Bad At and Good For

Yesterday we discussed bad designs made brilliant. Let’s talk about designs you hate that others love, perhaps because they are bad designs.

There is a market for “X for people who hate X.” PvP for carebears, for example. How do you design PvP for the sheep? Badly, quite frankly. You make something where the skill ceiling is low, where everyone gets candy and achievements no matter who wins, where serious PvP wolves are frustrated and driven away. You make a snowball fight without ice, slush, or even being cold. No consequences. For bonus fun, you can still tell your players that they are hardcore warriors. Bad PvP can sell to people who are bad at PvP. I don’t know how your long term retention will look, but you are targeting a casual market anyway. Your major risk is putting someone who actually cares about PvP in charge of it; s/he will try to make a good PvP game that brings in wolves without frightening off the sheep, and your end result will probably be something in the middle that no one likes.

Note that there is not so much “bad” as “bad at” or “bad for.” I use bad simpliciter when I think something is bad at its core function or for most/all conceivable uses, but I try to flag when I just mean “bad for me/my uses.” And something bad for one use or market might have virtues for others, such as a game scorned by PvP connoisseurs but enjoyed by PvP dabblers. Connoisseurs with refined tastes did not make “Honey Boo Boo” a success.

I am aware of the difficulties with a “core function” for PvP. This will not be a place that I address that argument. If you understand how something can be a bad movie or bad wine, you have the basis of asserting that some forms of (even highly enjoyable) competitive player interaction are “bad PvP,” even if the developers try to cloak the sheep in wolves’ clothing, especially since PvP games have a narrower definition and purpose than “movies.”

If you do not believe the story about dumbed down PvP, you must have noticed it about PvE. The big expansion in the MMO playerbase has probably come more from greater accessibility than greater quality, although from the perspective of the new players, the more accessible design is just better, whereas the grognards see dumb casuals enjoying unchallenging gameplay. And if you do not believe that story, look at the success of Farmville and the social media game market, which still makes more money than you do in the midst of its ongoing implosion. Wanna bet on whether the player count and profitability of Zynga levels out above your favorite F2P MMO?

There is definitely a market for deep, complex, challenging gameplay. It must be more satisfying to design than pap. But not everyone wants that, at least not all the time. Sometimes, you actively do not want cuisine, you just want food.

This goes in the other direction too, hipsters. You can make deep, complex, challenging crap. If everyone else is throwing around terms like “intellectual masturbation,” “needlessly complicated,” and “fake difficulty” while you are insisting that the reviewers are all mouth-breathing morons, at least pause for a moment of soul-searching. People do successfully sell pure status goods, and your particular flavor of bottled electronic elitism might be flavored with 15 undocumented formulas for combat effectiveness. But hey, they’re your electrons, and your money spends as well as anyone else’s.

I wish people would distinguish more clearly between the fact that something is easy/difficult and why it is easy/difficult. Shifting the camera and the direction that “W” moves you mid-jump makes a jump more difficult; it does not make it better. An end boss fight involving repeatedly hitting one key is easy; it is not good. There is good difficulty and bad difficulty. I would have thought that went without saying, but I have also seen people argue that more difficulty is good (full stop) and that difficulty is a bad thing (unconditionally), some so committed that they could not distinguish between “this is bad design because it is difficult” and “this is difficult because of its bad design.”

People seem more in favor of difficulty that they do not find difficult. Games should demand above average skills where you have above average skills but not let people get advantages for having above average skills where you do not. The same applies to other things you could invest like time, money, attention, etc. If you have a keen analytical mind but lousy reflexes, you scorn mindless twitch combat while supporting the value of endless theorycraft, and your opposite number mocks people who play spreadsheets instead of games that require actual skill and execution. It is a bad game (for you).

Some things I am prepared to argue are just bad as games, full stop. Candyland and roulette, for example, have no actual gameplay. Candyland has you do something, and roulette has you make choices, but neither affect the game or your likelihood of success. But Candyland has some pre-literacy value in teaching shapes and colors, and roulette certainly has better odds than your local lottery. They are advertised as games, which may be good marketing, but they are lousy as games and may be okay as something else.

Candyland also has the virtue that anyone can “play” it. Its difficulty is zero. Its skill ceiling is zero. The most experienced Candyland player in the world is on equal footing with small children. This may not be very satisfying for the most experienced Candyland player in the world, but the children are free to play amongst themselves.

Which brings us back to our original point. Some games are not so much “bad” as “bad for experienced players.” This game has button-mashing PvP, vapid PvE, brings nothing new to the genre… but none of that matters much if it is your first game in the genre. For those players, the key aspects are ease of entry, a reasonable learning curve, and an enjoyable first experience. The game does not need excellent highs yet; novelty can carry the day, and great things would be wasted if the newbie cannot appreciate them.

The best designs would accommodate both. “Easy to learn, hard to master” is a goal more often stated than achieved. And it easily descends into “easy for my favored playstyle, hard for anyone else who has not spent a decade gaming my way.” Or “easy to learn, has a few viable solutions in the long run.”

: Zubon

23 thoughts on “Bad At and Good For

  1. kazdragon

    Ten pin bowling is “bad PvP”. Ostensibly, you play against one or more opponents, where in reality you’re perfecting a technique unhindered by the other players. It’s also great fun.

    1. spinks

      I think with the PvP stuff, it depends why a player didn’t like PvP in the first place.

      eg. battleground and arenas (esp if they have some matching) work better for people who only want a fair fight. Open world zergy PvP with towers and siege works better for people who like the social aspect and don’t like solo/small group fights which are more skill dependent. etc.

      1. kazdragon

        And yet, if you score more points than the other player, handicap notwithstanding, you win.

        Which is kinda my point. Bowling is carebear PvP done right.

      2. SynCaine

        Bowling, much like golf, is PvE with a leaderboard. It’s not PvP. If you add a leaderboard to raiding (world firsts), raiding does not magically become PvP.

  2. bhagpuss

    I spent a good deal of the 1980s debating absolute vs relative quality. As I read it, your position seems to mix both, with a baseline that things can somehow be defined as intrinsically “Good” or “Bad” and thereafter sorted by their relation to other factors.

    For anything to be defined as absolutely “Good” or “Bad” there has to be an external standard. Religions are the usual provider, but adherence to any ism will do. Of course, these only provide external standards from within, so to speak. Lacking any such a system of belief, or sufficient hubris to claim my own subjective world-view as an equivalent, I am unable to make blanket statements about anything that state baldly that a thing is “Good” or “Bad”. I would always require a qualifier, a context.

    That said, which tends to render any points I make moot, there are some things above with which I just don’t agree. An end boss fight that requires me to hit just one key doesn’t even sound “Bad” to me. It’s not the way I’d want all such fights to work, but it has significant attractions. It allows me to concentrate on watching the fight and it prevents me from having to fiddle about doing stuff, which I generally dislike, for a start. It’s inclusive, too. Then again, if we accept “One Key Bad” then we get to argue over how many keys we need to hit before an end boss fight shades from “Bad” to “Acceptable” to “Good”. I struggle to see how there can be any objective scale for that, only a consensus view at most.

    As for Roulette, it may be a “Bad” game, but it’s been “Good” enough to permeate 19th and 20th Century literature as both a trope for fate and a marker for moral dissolution. There’s a hell of a lot more to playing a game than just playing a game, after all. Not sure where Candyland stands in the literary pantheon…

    My own position on all forms of entertainment, MMO gaming included, is that just about everything that you find there you brought in with you. It is entirely possible to dedicate a lifetime of academic research to cheese labels or to see the whole world reflected in a neatly-tended flowerbed. Work with what your given and time is always well-spent.

    1. Curuniel

      I’ve been reading literature on play and games lately and (in the manner of academia) have finally regressed to the classics, recently Caillois’s ‘Man, Play and Games’. He isolates four aspects of games: to give their plain English labels, competition, chance, mimicry and vertigo. They go in pairs, so competition and chance go together yet are opposites – in one it all comes down to you (e.g. the ideal of “skill-based PvP”), in the other it’s entirely out of your hands (e.g. RNG elements).

      I say all this because roulette is a chance game. Caillois would relate it to augury and the ritual sense of giving your fate into the hands of a higher power, submitting yourself (or in this case your money) in the knowledge that you can’t do anything to affect the outcome. That’s the thrill of it.

      He also talks about how competition requires an artificial equality between players to be established (class balance?) so that a specific skill set can be tested, and how games are often a mix of chance and competition in different parts of the game (e.g. a coin toss to decide who gets the potential advantage of starting first). That made me think of RNG in MMOs. It’s interesting applying older game theories to video games!

  3. gattsuru

    Dwarf Fortress is probably the go-to example. There are many decisions which are just “bad”, such as the punishingly high difficulty curve. A lot of that’s matter of taste. But within either the genres of city-builders or of rogue-likes, it’s “bad at” anything involving user interface, violating ever single basic tenet of UI design for reasons I doubt even Toady could name. Individual things like scrolling up or down a menu change keybindings based on context, and it’s far easier to blow up a fortress than intentionally build a box. And there are people who like that.

    God Hand‘s not the most recent example, but along with the first Devil May Cry game it’s something I’m pretty willing to say is “bad for” a lot of gamers. I simply can’t play it well enough nor swallow the plot even as a comedy, although the game’s still enjoyable. It’s “bad at” introduction: half-way through the first level, you /will/ encounter enemies that can tear you apart, and do so, without any introduction to the complexities of the game’s fighting system. There’s a rather famous comic describing exactly how good that ‘snap’ moment of knowledge or satori makes the game amazing, and from my brother’s enjoyment of these games, I can believe it.

    Contrast Portal, which is an incredibly well-tuned game that’s overwhelmingly focused around ‘teaching’ the player new concepts (and is generally ‘good at’ most things). Also contrast Asura’s Wrath, approaches this from the other side: while there’s some complex gameplay in the actual gameplay moments, the game is way too easy and lets you through even if you fail a number of events, and thus “bad at” long-term gameplay.

    Mirror’s Edge does a bad thing really well: the entire game is a first person jumping puzzle, and where Portal allows for a sedate and conceptual puzzles for most of it’s play, Mirror’s Edge is highly focused on fast movement speed and relatively short reaction times by the end of the first level. There’s an interesting question in whether it’s better to be “good at” a bad concept or “bad at” a good one; in MI’s case the result was to be “bad for” a lot of players who simply couldn’t adjust to the concepts. I love it, though.

    EVE Online is the classic MMO example. It’s very, very good at encouraging a very small subset of players to enjoy it and to pay for it. There’s an incredibly deep social PvP game, plus the spaceship sim. It’s also behind one of the most expensive investment barriers possible, not merely in time or money but in conceptual space. Long-term players don’t merely approach the game differently than someone who is first playing, they’ll actively not-play in different ways. It’s a terrible, terrible game for most players, and it’s simultaneously quite likely that it would not be nearly as successful were it better — contrast Earth And Beyond.

  4. SynCaine

    “Wanna bet on whether the player count and profitability of Zynga levels out above your favorite F2P MMO?”

    Yes. Lineage 1 for example. And I’m sure there are lots of others.

    Farmville peaked back when FB was not monitoring/stopping the exploits Zynga used to get people to part with money, such as referral signups with delayed costs for other products. All of those actions are now banned. Zynga went public right around this change, and surprise, their stock is in the toilet and the fad that was Farmville is just about over. Granted, with such a huge base, it takes some time, much like WoW’s decline, but only a fool would look at FV today and point at that as a current path to success. (insert comment about cloning WoW today and the number of dumb MMO devs)

    So yes, if you are able to exploit something before the laws catch up, you can indeed make some money. But let’s not confuse conning dummies out of money (in this case hidden in the guise of a video game) with catering well to some massive market that actually exists.

    1. Zubon Post author

      Lineage is F2P? Didn’t know that one. I also have no idea how it is doing in the Western market these days. And since when is it your favorite?

      I have family members who remain enthusiastic about CastleVille. Even without shady tricks, there are people who genuinely like Zynga’s games. Estimates of Zynga’s demise (not just decline) are probably still wishful thinking at this point.

      1. SynCaine

        Does this look like wishful thinking to you? (sorry for no linking format);range=1y;compare=;indicator=volume;charttype=area;crosshair=on;ohlcvalues=0;logscale=off;source=undefined;

        If I had to rank my favorite F2P MMOs, L1 ranks pretty high, but its not a tough competition to win when competing against LotRO/EQ2/DDO/etc. L1 makes up what, 40% of Funcoms revenue? And yes, its F2P in Asia, like everything else (It goes shut down in NA).

        1. Zubon Post author

          Point: SynCaine. Zynga has yet to die, but I’m rooting for you. Odds that they’ll be bought out cheap and redirected? I’m not sure how to count that if they keep going as a house under a larger empire.

          I can’t really comment on the Asian market. It’s dynamics rather differ from the NA market, and I don’t know it well. As you say, L1 doesn’t have many US subscribers since 2011.

  5. moondog548

    TF2 is pvp for *everybody* done right. For pros, the skill ceiling is highhhhhh. For noobs, the skill floor is low and- this is the genius- losing is almost as FUN as winning. IMO that’s your flagrant oversight here. The rest is soothful as ever, sage Zub. ;)

  6. Alfonso Deegan, Private Eye

    “Connoisseurs with refined tastes did not make “Honey Boo Boo” a success.”

    Ah, because if I don’t like something, then clearly anyone who does has unrefined taste, because gosh darn it how else could it be so successful? I don’t like it, after all! It simply doesn’t make sense that it could be successful regardless!

    Not the strongest argument in the world nor the best way to make your point.

      1. Alfonso Deegan, Private Eye

        The same could probably be said of EVE Online players, but that’s neither here nor there.

    1. Curuniel

      I can see how you’d get that from what Zubon wrote, and honestly it’s a very easy trap for all of us to fall into (especially with something which seems so obviously horrid to one’s own eyes). Still, the fact of the matter is that the large majority of people do not have ‘refined tastes’ about the large majority of things – it takes time and commitment to get that kind of understanding about something. I might claim to have somewhat refined tastes about fiction from reading all my life, but really that’s only relevant to fantasy fiction, and I wouldn’t claim to have an above average appreciation for film.

      Essentially, ‘refined’ does not necessarily equal ‘good’ – it just signifies a deeper appreciation and ability to analyse, from long association with something. Not everything is made for the refined expert.

      1. Alfonso Deegan, Private Eye

        It’s just a point that people try to beat into the ground endlessly with popular media these days, particularly online, and I don’t think it holds a huge amount of water.

        I do a fair amount of editing work with self-publishing authors, for example, and one of the most common opinions that the ones that don’t sell hold is how horribly Twilight/Harry Potter/Dan Brown/*insert other popular book series here* is written. This is from people who sell five copies monthly when they’ve worked on the content they’re trying to market for the better part of a year.

        The series they lambast are million-dollar franchises for a reason and it’s a gross oversimplification to say that everyone who enjoys them is a Philistine. A truly critical eye looks beyond the hype to see the value in these works and is able to enjoy them for what they are. I believe the same applies to other media as well, and one does oneself a disservice by discarding something solely because it seems simple or worthless.

  7. Bernard

    My experience with PvP in MMOs is that it is always ‘broken’.

    Veterans are players that have grown to appreciate its brokenness.

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