Now on with the show.
7. Being inconsistent
Is that a baddie or is that one of your allies? Is that a door or a piece of wall? Is that lava, toxic slime or just shag-pile carpet? What's going on here? Inconsistency is a huge source of frustration for your player. It's never any fun when you lose, but it's even worse if there's no way you can tell why you lost.
Why it happens:
You're going to quickly lose a player if they can't clearly and quickly identify potential threats and distinguish them from the safe places. Consistency in a game establishes the rules of the world. It's important to establish these rules early and stick to them, because your player needs them. It's called 'training the player'. Your game provides consequences and reactions for everything your player does. Over time your player can learn to predict the consequences of an action. When they predict correctly (I knew that monster was going to pop out of that sewer pipe, because it happened to me just before) they feel prepared and empowered, not to mention a little bit paranoid the next time they pass another sewer pipe.
How to avoid it:
It's the games that fell down at the design stage that are most likely to be inconsistent. Take care to think carefully about your game from the perspective of the player. What will the player see when they look down this corridor, how will the player react when faced with this monster? Is there even the slightest chance that something in your game might confuse your player? It's important to have an answer to these types of questions at the design stage. If you get to the build stage and the designer is confused about how to tell two different enemies apart, you can bet the player is going to be completely lost. Your design document is your greatest friend at this point. Draw pictures, make notes, write stories about your characters. All these ideas will help flesh out and individualise your characters and your world later down the track.
6. Being repetitive
Your player has tirelessly explored the first level of a huge catacomb, hunting for gold. They find a makeshift rope elevator and, breath held in trepidation, they descend into the dim second level. And they find... exactly the same rocks placed in exactly the same way with exactly the same monsters hiding in the exact same shadows.
Oh great - more rocks...
Why it happens:
It's rarely intentional. Game designers won't often go out fo their way to make four identical levels with four identical goals and obstacles. Unfortunately, sometimes a designer runs out of time or simply runs out of other ideas.
A game designer runs into the office, despondent, and cries, "The deadline is looming, the game has to be sent out to the publisher in a week and we still haven't worked out the lava world!"
And a response comes back, "Oh don't worry, just make that water world look orange and throw in some of those fighting fish. We'll call 'em 'lava-fish!'"
It's not what I'd call a neat solution but it works, especially when you've run out of time. Truth be told, there may be occasions as a game designer where it's your only option. But it's annoying to your player because it shows you ran out of time or simply didn't care enough to come up with enough ideas to see your game the whole way through. The player feels cheated, they play the game for the challenge of overcoming new obstacles, not facing the same old problems again and again.
How to avoid it:
Design, design, design. An hour of effort in the early stages planning out all your worlds will save you much heartache and stress later down the line. It's okay to have games that repeat themselves sometimes, remember that this gives your player more time to practice the skills you are teaching them. For example, if one level asks your player to pick 5 apples and return them to Farmer John, your game teaches them to expect that apples may need to be picked. You can 'repeat' this level once or twice without that sneaking feeling of repetition by maybe throwing in another obstacle, perhaps this time the apple orchard is guarded by a mythical creature, or the player has to choose only the red apples as green or yellow apples contain deadly poison. Effectively we have the player performing the exact same task three times in a row, collecting 5 apples, but by adding more challenging elements it feels like a different level each time.
5. Not rewarding the player
Playing a game is hard work! Just like any other hard work, it feels good to be rewarded for it. Games reward players with power-ups, or better weapons, or new abilities. These rewards change the way the game plays, they make the player feel more powerful and they allow the game designer to introduce tougher, cleverer enemies. It's a win-win-win, keeping the gameplay fresh, encouraging your player to play your game and giving you more freedom as a game designer.
High-profile sinners: Bill Nye - The Science Guy: Stop the Rock!, Halo 3: ODST
Why it happens:
Games that don't reward the player simply aren't fun to play. Games always try to reward the player, but sometimes - whether it's because they don't understand their own game or they don't understand their player - the player just doesn't feel rewarded. As a result the game feels like a hard slog, it's a struggle to get to the end.
How to avoid it:
To properly reward the player, you have to understand what your player's going to get out of playing your game. One of the most difficult transitions for a game designer to make is the transition from designer to player on their own game. It's easy for a game designer to play other games and pick out flaws and complaints, but it's very difficult to see where your own game fails to satisfy the player. The easiest way then to find out if your game feels too hard, or not rewarding enough, is to give it to your friends and family to test it. A game that fails to reward the player can easily be saved in the testing stage. All your ideas have been fleshed out and turned into a game, the testing stage then allows you to tweak your game. Adding rewards can be as basic as giving the player a scoreboard that ticks up as they play.
Next week we will be continuing the list of the top 10 mistakes made by game designers, working ever closer to the number one most common mistake made by game designers. Looking forward to seeing you then.