Feb 12 2014, 3:20pm CST | by Forbes
There are lots of little, annoying game design elements and practices that have come up over time. Some have lived out their welcome and disappeared into memory. Others, like the ever-irritating Quick-Time Events (QTEs) we see in so many titles, remain.
Lots of others, too, that I won’t get into today: False barriers (why can’t I just kick down this door? Who stacked all these crates and old furniture in half the hallways of this building but not the other half and why can’t I just pull them out of the way?); ever-lit torches in dark abandoned caverns; random treasure chests everywhere. All of this stuff is pervasive in video game design still today, but it’s ground well-traveled.
On the business end, poorly designed free-to-play models, day-one patches and DLC, and myriad other development and marketing issues have come up. I’m going to try to avoid all the obvious ones here, and talk about some of my pet peeves in video game design and development these days—the things that I’m going to start being more harsh about in my upcoming reviews.
If you come up with any of your own pet peeves, shout out in the comments.
Junk Everywhere - I’m all for exploration in video games. Finding cool gear or loot, secret shortcuts, and so forth is really rewarding.
But there comes a point when you just pick up too much crap. Running around in BioShock Infinite or Tomb Raider, there are just so many little things to constantly grab. Loot bodies, find ammo, little notes here and there. Apparently the upcoming Thief game takes this one step further, into true tedium territory.
The fact is, picking up lots of junk isn’t fun. It isn’t challenging. It isn’t rewarding. At best, it’s busy work for trophy-hunters. At worst, it’s a distraction from the game proper. This isn’t to say all this sort of stuff needs to go away, just that we need much less of it than we currently have.
Ammo - This goes part and parcel with the collectibles issue.
Ammunition in shooters is almost always little more than busy work. Few games make ammo scarce enough to the point where running out actually impacts gameplay. Ammo tends to be everywhere all the time, so it’s just a matter of making sure you stop to pick some up every few seconds. Typically if you do run out you can switch to a different weapon for the minute or two it takes to restock.
I’m not saying game developers should do away with ammo altogether. I think reloading is a valuable obstacle in shooters, and can help differentiate different types of weapons beyond just damage and effects. But the notion that we ought to have to pick up ammo all the time and that the ammo does, in fact, grow on trees (and just about everywhere else) is archaic.
If ammo is going to be unlimited, don’t make me pick it up. If it isn’t unlimited, make it count and keep ammo truly scarce and hard(er) to come by.
Generic Difficulty Modes - The typical difficulty mode change between Normal and Hard is a question of skewing the numbers. Normal bad-guys have X life and do Y damage; Hard bad guys have X+10 life and do Y+5 damage.
Or something like that. Baddies simply become bullet sponges and your protagonist does less damage. This is a really uninspired way to think about upping the difficulty of a game.
Why not add new enemies that aren’t found in Normal mode at all? Or make enemies more aggressive or smarter? Or give enemies new powers or moves?
Take away the UI. Add item deterioration. Whatever it may be, it has to be more than just creating bullet sponges and making fights more tedious.
Super Vision - I discussed this the other day and got a lot of great feedback. Super Vision, aka Assassin’s Creed style “Eagle Vision”, gives players the ability to see enemies, items, and more through the click of a button.
It sounds okay in theory, but in practice it makes games dependent on said vision, without often offering a reason why, and just as often to the detriment of the game design.
For instance, a lot of defenders of this mode said that it’s too hard to see things in games without it thanks to the detail in most modern titles. I disagree.
I think that developers can get away with adding too much junk in a game precisely because of this, leaving things cluttered.
RPG Elements In Everything - I’m a huge fan of roleplaying games. I like leveling up my characters, customizing their gear and appearance, and watching as they grow more powerful. But not every game in the world needs to have RPG style leveling.
I don’t think skill trees in games like Far Cry 3 or Tomb Raider are very fun. I’d much rather either pick up skills via some narrative element, or just have access to everything from the beginning and maybe supplement that with new tools. Unlocking skill points and spending them for this or that minor skill boost isn’t much fun, doesn’t often fit with the genres in question, and almost never has any bearing on the story.
I’d say the same goes for upgrading gear in many of these games. I don’t understand how Lara Croft can upgrade her old WWII rifle into an automatic rifle at a campfire on a deserted island. This bugs me more than bringing my +5 Longsword of Doom to the Magic Blacksmith to have it bumped to +6.
Endless Murder - I’m not sure that games have gotten more violent, but my own irritation with endless waves of death has certainly grown. 2013 was the year of BioShock Infinite and Tomb Raider, two games that really amped up the senseless killing. Both games had lots of great stuff going on, interesting terrain and set-pieces, decent stories, but each was dragged down by the constant shooting.
Tomb Raider needed more worthwhile exploration; Infinite needed more imaginative and varied combat. What we got from each was something more akin to Diablo III’s hordes upon hordes of enemies. That works well in an ARPG like Diablo III, where horde-destruction is a huge part of the fun. It’s tedious in most other types of games.
It also hurts character development. Far Cry 3 and Tomb Raider both featured protagonists who had apparently never killed before being trapped on their respective islands. In moments both are mass murderers that can’t be stopped.
Open-World Games - First off, “open-world” is an illusion. Most games billed as open-world aren’t really open, they’re just less closed than a lot of other games. Of course, being open is not, in and of itself, a virtue. Give me a well-designed corridor shooter any day of the week over a boring open-world game.
And that’s a big problem with the lure of open-worlds. Not only can they make story-telling and pacing difficult—think Far Cry 3—they can also be absolutely boring. Like Skyrim. The real question should never be: “Is this game too open or too linear?” it should be “How well designed is the game world and does it fit with the story and pacing we want for this game?”
I like to evoke Dark Souls when it comes to open-world games. Dark Souls has an ostensibly open(ish) world that’s cleverly gated, with levels that twist over and under one another. It’s brilliant world design. Too many open world games are flat, while Dark Souls is vertical. It makes traversing the world interesting and rewarding. Open is not enough.
Slow Movers - The reason I’m excited for games like Titanfall and Everquest Next is simple: Just moving around in both games looks like tons of fun. It’s the wall-running, double-jumping, and running—all the parkour elements. It just looks like a blast to get around from point A to point B.
And it should! This is a game after all, and not one where you have to lug your own physical body around. You might as well be able to run and leap and feel superful. (Superful is not a word, I realize, but it is how I feel in games that let me do super, wonderful things.)
Nothing is worse than a big MMO or some giant open-world game that makes me trod about at a half-walk. This isn’t to say all games need to be fast, but there are countless ones that ought to be. Skylanders finally added jumping this year; they should add running next year. Guild Wars 2 is a good MMORPG, but it would be twenty times better if I you could just run everywhere.
These next two are not mechanics or specific to game design elements so much as the game design process itself.
Early Access - Early access to unreleased games sounds great on paper, but in practice it really isn’t. All those Early Access titles on Steam—playing some of them can ruin a gaming experience for you. Paying for an unfinished product is a recipe for dissatisfied customers, even with all the qualifiers in place.
It’s one thing to have an Alpha or a Beta and let some potential customers come and playtest your product. It’s another thing entirely to charge them for this, since it’s really designed to help you build your game. To be fair, some of these titles are Free-to-Play, so price isn’t always an issue. But as a broad and growing practice, releasing unfinished products to the masses and charging them for it is a bad move, both from a business standpoint and from an artistic one.
Crowd-Sourcing Game Development - This is in keeping with Early Access. With the rise of Kickstarter, the entire indie scene is being flooded by games that promise gamers a chance to be a part of the process. Sometimes that’s just as an observer, but often Kickstarter projects are asking their backers to give direct input and feedback.
And that’s okay on one level, but on another level it worries me. Art isn’t a democratic process. Too often in corporate settings, games are influenced by the accountants. I don’t want to see the same problems arise in the indie scene because the most vocal gamers have too much of an impact on a game’s direction. Let game developers enact their vision, and don’t meddle too much whether you’re a CEO or a forum poster.
Feedback is great. But too much involvement can ruin the experience for everyone.
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