Just Design It Better

I’ve lost count of how often I hear people respond to a design problem with, “just design it better”. One example is the detective vision mode in the Batman Arkham series, which has been used in many similar titles, entering a special vision mode that shows you the items you can interact with more clearly and obscures unnecessary environmental details.

I’ve run into people that object to this mode, claiming it breaks the realism, game flow, visual fidelity, immersion and all sorts of other things. My response is naturally that this visual mode allows the developers to create rich, realistic and highly detailed environments for the players to explore. This type of environment is beautiful, but obscures important information like which objects can actually be interacted with. Toggling between a “beautiful environment” mode and a “clear and easy to navigate” mode for when you need it is a great solution.

This is when they say, “That’s lazy. Just design an environment that looks beautiful and realistic that is ALSO visually clear and easy to navigate.”

I’ve seen people use this argument to claim that progression systems, like level-ups or unlockable abilities, should be ripped out of games like Diablo. When it’s pointed out that players value this sense of progression and it allows more complex abilities to be introduced gradually, they tend to respond “If your game is using this as a crutch, there’s something wrong with your game. Just design it better so it doesn’t need a progression system to be fun.”

I’ve seen people use this argument to demand more dialogue options that are ALSO better written. Of course the reality-check points out that if you’re asking your writers to create more content they have less time to polish all of that content and pick their highest quality stuff.

Designers should always be trying to design as well as they can. Unfortunately, there’s such a thing as “opportunity cost”.

No matter how well you design a detailed and clear environment that also looks beautiful, you could have spent that time creating even more beautiful environments without sacrificing usability as long as you use something like detective vision. You could also be spending those same resources creating even more environments to add variety to the game’s locations. No matter how good your writing is, the quality will suffer if you try to produce more content in the same amount of time. And designers should already be trying to make their game as fun as possible.

Improving design requires understanding the game systems involved and how they work together. It involves understanding the benefits and tradeoffs resulting from different design choices. Unfortunately, pointing at a problem and saying “design better” doesn’t make these realities go away. If it did, our jobs would be a lot easier.

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