Inspired by Troy S. Goodfellow’s list of the Eight Greatest Features he values in strategy games, I started thinking about the opposite question: what are the greatest mistakes that I hate to see done over and over again in game design? In no particular order, here are my first four:
1. Hard-core game conventions
One of the most common pitfalls for a game designer is to fear that the game is not hard enough. This fear often leads to hard-core game conventions, like restrictive save systems and unlockable content, that only put roadblocks in the way of the mainstream gamer who is just looking to have a good time. If you feel your game needs the tension of a restrictive save system, go ahead and implement it… but only as a feature of a higher difficulty level. Difficulty levels are the key to making a game accessible to both the casual and the hard-core gamer; we could never seem to add enough difficulty levels to Civ to keep our wide variety of fans happy. Trauma Center (DS) is a good example of a great game that was ruined by having no difficulty levels whatsoever. The surgery game is a brilliant use of the DS touch-screen, but the linear challenges get so hard by the fourth or fifth level that most people get hopelessly stuck after only a couple hours. Considering that the levels were timed, it wouldn’t have taken them more than a week to implement a difficulty system that simply extended the time limits at the easier settings. A Trauma Center with difficulty levels would have enjoyed similar success to Elite Beat Agents – another great touch-screen game but one not afraid to let the player start at an easy difficulty level.
2. Repetitive interface tasks
I am currently enjoying the old-school dungeon crawler Etrian Odyssey quite a bit on my DS, enough so that I can’t help day-dreaming about how much fun it would be to remake Bard’s Tale or Legacy of the Ancients for the DS. Unfortunately, the game’s interface does a terrible job of enabling the player to skip over needlessly repetitive tasks. Want to sell your loot? You have to click on every single Hare Tail in your inventory not once, but twice for confirmation! After a long excursion, this can often lead to around 100 presses of the A button when you get back to town. A simple “sell all of item X” would be an invaluable time-saver. Likewise, as a typical party-based RPG, there comes a time when your group no longer has to fear the lower-level creatures. However, for every random encounters, you still have to select ‘Attack’ and target a creature for all five of your characters even though there is literally ZERO danger to your party. (That’s ten presses of the A button for those of you keeping score at home.) A “party auto-attack” command for these battles would have saved me literally hours of play time. Always remember, your player’s time is valuable.
Fun Factor = Interesting Decisions / Actual Time Played.
(UPDATE: Yeah, so I blew this one. There is a “sell all” option in Etrian Odyssey, and it’s even shown on the interface. The point is still valid, but I targeted the wrong game.)
3. Limited play variety
No matter how good your game is, it is going to get stale after awhile. It’s a real shame when a great game doesn’t take the few extra steps necessary so that the player can mess around with the settings to create alternative play experiences. Company of Heroes is an incredible tactical RTS, a watershed moment for the genre – but there is no way to have an Axis vs. Axis battle or even a game with more than two sides. This design choice may fit the fiction of WWII, but it significantly reduced the game’s play variety. A good example of an RTS that got this right is the Age of Empires series. Not only could you mix-and-match any combination of civilizations and players and teams, but you could also design your own map scripts. I remember one interesting Age of Kings map designed by Mike Breitkreutz, a Firaxis programmer, that had almost no wood and tons of stone and gold, turning the game’s economy upside-down. You could even have multiple players controlling the same single civilization (one player could control the military, the other the economy, for example). Thus, I’ve played 2-vs-3 games of AoK where the sides with 2 civs was actually controlled by 4 players (and guess which side won?!?) These simple variations probably doubled the life-span of AoK amongst my group of friends.
4. Too much stuff
The temptation to pile extra units and buildings and whatnot onto to an already complete design is strong. Indeed, I have seen many people describe games as simply a collection of stuff (“18 Weapons! 68 Monsters! 29 Levels!”) Needless to say, this is a wrong-headed approach. A game design is a collection of interesting decisions, as Sid would say, and the “stuff” in the game is there not to fill space but to let you execute decisions. Games can provide too few options for the player but – more commonly – games provide too many. How many is just right? That’s simple enough to answer, it’s 12! (it’s definitely not 42…) OK, obviously there is no magic number, but 12 is a good figure to keep in mind. It’s an excellent rule-of-thumb for how many different options a player can keep in his or her mind before everything turns to mush. It’s the number Blizzard uses to make sure their RTS’s don’t get too complex. StarCraft averaged 12 units per side. So did WarCraft 3 (not counting heroes). And you can bet your bottom dollar that StarCraft 2 is going to be in that neighborhood as well. In fact, Blizzard has already announced that, for the sequel, they will be removing some of the old units to make room for the new ones.
Next time: pirates, modders, and black boxes…