About games and gaming thereof!

Personal Preference vs. Bad Design

So as you all know by now, I didn’t have a pleasant experience with Fallout 1. In one post about it I said:

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?


12 responses

  1. Okay, here’s my take on it. Personal preference is type of gameplay, and bad design is how those gameplay mechanics are implemented. For example moral choice systems: Having deep, meaningful choices is good design, shallow, useless choices are bad design. When a game has poor choices, the defenders of the game will quickly point out things the game did well, like combat. I have never seen anyone argue that shallow choices is actually a good thing. The disagreement comes from personal preference, of which mechanics are considered the most important, but most people can recognize shallow choices as bad design.

    I may be wrong but it seems like you have a similar experience with Sims 3. You recognize it as a well designed game, but you were bored with the mechanics. Type of gameplay vs implementation, and in this case you seem to be bored with the type of gameplay, but respect the implementation.

    Speaking of bad design, this is exactly the thing I would blog about if I wasn’t wasting so much time making a crappy game.

    June 23, 2011 at 10:23 AM

  2. Nivek

    when at least 6/10 poeple can look at a game and say why the fuck would anyone think this is a good idea? or when at least 6/10 people get so frustrated by little things that they stop playing (“rage quit”). there is also a difference between bad design and lack of resources…. you cant just say “it would be soo much better this way” because you arent one of the game designers! you dont know how changing one aspect of the game would affect other parts or if the team had the time and resources to have whatever you are suggesting! as someone who spent 17 years watching games being developed i learned several things: 1, it takes alot of time to code anything. 2, it takes alot of trial and error to make sure nothing fucks up anything and still runs properly. 3, hundreds of great ideas get tossed around and whaat makes the final cut depends on time, money, resources, the talent of the coders, and what the guy holding the money wants. 4, until you have designed a game you dont really know how much hard work and time and energy and money go into making whatever comes out. 5, sometimes there are just plain bad design choices but a good number times there is a reason why something is done a certain way, one that might not make sense to you but there is a reason. 6, if there is a stupid idea that made it into the game, its probably because the guy holding the money is a retard and wanted to have it llike that.

    And JPH is right people, you can like a game when it has bad design just like you can hate a game when it has good design. you can have your own opinions but just because you have an opinion doesnt mean your opinion is right (or wrong, for that matter)

    Case in Point: I adored the first Assassin’s Creed even though it was designed to be the same three set-up missions followed by and assassination and get-away, repeated like eight times. I still loved it despite the bad game desgin. I also hate the Sims, because it is boring as shit! you are paying money to live a simulated life! heres an idea….go live your life and have fun outside of a video game! you can get everything you get from sims in real life! (ok the grim reaper probally wont offer to turn you into a zombie if you die but other than that…) but as JPH said it is designed beautifully, everything works well and flows and thousands of people enjoy it. I dont, nor do i understand why they enjoy it, but it is still a marvel of modern day game design! (even though nothg really has changed between Sims 1 and Sims 3 or whatever the newest one is)

    June 23, 2011 at 10:34 AM

  3. ‘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.’

    You see, that’s exactly the point. There will always be people who like it! Are they wrong because they are the minority? No. It’s what works for them, at that given moment. Time goes by: people change, tastes change, level of sophistication changes and technology changes too (exponentially so). If most of us would nowadays say ‘beginning of Fallout 1 is badly designed’, it would be because all of us had similar experience in gaming, and played all those new games every year which placed the standards higher and higher. If you could theoretically find a man who until 2011 played only Super Mario, Comander Keen, Tyrian and Might & Magic, and then got him to try Fallout – he would probably be swept away by the weird awesomeness and strangeness of an experience completely new and never seen before.

    The answer is: everybody draws the line, but it’s their line. In the era of instantaneous information, everybody tend to share the same experience and consequently often draw the line at pretty much the same spot. But you know, something that is highly praised today (some Bioshock or Portal 2 design solution) could one day very well be considered a bad (or at least very obsolete) design choice.

    All we can (and should) do is find the design that works for us right now, and enjoy the process. The notion that games could be objectively and absolutely evaluated is an illusion.

    Also, thanks for a great read, as always.

    June 23, 2011 at 6:00 PM

  4. Falcon

    I would personally define time as the key element of bad design. If a design element wastes my time, it is bad design.

    Example from a game I love, Mass Effect 2. The scanning minigame. It is bad design because it is 1) mandatory 2) boring (I’m sure there are a few who disagree, but they are a very small minority) 3) time consuming.

    It provides no fun itself, it is needed to get the fun stuff though. It serves no purpose but to sink time into. I.e it wastes my time.

    Same goes for old school RPGs with perma death/ delete save stuff. It’s bad design because the point of the game is to advance a story, but failing makes you repeat hours upon hours of now old gameplay.

    Rougelikes though do not count as bad design because the purpose of the game is merely see how long you survive. Permadrath is a feature there.

    June 23, 2011 at 6:59 PM

  5. I think this is going be a hard question to answer, as for me ‘good design’ simply means ‘allowing the user to do whatever the intent of the designed product is, in an as efficient and satisfying manner as possible’. And this is difficult to apply to video games.

    As an example: Oblivion. I remember reading somewhere (citation needed) that one of the design choices for Oblivion was to give the players little to no barrier to entry. That is, players had to be able to go everywhere, do everything, and not feel obstructed. The way this was accomplished, (in-)famously, was by the level scaling system. You know the one.

    Here’s where it gets hairy: line up the design goal (not impeding players, ever) with the implementation (level scaling), and it becomes apparent that the scaling does what it set out to do… in a way. So technically speaking, working from the design goal set earlier, the solution of ‘level scaling’ is not a bad choice.

    However, speaking as a disgruntled Oblivion player, I want to find the people responsible for the level scaling idea and force them to watch Transformers 2. And I know I’m not the only one who was, let’s say dissappointed by this mechanic (citation needed).

    So was level scaling a bad design choice? I honestly can’t decide.

    June 24, 2011 at 7:45 AM

    • Actually i might have a line of reasoning to argue level scaling is bad design.

      Often I here Oblivion described a sandbox-RPG. The sandbox part fits with design goal you mentioned, not impeding the player, but why would they make it an RPG? I mean RPG in the sense of leveling up and getting more powerful, and more abilities over time, no actual roleplaying. What design goal could make the game an RPG, there really seems to be one possible explanation, they wanted the character to get more powerful as they played the game. If that was not a design goal than RPG mechanics are useless waste, and should not be in the game.

      Now there’s the other possibility, getting more powerful was a design goal, in which case level scaling is a problem. No matter how powerful the player gets, they don’t really notice because everything else gets more powerful as well. If the goal was to make the player more powerful than its a design failure, because from the player’s perspective they never do get more powerful.

      So basically there’s too situations, either making the player grow in power is a design goal, or it isn’t. In both cases there’s a way to point out design failure. I think its pretty solid logic.

      June 24, 2011 at 9:59 AM

  6. Bubble181

    @maxff: not quite true. A properly-designed character *will* get stronger compared to the enemies…Up to a certain level.. He’ll also have much cooler toys to play with. A rat at level 20 is still just a small critter attacking you with his teethe, even if he does 10x the damage, has a higher crit chance, higher defence, and more hit points than at level 1. You, on the other hand, have gone from lowly magician with a little fireball to superwizard throwing nuclear bombs around, flattening the countryside.
    This only holds true partially, for certain character classes, for certain enemies, and up to a certain point, unfortunately. The end bosses are completely impossible to defeat at too high a level, as they are at too low levels. Some of the “weaker” enemies become nigh-impossible to kill because some stats go off the scale (such as the aforementioned rat…I think around level 50 or so they achieved a 100% dodge chance against any and all attacks. Yay!). It was badly-implemented scaling, which clearly made it bad design. Well-designed scaling….well, I probably still wouldn’t have liked it (I really hated it in Oblivion, mind :-P), but I’m pretty sure it can work.

    As for bad design vs personal taste, it’s a very difficult matter. In all things – games, music, architecture,… “Bad design”, to me, is something that doesn’t accomplish what it set out to do, or does so in an exceedingly stupid/ineffective/irksome/high-maintenance/… way.

    To give a silly example; in a city about 50 kilometers from here, they built a new courthouse. There’s an inner courtyard, where suspects/convicts can be brought by the police, and taken directly to a holding cell or the courtroom, without having to be brought outside – thus lessening the chance of escape, making assassination attempts much harder, but also making them less public towards the press. All in all, a good idea, you’d say. Unfortunately, the way the building’s designed, the archway the police combis have to drive through is too low – no police car can actually GET ONTO that inner courtroom. Meaning that, in the end, the police cars have to stop on the public visitors’ parking, and suspects/convicts escorted by the police through the courtyard, into the building itself.
    This is, without a doubt, Bad Design.
    That same building has a “modern” roofing structure, which makes it look, to some people, like a bunch of upside-down french fries packets. Most people I know don’t like the look of it. However, those silly rooftops do help in cooling the building, making sure each courtroom has a lot of indirect sunlight, is at a pleasurable temperature almost year round without heating or air conditioning, and the rooms, from the inside, are quite airy. Is this bad design? I don’t know. I’m not a huge fan of the artistic choice made by the architect, but it does *work*. So, a design choice, disliked by a lot of people, but all in all, not necessarily bad.

    As for games – a lot of things we have grown used to. While I, personally, don’t play on consoles, and therefore, don’t care a fig whether the left joystick is running and the right one is looking, or vice versa, I’ve heard friends say a game which changes these around is “badly designed” because it messes with preconceptions and habits.
    I wouldn’t say it’s badly designed for putting those joysticks the other way ’round from what they’re used to; it may be more logical or more practical this way. I *would* call it badly designed, though, for not allowing a player to remap their keys as they see fit.

    All in all:
    Bad Design -> Something that doesn’t achieve its goals.
    bad design -> Something that does achieve the goals it sets out for, but causes some sort of other problems, so that a large part of the players dislike it; often with another way of solving the problem that would’ve worked much better.
    good design -> Something nobody ever comments on :-P
    Good Design -> Something that achieves the goals it sets out to do, in such a way that other games copy it, and it’s a new measure other games are compared to. Doing something in a new and novel way, that works better than other solutions.

    Wall of Text crits you for 3d10 +2 psionic damage. Roll a Will save vs DC 17 or be dazed for 1d4-1 rounds. Sorry.

    June 24, 2011 at 1:18 PM

    • JPH

      Gah! You suck. I’ve been getting horrible d20 rolls for the past few weeks or so, you can ask any of my friends. ><

      June 24, 2011 at 1:43 PM

    • My three levels in the Speed Reading prestige class allow me to ignore the dazing effect of a Wall of Text. The damage still stands, though.

      I like your (second-to) last paragraph, and might steal it in the future. Fair warning, sorry.

      June 30, 2011 at 5:20 AM

    • Sumanai

      I don’t know if I’ve argued with you about this on the Twentysided site before, but just in case I haven’t:

      Let’s look at what the auto-leveling is supposed to achieve:

      No level too low that you can’t win in a fight.
      No level too high that a fight is too easy.

      There are three general outcomes of doing it right:

      Auto-leveling negates the effects of the RPG-system.
      – PC will still have all his Perks (water jumping etc.)
      The same outcome could be achieved by removing the normal leveling system and putting in its stead a Special Ability -system where if you get enough XP you can buy yourself a Perk. (In Oblivion type you get a Perk when you use the “Skill” enough.)

      Auto-leveling doesn’t quite negates the effects of the RPG-system, but enough that even at maximum level no fight is a cakewalk (unless it was meant to be a cakewalk to begin with).
      – PC will have his Perks on top of his Skills.
      MNALES: Scale the effects of the RPG-system (how much damage/health increases) downwards and you should get the same effect. Only difference is that the numbers don’t go much larger from the beginning, but since the countering numbers from enemies go up the same, there’s no difference.

      Auto-leveling goes further than the effects of the RPG-system, but not so much anything ends up unreasonably difficult even at the highest level.
      – PC will have his Perks.
      – Players will be confused as the PC gets weaker compared to enemies the more they gain levels.
      MNALES: Change RPG-system into a reverse system, where more XP means weaker PC, but more Perks. (In Oblivion type when you use a Skill it slowly gets worse, but you get Perks when they lower a set amount.)

      All of the MNALES have one benefit too. They should be easier to implement, since the designers don’t need to dance around with a Level-Scaling model.


      I don’t think Auto-leveling can achieve anything that wouldn’t be simpler to do by just adjusting the RPG-system.

      July 18, 2011 at 12:17 PM

  7. GiantRaven

    Did you steal my comment? I demand compensation!

    A good entry. I’d say you pretty successfully showed me up with your logic and…stuff.

    For what it’s worth, I do also agree that the beginning (hell, I don’t really like the majority of the game) of Fallout wasn’t particularly good, I just took issue with the idea that somebody is a failure simply for making something that most (or, not all) people don’t like. That’s probably just my inner failed musician coming out to play though…

    Apologies if my comment (god I really hope that was my comment) sounded a little rude as well.

    June 25, 2011 at 6:14 AM

    • JPH

      Nah, your comment didn’t seem rude at all. You raised a good point; it did sound like I was saying that anything unpopular is bad.

      June 25, 2011 at 8:32 AM

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