“我最近收获的宝贵经验来自于《寂静岭》的开发者。他们基于第二次世界大战背景呈现众多回合制隐秘操作。游戏在某任务中植入坚不可摧的行进坦克，只有新武器能够制服此 坦克，此新武器以两种形式呈现：a）闻所未闻的庞大激光大炮；b）能够安装于这些行进怪物中的激光器。只要你发现且运用这些激光武器杀死行进坦克里的人物，你就能够进入 坦克中，将军队变成无法阻挡的主宰力量，完全破坏游戏平衡性。看到此风格和技术后来被荒谬游戏设计破坏着实有些令人难过。可喜的是，在后来的扩充内容中，他们听取玩家 的意见，决定重新改造游戏执行方式。”
但这若是能够归咎于程序员就好啦！可惜的是这是游戏设计师的问题。繁殖和复活问题非常复杂，但我很清楚：当boss死去，它就应该保持死去，除非你重新加载游戏，回到你遇 见boss前的时刻。我不是非常着迷boss，但我承认它们是必备元素，所以我们需要基于一定原则执行这些元素。boss不应获得重生，除非存在合理理由。此外，boss显然不应像常 规士兵那样大量繁衍。
“我刚刚结束体验Xbox的《雷霆战队》，猜猜怎么回事？我无法以预期方式设置控制装置！这在Xbox平台日益演变成突出问题，我听说PS2也存在此问题。我见过的最佳控制设置方 案是Dreamcast的《雷神之锤3：竞技场》，这是理想模式。就PC平台来看，《寂静岭 2》没有鼠标支持，而在《Gothic》中，我们无法以期望方式配置和运用鼠标。”
这里，玩家其实遇到的是线性互动故事叙述中的一个基本谜题：叙述连贯性问题。你如何确保在没有控制玩家操作的情况下，玩家能够在到达故事高潮前完成所有必要操作？这里 有多种解决方案，其中一个最简单的方式是：一次性解锁戏剧化高潮内容，这样玩家只会在准备好的时候接触到此内容。此玩家跳过游戏中的一个步骤，所以故事发展至错误方向 ，最终发展到尽头。
指示现实事物的游戏对话。在《合金装备》中，Commander通过对讲机呼叫Snake，说道：“要打开舱口需按下控制手柄的A键。”在现实生活中，没有人会想到控制手柄，因为这是 游戏以外的世界。《侠盗猎车手 3》的执行方式略胜一筹。在《侠盗猎车手 3》中，玩家始终处在自己的角色中，游戏相关的说明会呈现在屏幕上，同所有角色分离开来。
非常荒谬的情境。这当然也出现在很多好莱坞电影中。例如，你有18小时的时间拆卸原子弹。我们不妨腾出宝贵的几分钟同游戏角色进行互动（《合金装备》）。世界明天就会消 亡，我们不妨去趟游乐场（《最终幻想 7》）。我刚从3英尺外的哨岗回来，所以不妨通过通讯装置同指挥官进行交流（《合金装备》）。
有若干玩家抱怨那些无法中断的影片。有时游戏设有冗长介绍视频，玩家每次开始游戏都要硬着头皮看完；有时这些内容是每个保存节点之后的过场动画。若你被杀死，需从保存 节点重新加载游戏，你就得重新观看影片。还有就是：《最终幻想 8》中的不间断15秒钟魔法特效视频内容。这些内容初次出现令人印象深刻，3-4次后还是颇有趣味，随后就会变 得有些乏味。一段时间后，这会促使玩家放弃运用此魔法，或者甚至退出游戏。
这是我在较早时期的一个No Twinkie专栏，那时候我是在抱怨游戏未能提供更多复杂的关卡。而现在，我意识到这种想法并不适合所有类型的游戏，但在行动和策略游戏中却是可 行的。我认为提供不同的难度关卡能够拓宽你的市场范围，并让那些从未尝试过游戏的人更愿意亲近游戏。
“我更倾向基于最简单的难度水平去玩所有的游戏，因为我不会永远沉浸在游戏中。我想要完成游戏，并因此选择简单模式。如果我可以以一半的死亡为代价完成前15个关卡，那 么我便有可能在2，3次，或者至多5，6次尝试下完成最后的关卡。但事实却不是如此！通常情况下，最后的关卡，房间或boss都比我们之前所尝试的复杂20倍，并要求使用完全不 同的技能，或超越我们的能力范围。”
但是许多早前的游戏设计师却会说：“这便意味着他们很快就会完成我们的游戏了！”很快又怎样？这只是你的自我意识，因为仍带着玩家是自己的对手这样过时的想法。事实上 ，他们并不是你的对手。他们是你的用户，是你尝试着去娱乐并提供乐趣的人。如果这意味着所有游戏内容只花费他们2个小时，那就2个小时呗，这毕竟是他们的选择。他们也有 可能选择再次回到游戏中并挑战更复杂的模式。
“我讨厌控制器在每一个细微动作下产生震动。每次行走都发生震动真的有必要吗？这是打斗游戏和第一人称射击游戏中所存在的问题，即每次影响或射击都会导致控制器嗡嗡叫 。如果做得妥当的话，这将在场景中创造出更加身临其境的效果，但如果反馈太过频繁，便会失去实体影响，因为玩家将不再对这种震动产生新鲜感。面向主机的《英雄萨姆》便 是一个典型的例子。但许多射击游戏和打斗游戏（如《Tekken 4》）都具有太多反馈了。”
“之后便是不一致的反馈程度问题。当一个小窗户破裂时，控制器便跳离你的手？或者你的角色所在的仓库爆炸时，你却只感受到轻微的嗡嗡声？这再一次打破了玩家与游戏间的 联系。当力反馈操纵着车轮，车轮将猛烈地来回行走，从而强迫玩家松手，让他们等待反馈停止旋转，从而才能继续游戏。全新模拟赛车游戏《Enthusia Racer》便是一个典型的 例子。车轮将逐渐脱离你的手的控制。”
“不只糟糕的声音反馈设计会将玩家带离游戏，这也将导致他们在战争最激烈的时候失去控制权，错过按键或行动，或手指从模拟操纵杆上滑落。在一些极端情况下还存在健康问 题：长期的高度震动将导致手指与手变得麻木。开发者必须清楚这只是因为控制器的震动，这并不意味着它就需要具有声音反馈功能。在我眼里，比起糟糕的执行，直接删除声音 和力反馈的效果会更好。”
“我是那些常常会在进入游戏前阅读指南，且喜欢带有详细信息教程的玩家之一。就像在《Gran Turismo 4》中，我便非常喜欢所有有关赛车的教程。在长久不接触高尔夫球后， 我决定看看《Tiger Woods 2004》的教程，但却惊讶地发现这里却没有有关游戏细节的信息（游戏邦注：不管是高尔夫球还是电子游戏本身）。教程将帮助你在笨拙地做任何事之 前教你如何游戏。而这样的情况导致我在最初的游戏体验中大大受挫。”
似乎在今天看来，指南已经过时了，即很大程度上被教程所取代了。但即使如此，指南也能提供一些教程所不具有的重要功能：你可以在游戏暂停的时候从中找到所需要的信息。 这对于那些想要在进入游戏前明确目标的玩家来说非常有价值，并且比通过反复试验法去学习有效多了。反复试验法是硬核游戏风格的特征，这也是许多休闲玩家所不适应的，更 重要的是他们没有时间这么做。
《Tiger Woods》是休闲玩家，甚至是非玩家都会去尝试的一款游戏。有些人会将其当成生日礼物送给从未接触过电子游戏的高尔夫球爱好者。这类型的玩家需要并期待有关游戏体 验的介绍。如果你让他们在最初的体验中受挫，你便没有机会继续向其推销明年的新版本。
在电子游戏世界中，板条箱总是被当成笑柄，因为它们的出现频率真的太高了。Old Man Murray网站中有许多关于各种游戏的有趣评论——基于看到第一个板条箱前的游戏长度， 作者们还声称，游戏设计师们已经用光所有想法了。如果在看到板条箱前你能玩更长时间，那就说明这是一款不错的游戏。
同样的一篇文章指出，如果没有铲车和踏板，你就不能移动板条箱。如果某个地方有一些板条箱，你就需要确保在它们的下方能看到踏板，或者至少有一辆铲车。实际上，有人跟 我说在现在，木包装箱已经完全过时了。现代的运输是由纸板盒与强大的塑料包裹膜共同完成的。木头重又贵，而纸板箱不仅轻，便宜，而且可以反复使用。不过我们的FPS仍呈现 在有着40年历史的运输技术上，甚至是具有未来感的科幻游戏。
很显然这并不适用于常有板条箱漂浮在半空中的平台游戏。漂浮的板条箱是平台游戏的一部分；我能理解这点，也许这也是为什么它们不需要踏板或铲车的原因。但如果你的游戏 将假装是关于现实世界，如果你将创造许多关于自己的故事多么有趣且可信的盒子副本，那就尝试着创造带有门的房间，里面装满通过通风井运进去的板条箱。避免将板条箱放在 污水管道系统上，因为这里的所有检查井都小于滚筒。也避免将装有半吨武器和铠甲的板条箱放在50英尺高的悬崖上。为此，你可以尝试着想出一些比板条箱和滚筒有趣并且能够 装载弹药的内容。
新颖性是电子游戏娱乐性的众多来源之一，也是其与桌游的不同之处。Mahdi Jeddi抱怨称有些游戏在前数个关卡中向玩家呈现了所有的功能，在游戏的后期阶段中便丝毫没有新颖 的内容。他说道：“如果他们的开发预算有限的话，可以将新功能的引入分散到各个关卡中，也可以针对某个功能制作某些特别关卡。这样，游戏就会一直保持新鲜感直至结束， 玩家也不会感到厌烦。”
有些游戏定期引入些许新功能，有些游戏同时向你呈现所有的功能，哪种做法更好呢？我更偏向于前者。显然，具体的设计方法随游戏题材进行调整，但前者确实能够保持玩家对 游戏的兴趣。许多游戏在最后1/3的内容中变得十分乏味，玩家如果想要看到游戏结局，就必须耐着性子玩过这个阶段。产生无聊乏味的阶段并非正确的游戏设计方法，要将你的创 新扩展分布到整款游戏中。
有人反映：“《死或生3》在最终的BOSS战中完全改变了规则，使你已经学到的技巧变得毫无作用。在游戏的故事模式中，BOSS战之前你需要与众多不同的角色战斗。但是到最后， 你需要迎战的是单个大型BOSS，情况完全发生了改变。他向你射击，游戏镜头锁定在与之前游戏过程完全不同的位置上，导致你所有惯常的移动在控制器上都要多转90度，这使得 战斗难度大大增加。你之前学习的所有战斗技巧和移动在BOSS战中都是无用的。”
“我刚开始玩的是英文版的《使命召唤》，游戏中的声音增添了战场的真实感，但西班牙语版本的翻译相当糟糕。在英文原版中，军官吼出命令，着重强调命令中的重点内容，畏 惧战争的士兵在声音中便可以听出他们的恐慌感，隐蔽的时候队友会低声轻语，甚至来自不同州的士兵还带有不同的口音。在西班牙语版本中，声音上的表演艺术完全消失了，对 话平淡得就像是读出来的一般。所有对话的语调和样式都完全相同，无论处在何种境况或环境下。”
“字幕使外国人和某些无法开启音效的玩家可以流畅地体验游戏。但是，许多著名游戏（游戏邦注：比如《神秘岛》、《迷雾之岛》和《时空英豪》）不设置字幕。而且，《神秘 岛》中的多数台词都伴有大量的造影，即便是本地玩家也很难分清。在《盟军敢死队》中，如果没有开启声音的话，几乎无法从任务简报中获得信息，只能看到地图不断地打开关 闭。因为某些原因，我电脑上的《Driver》无法播放声音，所以我无法根据声音来获得信息，而且游戏还没有设置字幕。”
对我来说，这听上去像是测试上的问题。不幸的是，多数游戏测试者并不能找到与游戏可用性相关的问题。他们知道游戏内外的每个细节。他们知道接下来会发生的事情和应当往 何处射击。他们不需要十字准星、小地图、角色顾问或简单模式，而这些恰恰是可以让首次玩游戏的玩家更流畅地体验游戏的功能。测试者甚至没有注意到十字准星在游戏中毫无 用处，但应当有人发现这点。
我曾听过Melissa Federoff的讲座，她写过有关游戏易用性的论文，最近正在微软游戏工作室进行游戏易用性研究。她在讲座中说了几个有趣的故事，故事的内容是设计师观察新 玩家体验关卡的过程。在某次测试中，玩家经常掉进光线不足小巷的陷阱中。关卡设计师咆哮道：“为何他们总是犯这种错误？”Melissa解释道：“因为他们并不是构建关卡的人 ！他们不知道小巷中有什么，他们不像你，已经玩过上万次这个场景。”
我在之前的文章中已经提过劣质配置机制对游戏的影响，但是我没有意识到这个小功能会带来如此多的问题。《战地2》不会将自定义控制方式保存在游戏账号上，所以当你使用新 电脑来玩游戏时，需要重新配置所有按键，而像《战地2》这样的游戏涉及到的按键相当多。有人说道，当你设置新的游戏账号时，也需要重新配置控制方式。根据GameSpot的评论 ，你需要翻过多个页面来解绑某个按键，才能将该按键绑定在新的动作上。
翻过过个页面，这真得令人十分讨厌！你或许会希望滚动列表从未被发明过，只在单屏上显示所有当前绑定、未绑定按键和未绑定功能的列表。这样，玩家就可以在更改的同时看 到所有需要的信息。随后，允许玩家将尽可能多的不同配置保存在自己的电脑上。如果这是款网络游戏，也可以设置将控制方式保存在服务器上，玩家可以在任何需要的时候加载 。
“根据我的游戏经验，多数设置菜单（游戏邦注：包含控制、音效和图像调整等功能）应当可以在游戏的任何时候调出。很显然，存在例外的情况。你不能在游戏过程中改变规则 ，分辨率调整会导致电脑和其他在线玩家的游戏暂停几秒时间。某些改变需要重新计算庞大的目录，甚至重新加载整个关卡。但是，当你改变游戏的控制方式或关闭烟雾效果时， 为何需要重新计算呢？”
“《Grand Prix 3》的游戏过程中，除了音效外你不能改变任何配置。在《辐射》中，首先你需要生成角色并观看介绍视频，然后你才能更改明暗度、音量和字幕显示。《Driver 》就更糟糕了，你需要使用标准控制方式完成首个任务，然后才能更改。《反恐精英》中修改明暗度后需要重新连接。”
我想要指出游戏中最让人郁闷的一部分。对我来说迷你游戏是没问题的，但是当游戏是一款FPS，除了两个让你开车的关卡以及赛车风格，便不存在其它乐趣了。这只是用于填补主 要游戏中没有多少内容的事实。关于这种情况的另外一个例子包含FPS中并不常见的强制性“潜行任务”，FPS中的铁路射击区域，像《侠盗猎车手》中的节奏部分等等。可选择的 迷你游戏是有趣的，并能够有效地改变节奏，但在此我们必须明确“可选择的”这一词。为了回头使用最初的技能集合而使用一种完全不同的技能集合并要求玩家必须在游戏中完 成的关卡将会让人感到恼火。
Bullfrog便经常犯这样的错误——我记得在《Dungeon Keeper》，《Magic Carpet》和《Populous：The Beginning》中便存心一些强制且不符合规则的关卡。它们拉长了游戏，但 因为它们创造了一些你觉得无用的内容，所以会惹人烦。请确保这些内容是可选择的。
然后她便开始等待。她问那个在为自己解说游戏的人：“我该做什么？”对方傲慢地回答道：“任何你想做的！”（那时候是1979年，即基于分析程序的游戏还是一种新事物）。 但是她却还是不知道自己想要做些什么。游戏并未给予她任何动机，而我们也忍受了同样的Twinkie Denial Condition将近30年——不管你是否相信，这些问题也仍会出现。 ndrew Harrison写道：
当我在System（PS2）上玩《Metal Arms: Glitch》时，有时候我会未接收到任何有关该做什么的指示便从一个检查点开始游戏：暂停菜单中没有任何信息，我不能与任何人交谈， 不存在任何方法去回顾解释影片，甚至在我的雷达上也没有任何标志。通常情况下我都是漫无目的地徘徊着，直至发现敌人，然后朝着他的方向前进，希望打败他便是我的目标。 如果我所面临的真正目标是摧毁一些机器不见或快速拉动开关，那么我便可能要徘徊好长一段时间才能找到答案。我认为设计师们应该想办法避开这种情况。
实际上，这也是Noah Falstein对于游戏设计的一大规则：提供明确的短期目标。如果他创造了一款拯救游戏，他便会提供给玩家一个简要的概述，一个分类，或者其它能让玩家清 楚自己该做些什么的内容。
如今的大多数游戏，不管是行动，冒险还是RTS，它们都会提供给玩家广泛的选择以及攻击敌人单位的各种方法。而我所注意到的一个最大问题便是，通常情况下这些内容（游戏邦 注：包括特殊的移动/咒语/单位等等）都是没用的，因为一种方法具有绝对性的用处。举个例子来说吧，在《光晕》中，对于我以及大多数与我一起游戏的人来说，狙击便是游戏 的根本目标。游戏未提供足够的动机让我去使用其它攻击方法，因为我可以快速且轻松地跨越关卡杀死某些人。这里存在一定带有讽刺意味的乐趣。但是Bungie在《光晕2》的时候 却削弱了狙击手枪的绝对威力。虽然一开始有点郁闷，但是不得不承认游戏的确变得更加有趣了。
几年前，我在游戏开发者大会的一场演讲中找到了失忆症的问题所在。之所以会出现这一问题是因为当玩家开始游戏时并不知道有关游戏世界的任何内容。在许多冒险游戏中，玩 家必须做的第一件事便是找遍自己公寓里的橱柜——这很荒谬。真实故事中的角色并不会这么做，因为角色已经是是游戏世界中的一份子了。所以在游戏产业中，我们之所以让玩 家角色患上失忆症是为了证实玩家还不清楚情况。
尽管这是解决问题的一种潇洒的方法。实际上，电影观众也不了解电影世界，所以电影会提供精心设计的介绍将玩家带进剧情中。有时候，当出现不同情况时，电影会借助画外音 ，但大多数情况下却是不必要的。让我们着眼于最优秀的间谍电视节目《The Sandbaggers》的第一章节一开始所出现的交流内容：
在这四航内容中，我们知道了Wellingham，他的工作，他与该剧主角Burnside的关系等信息。我们也知道Burnside离过婚，但仍然与前岳父保持着业务关系。最后，我们注意到 Burnside很重视人们的头衔，并且希望秘书清楚这一点。在这短短的10秒钟对话中竟然透露了这么多信息，这彻底打败了在电子游戏中听取冗长的一段角色解释内容。我们需要从 这些电影和电视节目介绍中获得学习。同时，不要再添加更多患有失忆症的玩家角色了。
《Interstate ’76》是一款在汽车上添加了许多幻想武器的赛车游戏。一个关卡包含了一个有趣但却让人厌烦的问题。游戏告诉你，你必须在一个被混凝土墙包围的封闭区域中找 到出路。“正确的”解决方法是找到一个隐藏的斜坡，将车开到上方并飞过墙壁—-如此你将掉进一个深坑，但这对于下一部分故事却是必要的内容。然而，一些聪明的玩家意识到 自己可能掉进墙壁附近的地雷中，所以会加速朝它驶去。爆炸将把汽车弹向空中，并借着这股巨大的动力将其带向墙的另一边。如果汽车足够坚固，它的着陆便是安全的，即使会 受到一些损伤。它们满足了规定的胜利条件，但游戏却并未认出它，所以关卡并未结束。游戏只测试了斜坡的使用，而不管汽车是否是在墙壁的外面。
我最喜欢的例子是来自《Red Faction》。这里存在一个任务会要求你去破坏太空站中的一台特殊的计算机。当你到达那里时，游戏会让你去炸毁整个太空站并跑向逃生舱。所以根 据逻辑来看，我便会认为自己只需要炸毁太空站而无需担心瞄准计算机。于是我便炸毁了太空站，并跳向逃生舱，但这说明游戏却出现了故障。因为我们本应该先炸毁计算机然后 才炸毁太空站的。（游戏并未解释这一努力的重复。）显然，游戏并不能处理计算机未被炸毁的关卡结果，所以我将只是回到主菜单屏幕上。这都是因为我一直都很机智地处理任 何事，而不是像关卡设计师希望我做的那样，愚蠢对待。
随着3D的出现，我们必须更加努力去描绘我们的游戏世界，特别是在行动游戏中。基于横向卷轴，纵向卷轴以及等距视图，生活会变得非常简单。基于3D的第三人称或第一人称并 不会太难，但是它们也都带有局限（当在第三人称视角中角色背朝墙壁时会是怎样的情况？）。最近，我们投入了许多努力去创造更灵活的升相机，即按照Ico的方式，但是我们似 乎做得不是很合理。Loren Schmidt写道：
The Designer’s Notebook: Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! V
by Ernest Adams
It’s time once again for The Designer’s Notebook’s annual compendium of goofs, screw-ups, and errors of judgment or taste—those elements that make a videogame less than what it should be. These Twinkie Denial Conditions (TDCs) aren’t restricted to bad games only; sometimes they’re just one blemish on an otherwise good game.
Almost all of these have been sent to me by readers. Unfortunately, I’m not rich enough to afford a PS2, an Xbox, a GameCube, a Dreamcast, a GBA, and a top-end PC, all at the same time, so I haven’t been able to verify for myself all the examples mentioned. But even if a detail or two is wrong, it’s the principle that matters.
Wrecking a Game’s Balance for the Sake of A “Cool Feature”
Bryan Buschmann writes:
“The most recent gem I know of is from the makers of Silent Storm. They hand you a big box of turn based stealth action in a World War II setting. And then in the course of one mission, throw in walking tanks that are literally invulnerable to everything except the new weapon that exists only as a) a giant, unwieldy laser cannon you’ve never seen before, and b) a laser mounted on one of these walking monstrosities. Once you’ve found and used these laser weapons to kill the person inside the walking tank (not the tank itself), you can get into the walking tank and essentially turn your squad mates into a legion of unstoppable juggernauts and thus totally destroy the balance of the game. It truly was a sad moment, to see such an achievement of style and technology wrecked in the later stages by ridiculous game design. Thankfully in the expansion pack they listened to their user base and decided to rework their entire implementation.
“There were people posting on the forums with such brilliance as ‘Well, if you just disregard all previous strategy that you were doing and just do this one thing that I’m doing, it’s fine!’ … I don’t like being told halfway through a game that my previous play style is now invalid.”
I think Bryan has summed it up pretty well. A lot of designers succumb to this temptation. Their desire to incorporate, like, totally awesome weapons overrides their desire to, like, balance the game properly.
Personally, I don’t know what giant walking tanks are doing in a game about World War II anyway; it’s been 60 years since D-Day and we still don’t have giant walking tanks—I doubt if we ever will, since they’re totally impractical. Science fiction, OK—historical simulation, not OK.
Dead Opponents Resurrected While You Sleep…
Or when you save the game. Anita Ray (and several other people as well) wrote to complain about this one. As she puts it,“You have just successfully killed the Monumental Titan Demon of Krall and 18,000 minions. Your health and mana are exhausted, but now that all the titan demons are dead, the game will let you rest so you can continue your adventures. So you rest… and discover that magically the Monumental Titan Demon and his minions have been resurrected (probably before you’ve been healed, too). You die a terrible, nasty death. This problem seems to occur a lot after a save, too.
“This is lazy programming that kills accomplishment. It makes saving/resting a potentially deadly encounter that frustrates the hell out of gamers (at least me). And yet, it doesn’t seem to be unusual in RPGs. I’ve had this difficulty with games that were otherwise decent (Morrowind and Baldur’s Gate pop to mind). It has caused more creative use of the English language than the current political administration, and that’s saying a lot.”
Ah, if only it could be attributed to the programmers! Sorry, Anita, this one belongs squarely at the door of us game designers. The whole issue of spawning and resurrection is a complicated one that I’ll deal with in a future column, but I do know one thing: when a boss is dead, it ought to stay dead unless you reload the game at a point before you met the boss. I’m not wild about bosses anyway, but I recognize that they’re a standard convention, so we need rules for implementing them. A boss shouldn’t be resurrected unless there’s some clear reason why it’s possible (and some way to prevent it). And a boss should certainly never re-spawn the way a normal grunt does.
Someone who signs off as “Deathbliss” rants:
“I just got through playing Brute Force for the Xbox and guess what? There is no way to map the controls the way I want to! This is becoming more and more of a problem on the Xbox, and I hear it’s the same for the PS2. The best control mapping-scheme I ever saw was in Quake 3 Arena for the Dreamcast—that’s the way it should be done. On the PC scene and loosely related we have titles like Silent Hill 2—WITH NO MOUSE SUPPORT! Or Gothic, with the mouse not being
something you can configure and use the way you like.”
I couldn’t agree more. This is worse than a Twinkie Denial Condition; any big commercial game that doesn’t let the player reconfigure the input devices merits withholding all snack food. This is especially true if it’s a twitch game requiring high dexterity, where a tenth of a second counts. Configurable controls are trivial to implement, cost next to nothing in RAM and storage space, and make your game far more accessible. When are game designers going to realize that human factors engineering is not just something for fighter planes and nuclear power plants?
It needs to be done properly, though. R. Alan Monroe writes to complain about…
Bad Configuration Mechanisms
Mr. Monroe says:
“When I’m customizing the keys for a game (like an FPS) I can click on the action and press a key, but how do I know which keys are free, and not already bound to something else? There are three bad ways to handle this: an error message saying the key is already in use; the new action steals the key from the original action; or me having to scroll up and down an endless list in a little bitty window to see if it’s already taken.
“How about: a) showing a list of all unbound keys, or b) displaying the key remapping list full screen with four or five columns, so I can see all of them at once?”
Once again, getting this right is just as easy as getting it wrong and costs nothing, so why not do it right?
This one’s a little bit difficult to describe in generic terms, so I’m going to let Jason Seip put it in his own words with a specific example. He says it happened in Splinter Cell for the GameCube and was just “a bad moment in a good game.”
“I was in a building that was about to be destroyed by a bomb. I misinterpreted my orders, thinking I was supposed to escape, when in reality I was supposed to find and defuse the bomb. Checkpoint A was the moment I was told about the bomb and shown how much time remained before detonation. I ran as fast as I could through the level, bypassing the room with the bomb, and further fighting my way past enemy soldiers. Just before time ran out I passed a checkpoint (
“B”) and thought I had succeeded, only to have my game end about 5 seconds later due to the bomb going off. When my game restarted, it was at the newly acquired checkpoint, so the bomb went off again after 5 seconds. This kept happening over and over, with no chance of me backtracking to resolve the issue.”
The moral, he says, is: “Don’t let the player reach checkpoint B if he or she hasn’t satisfied the requirements of checkpoint A.” Checkpoint B should have been in some area that was completely inaccessible to the player until the bomb was defused.
Jason actually ran across one of the fundamental conundrums of linear interactive narratives: the Problem of Narrative Flow. How do you make sure that the player has done everything he needs to do by the time he arrives at the dramatic climax of your story, when you don’t control his actions? There are various solutions, one of the simplest being: unlock the doors to the dramatic climax one at a time, so the player can’t get there until he or she is ready. Jason actually got ahead of the story by skipping a step, so the story took a wrong turn and came to a dead end.
Yet More Fantasy-Killing Elements
In my very first No Twinkie episode, I mentioned fantasy-killing elements: elements of the game that are so stupid or inappropriate that they destroy your sense of immersion. As you can imagine, this covers a wide range of blunders. Gregg Tavares rings in with a few:
Music that doesn’t fit the game. In many games an emotional connection to the game is important. Music helps create this emotion when done correctly (scored like a movie, for instance) and detracts when not (generic peppy “game” music, licensed music, user-selectable music, and so on). [I would add that the popular practice of licensing completely inappropriate bands to do music for a game is just as aesthetically bankrupt as that of doing it for movies. M.C. Hammer for The Addams Family? Excuse me? That’s marketing gone mad. —Ernest]
In-game dialog that refers to real-world things. In Metal Gear Solid, Commander calls Snake on the walkie-talkie and says something like “Snake, to open the hatch press A on the control pad.” Huh? In real life no one would refer to a control pad, because it’s outside of the game’s world. Grand Theft Auto 3 has a better implementation. In GTA3 game characters stay in character 100 percent of the time, and gameplay-related explanations are printed on the screen, detached from any of the characters.
Extremely ridiculous situations. This of course happens in lots of Hollywood movies too. For example, you’ve got 18 hours to stop an atomic bomb going off. Oh, I know, let’s spend lots of precious minutes flirting with an in-game character (Metal Gear Solid). The world ends tomorrow, so let’s go to an amusement park (Final Fantasy 7). I’m around the corner from a guard about three feet away, so let’s have a conversation on the communicator with the commander (MGS again).
Jerry Strand and “loganb” both wrote to complain about movies that you couldn’t interrupt. Sometimes they’re incredibly long intros that you have to sit through every time you start the game; sometimes they’re cut-scenes that play right after a save point. If you keep getting killed and have to reload from that save point, you have to see the movie again. I’ll add some more: the uninterruptible 15-second spell-effect movies in Final Fantasy 8. (I haven’t played the others in this series, so I don’t know if they’re all guilty of this or not.) They’re impressive the first time, interesting the next three or four, and exceedingly tiresome from then on. It discourages you from casting the spell or even playing the game after a while.
Now, I actually like cinematics in games (Dogma 2001 notwithstanding), so long as they’re well executed, short and sweet, visually compatible with the rest of the game, and actually add something to the plot. Unfortunately, a harmonic convergence of all these qualities only occurs in about 25 percent of the cases. The rest of the time, they’re corny, irrelevant, or both, and I want to button through them and get on with playing the game. Once again, the fix for this is trivial—so do it!
That’s it for this edition of Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! Thanks to all those who wrote in and apologies to those whose suggestions I didn’t have room for.
Here we go again! The messages have come in, the people have spoken, and I now have another half-dozen game design errors for you to avoid. I’m always interested in more, though, so if you think of one, be sure to send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As ever, a disclaimer: even good games can contain bad game design decisions. Just because a game is mentioned here, that doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad game. Sometimes it’s just a good game with a mistake in it.
On to the Twinkie Denial Conditions:
“Easy Mode” Is Supposed to Be Easy, Dammit!
In one of my earlier No Twinkie columns, I complained about games that don’t offer multiple difficulty levels. Now, I realize that this isn’t appropriate for all kinds of games; but it’s usually possible in the action and strategy genres. Offering different levels of difficulty, I argued, broadens your market and makes your game accessible to people who might not otherwise have played it.
This TDC is a corollary, sent in by Christopher Kempke. He writes:
“I’ve noticed a lot of games lately (and almost all shooters) seem to have a deep desire to prevent you from finishing. You can get to the last room/level/boss, but that room/level/boss has to be ‘a challenge.’
“I tend to play all games on the easiest difficulty level, because I don’t have forever to spend on a game. But I want to finish, and I selected Easy Mode for a reason. If I can play the first 15 levels with a half a dozen deaths, it seems reasonable that I should be able to complete the last level within two or three, or at most five or six attempts. But no! Generally the last level, room, or boss is roughly twenty times as challenging as anything I’ve faced to date, requires entirely different techniques to fight, or is simply beyond my abilities altogether.
“Far Cry is the worst I’ve seen lately; you get a full refresh of guns and shields, a door closes (and seals) behind you, and now you get to face dozens of the hardest monsters in the game. At no previous point have you faced more than three at a time (and almost died on those occasions). Now there are eight of them, and three or four extra enemies sniping at you from the shadows. Killing them all (probably at the cost of all your ammo) just lets you open a door that releases a bunch more. And of course it’s a gantlet; you have no choice but to open every single door, knowing that each one contains an army that you can no longer fight.
“I’d guess I average about two games a year that I can get 99% of the way through unaided, but need a cheat code for the last little bit. It drives me nuts, and it isn’t fun. If I wanted such an experience, I’d have set the difficulty higher.”
Towards the end, Far Cry gets quite difficult even in Easy Mode.
Now, I don’t have a problem with the fact that you have to use different techniques to fight boss characters – that video game convention is at least 25 years old, and it adds challenge ad interest to the gameplay. But I think Christopher is right on target about the difficulty issue. This TDC is a good example of a classic design error: failing to think about what the player actually wants. If the player chooses Easy Mode, then he wants the game to be easy to play and easy to win – period.
“But,” I hear a legion of old-time game designers cry, “that means he’ll finish the game too soon!” Oh, yeah? Too soon for what? Too soon for your ego is what you mean, because you’ve still got that outmoded notion that the player is your adversary. He isn’t. He’s your audience, the person you’re trying to entertain and provide enjoyment to. And if that means the whole thing only takes him two hours, well, so be it; it was his choice. He can always go back and play it again on a harder setting.
Poorly-Implemented Rumble or Force Feedback
This one was sent to me by Adam Doyle:
“I hate when the controller vibrates at every slightest action. Is a vibration for every footstep necessary? This is especially a problem in fighting games and first person shooters, where every impact or shot fired causes the controller to buzz. When correctly done, this can create a more immersive effect in a scene, but if the rumble is too frequent, it loses its physical impact because players will get so used to the vibration. A good example would be the new Serious Sam game for consoles. But many shooters and fighting games (like Tekken 4) have way too much rumble.
“Then there is the problem of inconsistent rumble power. Did a small window just break, and the controller jumped out of your hands? Or did a warehouse blow up with your character in it, and all you felt was a slight hum? Again, this breaks the connection between the player and the game. With force feedback steering wheels, the wheel can jerk back and forth so violently it forces the players to let go of it, and make them wait for the feedback to stop spinning before they can resume the game. A prime example is the new sim racer Enthusia Racer. The wheel will literally spin out of your hands.
Enthusia can sometimes take the control right out of your hands.
“Not only does bad rumble design pull the players away from the game, but it can actually make them lose control of it by causing them to miss buttons or actions, or have their fingers slip off of the analog stick in the heat of a battle. There are also health issue in extreme cases: long periods of high vibration can cause numbness in the fingers and hands. Developers need to know that just because the controller vibrates, it doesn’t mean that they have to have a rumble feature. In my opinion it’s better to have no rumble or force feedback than poorly implemented rumble any day.”
Actually you can generalize that last sentence to almost everything about games: a bad feature is worse than no feature at all. As I’ve said many times, if
you can’t do it well, don’t do it.
All good points there, Adam. Rumble isn’t just a gimmick you throw in because you can. It should be meaningful feedback to the player, part of the user interface and therefore part of your responsibility as a game designer. Take the time to think it through carefully and do it right.
Unplayable Camera Angles
Adam also sent me a second Twinkie Denial Condition, unplayable camera angles – usually in an effort to produce a “cinematic experience.” He wrote:“The problem with many survival horror games (and other genres too), is that the developers, in going for that ‘cinematic experience,’ will place cameras that may frame the scene well, but end up making for an unplayable experience. If your character is fighting off swarms of enemies, why in the world would you place the camera on the floor at a dynamic angle? Sure it may look nice, but players couldn’t care less how nice it looks if they can’t play the game.
Now, I love unusual camera angles and anything that creates visual interest and breaks up the monotony of the third-person perspective. But Adam is right: the game must still be playable! Interesting camera angles are great for slower moving genres such as adventure games or action-adventures that aren’t too difficult, like ICO. But if you’re fighting for your life, it’s imperative that you be able to see clearly what’s going on.
Bad Manuals and/or Bad Tutorials
T.C. Fox wrote in to say:
“I am one of those gamers who always reads the manual and likes good, informative tutorials before I am thrown into a game. I loved all the tutorials about race driving in Gran Turismo 4. However, after a long hiatus from the world of golf, I decided to pick up a copy of Tiger Woods 2004, and I was dismayed at the complete lack of information about the finer points of the game (both the game of golf and the videogame itself). The tutorial the game makes you play before you can do anything else is abrupt and cursory. The manual is awfully thin. This made for a hugely frustrating initial game experience that almost made me return it on the spot.”
Manuals seem rather outdated today, as they have mostly been replaced by tutorial levels. Even so, a manual offers an important feature that a tutorial can’ t: you can look stuff up in it while the game is paused. It’s also valuable to a player who likes to know what’s expected of her before she dives in, rather than learning by trial-and-error. Trial-and-error learning is characteristic of a hardcore style of gameplay (“shoot it and see what happens”) that many casual gamers aren’t comfortable with and, more importantly, don’t have time for.
Tiger Woods is a game that a casual gamer or even a non-gamer might try out. Someone might give it as a birthday present to a golf aficionado who would otherwise never touch a videogame. That kind of player is going to need – and to expect – a decent introduction to the experience. Make it frustrating for him, and you’ve just blown your chance to sell him next year’s edition.
I know manuals cost money to produce and they take up space in the box; that’s why we’ve shrunk them down to nothing but a leaflet these days. But if you want to reach a market beyond the traditional hardcore gamers who have all the time and patience in the world, you owe them a decent manual and decent tutorials.
Bad Split-Screen Design
This is chiefly a problem in console racing games, where the screen is split for each of the players. Mat Lamarche writes:
“In single-player mode the screens are nice and big, you get a great view of the track and whatever is down the road… but I have yet to see a game that handles multi-player split screen management properly. Those damned time indicators (how much you are winning/losing by) pop up in front of you and you can barely see anything down the road!”
This is just one example of a larger general problem: split screen interface design is tough. It’s about to get tougher, too, as we move into the HDTV generation of games. With higher resolution, you would expect it to be easier, but unfortunately, for the next five years or so there will be millions of players who don’t have high-definition televisions. You’ll have to design your game to be playable on their TVs too, or lose their business.
In the meantime, keep the pop-ups out of the road! Put them off to the side or something.
Crates Without Pallets or Forklifts (Stuff in Impossible Places)
Crates are already a standing joke in the world of videogames, because we see so many of them. The Old Man Murray website includes a hilarious review of a number of games (caution: strong language) based on the length of time you have to play before you see the first crate – at which point, the authors claim, the game designer has run out of ideas. The longer you can play without seeing a crate or a barrel, the better the game is.
The ubiquitous crate makes its inevitable appearance in
The same article points out that you can’t move crates without a forklift and a pallet for the crate to sit on. If there are crates in a place, there had better be pallets under them and at least one forklift as well. In fact, somebody wrote to me (unfortunately I lost his name in an E-mail crash) and pointed out that wooden crates are completely passé now anyway. Modern shipping is done in piles of cardboard boxes all held together with industrial-strength plastic wrap. Wood is heavy and expensive, cardboard is light, cheap, and recyclable. But our FPSes are still displaying 40-year-old shipping technology, even in futuristic science fiction games.
I can’t claim crates without pallets as an original Twinkie Denial Condition because the Old Man Murray guys thought of it first, but I can generalize the issue to the problem of stuff being in impossible places, something that several people have complained about. Now, obviously, this doesn’t apply to platform games in which it’s common for crates (among other things) to float in mid-air. Levitating crates is part of the platform game convention; I understand that and maybe that’s why they don’t need pallets or forklifts. But if your game is going to pretend it’s about the real world, if you’re
going to have a lot of box copy about how exciting and believable your storyline is, then try not to create rooms without any doors, full of crates that apparently came in through a ventilation shaft. Try not to put barrels down in a sewer system in which all the manholes are smaller than the barrels. Try not to put a crate containing half a ton of weapons and armor in an alcove 50 feet up a cliff. And – for that matter – try to think of something more interesting than crates and barrels to keep health and ammo in.
That’s it for this year: six more dumb things not to do in your game. Some of them, like bad camera angles, will actually kill the game’s playability. Others, like poorly-designed rumble, will just annoy the player for no good reason. In any case, heed these warnings, lest you, too, have your Twinkies taken away.
Thanks to all those people who contributed, and once again, keep ‘em coming!
We all know the game industry suffers from a lot of personnel turnover. Enthusiastic young people join the business; the hours and working conditions burn them out; they leave to find a more sane occupation, and a new crop shows up all ready for the flames. Apart from the waste of life and talent this represents, it means that game companies have no institutional memory, and that’s partly why we keep making design errors.
On the other hand, it does give me something to write about every year! Welcome to Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! VII. This year’s list of Twinkie Denial Conditions is, unfortunately, a long one, and as usual, it was all submitted by you, my faithful readers. If you’d like to send me some more, write to email@example.com. In the meantime, here we go:
No New Features After the First Few Levels
Novelty is one of the many ways that video games entertain, and a quality that sets video gaming apart from, say, board gaming. Mahdi Jeddi writes to complain about games that present all their features in the first few levels, and then don’t have anything new to offer in the later stages of the game. As he says, “If they have budget limitations, they can spread the introduction of new features across all levels, and maybe make some special levels for one feature. This way the game will maintain its freshness to its end and the player will be saved from boredom.”
Hear, hear! Which is worse: A game that introduces its features sparsely but regularly, or one that gives them all to you at once and then never gives you another one? I would much rather play the former. Obviously this will vary somewhat by genre, but offering up a new twist every now and then will certainly help to keep the player’s interest. Too many games turn into a boring grind in the last third or so, and the player has to slog through it if he wants to see the ending. We didn’t get into this business to make boring grinds. Spread your innovations out over the whole game.
Extreme Rule Changes When Fighting Boss Characters
Boss characters always require a different approach from ordinary enemies—this is a well-known convention of gaming, and we all get it. But when the changes are so great that all your earlier experience is worthless, the game is being unfair to the player.
David Peterson writes, “Dead or Alive 3 completely changes the rules when fighting the last boss, and voids all you have learned. When playing in story mode, you fight a bunch of different characters in the regular game. At the end, you fight the ‘big boss’ (I still have no idea who he is or why he is surrounded by flames) and everything changes. He shoots at you; the camera is locked in a completely different position from the rest of the game, making all your usual moves rotate 90 degrees on the controller, and your game becomes block, move a little closer, block, move a little closer, etc. All the skills and moves you had previously learned are now useless. Aargh!!!”
Yup, definitely a Twinkie Denial Condition. Fights with boss characters should build upon what the player already knows, not replace it entirely.
Bad Translation and Localization
Santiago Hodalgo writes from Spain to point out what a fantasy-killer a cruddy translation and localization is. I’ll let him tell it:
“In the past, very few games were translated to Spanish, mainly graphic adventures, and those were probably the only ones correctly translated. I especially remember the Lucasarts games because they had good translations, and even the American-themed jokes were changed for Spanish-themed ones… Today, with games being more complex and full of multimedia content, I think localization has become a bigger task, and while some games are correctly adapted, many others aren’t.”
“I played Call of Duty in English for the first time, and the voices added to the realism, but in the Spanish version the translation is extremely poor. In the original version the officers shouted orders, emphasizing points; panicking soldiers reflected panic in their voices; hidden people whispered at you, and even different nationalities had distinguishable accents. In the Spanish version, there’s no voice acting at all, it’s only reading. It’s the same tone and pattern for every line of dialogue, no matter what the situation or the environment.”
Now Call of Duty is a great game, so what’s up with that? Who at Activision had so little pride in his work that he let this cruddy hack-job out the door? Is the Spanish-speaking market somehow less deserving of decent production values than the English-speaking one? (Considering how big the Spanish-speaking market will soon be within the USA, anybody who has that delusion had better get over it quick.) Bad game designer! No Twinkie!
And while we’re on the subject of languages, Mihail Mercuryev writes from the Ukraine to say:
“Subtitles make the game accessible for foreigners and people who are forced to play without sound. But many utstanding titles (Myst, Uru and Outcast come to mind) don’t have them. Also, most of Myst’s speech is mixed with enormous amount of noise and is barely recognizable even in native language. In Commandos, when you don’t have sound, the mission briefing conveys no information, the map simply scrolls back and forth. For some reason Driver refused to produce any sound on my computer, so I was unable to listen to messages… and no subtitles, again.”
“I think all voice messages should be backed up with subtitles or another visual clue. If you think that subtitles ruin gameplay, keep them off by default. In some cases, when translating the game into another language, only subtitles might be replaced, without touching the voice. For example, this kind of translation worked well in Desperados; if they dubbed the voices in Russian, the characters would lose their lovely accents.”
I disagree with his last sentence—they wouldn’t necessarily have lost their accents if they had done the dubbing right. But as Santiago pointed out, localization companies don’t always take the trouble.
There’s another good reason to include subtitles, and that is to let hearing-impaired players play the game. We’re way behind other media on this. TV and DVDs now routinelyship with subtitles or even picture-in-pictre sign language translation. Half-Life 2 did a nice job of including subtitles with different colors for different speakers. To find out more about making your game accessible to the deaf, visit www.deafgamers.com.
Unless you’re making a game for a wristwatch or something, you should regard subtitles as a required feature of the title. It’s just good design practice— like readable typefaces and adjustable sound levels.
Unworkable Interface Elements (e.g. Invisible Crosshairs)
Santiago also proposed another TDC: crosshairs that you can’t even see. He said, “Most games allow you to decide if you want crosshairs or not, and some of them even offer you different crosshairs to choose. But some games paint them translucently or in a color that gets confused with the background. In the worst case you end up not knowing where you’re shooting. I’ve chosen to use crosshairs, so please make them clear!”
“Half-Life Opposing Force uses translucent green crosshairs, one different for each weapon. Some of them are so dimmed that they are difficult to see, but then you turn on night vision (and some parts of the game can’t be completed without it) and it turns all your screen green… including your crosshair and all information, which get lost in the chaos.”
This sounds to me like a testing problem. Unfortunately, most game testers are not the right people to correct problems with a game’s usability. They know every detail of the game inside and out. They know exactly what’s going to happen next and where to shoot. They don’t need crosshairs… or mini-maps, or advisor characters, or easy modes, or, well, any of the features that make a game more playable to someone starting it up for the first time. The testers never even noticed that the crosshairs were useless… but somebody should have.
I heard a great lecture last year from Melissa Federoff, who wrote a seminal thesis on usability for games and, until recently, did game usability research at Microsoft Game Studios. She had some funny tales to tell of designers watching new players try to get through a level in some game or another. Half the time the players ended up going down a blind alley and falling into a pit. The level designers were baffled. “Why do they keep doing that?” they asked. Melissa had to suppress the urge to scream, “Because they weren’t the ones who built the level, you moron! They don’t already know what’s in it and unlike you they haven’t played it 10,000 times!”
OK, I exaggerate; Melissa is much too professional to call a level designer a moron. She probably reserves that for user interface designers who don’t provide any way to reconfigure the input devices. But when you’re testing a game, you have to get someone to look at it who’s never seen it before. Then you have to pay attention to what they say and act on it.
Speaking of reconfiguring input devices, Ben Ashley writes in to complain about…
I already mentioned bad configuration mechanisms back in No Twinkie V, but I hadn’t realized quite how many ways there were to screw up such an utterly
trivial feature. Battlefield 2 doesn’t save your control profile with your game profile, so when you sit down at a new computer, you’ve suddenly got to
reconfigure the keys again… and in a game like Battlefield 2, there are a lot of keys. And when you set up a new game profile, Ben says, the new profile goes back to the default control configuration again. Furthermore, according to the GameSpot review, you have to sort through multiple pages to unbind a key before you can bind it to something else.
Multiple pages? What a nuisance! You would think the scrolling list box had never been invented. Put a list of all the current bindings, all the unbound keys, and all the unbound functions on one screen. That way the player has all the information she needs right in front of her to do any mapping she likes. Then let her save as many different configurations as she wants on her own machine, and if it’s an online game, on the server as well, and reload them on
Unavailable Configuration Menus
And I’m not even done yet. It seems that bad config designs hack players off far more than we realize, because Mihail Mercuryev adds:
“As a rule of thumb, most setup menus (controls, sound, small graphics adjustments) should be available everywhere in the game. Obviously, there are exceptions. You can’t change rules in the middle of te race, and resolution changes would freeze your computer, and those of other online players, for a couple of seconds. Some changes require recalculating large tables, or even reloading the entire level. But what is there to recalculate when you change your controls? Or when you turn off smoke effects?”
“Grand Prix 3 doesn’t allow you to change anything (except sound) while in game. In Fallout, first you need to generate a character and view an introductory video, then you may change brightness or volume, or turn subtitles on. Driver is even worse: you need to complete the first mission (show how good you are at the wheel) with standard controls, then you may change them. Counter-Strike requires you to reconnect when you change brightness.”
Uh… brightness? I have to disconnect from the game because I want to change the brightness? Whose idea was that?
You might be thinking, “Who cares? This config stuff is trivial compared to the importance of tuning the gameplay.” Yes, and that’s why there’s no excuse for doing it wrong! Building a good configuration mechanism is hardly the most exciting part of a game designer’s job, but it matters to the players, because if they can’t configure the game to their liking, you’re going to give them an inferior gaming experience no matter how well-tuned your gameplay is. I shouldn’t have to prove that I’m good with your stupid configuration before I’m allowed to set a sensible one, because in case you hadn’t noticed,
I, not you, am the one playing the game.
Either do your job right—including the boring parts—or resign and give it to somebody who will. There are thousands of wanna-be designers out there who would be happy to take over from you.
Ignorance of the Law of Communicating Reservoirs
I’ll end with a sort of strange one, also contributed by Mihail Mercuryev. We’re pretty used to putting up with weird compromises in physics—cars that stop instantly when they hit indestructible park benches, and so on. Someday we’ll have enough computing power to get all that right. But this one is a level design mistake that doesn’t have anything to do with computing power. Mihail says,
“In some games (Quake 1, Duke Nukem 3D) you dive into the water, and get out a few meters below. If this has become a convention, forget it and start studying physics! When the reservoirs are communicating, the water level should be the same (unless there’s a closed chamber with some air trapped underwater, such as a diving bell).”
I have to admit that I never thought about that, but of course he’s right. If you dive underwater at point A and get out at point B, A and B must be at the same altitude because water seeks its own level. If you dive down to a lower level and get out into the air down there… why doesn’t that space just fill up with water?
Someday maybe we’ll simulate water as a real fluid rather than just a blue filter over the lens, and we’ll get this right. In the meantime, level designers, if you want to avoid Mihail’s wrath, remember the Law of Communicating Reservoirs. Or set your game inside a diving bell.
My thanks to Mahdi Jeddi, David Peterson, Santiago Hodalgo, Mihail Mercuryev, and Ben Ashley for this year’s batch of Twinkie Denial Conditions, and remember, only you can prevent stupid design errors. And if you spot one—even, or especially, in an otherwise great game—send it along to me.
It’s time once again for another edition of that annual favorite, Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! Since last year I’ve collected up another batch of Twinkie Denial Conditions from my readers, which I present for your edification and entertainment. I’ve also finally fulfilled an old promise to set up a No Twinkie Database of all the TDCs, organized by category. Just click the link and it’ll take you to my website.
And away we go! Some of these are biggies that I really should have mentioned years ago.
Mandatory Wildly Atypical Levels
This one bugs the heck out of me, and I’m apparently not the only one. Joel Johnson writes:
I’d like to point out the painfully irritating sections of games where they “change it up.” Mini-games are fine by me, but when the game is an FPS except for two levels where you drive a car, race style, that’s not a lot of fun. It’s just padding that hides the fact that there isn’t a lot of content in the main game. Other examples of this include the obligatory “stealth mission” not uncommon in FPSs (if you want to make a stealth game, make a damn stealth game), on-rails shooting-gallery sections of FPSs, the rhythm sections of games like Grand Theft Auto, etc. Optional mini-games are fun, and can be a refreshing change of pace, but optional is the key word here. Levels where a player must complete a game that uses a completely different skill set in order to continue back to a point that uses the original skill set can be irritating as hell.
Bullfrog was often guilty of this — I remember some wildly atypical levels in Dungeon Keeper, Magic Carpet, and Populous: The Beginning. They padded out the game, but because they made just about everything you had learned useless, they were very annoying. Keep them optional.
Populous: The Beginning
Failure to Provide Clear Short-Term Goals
The first time my wife sat down to the play the original text adventure, Colossal Cave, she saw the opening words:
You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.
Then it just sat there, waiting. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked the guy who was showing her the game. “Anything you want!” he said proudly (this was 1979, and games with parsers were brand new). But she didn’t know what she wanted to do. The game didn’t give her any incentive to do anything in particular, and we’ve lived with the same Twinkie Denial Condition for nearly 30 years — it still happens, believe it or not. Andrew Harrison wrote to say:
When I played Metal Arms: Glitch in the System (PS2), it sometimes happened that I would start a game from a checkpoint without a clear indication of what it was that I should be doing: no information in the pause menu, no one to whom I could talk, no way to revisit an explanatory cinematic segment, not even a blip on my radar. Often I simply wandered around until I found enemies and then progressed in their general direction, hoping that their defeat was my goal.
If the actual goal was to destroy some piece of machinery or flip a switch, I could potentially wander for a very long time before trying the right thing. I think that designers should try to avoid those situations.
You’re darn right they should; in fact, it’s one of Noah Falstein’s rules for game design: provide clear short-term goals. And if he starts up a saved game, give the player a recap, a journal, or something else he can look at to see what he was supposed to be doing.
“Dominant strategy” is a term from mathematical game theory. It refers to a state of affairs in which one particular course of action (a strategy) always produces the best outcome regardless of circumstances. A dominant strategy doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory, but it is always the best choice available. As a result, there’s never any reason to use a different strategy. A game with a dominant strategy is flawed, because it offers no meaningful decisions for the player to make.
Dominant strategies show up in ordinary games for entertainment, too. Joel Johnson writes,
Most games nowadays, be they action, adventure, RTS, or whatever, give the player a wide variety of options or methods of attacking enemy units. One of the bigger problems that I’ve noticed is that it is not uncommon for most of these [special moves/spells/units/etc.] to be completely useless, because one method is so overwhelmingly useful. For example, look at Halo. Pistol-sniping was the name of the game, at least for me and for most of the people that I
played with. There was little incentive for me to use other methods of attack because I could kill someone across the level quite rapidly and easily. I had a lot of fun pistol sniping people who went for a sniper rifle. There was a certain ironic pleasure in that. At any rate, Bungie did their homework and nerfed the pistol something fierce for Halo 2. I was chagrined at first, but the game was a lot more interesting to play.
It’s a perfect example of the problem. Choosing the pistol is a dominant strategy, or very nearly. Sometimes dominant strategies get into games because there just wasn’t enough playtesting; sometimes because the designer was so in love with a particular feature that he couldn’t bring himself to weaken it, even though that would bring the game into proper balance. Bottom line: there must be benefits and disadvantages to every possible choice that make them preferable at some times and not at others.
Many Halo players learned to dominate the game using the pistol.
Amnesia at the Game’s Beginning
Moving on from game balancing to storytelling, Andrew Stuart writes about games that begin:
“You wake up in a strange place. You don’t know who you are or how you got here. You have amnesia and your objective is to find out who you are and what you are doing here.” It’s hard to believe but it seems every second game has me waking up with amnesia. It’s okay after a night out on the booze, but in every second computer game? Enough!
Years ago I identified the Problem of Amnesia in a lecture at the Game Developers’ Conference. The problem arises because the player doesn’t know anything about the game world when she starts the game. In a lot of adventure games, the first thing she has to do is go through all the drawers in what is supposedly her own apartment to see what’s in them — which is ridiculous. A character in a real story doesn’t have to do this, because the character already belongs
to the game world. So in the game industry, we make a lot of games in which the player’s character has amnesia to justify the player’s own ignorance.
That’s a cheesy solution to the problem, though. In reality, the viewers of a film don’t know the film’s world either, so movies have carefully crafted introductions that bring the audience up to speed gently. Occasionally, when the situation is really unfamiliar, movies resort to voiceover narration, but that’s not necessary most of the time. Consider the following exchange at the beginning of the first episode of The Sandbaggers, the best spy TV show ever made:
Secretary: Wellingham rang. He wants to see you.
Burnside [starchily]: Do you mean the Permanent Undersecretary of the Foreign Office?
Secretary [equally starchily]: I mean your father-in-law.
In four lines, without even meeting him, we’ve been introduced to Wellingham, his job, and his relationship to the show’s main character, Burnside. We’ve also learned that Burnside is divorced, but still has professional business with his former farther-in-law. Finally, we’ve noticed that Burnside is a bit formal about people’s titles (not uncommon in 1978 Britain) and that his secretary can stand up to him. That’s a lot of information in 10 seconds of dialog, and it beats the heck out of listening to some long-winded mentor character explain things in a video game. We need to study those film and TV introductions and learn how to do them too. In the mean time, no more amnesiac player characters!
Incorrect Victory Checks
Interstate ’76 was a driving game that included a lot of fancy weapons on the cars. One level contained a funny, but annoying, mistake. The game told you that you had to find your way out of a closed area surrounded by a concrete wall. The “correct” solution was to find a hidden ramp, drive up it, and fly over the wall — which landed you in a pit, but that was essential for the next part of the story. However, some clever players realized that they could drop a land mine near the wall, then drive towards it at speed. The explosion would blast the car into the air while forward momentum would carry it over the wall. If the car was sturdy enough, they’d land damaged but alive. They fulfilled the stated victory condition, but the game didn’t recognize it, so the level never ended. The game was only testing for use of the ramp, not whether the car was outside the wall.
When you tell a player to do something, then check to see if he’s done it, you have to test the thing you asked him to do, not just what you wanted him to do. In modern games with richly-simulated environments (e.g. the Grand Theft Auto games), there’s a good chance the player will find a way to meet your victory condition that you never expected — and he should get credit for it.
Continuing in the same theme, we come to…
Illogical Victory Checks
Avoiding incorrect victory checks does not mean that you should nitpick the precise details. If the player performed some action that by its nature included the victory condition, he should get credit for that too. Andy Lundell explains:
It’s bad enough when the mission objectives are illogical, but when you start punishing the player for making logical decisions, you’ve gone to far. You usually see this in FPS games or sometimes in the single-player parts of RTS games.
My favorite example is from Red Faction. There was a mission where you were told you had to destroy a particular computer on the space station. Once you got there you were told that you had to blow up the entire space station and run for the escape pods. So I, quite logically I thought, assumed that I could just blow up the space station and not worry about targeting the computer specifically. I blew up the space station, jumped in my escape pod and … and … the
game glitched. We were supposed to blow up the computer then blow up the station. (They had no explanation for this duplication of effort.) Apparently the game couldn’t handle the fact that the level ended without the computer being specifically blown up, so I just got dumped back to the main menu screen. All because I tried to do things intelligently instead of the stupid way the level designers wanted me to!
Here’s a clue, level designers: if one victory condition (blowing up the station) naturally includes another one (blowing up the computer), there’s no need to check the second one at all — and doing so could get your Twinkies taken away.
Seizing Control of the Camera at Bad Times
Ever since 3D came along, we’ve had to work a whole lot harder to depict our worlds, especially in action games. With side-scrollers, top-scrollers, and isometric views, life was pretty simple. The 3D fixed third- or first-person perspectives aren’t too hard either, but both have their limitations (what happens in third person when the avatar has his back to a wall?). Nowadays we put a lot of work into creating intelligent cameras, a la Ico, and we don’t always get it right. Loren Schmidt writes,
You’re playing a third person platformer. You’re running down a hallway towards a huge, spike-filled pit you can barely clear in a single jump… and then the camera flips around 180 degrees, messing up your timing and causing your helpless character to plunge to its virtual death.
This is even worse when combined with a transition from controllable to fixed camera modes, as seen in the last two Prince of Persia games. Most of the game is played with a player-controlled camera, but occasionally your point of view suddenly leaps to a (sometimes poorly placed) stationary camera. This can be particularly lethal during combat sequences and potentially deadly jumps.
I understand the goal here — right before an action sequence we often need to lock down the camera so as to guarantee the player a clear view of what’s going on, and to fix the relationship between joystick and screen. But suddenly changing the point of view while the player is jumping , or fighting for his life, guarantees him trouble. Don’t do it. It’s better to leave the camera under the player’s control, even if that’s not ideal, than it is to disorient the player by changing his perspective without warning.
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones
That’s it for this year. Amazingly enough, I didn’t get any big complaints about configuration menus (a constant source of irritation). One person did write to object about lists of saved games that were un-sorted, or sorted inconveniently so you had to hunt for your most recent save, and while I agree that ’s a nuisance I figure it’s not bad enough to warrant denial of Twinkies.
As always, I want to hear your gripes! Stop by the No Twinkie Database to see if I’ve already covered it, and if I haven’t, send me mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know about it!