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Good & Bad Game Design

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Game design is something that's always fascinated me. I'm really interested in breaking games down and seeing how all their mechanics, aesthetics, themes, etc., work together to make a cohesive experience, and also how games might fail to do so. 

I thought it might be fun to start a topic to talk about what we all find to be good and bad game design in different games, whether that be a game in it's entirety or just a part of it. I also want to state that although there is usually a general consensus on what is and isn't good game design, I believe that objectivity in this case doesn't really exist as different people will react and feel differently about certain things just like all art, so there's no such thing as a wrong opinion here.

To start off I want to talk about my favourite game of all time, Yume Nikki, and how I think it blends it's aesthetics, theme of dreams, character, and player involvement amazingly well.

In Yume Nikki you play as a young girl named Madotsuki (which translates to 'with the window') who can't/doesn't want to leave her room, and the only thing you can do is fall asleep and explore her dreams in the "Dream World". The dreams she has are bizarre and surreal and it makes you want to interpret them. Now that in itself isn't anything unique to Yume Nikki, plenty of games do this such as LSD: Dream Emulator, however the difference is that unlike those games this one has a focal point, Madotsuki. You're not just some nameless non-entity traveling around a weird world, you're playing as this character and exploring her dreams, and you want to piece together what has happened as to why she's dreaming them and why she either doesn't want to or can't leave her room. Like any surreal thing you'll try and interpret it, and everyone will have a different interpretation making assumptions based on associations they have linking the imagery with things on a subconscious level. Again this is nothing special, however what Yume Nikki does that's so brilliant is that it ties this in beautifully with it's theme. Madotsuki is the player's "window" into the Dream World. She is as much a character in the game as she is a vessel which the player is controlling and a part of in a sense. The whole reason why this connection is noteworthy is because you are exploring her dreams, and what is it many people do with dreams? They try and interpret them, and because you're interpreting what you're seeing based on things you internally associate them with, not only is Madotsuki the player's window into the dream world, but also the world is a window into yourself. It reveals just as much about you as it does the dream world itself and I think that's brilliant.

Now I have my own interpretation of the game and what it says to/about me, but it doesn't really have anything to do with the game's design so I don't want to talk about it here and have this turn into "Yume Nikki and Self Reflection" or something.

Anyways I'm really curious what everyone else has to say about games that they feel has good or bad design behind it.

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Speaking as a game developer, what I'll say is about good game design is...quite a few points, actually.

 

  1. Games Need to Play Fair.
    • Take for instance, something like Crash Bandicoot's collapsing platforms. The platforms shake and emit a noise. The player thinks, "Hey, this platform is unstable. I need to get off of this and keep moving ahead." That's good! That works. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have notoriously difficult games like the Sonic Advance trilogy. Often times the player is moving too fast, or the camera wasn't cooperating because of the GameBoy Advance's small screen, or for whatever reason it may be, they may end up falling into a bottomless pit, or hit by an enemy that they didn't see coming, or will be blindsided and crushed by a moving block. Again, games need to play fair: this is where games like Sonic Rush improved upon the formula. The boost button pretty much eliminates the worry of running into enemies (assuming you keep your flow moving by destroy enemies, collecting rings, and pulling off tricks), but it's not TOO easy. 
    2. It Needs to WORK.
  2. This is quite literally the most important part of any game. To quote the Angry Video Game Nerd, 
    Quote

    What's the most important part of any game? Well, being able to f*cking play it!"

    This is what sets games about: those that work, and those that don't. And by work, I don't mean "Well, make the best of it!" No no, I mean, they need to FUNCTION. And properly! This is the biggest reason why games like Superman 64 are bad games: They don't work. Going back to my example of Crash Bandicoot, while it may not be mindblowing today like it was back then, it still functions and is a good, well designed, well made, fun game. Nothing about it is especially cheap or unfair.

 

I had some more that I wanted to mention, but they're not really coming to me right now! :P

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I would like to toss my two cents in on good game and bad game design from my personal experience over the years.

Good Game Design:

  • Proper sound mixing is key especially when it comes to racing titles not just in knowing when to change gears but also to know where your opponents are relative to your vehicle. Great example of that is Project CARS is that I change gears up or down by the engine note alone without relying on the tachometer plus I can know if an opponent is coming up on me from the rear without having to glance at the mirror's.
  • Proper optimization is also important especially on the PC versions of multiplatform releases as those players often would like to take advantage of the hardware inside their machines from low-end to high-end. Borderlands 2 is a good example as it allows various PC players to tailor the game for their machine and not suffer severe performance hits.

Bad Game Design:

  • Badly made ports for any system. You know how a game can run smoothly on one platform while on another it is a complete and utter horror show. Well the last three years there has been an increased visibility of Porting Disasters. Mortal Kombat X, Arkham Knight, Forza Horizon 3, these three share the dishonor of being poorly made PC ports within the last year while the console counterparts have more stability in comparison. For love of all that is decent please stop phoning it in when making the PC version of your games it just pisses off your customers.
  • Unskippable cut scenes/splash screens. No I do not want to watch a ten minute cut-scene after dying from a boss and hearing the same dialog for the fifth time in a row just let me get to the fight so I can kill you and go on my merry way. Also for the PC versions let me skip your splash screens and load my game from where I left off. I do not need to see whatever middleware helped you in development now fuck off.

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I've been thinking a lot about Pokemon recently and how many really smart design decisions it has despite how repetitive it's been, seeing how they haven't really changed the core of the game for 20 years (though Gen 7 looks like it's changing up some stuff in its structure and gameplay, although minor). One thing that I really want to applaud it for in particular is it's usage of random encounters.

Random encounters are, generally speaking, really annoying to deal with despite being a staple of RPGs. A lot of people credit games like Earthbound and the Mario RPGs for solving this issue by making enemies visible on the world map and making how you approach them (if you choose to in the first place) change who will get the first strike in battle, so not really making them "random" encounters anymore. These games deserve the praise they get for their innovation, but what I don't hear talked about nearly as much is how Pokemon also solves the issue of random encounters. Instead of having random encounters appear just about anywhere on the map, they only ever appear in tall grass, caves, water, and some buildings.

Image result for pokemon red grass

This alone solves the issue of having enemy encounters being annoying. In most instances you have to choose to encounter and fight the pokemon you find in the grass. This also means that the designers can use the placement of "random encounter areas", to give the player a specific experience. They even use this to teach the players about this mechanic. Just look at Gen 1 and the journey from Pallet Town to Pewter City.

Image result for pokemon route 1

Once you leave Pallet Town, the route to Viridian City is a straight forward path that forces you to step into tall grass as you move through it as there are no free openings to proceed aside from the two openings on the ledge in the middle to give the player some time to breathe so they aren't constantly dealing with random encounters (as a side note, having it possible to avoid the tall grass by jumping over the small ledges when heading back to Pallet Town is a genius solution to making going back to that town not a hassle for when you need to deliver Oak's Parcel). By forcing the player into small random encounters, this teaches the player how the enemy encounters work without any forced dialogue aside from some NPCs telling you that there are wild pokemon in the tall grass.

Image result for pokemon route 2

After you leave Viridian City and travel to Route 2, you then see one semi-large patch of tall grass, however unlike Route 1 the player can very easily just walk around it. This is done deliberately, since the game no longer has to teach you about how random encounters work, it can then give the player the option of whether they want to encounter pokemon or not. As to why they would want to, well.. you can catch the pokemon you encounter and build a team to help you win battles which is kinda the whole point of pokemon and a major mechanic that's taught to you in the first city.

Image result for pokemon viridian forest

Anyhow, from there we get to Viridian Forest and this is where the designers really craft a great experience. I'm sure many kids, myself included felt a sense unease and tension. Here you are in this seemingly huge forest, even though it's purposefully small as to not make the pacing drag for so early on in the game. There's tall grass everywhere making it seem bigger than it is. and some small branching off paths with extra items hidden around to make it not feel like you're going through a linear hallway and instead giving you a sense of actually exploring a forest. This is also the first place you encounter other trainers aside from the battle you have at the beginning of the game with Blue to teach you about how the combat works.

Now, Viridian Forest could've easily been a pain to get through, what with all the random encounters, trainers, paths that lead to dead ends and whatnot. However, this area is designed in such a way to make traversal through it not a huge hassle and instill the player with a grand feeling of adventure. Firstly, notice how for most of the area up till near the end have clear paths next to the grass. This gives the player the option to go into the grass to fight/catch pokemon if they want, and seeing how there are new pokemon here that the player hasn't encountered before, they may want to catch them and they have autonomy in that decision. As a quick side note, there are some slightly different looking grass tiles in this area that don't have any random encounters in them mixed in with the grass that does, as to not overwhelm the players with the possibility of annoyingly frequent enemy encounters while still presenting the area as big and intimidating. I just think that's a clever touch. Anyways, the trainers spruce up the area by making there be something to do if the player doesn't want to explore the tall grass. It might've been boring for a player if they didn't want to go into random encounters and instead go on the clear path with not much to do, so the trainers act as another obstacle to keep the player involved with the gameplay and not just pretty much have it run on autopilot. Lastly, the small size of the forest makes it so that the alternate paths are never too long so it's not a hassle if some of them lead to a dead end as it won't take long for the player to get back on the right path. Also the "longest" path that leads to a dead end in this area leads to a hidden item, rewarding the player for exploring. On top of this many of the different paths connect back into the main one, making the area not confusing to navigate while also making it seem bigger than it really is.

Near the end of the forest there are four long columns of tall grass that the player must walk through (notice that the first three columns have the grass tile that have no random encounters). This is to slowly introduce tension into the player. They had the option to skip the grass before, but now they don't. They will likely encounter more pokemon here than anywhere else in the forest, and this is topped by a trainer that you can't walk around. Once the player has exited the forest, they are in the tail end of Route 2. There's another large patch of grass that's really out of the way that the player can walk around, mirroring the patch of grass the player encounters before they enter the forest. After that they enter Pewter City and should be breathing a sigh of relief, as they just left a stressful series of random encounters and trainers.

So yeah, I think Pokes has pretty good design.

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Today someone on tumblr asked if I'm excited for Pokemon Sun & Moon and I went into a bit of what I think about some things that Sun & Moon is doing that I like as well as some issues I have with the more recent Pokemon games, and I figured I might as well post my response here too.

 

tumblr_ogljm1Q8Kr1u0ti7oo1_540.png

Oh yea, Sun & Moon look really interesting. I’m glad to see that they’re changing some stuff up with the formula, even if it’s mostly just giving some aspects different names and changing small details but keeping the core. One thing I’m happy about in particular is that they’re finally doing away with HMs and making interacting with the world work on a more interactive level. My only issue with it though is that it seems like you can only do that with “rental” pokemon, which I think is a shame since the whole point of Pokemon is to grow an emotional attachment with the creatures you catch. That said I totally understand why they did it this way, it would’ve been a lot more difficult to design the game assuming that you’d have the right pokemon that you’d need to use to get through the world on you at all times.

Something that worries me a bit though is, based on what I played in the demo, is that the game seems to be continuing this trend that Gen V started (or maybe Gen IV, I dunno I never played it) where the game feels the need to introduce you to a bunch of one-dimensional characters that I don’t care about and then proceed to have them stop you dead in your tracks every like 10 minutes while you’re playing to babble on about stuff I don’t care about. I’m also worried about the game being to hand-holding. and I don’t mean like the menus showing you what moves are and aren’t effective against certain pokemon, I mean in how the game’s progression is structured. This was a big problem for me in Gen VI, ORAS in particular. I never finished Alpha Sapphire because it held my hand so much throughout the whole thing and it bored me to death. I never felt like I had any autonomy in what I was doing, it was more like I was being taken on a tour and not actually exploring a world. The last straw for me in that game is when they just gave me Latias for free. I didn’t have the option to try and find it if I wanted to like in the original game, I didn’t have to earn it by searching the land and then going though a tough battle hoping to catch it and have the personal satisfaction of doing so, they just gave it to me. It’s no longer a personal experience, it’s walking through a theme park and buying an ice cream cone. It’s a real shame too, I was really excited for ORAS and I love the Hoenn region.

But anyways I’m just rambling now. Despite all that I am really excited for Sun & Moon. Aside from ORAS, even the Pokemon games that I have a lot of problems with I still generally enjoy and I’m sure this game will at the very least be fun.

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I feel like a key to good design is that gamers should always be able to quickly figure out 1) where they want to go and 2) what path they should take to get there. For example, with games like Sonic Rush or Sonic Colors, I can fall back on going forward if I really don't know where to go. The graphics are also very creative, memorable, and overall well done, so I can easily identify landmarks so I remember which route is the best one to get the goal. These landmarks also make it easier to scout out the location of stuff like red rings and one-ups, and the game makes it clear to me that they exist from the start. Furthermore, they clearly indicate your progress through the use of a simple map which says how far you've gone and where you need to know next. This does not have to be complicated or take long-- both Colors and Rush show the players a growing path to the next destination on the map, and I believe Rush even goes so far as to highlight levels you haven't finished yet by making them flash (I can't remember as I beat the game ages ago). Colors DS will also have characters restate the missions and show a concise message explaining what exactly to do each time. None of these are hard or take a long time, but stuff like that are things that all games should do that at some point. 

Compare to, say, Rise of Lyric, where its pre-patch version is a slog to navigate. The graphics are very bland and lots of assets are reused, so its difficult to identify landmarks, and the level design is downright labyrinthine (not to mention HUGE). As a result, its extremely difficult and frustrating to navigate and I often found myself going in circles. To add insult to injury, you don't even get a map until about halfway through the game-- I would understand if, say, you had to navigate Lyric's lab quite a bit before being able to find a map of it as it wouldn't make sense for Lyric to give something like that away or sell, but surely Sonic and his friends can just go to the store and buy a map of Bygone Island and the other locations rather than have to steal it from Lyric in a fight. Not to mention that the map is not very detailed, so it is hard to pick out landmarks from it. With the patch, a navigation arrow was added, but it only helps so much considering how it likes to lead me straight into walls instead of my destination. Speaking of which, unless a game's world is really big (like GTAV big), or the level is a scavenger hunt or otherwise requires you to track down something critical, the navigation arrow shouldn't even be necessary in the first place because the player should be able to figure out the way to go just with a map. Granted, RoL would be big enough to qualify, but it also demonstrates that it shouldn't be used as a crutch or a band-aid for bad design considering how the arrow not only doesn't always work as intended but the level design and graphics are still bad enough to make navigation confusing. Of note for RoL, the game also doesn't do much to remind you of what you actually have to do for missions, with just a short, vague message on the map that often doesn't even tell you where to go for it. You'd think, with how obsessed the characters are at pointing out the most minor things ("BOUNCEPADRINGSBOUNCERINGBOUNCERING..."), they could at least pipe up about mission details if the game detects that you haven't played it for awhile or if you've been standing around for awhile.

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On 11/13/2016 at 9:01 PM, Mad Convoy said:

Compare to, say, Rise of Lyric, where its pre-patch version is a slog to navigate. The graphics are very bland and lots of assets are reused, so its difficult to identify landmarks, and the level design is downright labyrinthine (not to mention HUGE). As a result, its extremely difficult and frustrating to navigate and I often found myself going in circles. To add insult to injury, you don't even get a map until about halfway through the game-- I would understand if, say, you had to navigate Lyric's lab quite a bit before being able to find a map of it as it wouldn't make sense for Lyric to give something like that away or sell, but surely Sonic and his friends can just go to the store and buy a map of Bygone Island and the other locations rather than have to steal it from Lyric in a fight. Not to mention that the map is not very detailed, so it is hard to pick out landmarks from it. With the patch, a navigation arrow was added, but it only helps so much considering how it likes to lead me straight into walls instead of my destination. Speaking of which, unless a game's world is really big (like GTAV big), or the level is a scavenger hunt or otherwise requires you to track down something critical, the navigation arrow shouldn't even be necessary in the first place because the player should be able to figure out the way to go just with a map. Granted, RoL would be big enough to qualify, but it also demonstrates that it shouldn't be used as a crutch or a band-aid for bad design considering how the arrow not only doesn't always work as intended but the level design and graphics are still bad enough to make navigation confusing. Of note for RoL, the game also doesn't do much to remind you of what you actually have to do for missions, with just a short, vague message on the map that often doesn't even tell you where to go for it. You'd think, with how obsessed the characters are at pointing out the most minor things ("BOUNCEPADRINGSBOUNCERINGBOUNCERING..."), they could at least pipe up about mission details if the game detects that you haven't played it for awhile or if you've been standing around for awhile.

Sonic 2006 suffers from a similar issue for side missions. Soleanna is not an interesting place to look at and most (see: all) the assets are reused, none of the citizens have anything interesting going on (Compare this to Station Square in Sonic Adventure where we had characters like that girl trying to talk to the guy at the burger joint), no landmarks (Like say, Tails' Workshop in the Mystic Ruins)...not to mention that, especially for the speed the characters move at and how useless the map is, the hub areas are way, way, way too open and spacious for their own good.

 

Then we have the process of playing the missions themselves; Sonic goes up to a citizen that needs help, accepts the mission, the game loads the entire hub area and the citizen's model (along with Sonic's) and a text book reinstating the mission. Another loading screen later, we get the mission itself. Then, it loads the the entire hub area again, the citizen, Sonic, and the text book with the success or failure message, then another to load you back into the hub area.

 

That's so stupid and tedious! There's absolutely no reason to load an entire world's geometry if you're only ever going to see a chunk of it. Sonic Adventure, for instance, does this well. If you visit Emerald Coast as Big, it only loads Big's section and not Sonic's or Gamma's or anything.

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