[What separates a good game from a bad one? Gamasutra contributor Josh Bycer takes a look and identifies several factors, ultimately diving into design, examining several different games and determining what made them winners or losers when it came to gameplay.]
Anyone who has ever played a video game has their favorite, and every year reviewers, fans, and journalists alike pick their favorite games of the year. However, while talking about why games are great is easy, what about bad games?
Why do some JRPGs score better than others even though they use similar game systems? Why do early Crash Bandicoot games get higher scores then recent ones? Could difficulty be a factor? If so, why do we praise the Demon's Souls series, even though it's one of the most challenging of the generation?
The short answer is that there is no one mythical factor that dictates whether a game is good or bad. The long answer is going to be examined in this article. There are several aspects that go into a bad game, which also relate to the elements of game development: Technical, Sensory, and Game Design.
Technical. Technical is the catchall for bugs and glitches in the game. Crashes, events refusing to trigger, controls not responding, abilities not working as intended, and so on. There are many examples of games that had great design, but suffer due to bugs that weren't caught. Thanks to post-release support, most technical issues are caught and fixed, these days, but the longer players have to deal with them, the worse the game looks in their eyes.
When Magicka was released in 2011, while the design of the game was praised, the game was full of bugs -- from frame rate slowdown, to problems connecting to other people, and, of course, game crashes. The problems with the game led to early negative reviews, and many angry users. While it was eventually patched up, for a lot of people, the damage was done.
Of the issues we're going to discuss today, issues of the technical category are the easiest to recover from (which says a lot for what's coming up in this article). Gamers are always supportive of developers fixing their games, and often help with crash reports or dxdiags to help zero in on where the problems are. Case in point: Magicka went on to huge success thanks to the team's willingness to communicate with fans and patch quickly and frequently.
In some cases, modders may release unofficial patches after the post-game support by the developer is done to continue improving the game, which is what happened with Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines.
Another side of technical issues that have been coming into its own lately is issues from DRM. Games that feature DRM that requires players to always be online run the risk of alienating gamers who don't have a stable connection to the internet. Invasive DRM such as StarForce has also earned a negative reputation for causing problems with computer systems, and has led to gamers boycotting games that use it.
Sensory. Sensory issues relate to what the player sees, hears, or controls in the game. From characters clipping through walls, awkward dialogue and voice acting, to clumsy or complicated controls. Essentially, anything that breaks the immersion of the game falls here.
Even though graphics are a part of this category, it's hard to determine what are considered bad graphics, as this is a subjective topic. Some people find the gritty realism of games like Gears of War and Battlefield 3 to be excellent, while others think that the stylized graphics of Mario Galaxy or Team Fortress 2 are amazing.
Voice acting has become an important tool of immersing the player into the game. While the use of voice, as oppose to text, is preferable, bad voice acting can be worse than having no voice acting at all. Voice acting can affect the tone of the story, or affect the quality of the game.
A poor camera system can break a game, and continues to be one of the more difficult elements to get right since games moved to 3D. One thing is for certain -- the hallmarks of a bad camera system involve the following problems: the camera getting stuck on objects, giving a poor view of the action, interfering with perspective when making jumps, and more.
Awkward control schemes are getting rarer, thanks to customization options and the increasing standardization of controls across genres. The fact that the gamepad design for the consoles has become standardized (with obvious exception to the Wii) has also helped developers.
Game Design. Now we arrive at the heart of the matter. Game design is one of those all-encompassing terms. We could easily spend a hundred pages or more looking at every mechanic and the right and wrong ways to implement them. While that would certainly be educational, it doesn't answer the main question of this article: are there correlations in design that affect game quality?
To start, we need to understand one of the basic fundamentals of what separates a game from other forms of entertainment. A game is made up of a series of rules that the participants must agree to, and adhere to, for the duration of the time played. Now, there are basic rules that every game follows: how it's played, how to win, how to lose, etc. The ones we want to focus on are the rules that define the game set by the designer.
When you are playing a Super Mario Galaxy game, you don't question why Mario can dress up as a bumblebee and fly around or wall jump, as the rules allow Mario to do those things. On the other hand, you can't double jump as any class other then the scout in Team Fortress 2, because the rules won't allow that. The problem is breaking the rules of the game.
Before we discuss rule-breaking, one distinction has to be made; hacks and mods are not a part of this discussion, as they rely on outside software to be utilized. Rule-breaking can be simply defined as the following:
Content that circumvents previously established rules or design.
A real world example of rule-breaking can be seen when children are playing. If you have ever watched, or been a part of, a game where the child changes the rules constantly to keep themselves from losing, you can remember how frustrating that can be -- and you can see the correlation in video game design.
Rule-breaking can occur in several situations, each of which needs to be examined. The first case -- and it's where bad game design comes into play -- is when the designer breaks their own rules as an attempt to challenge the player. Another definition for this kind of difficulty is "cheap".
Cheap difficulty can be a frustrating experience for gamers, as it shows the fallacies of the design. One famous example is from the game Gun, which came out in 2005. Gun was a third person shooter set in the Old West. From the beginning, the game establishes the standard rule set of a third person shooter, with one being that headshots do extra damage.
All this is fine for the majority of the game until the player reaches the final boss. The final fight takes place in a cavern with the big bad guy, who is wearing armor that covers his chest. Naturally, you would assume that means that he cannot be hurt by chest shots, but shots to the head would work. That is not the case, and players will find that no matter how many times they hit the boss in the head he won't go down. Instead, the player has to shoot the dynamite the boss throws to cause a cave-in that kills him.
Boss fights, by their nature, break the rules of the game to give the game a challenge, as the player is fighting a unique threat. The problem with Gun's fight is that the challenge of this fight goes against the rules that were established in the world.
Rule-breaking doesn't just happen in boss fights. One of the common annoyances of the Grand Theft Auto series' mission design are missions where the player is told to kill someone, but that person is invulnerable until the script of the mission gives the go-ahead. Once again, this breaks the rules of the established world.
Another example of rule breaking was from the game Bayonetta, which was mentioned in my earlier article on Darwinian Difficulty:
At the start, the player is introduced to the concept of "Witch Time". By dodging attacks at the precise moment of impact, the world slows down for the player, allowing for an increased window for attack. Slowing down time also allows players a chance to hit enemies that are more agile then the player.
However, halfway through the game, the designers introduce "gold-plated" enemies, whose attacks will not trigger Witch Time if the player dodges them. Because Witch Time is one of the only two ways of avoiding damage for much of the game, players are left severely handicapped while fighting these enemies.
The concept of "infinite spawns" also relates to this section. In most games, it's never established why enemies can just spawn infinitely in some areas without a way to stop them other then getting past the spawn trigger. This issue becomes more troublesome with games that take place in the real world, as it is not only breaking the rules, but also breaks the immersion of the setting.
While rule-breaking by the developers is usually a form of bad design, it is a different matter when the player performs it. The Disgaea series is known for having a massive amount of post-game content, in the form of extra-hard maps and extreme boss fights. To aid the player, the designers implement multiple systems designed to boost the capabilities of the player's units to obscene levels. If the player decides to use these mechanics early on, they will break the main game's difficulty. Instead of being cheap, this form of rule-breaking rewards the player and encourages them to learn (and exploit) the game's mechanics.
The collectible card game genre also benefits from rule-breaking as its advanced rules and cards always involve some layer of rule-breaking that players can use to their advantage. Because the breaking can occur between the players themselves, it is far more acceptable within the confines of the genre. Expert-level play can become a tug of war between players affecting the rules and one upping their opponent to try and get the advantage.
Our next point of bad design is mechanic conflict, which is designing the game's content in direct conflict with the mechanics of the game. The act of cleaning a bathroom with nothing but a toothbrush is a real world example of mechanic conflict. The toothbrush, while a tool used for cleaning, is nowhere suitable to the task at hand.
Last year's Dark Souls had a balance issue brought on by a conflict with the mechanics of the game and an item. In order to properly aim magic attacks, players must use the lock-on feature to target enemies. A few enemies in the game wear an item called the "fog ring". The ring makes the wearer translucent and prevents lock-ons, even if the attacker is aiming right at the wearer.
The problem with this item is that it is in direct conflict with the mechanics of magic attacks -- rendering them useless whenever the player runs into someone wearing the ring. Because of complaints from gamers, the designers decided to take a second look at this item and alter its functionality with a patch.
You may be noticing a similarity between rule-breaking and mechanic conflicts, as both involve a conflict in design. The difference is that rule-breaking occurs between two participants, such as the player and the designer, while mechanic conflicts occur between the mechanics of the game.
Another example comes from Dante's Inferno and how it tried to capitalize on God of War's design. One of the major differences between God of War and other action games was in the range of the character's attacks. Most action games before God of War gave characters a narrow window, meant for attacking single enemies quickly.
God of War changed that by making Kratos attack with slow but wide attacks, allowing him to fight multiple enemies at once. The consequence of this design made it harder to fight single enemies due to how slow Kratos attacks and the time he is locked into the combo. The designers of God of War saw this and made it so that many attacks can stun the enemy, preventing them from attacking Kratos while in his combo chain, which was a workaround for the conflict.
In Dante's Inferno, however, the designers slipped up on this point and the conflict between mechanics slipped in. One of the early enemies the player meets is a female demon whose main attack follows the same pattern: a brief charge up period followed by a dash in the player's direction. If the demon connects with the dash, she automatically goes into a small combo that the player cannot break. Normally, when the player hits a monster a few times with an attack, it will stun them, allowing the player to continue the assault. However, with these female demons, once they go into their charge animation, they cannot be stopped unless they are killed.
Here, we had a conflict between the mechanic of an enemy's attack pattern, and the player's ability to stop attacks. Mechanic conflict can also affect larger-scale games like strategy titles, and can become a conflict between systems. Many turn based strategy titles are made up of multiple systems of gameplay: economic, defense, and offense among others. Making getting the balance right like trying to balance a skyscraper: if one element is out of alignment, then the whole thing falls apart.
A common criticism of most city-builder games is how the combat system never feels as fleshed out as the other systems in the game. Most often, combat is very bare bones and feels like a separate system, compared to the integration of the other systems.
Perhaps the most prominent examples of mechanic conflict come from one of the least favored sections in games: the escort/protect mission. The problems with these sections are that since the missions occur rarely in a game, they are not properly balanced with the rest of the design. In action games, designers run into a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation with the conflicts with the combat system.
If the character uses fast, narrow attacks, then they won't be able to hit waves of enemies and a few will slip by to bash the escorted character. However, give the player slower but wider attacks, and then if the player misses they'll be stuck waiting for the animation to end while enemies have free reign. The enemy AI doesn't help, as often they are designed to ignore the player and focus on the objective, which makes distracting the enemy impossible. With escort missions, the escorted usually have simple AI and have no regard for staying out of harm's way, which adds more trouble to the task at hand.
One of the few times where having to escort a NPC was acceptable was in the game Ico. What made it work was that the game was designed from the start with the escort mechanic in mind, and it was properly integrated into the game.
Conflicts in mechanics stem from the designer trying to keep the gameplay fresh and continue to build up from the beginning. However, while playing it safe can work, it can lead to another element of a bad game.
Our final element for this article is the concept of no growth. One of the common criticisms of games based on licensed properties is how repetitive or bland the game is. Every level follows the same objectives, fighting armies of the same basic type of enemies, while the player's entire move set consists of a few attack combos.
The challenge of avoiding repetitive gameplay has plagued designers even from the early days of simple arcade titles -- even Pac-Man has multiple mazes and ghosts with different behaviors. PopCap's success with many of its titles is how with every new level, something new is added to change up the gameplay and motivate people to continue playing, such as the unlocking of new plants in Plants vs. Zombies.
Now, you may think that issues with growth only occur in games with simple design, but that's not entirely true. The JRPG genre is known for long hours of playtime with lots of places to explore with the player fighting lots and lots of enemies. There are two examples of unique JRPGs that we're going to look at, and how one succeeded in providing growth where the other failed.
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Resonance of Fate are two JRPGs that strayed from the norm. Nocturne can be described as a more adult version of the Pokémon design, using demons as your party members, with the added dynamic of being able to alter the number of actions during each round of combat, if you correctly match attacks with your enemies' weaknesses. Demons can be fused together to create new ones and transfer skills, allowing a dedicated player to create their own personalized dream team.
While the combat system does not change at all throughout the game, the designers keep the game fresh by introducing new demons for the player to collect and experiment with new team combinations. Boss fights are with enemies with unique skills designed to be more of a puzzle than a normal JRPG battle; these test the player's knowledge of the game's mechanics and their party composition. Players can do the standard "grinding" if need be, but most often how well your party is put together and counters the boss determines victory.
Resonance of Fate features a very unique combat system, with different kinds of damage and weapon customization among other concepts -- going into full detail about it would extend this already large article.
Resonance of Fate
The relevant point about Resonance of Fate is that, like Nocturne, the game plays all its cards very early and the player will experience all the mechanics in the game within the first few hours. However, unlike Nocturne, the game does not expand on these -- and players will find themselves doing the same thing from beginning to end. Different enemy types are introduced, but the combat strategy for fighting them is largely interchangeable.
Many RPGs are designed around having at minimum 30 hours of playtime and without any new content or growth, motivating players to continue is a challenge. Contrast casual titles, which are usually designed around short, repetitive play sessions. One distinction is that someone can play a casual game for a long period of time; however the design allows someone to make progress quickly.
Going back to the PopCap example, it gives them the freedom to be able to constantly grow with small deviations to the core game design. Whereas there are a lot more systems and content in an 80 hour RPG, and that makes it harder to figure out where there should be growth without introducing mechanic conflict. Case in point, the now infamous "20 hour tutorial" of Final Fantasy XIII, which must be completed before the game opens up.
While there is no exact science that dictates a good game from a bad game, hopefully this article will help designers avoid the common pitfalls that can drag a game down. While playing great games can be a good time, it can be educational for designers to once in awhile, play a game that they know is bad to see what to avoid when it comes time to create their game.