Dear Dave

Friday 27 November 2009

When computer games go bad

Dear Dave,

The kids are all finally back at school. Hurrah! That only took a week. Doubtless one of them will come down with something else in a couple of days but, in the meantime, it makes a nice change not having anyone in the house lying around under a blanket, sighing deeply. Being stuck inside for so long as been a little much on occasion. At last there's no more bickering over whose turn it is to play the Wii and I can open a window and do something about the smell of stale children in the lounge.


Anyway, it's been a long week full of grumpiness, illness and TV involving annoying puppets. My patience is running low. I've also had to witness the kids play quite a number of computer games. Some of them have been good and some of them have been bad but the children have been too under the weather to care.

I haven't.

It's set me to pondering where bad games come from. Obviously, at a basic level, making a bad computer game is incredibly easy. You hire the cheapest team you can find, set them to work on an interactive version of an upcoming animated family movie and then insist they have it finished by a fortnight on Thursday. This technique never fails. That said, it's also a bit like creating a TV movie about three blokes digging a hole. The chances of it being anything but awful are so slim, no one will go near it. They might give it a quick shot if they're lying around under a blanket, sighing deeply on a weekday afternoon, but they'll soon switch over to something else.

Far worse are games that are good enough to want to finish but that contain easily fixed issues which cause the player to swear in frustration on a regular basis. Where do these games come from? It's stupefying. I so frequently play games with major flaws that could have been corrected with minimal effort, I can only assume that designers introduce the problems on purpose. Perhaps it's a clever trick to give them some straightforward improvements for the sequel.

In case you ever get the urge to design a bad computer game yourself, here's a list of stuff to include:

  • A final boss that's ten times harder than the rest of the game - Game too short? You could add extra levels, different game modes and some additional side challenges. Or you could just triple the length of the final enemy's life bar and force the player to do the last half hour of the game over and over again until they finally get lucky and kill the thing...

    ...only to discover it's not really dead and they have to fight it again. In the dark. Armed with only a carrot.

    Hey, if they get totally stuck, they can always go watch the ending on YouTube.

  • The whole game again... but backwards! - Not content with merely making the final boss too hard? Make the player traipse back through the entire game to find it.

  • And then forwards again - Even better, leave the boss at the end but put a door in the way. Make the player have to traipse back to find the key.

    Players will really love the extra value for money they're receiving. They may even like the idea so much that the next time they go to the cinema, they'll insist on watching the middle of the film three times before they get to see the last ten minutes.

  • An unhelpful save system - This is perhaps the simplest way to make a great game almost unplayable for normal people. Just don't put save points in the middle of long levels. That way, if there's a power cut or they have to stop (because a child is vomiting, for instance), it's right back to the start. To really rub it in, include mid-level checkpoints but no way to save them.

    For an extra element of surprise, make save points twenty minutes apart, except for a few that have an hour in between them. This will regularly catch out players attempting to sneak in a quick section before bed.

  • Excessive darkness - Make the game full of shadows and coal mines so players spend the whole time leaning forward and squinting at the screen to locate all the important small, black objects they need to find...

  • Excessive brightness - ...but then throw in the occasional jaunt to the surface of the sun so they're spending more time fighting with the brightness menu on their TV than playing.

  • Fiddly motion control - Why let players press a button to open a door when you can force them to reach out with the controller, turn it and pull it back? That's far more immersive. Particularly since it's uncomfortable when sitting down and doesn't work half the time.

    Making a quick shake in one direction perform a reload while also having a quick shake in a very similar direction perform a 180 degree turn is always good for a laugh.

    This is option is currently restricted to Wii but it's coming to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2010. Start coding now!

  • Meaningless difficulty selection - Designing something that's too easy or too hard is a slightly lazy way of creating a bad game. Add a touch of style by making it the player's fault. Let them choose a difficulty level from at least five options but without giving them any clue as to what difference the choice makes. Only allow them to choose before the game starts and don't let them change their mind without starting a new game. They're bound to get halfway through and wish they'd made a different choice.

    Of course, you could make the game do exactly the same thing whichever option they choose. But that would be evil...

  • A complicated, but dull, back story - So, you have a bald space marine who has to run through endless corridors fighting horrific creatures? That's kind of generic. Better make your game stand out by having it all to do with a war between the Volban and Arg'jan over the future of Hascan supplies left behind by the GRR/kan, as retold by fffffffFxxx units scattered throughout Losdan by the advance Saswan team consisting of the marine's ex-wife and best friends. Add some incomprehensible flashbacks and a touch of betrayal.


  • No plot recap - For best results, briefly mention several vital plot details at about half an hour into the game. Don't refer to them again for the next fifteen levels until they turn the whole story on its head. At this point, assume the player recalls the information perfectly. So what if it's been six weeks since they played that bit? They should have been paying attention.

    Bonus points if the info is in the original game but the big reveal isn't until the sequel...

  • A dodgy translation - Nothing makes a hackneyed plot and complicated back story more enjoyable than a stack of non sequiturs and some garbled grammar (apart from maybe plenty of atrocious voice acting and characters who spakest in pretendye Medieval parlance, forsoothe!).

    Watch out, though. Mess up and poor translation can become a bonus feature. I was playing a game the other day in which I kept having to open lots of 'difficult chests'. These were impressive and gaudy but, strangely, they all opened really easily. I only figured out what was going on when I was opening one of the plain, ordinary, 'simple chests' that were also lying around. I laughed quite hard.

  • Lots of alarms - If someone is breaking out of a prison or breaking into an alien stronghold or just plain breaking stuff almost anywhere, they should expect that some alarms are going to go off eventually. It's even a good indicator that they've been detected and it's time to run away. Alarms are great... in moderation.

    When a fire alarm goes off in real life, it should keep blaring until the fire brigade arrives or the building burns down. It's only sensible. In a game, however, ten seconds is plenty long enough to blast out a noise which is designed to be grating. This being the case, you should consider having the thing wail for at least fifteen minutes.

    For added irritation, make the section after the alarms go off really difficult so the player has to repeat it many times. Also throw in plenty of dialogue and verbal instructions so they can't turn the sound down.
And there we have it. A few suggestions to get you going. How they normally get past QA is a mystery, though. Many of these issues could be fixed in an afternoon. Maybe they're such a fundamental part of gaming culture that everyone simply puts up with them. No one thinks, 'Hey, it doesn't have to be this way...'


Hmmm... Maybe this sort of thing doesn't just happen with games. Perhaps I should go ask the kids what I do all the time that really drives them up the wall. You never know, I might be able to improve their customer experience without much effort.

First, however, I think I'll go test the batteries in the smoke alarms...

Yours in a woman's world,


No comments: