Bad Design Can Be Great Design

Good jobs take advantage of your strengths. Great jobs take advantage of your weaknesses.

A system that is bad design in most games can be a great feature in a game that consciously builds around it.

For example, Darkfall used the slowest, most inconvenient looting mechanic available. You opened up your inventory, you opened your target’s inventory, and you dragged items one at a time. Why do this when most games were moving towards fast looting of entire groups of enemies with a single keystroke? Because Darkfall was a PvP game where you were meant to be vulnerable while looting your victims. The inventory screens blocked your vision, looting took time, and people died because they got greedy. It would be a problem if you could gank someone and grab all his stuff at a flat out run without stopping. If you waylaid a lone victim, loot at your leisure; if he had a bunch of friends, now would be a good time to start running, and no you do not get a loot reward for suicide-attacking a large group (idiot).

For example, long travel times are great design when places should be far apart. If the boss is next to the respawn spot, you get the death zerg effect. Respawn placement is a critical factor in PvP fights, along with the respawn timer. If killing someone does not meaningfully remove him from the fight, you may have a problem here. In either Guild Wars, you can teleport most places instantly, so the few places that require significant travel are meaningful (or completely ignored and meaningless; you can build consciously but badly).

“THAC0 kept the riff-raff out.”

Some developers and/or players want a niche product just for “us.” Barriers to entry can be intentional and a feature from the perspective of the desired user. Some games are not user-friendly because the developers will happily take less money in exchange for not dealing with the kind of people who need user-friendly games. Some of the worst communities out there value your feeling unwelcome in their cesspools.

On a less extreme scale, tastes differ, and catering to one market involves ignoring demands to cater to another. Yes, most people want X, which works out nicely because there are already 100 companies selling X; here, we sell Y to people who want Y. Making Civilization more like Farmville will ruin Civ without capturing the Farmville market. We already have a couple versions of WoW in space, so EVE Online merrily captures just about everyone else by making design decisions completely at odds with the market leader while others copy and fail. There are many things that EVE could do better, but its strength has been identifying what it needs to do well (and its worst times have come from failing that, not from its systems that are lousy or entirely missing).

Let’s break at this point and come back tomorrow for a consideration of “bad at” and “bad for.” In the meantime, feel free to toss in your favorite example of “this would never work anywhere else.”

: Zubon

9 thoughts on “Bad Design Can Be Great Design”

  1. Magicka made a virtue out of a ludicrous finicky control system. If you haven’t watched the Yogscast playthroughs you should. Pushing the wrong five key combination in the heat of battle and incinerating your friends rather than the monsters is all a hilarious part of the game.

    Dark Souls (my current obsession) is full of examples. The game is ridiculously unhelpful and nothing is ever obvious (who guessed that “humanity” would drop from rats for example). Yet this forces you to rely on other players and the messages they leave in game. The very obtuseness of the game means that even dedicated solo players become dependent on the wider game community.

    I do think you need to be very careful with this approach however. If the main “depth” of a game is it’s awkward learning curve then it is all a bit pointless.

    1. Dark Souls really is the ultimate example of “this would never work anywhere else”. The core game eschews so many modern notions about accessibility yet in some strange way feels accessible in a way that many games do not. It has mechanics that would never work if the world they created did not support them so amazingly well.

      The game somehow manages to straddle the line of clunky ui, few modern conveniences and high difficulty while somehow never feeling “cheap”. From the moment you see the first cutscene and work through the tutorial area you somehow get a deep feeling for where you are and what you are in for. That knowledge gives you the incentive to push forward whereas in other games you might be looking at a cheat guide or screaming at the game for being unfair.

      1. Agreed. My partner played Dark Souls for a bit and threw up his hands in frustration because the controls felt so clunky and unresponsive – he couldn’t understand why other people loved the game so much. He kept going back to it though, and once he got used to it he absolutely fell in love with the system. It makes life hard for you where it’s meant to feel hard, and ends up being excellent gameplay.

        For myself, I love the setting and storytelling in Dark Souls. It’s not the kind of game you tend to think of for those things, but because it refuses to hand you anything outright, I found discovering things really fascinating.

  2. How many companies would be willing to accept an intentionally small market share, though? And perhaps more to the point, how many companies who found the market share that they’d acquired had the potential to grow would turn that opportunity down? CCP seem quite keen to expand out of their niche, for example. They just don’t quite seem to have worked out how to throw out the bathwater without the baby.

    As a consumer I’m very much in favor of niche products. Clearly it’s in my interest that producers should attempt to cater as specifically and accurately as possible for my personal quirks and foibles. What’s in it for them is less clear, and the inevitable corollary to targeting a niche audience would seem to be reduced income.

    Reduced income isn’t the same as reduced profitability, of course, but development costs. My particular quirks and foibles as mentioned would definitely include high-quality visuals, for example. Something that looks like GW2 is unlikely to get funded and finished by a developer happy to find and fill a niche.

    Of course, it does depend on how you define “niche”. When Everquest was the largest, most successful MMO in the Western hemisphere, it was the biggest fish in a very small pond. The entire MMO genre was niche before WoW., and I suspect many of us who were there at the time preferred it that way.

  3. Interesting. You verbalize stuff I hadn’t really considered, but seem obvious now that you’ve said them (PvP respawns and distance from respawn points, for example). The MUD Avalon is a great example of some of what you’re talking about – it’s one of the original MUDs and has a pretty steep barrier to entry, as well as a fairly rough community (mega unrestricted PvP), but part of what made it great was that immense difficulty. Learning to master the game and defeat the really nasty jerks felt like an amazing achievement. The game lost a big chunk of its fun for a lot of us when the dev decided to try to make it more user-friendly and expand on the gameplay options for non-PvPers, and it’s an excellent example of a game actually LOSING players because it became easier to play!

  4. It’s why attempt to build a “meaningful crafting system, like EVE’s” usually fail. EVE industry has multiple barriers to entry:
    – you need to skill up to even participate effectively (delay)
    – getting decent blueprints takes time (delay) and money
    – collecting the materials in your factory takes effort and money
    – manufacturing takes time (delay) and some money
    – shipping them to sale points takes effort
    – markets are partitioned so that proximity matters

    (Note: I distinguish above between “time” and “effort”. Time is delay – you walk away and come back later when it’s done. Effort is active playing.)

    The biggest mistake I see is designers trying to streamline this process. It’s precisely the *lack of* streamlining that creates opportunities for players to add value, by swapping effort / time / money. If all commodities are in an amorphous pool that you can instantly extract from, transform, and put back, then the profit margin will quickly go to zero. If everyone can trivially learn how to make a given item, then the market can adapt too quickly and the profit margin will quickly go to zero. It’s precisely the existence of barriers to entry and mechanisms that slow adaption that allows people to pay others to overcome them.

    (Note: this is not an apology for EVE’s industry click-fest, such as the inability to queue multiple identical jobs in a single action. That’s just annoying UI, not an interesting barrier to entry.)

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