This article is reprinted from Dare to Suck Issue 01: Am I Bad?, a frequently infrequent zine about game development, game design and games in general.
Learning From Bad Games
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge proponent for “bad” videogames. And I’m certainly not alone on that either, there’s plenty other “trash” games curators out there (heck, there’s even trash game jams that pop up here and there).
You’ve probably noticed in that there last paragraph that every time I mention “bad” games it’s in quotes. Don’t worry, I proofread this thing so that’s actually intentional; I do that because as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as a bad game.
When someone tells you they think a game is “bad”, that’s usually just shorthand for subjectively bad. They don’t like it, don’t see its merits, or nothing about it appeals to their sensibilities. So to them, it seems “bad”.
But if we view games as art then it should be obvious that there can’t be a subjectively bad game, at least not to everyone. It’s statistically impossible to create a game that is detested by absolutely everyone. You will always be able to find someone who likes a work of art because other people hate it, or it’s controversial, or maybe it’s exactly what they want and they were never exposed to it before. Maybe the game fails to speak to you, maybe it has one or two mechanics you just don’t like, or maybe it’s a genre you just don’t care for.
When someone says a game (or any piece of art for that matter) is “bad”, they can’t possibly mean it’s objectively bad, it just doesn’t appeal to their tastes. If you’re able to think of a single game that is viewed in disgust by anyone who plays it, I will gladly give you all the money I earn for the rest of my life.
Anyway, now that we’ve established “bad” doesn’t really exist, let’s look at why the h*ck you should care.
As a game designer I get a lot of questions from family members about what exactly it is that I do. To avoid having to explain too much, I tell them I’m a bit like an architect: I plan how a building will be built to guide others on how to build it.
It’s a pretty solid analogy if I do say so myself.
But what kind of knowledge does an architect need to have anyway?
You might say an architect needs to know to make a building that people can walk through without problems? Sure, that’s definitely one aspect of it. Maybe an architect needs know what kind of materials best keep a building strong. Absolutely, no one wants a wobbly building! Do they need to make sure that every room is well-ventilated? You know it! A suffocated tenant is arguably worse than a wobbly building.
These are all good suggestions, but there’s one thing an architect needs to do above all else – they need to design a building that won’t fall down.
So what’s the best way to go about acquiring the knowledge to design a building that doesn’t fall down?
I can hear someone in the back yelling now: “You just find out what keeps a building up and do just that, you idiot!”
Well, you little heckler, I argue the opposite: You should discover what makes a bad building fall down and do the opposite. Sure, they’re close to the same thing, but the way it makes you look at things are completely different.
I have no doubt that there’s tons of valuable information a designer can learn from studying a good game. You can analyze any game or game series which is vastly popular and it’s more often than not backed by strong design. Studying these designs can always be beneficial, but how much are you really learning from that? Knowing what makes good design good is only half the equation. Of what use is understanding good design if you don’t know what bad design is to compare and contrast?
Playing “bad” games alongside “good” games gives you an effective measure of why “good” games are just that. Comparing an experience playing Day One: Garry’s Incident alongside Rust can quickly help one realize why it’s a more effective survival game. Day One is designed as a linear adventure with some survival systems tacked onto it, making having to eat and drink feel like unnecessary busy work alongside frequent combat sections. Couple this with a finite number of resources and it’s obvious how Rust accomplishes a sense of survival in a more effective way: by allowing the player to stumble upon resources on their own in a non-linear locale which makes the survival experience feel more natural instead of forcing the system into a game which would do better without it. If you were to play Rust on its own, the exact reason why survival feels so natural within its design can be much more difficult to discern.
This insight is invaluable as a developer because it teaches you a number of lessons on what not to do when designing your own game and what pitfalls other games have fallen into on their own journey. It’s always been suspect to me that as an industry we’re encouraged to embrace failure as a means of learning while subsequently refuse to engage with failed games to learn from their failures first-hand. Bad games have failed so you don’t have to, so play them and find out why!
Moreover, bad games are usually experimental in nature which is a hotbed of reference we can draw from and attempt to improve the execution of. Games which bank on gimmicks, gambles and try to run the hail Mary when it’s 9th inning and the goalie’s out of the net. Sports reference.
An example: Fracture by Day 1 Studios. It’s a third person shooter which has a really cool mechanic that lets you use a gun to control the topography of the ground. Unfortunately, since it was so focused on this gimmick, the actual gameplay and story was pretty lacking. In fact, basically everything about the game was mediocre except for the great topography mechanic.
This is a totally weird mechanic for a game to try (especially in a third-person shooter) and it certainly stood out. Games like these may not be all that interesting as a whole, but for a designer these gimmicks can provide the perfect reference in times of need. LEGO Worlds, for example, has a tool which allows you to change the shape of the ground around you – if I was a gameplay designer trying to describe what the whole looked like I’d show some of the topography effects from Fracture as reference and say “we should do that”.
If you're not willfully exposing yourself to bad games, you might want to think about it. Chances are good you'll learn a lot more than if you don't.
A Bit of Opinion
"Bad" games are becoming more and more commonplace. With the rise of Steam Direct and the growing prominence of itch.io, these “bad” games are becoming more common in the marketplace. Asset flips and other bad games are everywhere, and they’re frequently torn apart by players and critics alike. This is especially common on platforms like Steam which enjoyed more strictly curated content through their Greenlight program which is now ending in place of Steam Direct. In these platforms, “bad” games tend to saturate an already competitive market, making it difficult for players to find what they want and for small developers to stand out. It seems almost like these games could be deemed “bad” by most because they’re lazy, uninspired, and often just trying to make money off people.
Honestly, I would’ve hated these games too if I hadn’t written an article for Ookpixels.ca last November where I interviewed a creator of a few “bad” FMV GameGuru games.
He’s 16. He makes the crummy games he makes because they’re an easy source of revenue for a kid in highschool and he wants to make something people can just have fun with. He makes them with some of his friends. He knows they’re not good. He knows people hate him for making them. He knows there’s a movement which wants the Steam marketplace to be rid of all these weird, cringey games he makes and just focus on the content they want. He’s not even sure if he wants to keep making games when he gets out of school.
But he just keeps making them. It was incredibly inspiring for me.
When I was in highschool I made my first game ever – a flash game called Blob’s Adventure. When I made it, I had no idea what I was doing in the slightest: I scoped too high, had to cut most of my features, and had no cohesive plan for what it would end up as. It was my first time coding with ActionScript and I struggled through most of development. The game was a pixel hunt which didn’t work most of the time and it didn’t take much longer than three minutes or so to beat. The game ends as the main character is abruptly crushed by a black box because I didn’t know how to end a game and ran out of time. By the end of it I was so sick of making games I never wanted to do it again – I decided making games was way above my skill level.
Somehow I ended up doing it anyways, but that’s a different story.
When I see creators making cheap, bad asset flip GameGuru games, I think about what I was like when I started making games. If someone told me my game was shit, I’d have quit right then. If someone told me in highschool I was a c*nt because of the bad game I was making, I probably would have locked myself in a room for a week and cried. I really did try hard with Blob’s Adventure. Thankfully, no one ever said anything bad about my game-making skills.
Whenever I see a bad game on Steam, I don’t imagine the creator as a money-grabbing old man in white suits with a sinister southern drawl and a comedically large hat. I see a teenager going through a rough time, experimenting and expressing themselves through the only accessible means they can – a cheap software that lets them make a game of their very own, personal creation.
I don’t see someone who is actively gaming the system. Sometimes I see someone who is new to the whole “I can make games at home” concept and is trying to get their game onto the only platform they know about. Sometimes I see a group of people with a shared vision and cool idea but lack the means to execute it yet. Sometimes I see a kid just like I was, hoping they can see their name on the same webpage alongside other games they’ve spent countless hours enjoying.
Maybe someone will play their game and do the same.
And I know what you’re screaming at me through the iron bars, “BUT DEVON, OLD PEOPLE MAKE BAD GAMES TOO AND TRY TO PROFIT FROM IT AND THEY’RE RUINING THE MARKETPLACE”.
That’s a valid response, not everyone sees it the way I do. But the argument of “these games are bad and don’t belong here” isn’t one to be made to the creators of bad games, it’s an issue to be taken up with the services which allow them access to their platform. Steam allows “bad” games to fly under the radar because there’s still demand for them by a small group of people (often those who want the stupid little emojis and trading cards). The floodgates opening on these services also make it difficult for independent creators to get their work noticed, something that is already an issue in other places like the mobile market.
If you really care about stopping creators of bad games from exploiting this system (the system which frequently refuses to curate the games entering it, by the way) then take it up with the system. Tell these platforms you’re tired of it. Con artists don’t stop conning until the police get involved and the same principles apply here.
One final point before I wrap this thing up then.
One thing that I find the most endearing about bad games is the little things that make them bad. Bad games have bugs, assets missing, pieces which half-work, and non-cohesive art. They exude personality in places where games that have tons of polish remain emotionless and cold.
I’m a big fan of punk rock – ska punk and folk punk especially are my lifeblood these days. Punk songs are amazing because they’re often recorded live or with their flaws left intact. You can hear every pre-show quip, every missed chord, and every cracked voice. It reminds you that it was made by people, people who bear everything to say “hey, it’s not good, but this is what we can do”.
I played The Beginner’s Guide recently and had very mixed feelings about the experience, but there was one section which spoke to me near the beginning. At one point, you wander past a big window which looks out into space to which the narrator remarks how he “loves how you can see the bottom of the universe”. Sure enough, when you look down outside, you can see where the skybox ends.
Bad games are personalized by their bad qualities. I can see where an artist got lazy and decided to fill-tool a background, where they cut content because it was too much work and ignored setting a collider on a wall because they assumed no one would try walking into it and as a result you fall through the floor and have to restart the game. They built something because they wanted to, not because they wanted to please someone. Sure, if you happen to like it that makes it all the sweeter, but I feel like I can hear the creator speaking to me. They say: “Hey, I just made what I did. The rest of it is up to you”.
That’s what I love about bad games.