I have been playing a number of old games, and I’ve noticed something
interesting in comparison with today’s games. The technology has
changed enormously, of course. But some of the design mistakes we made
in the past are still being made in modern games. The same irritating
misfeatures and poorly-designed puzzles that appeared in games as early
as fifteen or twenty years ago are still around.
Boring and Stupid Mazes
Herewith a list of game misfeatures that I’m tired of seeing. This
is a highly personal perspective and your opinion may differ, but to me,
these are a sign of sloppy, or lazy, game design.
The original text adventure, Colossal Cave, had two mazes. One
was a series of rooms each of which was described thus: “You’re
in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” The other was a
series of rooms described as, “You’re in a twisting little maze
of passages, all different” (or “You’re in a little twisty
maze of passages, all different,” or “You’re in a maze
of little twisting passages, all different,” etc.). These were the
prototypical boring and stupid mazes. Colossal Cave was the first
adventure game ever, though, so I cut it a little slack. But that was
over twenty years ago; there’s no longer any excuse for doing that
now. Somebody gave me a copy of The Legend of Kyrandia a
few years back, and I played it with some pleasure – right up until
I got to the maze.
Mazes don’t have to be boring and stupid. It’s possible to design
entertaining mazes by ordering the rooms according to a pattern that the
player can figure out. A maze should be attractive, clever, and above
all, fun to solve. If a maze isn’t interesting or a pleasure to be
in, then it’s a bad feature.
Games Without Maps
I have a notoriously poor sense of direction inside buildings, so maybe
it’s just me. Still, in the video game world where all the walls
and floors use the same textures, places look too much alike. In the real
world, even the most rigid cubicle-hell office building has something
to distinguish one area from another – a stain on the carpet, a cartoon
posted outside someone’s cube. I played Doom and had a great
time. I fired up the Quake demo, found out there was no map, and
dumped it. I want a map. There’s no reason for withholding a map
from me unless it’s just to slow me down, and that’s a poor
substitute for providing real gameplay. Bad game designer! No Twinkie!
Incongruous or Fantasy-Killing Elements
Sometimes an adventure game will present you with a puzzle, or other obstacle,
that is completely outside the fantasy you’re supposed to be having.
In my opinion, that’s a case of the designer running out of ideas,
and it’s disappointing to the player. If you’ve taken me away
to a magical world where I’m a heroic knight on a glorious quest
to rescue the fearsome princess, don’t make me sit and play Mastermind
with the dragon. If I absolutely must play a game with him, it should
be Nine Men’s Morris, but frankly, it would be more appropriate just
to thrash the scoundrel soundly.
This leads quite naturally to my next complaint, which is…
A number of games have come out which eschew the standard SF/fantasy worlds
and instead plunge the player into a twisted and disturbing realm of yadda
yadda yadda. Let me tell you something about the capital-S Surrealism
of the capital-A Art world: it’s not just randomness. Real
Surrealism seeks to shock the mind into a new awareness of [ the human
condition | the nature of God | the meaning of compassion | etc. ] through
the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated objects and ideas – the
key word being “seemingly.” Although appearing bizarre and perhaps
even nonsensical at first, true Surrealism is informed by an underlying
I haven’t seen any surrealism in computer games that could claim
such noble goals. Most of it has looked to me like somebody said, “…
and when you reach the control room of the Doomsday Machine, there’ll
be a clown in there! Yeah! That’ll be cool!” Surrealism
is like prose poetry: easy to do, but extremely hard to do well. “It’s
surrealism” is not an adequate excuse for a poorly conceived vision
in the first place.
Which takes me effortlessly to…
Puzzles Requiring Extreme Lateral Thinking
These are puzzles of the “use the lampshade with the bulldozer”
variety. The designer may think he’s being funny or even surreal,
but he’s really just being adolescently tiresome. It’s lazy
puzzle design – making a puzzle difficult by making its solution
obscure or irrational. You can add to the player’s play-time by creating
ridiculous obstacles, but you’re not really adding to his or her
enjoyment, and that’s supposed to be the point.
Puzzles Permitting No Lateral Thinking At All
You come to a locked door. The obvious solution is to find the key, but
it’s also the most boring, so maybe the game provides some other
way to get it open. But like as not, there’s only one solution, whatever
In text-adventure terms, this was known as the “find the right verb”
problem – you were dead in the water until you figured out exactly
what verb the game was waiting for you to say. Break? Hit? Smash? Demolish?
Pound? Incinerate? And a lot of games today have the same problem: an
obstacle which can only be overcome in one way. The game doesn’t
encourage the player to think; it demands that the player read the designer’s
In the real world, think of all the things you can do with a locked door:
or persuade the person who has the key to open it
someone on the other side into opening it (maybe just by knocking!)
the door down, burn it, cut it, dissolve it with acid, etc.
it – go through a window instead, or cut a hole in the wall.
is limited only by your imagination.
OK, I know this is a tall order. As a developer, it’s difficult and
expensive to think of all the ways that someone could try to get through
a door and to implement them all. Still, now that we have the have the
power to create “deformable environments” – that is, your
gunshots and explosions actually affect everything in the real world and
not just your enemies – it’s time to add a little variety to
our worlds, to reward players who do some lateral thinking.
Puzzles Requiring Obscure Knowledge From Outside the Game
I owe this one to my friend, the genius puzzle-master Scott Kim (http://www.scottkim.com).
I didn’t think of it until he read a draft of this column and pointed
it out to me. This is a cheap trick, and even more irritating than inside
jokes. No, I don’t know the name of the third track on Sgt. Pepper’s
Lonely Hearts Club Band, and if it’s vital that I know it for
the game, then the game is just weird. (Trivia games like You Don’t
Know Jack are of course excluded from this gripe – with them
you know what you’re getting into.)
A Switch in One Room Opens a Door In Another Room A Mile Away
Nor does it have to be a door – I mean any item which affects a game
obstacle a long way off. Doom was guilty of this a lot, but the
worst example ever was in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,
an Infocom text adventure. In that game, if you didn’t pick up the
junk mail at the very beginning of the game, it was unwinnable at the
very end. This misfeature is profoundly and pointlessly irritating. With
the exception of refineries and nuclear power plants, in most places in
the world the knob for a door is – wonder of wonders – in
the door. It’s another example of lazy puzzle design, making
the problem difficult not by cleverness but artificially extending the
time it takes to solve it.
Only One of [some large number] of Possible Combinations Is the Right
More lazy puzzle design. At the end of Infidel, which was another
Infocom adventure, you had to do four things in a certain sequence. The
number of possible combinations is 4! (four factorial, or 24). There was
no clue whatsoever as to the correct sequence; you just had to try them
all. Yuck. Yet another time-waster with no enjoyment value.
Kill Monster/Take Sword/Sell Sword/Buy A Different Sword/Kill Another
...or in other words, the canonical RPG experience. You may have heard
John F. Kennedy’s joke that Washington D.C. is a city of southern
efficiency and northern charm. Well, in my opinion most RPG’s combine
the pulse-pounding excitement of a business simulation with the intellectual
challenge of a shooter. I play games of medieval adventure and heroism
to slay princesses and rescue dragons; I don’t play them to spend
two-thirds of my time dickering with shopkeepers. I want to be a hero,
but the game forces me to be an itinerant second-hand arms dealer. Earning
money by robbing corpses doesn’t make me feel all that noble, either.
You Have 30 Seconds to Figure Out This Level Before You Die
With the length of time most games take to load their core modules, this
isn’t clever or challenging; it’s just frustrating. If there’s
a trick to the solution for which no clues are provided, then it’s
just another annoying trial-and-error time-waster. If clues are provided,
then you need a reasonable amount of time to think them over. The military
doesn’t charge blindly into unreconnoitered territory – or if
they do, they usually regret it. Expecting your player to do it is unreasonable.
If you’re going to place your player in imminent danger from the
very first second she sees the screen, then at least one out of every
three of her possible choices should lead to safety.
Another thing I’m tired of is stupid monsters who lumber towards
you until you shoot them. This was the Doom technique, and that
of a million video games since the dawn of time. Instead of providing
you with an intelligent challenge, the game seeks to overwhelm you with
sheer numbers. Yawn. Space Invaders may have been brilliant and
addictive in its day, but it’s time to move on.
So let’s get imaginative! How about some cowardly monsters who take
one potshot at you, then run away to fight another day? Or maybe some
monsters who duck in and out of cover? How about one that runs off at
the first sight of you and brings back half a dozen friends – if
you can nail it on its way out, then it can’t raise the alarm. Or
what about some who try to sneak around and come up behind you? Or who
offer direct battle, but run away when they’re injured, rather than
fighting idiotically to the death? Maybe we could have some monsters whose
job is to lure you out of cover so their friends can shoot at you. (That
was the role of the flying saucer in the original coin-op Battle Zone.)
Or even – gasp! – some monsters who are smart enough to do all
these things, like, say, people are! Zounds!
None of these ideas are new; it’s just that we don’t see them
that often. Why? Laziness again. Dumb monsters are easy to program. Smart
ones aren’t. And it’s easy to balance a game with dumb opponents.
You just figure out the appropriate ratio of monsters to “health”
powerups. To make the game harder, you change the ratio. But it’s
boring. Let’s put a little thought into monster design, give
our customers a new challenge.
Two other things I’m tired of – these are aesthetic rather than
design elements, but I’ll throw ’em in for good measure.
Bad acting is a distraction, no less in a computer game than in a movie
theater. It breaks your suspension of disbelief. When a bad actor is surrounded
by good actors, it’s especially noticeable, and you find yourself
praying that their character will be killed off. And most of the acting
in computer games is still pretty poor.
Fortunately, this is a problem that will probably take care of itself
in the end. Competition will force us to develop some competence in this
area. If we can manage to get up to the TV-movie-of-the-week level, I’ll
be happy. John Gielgud and Katharine Hepburn’s talents would be wasted
in a computer game, where the point is supposed to be interactivity anyway.
It’s better to do without acting in a computer game than to include
bad acting, and usually cheaper and easier as well.
Neat, Tidy Explosions
Look closely at a picture of a place where a bomb went off. It’s
a mess. A real mess. Things are broken into pieces of all sizes,
from chunks that are nearly the whole object, to shrapnel and slivers,
down to dust. And they’re twisted, shredded, barely recognizable.
Things that are blown up by a bomb don’t fall neatly apart into four
or five little polygons – they’re blasted to smithereens.
I suppose for the sake of our stomachs we’ll have to preserve the
TV and film fiction that people who die violently do so quickly and quietly
rather than screaming and rolling around; but I don’t see any need
to pretend that high explosives are less than apallingly destructive.
Bombs ruin things – lives and buildings. They leave the places
they’ve been shattered and unattractive. Let’s tell the truth
Scott Kim tells me that I’m being a bit harsh by labeling some of
these misfeatures as “lazy” puzzle design. He points out that
puzzle design is hard work to begin with, and unless you’re quite
familiar with the games of the past, it’s easy to make the same mistakes
again without knowing it. In addition, a lot of people come into puzzle
design from other fields like programming or art, and so don’t have
much experience at it.
I’ll buy that. But now that you have this handy list, at least you
needn’t make these mistakes, right?