January 2020

Some basic game design theory

My last blog post reminded me of my childhood and probably the main reason why I was so fascinated by video games and this was that in video games you could do anything you want, full freedom of choice. Well in reality you probably have more freedom of choice then you can ever have in a video game, but that is because of technical limitations, the real problem with reality however is, that reality has harsh consequences, that you might not want to deal with. So the reason why video games were so cool was, that you had freedom of choice to do the things you could not do in real life.

This is probably also the reason, that videos games are often very violent or about being crazy and or criminal. I mean think about it, if you can do it in real life, why would you need a video game about it? This is probably the main reason video games exist. There may be other reasons like convenience, but I see it more as a threshold as to if you can or want to do it in real life or not. For example you might want to play soccer, but the weather is bad, so you chose the convenient option and play soccer in a video game. Of course there are also things you never can do in real life that you can do in video games, like exploring fantasy worlds.

While writing about all the bad game design choices I started to realize a common problem in many of them, but this can only be understood if you know some of the basics behind why video games exist. For example lets look at the postulation that video games exist to do things that you cannot do in real life. Therefore good game design is, if you make a game that is good at doing things you cannot do in real life and bad game design is, when you make a game that gives you artificial limitations just like they exist in real life. Sure some limitations need to exist in video games as well, otherwise it would be boring and not realistic, but the player does not really want to deal with those limitations, he wants to overcome them and not deal with the negative consequences or deal with them in a limited amount.

For example in real life there are lots of things you want, but cannot afford to buy, but in a video game you can get them for free or some games let you steal them. for which of course you will be punished in the video game, but you don't have to sit in prison for real or for long, in a video game you can just skip it. We can already see here how different games appeal to different experiences the user wants to have in that game, some people just want to have a race car instantly and drive it in races and some games appeal to the experience that you can steal those cars. Even in an example of a real life simulator where you have to work for everything, it is still a game, since maybe the time you have to do it is greatly reduced, so you can simulate a game of life in a few hours,days,weeks or months. So some people like to have the experience of having things instantly, others like the experience of getting things in a criminal way and some people like the experience of working for the things they want, but don't want to deal with real life time spans, they just want a short simulation.

I just came up with probably an even better explanation why games exist and it is about desire fulfillment. Every human has desires and some or a lot of them, cannot be fulfilled in real life, because of limitations of the person or the world or by time, this is where video games come in, to at least give people a good simulation of their desires being fulfilled.

And now I came up with probably an even better explanation about what bad game design is in general: Look at it from the desire perspective, the customer resorts to a video game, because he has desires he wants to have fulfilled and a well designed game will fulfill the desire the customer wants. Now let's look at all the bad game design choices, what do they all or many of them have in common? They make the experience worse for the customer and often this is even by design. So many video games today are intentionally designed to give the customer the worst experience the developers can get away with. Why the hell would anyone do that? The reason is simple: Money. And how the hell would that even work? Are people total idiots to tolerate that? Well maybe, but maybe they are being tricked into it. Let me tell you how it works. Look at some of the worst and most common things I listed in my blog posts about "Bad game design choices" like: Pay2Win, Loot Boxes, Cosmetics, Gambling, Unlocking system and some more I did not list yet. What do they all have in common? Well they make the game experience worse for the customer and what is needed to make it good again? The customer has to pay additional money.

This is how game design in a profit oriented capitalistic system works, products are only made just good enough so the customer will still buy them and does not complain too much and the lack of quality is made up with manipulating the customers through marketing into still buying the inferior quality products. A typical method in Pay To Win or Free To Play games is to make the initial experience really good and only make it worse over time, so the customer is already addicted, but to get the good experience in the long run he has to pay to make his experience good again.

Some of the things I wrote about as being bad game design have a different purpose and this is to make the customers experience of the game "better". I put it in quotes, because it is not really better, it is just made to make the customer feel better, while not actually improving the game. This is done by making the game so easy that the customer feels he is a good player at anytime. From the bad game design choices I listed the following fall into this category: Minimap, Pay to Win, Quest Markers, Achievements, Unlocking system, Pseudo RPG, all those things make the game easier and prevent the customer from failing. This is bad, because not the actual game is improved, but only the ego of the customer is boosted. This method is kind of clever since it circumvents all the hard work that is needed to make an actually good product that in turn makes the customer feel good, by directly making the customer feel good without improving the actual product.

So on one hand you have methods to make the customer feel worse, to motivate him to spend money and on the other hand you have methods to make the customer feel better, so he stays in the game. If you know this formula you can figure out by yourself all the bad game design choices I already wrote about and probably all that exist I did not wrote about or all that will exist in the future. I probably discovered the ultimate bad game design formula here. This is all you need to know as a developer to make an as badly designed game as you can get away with.

One could also argue from the capitalism criticism standpoint and postulate that all this is because of capitalism alone, since capitalism needs to maximize profit, which is not possible, when you actually spend resources into making a good product that makes the customer feel too good, since the better the product is and the better the customer feels, the less other products the customer will buy. The other extreme also does not work, if the product is obviously bad, the customer will not buy it either, so in capitalism it is always about making it as bad as you can get away with. Capitalism intentionally makes people feel worse, so they buy products to make them feel well again, this can also be seen in the video game industry very well. A Pay to Win game initially makes the customer feel good, then later it makes him feel bad and when he pays money it makes him feel good again and then the cycle repeats.

Further one could argue that in capitalism all products are inferior, because of the previously listed problems about how it is all about making profit. I wanted to say here that the solution would be open source games, but considering what the alternative actually is in real life, it is actually much worse than what the supposedly so bad capitalism produces. In the open source scene what you will primarily see is stagnation, since there is no motivation to produce good software or good games in this example, because there is no profit to be made and not even honor to be gained as I experienced myself that all the work I put into developing a free open source game was not only not thanked for by the open source community, but I was even bullied and banned in a lot of places, which is of course also not motivating.

So my conclusion is not that anti capitalistic as I planned to put it, since good work needs to be paid well or at least honored well otherwise nobody has the motivation to make good products or good games in this case, but really I don't know what the root problem is, most is probably just human defects as most or all of the problems I talk about could easily be solved, but people willingly refuse to do so through their ignorance.

For me personally games become more and more pointless in our "modern" age, since the initial spirit where you could do in video games what you could not do in real life gets reduced more and more, by putting in artificial limitations that cost real life money. Most people somehow do not seem to understand that in the virtual world there is no need for all the limitations and restrictions that you already have in real life, yes of course most people will now argue that you pay for the development and maintenance costs like servers, traffic etc, but they all probably have no clue how little money those things actually cost and how little actual work the developers put in.

If games become serious like real life, there is no point anymore to have them, since then playing real life again may give you a better experience. As an artist I see game development as a visualization tool, I can create anything that I want in the virtual world, there are no limitations and I cannot understand why so many people today put in artificial limitations into the virtual world and/or bring the problems of the real world into the virtual world as well, so you cannot even use video games as escapism anymore and therefore the main reason why we invented video games is destroyed.

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Bad game design choices: Pseudo RPG

There has been a trend over the time that degrades role playing games into what I call pseudo role playing games. Additionally there are games coming out made to look like role playing games, but not actually being role playing games, intentionally or unintentionally.

This is a bit related to my last blog post about the unlocking system, since a pseudo RPG is basically a role playing game that has been degraded into more of an unlocking system. A true role play game and an unlocking system have very similar mechanics, so it is hard to distinguish what is actually the problem here so let me start with a bit of explaining what an RPG (Role Playing Game) is:

A role playing game is a game where you play a role, well this is a kind of obvious, but the crucial part for it to be a true role playing game is, that you as a player have at least some degree of freedom of choice of what character or role you want to play, which then leads to different ways to play the game. If you have a "role playing game" without that freedom of choice it basically becomes an adventure game or interactive movie, where your role is already set and you are basically just unlocking the stages that the game already set for you how your character will progress and this is what I coined "Pseudo RPG".

It happened to me quite a few times where I bought or planned to buy a game, because I wanted to play an RPG just to find out later, it is only a pseudo RPG. It is sometimes hard to set the definition to when an RPG becomes pseudo RPG, since the boundaries are often fluent. It probably can be best seen in old RPGs that have later successors which turn more and more into pseudo RPG over time. So the traditional pseudo RPG development is like, at first you have a lot of freedom of choice, like you want to play a warrior, mage or thief, which are the classic and most basic classes, old RPGs often have a lot more classes, but I want to just use that as an example now:

Let's say you chose to play a mage in a traditional real RPG, this choice seriously affects your later game experience and how you have play the game, you have to use your brain more to solve the quests and be careful, since a mage is weak, but can be powerful if used right. I chose the mage for this example, because it is a hard to play role. At first you may be able to still beat the enemies with normal weapons or sneak and steal your way through, but the more you progress the more you have to stick to what skills you are training and what you are good at, this is what a role playing game is about, you chose a role and then stick with it and see how you can get through with it. Depending on the game initially you are able to change your path and figure out what you really want to be, but the more the game progresses the more you have to use your brain and play your role correctly to progress or at least to have a good game experience.

Now let us see how you play a pseudo RPG: At first all looks very similar, you can often still chose between classes or play styles and all plays very similar to a real RPG. The difference becomes apparent the more you progress, since the more you progress, the more you realize it does not really matter what you do, since the game is so easy that you can beat it any way, you can use your sword, or some spells or sneak through, everything kind of works. Game designers make this so casual players do not get frustrated, because they made mistakes in their character development. It looks like a good design choice, but if you look closer they try to fix the problem the wrong way, instead of improving the skill system, they make it more linear that you are left with less and less room to make errors, but making errors is what an RPG is all about. In a Pseudo RPG all you do is basically unlock the skills and all your individuality is left to the choice if and when you want to unlock the different skills, but in the end you can be anything, you can be a warrior, a mage and a thief at the same time with no or hardly any drawbacks. Some hardcore pseudo RPG do not even leave you the choice if and when you have to unlock certain skills, the game forces you to unlock certain skills otherwise you cannot progress the game.

I hope it became more clear what the difference is. To sum it up shorter:

In a real RPG you end up with lots of individual characters that play individually and give you an individual game experience, so it can be played again multiple times and you get a new experience.

In a pseudo RPG all characters are almost identical at the end, play almost the same and give you roughly the same game experience every time and cannot be replayed much without getting really boring.

And even shorter:

Real RPGs give you freedom of choice.

Pseudo RPGs give you no freedom of choice.

And maybe shortest:

RPG = Variety

Pseudo RPG = Linear

As said it is hard to draw a line to when an RPG is real or pseudo, since every game has both elements, it is the amount that is often drastically different. Sure you cannot give the player 100% freedom, that would be too much work to program and leads to bugs and exploits in the long run which again ruin the experience, but I think you should have a significant amount of freedom in an RPG, otherwise the term RPG is pointless and it could as well be called adventure or interactive movie. The problem nowadays is that the trend goes to making RPGs more and more into pseudo RPGs leaving hardly an real RPG elements in there. Well that is not really the problem, since the game might still be good, the problem is more in the false advertising, since as I said in an example before, that it happened to me multiple times now that I bought what I thought an RPG, because I wanted to play an RPG, just to find out later, I did not play an RPG and I was fooled, this is the core problem here and of course the overall vanishing of RPGs by turning them into pseudo RPGs.

Nothing is good or bad in general, it is all defined as in what you plan to achieve, if you want to create an RPG, but end up with an interactive movie, then it is bad game design, but if you planned to make an interactive movie with no freedom of choice and also call it an interactive movie, then you did good game design.

I have to correct myself, regarding game design there is a general good and bad, since what is planned to be achieved is already set and it is to create a game (obviously) and the definition of a game can be used to tell, if a game is well designed or not. A game is designed in having a goal, means to achieve the goal and rules (rules can probably be left out here since a video game should enforce the rules automatically, if not it is called an exploit). The game is what happens how you try to achieve the goal, the game is about trying out different methods and see how well they work and an RPG is especially made so having the freedom to play how you want is essential to the game. If the game is completely linear then there is no game, just like a movie, a movie may be nice to look at and the viewer might think he plays a role in the movie, but in reality he does not do so at all and that is exactly the problem with pseudo RPGs, since pseudo RPGs fool the player into thinking that he is playing a game, while he is actually not and just moving on a pre-destined path he just has to unlock, but in the end it is just a movie.

I just realized this gets very philosophical and may need another article, since as a game designer it is really hard to give the player true freedom of choice, where the trick probably lies in how to best fool the player into thinking he has free choice or give him a few pre-destined choices to chose from. So I will close this train of thought for now, but I stay with my position that many RPGs today are so obviously not RPGs, that for RPG players there is hardly any reason to play them and the reason I wrote this is because I'm one of them.

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Bad game design choices: Unlocking System

I don't really know where this trend started, but the first times I really noticed it was on console games. I never had a modern game console, since I think they are pointless, but I noticed it when watching others play games on console, lots of those games are build around some kind of unlocking system.

What is an unlocking system? Well basically an unlocking system locks away features of the game until you fulfilled the conditions to unlock them. One of the primary reasons this is done is probably to artificially prolong the playtime, by forcing players to do more of the boring things first until they get the better content.

Why is this bad? Well it is bad, because there is no logic or backstory behind it and it makes the gaming experience artificially worse even though it does not have to be. For example why would you have to race a certain track 50 times in order to unlock a new racing car? There is no real life equivalent to it. A real life equivalent would be, that you need to do it, to earn money to buy the car, but this would already not be an unlocking system, because there is no fixed conditions or behavior you have to do, you can use all the game has to offer to make the money to buy the car ingame.

It is also pointless to have an unlocking system in a video game. Video games were made so you can do things in the virtual world that you cannot do in real life or are limited in real life. If you now introduce an unlocking system into a video game, you remove one of the points why video games are made in the first place and this is to have no limitations. This also gives us one of the reasons this is so common on console games, but less on PC games and this is because consoles can be easier limited and cheating on them is harder, since on PC players could just cheat to unlock everything, especially if it is just a single player game.

The unlocking system is similar to the achievement system, the big difference is only that an achievement system does not limit things for real in the game, the achievements are just medals while the unlocking items are real items or content in the game that is unlocked. So it is a bit complicated to handle each of those bad game design choices individually, since they often go hand in hand or are based on another.

The unlocking system is also part of the mechanics that are hostile towards open source software, since it controls the user by locking away content and features away from him and extorting him to do certain often boring and pointless tasks in order to get them back. There is no real reason to have such artificial limitations in a software unless it is part of the game. Many games have mechanics where content and features are limited inside the game, but they build it into the game mechanics itself like you need to gather the resources to buy or build the new content or research to get new features and abilities. It is also common for games to have different game modes, like one where you play with limited resources and one where you have unlimited, or sometimes cheat codes are easily available or build into the game, so players who do not want to grind can use the other game modes.

Even within the game an unlocking system is not logic and not balanced. Within the game you should be rewarded for actually achieving something or using your brain, not by just repeating a certain task a certain amount of time. An unlocking system rewards players that put a lot of time into the game and repeat boring tasks, which is kind of conditioning people to waste more time than they would into a game and having less fun than they would have, by having the good stuff right from the start or at least the ability to have it by gathering resources to buy them.

With an unlocking system a player gets access to better equipment and abilities within the game even though he did not actually do anything to earn them in the game. This is very harmful regarding the balancing in multiplayer games, I mean for example why would you want to play a racing game where the players that play it for longer have access to better cars and therefore have an advantage over you. If the game says you need enough money to buy those better cars I would give it a pass as a legitimate game design choice, but with an unlocking system you cannot get the better cars even, if you managed to earn the money for it in game, they are just locked away and there is nothing you can do to get them except do the exact often boring and repetitive task the game forces you to do.

You can see the unlocking system is a similar problematic in multiplayer games than pay to win, the difference here is just that not the player who pays more gets the unfair advantage, but the player who plays longer who gets the unfair advantage. Sure the person who invests more time is in general also better at the game, but this is because he learns skills to be better at the game and uses that skill to earn money or resources in the game, where he can purchase advantages over others, but all those mechanics are not absolute, meaning you can get around them, by learning faster or playing more intelligent/efficient, but an unlocking system you cannot get around, it is a hard boundary. Not every player who invests more time also automatically gets better, it is just a tendency, in fact a large portion of people never get better no matter how much time they put in, if they do not have the intelligence to learn to play more professionally.

I just notice the previous mechanic leads me to another mechanic as to why unlocking systems are so popular, it is about psychology. At the beginning I explained how unlocking systems artificially increase the play time, by forcing or rewarding players to do often boring and repetitive tasks they normally would not do. So the first main reason is to artificially increase playtime, this is very important so you earn more money and stay popular longer as a developer now lets get to the second reason an unlocking system is so good for a game developer and this is that you not only retain the player base for longer, but also attract and retain newbies inside the game. Some time ago I read an article about psychology on how to motivate people to play and stay inside a game and for that one part was to introduce random events that allows less skilled players to get some scores/kills or whatever in the game. You understand? People need the feeling of success or achievement in order to stay motivated to play a game, but if you would only reward actual real achievements then you would lose the losers/less skilled/newbie etc players as your customers and so by introducing random events you motivate them staying inside the game and this is exactly what an unlocking system also does.

Imagine a loser that is too stupid to ever improve at the game, what will he do? Well he will very likely get frustrated and/or even quit the game or not play it for long to begin with. So you introduce an unlocking system, that rewards him mostly based on playtime, so our loser player will constantly having the feeling of success, because he constantly unlocks something even though he did not do anything to do so. The first part of this mechanic already keeps him playing, but in the long run this may not be satisfying enough, the loser player also wants to get a win against the better players and through the unlocking system he can get that, since he will have access to better equipment, weapons, abilities etc than more skilled players that have put less time into the game and therefore have an advantage over other players which allows them to occasionally get a win, even though they could not do so under fair conditions. This system sometimes even beats pay to win, since in some games you cannot even unlock those things through money inside the game, so it also motivates non pay to win players to stay in the game, since they still can have somewhat of an advantage over paying to win players. It is kind of a win win win situation for the developer if done right.

I begin to think that my list of bad game design choices is actually a list of good game design choices from the view of the developer, but I want to handle it from the view of the customer, since he is the one actually consuming the product, which is indeed made worse through those practices I list here. However in some cases I'm not that sure if such a bad game design choice is actually really a bad choice, but this is more a problem with human psychology, so I do not bother right now. I want to look at those issues under ideal conditions with mentally healthy consumers.

Well this has gotten longer than expected, but while writing this I remembered again as to why I created Uebergame and it is because modern proprietary games often have so many unnecessary restrictions that do not need to be there, I mean you have a software and a virtual world where you theoretically can do anything you want, which is what I was aiming at with Uebergame and the unlocking systems are one part of those unnecessary restrictions. Many of those bad game design choices would probably solve itself if the game was open source, for example the unlocking system would not work, since people could just go into the source code and undo it, it would only work if the game was multiplayer and the server would set the rules that you would have to unlock certain things, but even then people can make their own server with their own rules. But sadly people do not seem to care about solving those issues with open source, most likely it is those losers that prevent things from getting better, since they actually like such restrictions since it benefits them. In a losers mind it is probably more important to get an unfair advantage over other people instead of getting freedom which would remove the possibility of unfair advantages or false prestige.

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