Game Design Fail

14 10 2008

My LJ icon today has never been more appropriate.

I played “Portal: Prelude” over the weekend. This is a fan mod for Portal which acts as a prequel and presents 18 new puzzles and a story which delves into the background of the original game a bit. And that one sentence makes it sound so good, so let’s immediately tear it down and tear it down hard before you get your hopes up.

Polish! It has none. Art resources are all from the original Portal, so they’re A-OK by virtue of being unchanged, but that’s not really any points in favor. The voice acting is all done via text-to-speech synthesizers using various cheesy british accents, and that’s for HUMAN CHARACTERS, as far as I can tell. The dialogue is very badly written, at times impossible to understand even beyond the terrible synth because of all the grammar and spelling mistakes. (If you’re gonna render your script via synthetic actors and make audio files and wire them into the game, you could at least SPELLCHECK before you do all that audio processing work, right?)

Story! It fails. From room 3 onward it’s patently obvious these supposedly human characters are taking immense joy in trying to murder you, unlike the original where GlaDOS was ambiguous and passive-aggressive right up until the end. Also, NONE of the cool trailer scenes depicting the day to day office work of Apeture Science are in the first 3/4ths of the game. (I had to stop there, admittedly, but I was Not Having Fun, so hey.) The whole thing is a confusing, poorly constructed mess that does not compel you to continue merrily along.

Puzzle design! It either succeeds or fails depending on what sort of gamer you are. Do you have crackerjack reflexes, absolute portal mastery, and extrasensory perception that lets you see the strange techniques that the game does not introduce you to yet expects you to know including multiple jump types that the original game didn’t even have? Then it’s a success! Are you the other 99.99% of the population? Then it fails and fails hard. The puzzles are in VERY confined spaces with no margin for error and often counterintuitive solutions. The voiceovers which in the first game clued you in, here they pointedly say things like “We’re not going to help you; figure it out!”. Every room is a deathtrap, many of which are timed. Even the very first room, when you supposedly are warming up, involves popping out of a portal right in front of five turrets. Their solution? Immediately back up and slide around the wall to avoid the guns you apparently should have telepathically known about before you got in there.

Oh, and for some reason, when the game starts “Rock You Like a Hurricane” is playing on one of the little AM radios. I’m reasonably sure these guys didn’t pay for the rights for that song.

I’m a firm believer in good third party mods. For the first half of the 2000s, they were my bread and butter, as I forced Neverwinter Nights to do things it wasn’t intended to do (steampunk, story heavy and battle lite mods, crazy party control systems, etc.) But this is a shining example of way the hell too much effort with way the hell too little skill and way the hell too miniscule an attempt at usability and player friendliness. And that, sadly, is typical of a lot of game mods… be they NWN, Half-Life, Second Life, or LittleBigPlanet (as this weekend’s other project indicated).

So, if you’re planning a mod project, or hell, a game project of any stripe… remember the following. I shall be blunt because hey, it’s my journal, I can be a dick if I wanna.

* Dial back the hardcore difficulty kthx, or offer up some play options. If you don’t wanna throttle it down then at least clearly indicate you’re making a game for the top flight player and them alone.

* Playtest. And I don’t mean YOU playtest, I mean run it by others, make sure they understand the game’s instructions and systems and can figure things out without you having to explain it to them outside the game.

* If you’re gonna have a story, make sure it doesn’t suck. If you’re not routinely a fiction writer, get one to help you, if only to playtest and make suggestions. Be willing to make changes.

* Don’t ignore all the rough edges and low-fi presentational elements and think “that stuff doesn’t matter, just my gameplay does”. Wrongo. Presentation is part of the package and impacts how people experience your game. Polish, polish, polish. You can save it for later in the process if you want but don’t leave your product looking amateurish and then expect people to treat it as anything but.

* Dump all copyright violating media, okay? Seriously. I used to do this myself but it doesn’t help your case when your product is innately illegal to distribute. If your game can’t stand up on its own two legs without some token fandom recognition, you’ve got issues.

Advertisements

Actions

Information

16 responses

14 10 2008
jengagne

Wow. This sounds like total crap cooled over. o_o

14 10 2008
nikumatic

Not only is it total crap cooled over, but it gets worse. I don’t know why I bothered suffering through this thing (aside from being a masochist who fits into that .01%), but the very worst offenders in the game come through loud and clear in the last two puzzles. Portal should not be a game where you have to quicksave every time you get to a new height just in case you fall to the bottom. Remember the shaft you had to ascend in the original Portal by momentum-slinging yourself up from platform to platform? The game’s final puzzle repeats that, triples or quadruples how high up you have to go, and makes every platform a MOVING platform that erases whatever portal is on top of it when it starts to shift.
Tthe gameplay is what irrevocably breaks it in the end, though the AI-voices-for-human-characters and numerous errors certainly go a long way toward breaking the mediocre-at-best story as well. I hadn’t played through Portal in a while and was really looking for a good excuse to return to the gameplay mechanics while not going verbatim through the same motions. Very, very disappointing.

14 10 2008
demota

I heard that the guy who created it is a real douchebag, too.

14 10 2008
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

Yeah, his response to “Dude, your game wasn’t fun” has been to scream and rant and rave. I guess it’s understandable given he’s hardly a professional (in either technical or attitude sense of the word) but it’s not like gamers are gonna sugarcoat it when your end product is like this…

14 10 2008
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

Man. I think I’m just gonna uninstall the thing, then. I was noclipping through the more obnoxious “I get what you want me to do, but I can’t do that” puzzles just to see the alleged story, but meh. I have other things I can spend my time on.

14 10 2008
cmdr_zoom

Bleh.
You’re right – that summary does sound great – but god, it sounds like the execution totally sucks. :p
I hope someone takes the idea and does it better.

14 10 2008
jengagne

Like… maybe the actual Portal designers? :D

14 10 2008
demota

Yeah. Did you see the fallout over Eternity’s Child?

14 10 2008
raigne

Now see. Prime example of why not everyone who wants to design games can.
Just because you’re an amateur doesn’t mean people are going to cut you any slack. And if there is nothing redeeming about your game, you must be extremely out of touch if you expect any sort of back-patting to happen. The only people who get patted on the back for dropping a pile of shit are babies being potty trained.

14 10 2008
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

Yep. Messy, it was. Eternity’s Child had charm, but as a GAME it seems it fell short… you can’t have charm without game if you’re trying to appeal to gamers. By the same token, you can’t have game without charm unless you only care about appealing to the no-frills hardest of the hardcore, and even they will be bored if you have nothing to offer but a bare bones challenge.

15 10 2008
sukael

The mod’s creator apparently directly included a whole bunch of resources from the GCFs of other Source games, too.

15 10 2008
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

Wuh-oh. Valve are not going to be pleased…

15 10 2008
cmdr_zoom

That would be cool.
I have a fetal plotbunny about an Aperture employee* (scientist, secretary, whatever) being tormented and tested-to-destruction by the insane thing they gave her voice to.
*named Ellen, of course.

15 10 2008
jengagne

And you thought the RYLAH was bad. This sounds like something more likely to get noticed. Think they’ll really layeth the smacketh downe?

15 10 2008
omahdon

Maybe I’m particularly thick but I got stuck on that very first room whose fixed portal “twin” was in the direct line of fire of turrets. I finally decided that the way the creator wanted us to beat the game was by enabling cheats and then going into god and noclip mode. There. All good now.
I have to admit, I was kinda impressed by the “boss battle” with GLaDOS though. Just as frustratingly broken as the rest of the mod – but it was kind of fun to watch myself get thrown around the room like a ragdoll. Probably not as much fun if I wasn’t invincible.
Well back to waiting for the Portal mod that I did de voice aktink’s for, I guess: http://www.chellslegend.com/

15 10 2008
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

In second thought, probably not. They may send an unhappy email but Valve is very community friendly. Even when the community produces crap.

Post a comment on this entry! All feedback welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: