[MUD-Dev] Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! -- By Ernest Adams

J C Lawrence claw at under.engr.sgi.com
Mon May 18 16:42:43 New Zealand Standard Time 1998

Most of his points apply very well to MUDs, as well as having been
active topics here:


"Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!" 
By Ernest Adams

Lately I have been playing a number of old games, and I've noticed
something interesting in comparison with today's games. The technology
has changed enormously, of course. But some of the design mistakes we
made in the past are still being made in modern games. The same
irritating misfeatures and poorly-designed puzzles that appeared in
games as early as fifteen or twenty years ago are still around.

Herewith a list of game misfeatures that I'm tired of seeing. This is
a highly personal perspective and your opinion may differ, but to me,
these are a sign of sloppy, or lazy, game design.

Boring and Stupid Mazes 

The original text adventure, Colossal Cave, had two mazes. One was a
series of rooms each of which was described thus: "You're in a maze of
twisty little passages, all alike."  The other was a series of rooms
described as, "You're in a twisting little maze of passages, all
different" (or "You're in a little twisty maze of passages, all
different," or "You're in a maze of little twisting passages, all
different," etc.). These were the prototypical boring and stupid
mazes. Colossal Cave was the first adventure game ever, though, so I
cut it a little slack. But that was over twenty years ago; there's no
longer any excuse for doing that now. Somebody gave me a copy of The
Legend of Kyrandia a few years back, and I played it with some
pleasure - right up until I got to the maze.

Mazes don't have to be boring and stupid. It's possible to design
entertaining mazes by ordering the rooms according to a pattern that
the player can figure out. A maze should be attractive, clever, and
above all, fun to solve. If a maze isn't interesting or a pleasure to
be in, then it's a bad feature.

Games Without Maps 

I have a notoriously poor sense of direction inside buildings, so
maybe it's just me. Still, in the video game world where all the walls
and floors use the same textures, places look too much alike. In the
real world, even the most rigid cubicle-hell office building has
something to distinguish one area from another - a stain on the
carpet, a cartoon posted outside someone's cube. I played Doom and had
a great time. I fired up the Quake demo, found out there was no map,
and dumped it. I want a map. There's no reason for withholding a map
from me unless it's just to slow me down, and that's a poor substitute
for providing real gameplay. Bad game designer! No Twinkie!

Incongruous or Fantasy-Killing Elements 

Sometimes an adventure game will present you with a puzzle, or other
obstacle, that is completely outside the fantasy you're supposed to be
having. In my opinion, that's a case of the designer running out of
ideas, and it's disappointing to the player. If you've taken me away
to a magical world where I'm a heroic knight on a glorious quest to
rescue the fearsome princess, don't make me sit and play Mastermind
with the dragon.  If I absolutely must play a game with him, it should
be Nine Men's Morris, but frankly, it would be more appropriate just
to thrash the scoundrel soundly.

This leads quite naturally to my next complaint, which is... 

Pointless Surrealism 

A number of games have come out which eschew the standard SF/fantasy
worlds and instead plunge the player into a twisted and disturbing
realm of yadda yadda yadda. Let me tell you something about the
capital-S Surrealism of the capital-A Art world: it's not just
randomness. Real Surrealism seeks to shock the mind into a new
awareness of [ the human condition | the nature of God | the meaning
of compassion | etc. ] through the juxtaposition of seemingly
unrelated objects and ideas - the key word being "seemingly." Although
appearing bizarre and perhaps even nonsensical at first, true
Surrealism is informed by an underlying theme.

I haven't seen any surrealism in computer games that could claim such
noble goals.  Most of it has looked to me like somebody said, "... and
when you reach the control room of the Doomsday Machine, there'll be a
clown in there! Yeah! That'll be cool!" Surrealism is like prose
poetry: easy to do, but extremely hard to do well. "It's surrealism"
is not an adequate excuse for a poorly conceived vision in the first

Which takes me effortlessly to... 

Puzzles Requiring Extreme Lateral Thinking 

These are puzzles of the "use the lampshade with the bulldozer"
variety. The designer may think he's being funny or even surreal, but
he's really just being adolescently tiresome. It's lazy puzzle design
- making a puzzle difficult by making its solution obscure or
irrational. You can add to the player's play-time by creating
ridiculous obstacles, but you're not really adding to his or her
enjoyment, and that's supposed to be the point.

Puzzles Permitting No Lateral Thinking At All 

You come to a locked door. The obvious solution is to find the key,
but it's also the most boring, so maybe the game provides some other
way to get it open. But like as not, there's only one solution,
whatever it is.

In text-adventure terms, this was known as the "find the right verb"
problem - you were dead in the water until you figured out exactly
what verb the game was waiting for you to say. Break? Hit? Smash? 
Demolish? Pound? Incinerate? And a lot of games today have the same
problem: an obstacle which can only be overcome in one way. The game
doesn't encourage the player to think; it demands that the player read
the designer's mind.

In the real world, think of all the things you can do with a locked door: 

  -- Find the key 
  -- Pick the lock 
  -- Force or persuade the person who has the key to open it 
  -- Trick someone on the other side into opening it (maybe just by knocking!) 
  -- Break the door down, burn it, cut it, dissolve it with acid, etc. 
  -- Circumvent it - go through a window instead, or cut a hole in the wall. 

The list is limited only by your imagination. 

OK, I know this is a tall order. As a developer, it's difficult and
expensive to think of all the ways that someone could try to get
through a door and to implement them all. Still, now that we have the
have the power to create "deformable environments" - that is, your
gunshots and explosions actually affect everything in the real world
and not just your enemies - it's time to add a little variety to our
worlds, to reward players who do some lateral thinking.

Puzzles Requiring Obscure Knowledge From Outside the Game 

I owe this one to my friend, the genius puzzle-master Scott Kim
(http://www.scottkim.com). I didn't think of it until he read a draft
of this column and pointed it out to me. This is a cheap trick, and
even more irritating than inside jokes. No, I don't know the name of
the third track on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and if it's
vital that I know it for the game, then the game is just
weird. (Trivia games like You Don't Know Jack are of course excluded
from this gripe - with them you know what you're getting into.)

A Switch in One Room Opens a Door In Another Room A Mile Away 

Nor does it have to be a door - I mean any item which affects a game
obstacle a long way off. Doom was guilty of this a lot, but the worst
example ever was in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, an Infocom
text adventure. In that game, if you didn't pick up the junk mail at
the very beginning of the game, it was unwinnable at the very
end. This misfeature is profoundly and pointlessly irritating. With
the exception of refineries and nuclear power plants, in most places
in the world the knob for a door is - wonder of wonders - in the
door. It's another example of lazy puzzle design, making the problem
difficult not by cleverness but artificially extending the time it
takes to solve it.

Only One of [some large number] of Possible Combinations Is the Right

More lazy puzzle design. At the end of Infidel, which was another
Infocom adventure, you had to do four things in a certain
sequence. The number of possible combinations is 4! (four factorial,
or 24). There was no clue whatsoever as to the correct sequence; you
just had to try them all. Yuck. Yet another time-waster with no
enjoyment value.

Kill Monster/Take Sword/Sell Sword/Buy A Different Sword/Kill Another

...or in other words, the canonical RPG experience. You may have heard
John F.  Kennedy's joke that Washington D.C. is a city of southern
efficiency and northern charm.  Well, in my opinion most RPG's combine
the pulse-pounding excitement of a business simulation with the
intellectual challenge of a shooter. I play games of medieval
adventure and heroism to slay princesses and rescue dragons; I don't
play them to spend two-thirds of my time dickering with shopkeepers. I
want to be a hero, but the game forces me to be an itinerant
second-hand arms dealer. Earning money by robbing corpses doesn't make
me feel all that noble, either.

You Have 30 Seconds to Figure Out This Level Before You Die 

With the length of time most games take to load their core modules,
this isn't clever or challenging; it's just frustrating. If there's a
trick to the solution for which no clues are provided, then it's just
another annoying trial-and-error time-waster. If clues are provided,
then you need a reasonable amount of time to think them over. The
military doesn't charge blindly into unreconnoitered territory - or if
they do, they usually regret it.  Expecting your player to do it is
unreasonable. If you're going to place your player in imminent danger
from the very first second she sees the screen, then at least one out
of every three of her possible choices should lead to safety.

Stupid Opponents 

Another thing I'm tired of is stupid monsters who lumber towards you
until you shoot them. This was the Doom technique, and that of a
million video games since the dawn of time. Instead of providing you
with an intelligent challenge, the game seeks to overwhelm you with
sheer numbers. Yawn. Space Invaders may have been brilliant and
addictive in its day, but it's time to move on.

So let's get imaginative! How about some cowardly monsters who take
one potshot at you, then run away to fight another day? Or maybe some
monsters who duck in and out of cover? How about one that runs off at
the first sight of you and brings back half a dozen friends - if you
can nail it on its way out, then it can't raise the alarm. Or what
about some who try to sneak around and come up behind you? Or who
offer direct battle, but run away when they're injured, rather than
fighting idiotically to the death? Maybe we could have some monsters
whose job is to lure you out of cover so their friends can shoot at
you. (That was the role of the flying saucer in the original coin-op
Battle Zone.)  Or even - gasp! - some monsters who are smart enough to
do all these things, like, say, people are! Zounds!

None of these ideas are new; it's just that we don't see them that
often. Why? Laziness again. Dumb monsters are easy to program. Smart
ones aren't. And it's easy to balance a game with dumb opponents. You
just figure out the appropriate ratio of monsters to "health"
powerups. To make the game harder, you change the ratio. But it's
boring. Let's put a little thought into monster design, give our
customers a new challenge.

Two other things I'm tired of - these are aesthetic rather than design elements, but I'll
throw 'em in for good measure. 

Poor Acting 

Bad acting is a distraction, no less in a computer game than in a
movie theater. It breaks your suspension of disbelief. When a bad
actor is surrounded by good actors, it's especially noticeable, and
you find yourself praying that their character will be killed off.
And most of the acting in computer games is still pretty poor.

Fortunately, this is a problem that will probably take care of itself
in the end. Competition will force us to develop some competence in
this area. If we can manage to get up to the TV-movie-of-the-week
level, I'll be happy. John Gielgud and Katharine Hepburn's talents
would be wasted in a computer game, where the point is supposed to be
interactivity anyway. It's better to do without acting in a computer
game than to include bad acting, and usually cheaper and easier as

Neat, Tidy Explosions 

Look closely at a picture of a place where a bomb went off. It's a
mess. A real mess.  Things are broken into pieces of all sizes, from
chunks that are nearly the whole object, to shrapnel and slivers, down
to dust. And they're twisted, shredded, barely recognizable. Things
that are blown up by a bomb don't fall neatly apart into four or five
little polygons - they're blasted to smithereens.

I suppose for the sake of our stomachs we'll have to preserve the TV
and film fiction that people who die violently do so quickly and
quietly rather than screaming and rolling around; but I don't see any
need to pretend that high explosives are less than apallingly
destructive. Bombs ruin things - lives and buildings. They leave the
places they've been shattered and unattractive. Let's tell the truth
about them.


Scott Kim tells me that I'm being a bit harsh by labeling some of
these misfeatures as "lazy" puzzle design. He points out that puzzle
design is hard work to begin with, and unless you're quite familiar
with the games of the past, it's easy to make the same mistakes again
without knowing it. In addition, a lot of people come into puzzle
design from other fields like programming or art, and so don't have
much experience at it.

I'll buy that. But now that you have this handy list, at least you
needn't make these mistakes, right?


Ernest Adams is an audio/video producer for Electronic Arts, currently
working on the Madden NFL Football product line. Once upon a time, he
was a software engineer. He has developed on-line games, computer
games, and console games for everything from the IBM 360 mainframe to
the Nintendo Ultra 64. He was a founder of the Computer Game
Developers' Association, and is a frequent lecturer at the Computer
Game Developers' Conference and anyplace else that people will listen
to him.  Ernest would be happy to receive E-mail about his columns at
eadams at ea.com. The views in this column are not necessarily those of
Electronic Arts.

J C Lawrence                               Internet: claw at null.net
(Contractor)                               Internet: coder at ibm.net
---------(*)                     Internet: claw at under.engr.sgi.com
...Honourary Member of Clan McFud -- Teamer's Avenging Monolith...

MUD-Dev: Advancing an unrealised future.

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