The 13 worst game design crimes
Some game mechanics are divisive. There are those who would argue vehemently against regenerating health in shooters, while others would be entirely fine with it. It's a matter for debate. This is not a list about those mechanics. This is a list of design quirks that should be consigned to the scrapheap forever. We see them time and time again, even in multi-million dollar games built by hundreds of developers, so we decided to get some of our biggest gripes together in one place. And on that day, in a storm of fire, fury and intense grumbling, we forged our list of gaming's greatest design crimes. Here it be.
Defeating the player in a cutscene
You've reduced a pirate camp to rubble. A firestorm of hot lead and popping grenades you've taken out twenty or thirty foes and now you're charging into the caves with a shotgun and a tiger-bag full of ammo. Hordes more rush out of the shadows, but you cut them down effortlessly. Then you turn a corner and WHAM. Cinematic banding clamps the screen in place, the controls stop working and a goon bludgeons your character into unconsciousness with a rifle butt.
With a squeaky POP, the carefully crafted power fantasy implodes. The cutscene takedown doesn't just jolt the player out of the action, it undermines all of their efforts leading up to the interruption, and can make entire levels feel like a pointless waste of time. Worse still, the offending cutscene defeat is often an attempt to ram a chunk of narrative down the victim's throat. How many times must we watch our avatar wake up, restrained and bleary-eyed, to receive a monologue from some lurid villain?
Cutscenes can be great, but we don't play games to watch films. We already have films, and they're often made by people who have spent their entire lives learning how to make films. The films they make cost millions of dollars to put together. If I wanted to see a film, I'm going to spend my time on their efforts, not those whose primary skill lies in creating fantastic interactive experiences. By all means, have a cutscene or two, but make them instantly skippable and give us a way to pick up any plot details we may have lost in the interim. Yes, that goes for intro movies, too.
Save points before unskippable cutscenes
There are certain points at which I'm likely to just switch off a game and never, ever play it again. Being thrown back to a save point before an unskippable cutscene is a big one. You're lucky if my attention survived the first watch, but the video I barely got past once will be much, much worse the second time round. I'll never know what it's like to endure a third run through. I'll have long since been distracted by a squirrel.
Invisible walls and unconquerable waist-high barriers
Creating believable ring-fences in a high fidelity 3D environment is a tricky problem, but the solution should never be a magic invisible barrier that blocks all progress. A shin-high trickle of rubble is almost as bad, and the flight-sim tendency to take control of your craft and force it into a U-turn feels equally awkward.
An approach we've seen recently in military shooters grays out the screen and threatens the player with death unless they get back in bounds before an arbitrary countdown expires, which at least adds an interesting element of blind panic to boundary navigation. Why not employ a spring loaded boxing glove USB peripheral to increase the tension? Alternatively, put a wall there.
"Are you sure?" pop-ups that can't be disabled
Giving the player a warning before they do something that might lose progress or otherwise damage their own experience is reasonable, but some games seem to underestimate the level of physical control the player has over their own body. Our limbs are not flailing madly out of control. Mouse hands do not go rogue and start clicking random patches of screen. The left hemisphere of my brain has never betrayed me by trying to auction off my Diablo 3 inventory, or closed a game I didn't want closed. If you're asking a player if they're sure they want to do what they just told you they want to do, always give them the option to tell you to shut up forever and never bother them again.
The arbitrary insta-fail
At the beginning of id's post-apocalyptic shooter, Rage, you're told to get in a car by a stranger in a buggy. Behind him a dusty slope heads off into the wasteland. If you walk past the buggy and head off on your own, he threatens you, and then shoots you dead. You're forced to reload and get in the car. Why have the path there? Why offer a false option and then dish out the ultimate punishment when the player indulges? It sends a clear and unpleasant message. "Don't exercise free will. Do as you're told, or you're dead."
Many quick time events are guilty of committing this particular crime. In the final moments of Battlefield 3's co-op campaign, you're required to shoot a foe to trigger your victory cut scene. Instead of letting you aim with the mouse and left click to shoot him, as you've been doing for the entirety of the campaign, it randomises a button-press demand, which in my case was E - the enter/exit vehicle button (here's a video of the scene via IGN). I pressed left-click to shoot, and failed. Less of this sort of thing, please.
Invincible locked doors
You know the ones. You've walk up to them and press 'use,' you hear a weak rattling noise. Perhaps the handle wobbles apologetically, as though your avatar has given the handle an experimental tug. No dice. Perhaps you draw your shotgun and empty the barrel into the wood. It splinters but doesn't budge. You unhook a grenade, place it at the foot of the door and run down the corridor. BOOM. You wade back through the smoke and the door is still there. It always was and always will be, for it is an Invincible Locked Door, and it exists only to waste your time.
If you've got a building, you have to have doors, of course. It's fun to watch designers work their way around this one. Think of all those convenient stacks of furniture in Half-Life 2, and those big, dark cybernetic Combine locks. It doesn't matter how contrived the visual language is, anything that stops us from wasting our time trying to go through apparently functional doors is good. And for goodness' sake don't put a green light on an impassable door.