The 13 Deadly Sins of Game Design

Published 1 year ago by , Updated September 4th, 2013 at 9:50 pm,

The 13 Deadly Sins of Game Design

Call of Duty Modern Warfare execution cutscene No human being is perfect. Even the most saintly among us have dark spots on the underbelly of our consciences from the times that we have succumbed to laziness, depravity and wickedness. Since the human race is imperfect, so too are the video games that are crafted by human hands, and even the greatest of video games tend to feature design decisions that are truly maddening. Everyone has their own personal bugbear, whether it's the cutscenes that go on until you forget that you're playing a game instead of watching a movie, inventories that are organized worse than the "Misc" box at a yard sale, or the baffling presence of knee-high barriers that the game's musclebound, monster-slaying hero is incapable of stepping over. Fear not: every sin can be forgiven (except the ending of Mass Effect 3, apparently), and the best way to exorcise these demons of game design is to confront them head on and sprinkle the holy water of complaint onto them. Here are the tooth-grinding, controller-smashing, ragequit-worthy 13 Deadly Sins of Game Design.

Infinite Enemy Spawn Points

'System Shock 2' - Rumbler I am Rumbler. I am Legion. For the more cautious type of player who prefers to clear an entire area before pressing ahead, the most comfortable spot on a map is the carefully-selected sniper cubby hole that provides enough visibility to get a clear shot at the enemy, and also enough cover to keep from losing large chunks of skull. Unfortunately for this player, the opposition has a clown car hidden right around the corner from which an infinite army spills at regular intervals, and will continue to do so until the main character forces his or her body past an arbitrary point in the map, at which point the infinite enemy spawning clown car quickly drives off before it can be spotted. Not to be confused with respawning enemies (though they can also give a nasty shock), infinite enemy spawn points are aggravating mainly because it's often difficult to recognize their presence until piles of ammunition and explosives have already been wasted on these never-ending pawns. Moreover, the goal required to end the waves is often obscure and must be deciphered, leading to lengthy battles where puzzle-solving must be balanced with constantly trying to fight off the rising tide of angry bad guys.

Long, Unskippable Cutscenes

Metal Gear Solid - unskippable cutscene Time to grab some popcorn Everybody loves a good movie, but there's a time and place for such a thing and if video games were meant to be movies then we wouldn't have invented the gamepad. The reasoning behind refusing to let players skip a cutscene is somewhat understandable. A lot of work goes into creating these elaborate sequences and, while some games are capable of getting by without a single cutscene, they're often an essential tool for furthering the plot. A player leaning on the wrong button could accidentally jump forward in the game and be left with no idea of what their new goal might be. While unskippable cutscenes might be justifiable in the first playthrough, however, forcing an action-driven player to sit through them on repeat playthroughs is just cruel and unusual punishment. It's not that we don't dig character development, but please give us the option to cut away from the cutscene.

Escorting Grandma

'Assassin's Creed' - monk escort "This is like the Pedestrian's Creed!" - Michael Jones OK, you've booted up your game and you're all fired up on Red Bull and Pop Tarts, ready to take on whatever knife's-edge adventures the game designers have in store for you. You'll be leaping through fire, stealthing over rooftops, charging into the midst of a battle with your swords drawn and death in your eyes... Right after you've finished escorting The Slowest NPC In All The Land. Obviously not all games should be all action, all the time, and escort sequences with slow-moving characters are a good opportunity to take the pace down a notch and enjoy the scenery. At least the player is allowed a small amount of interactivity, though that will mainly be used to leap about and impatiently run in circles around the sedately-moving friend in an effort to spur them on. Perhaps slow companions in sequences without combat are tolerable, but when you're caught in a firefight with an NPC who has no sense of urgency and keeps stopping to get touchy-feely with walls, doors and anything else that their tiny AI brains can't navigate, it's probably kindest to just leave them behind to get eaten.

The Cutscene Lobotomy

Final Fantasy X - Yuna's Wedding Attack of the invincible cutscene guard Let's face it: if video game characters didn't have the human ingenuity of the player holding their hands and guiding them through their adventures, they would die before even getting beyond the first mission. Painful evidence of this fact lies in cutscenes, where the character who has been fearlessly overcoming incredible obstacles and acting quickly and efficiently at every turn suddenly turns into a weak, ineffectual, braindead lump of meat to be batted about and defeated by laughing enemies. The official TV Tropes term for this is Cutscene Incompetence, but the truly frustrating aspect of it is the player's own impotence. We're forced to watch with fists clenched helplessly around the controller as the character, gun in hand, engages in a long conversation with the villain instead of just shooting him in the face or, worse still, peers stupidly from a corner as loveable NPCs are slaughtered in easily preventable ways. So, when that area full of suspicious chest-high walls appears ahead and you know that you're heading into an ambush, accept that there's no option to be try and play things smart. All that can be done is to walk on and watch in despair as your character squawks in surprise and takes a dozen bullets before diving behind cover in full view of everyone.

Atmospheric Blindness

'Tomb Raider' rapids ride Could someone pass me a towel? Games with regenerative health, such as Call of Duty, will often communicate the player's nearness to death by filling the screen with splatters of blood, turning the world grey and muddying the audio. It's a clear message to get behind cover or risk annihilation by the next bullet to come along, which would be just fine if it was possible to see the nearest cover. Instead, the screen is a weird mosaic of red mist and there's no button to activate the windshield wipers. Other games, most notably the Silent Hill series, limit visibility with fog or darkness for the purposes of making everything a little bit spookier, and this can work well in a survival horror game. In other genres, however, it's simply a case of atmosphere being taken to the point of enthusiastic overkill, and can turn the screen into a blurry, incomprehensible mess. A prime example of this is the Tomb Raider river rapids ride (shown opposite), in which the player must guide Lara around jagged obstacles that are often barely visible through all the water splashing on the lens. Perhaps the developers just really wanted everyone to see that head-impalement animation.

The Mook-Pooping Boss

'Batman Arkham Asylum' Bane boss battle Say hello to my little friends... while I hang out back here Video game bosses can be very shy, often not emerging to face the player until the later stages of the game. The problem is, by this point the player will have figured out which buttons are used to jump and dodge, and will likely have acquired an artillery of weapons and/or superpowers that have turned them into an unstoppable killing machine. Placing a worthy challenger in the path of such a behemoth can be, well, challenging. One solution to this problem is to simply throw a handful of generic mooks in with the big guy to hammer away at the player's health bar and amp up the difficulty. While not ruinous, this lazy method of artificially padding a boss battle is widely used. It accompanied almost every boss in Batman: Arkham Asylum, reared its head in Bioshock: Infinite, and climbed the icy peaks of Tomb Raider's concluding chapter. It might not be most conspicuous of issues amongst the many things that can go wrong with boss battles, but a truly great and unique enemy shouldn't need a small army of boring minions in order to actually present a challenge. Game designers, put the mooks away and show us something we haven't seen before.

Grinding

Pokemon - tall grass Welcome to the Abyss The plague of many an MMO and RPG, grinding has an incredibly appropriate name, since it's often about as much fun as putting your face on an angle grinder. The problem with grinding isn't that the battles are difficult - on the contrary, it often gets to the point where it's possible to kill enemies with one hand and finish a sudoku puzzle with the other - it's that they're repetitive, dull, and grind the game to a near complete halt. The key to surviving a good grinding session is to find a zen state of mind where hearing the same battle music a hundred times over while mechanically fighting yet another generic monster is actually psychologically soothing. Apparently there are monks who live in near-isolation on a mountain in Tibet who have achieved this level of spirituality, but it takes a lifetime of study and many, many health potions. The sole saving grace of grinding comes after killing several hundred R.O.U.S.'s or swamp beetles or Zubats and finally getting to the cocky boss that would have been unbeatable at a lower level, and pounding the sucker into the dirt with all that hard-won XP - for the true battle lies not with your opponent, but in the hours spent stomping on insects in his front yard.

The Great AI Hivemind

'ArmA' psychic soldier In brightest day, in blackest night... Okay, so that enemy spotted you for a split second before you silenced him with a knife in the jugular, but so long as no one else saw the attack everything should be fine, right? You poor fool. That soldier you just murdered has already used the hidden chip in his brain to send a psychic message to every one of his brethren within a five mile radius, and now five dozen mooks know your precise location and can find you no matter how well you hide or try to distract them. These magical creatures also have perfect aim over enormous distances, so all you can do is find the nearest wall to hide behind and trade shots for the next fifteen minutes. Psychic enemies are just fine in games where it's been canonically established that they share a swarm intelligence, but when the opposing force consists of ostensibly ordinary humans with frighteningly super-powered awareness and accuracy, realism and immersion can quickly fly out of the window... where it will immediately be sniped from two miles away.

Water Allergy

Frogger Science fact of the day: frogs can't swim There will be more on methods of keeping the player character caged inside the map boundaries later, but one of the go-to methods of containment is to simply surround the area with a body of water so acidic that it instantly burns to death any poor creature unlucky enough to fall into it. Since it can often be difficult to tell at the start of a game whether or not water is one of the many ways to die, many a gamer has discovered their character's water allergy by confidently jumping into a puddle and being greeted with a death screen. This dates back all the way to Frogger on the Atari 2600, in which the amphibious traveller defies nature by drowning in his natural element. Perhaps the must bizarre instance of this can be found in the Assassin's Creed series. Not only does the first game's protagonist, Altaïr, react to water like a soluble aspirin tablet, things get even stranger in Assassin's Creed II. While the new hero, Ezio, can happily swim like a fish, no one else in Venice can - not even the gondoliers. Push any resident of this waterlogged city into a canal and they'll be killed instantly. Apparently Renaissance Italians weren't very big on self-preservation.

The Inventory of Doom

Mass Effect - inventory Commander Shepard and the Saga of Micromanagement Weight limits in inventory systems can be restrictive, but they're generally a good idea and provide a necessary cap for hoarding addicts. There are some inventory systems, however, that make the player reluctant to pick up anything at all, because of the headache that comes with trying to retrieve it again. From games that allow the player to pick up and store completely useless items of no value, to bags with a thousand pockets and subsections, to games like Fable 3 where the inventory only exists in an abstract, hypothetical sense and cannot be looked upon directly, there is a multitude of different ways to create a bad inventory system, and it seems like almost every one of them has been tried. Obviously we should never stop looking for ways to revolutionize gaming, but if it takes more effort to retrieve or use an item from the inventory than it takes to fill out a tax return, it's possible that the system for storing the adventurer's standard pile of gold and clutter has been through a little bit too much innovation.

The Checkpoint Desert

Perfect Dark Zero - checkpoint Whatever you do, don't get shot As with inventory systems, there are any number of ways to implement a save system poorly, but the most merciful thing that a video game can do is to allow the player some kind of manual input in the saving process. When slotting a half-hour session of gaming in between getting home from working and cooking dinner, it's great to have autonomy over starting and stopping. The Grand Theft Auto series has a notoriously poor saving system, wherein the only way to manually save a game is by obediently driving back to a safe house. Not only that, but the missions themselves do not have checkpoints, so failure means drudging all the way over to the mission start icon again, watching the briefing cutscene, and then driving to the location where the mission actually takes place. Perhaps worst of all are linear shooters where the checkpoints can often be miles apart, and the autosave icon can be easily missed. Nothing drags more than having to replay half an hour of the same level because of poorly marked save points. If checkpoints simply have to be the only way of saving, then can we at least have them in abundance?

Rockblocked

Golden Sun - Rockblocked One of the sad truths about virtual worlds is that (with the exception of Minecraft) sooner or later they have to come to an end. Invincible vegetation, impenetrable locked wooden doors, cities full of cul-de-sacs and even the accursed invisible walls are all facts of life, but at least most of them provide the illusion of a barrier. A cruel reminder that the player is subject to the whims of the designer can be driven home by the simple placement of a small and easily surmountable obstacle, like a pebble or a knee-high fence. Double points if the game has a jump button and the character can clearly jump higher than whatever piece of detritus is blocking their path. Far Cry 3 is capable of rockblocking the player via a particularly unpleasant glitch; as if the random slippery patches on hills weren't bad enough, the rocks of Rook Island were not really designed for easy traversal and it's possible to slip down into small crevices that Jason can't muster the energy to clamber out of. Worse still, it's actually possible to become trapped inside a rock and be left staring out helplessly from inside the earth. Haunting.

Quick Time Events

Spiderman Quick Time Event Press X to not die This one was always going to be on the list. Quick time events, which were popularized by the God of War series, have taken on a life of their own and swarmed out into the world, burrowing into cutscenes like an ant nest under a picnic blanket. In theory, it makes sense to include them. After all, if a game is a shooter with melee attacks mapped to a single button, it's difficult to throw the player character into a fist or knife fight and actually pull off any unique or impressive moves. Surely, then, it makes sense to just do the whole thing as a highly cinematic cutscene, and occasionally prompt the player to press a button in order to continue watching? Stop right there. If we wanted to play Rock Band, we'd play Rock Band, and quickly flashing up a random sequence of buttons that must be pressed in order to not have to go back and watch the whole boring, barely-interactive fight all over again is not an effective test of gaming skills. There's no real sense of achievement when the only contribution the player makes to their character's death-defying feats is to obediently press a button when instructed.

Conclusion

Mario - Our princess is in another castle It's easy to find these 13 crimes in bad video games, but this list also name-dropped some of the best and highest-rated video games of all time, all of which have a flaw or two on their otherwise polished surfaces. Could this mean that every video game is better when it's a little bit... naughty? Do you want to fight in the corner of any of these game mechanics, or are you scandalized by the fact that we left your personal pet peeve off this list? Use the comments section to tell us about the moments in video games that had you throwing your controller at the screen and cursing the name of whoever was in charge of creating them. Keep it clean, though, or we'll wash your mouths out with Venetian canal water. That stuff is a killer.