The Game Designer's Achille's Heel - The Sequel

I'm a big fan of arcade style racing games. Starting with Chequered Flag for the Sinclair Spectrum, I moved onto Outrun... then Powerdrift... Chase HQ and then well, frankly, lots of other racing games (Wipeout has always been a game very close to my heart). But always the more arcadey ones. I'm not a big fan of tuning a car into oblivion. About as far as I like to go is changing tires in Rallisport Challenge.

And you'd think that a racing game - a simple, arcade-style racing game - is something that's pretty easy to do. Well, sure. Get the feel of it right, and you can crank a million of them out without making many changes at all.
Sequel after sequel, in fact.

Surprisingly, that's where a lot of game designers make their Most Critical Mistake Ever. Yep, that's right. The Game Design Achilles Heel. What am I talking about?

Sequels.

It's surprisingly easy (theoretically) to make a sequel. Just do the same thing again - but more so. Tweak the graphics maybe? Add more interesting locations. New maps! Different challenges! Make the AI a bit smarter. Make the game more polished. Just do all the things you meant to do the first time around, but didn't manage to.

I wish it were so easy.

You see, when a game designer works on a sequel, they don't want to do the same thing all over again. After all, they've already done that once. It's time to flex their muscles and deliver a Brand New Gaming Experience(tm). The audience wants more? Well, we'll give them more! And we'll switch things up a bit so we don't get bored.

Designer boredom, unfortunately, leads to a lot of unnecessary changes. Things that should never have made it past the review process get into the game for the sake of novelty. It doesn't necessarily make it a better game though. It just makes it a different game. The problem happens when you hit the right balance the first time around... changing it makes it worse.

Examples of this? Well, take a look at Burnout. The first game was pretty cool - and they had this great afterthought. After all, they'd put together this wonderful amazing engine that let them do a whole load of really cool crashes, in slo-mo. Pretty damn impressive physics just made the whole thing even better. And so, armed with all of this wonderful technology, they added a crash mode, where you had to see just how much of a pile-up you could do. It never seemed like it was a real part of the main game - it was just something cool that they added because they could. A good friend of mine was an insurance adjuster at one point, and he had a lot of fun looking at the crashes and seeing how much the insurance cost was. He was amused when it ballparked to the right value after all. It was brilliant, and amazing, and no-one had ever done anything quite like it before. Frankly, it was genius.

Burnout 2? Wow. What a great sequel. They took all the best things about Burnout, and built on them. They added more interesting tracks, upped the graphical bar, and added the Crash Mode as an honest to god game mode, with real progression, and challenges, and a two player mode. They didn't have it so that you could do splitscreen and both hit the intersection at the same time - you had to play sequentially - but it was still a work of greatness. It took everything that was in Burnout 1, and improved it to no end. It will come as no surprise to you that I consider Burnout 2 to be a classic racing game. If you get the chance, log onto the EBGames website and grab yourself a copy (it should only cost you about $5).

So what happened next? Disaster, frankly.

Burnout 3 added stupid bonuses to the crash mode, and a "crashbreaker" explosion. Burnout 2's crashes had a certain purity to them. Burnout 3's? Really annoying. It seemed like added frosting for the sake of updating the game and that alone. The bonuses didn't add much of anything to the crash. The aftertouch system in Crash Mode also didn't add so much as detract, because in a lot of ways it reduced the amount of skill required to do a good job.

I blame EA for this. With EA's involvement, Burnout 3 became a marketing vehicle. The EA music system, for example, promoted bands that EA had arranged tie-in advertising license deals with record labels for. And if you switched to your own custom soundtrack (which I nearly always do in racing games)? Well, woe betide if you rebooted your system, because you'd have to dive through scores of menus to reset it again.

It gets worse.

They added a really obnoxious commentator/DJ/narrator who did nothing but slow you down and get in the way. Fortunately, if you dug through enough menus you could turn it off - and this setting (thankfully) actually did stick. If you've never played Burnout 3, or have played Burnout 3 to Burnout 2, you have to compare them to truly understand the number that EA did on the game. Bunch o' pointless features, glitzy crap, and marketing shmaltzy polish that had no business being there. Of course, this is just my opinion.

But wait. It gets Even Worse.

Cue Burnout: Revenge (aka. Burnout 4). Ok, so this time they did get rid of the DJ. But they also completely DESTROYED the Crash Mode of the game. What once was beauty in action, was now wrecked. What wrecked it?

To start driving, you now had to play a golf sim.

You know how in golf games you have to hit the button, which starts the swing, and then you have to hit the button again in the sweet spot to get the right power, and then hit it again as the swing comes back down in the sweet spot so that you don't hook or slice? They added that to how you start the crash mode. Hit it in the wrong place, and your car explodes, or you stall. It's a pointless addition, that really adds absolutely nothing to the experience, and in fact massively detracts to it. Because if you make the slightest timing error, you now have to wait a long time for the game to restart so that you can try again. When in fact, the most important thing about Crash Mode is NOT starting the car fast. It's about aiming your car and seeing what you can do with the raw physics and AI to create the most spectacular crash possible. Emergent gameplay. Not swinging a golf club.

After it shows you the track, it slowmo rewinds back to the start position.

No problem, right? Except you can't skip it. So you're sat there for a minute waiting for the damn camera to get back to the starting line. You REALLY need to be able to skip that stuff. Always. Because after you've seen it once, you probably don't want to see it again. Especially when it's just the camera moving backwards over what you just saw already.

I'm just waiting to see what they do to Burnout 5. It'll probably have some kind of platform game where you have to run to get into your car, jaywalking and avoiding doughnut-eating cops. Mix in a bit of Splinter Cell, maybe, so that you have to sneak up to the car and pick the lock before you get in, joy-ride, and smash it into an intersection. Yeah, we've not done that before! It'll make it more exciting!

OK, so I'm harshing on EA's brutal ass-raping of the Burnout franchise, and the design disaster which has ensued. I only do it because I love the game, and I find it personally distressing to see such great gameplay destroyed by seemingly arbitrary decisions and "improvements" for the sake of change's sake. But it's not just EA that does this.

Take Midnight Club 3, Dub Edition. Great game. A good friend of mine did QA on both Midnight Club II and Midnight Club 3, as well as passing along a number of multiplayer mode feature ideas. And I definitely won't harsh on Midnight Club 3 that much - it's still an eminently playable game. But they got rid of one of the best simple game mechanics from Midnight Club 2.

You see, in Midnight Club 2, you don't get to upgrade your cars. Sure, you can pick what you use to race in for most races, but you don't go around tuning them up or upgrading them. At the end of each set of races, you win a car from your opponent. You're racing for pink slips, greased lightning style.

Midnight Club 3? Wow. How can we improve this? New tracks? Check. Cooler graphics? Check. Hey! Gran Turismo lets you tune the bejeezus out of your car. So we need that! We really do! And we'll make them buy new cars with the money they win from their races too! Make them buy them! That'll add much more to the game! BZZZZZZZZZZZTTTTT!!! WRONG!

You see, the idea behind an arcade racer is to just drive around and have fun. The physics aren't at all realistic in Midnight Club, so why add all this extra crap that you didn't have in MC2 just for (seemingly) the sake of being able to say that you've added it? Answer: Game Designers Gone Wild (San Diego). I can see them adding this to the feature list in between the ecstasy, jello shots, and lifting their t-shirts for the cameras.

By the way, don't get the feeling that I'm harshing on game designers here. I work with a lot of them - some of them are even my friends. I enjoy their company. They're very creative people, and they get a lot of the worst jobs in the games industry - namely, glorified data-entry which they then have to balance to make a game playable. Sure, they get a lot of the other cushy jobs (ok, so Producers get the most cushy jobs, because they get to hobnob with all of the stars and high-power people), but they certainly get a lot of credit. And ultimately, the fate of the game is in their hands, because they decide how it will all shake out in the end. While programmers like me are still hacking the system trying to get the foundation in place, they're busy molding the raw firmament to come up with that killer combination of special sauces which will create a AAA game. Or they'll die trying. I love game designers. Except when they're stressed out because they're waiting for my code, but at least that's understandable. A little tension never hurt any project - you need it.

However, way back in days of yore, I also used to be a game reviewer. A journalist if you will. Unfortunately, it goes with the territory that I'm going to stand up and make loud noises when I see things which are not right. Call it journalistic integrity. Call it grandstanding and having a huge ego if you want. Heck, call it anything you like. But I won't just sit back when I see my beloved games get screwed up in the attempt to eke more money out of a franchise.

Next post: Sequels I currently own which got screwed up in this way. Heck, I worked on one of them.

Note: all of this is purely the opinion of the author, and has nothing to do with any companies he may or may not have worked for. If you worked on one of these games and feel unfairly treated, I'm more than happy to publish your side of it here. Don't take it personal. I only say it 'cos I care.

About the author

Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.

The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).

Archived Wordpress comments
Stuart Dootson wrote on Saturday, February 11, 2006:

You are so right about Burnout - and what made it worse was all the magazines raving and me thinking “Am I the only one who prefers Burnout 2?”

JCE wrote on Monday, February 20, 2006:

Ever think maybe you should spend less time playing games and more time with your creative side?

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