Rewarding Failure: How Great Games Perpetuate Bad Design

By Josh Snyder

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Even great games, such as Dark Souls, can can perpetuate poor game mechanics.

Reviewing or judging a video game is not only a subjective task, but a daunting one. With so much to consider, from which game to play to what specific elements of a game speak to the player, it’s easy to make sweeping generalizations about certain games, even genres. I know I am not a fan of Japanese role-playing games (JRPG), so the announcement of a new Final Fantasy game does little to excite me. That said, even I have to admit that, in games I would consider to be bad, there are still some elements worth exploring and sharing.

But I’m only human, and I am just as guilty of off-handily claiming that all JRPGs are bad games, much like how I insist that all first-person shooters (FPS) are at the least OK because, well, FPSs are great games. They’re like pizza – even a terrible one is still better than a salad.

But when gamers make these sweeping generalizations, we are unconsciously hurting growth in the industry. It’s logical that a game deemed good by audiences – one that sells well and turns a profit – is a game that also offers some valuable lessons to other developers looking to make their next project a success. Great games breed great game design. But what is often overlooked is that great games also include poor mechanics, however, since these poor mechanics are included in great games, they get passed on to sequels and other developers as standard operating procedure.

The video game industry is rewarding failure, and it’s time we stopped.

How Great Games Impact the Industry

I was once posed the question “what is the most important function of a newspaper?” Ask this of any class of prospective journalists, and the answers will revolve around reporting unbiased news to inform the public. But the correct answer is that the most important function of a newspaper is to make money. If a newspaper fails to make money, it can no longer inform anyone of anything.

The most important function of any video game is to first and foremost be successful, and publishers determine success in dollar signs. This ensures that the developer will get to make more games, which means continued employment and continued products for gamers to consume – a win-win. Because the drive to make money is so great, any game that makes an impact will inspire many clones and followers. Clones are to be expected – after Nintendo successfully launched Wii Fit, many third-party developers began releasing their own fitness games on the console, hoping to piggy-back off of Nintendo’s success. In their own way, clones help the industry by acting as an informal measure of a specific franchises popularity.

But more important are the followers, the developers who see success and strive to implement it into their product. Whenever any game innovates, it spurs a wave of development, which means more games, and more growth in the industry. Another win-win.

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Half-Life inspired an entire generation of developers and, in turn, an entire generation of FPS games.

Look at what is perhaps the most popular genre of video games on the market – the FPS. In the early 1990s, FPSs played second fiddle to real-time strategy games, despite the popularity of games like Quake and Unreal. But there was a shift in the late 1990s and early 2000s – gamers began to flock to the FPS genre in droves, thanks in large part to two groundbreaking titles – Half-Life and Halo: Combat Evolved. We recently examined the impact Halo has had on the FPS genre, but it cannot be understated how crucial Halo was to the development of FPSs on home consoles – Bungie Inc. laid out the path for bringing the, until then, notoriously difficult-to-develop-for genre to living room TVs. But that is only half of the picture – the FPSs of the 2000s relied heavily on story and presentation, something that Half Life delivered in spades. Prior to Half Life, GoldenEye 007 was the pinnacle of storytelling, and it had the luxury of being based off an already established film. In reality, the most complex a FPS story grew to was aliens/demons are invading Earth/military base, and it was up to the player to stop them all. Cutscenes were minimal, and character development was non-existent.

Say what you will about the current state of the modern FPS (and I agree, there is a lot of criticism), but one cannot deny the positive impact Halo and Half Life had on the genre. This is just one of many ways successful games change the market – Call of Duty popularized the military-themed shooter, which gave rise to a competitive market and a pseudo arms-race between Activision and EA with Call of Duty and Battlefield. In the end, it is the gamer who wins that war. And when speaking of disruptive games that have changed the landscape, it would be criminal to ignore Minecraft, the game responsible for a number of Kickstarter projects. It even has prompted Microsoft to enter into the sandbox market with the upcoming Project Spark.

How Great Games Negatively Impact the Industry

Because developers strive for success, any new project will always incorporate elements from successful games. But herein lies the problem – many great games have poor mechanics, sometimes downright terrible ones, yet because they are part of a larger ecosystem, they will also unnecessarily be incorporated into new projects. Again this is common when games are merely clones, but eventually if enough games include a specific element, it will become standard design.

But the problem is also exasperated by the way in which developers receive feedback. The industry is, for better and for worse, ran by Metacritic scores. Recently, Amazon began placing a game’s Metacritic score on their site, so gamers could see how the game rated on average before making their purchase. The issue here is that a video game is too complex and the medium too subjective to be boiled down to a number, and so any helpful criticism is instead lost to a sea of (for the developer, hopefully green) numbers. When all developers are told is that their game scored well and it sold a lot of copies, it’s difficult to discern what about the game to stand to be improved.

This leads us to the issue at hand – bad game design gets passed from game to game, generation to generation, and eventually gamers concede that it is a feature, and not something terribly, horribly broken. There are many examples, but the two most prevalent ones that come to mind are inventory management in RPGs, and character movement in survival horror.

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For all of its advancements in character development and story, KOTOR misses the mark on a number of occasions.

Knights of the Old Republic – Inventory Management

Developed by BioWare, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) is considered a landmark title in the Western RPG genre, forever changing the landscape with its emphasis on storytelling, character development and branching plot points. It may not have been the first game to utilize any of these elements, but it certainly was the first big game to marry all three together seamlessly. And the impact is still felt today, not only in BioWare’s most recent titles, but in original games, such as the vastly underrated Alpha Protocol.

Unfortunately, KOTOR did very little to rectify one of the biggest issues with any RPG – the messy, convoluted inventory system. This may seem like a minor point to those who haven’t invested 40 hours into a single game, but to those who have found themselves standing before a vendor, trying to figure out which items to sell, let alone which items to equip, it is a very big deal.

KOTOR did next to nothing to help the player sort through the mountain of obtainable junk in order to find the one actually useful piece of gear. The process is so tedious and frustrating that, after the 50th time in the inventory menu, a player would be forgiven if they equipped their party with the first blaster pistol that came up and called it a day. The problem is so readily apparent, which is why it is so shocking that a near identical clone of that inventory system made it into Mass Effect. How it persisted past development of KOTOR is a mystery, never mind the fact that it jumped into the next generation.

But at least BioWare learned their lesson, and toned down the inventory to an almost non-existent state in later games. The same cannot be said for developer From Software and their hugely successful title Dark Souls. The inventory is somehow worse – identical items do not stack, meaning that at any point the player will have ten useless broken swords in their inventory, each one taking up a slot in an ever-growing list. Trying to find the one broken sword the player wishes to upgrade is a type of frustration that a game as difficult and punishing as Dark Souls surely doesn’t need.

At least in Dark Souls each item takes up the same amount of screen real estate, unlike other offenders such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which devote the majority of the screen to less-than-crucial information, mainly a three-dimensional model of the item you have selected. Instead of being able to see all of the spells and alchemy potions in an inventory, players instead get to see only a frustratingly small portion of the list and a beautifully rendered potato next to it.

Sifting through an inventory shouldn’t be a grind, especially in a genre when grinding is already a concern. But because mismanaged inventories keep appearing in successful games, they persist. After so many years, gamers simply feel like they have to deal with this poor mechanic, instead of calling on developers to fix it once and for all.

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Resident Evil 4 has updated tank-like controls, but it still has tank-like controls.

Resident Evil – Tank Controls

If inventory management still seems like a minor gripe, then the mechanic most gamers can agree is potentially game-breaking are the dreaded tank controls. Tank controls are when the player character cannot turn and move at the same time – the player character, standing perfectly still, must be rotated toward the desire direction, and then they can be moved directly forward or backward.

Tank controls are firmly rooted in the survival horror genre, and were popularized by Resident Evil. The lack of control over the player character intensified every zombie battle, every escape from demonic dogs. It was also the result of some clever workarounds of the technology of the time – settings in early Resident Evil games were merely painted backdrops that the player had very limited interaction with, which helped save resources that could be put toward other elements. For entries on the fifth generation of consoles, this controls scheme was all Resident Evil needed.

However, the up-and-down trajectory of the franchise since the days of the original Playstation serves as a cautionary tale to developers stuck in the past. The tank controls persisted into the sixth generation with the release of Resident Evil: Code Veronica, a game that appeared on technology advanced enough to handle traditional third-person perspective controls. For reasons too numerous to detail here, this entry in the franchise was not the hit that developer Capcom hoped it would be. But that didn’t stop the inclusion of tank controls – they were even implemented, to a degree, in the critically-acclaimed sequel, Resident Evil 4. Player character Leon could move and turn, but had to stop dead in his tracks in order to shoot. The argument has always been that these controls heightened the survival horror elements, and therefore they were a requirement for any game in the genre. But since Resident Evil 4, Capcom has had difficulty in figuring out how to update the franchise to modern standards, and the result has been the lackluster sequels that did little more than confirm that the franchise needs a reboot.

But the damage has already been done, and games that are otherwise excellent examples of survival horror are marred by imprecise controls. Throughout the entirety of Alan Wake, the titular character moves as if he is drunk, his limbs their own agents who may or may not decide at the last second to help the player make a crucial jump. The sluggish movement exhibited by Alan Wake is sold as a feature that makes fleeing from the Taken that much more intense, but it’s obvious that this is a relic from early in the genre’s history, and games like Alan Wake would be better without it.

Why the Problem Persists

The reason this baggage is carried by developers is because of the culture video games are developed in – success is the ultimate goal, but success is only measured within the launch window, typically the first month of a game’s release. Feedback is only measured in that month, and even then, the feedback isn’t in-depth.

This is problematic because perceptions change over time, and elements of a game that did not seem like such a big deal upon release (or during the rushed week a reviewer has to judge a game) become major points of contention later. One of the most common examples is the friend system in Grand Theft Auto IV, in which characters would constantly contact the player-character with requests to go bowling or play darts. At launch it was herald as a game-defining feature that added realism to the world. After the third month, it was derided as a game-defining feature that severely hampered enjoyment of the game’s story.

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The Legend of Zelda series is a victim of its own success, continuing to use outdated gameplay mechanics and design with every entry.

But developer Rockstar Games was smart enough to listen to player feedback past the launch window, and their follow-up games did not include the friend mechanic. Sadly, the same cannot be said for perhaps one of the most visible and successful franchises in video game history. Upon its release in 2006, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was considered the successor to the throne long held by The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time as the best Zelda game ever made. But it wasn’t until the post-launch window that gamers began to voice frustration over the unnecessary filler in the story and the closed-off world design, which made navigating from one end of the map to the other a hassle. At the time, Nintendo proudly boasted that it would take the average gamer one hour to run a lap of the entire map, but after gamers experienced the ease of travel in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Nintendo’s pride seemed outdated.

Unfortunately, Nintendo either didn’t listen, or simply didn’t care. The follow-up title, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, is beholden to many of the same design choices that were characterized as flaws by gamers five years earlier. It takes hours to get to the first temple, and the world is more sectioned-off than ever before. Skyward Sword is a fantastic game, but it is proof that bad design choices are rewarded, and will continue to infect the medium.

How To Get Rid of the Baggage, Once and For All

Publishers, developers and gamers all have a tendency to look forward all of the time. Everyone is always excited for the next big game, but after the launch-window has come and gone, the next big game ends up, more often than not, becoming ancient history. And if that game sold well, then it’s successes and failures will all find themselves in the next big thing.

Looking at the past is key to learning how to grow an industry or develop a medium, and it is a key component of what Theory of Gaming stands for. But even this site could do a better job of focusing on what didn’t work in classic games, and to be frank, so could the rest of the industry. If we all collectively decide that it’s best to only look forward, the result will be an amazing RPG, so detailed and life-like that it will be the last one gamers ever need to purchase, but will still find themselves spending 20 minutes sifting through a cluttered inventory, trying to figure out which item to equip and which to discard.