Is this going to improve the game? – A Design Question

“If someone says, ‘It would be cool if…’ tie them up and throw them in a closet until the game is done.”

That might be a bit of a harsh reaction, but if there is one thing I have learned in video game design it is this: ALWAYS CRITIQUE YOUR WORK.

Is this thing you are doing, this choice you are making, is it *vitally* important to the game. Will it make the game better as well as not break or make the game worse?

Let’s look at a few examples:

Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, I worked on the Darklight Crypt expansion. One of the things I chose to do early was have a “boss” fight at the end. Most of the other levels, if they had bosses, they were against Kaos, and all done by another designer. But Darklight Crypt was an adventure pack level, meaning the user would have to spend extra money to get the toy for it to unlock the level. The theme was dark and very haunted crypt castle kind of place. So the boss I created ended up being a huge eyeball.

Queue the jokes. “I see you!” The boss would shout and kids would burst into fits of giggles. Was the boss fight the best? Nope. It was a super simple push the button to make the boss vulnerable and then hit him with the big guns, repeat three times, and win. The fight wasn’t the reason to include it. The ability to cleanly mark the end of the level with a climatic moment was. The addition of a bad guy the player could see and interact with was pretty important too. The humor that tagged along turned out to be vital to the level as well, but at the time we didn’t know that would happen.

The inclusion of the boss was risky. I was new to the project and studio. The fight was a complex bit of scripting. There were a dozen things that could have gone wrong. There was bad choices made within the fight (locking out players from using two cannons at once). BUT in the end, we can see that it added so much of the heart and character to the level, it wouldn’t be the same without it. When I suggested putting it in, I made these arguments for it: It makes the level feel different from the main game, with a boss fight at the end. It gives the player a firm target and goal, that is clear from the beginning of the level. It wouldn’t detract from the level, because it would give it a climatic moment and would be very simple for the player to understand.

I think, for the most part, it was successful. One thing that we did fail on, and learned our lesson, was using the main mechanic of the level, switching worlds, in the boss fight. Occulus, while awesome on so many levels (did you notice after him, there comes Eyebrawl?) didn’t fit within the switching mechanic of the level well. I shoehorned some switching in, but it felt out of place. In Giants, we did this MUCH better with the boss at the end of Wilikins Isle, the new switching level. I worked with the designer who did the boss fight to make sure that it incorporated switching in an organic way. Of course, it helped that before I ever suggested it, I knew he was an Ikaruga fan. It made it very easy to convince him.

So why is this so important?

Because not every game can patch out their problems. You have to put every design decision under the microscope. Think about the player and how they are going to have to deal with each decision you make.

Another example:

World of Warcraft recently added pet battles. All the minipets crazy people (like myself) had been collecting as pure vanity items suddenly became the source of gameplay. They essentially turned pets into Pokemon, complete with elemental affinities and weaknesses. Pet battles is an amazing feature, that needs a great deal of polish. Deciding what parts need polishing becomes very clear the minute each decision has to be defended.

One of the major things to do as a pet battler is go out and fight Trainers. Much like Pokemon, these are NPCs that have a team of their own, that you, as a player can challenge and beat for rewards. One design decision, that looks good on paper, is that the early trainers have set orders to their team. The order that their pets fight in is always the same. This allows the player to start off on a good foot, by stacking their first pet against the trainer’s pet. As the trainers level though, their pets begin to appear in a semi random order. Meaning that they will choose to use one of two of their pets seemingly randomly at the beginning of battle. I know, I hate random. But in this case, it is clearly worthless.

Let’s say I go up against a trainer that can bring out either a critter or a dragon first. Well clearly, I want to stack my first pet to be against one of these two. So I pull out my humanoid, who is strong versus dragons. I initiate the battle. The trainer brings out their critter. I could, and it is clearly designed that I should, switch pets, forfeiting one turn to the trainer, to have my strong pet out. BUT they allowed us to forfeit the fight entirely, with no punishment for doing so. So instead, I just forfeit, then re-initiate the fight. Repeat until the trainer brings out her dragon first, then battle away. Sound tedious? OH IT IS.

At this point, the designer should defend their decisions. They have made two. 1. That pet trainers should pull out pets randomly. 2. That forfeiting costs the player nothing. First, look at the source design, Pokemon. In Pokemon, the trainers always use their Pokemon in a set order (also generally having a team with nearly all the same elements). Also, if the player wants to quit a fight… they have to lose all their Pokemon. So there is a conflict with the source design on both points.

Which feature makes the game better? If you could only have ONE, which one would you chose: Random pet order or forfeiting? I choose forfeiting. It’s never very fun to realize that your entire team is all wrong and then just have to suffer through being bludgeoned to death so you can try again.

So what about the random pet order? Well, defend it. 1. Does it improve the game? The argument could be made that it makes the fights more challenging. 2. Does it break or make the game worse? The ability to forfeit negates the challenge introduced in point 1, and the constant cycling to try and get the “correct” pet up first makes it tedious, so yes, it makes the game worse.

At this point, CUT IT. Rip it out. Not only are the battles less tedious, but also they make the fights easier on the players. If there is a need for challenge, do that in the numbers with a systems designer, or have the trainers use more “dual affinity” pets (like dragonkin who use all magic abilities, super tricky!). It takes some of the randomness out, and improves the flow of the mini-game. Designed is always better than random.

Unfortunately, according to patch notes, Blizzard has already decided to create a punishment for forfeiting. Now each of the pets on your team will take some small amount of damage when forfeiting. So rather than streamlining the game, they left the tedious part in, but increased the time it takes to get past it. NOW players will forfeit, then wait for the 8 minute timer on the ability to heal their pets to come up, heal the pets and try again. Or they will just stop fighting the trainers completely. (In explanation, they will not just switch out pets, because the high level trainers are so tightly tuned that even one miss or dodged attack can lead to the player losing even WITH the first pet being stacked to win.)

No design decision should be made without first asking, “Does this make the game better, without making anything worse?” Would the game be better without this feature?

Once the game is shipped, the players will see it, and rip it apart. They won’t ever know about the features that were cut or didn’t make it in their original state, but they will see the broken or bad features that are present.


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