When Poor Game Design Shows

Poor design will be the nail in the coffin for any game released on any platform, no exceptions. Or, will it? There are loads of games that are considered to have “poor design” yet still somehow do extremely well. In the video game, specifically the indie game industry, this has actually caused somewhat of an epidemic in more recent years.

Releasing a half-finished game, and then releasing the rest of it later as “DLC” or just in patches has become almost a new norm for large developers, and it’s partially stembed from the indie industry being overrun by half-baked game developers releasing low quality content in mass quantities. People who will take a week to start, finish, and release a game just to squeeze as much money out of their programming skills as they can.

Now, this was a huge issue a year or two ago, but the problem has quietly died down a large sum, and the indie game industry is, more or less, as it should be. But it has left a ripple effect onto the game industry as a whole. Developers are almost incentivised to rush projects now, knowing they can add or patch whatever they don’t get into the main game later.

I could get deeper into the politics of the subject, but I’d rather avoid the politics and instead focus on how poor game design effects not just us as a community, but how it personally affects our play experience.

In order to go over the different types of mistakes different games have succumbed to, I will be talking about different examples in different fields. The first example for us today is none other than Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.

This game was originally released on the PSP in 2010 and served as the prequel to the rest of the Kingdom Hearts franchise. It was also remastered for the PS4 in a Final Mix version of the game, which is the game that I will be referencing today. Birth by Sleep has a very versatile combat system, with multiple different options for players to take at any given time in combat, save for a few cool down times.

Players craft what’s called a Command Deck, that’s filled with different special attacks, magic, or items. Players can use the command that they have selected by pressing the triangle button, and players can scroll through their Command Deck with L2 and R2. On top of the Command Deck, players have a Focus Gage, which activates when players hold down R1. When done correctly, another special attack can be unleashed. The Focus Gage can be used around three times before having to recharge, which it does so quite fast if the proper abilities are equipped.

On top of those options, players can also forge what is called a “Dimension-Link” with other characters in the game, which allows the player to swap their own Command Deck for the Command Deck of the player’s choice of the characters that they have forged a D-Link with. There are roughly 14 characters in the game that you can do this with.

The whole point of this is that there is an extremely wide array of different attacks and abilities that the player has at their disposal for near any situation, and this is great. It’s important to have depth to the systems in the game, otherwise players can get bored and the game will feel repetitive after not changing for most of the game. The issue with Birth by Sleep is not in the combat system, it’s in the game’s failure to reward the player for mastering the combat system, and, in some cases, punish the player for it.

The final boss battle on the Terra play through of the game can be defeated by only Guarding, and counter attacking. This was not discovered until I had attempted to beat him with all of the skills that I had gathered throughout the course of the game, and failed around twenty times. The boss still takes skill to beat, and you have to go in for basic attacks every now and then, but you can Guard and counter attack for the entire battle and win.

This causes for a dissatisfied feeling, as players have dedicated ten hours to learning the combat system of the game to the best of their ability, only to have most of it not matter at all for the final battle. The last fight of the game is supposed to be the toughest, if you’re not prepared for it then you could be stuck on it for days even. But this boss was designed to be so difficult, that you can’t beat it by normal means, and have to result to basic game functions.

The second example I have, and while it breaks my heart to say bring it up, is Risk.

Risk is usually the go to board game for family gatherings for my brothers and my dad. Something about the game always makes us want to play it again, and it’s because of the relatively low amount of strategy that actually goes into the game. Almost all of the game play is luck based, players literally only ever winning on a dice roll. It’s for this reason that Risk isn’t great, because of the lack of required skill there is to win.

This can also be twisted into a good thing, however, as it allows players of varying ages and skill sets to compete on a relatively even playing field, which is probably what gives the game its appeal. And there are new variations of the game that have come out that bring brand new layers of depth to the game that require better decision making skills, with no added variance. These are the things that have kept Risk around for as long as it has, but it’s still an inherent flaw with the game to be so heavily luck based.

The third and final display of poor design that I would like to discuss, is Kaladesh block.

Kaladesh introduced a new mechanic in Energy, an alternate resource which players can collect through different cards. Energy, on paper, works great. It’s another resource players can use to pay costs for abilities, but it can’t substitute as mana in order to not allow degeneracy. The problem is how parasitic Energy is.

The reason for this, is you can’t just have one or two cards with Energy in a set. The set has to be relatively heavily themed around Energy in order to make it functioning, as you need both setup and payoff cards for the mechanic. You also need to have those cards be playable in the environment you put them in, as if they are unplayable then players have no reason to play them. But you also need to be careful not to push it too much, so as to not take over the entire environment by force.

Wizards of the Coast did a fairly good job at this balancing act, but failed in a major regard; they didn’t print any form of Energy hate cards. Because of this, other decks had no way of attacking the extra resources that the Energy decks could accumulate, allowing the Energy decks to more or less take over.

Another issue I have with Kaladesh block was the infamous Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian combo. I’m not sure how they managed to overlook the interaction between the two cards for the entire time that Aether Revolt was in development. For the uninitiated:

The way it works is you activate Saheeli’s -2 ability, targeting the Felidar Guardian, then flickering Saheeli with the token in order to loop it over and over again, making an army of cats. This was printed in the same block as each other, sending Standard into a bit of mess for a little while.

The deck did not completely dominate Standard by any means, but it was essentially playing around Splinter Twin in Standard, which is never a good thing. It caused many players to have significantly increasingly poor play experiences.

These are all huge flaws that I’ve pointed out in games, but do these make the games bad? Absolutely not. Kingdom Hearts is one of the my favorite franchises of all time, and Birth by Sleep is a very tragic part of that story, and I enjoyed most of the game save for some poorly designed boss battles.

I play Risk an average of once every other week, loving most every time that I’ve done it. It brings a casual fun to the table that everybody can enjoy, as long as no one gets salty.

And how could I say that Magic is not worth playing? I’ve seen firsthand the life changing events that have unfolded thanks to this marvelous game, and while Kaladesh was poorly designed, it was an excellent innovation set that really allowed for some strange designs and felt almost like a pet project for some people. I’m excited to see how design in Magic and all games continues to grow and change based on what we, the players, want.