Bad Game Design: Limiting Play

There’s nothing I hate more, when playing a video game, than being railroaded. When a game tries to force me along a set path at a set rate, I only go kicking and screaming. Being cattle prodded is not fun to me, and what else would I be playing for? (Well, besides pain management, because gaming is something I only do when I feel like utter crap – it’s an easy way to crank up the endorphins.) The worst form of railroading is setting a ticking clock to artificially create a sense of urgency. It’s fine for casual games like Bejeweled, because there’s nothing to focus on but a few shiny tiles, but in a game where the devs built an interesting world to explore, rushing the player through it is bullshit.

The only thing I bought from the Steam Sale this year is a package of all the old Fallout games for less than ten bucks. I was feeling nostalgic, but one thing I wasn’t nostalgic for was the time limit on the first game in the series. My brother bought it back around its time of release, and I wouldn’t touch it for that reason. I played the second, which didn’t have a time limit, and enjoyed the hell out of it. I only went back and played the first after they removed the time limit in the patch, because by then the game developers realized how much it was a bad idea.

For you see they added all this cool crap you could get as you gained levels, but the original game wouldn’t let you get much past level 12 before the entire game world went up in flames due to a hidden timer that destroyed one town after another as you wasted time, you know, having fun playing the damned thing. They originally designed the game for the type of player who burns through the main quest and doesn’t give a crap about anything else. Then they realized, after tons of people complained, that there was a whole other type of player who likes building a character, exploring, and generally dicking around. These were the people who enjoyed it as a game rather than an interactive movie where you get to shoot things on the screen until the credits roll.

Anyway, they removed the shitty time limit only for whoever put together the patch for Windows 7 to reinstate it because they longed for the pure vision of the original game. You know, that pure vision the game developers went on record stating as a bad idea. A vision the original game developers removed because it made the game unfun for most people. I assumed I was playing this version, so I started playing the game not worrying about the time limit, only to find towns overrun with mutant hordes halfway though and unable to finish half the side-quests. I said screw it and stopped playing, having felt I wasted all that time because the virtual world I was supposed to be saving got screwed due to me enjoying the experience a little too long. I mean, yeah it’s technically a waste of time anyway, but at least if I’d gotten some fun out of it I’d be feeling less the pain in my head. Since I wasn’t having any fun, it only gave me more of a headache.

What these dipshits don’t realize is not everyone has to be “hardcore.” It’s a game. And the developers who realize that, and make allowances for a wide range of playstyles, the more people are going to enjoy it, buy the expansions and sequels, and recommend it to their friends. I’d thought the people involved with that series had learned that, but apparently the people who still make the patches feel everyone else has to play it their way. And fuck that.

When I mod a game, I’m doing it to add content and fill it in because I want more of it. I want more options, not just for me but for anyone who cares to play my mods. When people ask me to accommodate their playstyles by adding this or that, I almost always give them what they ask for, even though I’d never play that way myself. If someone wants to get rid of all the NPCs I added so they can have a big empty wizard tower to themselves, fine. I added an option to fire the staff instead of killing them, because I like adding more options for getting what you want with non-violent means. Sure, you could kill them anyway. I won’t stop someone from doing that by making the cook and the maid inexplicably invincible – bullshit some modders like to do when they feel too precious about their NPCs. It’s also something current games do to hold the player’s hand so they don’t accidentally screw up quests, which by the way makes a lot of player’s foaming mad. It makes them mad because they want the option. Even if it screws things up, it’s a screw up they can own.

I suppose what players really want, or at least the general trend is, is to be allowed to screw things up due to action, but not inaction. The player expects inaction to simply pause events – because they have real life to attend to, something that can’t be paused. Whereas any form of agency is not just accepted, but expected. It’s all about giving the player something they may not get a lot of in real life (agency), and giving them a mental break from what they get all too much of (the slowly crushing onward march of time).

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

2 thoughts on “Bad Game Design: Limiting Play

  1. I see what you mean – I’ve never been able to do the timed things (computer games were invented relatively late in my life), but I love the puzzle ones when I have time.

    I had to have one of my kids do the Fire level on Katamari Damasi, and on Riven – I just could NOT get the timing right. I think they do that to keep the old fogeys out, which is silly, because the old fogeys have money.

    I don’t know other parents who played Myst the way we did, staying up late when we were into it (homeschooling gives you such lovely freedom).

    If I ever want a shooter game, I’ll buy one. Right now I’m trying to teach my brain to do the mental gymnastics in Portal. I’m dreadful. When I have time.

    1. I have a similar peeve. In Dreamfall (sequel to The Longest Journey, a great Adventure Game), they added quicktime events, a game mechanic EVERYONE hates, but most of all the older crowd who couldn’t finish the damned thing because of one bit where they had to run through a tool shed and hit all the right marks at the right time or otherwise be killed by the robot girls chasing after your character. It was so difficult (and the only scene like that too, which made all the more jarring to normal gameplay) that savegames started floating around so people could download a save after that ill-concieved part of the game so they could finish it. In a game genre that’s main audience is the elderly crowd, it was particularly stupid to add that kind of “twitch” crap in.

      I mod games so I can have the kind of experience I want, but I had so much trouble making a total pacifism mod for Morrowind due to game engine techiness. The engine was designed for hack-and-slash gameplay, so trying to get NPCs to surrender when subdued by non-lethal martial arts rather than attacking suicidally involved all sorts of added scripting that bugged out half the time. I’ve always shaken my head at AIs programmed to “surrender” by running away or falling to their knees, only to get back up and attack as soon they recover their stamina (but not their hitpoints, so it’s really bloody stupid). I really appreciate it when game designers include non-violent means to solve every quest.

      I loved both Portal games. There’s a couple levels really bad for needing lightning reflexes though.

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