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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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