否则树总是朝着相同的方向并不重要。看起 来正常的树总是比形状像伞的东西来得强。
我讨厌在某个特定的情境出现时听到相同的声音片段一次又一次地播放。如果这个声音只是确认的哔哔声就算了——但这样的话，这个声音就应该始终是一样的，这样才能为玩家 提供一致的线索——但如果声音片段是人说话，那就立即让人火大了。我担任《Madden NFL Football》的声音/视频制作人多年，所以我有时候也为这一点感到羞愧。我们给 Madden录音的时间有限，所以我们不可以录到我们想要的所有东西。《Madden NFL Football》的声音脚本通常是75页长，如果可以我会多写一倍。
如果某个情境与某个声音片段有关（比如“我打中了！”），那么就要为个情境录非常多的声音。我自己的原则是，每个情境都不要少于五个声音片段，甚至最少出现的情境也是 ；至于经常出现的事件，应该至少有二十多个。你不必总是录完全不同的语句；有时候相同的语句用不同的语气念出来也是可以的。在游戏中，可以使用软件，这种软件可以把与 情境对应的声音罗列下来，当情境出现时，就在列表中随机选择播放的声音，播放完后就把该声音片段标记；当同样的情境又出现时，再从剩下未被标记的声音片段中随机选择， 如此循环。当所有声音都被播放过后，就重置列表。这样，玩家就不会连续听到同样的片段两次了。
啊呀！我们被恶魔附体的鸟类攻击了！我们面临被啄死的危险。我们砍啊、劈啊，我们施放烤箱+3的魔法。莫名其妙的数字不断地跳出来，似乎是一种跟血跟痛无关的攻击方法， 但我们当中有些人却因此受伤了。最终，我们消灭了最后一只鸟类（坏蛋从来不会聪明到逃走，甚至当它们失去数量上的优势时；这是鸟类令人钦佩的责任感啊）。检查尸体时我 们发现，这些恶鸟不仅穿得像人，还带了人类的钱和武器。真是出乎意料！其中一只恶鸟还带了杀伤力+5的宝剑。可笑，当这只鸟人还活着的时候，我根本没注意到它还带了这样 的好家伙。如果它装备这么好，为什么不在战斗中使出来呢？还有，这家伙把钱放在哪里呢？胃里吗？
许多人抱怨这一点，这是对我在上一篇文章中提到的“带武器的鸟类”的延伸。你千辛万苦放倒了一只大BOSS，却发现他的武器没了。Evan McClanahan提到，“当大BOSS正在用他 的无敌机关枪对付其他角色时，我溜到敌人背后偷袭他，我想要那把枪，而不是一具尸体和一根破棍。”
现在，在网络游戏中，这一点多少是可以理解的。怪物总是会重刷出来，如果他们每次挂掉都掉落大武器，那么游戏世界很快就会被那些武器淹没。但在单机游戏中，游戏设计师 完全可以平衡这一点。如果掉落武器使游戏太不平衡，你可以限制玩家使用武器的能力——好吧，你消灭了那个巨魔，拿了它的武器，但事实上你不可能那么轻松地挥动那根30斤 公重的树干。或者，也许你得到了坏蛋的好枪，但坏蛋所带的子弹只够你用几次。用完了就没有了，如果你坚持要满世界寻找那把枪能用的子弹，那么你随意吧。
这个问题有点棘手，因为我知道执行起来是要成本的。平衡多种技能水平比平衡一种技能水平要费时间，而在游戏开发中，时间就是金钱。另外，并非所有玩家都有相同水平的技 能，也不是所有人都希望接受同样难度的挑战（如果你把游戏设计得太困难，只能说明你是一个自娱自乐的游戏设计师）。通过给玩家不同的技能水平，你其实是延长了游戏的寿 命，因为玩家的水平会提高，这样就能重复通关了。更重要的是，你扩大了你的游戏的受众范围。如果游戏太简单，那么硬核玩家就会对它不屑；如果游戏太难，休闲玩家就不会 对它有兴趣。如果你的游戏的难度水平是变化的，那么这两类玩家它都能吸引了。
Trent Lucier抱怨道，有些游戏让玩家在黑暗的环境前进，只能借助显示器的微弱光线看东西。前五分钟还挺刺激挺有氛围的，但五分钟以后就只是觉得无聊厌烦了。同样是在黑 暗的环境中，敌人怎么可能比我看得还清楚？我完全同意这个抱怨——我不反对“光线微弱”，但我在“黑暗”中不会得到太多乐趣。在黑暗中摸索嗑碰可不会让我觉得自己像间 谍/盗贼/刺客/忍者。所谓的潜行刺杀的要点是，能在黑暗中看得清楚。
Charlie Byers也指出，许多Windows移植到Mac平台的游戏都存在这个问题。苹果显示器有不同的伽玛值，而虚幻引擎的伽玛值修正功能似乎在苹果机上不太管用。移植程序员请注 意了！
不少人抱怨游戏壳的粗糙的界面。所谓的游戏壳就是指在进入主游戏模式以前必经的设置面板。这些东西设计起来从来就没什么乐趣可言，它们只是设置、保存、加载等。结果是 ，它们往往存在两个问题中的一个：要么做得太匆忙，导致布局不合理、组织混乱；要么太花哨，搞笑大过必要。为了掩饰它们是电脑加工的功能这个事实，以及让它们更贴合游 戏的主题，所有的菜单都使用旋转怕燃烧文字，并在当前强调的项目上加发光特效。
为了让游戏壳更对玩家的胃口，不是用大量无意义的特效来装点它，而是把它设计得容易使用，以便玩家能尽快进入游戏。尽量根据你的游戏主题设计字体，但也必须保证玩家读 得懂。不要使用超过两个层级的菜单。保证所有项目的默认设置是合理的，以便第一次玩的玩家可以直接跳过，不必做任何修改。（考虑到PC硬件的不同，我知道这个很困难）老 版Borland Turbo Pascal编译程序手册的第一页——甚至在标题页以前，就提到“如何立即开始”，因为他们知道所有人都想最先进入。玩家也是这样的。
你终于把整个小镇上上作恶多端的鼠怪都收拾掉了，因此得了一些经验点。现在你又出发去其他地方做更伟大的事了。但当然，你还是会经常回来这个小镇的，回来卖卖打怪得来 的垃圾、补充武器等。问题是，每一次你回来，你还是会遭遇鼠怪的攻击。现在你的已经变强大了，有了更强的武器和装备，所以打鼠怪绝对是浪费时间。所以，你不会为了那少 得可怜的经验值停下来打鼠怪，你会为了避免麻烦而对鼠怪避而远之！
这显然也是糟糕的游戏设计师的失误。稍微想一想就能找到解决办法。1）无论是什么地方，你刚清理掉那里的怪物，那里就应该保持无怪的样子一段时间（这是好游戏设计的基本 生态学）。2）随机遭遇战的小怪如果太弱不足以构成威胁，应该让小怪们见到玩家立即恐乱逃跑（这是基本的动物行为）。这样，玩家就不会因为你设计的无意义的战斗而浪费时 间了。
但确实令人生气，正如Brendan Sechter所说的，当游戏要求你在关卡开始以前调整你的单位/武器/或无论什么东西以便战胜挑战，然后却不允许你保存调整后的结果。调整设置可 能是玩法中有趣的一部分，但当你不得不一次又一次地在关卡开始以前调整，那就变成一件无聊的机械运动了。
Dave Wilson告诉我，有些第三人称3D游戏完全不允许玩家控制摄像机。又是糟糕的游戏设计师在搞鬼！什么是3D环境？允许你不付任何代价就能自由地观察游戏世界。看：普通人 的视域约有120度宽。不同的游戏的视域则相当不同，随着高清电视的普及，那个值应该还会变大，但无论如何不会超过120度。玩家戴着头戴设备玩游戏已经够辛苦的了，作为补 偿，他们应该能够控制摄像机。而且这个问题很容易解决。看一下原版Playstation游戏《Spyro the Dragon》或《Toy Story 2》，你就知道直观顺利的玩家控制型摄像机应该是 怎么样的了。
我在许多游戏中都看到过这种角色，似乎已经成为幻想游戏的有趣而自然的玩法之一。比如说，死灵法师可以复生死亡的敌人，使复活后的敌人成为自己一方的僵尸战士之类的。 似乎是挺好的设定。不幸的是，如果执行得不好，会导致游戏严重不平衡，因为它造成了不可控制的正向反馈：你失去的单位越多，敌人得到的就越多。正如我在其他文章中说过 的，想象一下如果在下棋时，你可以把对方的棋子捉过来为己所用，那么游戏时间就会大大缩短。允许一方占用另一方单位的游戏机制必须非常谨慎地处理平衡性。
1、你可以捕捉敌方角色，把他们关进监狱，饿死他们。（在某种程度上，《Dungeon Keeper》使《侠盗猎车手》变成人道主义的榜样，但我们现在不打算说这个）敌人饿死后会变 成低级的骷髅战士，这种战士在大部分时候是非常脆弱的。而且饿死还要花一段时间。因为需要时间和力量上的下降，这不算特别不平衡的设定。
4、原版《Dungeon Keeper》有一种叫作“清道夫室”的特殊房间，你可以让你的“小伙伴”把敌方的单位招降——有点像叛徒招募工具。这种东西的缺点是，造价极高，且与墓地 一样，当你的跟班在里面工作时，就不能训练和战斗了。另外，敌方也有他们自己的“清道夫室”。然而，这个设定确实太不平衡了——当双人模式时，哪一边先建造了“清道夫 室”，哪一边往往就能获胜。所以《Dungeon Keeper2》把这个设定删除了。
Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!
By Ernest Adams
Lately 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.
Boring and Stupid Mazes
The original text adventure, Colossal Cave, had two mazes. One was a series of rooms each of which was described thus: “You’re in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” The other was a series of rooms described as, “You’re in a twisting little maze of passages, all different” (or “You’re in a little twisty maze of passages, all different,” or “You’re in a maze of little twisting passages, all different,” etc.). These were the prototypical boring and stupid mazes. Colossal Cave was the first adventure game ever, though, so I cut it a little slack. But that was over twenty years ago; there’s no longer any excuse for doing that now. Somebody gave me a copy of The Legend of Kyrandia a few years back, and I played it with some pleasure – right up until I got to the maze.
Mazes don’t have to be boring and stupid. It’s possible to design entertaining mazes by ordering the rooms according to a pattern that the player can figure out. A maze should be attractive, clever, and above all, fun to solve. If a maze isn’t interesting or a pleasure to be in, then it’s a bad feature.
Games Without Maps
I have a notoriously poor sense of direction inside buildings, so maybe it’s just me. Still, in the video game world where all the walls and floors use the same textures, places look too much alike. In the real world, even the most rigid cubicle-hell office building has something to distinguish one area from another – a stain on the carpet, a cartoon posted outside someone’s cube. I played Doom and had a great time. I fired up the Quake demo, found out there was no map, and dumped it. I want a map. There’s no reason for withholding a map from me unless it’s just to slow me down, and that’s a poor substitute for providing real gameplay. Bad game designer! No Twinkie!
Incongruous or Fantasy-Killing Elements
Sometimes an adventure game will present you with a puzzle, or other obstacle, that is completely outside the fantasy you’re supposed to be having. In my opinion, that’s a case of the designer running out of ideas, and it’s disappointing to the player. If you’ve taken me away to a magical world where I’m a heroic knight on a glorious quest to rescue the fearsome princess, don’t make me sit and play Mastermind with the dragon. If I absolutely must play a game with him, it should be Nine Men’s Morris, but frankly, it would be more appropriate just to thrash the scoundrel soundly.
This leads quite naturally to my next complaint, which is…
A number of games have come out which eschew the standard SF/fantasy worlds and instead plunge the player into a twisted and disturbing realm of yadda yadda yadda. Let me tell you something about the capital-S Surrealism of the capital-A Art world: it’s not just randomness. Real Surrealism seeks to shock the mind into a new awareness of [ the human condition | the nature of God | the meaning of compassion | etc. ] through the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated objects and ideas – the key word being “seemingly.” Although appearing bizarre and perhaps even nonsensical at first, true Surrealism is informed by an underlying theme.
I haven’t seen any surrealism in computer games that could claim such noble goals. Most of it has looked to me like somebody said, “… and when you reach the control room of the Doomsday Machine, there’ll be a clown in there! Yeah! That’ll be cool!” Surrealism is like prose poetry: easy to do, but extremely hard to do well. “It’s surrealism” is not an adequate excuse for a poorly conceived vision in the first place.
Which takes me effortlessly to…
Puzzles Requiring Extreme Lateral Thinking
These are puzzles of the “use the lampshade with the bulldozer” variety. The designer may think he’s being funny or even surreal, but he’s really just being adolescently tiresome. It’s lazy puzzle design – making a puzzle difficult by making its solution obscure or irrational. You can add to the player’s play-time by creating ridiculous obstacles, but you’re not really adding to his or her enjoyment, and that’s supposed to be the point.
Puzzles Permitting No Lateral Thinking At All
You come to a locked door. The obvious solution is to find the key, but it’s also the most boring, so maybe the game provides some other way to get it open. But like as not, there’s only one solution, whatever it is.
In text-adventure terms, this was known as the “find the right verb” problem – you were dead in the water until you figured out exactly what verb the game was waiting for you to say. Break? Hit? Smash? Demolish? Pound? Incinerate? And a lot of games today have the same problem: an obstacle which can only be overcome in one way. The game doesn’t encourage the player to think; it demands that the player read the designer’s mind.
In the real world, think of all the things you can do with a locked door:
Find the key
Pick the lock
Force or persuade the person who has the key to open it
Trick someone on the other side into opening it (maybe just by knocking!)
Break the door down, burn it, cut it, dissolve it with acid, etc.
Circumvent it – go through a window instead, or cut a hole in the wall.
The list 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 nreasonable. 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?
Just two years ago I wrote a column called “Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!” filled with what I saw as design flaws – things that annoyed me about computer games. It elicited a fair amount of E-mail, most of it saying “Yeah! Me, too!” but some of it pointing out that I was occasionally being unfair. In any case, it was clearly a popular (and potentially controversial) topic, and so I started keeping a list of additional things that annoy me. I’ve got five here, and more that I don’t have room for, so it’s time for Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! II. Some of these are programming faults, not design faults, but you get the idea.
Games That Run Too Fast
I know this sounds weird – since when is running too fast a problem? But I like to play old games, and old games, designed for old hardware, often run much too fast when played on newer machines. Obviously this isn’t an issue for console games, but for PC games it’s a major problem.
From a business perspective, of course, publishers are unlikely to care. To them, a five- or ten-year-old game is ancient history. They’ve made all the money they can from it; it’s no longer supported; the customers are supposed to be plunking down money for new games, not playing old ones. But from an engineering perspective, there isn’t any excuse for it. It’s sloppy programming. If your game is running unplayably fast, that means you’re not really keeping track of how fast it should run, and worse, you’re wasting one of your most precious resources, CPU cycles. There are all kinds of things you could be doing with extra CPU time, as well you know:
Generate additional animation frames and therefore smoother animation. This is only possible if your animation system is capable of generating in-between frames, but more and more of them are nowadays.
Spend the time on extra AI. Calculate further down the game tree; let your pathfinding algorithm look farther ahead; give your monsters a bigger brain. Scalable AI isn’t trivial, but if any part of it, like pathfinding, involves repetitive and indefinite calculations, that part is an obvious candidate for making use of extra CPU time.
Generate extra polygons. A fair number of games compensate for slow machines by cutting down the total number of polygons their 3D engines generate, with predictably ugly results. How about going in the opposite direction? Design a game that would look amazingly fantastic on a hypothetical 3 gigahertz machine, then build in scaling routines to accommodate today’s hardware. As hardware advances, your game will just keep looking better and better. Obviously there are issues about memory and other resources besides CPU time, but this is a technique that seems worth the research effort.
The first game I ever programmed professionally had to run on hardware that ranged from a 4.77 MHz 8086 to a 25 MHz 80386 — and because it was multiplayer, it had to run at the same speed on all of them. I managed this by basing everything on timers. The main loop ran as fast as it could to provide maximum responsiveness to the keyboard and mouse, but all the display routines were tied to timers, and they only ran when the timer expired. I haven’t tried it,
but I suspect it would still run at the same speed on my 400 MHz Pentium II.
No On-Demand Save Game and/or No Pause Game
The “save game” issue has been the subject of arguments among game designers since day one, but I know where I come down on this issue: on the side of the player. A lot of designers don’t like “save game”, because it makes it possible for the players to restart any time any little thing goes wrong, which means that they get through the game quicker and lose less frequently. In short, they don’t get to experience the full amount of suffering and disappointment that the designer has planned for them. Too bad. Replaying an entire level because you made a mistake right near the end is frustrating and
boring. As a designer, is that really your goal?
To me, the bottom line is that it’s the player’s machine. It’s not fair to penalize him just because he has to go to the bathroom or answer the phone. Players should be able to pause when and where they want, and they should be able to stop when and where they want, without losing all that they have accomplished. If pausing the game would substantially affect the gameplay as in, say, Tetris, then black out the screen while the game is paused.
Obviously this doesn’t apply to multiplayer games.
A deadlock, or in rather romantic British terminology a “deadly embrace,” occurs when two processes are each waiting for the other to do something, and so neither goes anywhere. Deadlock prevention is a classic computer science problem for multi-tasking systems: process A has allocated resource X but still needs resource Y; process B has allocated resource Y but needs resource X, so each waits indefinitely for the other to finish and release its needed resource.
In game terms a deadlock can occur when you need a resource to construct a production mechanism to produce more of the same resource. I first noticed this problem playing Settlers 3. I didn’t have enough stone to build a stonecutter’s hut, but without a stonecutter’s hut I couldn’t get any more, either. This wasn’t really Settlers’ fault, because the game had given me enough stone to start with, but I had allocated it all to other things. Of course, in some cases you may want a deadlock to be a loss condition: in a wargame, if the player loses all her construction units and she loses the only building that produces construction units, the system can detect this and tell her that she’s lost.
The more complicated your economic model is, the more likely deadlock situations become. Settlers 3 has an unusually complicated model. When I created my deadlock, my community was thriving and I wasn’t under attack at that point, so I couldn’t really be said to be losing the game; I simply made an economic mistake. Fortunately, the game provided a workaround: I could demolish other buildings and regain some of the raw materials. Eventually I demolished enough
to get the stone needed to build a stonecutter’s hut, and I was back in business.
Another way to avoid deadlocks is to provide an alternate source for the resource, even if its value is minimal. This is the function of collecting $200 when you pass “GO” in Monopoly. Even if you don’t have any properties earning rents, you’re still guaranteed to get that $200.
Deadlocks aren’t always design errors, but you need either to provide a way to break the deadlock (pass “GO,” demolish buildings, etc.) or a way of detecting it and ending the game. Games that go into deadlock conditions and sit there indefinitely (and I’ve played one or two) are annoying.
Moving Impossibly Large Chunks of Stone
So here I am, playing the demo of Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, and I can’t get out of the very first room. I haven’t played a lot of these kinds of games, because they’re generally too twitchy for me, but I figure I can trust LucasArts not to demand too much hand-eye coordination. I try everything I can think of, with no luck. Can’t even get out of the first room… boy, am I a loser! Eventually I break down and go find a walkthrough.
Oh, here’s the answer! There’s a cube of stone, about five feet on a side, that I’m supposed to drag someplace… WHAT?
Let’s see, the density of rock is about 340 pounds per cubic foot, the block is about 125 cubic feet, so it weighs on the order of 21.25 tons. That’s about how much the giant uprights at Stonehenge weigh. And Indy’s supposed to drag this around just by pulling on it, is he? Gosh, I wonder why I didn’t think to try that.
OK, I know the physics in video games is mostly ludicrous – the first time I saw Sonic the Hedgehog change direction in midair I heard a strange whizzing noise: Isaac Newton spinning in his grave. Maybe this dragging-huge-rocks-around concept is such an accepted convention by now that I should just put up with it. Still, I always thought of the Indiana Jones games as set in something resembling the real world. Puzzle games involve lateral thinking, but lateral thinking itself has to be bounded by some limitations on what it’s reasonable to consider — otherwise you’d never stop thinking. For me, I tend to rule out obvious physical impossibilities. I suppose it depends to some extent on the genre, but in this case, it annoyed me. Indiana Jones is a human being, not Superman.
Huge Breasts and Other Juvenilia
Some years ago, EA had a couple of artists create animations of cheerleaders for a cartridge edition of Madden NFL Football. What they turned in was a feeble little 4-step cycle of women with completely improbable breasts jumping up and down. We fired them and had someone else do it over. We didn’t fire them just because they had done a poor job; we fired them because they were morons who were more interested in indulging their own snickering voyeurism than in
delivering what the company needed, and they had wasted our time and our money.
I’ve got a message for the no-talent clods who insist on putting puerile humor and outrageously-breasted women into computer games. How to put it diplomatically? Oh, I’ve got it: Grow up.
You’re an embarrassment and a disgrace. It’s because of the example you set that the rest of us have to explain to our in-laws, friends, and for that matter, Congressmen, that we’re not all tasteless money-grubbing louts, only you guys are. I have spent a lot of time trying to convince non-gamers (but people who vote) that you drooling peep-show habitués are actually a minority whose imbecile products and total lack of judgment unfairly tarnish the rest of the industry. Of course, if you actually cared about what effect your self-indulgent display of adolescent lubriciousness has on the reputation of the business or its possible consequences for the political debate over regulating video games, you wouldn’t do it, but no, you’re too wrapped up in your own infantile fantasies to pay attention to anything beyond the ends of your priapic phalluses.
It might be tolerable if you were actually any good at it, but your products aren’t even decent erotica. They’re stupid, they’re offensive, and they’re not sexy or even funny. I take some comfort in the knowledge that as the market matures, you will eventually be forced out, or at least reduced to irrelevancy. In the end the porno kings stopped trying to pretend that they were legitimate moviemakers and went off to form their own industry with its own low standards of quality. Why don’t you do the same? Then you can have your own trade shows, your own awards, and hang around with your own kind: sweaty- palmed, heavy-breathing sloped-forehead gonad-brains. Grow up or get out.
Well, it has been close to two years since the last “Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!” column, so I think it’s time for another one. I keep a collection of computer game misfeatures, design errors, and personal annoyances as I play, and it’s now long enough to publish. Some of these are level -design errors or even programming weaknesses, but they’re all things that a game designer has at least some influence on.
“Conquer the world!” “The fate of humanity is at stake!” “Save the galaxy!” scream the boxes on the shelves down at the game software store. “No!” I ’m tempted to scream back. “I don’t want to! The galaxy can go stuff itself!”
Too many computer games are fulfillments of adolescent power-fantasies, and a meaningless apocalyptic scenario is a classic symptom. It’s been quite a while since I was an adolescent, and I just don’t believe them any more. Maybe that means I’m a boring old adult, no longer capable of grandiose visions… but let’s face it, the people who run around yelling about conquering the world are nut cases. I think it’s more accurate to say that I just don’t care. I don ’t want to rule the world. I’m not terribly interested in saving the galaxy. It’s too big and impersonal a task, and it’s not credible that a single individual can do it anyway. Don’t ask me to. I don’t feel like it.
All stories require dramatic tension, and dramatic tension is created by establishing a situation that puts something, or someone, that the reader cares about at risk. Likewise, all games require a goal, something that the player is hoping to achieve, which creates what we might call “gameplay tension.” The similarity of dramatic tension and gameplay tension is the reason that computer games so often have a storytelling element. But if you look at the great stories in literature, what’s at risk is seldom something vast and incalculable like the fate of the world. Rather, it’s the lives and happiness of
individual people. There’s more genuine tension in a novel by Charles Dickens – will David Copperfield survive the icked machinations of Uriah Heep? – attering asteroids ever filmed. And even those movies don’t really try to engage our sympathy for the Earth as a whole. Rather, they engage our sympathy for the movie’s main characters and their individual fates. Take When Worlds Collide, for example. They destroyed the Earth and everyone on it, but — whew! — our heroes got away safely. Thank goodness for that! Happy ending!
“But wait,” I hear you cry in irritation. “Aren’t you one of those Tolkien nuts? And isn’t The Lord of the Rings about as apocalyptic as you can get?” Well, yes, I am, and yes, it is. But what sets The Lord of the Rings apart from most of its pale imitators is that it’s not actually about how wonderful it is to save the world. It’s about what passes away irretrievably even when you succeed. It’s a book about the tragedy of saving the world, the price to be paid for doing it.
I think the success of The Sims demonstrates pretty clearly that it’s not necessary to rule the world, and a lot of people don’t even want to. They’re busy just trying to keep the dishes washed and the newspapers picked up. Millions of them are perfectly happy doing it, and Maxis is making a fortune out of fulfilling that particular, if peculiar, fantasy. We don’t need for games to be about adolescent armageddon. We only need for them to be about people that we care for, and in fact that allows us to make a much wider variety of games than “Save the world!” does.
Having to stand in (or select) exactly the right spot.
There’s not a lot that needs to be said about this. If the designer has made a selectable region of the screen extremely small on purpose, it’s just a trial-and-error time-waster, a boring puzzle. If the designer has done it by accident, it’s a misfeature that should have been caught during testing. There ’s one problem with testers: they’re such experienced gamers – and after a few hundred hours playing a game, so experienced with that particular game – that they may not catch design errors which would annoy the pants off mass-market, non-core players. As we make more and more games for the non-core market, we need testers who can think like a non-core gamer.
Pathfinding is the process of figuring out how to get a ground-based unit from here to there, avoiding obstacles on the way. Pathfinding can go wrong in a lot of ways, but the most frustrating is when a unit gets stuck behind something and can’t figure out how to get around it. The original Age of Empires was notorious for its bad pathfinding until they released a patch for it. You’d tell a group of people to go somewhere, and they’d get stuck and wander haplessly around until you either gave them new orders or removed some trivial obstruction that a two -year-old could figure out how to get past. In addition to being frustrating, it destroys the player’s suspension of disbelief and respect for the game.
Pathfinding is not a simple problem by any means – I used to program silicon layout and circuit routing tools for a living, so I know something about it. Game pathfinding is easier in some respects because soldiers don’t create a short circuit if they cross another soldier’s path on the battlefield. However, unlike routing chip traces, it can’t be left to run overnight, either. When the player tells a soldier to go somewhere, that soldier needs to leave immediately, without visibly stopping to think about how he’s going to get there.
Here are a few design rules of thumb about pathfinding:
It’s not about what the troops can see, it’s about what the player can see. Typically, the player is looking at an aerial perspective of a region, and can clearly see the path she wants her troops to take. Even if those troops don’t “know” the terrain, and can’t “see” the best route from the ground, they should use the player’s degree of knowledge, not their own, to plan a route. Otherwise the player will be asking, “Why are you going that way?”
Foot soldiers should not be obstructed by their own side’s equipment. In the real world, if a group of foot soldiers are trying to get past a row of friendly tanks, they can do it, even if the tanks are lined up axle to axle. They’ll climb over, crawl under, or whatever. It may slow them down, but it won ’t stop them. That’s one of the best features of the common infantryman – he may not have much armor or firepower, but he’s more versatile than any other unit. Don’t take that away from him by needlessly obstructing his pathfinding.
Groups of units should filter among obstacles similar in size to themselves, ut should stay together when travelling around large obstacles. As a general rule, groups should stick together and follow roughly the same path, but not to the extent of all walking around the right-hand side of a tree. And how many times have you selected a group of soldiers, told them to go somewhere, and found that two out of the twenty of them are wandering off on some other weird route of their own? What’s happening is that the two are treating the other 18 as an obstacle rather than a group that they’re expected to remain part of. They’ve got a little too much independent thinking in their AI. You have to balance their freedom to improvise individual paths for themselves (filtering among trees or boulders) with their obligation to stick together (taking the same way around a hill or building).
Make it easy for the player to enter waypoints as part of her movement orders. This is your “escape clause” if your pathfinding has bugs. By entering waypoints, players can work around pathfinding problems. Obviously it’s preferable to get it right the first time, but solving the problem with waypoints at least lets the player go on playing instead of giving up in frustration. And waypoints are generally useful anywayWhole books are written about pathfinding, so I’ll leave it there. Much of it is a question of testing and tuning. But do try to do it well; bad pathfinding will cause a player to dismiss your game as “stupid” more quickly than just about anything else.
Low-poly trees (and other models, too).
Oooh, you’ve got a 3D engine. We’re all very impressed. The problem is, you’ve got too many objects to display with it, so you’ve decided to make them all with very few polygons. Everything in your game world will be strangely chunky, with odd edges, and they’ll look nothing like their counterparts in the real world. Trees, for example, will look like peculiar umbrellas, with all their branches at the same height, and disturbing things will happen as the camera moves past their foliage.
Don’t do it. It’s ugly and tacky. Get your pixel artists to do nice sprites instead, and stick ‘em on a single rectangle, if you don’t have enough polys to go around. Yes, they will pixellate as you get closer to them unless you MIP-map them, but so will the textures in your walls; we’re used to that. Remember how the creatures in Doom only had one sprite when they were lying dead on the floor? And when you went around to the other side of them they still were facing the same way, following you like the eyes in one of those creepy paintings? And remember how that was OK, and we didn’t really mind? The same is true for trees – even more so, in fact. Unless it’s significant to the gameplay somehow, it doesn’t really matter if a tree’s orientation is always the same way with respect to the player no matter where he is. It’s still better to have a nice -looking tree sprite than some weird blocky green umbrella thing.
Too few audio clips for a given situation.
I hate hearing the same damned audio clip over and over whenever a particular situation recurs in a game. It doesn’t matter if it’s just a confirming beep – in that case, it should always be the same sound, so it sends the same cue to the player – but if it’s a person speaking, it gets annoying very fast. I was the audio/video producer for Madden NFL Football for many years, so I’ve been guilty of this one myself on occasion. We had a limited amount of recording time with Mr. Madden each year, so we couldn’t record everything we wanted. The audio script for Madden NFL Football was typically about 75 pages long, and I would have written twice that much if I could.
If you’re going to have voice clips associated with particular situations (“I’m hit!” and so on), then record a lot of them. My own rule of thumb is that there should never be fewer than five audio clips for any situation, even the rarest; and for common events there should be at least two dozen or so. You don ’t always have to record completely different sentences; sometimes the same sentence delivered with a slightly different emphasis will do. In the game, have the software keep a list of them and choose one at random to play when the situation calls for it, then mark it off the list. The next time the situation arises, choose at random from the remaining ones, and so on. When you’ve run through them all, reset the list except for the most recently played clip. That way the players will never hear the same clip twice in a row.
Birds that carry swords.
Argh! Our party is under attack by evil doom-chickens from the foul fowlyard of Kafoozalum! We’re in danger of being pecked to death a la Tippi Hedren. We hack. We slash. We cast spells of Oven Roasting+3. Some of us get hurt in a vague, numerical sort of way that doesn’t actually seem to involve blood or pain. Eventually we kill the last of the chickens (no evil creature is ever smart enough to run away, even when it’s hopelessly outnumbered; an admirable sense of duty for a bird). Searching the bodies we find that, as with all evil creatures, even blind cave-dwelling slimeworms, they’re carrying money and human weapons and armor around with them. How fortuitous! Evil doom-chicken #3 (second from the left, but otherwise indistinguishable from doom-chickens #1, 2, and 4) had a Great Big Nasty Sword of Serious Hurtfulness+5. Funny, I didn’t notice that sword anywhere on its feathery person while it was still alive. If it was so heavily armed, why didn’t it use it in the fight? Come to think of it, where was it keeping all this gold, too? In its gizzard? Eeeeew!
You get the idea.
Well, that’s my catalog of complaints for another year or so. If you’ve been responsible for any of these mistakes, bad game designer! No Twinkie for you! And if you’ve got a few personal peeves and game design gaffes of your own, by all means send me some E-mail and tell me about them. It’s time to start making a new list.
I’m not going to write this month’s column. You are. Or rather, you already did. After last year’s “Bad Game Designer” column, I asked readers to submit their own peeves about games, and hooo-eeee, did I get letters! So herewith, a compendium of design flaws and irritations sent in by various readers. I’ll try to give appropriate credit where I can, but some E-mailers don’t use their real names, and in that case there’s nothing I can do.
Bad Guys With Vanishing Weapons
Many people wrote to complain about this one. It’s the corollary to the “birds that carry swords” complaint I mentioned in the previous “No Twinkie” column. You spend forever trying to take down some major bad guy, and when you finally do, his weapon has disappeared. Evan McClanahan said, “If I sneak up behind someone and knife them in the back with one of my characters, as he’s keeping my other characters pinned down with The Inexhaustible Machine Gun of Perforation (+2), I expect to get that gun, not an empty corpse with three Futuristic Monetary Units and a stick of gum.”
Now, in online games this is understandable in some respects. Monsters respawn all the time, and if they dropped a big weapon every time they died, the world would soon be awash in such weapons. But in single-player games, you have the freedom to balance the game properly, and can compensate accordingly for these issues. If it unbalances the game too much, you can limit the player’s ability to use the weapon — OK, you killed the troll and got his club, but actually
you can’t wield a 30-kilo tree trunk all that conveniently. Or maybe you get the big bad guy’s amazing gun, but the only ammo available for it is what he’ s got on him at the time. If you insist on lugging that gun all over the place hoping to find more ammo, well, that’s your choice.
Another corollary to this, sent in by Chris Oates, is the demon woman in a leather thong bikini who drops a full suit of plate armor when she dies. What, she had it with her but didn’t feel like putting it on for battle? Did it need to go to the cleaners or something?
I have played games that got this right. You kill a little kobold, you get a little knife. You kill fifty little kobolds, you get fifty little knives, none of which is really worth your while to fool with, so you just leave them behind-which is what you would do in real life.
No Variable Skill Levels
This one’s a bit tricky because I know what it costs to implement. Balancing a game for multiple skill levels takes more time than balancing it for just one, and time is money in game development. Still, not all gamers have the same degree of skill, and not all of them want equally hard challenges. (Making games that are nightmarishly hard just because you can is a sign of designer self-indulgence, as I discussed in an earlier column, “What Kind of Designer Are You?”) By giving players different skill levels, you actually increase the longevity of your game, because players can crank it up and play through again. More importantly, you increase the size of the market. If a game is too easy, it’ll get a bad reputation among the hardcore gamers; if it’s too hard, it’ll get a bad reputation among the casual players. If you offer variable skill levels, you can appeal to both groups.
Overuse of Darkness
Trent Lucier wrote in to complain about games that you have to play with the blinds drawn and the monitor brightness cranked up in order to see anything. OK, for the first five minutes it’s all creepy and atmospheric, and after that it’s just annoying. And how come all the bad guys can see in the dark a whole lot better than I can? I agree completely on this — I don’t object to “dim ,” but I don’t get much enjoyment out of “dark.” Peering around like a mole and bumping into things all the time isn’t my idea of being a cool, stealthy thief/assassin/ninja. The whole point about stealthy assassins is that they can see well in the dark.
Charlie Byers also pointed out that this is a problem with a lot of Mac ports of Windows games: Macintosh monitors have different gamma values, and he says the gamma correction feature in the Unreal engine doesn’t seem to work properly on Macs. Port programmers take note!
Sloppy Shell Menus
Various people complained about crummy user interfaces in the game’s “shell” — the set-up screens that you have to go through before you get into the main gameplay mode. These are never very interesting to design; they’re just configuration screens, save and load slots, and so on. As a result, they tend to suffer from one of two problems: either they’re done hurriedly, with poor layout and awkward organization, or they’re much fancier than necessary. In an
effort to disguise the fact that they are computer-oriented bookkeeping functions, and make them fit in better with the theme of the game, all the menus are done in rotating letters of fire, with sparkle effects on the currently highlighted item.
The best way to make the game’s shell work for the player is not to gussy it up with a lot of meaningless effects, but to make it well-designed and easy to use so that he can get into the game as quickly as possible. Create a font that fits with the theme of your game by all means, but make sure it’s easily readable, too. Try not to have menus any more than two layers deep. Be sure you have reasonable defaults for everything so the player can jump right in, without having to make any changes the first time he plays. (Given the variability of PC hardware, I know this can be tricky.) The first page of the manual of the old Borland Turbo Pascal compilers — even before the title page — was called, “How to Get Started Immediately,” because they knew everybody was going to want to dive in headfirst. That’s even more true of players.
Never forget: while the shell is the least interesting part of the game, it’s also the first thing the player is going to see, before he gets into the real experience. As they say in the job-hunting manuals, you only get one chance to make a good first impression.
Time-Wasting Random Encounters
So you’ve cleared the entire town of Squelching-in-the-Marsh of the nasty rats that were making life miserable there, gained a few experience points, and now you’re off to greater deeds of derring-do elsewhere. But of course, you have to return to Squelching every now and then to sell your loot and replenish your stock of Crossbow Bolts of Extra Pointiness +3. Problem is, every time you come back, you get attacked by rats again in random encounters. By this point you’ve got the strength to take on ferrets or even juvenile badgers, so it’s a complete waste of time. Rather than stand around fighting rats for the measly few experience points they get you, you actually find yourself running away from them just to avoid the problem!
A variant on this nuisance is that you get back to Squelching only to discover that it has mysteriously repopulated with a whole lot more rats, only now they ’re five times as mean, and you have to do it all again. They look and act exactly like the last lot of rats, so there’s no new gameplay, just another meaningless challenge.
This is clearly a Twinkie Denial Condition. A moment’s thought will give the correct approach. 1) Any region that you have denuded of a given species of creature should remain denuded of them for a while (that’s basic ecology as well as good game design). 2) Random encounters with creatures too small to represent much of a threat should result in those creatures fleeing in terror (that’s basic animal behavior). That way you don’t waste the player’s time with pointless combat.
Not Being Able to Save After Fine-Tuning Things
Regular readers of this column will already know where I stand on the “save game” debate: I think players should be able to do it when they want to, and if they reload all the time to get through a tough patch, that’s their privilege. However, I’m prepared to acknowledge that there are other points of view on this.
But it’s really annoying, as Brendan Sechter pointed out, when the game requires you to fine-tune your units/weapons/whatever at the beginning of a level in order to face its challenges, then gives you no way of saving that work. Tuning the disposition of your forces can be a fun part of gameplay, but not when you have to do it repeatedly every time you restart a level — after a while it’s just boring bookkeeping.
Bad (or Nonexistent) Camera Controls
Dave Wilson brought it to my attention that there are some third-person 3D games that give the player no control over the camera at all. Bad game designer! That’s what 3D environments are for: it costs you nothing, zip, nada, to provide freedom of perspective. Look: the ordinary human field of view is about 120 degrees wide. The width of the field of view varies considerably in games, and will get larger as HDTV becomes commonplace, but it’s nowhere near 120 degrees in any case. In order to compensate for the fact that the player is effectively trying to play while wearing a box over her head, she needs decent camera controls. It can be done well. Look at Spyro the Dragon or Toy Story 2 for the original Playstation, and you’ll see excellent examples of smooth, intuitive, player-controlled cameras.
Creatures That Can Resurrect The Corpses of the Fallen
Dungeon Keeper 2.
I’ve seen this in a couple of places, and it feels like a fun and natural addition to a fantasy game’s gameplay. The Dark Necromancer has the power to resurrect the bodies of his fallen enemies and make them fight on his side as zombies or some such. Great touch… or so it seems. Unfortunately, if it’s not properly handled, it unbalances a game something fierce, because it creates uncontrolled positive feedback: the more units you lose, the more the enemy gains. As I’ve said elsewhere, imagine what would happen to chess if you got to keep the pieces you captured to use as your own: the game would be a whole lot shorter. Any game mechanism that enables one side to take over the other side’s units is going to require great care in balancing.
Dungeon Keeper actually had no less than four mechanisms for turning enemy creatures into “friendlies,” and they were all balanced in different ways:
1. You could capture enemy creatures, put them in the prison, and let them starve to death. (In certain respects Dungeon Keeper made Grand Theft Auto look like a model of human decency, but we won’t go into that now.) In that case they turned into low-level skeletons, and skeletons were pretty flimsy warriors at the best of times. It also took a while. Between the time required and the reduction in strength, it wasn’t a severely unbalancing technique.
2. You could capture enemy creatures and torture them in the torture chamber (yes, yes, I know), which would eventually cause most of them to switch sides.
In this case you got a creature who was just as strong for you as he had been for the enemy’s side. The disadvantage here was that it took a very long time and you had to constantly cast expensive healing spells, or the creature would die under torture. Also, the tougher the creature was, the longer it took, so that naturally tended to balance out the benefit.
3. You could drag the bodies of dead enemies to a graveyard, and when enough bodies had been buried there, the graveyard would yield up a vampire. The balancing factors here were that it took several dead creatures (eight, if I remember correctly) to produce one vampire, and the graveyard was extremely expensive to build. On the other hand, vampires were among the most powerful creatures in the game once they were trained up, so this was a highly efficacious technique.
4. The original Dungeon Keeper had a special room called the Scavenger Room, in which your creatures worked to persuade those on the other side to come over — a sort of traitor recruitment facility. The tradeoff here was that the Scavenger Room was extremely expensive, like the graveyard, and while your creatures were working in it they were not available to train or fight. Besides, the other side could have its own Scavenger Room as well. However, this feature was really too unbalancing — in two-player mode, whichever side built a Scavenger Room first tended to win — and so it was eliminated in Dungeon Keeper 2.
In short, Dungeon Keeper is an example of a game that managed to get this right, and one to learn from.
The other problem with resurrecting the corpses of the fallen is that often the resurrecting unit is something very strong: a mighty warlock or something similar. As a result, any group with him in it is well-nigh invincible. If you’re going to give a particular unit the power to perform such resurrections, consider making him weak and vulnerable by way of compensation.
I’ve still got lots more Twinkie Denial Conditions that I didn’t have room to use this time around… I’m thinking of setting up a database! But I’m always interested to learn about new ones. Drop me a line and tell me about the game design flaws that really hack you off. (You might check the previous columns first to see if I’ve already mentioned them)