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The Designer's Notebook: Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! XIII
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The Designer's Notebook: Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! XIII

December 21, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Unlucky 13! Since the demise of Hostess Brands, the exclusive worldwide suppliers of Twinkies to game designers, this may be the last Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! column. The company is being liquidated and its assets sold off. However, the Twinkie may live on in another guise. Rumor has it that Walmart is considering buying some of the Hostess properties, which would make perfect sense: a low-grade snack food for sale at a company that provides a low-grade shopping experience.

Of course, if Walmart does take over the brand, the product may not be quite the same. As Electronic Arts knows, you can stick a much-loved name onto a box containing something completely different, as they did with Syndicate. It's not a good idea, though, because fans of the original will trash you on the internet. Take note, Walmart: you can't turn a tactical Twinkie into an FPS Twinkie without paying a price.

For the moment, however, there are still plenty of Twinkie Denial Conditions to discuss in my annual compendium of gamer-contributed goofs and gaffes. Here are this year's ten:

Bad Randomly Generated Challenges

Many early video games generated their challenges (and associated game worlds, if any) randomly. In these days of finely tuned level designs costing millions of dollars to build and script, we're not that used to thinking about randomly generated challenges, but they're still very much around in casual games.

Randomly generated challenges offer endless replayability, but they have to be constrained by some kind of heuristic to make sure they're good. By "bad," I mean impossible, overly easy, or just plain boring challenges that the game has generated randomly.

Mary Ellen Foley pointed out that Yahoo Word Racer, a Boggle-like multiplayer game about finding words in a random matrix of letters, sometimes produces a layout containing no vowels at all in the first round. The players have to sit around and wait for the two-minute timer to run out before they can go on to the next round. This is ridiculous. The game contains a dictionary to check the validity of each word the players enter; surely it could check to see that a given layout includes a minimum number of words before sending it to the players... or at least a few vowels.

She suggested that an "I'm finished" button would let the players jump on ahead without waiting for the timer to run out, once they all have pressed it. That's a good idea for any multiplayer, simultaneous-turn based game, and a suitable workaround for Word Racer's problem. But they should fix their generation algorithm too.

Hiding All Your Best Content Behind A Paywall

Ian Schreiber writes, "A few free-to-play games recently seems to hide all of the best content behind a paywall. Now, obviously I'd expect SOME good content to be pay-only, but I'd also expect some of it to be revealed to give the players incentive to actually buy. Otherwise you're presenting the mediocre parts of the game to your customers and asking them to take it on faith that it gets better if they pay (instead of the more likely result, they see a mediocre game and assume that's what you're selling).

"It's like a game designer searching for a job, and removing the best parts of their portfolio to use during the interview. Then they wonder why they never get an interview. I see this as a particularly nasty sin of game design because it doesn't just ruin the game, it ruins the company's entire business model."

I'm going to have to set up a new section of the No Twinkie Database to cover this one. Most of my Twinkie Denial Conditions are issues that hurt the player's experience, but this is one that hurts the game company. Still, a design flaw is a design flaw. Ian said that he couldn't name names, unfortunately, but that he had seen three iOS games in a row with this problem.

Overlong, Predictable Animations

These are similar to, but not exactly the same as, uninterruptible cutscenes. Tyler Moore writes that some games "force you to watch the same animations or script for mundane actions with a predictable outcome, blocking gameplay or interaction until the animation is complete. This does not apply to animations that have a variable reward at the end (as in Zelda, opening a chest), only to those with a certain outcome." His examples were watching the skinning animation over and over to collect a resource in Red Dead Redemption, and being forced to listen to the same tired shopkeeper greeting when you want to sell your wares in Skyrim.

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Lars Doucet
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An honor to be mentioned in the Twinkie Column! To be fair, there's so many Twinkie Denial conditions that I'm sure despite our best efforts we missed some, but it continues to be an ideal we aspire to.

I started reading this column back around 2000 when I was still a teenager and it's one of the main things that got me into game design!

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Keith Burgun
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The designation that you needed to draw out for the long animations was this: do the animations have an effect on gameplay, or don't they? As a general rule, forcing players to watch animations in a turn-based game is BAD, because "time" has no relevance in that system. Compare that to something like Street Fighter, where "time" is of utmost importance. The fact that Ryu's spin kick takes 2 full seconds to perform has everything to do with gameplay and so of course it is an animation that must be watched.

So, for turn-based games, either have no animation at all, OR do what I'm doing for AURO - asynchronous animation. This means that when you attack, a little explosion animation plays out, but you don't have to wait for it to finish to keep making inputs.

Jason Lee
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I've noticed a neat trick is that some turn based games "stack" animations. While one animation is playing, you can actually issue orders and play out other parts of your turn while its going on. I've noticed that in Hero Academy while rushing moves I don't have to wait for my previous move animation to finish while I'm issuing my next order.

Also, X-Com gets a pass for it's cinematic camera animations, due to the fact that the twinkie denial condition specifically mentions a "known result". Much of X-Com revolves around hoping very hard that the 65% chance shot connects and does just enough damage for you to pull through, or else you're completely screwed. Therefore every time you wait for the animation to play out during these pivotal moments there's a lot of anxiety around whether you'll pull through or not; the familiar animation becomes a great moment of suspense. You can clearly tell they did a lot of tuning to make sure that these special moments in X-Com come just enough times to make them exciting and awesome every time.

Roberta Davies
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It's player-death animations that really get on my wick. (Possibly because I die so very often.) All right, I failed, and I know it. What I want is to get back into the action. What I don't want is to view that same damn death cutscene YET AGAIN. Even if it only lasts a few seconds, that's too long -- especially when I'm dying frequently, e.g. trying to negotiate a trap-filled area or puzzle out a boss fight.

Simon Ludgate
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I wonder how many times Far Cry 3 fails the "Turning the Avatar Stupid or Incompetent in a Cutscene" rule?

Darcy Nelson
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Enough to make a good drinking game?

Larry Weya
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Great article, some of these things seem obvious, so much so that the can easily slip into your game.

Laura Stewart
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I have another example for your Cutscenes Making the Avatar Stupid. In Fable III, when you get to Bowerstone and go to meet the Resistance, you end in a cutscene where you are pinned down by a group of sharpshooters, and no matter what gun you were holding one second ago, the cutscene arms you with the default Hero's Sword. I can understand the work that would have been involved with making a cutscene for every projectile weapon, but there was a default Hero's Rifle or Pistol to choose. I mean, come on!

scott anderson
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"When was the last time you were walking down the street, and some complete stranger randomly paused next to you, and started telling you why he came to the city, who his rival was, or how his business is going?"

- Ernest Adams clearly does not live in an urban area with a large homeless population :).

Jason Lee
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New mod for Skyrim: The Hobo City Guard Division

Tynan Sylvester
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Sadly, the quest rewards aren't very good.

Mihai Cosma
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Wow, i was about to make a huge rant post this weekend about the huge amount of outright bad design decision in Far Cry 3.. Hope to get a few of those on your list. :)

Ernest Adams
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Check the No Twinkie Database, and if they're not there, send them to me. I haven't played Far Cry 3.

Rob Allegretti
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Good read. The Twinkie the Kid lunchbox made me laugh rather hard.

Jamie Mann
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I recently fired up Rock Band 3 (X360 edition) for the first time in a while, as a friend was over. Normally, I just grab a guitar and get jamming - I'm here for the music - but my friend likes to create custom characters, so we fired up the character editor. And mama, there ain't no twinkies being given out today.

Aside from the so-minimalist-it's-useless documentation in the manual, and the fact that you don't appear to be able to share characters between user profiles[*], the character editor hides most of it's functionality away until after you've unlocked content by playing the game. So at first glance, it looks like you're restricted to some basic body-manipulation options and a small set of pre-defined costumes.

Once you've played through a few of the career elements, more stuff is unlocked (clothes, shoes, hats, tattoos, jewellery, instruments, etc) and the character editor itself shows a lot more options for customising your character [**]. But the initial view is so restricted that it's both misleading and disappointing for new players.

However, this then leads to another issue. Many of the more interesting items (e.g. a horned helmet) are locked until/unless you complete a specifically named Career Goal. However, there isn't a direct link from the Character Editor to the Career Goal in question, so you have to exit the editor, navigate back to the Career mode and then try to remember which of the several-dozen goals you need to play...

[*] which, to be fair, may well be an artefact of the way Xbox Live's profile management system works
[**] again, to be fair, the loading screens do give you some information about the character editor

Lou Hayt
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The term "randomly generated" is misleading and not technically correct - I think a better fit would be "procedurally generated", because only a part of the algorithmic process is "random".

Implementing procedural generation badly is indeed a risk to watch out for, so I agree with the title "Bad Randomly Generated Challenges", but I respectfully disagree with the opening paragraph - saying that procedural generation is bad design seems very strange to me, because its the other way around IMHO.

BTW levels that use procedural generation can be fine tuned like levels that are built by hand - to do this right the designer needs to fill the role of a programmer, even when using a high level tool.

Ernest Adams
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I'm not saying that procedural generation is bad design. It can be fine if it's done well. I'm saying that bad procedurally generated levels are bad.

Eric Schwarz
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Putting "visually stunning" areas outside the playable space unfortunately is the result of level design becoming increasingly linear and compartmentalized. Call of Duty has massive vistas which are quite beautiful, and you are guaranteed to only be able to explore a small hallway inside them, usually full of trash and stone walls to look at. It's honestly kind of flabbergasting to see artists and designers spend must what be thousands of hours, all to make completely non-interactive background scenes. Want to drop my jaw to the floor? How about you show me an amazing-looking level - and then let me play through it from top to bottom.

Brandon Binkley
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One of the tricks learned in level design/building is to landscape outside the playable area to create the illusion that world continues beyond the playable area.

In 3D games with the ability to pan the camera angle. this is important if you want to have a visually realistic area. Without this kind of trick, we would have to limit ourselves to indoor areas or literally play in or on boxes or create a complete continent (or planet if water borders aren't acceptable).

By no means do I mean to rant on this one, but I did want to pose the counterpoint and reason for why there is pretty unplayable space in games.

Chris Hendricks
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"you can't turn a tactical Twinkie into an FPS Twinkie without paying a price"

I love when I read sentences that almost certainly have never before been uttered in the history of the world.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Kevin Fishburne
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I've been reading this site for many years and I'd love to know who hired the Church Lady as a moderator and why. These ominous (and frequent) bannings for reasons we can't determine because the post was censored create a chilling effect for commenters. If for example we're in the midst of a discussion on an incendiary topic and the conversation begins to get heated, the fear of getting banned will inevitably change the discourse.

At the very least have the courtesy to give a specific explanation as to why the commenter was banned. The failure to do so is worse than simply leaving the comment intact, as it generates fear of the unknown across the site. And yes, I've read the comment guidelines several times. They're vague and as such could be interpreted in a manner resulting in repressive enforcement by a moderator. We'll never know though, will we?

Lynn Goh
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Very interesting article that definitely helps