Christmas is over so I feel like playing Grinch and complaining about some of the recurrent issues in modern game design that piss me off. These aren’t the most serious issues in the game industry (such as workplace abuse, microtransactions, NFTs etc…) and they aren’t even issues that annoy every gamer but they are complaints that I need to get off my chest and so I’m gonna do it, and nobody can stop me! Except the moderators. They could stop me. But nobody else can stop me!
GRIEVANCE #1: Long, multi-stage, boss battles you need to start from the beginning each time.
One thing that has improved considerably in modern gaming is checkpointing. Old games were caught up in the 8-bit console mentality that forcing the player to play through the same parts of the game over and over in order to advance created good value. It does not, it’s mostly just boring (if the game is actually fun to play over and over then you’ll organically play it over and over even if you don’t have to.) Modern games generally have generous checkpoints that let you focus on the part of the game that you’re struggling with or learning and not have to boringly plod back over areas you’ve already mastered to get there, taking unnecessary hits from sloppiness because you’re so disengaged by a part you’ve already seen.
Except when it comes to long boss battles. Then designers throw these ideas entirely out the window and force you to go through the earlier phases repeatedly in order to learn and eventually conquer the later phases. The thinking here appears to be in part based on immersion (it would be weird to start a boss fight part way through, right?) and in part based on the tension of being sent far back if you die, thus ratcheting up intensity. Beating two phases of a boss only to immediately die to the unfamiliar attacks of the third phase isn’t tense it’s dispiriting and crappy. I generally don’t like boss battles, but I really don’t like boss battles where you have to play the same parts over and over. It doesn’t create tension it creates frustration. As for immersion…there’s nothing immersive about dying over and over and being sent back. Your character died. The story should end there. Some masochist gamers enjoy this stuff and that’s fine. It should be left in their masochist gamer games and not become a standard in the mainstream.
Bonus points here if you get an unskippable cut scene before you start each fight.
GREIVANCE #2: Combos and upgrades that are functionally useless.
What follows is an imagined conversation between myself and a game designer.
“You know how in your game you can save up in game currency to use flashy new power combos?”
“Yeah, we worked really hard on those. They’re awesome!”
“Trying to use them when there are lots of enemies around doesn’t work because another guy will hit you from behind and interrupt your combo.”
“Yeah, you gotta stay on your toes. Stick and move, lol!”
“Trying to use them against bosses doesn’t work because bosses can just shrug off the hits and counter back mid combo.”
“We wanted to maintain the challenge.”
“But the only place they work then is when faced off against a single relatively weak opponent.”
“Yeah that’s a good situation for them.”
“But I don’t need new abilities for that situation. It’s literally the easiest situation in the game.”
“I don’t understand.”
“These combos are just flashier ways to do something I can already easily do.”
“It’s very dispiriting to spend a bunch of currency on something that doesn’t actually do anything useful.”
“That’s like your opinion, man.”
“You’re not very good at game design, are you?”
“Wait until you see my fast travel system!”
GREIVANCE #3: Bad fast travel.
Fast travel is something that should be relatively simple. Forza Horizon 5 is a game that does it relatively well. When you start out you can only fast travel between certain festival locations (for a fee) which encourages you to explore the map and drive around, which is much of the fun of the game. Eventually you unlock the ability to travel wherever you want on the map, and as you find bonus boards the price goes down, so by the time you’re deep into the game fast travel is cheap and close to unlimited, allowing you to mop up objectives quickly without a lot of wasted time. This should be a model for other games but it’s not. I’ve encountered two games in the last month (The Ascent and F.I.S.T. Forged in Shadow Tech) that feature two separate fast travel systems and force you to make transfers between them like you were taking a municipal bus system. This is…not at all fun. It’s very annoying. I’ve commuted by public transit for much of my life and it’s not an experience I am eager to relive in video game form (though fortunately there’s no smell-o-vision option that can replicate the NYC subway system). Both these games also feature few fast travel locations and maps that are onerous and annoying to traverse, so even when you get to the closest fast travel location to your destination you still have a bunch of annoying traversal before you get to where you’re actually going. This sucks! So many games seem to treat fast travel as something that has to be closely rationed so the player…doesn’t have too much fun? Doesn’t avoid boredom? I don’t know. Not every game needs the highly adaptable Forza Horizon system, but just let me warp between check points or whatever, even if there’s a nominal fee. Why are you forcing me to do the boring stuff over and over, especially in games like Metroidvanias where it’s impossible to 100% an area the first time through?
GREIVANCE #4: You know what’s better than a short bad story? A very long bad story. No wait-
Not every game can afford a dedicated writer. Writing is also something that everyone thinks they can do well, unlike other game-related disciplines like 3D animation, music, or programming. While some one man band projects have good writing, most small team games without a dedicated writer don’t. That’s okay, since most of us don’t play these games for their stories anyway. The problem is that so many bad writers seem to think they’re great, and proceed to jam their games full of the most inane and boring lore and dialog. Bad writing can be forgiven when it’s sparse and just used to set the tone or give some vague goal to accomplish. When it’s something that takes up a huge chunk of game time it’s unforgivable. Nobody cares about your long and intricate backstory when it’s told by characters who your playerbase wants to punch in the face even though they’re nominally the good guys. Hire a good writer or just keep it short. This can turn an otherwise enjoyable game into a frustrating slog when you’re constantly being interrupted for some masturbatory infodump.
GREIVANCE #5: Opaque progression requirements or mechanics.
In the 1980s and 1990s games frequently hid their progression requirements or important mechanics. This was sometimes done intentionally (much of the “gameplay” of classic adventure games is figuring out what unintuitive series of actions will progress the story) or through bad translation or oversights (Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is infamous for this.) At the time this was sort of understandable because designers needed to squeeze length and value out of relatively short games with limited memory and because they often didn’t know better and didn’t have outside testers so they weren’t able to judge what would be intuitive. Today we see these mechanics creeping back into games, where you need to scour every pixel in order to advance, or you need to talk to person A followed by person B and then person C before talking to A again to move forward, with no hint as to how that works. You can argue this is even more acceptable today because we have the Internet and people can look up how to advance, but you’re wrong. It sucks! If I have to look something up and risk spoilers only to find that the thing I couldn’t figure out was either something I already tried but not quite in the right order (or, worse, has an inconsistent trigger or requires repetition with no signal that you’re on the right track) then you have failed in game design and should not have designed it this way. Likewise if your game has some crucial mechanic that’s hidden from player understanding and requires crowdsourcing to fully grasp it then congratulations you’ve created a bad time for everyone. Not everything has to be super obvious, but there’s a difference between obvious and something nobody could figure out on their own unless they were an obsessive. Not all of us want to put hundreds of hours into the same game, and even if we do it’s probably not your mediocre game, bro. This often involves the same kind of designer narcissism that leads to #4. Nobody cares about your bad story and nobody wants to waste days searching every corner of your crappy open world.
GREIVANCE #6: High difficulty, low polish.
I’ve often said that an easy bad game is better than a difficult bad game, and that’s true even when the game isn’t bad per se but just unpolished. If your game has issues like a faulty camera or inconsistent timing on button presses or anything else that interferes with game play then you should build in some difficulty cushion for your players to avoid frustration. I can handle difficult games when everything feels fair and I know what I need to do to improve. When I’m playing a really difficult part and doing well but then I die because the camera gets stuck in the geometry you can bet I’m going to warn people away from your stupid garbage game. I understand that not everyone can afford to polish their game to an AAA sheen and that’s fine, but do your player the service of not punishing them for your ineptitude by killing them off because the camera couldn’t follow what they were doing or their grappling hook failed to deploy due to programming bugs. Please and thank you.
GREIVANCE #7: The Dark Soulsification of Everything
This sort of incorporates all the above grievances except for #4. Dark Souls is obviously a series with massive appeal and has had a lot of influence over gaming. I’m not a fan myself but I can respect these games and I’m obviously fine with there being clones and influences. I’ve even enjoyed some explicitly Souls influenced games like Death’s Door and Fallen Order. The problem with the Dark Souls influence is when it creeps into random games where high difficulty doesn’t really match the vibe and makes them teeth grindingly frustrating. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an example of this. It looks like a gentle adventure game modeled on 3D Zelda and Star Fox Adventures, and that’s the vibe you get from the story, but its boss encounters are all heavily Souls influenced and a real pain in the butt. It doesn’t make the game more fun or better, it just makes it take longer. Especially since this is a game with a deeply flawed camera that just can’t keep up with the action during a lot of the later boss fights. In general many of the Souls influenced games lack the series’ budget and development time, meaning that they throw in mechanics or ideas they are not capable of fully executing. A hard and very well designed game can be a joy, but most games don’t need to be very difficult. If your game’s pleasures lie in its visual design or story or sense of progression then throwing in viciously unfair bosses is often a big detriment rather than any kind of asset. A souls influence can be good if you’ve got the chops to make it work, but often it just ends up being difficulty or opacity for difficulty or opacity’s sake and that just sucks. Nobody has time for your self indulgence if you’re not Miyazaki, and you’re not Miyazaki, bro!
I’m sure I’ll get a bunch of blowback on this list and people saying “git gud” or other tripe. Bah, HUMBUG! I don’t care. The only person on this website who can make me cry is @rorie, and he would never! You’re all getting coal in your stocking next year if you disagree with me!
If, on the other hand, you want to join me in stuffing an egg in the Christmas spirit and embracing your inner grinch feel free to add your own grievances below. Holiday cheer is over, let’s get negative!