Likely the most important thing to understand about design is that there’s no such thing as a universally bad design choice. You might be wondering, “Really? What about if your mechanic makes your audience panicked, paranoid and wanting to run away from the computer?” Congratulations, sounds like you’ve created the next great horror game.
Design choices are tools. Whether one’s good or bad for the job depends entirely on what you’re trying to accomplish.
The flipside to this basic principle is probably the second most important thing to understand: There’s no such thing as universally good design choice. Every choice you make is going to have negative consequences. Add a bonus to completing a level in a stealth game without setting off any alarms, such as in Mark of the Ninja, and you signpost an extra level of challenge for some players… But you also provide a sense of obligation to many of your players (including those that might prefer a more chaotic style of play).
Great design doesn’t just focus on the benefits of each mechanic. It seeks to align design choices so that the negatives are in alignment with the project’s goals.
Dark Souls is the ultimate example. Everyone knows this game is a usability nightmare.It has so many problems that it should have killed the game, but it didn’t. Why? Because Dark Souls is a game all about starting lost, confused and knowing absolutely nothing in a strange environment. Steadily you learn how to function in it and the unfamiliar becomes second-nature. You master the areas, and the menus, that once mystified you. While Dark Souls’ usability issues are a huge problem, and could have been significantly improved, they don’t break the game. The flaws complement the game’s intended experience. Put these kind of usability issues into Mario Party and you would have an entirely different story.
Fantasy Flight Games exemplifies this understanding in nearly every title I’ve played. FFG produces a truly shocking amount of content. They have to design excellently and quickly (which is far more difficult). One of the reasons they can do this is because they show a compelling mastery of “min-max” design. They understand what they want to maximize in each title, and what they can afford to sacrifice in order to accomplish it.
Forbidden Stars is a good example. I remember mentioning to one of the designers that after two hours into my first game I still had almost no idea what a good move even looked like. He thought about the note and replied along the lines of, “Good point. But since it’s a $100 game for the hardcore crowd, I think people are going to want to play it at least a few times anyway after buying it. By then they’ll figure it out. It might even be a good thing the game feels too big to easily understand.”
At the time I felt like this was an excuse for a mistake. It wasn’t. The designer understood that this was a sacrifice they could afford to make. Not only would it have required radical changes to address the issue I’d raised, it wasn’t even clear that it would make that big a difference to the game’s intended audience. They could afford to sacrifice clear signposting in Forbidden Stars in order to make the title extraordinary in other areas.
Dark Souls’ accessibility issues drastically limit the game and make it harder for people to get into it. But if you’re going to enjoy Dark Souls, you probably also have the persistence to fight through the usability issues. Is it bad? Yes, but how bad is it really considering the audience and target experience?
Too often I find designers, including myself, focusing on mitigating negatives. The result can look like universal mediocrity. Every choice is a net-win, but ultimately no aspect of the game is world-class. You have 7/10s across the board, while the great games you admire often have 10/10 where it matters and 3/10 where it doesn’t hurt them.
It’s easy to wind up building the underpowered Bard of the group, a jack of all trades. Meanwhile the powerhouse RPG players know that min/maxing is the way to go. They accept that they have to make sacrifces in exchange for maximizing the things that matter most, so they figure out what matters least to their goal. The fighter dumps intelligence until she can barely speak. The Wizard dumps strength until he needs to be carried around on his own floating disk. And they destroy their enemies.
It might look like a mistake, but it isn’t just any mistake. It’s the correct mistake.