The 13 worst game design crimes

Tom Senior


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.

1. Defeating the player in a cutscene

Far Cry 3 dishes out cutscene concussions regularly.

You've reduced a pirate camp to rubble. In 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?

2. Unskippable cutscenes

This is all very pretty, Rage, but I'd quite like to shoot things now.

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.

3. 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.

4. Invisible walls and unconquerable waist-high barriers

Return to the combat area. OR DIE.

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.

5. "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.

6. The arbitrary insta-fail

Simon says: press E to shoot the bad guy!

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.

7. Invincible locked doors

Rage again. You can get through the door on the left. You can never get through the door on the right.

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.

8. Having the first option in a menu be “Start New Game” rather than “Continue”

A minor gripe, but an easy fix. Many people who play games are quite busy. Chances are they've spent five minutes watching a parade of developer/publisher/hardware manufacturer/middleware intro logos before even encountering the start menu. If that player has pressed "Start Game" once, how many times are they likely to ever press that again? Shift it down, have the cursor rest automatically on continue and let players get into the game that little bit faster.

9. Invincible story characters

Martin from Oblivion. Iron fists just bounce off his stupid face.

Maybe designers should keep a hypothetical player in mind when building levels. I propose the "frenzied psychotic maniac in a hurry" model. They're a nightmare. You're trying to tell them a story, but they're jumping on the tables and kicking crockery everywhere. Release them into your world and they'll embrace every exploit, try to vault over every barrier and worry at every loose thread of code. Now give them a weapon, and then introduce them to the main character at the center of your story. What will happen next? Everyone who said "tea, biscuits and a sing-song," sit down. Better luck next time. Today's prize goes to everyone who said "giggling murderous rampage"

Developers have found a few ways to cope with psychotic player behaviour. Bioshock locks important characters behind doors and cages, which only adds to those feeling of isolation. Admirably, Dark Souls and Deux Ex let you start a fight with anyone. These are both much better solutions than the dubious Elder Scrolls workaround, which makes important people invincible. Remember Martin from Oblivion? That's him being punched in the face by Tom above. Freeze him, electrocute him. Throw him off a cliff. He'll regain consciousness moments later, march up the mountain and reintroduce himself. This may seem fairer than an instant fail-state, but it breaks the logical consistency of the world to such a degree that it's impossible to feel any concern for the safety of those characters ever again.

10. NPCs you must follow who walk at a different speed to you

Captain Price is a crack shot that moves like treacle.

If I was to construct a new circle of hell designed to send victims slowly potty over a period of hours, I would force my victims to follow someone who always moves at a pace slightly slower than their own. If you run, you bump into their back over and over again. If you walk, you slowly fall behind. You can race ahead and backpedal, but it's still not quite right. This happens in games all the time. There's no reason why Captain Price can't run to that door around the corner at a reasonable pace. Why can't the old woman you free from the Spider Queen's web in Diablo 3 mount those five steps to the exit faster than a wad of creeping algae? Who knows, but it sure is annoying.

11. Bullet sponge bosses

Look out, Jensen. Sponge at nine o'clock.

The bullet sponge boss has a health bar that's five feet long. It's probably huge and visually impressive, for the first minute or so at least, but you quickly learn that it's an idiot. Its behaviour involves picking randomly from a small selection of attacks. It probably has glowing weak points somewhere. You engage the bullet sponge boss by shooting/slashing those weak points over and over again, wearing down its vast reservoir of health points in tiny increments. The bullet sponge boss does not win by reducing your health to zero, it feeds upon the ache of despair that takes root when you start to believe that this thing will never, ever die. This old fashioned model for boss encounters doesn't just doesn't wash anymore. Otherwise great games have been marred by this crime.

12. Wonky cameras/ambiguous jump angles in third-person platformers


Jump angles are defined relative to the camera position in third person platformers like Assassin's Creed, which can lead to infuriating hiccups. Pillar hopping challenges are a classic test. Your character bearhugs some cylindrical chunk of masonry, and must awkwardly shuffle around its circumference to get aligned with another pillar. You line the camera up, you indicate a direction, press jump and watch as your little dude backflips spectacularly into a yawning chasm. Not good.

13. Exit Game commands that don't exit the game

If in doubt, there's always Alt-F4.

If someone presses "exit," they have a right to expect an exit. It's an unambiguous command. It doesn't mean "hey let's leave the session and then restart the game on the main menu screen." It doesn't mean "the player has indicated they want to exit the game, let's ask them if they're sure they want to exit the game." It means they want you to go away now. Their time with you is done. You may weep in the background as you close down swiftly to reveal a clear desktop, but keep it silent.

That's all for now, but there are many more mistakes out there, waiting to be named and shamed. What are your biggest pet design peeves?

About the Author
Tom Senior

Tom stopped being a productive human being when he realised that the beige box under his desk could play Alpha Centauri. After Deus Ex and Diablo 2 he realised he was cursed to play amazing PC games forever. He started writing about them for PC Gamer about six years ago, and is now UK web ed.

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