Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Game design problems

Just a general musing on the shortcuts or other problems that seem to repeat in so many of the games I played in the vain hope that game designers will read this and think "Damn I'm just about to do that" and stop.

Psychic Warfare

Comes in two flavours, you're supposed to be psychic or your enemies are (or just as often both). Starting with your character you can tell if you're supposed to be psychic if you ever end up dead or with a fat chunk of your health removed and wondered "What the hell just happened?".

The important consideration of this trait is that there should be no way that you would expect what just happened to have happened. If you're running along in luminous tracksuit making as much noise as a steam train through enemy territory than a shot to the head is almost inevitable. If you're covered in mud indistinguishable from the surroundings cautiously edging through what should be a cleared area and a boulder falls on top of you, then you can be justified for thinking (or screaming) "what the...?"

This trait can often be referred to as "trial and error gaming" where you're presented with three otherwise identical choices two of which lead to instant death or severe maiming. With checkpoints and instant saves the reaction is "Well I won't do that again".

With other characters you get something like this: There's the enemy standing with his back to you oblivious to his imminent death. You sneak forward on silent feet, unheard, unseen until you reach the point where you can simply extend your arms and snap his neck. At which point he turns around and blows your head off with a shotgun.

The most obvious signs that you're encountering psychic enemies- Enemies with their backs to you (or at long distance) instantly pinpointing your location when you fire at them.
Enemies are totally aware of their surroundings and can easily navigate a route to reach or avoid you or other obstacles.
Enemies can track you through opaque cover to be ready to shoot you as soon as you pop your head out.

Sure we like a challenge, but preternatural powers shouldn't come into it.

Holes in your pockets

More a staple of the FPS genre this can be invoked whenever you stop and think "How the hell did that get there?". Who is it that leaves these medkits and scatters ammo around the place? Why is it that after picking up this unique experimental weapon scattered ammo crates will stock ammunition for it and merchants can sell upgrades for it?

Another facet of this tends to be that the stock of merchants increases in value as you progress; most notable in the Final Fantasy games where you're lucky if the starting city merchants stock a sharp stick, but the one in the middle of the desert, on a near inaccessible plateau can sell you a thermonuclear 'kill-em-all' bazooka along with plenty of ammo whenever you return.

But you have to stand there

This too comes in two varieties - cutscenes and event triggers. The former can be very annoying when combined with Psychic Warfare - you know exactly what's about to happen, you take appropriate precautions and then your character is dumped in just the wrong place by the cutscene because otherwise the framing would be wrong.

Event triggers too can be combined with Psychic Warfare; you can prance about in that room naked and nothing will happen until you flick that switch or step over that invisible threshold that signals the next event can occur.

Come with me if you want to live

Yes it's Escort Mission time. I don't think there's a single gamer out there who enjoys these and yet they continue to flourish. Normally those you are escorting are weaponless and have no sense of survival. Either they're constantly lagging behind because they can't run as fast as you, trying to join in to attack any enemies despite being useless, or haring off ahead off you before you've cleared the area of snipers and minefields.

Despite being almost universally loathed developers not only seem to make them an obligatory part of any story-line, but are trying to improve them by allowing you dog-like commands to control them - stay/heel. The result is a temptation to shout "stay" while you go ahead to clear out everything then "heel" to lead them through.

Unfortunately the sadists have spotted this propensity and rather than address the main concern (the Escort Mission itself) either present you with a game over/mission failure if you stray too far or combine it with event triggers that only activate for the escortee.

AI can be shoddy at the best of times, but if you really really want to highlight how bad it is then by all means include an escort mission.

Bouncing off the walls

There you stand on a city border the highway stretching before you almost eager for you to race along it. You start forward to see what possible adventures lie over the horizon and are pulled up short by an invisible barrier.

Okay so no limitless games at the moment you're going to hit the boundaries of the 'world' at some point; but there are better methods out there then simply stopping dead for no apparent reason. Put a mountain in the way, an impassible gorge, have some alien overseer complain about you leaving the area and shunt you back; heck even a sand storm to turn you around. Not just a barrier.

Not the foot high wall

A similar problem to the invisible walls, but rather than present a world ending barrier you have something that in theory you could easily move over or through which you can't. The most obvious appears in any game where you unable to jump - the foot high wall something a crawling infant would get past, but someone able to carry 14 weapons and can kill zombies just by looking at them is completely stumped by.

Other than barriers the other manifestation of this trait are gaps that you should obviously be able to fit through but can't; the most conspicuous being a pillared fa├žade which doesn't allow you to fit between the pillar and the wall.

Can't I just blow it up?

Unlike an invisible barrier door which is simply a visible form, but no less irritating, this is a door you're supposed to go through but can't because you don't have a key, haven't performed the correct mission, or simply hit the right trigger. Sadly plonking down concrete and steel barriers doesn't always translate into some settings and so you end up in the stupid position of possessing enough of an arsenal to destabilise a small country yet be unable to get through a wooden shack door.

So Mr. Door we meet again

Continuing from the previous now you've finished swearing at not being able to just fire a missile strike at that wooden door you now find that whatever triggers it open is quite logically no-where near the door itself. Now occasionally that can work, but still smacks of 'extending gameplay'.Trouble arises because once you've triggered the door most of the time you're expected to make your way back through everywhere you've just been. Why trouble? Well if you've cleared the place out then it's a boring slog; if you've event triggered some alarm or the enemies respawn then it's an annoying slog.

Is that the door?

Interruptions are a part of life; not all gamers hermetically seal themselves away, take the phones of the hook, and disconnect the doorbell whenever they play. To that end we need to be able to pause the game at any point in time. If you make any part of the game pauseless than you can guarantee that an interruption will occur at that point.