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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Game Design: Bad Ideas

We always remember things as being better than they actually were.

I say this because I'm currently playing 10 NES games as provided to me by Nintendo on my 3DS. NES games are usually viewed as being totally awesome, and if you mention that maybe some of these games weren't maybe very good, you run the risk of angering people.


The argument is that these games were good for their time and helped lay the foundation for modern gaming, and that's correct. The danger isn't in recognizing them for what they were, but rather believing that old games are some sort of end-all-be-all and that gaming was somehow better back in the NES days than it is now.

It's a mistake to think so. A lot of the design decisions that are hailed now were only placed there because of system limitations or due to erroneous assumptions about what video games were all about. We're going to go through some design decisions from time to time that were bad ideas then and bad ideas now, and only have managed to stay in gaming because of misguided nostalgia.

The first mistake is evidenced by Super Mario Bros. If you lose all of your lives in Super Mario Bros., what happens? Do you get to restart at the last level you died in? If you die in 8-2, can you restart in 8-1? No, you restart from the beginning of the game, level 1-1.

You may say, "Well, of course! It wouldn't be Super Mario Bros. without that! Gaming shouldn't be about about completing the game, it should be about improving your skills and getting to the point where you can complete it!"

If you say that, you're wrong.

Gaming was born in the arcades. Early designers were tasked not only with making fun games, but also ones that would gobble coins. Pacman, Space Invaders, Gauntlet and Donkey Kong were all about taking your money as quickly and as often as possible. In order to get good at an arcade game, you had to spend lots and lots of money until you could finally get to the point where you didn't have to spend that much money.

That means that you don't want players to restart from the last level they died on. You're giving away your livelihood if you do so. You'll also make a lot of other design decisions that are ridiculous for precisely those reasons, but we'll get to those at a different time.

A lot of developers who came from that background (read: all of them at the time) carried over that philosophy from the arcades. Miyamoto designed arcade games, for example. Therefore, instead of making the game easier to complete, they made it harder to finish precisely because that's the philosophy and experience that they had.

Was it the right choice for Super Mario Bros.? Yeah, it was the right choice because Super Mario Bros. is a rather short game. If you're good, you can finish it in 10 minutes, and if you're really good you can finish it in 5. If you could have started the game over at level 8-1, you probably would have finished it almost immediately, even back when you were 10 years old.

However, is it the right choice for other games of its type? No.

Let's use the example of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. If you lose all three of your lives, instead of starting you out at, say, the beginning of the dungeon that you died in, you restart the game at the very beginning. That means you have to traverse open fields, dangerous caves and lots of hostile environments all just to get back to the last place you died.

Does that force you to get better at the game? Yeah, sure. Does it make you want to keep playing? Of course not.

Imagine playing for two hours, dying, and then having to struggle all the way back to where you died, then dying again and having to get back to the same place. If you're nodding your head and saying, "Yeah, what's the big deal?" then you're part of the problem.

It's easy to forget that you played this type of game when you were a kid. You had a lot of time on your hands, so losing several hours of progress was not a big deal. If you still have that much time on your hands years later, you're probably not doing so hot in life, frankly. Get a job.

For the rest of us, we simply don't have time to waste. My gaming time is sometimes broken down into 15-minute chunks when I have space to breathe. Do I want to waste that time? Heck no! It's too precious to lose!

It didn't take long for game makers to learn that lesson, but some gamers still pine for the days when they had to restart games from the beginning when they lost. Listen, designers only did that to screw you over. It was a bad idea then, and it's a bad idea now.