the top 10 mistakes that game designers still make

Since the dawn of home video gaming, circa 1980, games have offered exploration and adventure. They give everyone the ability to feel like a hero, to explore dangerous and uncharted lands. And since the very beginning, game designers have made huge blunders in creating those worlds. That’s not to say that they don’t get a ton of stuff right – they do. We wouldn’t keep playing games if they weren’t fun. But as the medium has evolved, some game design blunders have inexplicably remained consistent.

Perhaps this is due to the mass-marketing of games to all, perhaps it’s just laziness. No matter what the reason is, these aren’t acceptable any more. Gamers should demand more. I demand more.

So without further ado, I bring you (in no particular significant order) …

the top 10 mistakes that game designers still make

Mistake 1: Non-moving NPCs

This mistake is as old as some of the first Ultima games. Probably older, but that’s where I first saw it. Heck, it was in Zork I. That damn Grue was always in any dark area. Nowadays, we’ve got quest markers, minimaps, area maps, world maps, all nicely marked with quest givers, quest locations, sometimes even with quest objectives right on the map. So why on earth can’t we find NPCs that move around a bit? I know, game design 101 right? Make sure that there are landmarks for gamers to attach to and recognize. I get that. But having Johnny Questgiver walk to his house or down to the fountain isn’t a grievous error – especially not if I can read a note on his door saying where he went, or if he’s wearing clothes that are unique.

Heck, knowing most designers, he’s likely got a giant grey exclamation point floating over his head anyway, so he shouldn’t be too hard to spot.

noticeable exceptions: The Gothic series tries really hard to mix this up, and those titles succeed, for the most part.

Mistake 2: Boring, repetitive quests

How often in any game you play, regardless of genre, do you find yourself genuinely surprised in the first hour of gameplay? I would say that happens very, very rarely. This is even more grievous further in the game when you’ve done 4 variations of each of the primary quests, each about 7 times. Heck, this has gotten so bad that these quest types have gotten nicknames!! How is this acceptable? If you aren’t aware and you’re wondering what I mean, the nicknames generally are something along these lines:

  • fetch quests (you have to go get something)
  • fedex quests (like the above, but often you have to repeat this with multiple NPCs to get more than 1 thing)
  • kill X of Y quests (sometimes followed by a boss or miniboss)
  • find item in area
  • escort quests
  • gather X of Y

So where’s the imagination? Give me more interaction! I want to solve a puzzle. Or become involved in a random action sequence that only occurs with a specific item in my inventory. Or I may need to decipher clues to complete a quest. Perhaps talk to an NPC about an item in my inventory to solve a quest. I’m just throwing stuff out here, but if a team of designers sat down and thought a little harder about this, perhaps we’d see some real imaginative quest designs.

Does anyone have some examples of quest design throughout a game that is unique, interesting and fresh? If you have more than 2 people on your team and/or a budget of more than your spare change, this mistake can be easily avoided. Heck, most of the low-budget games deftly avoid this problem – your massive-budget game should be able to as well.

Mistake 3: One gameplay to rule them all

This mistake is probably due to most games trying to adhere really closely to a specific genre, but I’d like to see WAY more slashes in many games’ genre. I’m tired of straight-up FPS. RPGs get boring. RTSes have been boring for years. If you’ve been a gamer for a couple years at least, you’ve likely shot, leveled, built, and hacked more times than you can count. So how come in almost every game I play, there’s about 4 main things I have to learn to do (and almost every single time, I’ve done it in a very similar way in dozens of other games) and I do those 4 things over and over and over.

Maybe that’s shooting some dude in the face and collecting a health pack. Or building a base to churn out units. Or slashing beasties to oblivion so that I can get another stat point. Mix things up a bit, designers! We’ve done these things. Break the mould.

Mistake 4: Assuming we’ve never played games before… oh those awful tutorial areas

This kind of goes hand-in-hand with the above mistake… If you’ve spent all this time making a really awesome game (and you’d better think it is, you designed it), make my first 15 minutes awesome. I don’t want to feel like I’ve played this exact same game before. I want to be wowed. On top of that, don’t show me how to navigate with WASD, unless you give me an option to skip the basics. I know how to steer with WASD. I can figure out how to control the camera and pick stuff up and open my inventory and shoot my gun. If you’re going to force me to do this, I’m going to be bored. At the very least, let me skip it your lame tutorial! Give me quick help page popup or something so I can quickly check out what I need and get to playing.

Two games I just got that do this very differently: Two Worlds II and Hydrophobia: Prophecy. Although in both the first hour is all about learning the controls, Two Worlds II makes the grievous mistake of making most of this a weary process, making me watch some non-skippable (see #10) cutscenes (though some are skippable) and interspersing that with dull, dull instruction about how to run and such. I finished the first game (I think I’m the only one), so I think I can figure this out. Besides, they’re marketing this to people who have bought Oblivion and similar RPGs… I’d say these are the types of people who’ve played an RPG before. Hydrophobia, on the other hand, gives you a similar intro, showing you the ropes. Some of their cutscenes are also non-skippable (SERIOUSLY??), but the environment that I’m learning this stuff in makes all the difference in the world. I’m thrown into a burning, sinking ship and am forced to learn how to play in a truly exciting atmosphere, where if I fail, I drown. This completely makes me forget that I’m playing a tutorial, immersing me in the gameplay and the environment right off the bat.

Mistake 5: The same UI for consoles as PCs

We’ve all been there. You buy a game for your PC because it’s got way more horsepower than your Xbox 360 or Playstation 3. You want to be able to max the textures, crank up the shadows and view distance and immerse yourself in the world the designers’ have created. Then you bring up the inventory and you’re greeted with enormous icons and asinine keyboard controls. WTF?? Hello, console port. Let’s utilize the amazing capabilities of the mouse to its fullest, okay?!  There’s not a lot else that needs to be said here. I’m on a PC. Do NOT tell me to ‘Press Enter to start’. Borderlands, I’m looking at you.

Also, every Gothic game that was ever made, Two Worlds II, the Saboteur, Oblivion without mods, ummmm… anyone else want to chime in here?

Torchlight, you did okay.

Mistake 6: Crappy crappy loot

This is possibly one of the most annoying things ever. Oblivion, you are the worst offender here, though Torchlight and I’d say likely any hack-and-slash is up there as well. I’ve played your game for 30 hours. I hack and I hack and I hack and kill all of teh monster. And you give me a PLAIN sword? You give me the same DAMN SWORD I GOT 20 LEVELS AGO! If I’m playing New Vegas, insert GUN for SWORD. Seriously?? Why did I bother slogging through this enormous dungeon? I like loot. I play games for loot. I want to feel more powerful. The best thing a game designer can add to a game is a decision that makes the player second-guess themselves and be unsure which choice to make. This is what I want when I find loot. I want loot that’s unique enough, fun enough, andCOOL enough to make it worth my while. And all the loot I get should compete with this loot for coolness, making me struggle to choose one gun/sword/armor/fish over another.

If it doesn’t, you FAILED.

A HUGE exception to this rule goes to Borderlands, and remarkably, Two Worlds. Borderlands, well… Borderlands had like 18 quajillion guns. So, duh. Awesome. On the other hand, Two Worlds gave you the same crap over and over, but they made finding the same shitty loot over and over again very exciting. You see, you could just auto-merge all identical loot in that game, basically leveling it up. I made some really badass weapons out of the lousiest gear in that game – it’s probably why I finished it. The rest of the game was terrible. Except for the voice acting which was horrifically wonderful.

Mistake 7: No in-game cues for completion

I shouldn’t have to have a mod to tell me when I’ve done something in-game. Now, this one might not be huge, but it’s annoying nonetheless. I play a lot of RPGs, especially open-world ones. Think Oblivion, Two Worlds, Risen, Gothics, Drakensang, that sort of stuff. Sometimes I can’t remember if I’ve been in a cave or not. I can’t remember if I’ve opened that chest and looted it or that body. Don’t make me watch your oh-so-slow search animation/open door/open chest animation YET again! Give me a tooltip that indicates I’ve looted it. If it’s a chest or room or box or cabinet, leave THE DAMN DOOR OPEN! Is this so hard? In a game like Oblivion, this is especially grievous. This goes the same for maps – let me mark on maps, or even better, have a ‘map fog of war’ that shows where I’ve explored. Sometimes I just can’t remember, or I’m coming back to the game after a long time away. I don’t want to run through your infinitely-spawned monsters (grrrr… see below) again, only to discover I’ve actually already been in that area.

Mistake 8: Spawning enemies

Sigh. I think this is the game designer’s worst mistake ever. Some people like spawning enemies, so if you’re one of them, feel free to move on to #9. I don’t. If I wanted spawning enemies, I’d play Space Invaders. I’ve moved past that. Give me intelligent enemies that are tough and challenging. Kill me. Make me think to get past them. Then I will feel achievement and you will have done a good job. Good game designer. But for the love of God, don’t get sadistic about it. Give me a little bit of fodder so I get just a little bit cocky about how awesome and heroic I am. Then kill me again. Piranha Bytes, please read this very closely as I feel you are all sadists.

Mistake 9: Non-skippable cutscenes

This shouldn’t even be on this list. If I like a game, I might play it more than one time. Really! Or I might lose my save game and be forced to play it again. Either way, sometimes I don’t want to be forced to watch your hammy, poorly voice-acted, poorly written CG puppets act. I ESPECIALLY don’t want to watch your stupid INTROS proclaiming Intel/Nvidia/AMD over and over and over again. I’ve paid for your damn game, let me skip that and get right into the game. If you make me wait and don’t let me skip this stuff, I’m going to write another post just like this one only with a lot more swearing.

Mistake 10: Asinine autosave points / no “save anywhere” option

Don’t put an autosave point right before a boss fight. Hell, if I’m on a PC, don’t make autosaves without ALSO giving me a full “save anywhere” option. I’m didn’t buy your game on a cartridge. I have TERABYTES of space for your silly, bloated save files. So let me save, whenever and wherever I want. And if you absolutely MUST make autosave points, do it OFTEN. I don’t care if I have 48 saves. Or 112. Just don’t make me redo massive areas, HOURS of gameplay because you made ONE autosave point and it was at the beginning of the level, and your game crashed when I tried to exit. That will keep me from ever buying your game again. Just a tip.

So all you game designers that I really wish were reading this post.. please feel free to comment, and at the very least, pay attention to some of the above in your next game. You likely won’t make everyone happy by avoiding the above mistakes, but I know damn well I will be.

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