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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 Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Turning the Avatar Stupid or Incompetent in a Cutscene

This one is so obvious I can't believe I didn't mention it years ago. Someone named Jan wrote to say that in Max Payne 3, Max in the cutscenes (which are numerous) is very different from Max as the player plays him. Having fought huge numbers of armed men successfully before, the player arrives at a critical confrontation only to have control taken away from him. Instead of the battle he was expecting, he is shown a cutscene in which he fails to do something that he could handle easily in gameplay.

Certain kinds of interactive stories have a tendency to seize control of the avatar in order to insert narrative plot material, leaving the player wondering who's role-playing this character anyway, him or the game? It's okay to introduce plot twists and unexpected developments in the game world at these moments. It's not fair -- and very frustrating -- to make the avatar perform below the player's own competence level or do something blatantly stupid. Valve's games, notably, don't do this.

There's a place for cutscenes and scripted sequences, and in story-heavy games with strongly characterized avatars (such as adventure games) it's reasonable for the avatar to have a mind of his own at times. But whatever the avatar does outside the player's control, it had better be similar to the things he does under the player's control. Games are not movies, and when you give the player a role to play, the player, not the designer, is the actor.

Extreme Changes of Brightness or Sound

We're all annoyed by TV commercials that are far louder than the content they're sponsoring. (These are now illegal in the United States.) Games can do it too, and not only with sound.

Colin Williamson writes, "The game in question is Assassin's Creed III, a very dark game which signals every gameplay transition or cutscene start with a smash cut to an all-white screen. If you're playing in a dark room or, even worse, on a projector, this is the equivalent to a full assault on your retinas."

This is the reason the fade-in and fade-out were invented for film decades ago -- in a darkened cinema, a sudden cut to an all-white screen is abusive. In audio production there's a technique called dynamic range compression (nothing to do with data compression) in which the equipment amplifies quiet sounds and reduces loud ones to keep the dynamic range within comfortable limits so that the listener doesn't have to adjust his volume control all the time. This doesn't prevent him from cranking his speakers, but it does avoid violent shocks.

Garrulous and Indiscreet NPCs

Tess Snider says all that needs to be said:

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? If it did happen, wouldn't you think he was crazy? In Skyrim, almost all NPCs do this. It's so weird and annoying that people have made mods to make it go away.

Skyrim isn't the only offender on this count, though. Throughout RPG-dom we see weirdly trusting NPCs who insist on telling us all sorts of personal information that we really don't need to know and which no normal person would ever share with a complete stranger. No wonder bandits robbed them blind.

Tess thinks this has to do with frustrated writers who are bored writing variations on "howdy" for NPC greetings and want to express themselves a bit more. I think it may be borrowed from TV cop shows, in which a lot of exposition has to be crammed into a limited amount of time, resulting in witnesses who provide far too much information:

Cop: "Did you hear any unusual noises at about 10 last night?"

Witness: "No... I sleep in the back of the house. My husband and I started sleeping in separate bedrooms after our third child was born. Things really haven't been the same between us since."

Whatever the reason, don't do it. Read your dialog aloud to see if it sounds like actual conversation. Really chatty people do exist, but they're rare.

Invisible Walls

So many people have sent in variations on this complaint that I can't credit them all. An invisible wall is a barrier in a 3D space that prevents the player from entering a zone that the visible environment, and all the rest of the game's mechanics, tell him he should be able to enter. (I've already discussed a related problem, having to stand on, or jump from, a tiny precise location in a 3D space.)

One of many, many examples is the waist-high barbed wire fence around the Chernobyl exclusion zone in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. Invisible walls are conceptually similar to, but implemented differently from, the wooden doors that you can open with a key but can't break down in an RPG. They're a failure to implement a visually credible reason for the player's inability to go someplace that he ought to be able to go.

Let's use some common sense here, people. Unless the avatar is in a wheelchair, a low fence is not an obstacle. If the avatar is supposed to be a commando or a superhero, a six-foot fence isn't one either. Nor is a pane of glass. It's also unfair to construct a visually enticing area beyond an invisible wall. If you signal that an area is worth exploring, then it needs to be explorable. Keep the areas inside the boundaries of your world more interesting than the ones outside.

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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!

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

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