Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Kitchen Sink Design

No, I'm not talking about how to design kitchen sinks. If you're here because of that, you've got the wrong blog. I'm talking about game design and how more ideas don't make for a better game.
This is one of these posts where I'm going to use a specific example, but won't use its name. Mostly because you people out there in the world a) have never heard of it or b) recognize it from the things I say about it.

Why are you doing this again?

I'm a hobby game designer and have spent a fair amount of time thinking about what makes a game good, fun and playable. I don't want to bash the game I'll be talking about here, or its creator. I'll just use it as an example of why Kitchen Sink Design is bad.

What's Kitchen Sink Design anyways?

Ever heard of the phrase everything but the kitchen sink? Kitchen Sink Design is, surprise, when you apply this to game design.  What I'll do here is that I'll pick apart the countless features/gimmicks/details the example game has and point out if/why they could have been cut and what makes them clash with the rest.

The Game1)

The Game itself is set in a dystopian future where the vast majority of the world is either dead or crawling with demons. A chosen few people get to live in the last safe havens, while the rest has to live on the outside world, fighting for their lives everyday. You get to play as one of these outside worlders, and things get really complicated and Final Fantasy like. But keep in mind, this is a dystopian future where everything is grim, gritty and crawling with demons.

Features, Features, Features


Combat is handled in a turn-based system, with up to three party members and, from what I saw so far, five enemies. Each character is limited to nine actions they can choose from, three of which are passive, such as item usage, fleeing or defending themselves. Additionally, there's a time limit for entering these commands, as shown by a bar at the bottom of the screen.
Another core part of combat is the elemental system. There's six elements (the classic four plus light and darkness), and each starts off at a certain percentage, depending on the terrain. This percentage value runs from 0 to 200 and defines how effective your skill is. Whenever you use a skill with an element, its element gets stronger, while the opposite element gets weaker. There's also items that influence these values.
Oh, and somewhere along the way each character gets a limit break (aka you get a bar that fills whenever the character's hit and lets them use the skill when it's full).
...and sometimes, when you use a very effective attack or make a critical hit, you'll get a bonus on the percentage to get loot, experience points and health/ability point regeneration.

What I don't like about it
Complexity: Read this and try to make sense of it. Sure, you will, but it isn't really intuitive.
Balancing: This runs hand in hand with complexity, because the more things you throw into a system, the harder it is to balance it properly.
Exploitability: Once you do figure it out, you realize that all you need to do is spam the current area's very effective attack and wait for the boni to stack up. That way you can easily level up in an area that's designed for a lower level. Oh, and did I mention that you can buy these bonuses at the churches?
Input: I didn't mention this before, but the input runs via the number keys. No, you can't use your numpad. The whole rest of the game is controlled via arrow keys and Esc/Space.

What were they thinking?
I kind of get what the developer was going for. Combat should be strategic and different from all that other stuff out there, hence the elemental influence and the number keys. I appreciate the idea, but this is not going to work.
I have nothing against elemental weaknesses, but the way they are implemented here is too easy to exploit. The same goes for the bonuses. I like the idea that the player is rewarded when they use a strong element, but as it is now, the player is essentially rewarded for grinding. I doubt this was intended.
Another thing that really rubs me the wrong way is the input. Sure, it's different, and it might have sounded like a good idea, but what this method of input does is rip me out of the flow because I need to reposition my hands on the keyboard. What's wrong with choosing attacks from a list, especially if that list is only nine elements long? And what's with that bar at the bottom? Stress + different method of input = mistype.
In general, this combat system gives up balancing and usability in favor of being innovative. And despite that, it feels like an ordinary turn-based combat system where I need to move my hand across the keyboard.


Throughout the game, the party takes up quests from the government, represented by guys in black cowls and red sunglasses (SYMBOLISM!!!1!1). These quests are listed in a quest log and can, upon completion, be handed in at every government post across the world. With each quest you complete, you get points that let you level up in rank and eventually buy better equipment.

What I don't like about it
These quests split up in "kill target demon" and "collect resources."
The first kind usually means that you have to go back to an area you already visited and kill something. Something that, before you took up that quest, wasn't even there, despite them saying that it was roaming the area for a while. The worst of these quests goes as far: A village has been attacked by spiders and you should go and find their nest. Said nest is a cave in the forest you had to cross in order to reach the village. I went into said cave. The only thing I found were a few webs and an item. As soon as I get the quest, there's two ginormous spiders in there. This is their nest. They should have been there before. GAH!
The resource quests aren't much better. Most of them require some kind of loot you get from the demons, which I get. But most of them also require you to get a certain weapon, or other items that can be bought at the shop a few houses away. What are they paying you for, cowl guys? Oh, and of course you barely get enough money for the quests.
Special mention goes to one of the most requested item in the whole quest system: Crystals. The base crystals can be bought at the shop, but for most quests you have to fuse them. Because you don't get recipes, you end up wasting half of them before you find out how to make the crystals they need.

What were they thinking?
Again, I see where the developer came from. Quests are nice. Still, the variety of quests isn't particularly great. That makes the fact that you actually have to do them worse. Because if you don't do the quests, you don't get your equipment. I see that this was supposed to be another reward system, but it comes off the other way round. While it's useful that you can buy weaker versions of these items (for quests, again), you can just as well go to an earlier city. You have a quick travel world map, so where's the problem? This feature, too, feels like it's there to make the game innovative.

Leveling up

Leveling up is a bit different in this game. Instead of reaching a new level at a set point of experience points, you get nine elements to level up (the six real elements, two kinds of physical attack and defense). With a certain amount of levels in certain elements, you can unlock new skills. Additionally, every element rises stats differently.

What I don't like about it
Actually, this isn't that bad. It's still trying too hard with what it does. While you do see what level you need for skills to unlock, you don't see what these skills actually do. I get that this system is supposed to give you the chance of diversifying your characters, but there's a few problems with this.
1. Your party changes: You have a maximum amount of six characters, and you'll never know who will leave or join after the next cutscene. Good luck without your healer, or without the guy who's got the death ray that will help you kill the next enemy. Unless you overlevel massively, you can't get all the elements to a feasible level.
2. Different enemies have different weaknesses: You'd think that, in order to get through, three of your characters (mind you, six is the maximum party size) should know an AoE attack of that type. Then comes the next area and your AoE of that type is useless. So you can't really level up until you see what your next enemy is like.

What were they thinking?
Actually, the idea for this is good. Yes, this is a feature that does not clog up the system, it's just not implemented that well.


Somewhere on the second continent, there's an arena where you can fight against enemies. You earn points, and depending on how far you get, you can buy equipment you don't get anywhere else.

What I don't like about it
It's a pure gameplay element, with next to no roots in the world itself. Thing is, an arena would make sense in this world. The world sucks, and people need to be entertained. But the way the game handles this is just... ugh. This feature is well-thought out, but doesn't fit into this game.
1. The characters are on an urgent mission. There's no time to go into an arena and beat shit up when the big bad is on his way to take over the world. (No, literally.)
2. The enemies make no sense. Sure, there are the basic ones you can scoop up somewhere, but can someone please explain me how a government-controlled one of a kind mecha spider gets into that arena? Also, if you're overleveled enough, these fights are ginormous spoilers, as there are countless boss fights among them.
3. The mechanics make no sense. I'll take the mecha spider as an example. In the story, when you get to fight against it, the strategy is to destroy its legs. With each leg, it crashes onto the ground and takes damage. But in the arena, you have to fight all parts of a boss in order to defeat it. This leads to hilarious fights like a bunch of legs that do nothing, or just the body that's lying there and deathlasering you or, one of the most failsome examples: A pair of tentacles without the kraken head to support them. Not to mention the fact that the arena is filled with sand, so it's tentacles sticking out of the ground.
I have nothing against arenas in general, or this particular one (except for the enemy choice), but it doesn't fit into this game. The fact that it's playable doesn't fit into this game.

What were they thinking?
"My game needs an arena! Arenas are cool!" I'll say it again. An arena makes sense in this setting, the fact that it's playable does not.

Mini Games

At several occasions, the game switches into mini game mode. You get to collect stars and balls, which give you points, which in turn give you items.

Why I don't like it (!)
I should remind you that this is a dystopian future where the vast majority of the world is dead and the rest is crawling with demons. This is not the right place for a mini game where you collect stars and balls. One moment I'm walking through the snow, followed by ice wolves, when, suddenly, there's this rumbling sound. That comes from an avalanche. That's right behind me. Cue the timer and point-giving objects everywhere! The only thing that could ruin the mood more is this.
But hey, this is not the most inappropriate mini-game you get. There's still the Torture Resistance Mini-Game. And I am completely serious. This exists.

What were they thinking?
This time, I don't get it. These mini-games make no sense. They completely ruin any mood/immersion because they're not even trying to be in-universe. And for the Torture Resistance Mini-Game: What the hell, developer?!

The Point

Most features in this list boiled down to the rule of cool. They didn't really add anything to the game, except for mass. Most of them might also have sounded better in theory. But fact is that, just because something might sound interesting, that doesn't meant hat it will add anything solid. Having many ideas is good, but you should be able to discard some of them. Otherwise you end up with everything but the kitchen sink in your game, and that's never good.

1)You just lost it.