The worst design advice we’ve heard

Lug 29

Some of the worst game design advice we’ve heard, and why it’s bad.

Game designers are constantly seeking to push the boundaries of the medium. With so many excellent games already out there, the best way to get noticed is to add a unique, original twist. (In fact, pitches for new games are considered incomplete if they can’t demonstrate some kind of USP). Some of the best game designers, therefore, show a willingness to throw out rules and conventions and forge their own path in pursuit of an idea.

Screenshot from Narbacular Drop, an innovative experimental puzzle game that led directly to the development of Portal.

Which explains why there’s such a wide variety of often contradictory game design advice out there. Most of it has some kind of merit, but here are a few suggestions we’ve heard that have left us scratching our heads – or which, put into practice, have led to disaster.

“If you want to get noticed, try to add your own twist to everything you design.”

Whoa there. Everything? Sure, there are people out there creative enough to think up a dozen wacky new ways of doing any given thing. But even if you can, that doesn’t mean you should.

Design conventions exist for good reasons: firstly, so that players don’t have to learn everything from the ground up every time they start a new game; and secondly, to save you reinventing the wheel. When you’re designing things like UI and control schemes, you should be looking at games that successfully do the things you want to do, and copying the hell out of them.

Portal Knights borrows cheerfully from Minecraft for its UI elements and building gameplay – and then adds its own unique features on top.

If you go off in a crazy direction, you’ll likely waste time on a bunch of failed iterations and then end up with something similar to what those other guys did – because they already did that iteration for you.

For the basic stuff, start from what you know works, and tweak it to your needs. That leaves you time to get creative where it counts – in your game’s big unique features.

“This type of game is really popular right now. You should cash in on that!”

…said every corporate game studio owner ever, at some point or another. Also probably your mum, and your friends down the pub. Here are three reasons why you should think really hard before taking their advice:

  • Making a game can take years. Will the genre’s popularity have waned by the time you release?
  • Every other developer out there is having the same thought. Expect to see half a dozen clones released at the same time as yours, some of whom will likely have big bucks and big names behind them. Can you compete?
  • If it’s an online game, is there room in the market for a clone? Large player bases in online games are self-perpetuating – people like to play what their friends are playing, and having lots of players around is better for socialising and matchmaking. It’s a big ask to draw significant numbers of people away from that.

Online games are inherently social. How do you convince players to choose your product over their existing loyalties?

Remember when MMOs got huge? It seemed like every major developer tried to get in on the MMO act. The majority of resulting games failed to retain the numbers they needed to survive – because established games like World of Warcraft had the market cornered. MOBAs? Same thing happened. Battle Royale games? Yup.

“Just focus on implementing stuff – we’ve got QA to play the game for us.”

You might hear other designers say this sometimes, but the commonest source of this insidious game design advice is our own heads. Amid the day-to-day stress of game development, it makes perfect sense – there’s tons to do, and you’re playing the game every day to test your stuff – sure, you’re using cheats to skip quickly to the bit you need to test, but it kind of counts, right?

It really doesn’t.

Make time to play your game as a player would. See how all the systems you’ve designed are interacting. Do this as early as feasible and keep doing it at regular intervals through development. If you get to beta and haven’t actually played through your game, you’ve probably missed some crucial design issues you’re now going to be hard pressed to address, such as “this major feature isn’t actually much fun”. I speak from experience.

“It’s a safe change, chuck it in.”

Usually heard from a lead (designer, artist or coder) about ten minutes before a milestone build is due. Almost inevitably, panic ensues, as the QA team test the build and find it crashes on startup.

Probable result of an incautious check-in on milestone day.

I’ll stop here, but there’s plenty of terrible game design advice being offered on a daily basis. Sometimes you won’t know it’s bad until you’ve tried it and learnt from your mistakes. Sometimes it’s great advice for a particular situation being misapplied elsewhere. Sometimes it’s advice that works for some people, but not for you. My advice: take all advice with a pinch of salt. Use what makes sense to you, and be prepared to learn from mistakes – both yours and other people’s.