Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cross-Post From Game Development Limbo: Open Rant: What Annoys You

This post was originally published on my Game Development Limbo blog, but I thought I'd open it to a wider audience:

Well, thought I'd make a post that may make commenting easy: Just think of stuff that irritates you in videogames and ramble aimlessly about it.

Some starters:

  • Zelda's love for pushing blocks on ice to cover switches. They can think of better stuff.
  • Metroidvania/Zelda type items you only use once or twice, especially if they're otherwise cool. I would have much rather seen the Spinner from Twilight Princess have much more utility in later areas.
  • Elaborate level/power up rituals: I like customization, but it can be taken way too far, sometimes. Having to do it multiple times for each character each level just wastes my time if you're just doing crap like increasing basic stats and such. If you're going to force customization, do it for abilities we'll be actively using. A new spell or attack that gives us more options give us some visual cues. Passive numbers aren't fun. Akusai had a clever way of expressing how boring that is, compared to gaining new abilities:
  • It's part of what makes Metroid so damn much fun: you run around until you find this new cool thing, and then think "Oh! This new cool thing can help me do something concrete elsewhere!" and not just "Oh. Now I have more numbers that help me to do more numbers to the other numbers.
  • Fake difficulty in all its forms.


Anonymous said...

Oh, yeah. The Spinner was not used near enough for how much fun it was. Would it have killed them to put in spinner tracks in the Goron Mountain or the forest?

Don said...

I think the problem with the spinner was that it was just too damn specific. If it had been a more general use skateboard-type thing instead of "Giant Gear/Top that fits into specifically designed wall grooves" it might have found more general use, and that might have made that particular dungeon a tad less annoying.

There are many, many things that annoy me in modern game design (the focus on graphics, the overuse of cinematics, poor interactive storytelling, the idea that if something isn't "mature" it cannot be enjoyed by anyone but children, the critical and commercial success of the God of War franchise; the list goes on practically forever), but right now I'm really heavily annoyed by modern adventure game design.

In many ways, adventure games were ruined by a combination of Myst and Ken Williams: Myst because it made arbitrary pseudo-logic puzzles the norm, and Ken Williams because he sold Sierra and destroyed perhaps the best, most polished and original adventure game design company on the planet.

Also, Roberta Williams, famous for half-a-dozen solid adventure games, invented what I call the "Dummy Button Adventure Game" with King's Quest VII, a drastic simplification of the interface that has become the norm. When one click automatically does whatever is needed, when the cursor highlights on interactible parts of the environment, the player has to think about basically nothing. They can blunder their way through without actually figuring shit out. Add this to Myst-style context-empty pseudo-logic puzzles and you have a game that involves little more than random guesswork from beginning to end.

Even in modern adventure games that try to retain some semblance of plot- and inventory-based puzzle solving (and not block-pushing, torch lighting, rock moving, etc.) there is a drastic difference in design style. Essentially, you begin at location A with one or two puzzles to solve there, all of the items for which are found there, all of the items for which are used before you're done. Then you move on to location B, and do the same. This gets tiresome, as there's never a mysterious item in your inventory for half the game awaiting its time in the sun, there's never multiple uses for the same's kludgy, simplistic game design that more aids story flow than gameplay, a cardinal sin in my book (the one thing that games do that other media do not is gameplay! It is paramount!). Every single well-received adventure game since the demise of Sierra and Lucasarts' adventure department, from Sanitarium (yawn) to Siberia (crap on a cracker) to the recent Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened (it has promise, but is still quite lacking) has been plagued by this annoying system of design.

Compare this to the good King's Quest games (3-6, as I see it), all the Quest for Glory games, the Monkey Island games, the Gabriel Knight games, etc. and so forth. Their design is more like concentric circles than completely separate circles linked by a short cinematic: you start the game, find some items, talk to some people, do some things. These actions open up a greater world without excluding your starting location. You're constantly called upon to revisit "old" areas, because they're part of the game, too. Often things can be done in multiple orders because the story isn't so much a linear narrative as it is a situation occurring around you, the story of which is revealed piecemeal as you dig further into the game's puzzles.

That was very longwinded, and I hope it makes sense.

Laser Potato said...

Events that automatically trigger a "Game Over", namely in the old Sierra games where avoiding an instant Game Over made Prince of Persia seem like Pong.

Anonymous said...

I actually loved God of War, but not for the "puzzles". It was straight action, and I expected that going in.

I'll also agree that forced "mature themes" always are grating. I think Zelda has a nice balance. I loved Wind Waker's whole art direction (though to this day, Link himself seems a little too mutant for my taste, as in he could have fit that art style without being so very short legged). I also loved Twilight Princess' look, and I enjoyed the stories of all of them. I don't mind games that tell the story for me, as I've been doing that since King's Quest.

Speaking of, you mention KQ7, but I think if you really want a game guilty of all that, try King's Quest 8. That game did so very many things wrong that it's hard to know where to begin. First, executive meddling. I'm not sure where it happened, but someone said "King's Quest is great, but 'the numbers' show people are buying this Mortal Kombat thing, so let's just gore it up a notch". The majority of the game seems to be a result of that attempt at forced "mature themes". Really that's the worst part.

Aside from that, there was the blanket attempt at shoving a cheap combat system into the game while still being an adventure game. In something like Zelda, it works because the combat system is well done and most of the battles are themselves a sort of puzzle. KQ8 totally failed at this. All the battles consist of, for the entire game, are hitting the enemy like really REALLY fast with your bigger numbers, and maybe backing up one step so you can step forward one step after their "big swing". Even all the projectile battles (ugh) just consist of the terrible AI that can't withstand the supreme tactics of "standing at a slight angle to move forward and back a step repeatedly to dodge EVERYTHING while clicking on the enemies until they fall down".

Lastly, those terrible things combined with the rush to make the game "3D" (which, I will note, looked a lot worse than KQ7's graphics) ate into puzzle design. That, and load times did too. They locked all the puzzles into each area because the load times were (are) so extremely long. Seriously, people joked about the PS1 but the average "entire region caching" allowed for long conversations while you waited. Really though, all the puzzles were ridiculous in their simplicity. Take the "trading quest" from the Zelda series, and you have it. The most complicated puzzle in the game is just a small side quest to get a boost to your character's experience, and all it involves is literally following a direct recipe for basilisk tongue and stuff to electrocute in a chair or whatever. I dunno, it was really stupid. The last boss is, well, also stupid. Just hit him until he gets sucked into hell or whatever. I don't even know why he has that portal there.

I'm not as critical about the "mainstream" as some, and I actually enjoy "pseudologic" puzzle games like Myst. That is, I actually like observing the world around me to pick up hints from obscure sources to figure out how to work a valve system or use sounds to run a strange underground rail car. I also don't mind a game where you basically wander from room to room moving knight pieces in special ways in 40 moves on a strange cutout from a chess board, or exchanging marble positions in such a way as to get a special allignment (I call these games "Puzzle Book" games, which they basically are except for the wandering around part). I don't mind them because I know what I'm getting into ahead of time and I enjoy the ride and the puzzles can be pretty tough.

That said, when it comes to the classic adventure game where you explore everything you can get your hands on and experiment with combining or using or interacting with everything in whatever way you can imagine, it did take a down turn.

The "parser interface" is underrated. It had limitations, but I enjoyed "look tree" and "feel bowl" as much as anyone. Sure there are annoyances like not being able to get the right word, and back then there were often a lot of "get permanently stuck" glitches, but funny thing, we didn't think of that as a glitch. We thought of that as a reason why multiple save slots existed.

King's Quest IV was incredible. So was King's Quest III if you ask me. 5, well, not so much. That one had too much of a "fixed solution" thing about it and the exploring the desert mindlessly bit was just sort of stupid. 6 is still my all time favorite though. That one captured everything about parser with it's many options, had a LOT of stuff to do, and well, it was hard. Puzzles were tough, and the manual doubling as a lot of background information on those islands was great. It didn't give away all possible interactions with things either.

KQ7 WAS too easy in that sense. I did enjoy the start with the heiroglyph puzzles and putting together clues from things strewn about, but if you are limited to ONE interaction with everything in the game, and you are told through the interface what can and can't be interacted with, the difficulty seriously suffers. I did have trouble with some puzzles in the game, but in retrospect most of the time it was because a puzzle was the "throw the bridle on the snake" variety. That is, puzzles that are solved through randomness with no real logic except possibly in retrospect.

Zelda has it's own history. My main issue there, aside from the already stated problem of "items of very specific use" (which has actually been a problem since the very beginning to varying degrees, the Cross from Zelda 2 anyone, or the Raft from Zelda 1?) is how puzzle hints have strayed so far from the cryptic to the direct.

I love good graphics. I won't lie. I don't think a game that looks good is necessarily bad and I think it's possible to not compromise on gameplay and still have a good looking game. I also don't mind cinematics. Yes, I mean I actually don't mind half hour cut scenes in Kingdom Hearts 2 or Metal Gear Solid, if they are GOOD, because again, in those games I know what to expect, being led through a story instead of writing my own (in spite of what Tidus says, it isn't really my story). I don't mind a game being half gameplay and half movie. Again, I'm not as critical as some, but when it comes to the gameplay itself, whatever else is there, I'm going to get critical. So yes, Zelda may have a lot of "cut scenes" now, but really I enjoy those "breaks" and they were interesting to watch.

Let me give you an example of the Zelda issues I have. In the past, you were given a torch and that's it. You could read the manual but it didn't say much except it could light rooms. Navi was gone. Getting it didn't describe anything. You had to experiment with every item in the game to figure out what it did. Bow? Nice, but how do I even shoot it? I have no idea, and yes it could be frustrating, but in a good way. Eventually, OH, you can buy arrows! Wait, they cost me money to use them? Now I know! The ladder? How do I use this? Oh, I can cross rivers now! I love that! Every enemy was a new experience with no one helping you.

That's not entirely true actually, and that comes into the other thing. In the event that experimenting may be reduced to randomness, hints WERE provided, but they were always so cryptic. "Dodongo dislikes smoke" is a perfect hint. Enough to figure out, eventually, that you can trick the thing into eating bombs. How did Ocarina of Time do it? "HEY! LISTEN! Maybe if you throw SOMETHING in his mouth when he opens it you can hurt him!" I'm paraphrasing from memory here, but you get the idea. What ever happened to the art of the subtle nudge of a hint? What ever happened to not telling you everything about the item you have right from the moment you obtain it, and leaving some things intentiionally hidden? The "spell" spell's description in the manual was useless, it was "mysterious". You had to experiment with that. The biggest hint you had in the game was that people described certain places as "weird" themselves and you had to put two and two together.

Link's Awakening was the last truly "hard" Zelda game if you ask me. Hints like "where the 4 eyes cross" are FAR better than "That stalactite seems weak. Maybe if you had AN ITEM you could use it somehow?"

Wind Waker actually had some of the easiest puzzles in the whole series. As much as I loved the art direction (which has been reused in a few games since then), it really had to guide your hand. Cinematics showing you the really important item the moment you walk in the room, illustrating in no uncertain terms what hitting that switch did, and one of the worst offenders, literally showing you via big shining cursor exactly WHAT to use an item like the hookshot on, really made the game too easy.

Now don't get me wrong. Aside from the occasional revert back to classic "block puzzles" and such, I actually have seen interesting new puzzle design in each new Zelda game. Otherwise, I'd never get stuck. I also recognize that having played the series for years I'm bound to get a knack for solving puzzles that will make me solve them quicker than if that had been my first Zelda game. However, that is no excuse for the sort of removal of difficulty they seem to be heading towards.

Even enemies are getting a little too easy in that way. I like solving the puzzle of how to kill things mid combat, likely getting myself killed a few times. Face Shrine comes to mind... Twilight Princess did tone down the hand leading from Wind Waker, but not enough.

That said, I loved the claw shot, and the later upgrade of a second claw shot was just awesome simple example of how to add a major element with a very simple addition.

The top was fun but as has been said, far too limiting. As I said before, this has always been an issue. And, I have to say this now, there is another big issue in providing "new items" in a game like Metroid or Castlevania, or even Banjo Kazooie. That's the issue of the "upgraded move" that, unlike "double claw shot" doesn't let you do anything new except it's "stronger".

Here's an example. In Donkey Kong 64, you get the "ground pound" for your Kongs that lets you hit switches and break through the ground. That's great. A little redone, but great, and it expands what you can do in a real way. But, later, you get the "stronger ground pound". It is the same thing, only it lets you hit "heavier" switches and break "tougher" ground. That's not really a new ability at all, that's the same exact thing I got before, only now it works on "other doors". I use that term because I first noticed it in Super Metroid. I love that game, LOVE it, but I have to say the very concept of the "Super Missile" was more or less the same thing. Once again it was just a way to open "new doors". It wasn't a whole new thing. It wasn't "brand new", it was old stale oats. On the other hand, the dashing ability, the grappling beam, even the power bomb (yes it was used to open a new "kind of door", but that's not all it was used for), and the wave beam were all new game mechanics for getting past obstacles in new ways.

This is basically my main issue. Any move that basically just "upgrades" what you can do in the form of just providing a "key" to let stuff you already could do before get you past some door is lame. Anything that lets you do something you couldn't do before is great. Yes, it's not always nearly as clear cut as my examples, but even if there is a fuzzy mark between the two, the extremes are ones I have a clear opinion on.

I don't really mind "playing with numbers" sometimes. In fact when I'm in the mood for a Final Fantasy, that's what I want. I like messing around with sphere grids and job mixing and card assignments and all that fun stuff. I do like comparing my numbers to their numbers. However, in the cases where I "play math" I like the math to be clever. If the game is literally just a contest of strength then it's boring. However if the game is about noting their superior stats and adjusting yours in clever ways to "abuse" the system to gain a clear and very clever advantage, I LOVE it. Pokemon is very simple, with only 5 stats, but at the "meta game" there's actually a lot going on and a huge number of ways to combine effects to get fun out of it. However, the low level "I taught Mewtwo psychic 4 times, let's just use psychic over and over until one of us falls over" really is just utterly boring to me. Yes, your critter sure is... stronger... however mine sure seems smarter *combines series of sword dances with recover tricks and weak "always hit" swift attack to destroy overpowering Mewtwo* and also more fun.

Anonymous said...

I must apologize after looking at the size of what I just posted for subjecting innocent people to my opinions on video games.

Bronze Dog said...

DJ, do you want an invite to my Game Development Limbo? 'Cuz you're getting one regardless of whether or not you want it.

...I need your email, though.

Anyway, I'm not at all fond of "the same thing but more!" power ups and abilities. The double-claw shot was a good notable exception because the extra one really changed what you were capable of.

Anonymous said...

Castlevania has been pretty guilty of it too actually. Circle of the Moon had two levels of "ability to push a crate" you had to upgrade through, and notable is that pushing crates wasn't in any way enjoyable. There was a total of one (simple) puzzle involving it in the game, and the rest of the crates functioned entirely as heavy doors. Further, one of the major items is literally just a key to get into Dracula's lair. That's a little lame.

Oh, my e-mail is Well, that's the one I'm willing to share on a widely visible space anyway. It's my "spam" email I use publically.

Bronze Dog said...

Invite should be in that inbox, now.

Anonymous said...

Well I'm reading as a guest, but due to some weirdness in creating a "google account" I can't actually reply to anything. I wonder if there's an issue with their account creation page right now or if it's an issue with currently using two beta browsers (IE8 and Firefox 3)?

Bronze Dog said...

Oops. Fixed it to allow anyone to comment. See if it'll work, now.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunatly that didn't seem to do the trick. :D

I'm still attempting to create a "Google ID" but for some reason every single time I attempt to click "create" at the end it just takes me back to the start and tells me to type in my password and that confirmation code again. If I did something wrong, it won't tell me what. It's weird.

Bronze Dog said...

So, are you unable to see the blog at all, now?

I can try sending you a Gmail invite, if that'll help.

Anonymous said...

Oh I can still see it. That email's invite link is good for about a month it seems. I just can't seem to comment on anything, either as a guest or because I can't seem to sign up for a google account. It's all very odd and I wonder if I'm the only one having this issue. It's either my fault or Google's I'd think. I don't think you're to blame.

Anonymous said...

What ever happened to the art of the subtle nudge of a hint? What ever happened to not telling you everything about the item you have right from the moment you obtain it, and leaving some things intentiionally hidden?

What happened is that video game designers decided that everyone should be able to enjoy video games and not just the gifted and talented abstract thinking nerds, and also they realized that there are a lot of stupid fucking idiots out there, too, so you have to tell them what to do.

And frankly, I'm kinda glad. I no longer have thirty hours of free time to wander around the Lost Woods figuring out what the hell I what I have to do where to open the next gorram temple, and frankly wandering around in circles with no options is never as fun as advertised. Games should only be as complex as they need to be, and no more. Otherwise you end up with a Gygaxian-random-table barrier-to-entry, and your company goes tits-up because people stop wanting to deal with your labyrinthian enigmafuck of a game-design.

Bronze Dog said...

I think I'll make the hints in my game(s) proportional to the optionality. If you're just going for beating the main story, it won't get too obscure. Hints to the Infinity+1 Sword will be very cryptic.

MWchase said...

I've only seen this with flash adventure point-and-click stuff, but a specific kind of fake difficulty is hiding a vital object by arbitrarily changing the camera behavior. I imagine this doesn't happen as much in games with continuous camera movement, but...

I guess it's worse when you know where to look, and you're pixel-hunting a camera-angle-change action that would take all of five seconds in reality.


Other things... I suspect this is limited to rhythm games, but it would be annoying anywhere: if the player has been set a task that requires concentration and calm, don't set the background effects so that, by default, they attempt to give the player a seizure. I mean, tic-tac-toe would be an absolute beast if the board was six foot high and flashing at 30 hertz. If the player wants an ultra-masochistic "challenge mode", that's fine, just don't make the rest of us recoil from the screen while trying to advance the plot.

Arbitrarily withholding content, especially on the basis of geographical location (unless it's an alternate reality game which would make it not a video game and therefore not relevant to this comment thread) seems basically unforgivable to me. (I understand Pokémon has gotten better in this regard, but I can no longer bring myself to care.)

I don't think I've played a wide enough variety of games lately to have any other gripes.

MWchase said...

Oh, damn, one more: drastic shifts in gameplay mechanics.

An adventure game should not suddenly require you to complete a rhythm game or something without even telling you the rules. (The game I'm thinking of volunteered so little information that I'm not even sure that was a rhythm game it had grafted on. I just know that I kept on losing five seconds in for no appreciable reason.) The same game had yet another minigame that had you photographing things for some reason.

Other lamentable elements include tying an aspect of a puzzle to the state of an external force that the game designer does not control.

Anonymous said...

You'll have to expand on that last one... The only thing I can translate that to is, say, a game that requires you to read the manual for hints or Metal Gear Solid's "you may find the frequency on the box".

MWchase said...

There was a flash game (where this problem is most likely to turn up) that suddenly stopped having puzzle solutions. The only item I hadn't found a use for was a magazine that linked to a company's website, and had part of a screenshot of the site circled. One unsolved puzzle had text that I had too enter, so the circled stuff presumably contained the solution. Except... it was illegible with the scaling, and the page it linked to appeared to have been redesigned in the mean time.

So, either a mean red herring, or a puzzle broken through short-sightedness.

Anonymous said...

I tend not to play any game that takes place entirely in a web browser. I am prepared to accept that this is closed minded, but as a general rule if I can see a series of letters with the words "newground" embedded in there somewhere, I doubt I'm in for a fun time.