Personal Preference vs. Bad Design
Some people call that “not handholding.” I call it “bad design.” Yeah, some people might like it, but most people don’t, and if most gamers don’t like your game, you’ve failed as a designer.
Then one guy responded with:
Does this mean that anything unpopular is therefore bad? Is Grindcore, for example, a failure of music and artistry because most people don’t like it?
Here’s the thing. Yeah, I know that sometimes it boils down to personal preference. I know that when I don’t like something in a game it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad game. I’ve known this for years, and I definitely knew it when I criticized the hell out of Fallout. But here’s the other thing: There is also such a thing as good design and bad design in games. I know this because the same can be said for music, film, literature, and pretty much any form of art and entertainment.
So I ask you this: Where do you draw the line? When does it stop being a matter of taste, and start being a matter of bad design philosophy?
This is not a trivial question, and it’s something that’s been bugging me for awhile. You could say that as long as there’s an audience who likes it that means it isn’t bad design, but you have to remember that there’s quite a large audience who thinks Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is “like, totally fucking awesome.” Yet it’s still a bad movie.
There are people who like it when games kick them all the way back to the start of the level (or in the case of some people, to the start of the game) for screwing up once. It doesn’t matter how bad a particular design choice is; there will always be people who like it. That doesn’t mean it’s good.
See, I remember playing The Sims 3 somewhat recently, and while I didn’t really enjoy it much, I do have to say that it’s quite a well-designed game. It really stands out from most other games, because it’s all about player-driven story. When you create a character you choose a goal for her and work toward it using all the different parts of the great big sandbox city. Your character has a job and has needs and she will age overtime, so you have to use time management skills to work toward whatever goal you’ve set while also making sure your character lives a happy life. And as you make these choices, those choices define the life your character lives. Will she be an artist, an accountant, an actress, what? Will she get a part-time job at a fast food joint or will she make money on the side by painting and selling portraits? Will she be a party animal or a hermit? When the trailer says “infinite possibilities,” it really isn’t kidding.
This is something we rarely see in games. Most games have one predetermined story, and while a lot of RPGs give you some leeway in terms of how events will unfold, it’s pretty much set in stone where you’ll be going and what will happen. In The Sims 3, everything is up to you. The reason I didn’t enjoy it much is because while it is a glorious triumph of player-driven story, said story will inevitably have a rather slow pace as you work your way toward your goal, and the gameplay just got too repetitive for me to stick with it.
But I can still acknowledge that it’s a very well-designed and creative game. See, guys? I don’t think everything that bores me is an inherently bad game!
So why did I give Fallout such a hard time? Because I do think that the beginning of Fallout was objectively bad. (I’m not going to say the whole game is bad, since I didn’t play it all the way through. That would be ignorant of me.) In that little first impressions review I wrote I think I pointed out some genuinely bad design.
You may ask why I’m bringing this Fallout business up now. Well, there’s two reasons for that. Firstly, because I got into a very long, drawn-out argument with some friends about this very topic yesterday and it really got me thinking. Secondly, because to this day I still get frustrated when I think of how some people responded to my Fallout review way back when. It’s fine to disagree with me, but some people seemed to assume that I know nothing about game design and criticism. It probably sounds petty, and that’s probably because it is petty, but damn it, I want some closure.
The question I asked remains unanswered: Where do you draw the line?