Monday, 15 March 2010

The 10 Greatest PC Game Design Sins of all time!

Do you ever get that feeling that some games have faults that could have easily been fixed? Problems that should have been addressed during Beta testing or patched at a later date for example. Do you also find that so many games make exactly the same mistakes? Of course you do, me too! In fact after coming across 5 or 6 games and demos recently that display so many common errors I was compelled to make this list of the deadliest PC Game Sins.

There was a terrific temptation to "name and shame" here, but I'm feeling nice today. However this post will probably be useful for future reference!

1. Complex and/or unintuitive User Interfaces
This is without a doubt one of the worst sins in computing, and one that as PC Gamers we get to see far more often than our console brethren. Mainly because we each have a mouse, a friendly perhiperal which is cruelly taken advantage of by developers. They make it jump through hoops (not literally) with tiny UI buttons to click on when we have millions of pixels to play with!

It's mind boggling to imagine how some games can do so well in this regard, mostly the casual gaming scene. And then many mainstream titles seem to think it's ok to have tiny text and buttons that don't look like buttons and unexplained unclickable ugly user interface elements.

We, as PC users, often dealt a bad hand because the work involved in making a decent UI is often underestimated. Either that or the developer has been cross-platform developing the game for consoles and designed the UI for controllers rather than keyboard and mouse. Talking of keyboard and mouse another UI sin is when you have mouse control and a...

2. Lack of Keyboard Shortcuts
One of the most wondrous things I have ever seen is a "professional" Starcraft player at work. Their hands dance across the keyboard at the speed of a ninja ferret and the game responds, selecting units, adding to build queues then returning to see how a battle is going, issuing more orders, returning to base to build more...I'm sure you get the picture.

Of course we don't always use keyboard shortcuts when they're there so presumably the temptation for a developer is "why bother?" When you really get into a game you want to make the admin side a little less tedious and start looking for these shortcuts. It can be frustrating if they're not there.

At least when there's a Yes/No Dialogue I'd like to be able to press 'Y' to indicate yes!

On the other hand I don't want keyboard only controls either. When some actions naturally use the mouse, such as dragging, no one wants to suddenly start using the keyboard for the next action. Especially if the shortcuts used are the opposite side of the keyboard (like Page-Down or Num-pad keys)
And talking about keys...

3. Non configurable key controls
One of the worst sins in my opinion. You should always be able to change key configurations in games, especially action games where you directly control a character. It's complete madness for anyone to try and impose their own control system onto the user.

I've noticed this happen on consoles too. I've come across a few games where you can choose between different "configurations" of the controller but not individual controls. Sometimes there can be valid reasons for this, such as restricting movement and looking to the analogue controls.

Going back to PC's, this is luckily something I don't see very often. But some FPS games differ in the strangest ways - such as the default "use item" key. Some games use "E" by default, some use "F" and others use the right mouse button. Perhaps there is a reason for this in a few cases where the developers have found real advantages through testing a cross section of users with a different control system. I'm sceptical that this happens for most games though!

Luckily this is far rarer than most sins and certainly a less common sin than...

4. Save Points and Auto Saving
It could be said that save points encourage more a more frugal play style and help improve people’s skills by forcing them to do better next time.

I say that's codswallop!

The ability to save at nearly any point should be possible in any PC game, and even better a mix of this and auto-save points is the best combination. This way even if you forget to save and fail unexpectedly you get taken back to a safe point not too far back. One of the biggest frustrations for me is having to repeat large sections of a game when there just isn't a need for it. Sometimes I don't want to become an expert in a game, I just want to enjoy it.

Another argument against auto-save points is that many people just don't have the time to sink into long sections of a game. It's certainly no good if checkpoints are a large distance apart, gamers with families should not be forgotten and need to be able to save within at least 5 minute intervals so they can drop the game instantly due to real-life events.

And talking about saved games another sin is...

5. Long Save/Load times!
Quick save is supposed to be quick. Auto save shouldn't pause the game for a whole minute!
Long loading times are a lesser sin of course, as often this requires the level/stage to be loaded as well and computers only work so fast! On the other hand, in this day and age of multi-threading you might have hoped some optimisation would have been done ahead of time...And why is it that if you're loading a game that's on the same level you're currently on, most games seem to reload that level as well?

When it comes to writing in-game data, rather than level specific stuff, it feels like this should be kinda quick. One game in particular springs to mind where I'd actually go and put the kettle on while it was saving! Luckily most games are nippy at saving and it's only a handful of titles (unfortunately good ones) where this is a problem.

6. Wordy Tutorials
Pages and pages and pages and pages of text describing how to do something! Sin!

There is absolutely no excuse for wordy tutorials. Some games feel they have to explain as much as possible at once rather than starting with simple levels where you can win knowing the very basics. The more detailed aspects of a game should then be introduced over time.

Some games, for reasons unknown, will start to go into minute detail about how to perform certain tasks without the design consideration that the player would actually care about that kind of detail. It's even worse if they try to tell the story that way.

When I attempted to write some short stories, I was introduced to the concept of "show, don't tell!" Which is another way of saying "A picture tells a thousand words". Basically I want to get on with the game rather that read about it, so I'd rather it gave me hints while I was playing.

7. Lack of game configuration controls
This is a blanket sin and mostly covers graphics options.

For instance, games that don't allow you the change resolution and graphics options while in-game. How many people now have widescreen monitors and yet the standard 3:4 ratio version is used, stretched and squashed rather than accommodating these new popular resolutions.

Another example is brightness. In the earlier days of FPS games I had a monitor that really wasn't very good but I was extremely poor so needed to push the brightness of any game up to the max to play. It was either that or close the curtains and put a sheet over my head and the monitor to get the very minimum glare. When games didn't have brightness a scream of pure anguish would escape me and the sheet would come out. Not nice on hot days! (Just to clarify, this was many years ago - I have blackout blinds now!)

8. Non-Skippable Company Logos when a game starts
Chances are once you've seen who the developer, publisher and technology involved in a game once you won't want to see it again unless by choice. No one really wants to be forced to watch these logos each and every time a game loads up.

Even worse is if they're little videos that can't be skipped, each second of wooshing corporate advertising grates on my nerves. It's like DVDs that force you to watch that piracy video before the film which can't be skipped! It's bonkers really because you've just bought the flippin thing.

So yes when I've bought a game there's a high chance I know exactly who developed it already and who the publisher is. And the best way to spread brand awareness is by making good games, therefore if for some reason I didn't know who'd made it, I would want to find out!

9. Respawning Enemies
While far more of a philosophy than a design feature, respawning enemies is still a Sin.

The first problem with this is that it's not a real-world situation. Enemies don't just *appear* from nowhere, there is a fixed number of enemies in any one location. At least at some point the number of enemies entering an area is going to dry up.

The bigger problem is that it's usually used as a tool to put pressure on the player, to try and make the experience more intense. While this makes sense I've played games where I've sat patiently, methodically shooting any enemies that approach and waiting til they'd all gone before trying to get further. All without realising they were spawning ahead!

10. Omnipotent Artificial Intelligence
"It's not fair!" goes the cry of the cheated gamer.

It's bad enough when you're online, but offline you'd expect the AI to at least play fair? Unfortunately, it feels that for some people writing AI routines is a job rather than an artform. I guess they usually come across the obvious problem when testing a game: It's too easy or too difficult.
If it's too difficult then the solutions are simple and effective, it means you've either got a very clever AI that needs to be dumbed down a bit or an AI that is already omnipotent. Either that or you need a new tester!

It the AI is too easy then there are quick solutions which must be appealing. Solutions such as increasing unit toughness which is fair enough in some cases. What's worse however is giving the AI awareness of everything the player is up to. If it's an RTS that includes unit positions and strengths, even within the fog-of-war. If it's an RPG/FPS it's giving enemy units the location of the player(s) even if they're hidden from view.

While I agree that games should be challenging, they shouldn't be kill-joys either. Omnipotent AI removes the fun of outsmarting the computer and is the greatest Sin of all!

I implore thee, gentle and wise developers of PC games. Please Sin no more! And we shall love thy more!


  1. I might have been guilty of a few of those! I'll also add unnecessary backtracking to the list. I'm ok with it if the encounters are fun or if you get to waste old enemies with your new uber powers. If it's a long track of empty land, booorring.

  2. Hey Brent, oh absolutely, backtracking is a huge level design sin. I find that for some games it does work, RPGs sometimes make good use of this to provide side missions so you have time to level up.

    But when the backtrack happens as part of the story you just feel like you're travelling backwards rather than forwards!

    Great addition!