During this year’s Steam holiday sale, I decided to spend $5 and pick up Duke Nukem Forever. While I was playing it, several of my Steam friends sent me messages questioning my sanity which I promptly ignored. DNF isn’t the first bad game I’ve bought (on sale mind you,) and it won’t be the last, as it’s important as a designer to not just play the best games out there.
One of the common attributes of excellent games is polish. This comes from an acute understanding of the genre and smoothing out any wrinkles in design, with phrases like “stream-lined” and “accessible” as common praises for great games. The problem when playing nothing but good games is that you can’t see the traps designers can fall into when designing a game.
From poor UIs, to technical issues and of course problems with the design itself, there is a lot to look for when playing a bad game. The feel of the mechanics is a huge deal, and is one of the defining aspects between good and bad game design. It’s easier to see the differences in feel between a good and a bad game vs. looking at two good games.
Last year I bought Dante’s Inferno knowing full well all the negative reviews for it. As someone who has played just about every major action title to be released on consoles, with my knowledge I was able to see the issues with control and design with the game and learned from the game and how it compared to titles like Bayonetta and Ninja Gaiden. With Duke Nukem, the feel of the weapons were off along with the controls when I put it side by side with games like Serious Sam 3 or Bullet Storm.
The other importance of playing bad games is that many bad or below average games have small areas of positive design. Whether that it is a fluke, or the designer’s original intentions you can see what they were striving for and the problems that got in the way. It’s a common occurrence that games that try to do something unique aren’t the most polish. As when you are going into uncharted territory, you don’t have a frame of reference. Games like Hinterland, Evil Genius among others were not highly reviewed due to issues with polish and design but did try to do something different. As a designer, you can learn from what they were trying to do and try to figure out ways to get around their issues.
Going back to Duke Nukem, I did like the concept of the Ego bar or regenerating shield, grow as Duke does manly things in the world. Was the mechanic fully fleshed out? Hell no, but it was a good idea that needed more nurturing.
One of the ways that I’ve developed my analytical skills is by playing a variety of games and looking at the mechanics and systems. If it’s a game that I’m not enjoying, I’ll usually play until I’ve see what the game has to offer and move on. I have even tried out games from genres that I’m not a fan of such as racing or sports games, just to see what they have to offer. Game design inspiration can come from any source and it’s important to not automatically discount a game’s usefulness due to negative reviews.