The Seven Deadly Sins of Game Design
Woe unto ye, designers, for ye have sinned.
The seven deadly sins in Catholicism are functionally the ur-sins. They aren’t the worst, they’re the roots from which all other sins spring. And I thought it would be edifying to remember that the same concept applies to game design and gameplay, starting from the design side. For there are sins in game design as surely as anything, and some of them are not what you would expect.
Since we’re stressing the idea of the seven deadlies, of course, they should line up to the big ones – greed, envy, sloth, lust, wrath, pride, and gluttony. And I could write for weeks about how those sins are very different from what people usually imagine when they hear those words, like how sloth is less about inaction and more about profound spiritual ambivalence, or how gluttony isn’t just a matter of eating stuff. But that’s really outside the wheelhouse of what is largely a game design blog, isn’t it? So let’s talk about the seven deadly sins of game design.
Pay to Play (Greed)
Here we start with the most minor of sins, the easiest to find yourself among, because games are indeed a business. Payment is necessary. And yet there are games designed to be played and there are payment models disguised as games. This is not DLC, this is dropping twenty dollars just to continue playing the game at all. Not optional content, but a limited number of turns to play per day along with the option to pay more to continue playing.
These games are hollow wrecks, games that clearly want you to pay money but resort to forcing you into it by giving you a cup for free and then demanding that you pay for the drink. Zynga’s Facebook offerings, the insulting microtransaction side of Bravely Default (which you should never need, ever), iPhone games that are nominally free but clearly aren’t, Candy Crush. It’s not about being pay to win, it’s about being pay to play, yet instead of simply charging a straight fee the designers have ensured that you must keep paying to play forever.
Sandbox gameplay! Procedural generation! Hardcore! Retro! Cover-based shooting! On and on the list goes, and all of these elements are in fact elements that can fit in to a really good game. But the elements alone aren’t what make a game great, and it is here that a deadly sin emerges. When these words are used but not delivered or shoehorned in to games that don’t require any of these elements, the buzzwords have taken up residence. The designers knew that these buzzwords sell, so in the elements went without any thought for whether they should.
Worst of all are when games are founded entirely upon buzzwords, offering well-loved terms that no longer mean anything because they have been dragged through the mud into irrelevance. Good design starts with a goal for a game and then refines those elements. Starting with a sandbox design is by definition starting without a plan for an actual game, just a framework for other people to make a game. The goal here is not to create a charming game, but to create one that resembles other beloved games.
There are forever gamers who are seduced by thoughts of the past or thoughts that they belong to an elite group, some special and unique collection that is unique and special for them. A game which panders tells these gamers that they are entirely right, that the mainstream or other games or other companies or someone is ruining games forever or doesn’t deserve their affection. It exploits not a hole in the market so much as a perceived one.
Kickstarter games are particular offenders, targeting themselves directly at a specific wish of gamers rather than trying to make a great game first and foremost. But almost any title can fall under the dark auspices of this sin by believing its own press releases, designed with laser-like focus to exploit one perceived missing element of a contemporary game market. Often the element in question is missing for good reason, but that doesn’t stop the idea that it’s somehow a failing of everything other than genre conventions.
Sandwich gameplay (Sloth)
Those of you who have been reading my writing for a time know that I’m very fond of the term sandwich gameplay – it’s a period of time when nothing interesting is happening in the game, so you may as well get up and make yourself a sandwich. It’s time-wasting nonsense. Sitting in place waiting for slow health regeneration. Watching platforms move. Letting cooldowns refresh.
Waiting is an element of gameplay, and when done right, a little waiting here and there can spice things up. Waiting a few seconds for platforms to perfectly align for your jump? That’s fine. But if you have to sit in place and wait for half an hour for the game to finish doing things that you have no control over, it becomes an exercise in laziness. Waiting for hours for boats and airships in Final Fantasy XI? Sandwich gameplay at its finest. A drop away from real-time journeys might slightly damage immersion, but not nearly so much as hours of waiting damage your ability to keep paying attention to the game you’re supposedly playing.
Bloated content (Gluttony)
Where the previous sin tries to flesh out limited content by making it take longer, this take the opposite tack by giving you plenty of content! Plenty of identical, bland, repeated content. In theory the content might be similar but not identical, but for all intents and purposes it’s just doing the same thing over and over, often taking far more time than you would imagine to repeat something you’ve already done four or five times at the bare minimum.
Simple puzzles in adventure games that require repeatedly running back and forth between locations instead of letting you collect everything you need on the spot. Multiple map nodes in open-world games that offer the same gameplay that can consume large chunks of time, a repeated sin of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Far too many Super Mario Bros fan games that stretch out simple ideas into dozens of levels. It’s the archetype of a game giving you tons of things to do but no reason to do any of it and no deviations from the formula.
Tapping mechanics (Wrath)
In the earliest days, there were no cutscenes. This was fine, but inefficient at presenting story information. Then, there were cutscenes. Also fine, albeit sometimes a bit tedious when scenes go on forever right before a boss, and lacking in a certain amount of player choice more often than not. So some bright spark decided to start forcing button prompts into cutscenes, so that in order to advance the game you have to hit the buttons in time with what’s going on in front of you!
No. Just stop.
It’s perfectly fine if your story dictates “control cannot be in the player’s hand right now.” There are always moments when you don’t get full control. That’s part of how games work narratively, and if you have a better solution than Half-Life 2‘s approach of letting you pointlessly wander and ignore exposition from talking heads around you, try it out. But trying to shoehorn in a set of mechanics just so that players still feel like they’re pressing buttons for another few minutes is tedious, pointless, and doesn’t even expand the gameplay any. It’s mind-numbing and annoying.
Sometimes, gatekeeping is as subtle as not having a single dark-skinned character in your game that players can point to and say “that’s me.” Other times it’s implied by exclusionary language, platform exclusivity, or elements gated by time and pre-orders. It’s making only part of your catalog available for newer gamers to play, it’s hiding behind dense nests of terms that make new players unable to take part, it’s any number of things that turn games from being a fun hobby that everyone can enjoy into being a very limited field aimed at a subset of all potential fans.
Video games are for everyone. Making a game that seals itself off from people who want to play it is the worst sort of sin, because it means pandering to a small fanbase that by definition cannot grow larger. The idea that some people somehow don’t deserve to play your game means that whatever other sins your game might commit, you are arrogant for assuming there is a line beneath which the potential players do not deserve your attention. You are not the judge of who gets to play games, and if you decide to tell people that they find something fun while they tell you that they do not, who do you think is in the wrong?