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.”