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Gama Network Presents:


Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! VII
By Ernest Adams
Gamasutra
July 10, 2006

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 notwinkie@designersnotebook.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!

No Subtitles

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 outstanding 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."

myst

 "I'm sorry, I can't understand what you're saying!"

"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-picture 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…

Unsaved Configurations

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 demand.

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 the 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."

fallout

 Interplay's Fallout. Too dark? Too bad!

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.

Conclusion

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.