Grievous Game Design Sins


Recent attempts to finish Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright were thwarted by intentional game design, forcing me to repeat a previously completed level. Unfortunately, my lack of patience and a decent helping of bad luck means that I’ve been less-than-successful at repeating my previous success. After too many attempts, I forced myself to turn off the Nintendo 3DS and walk away.

That got me thinking about similar times when game design left me fuming and ready to smash hardware. Ideas decided by talented men and women with good intentions, but should be dropped forever for the benefit of humankind and my sanity.

Here are two examples that stick out to me. And yes, I will avoid spoilers.


The second-to-last level of Birthright features my fledgling army at the bottom of the screen, with the boss sitting at the top. Between the boss and me is a battalion of knights, archers, wyvern knights, and a handful of mages — pretty standard collection. They’re spaced in such a way that only two or three runs towards me at a time as I cross the stage, keeping me from being overwhelmed despite being fairly strong. Once I end that batch and move forward, another group steps from their original position to fight.

It’s not a tough level. Even the boss — despite his strong weapons — wasn’t a problem due to his inaccuracy. Sylvan, my hero, dodged every swing of the boss’ axe. I’ve had tougher fights earlier in the game. The boss dies, and I enjoy the cutscene that follows. It took a bit of time (20 minutes, give or take), but I had little issue.

The next level springs up. Endgame. Ominous, but nothing as bad as the realization that I can’t save. Birthright doesn’t toss me immediately into the level, however; I could still select (and remove) units and change inventory. That’s when I made the questionable decision to remove everyone but Sylvan and his wife Scarlet. My reasoning was sound: if I lost anyone, I’d immediately reset the game, just as I do with every Fire Emblem game, so why risk that?

The objective was to defeat the boss, so I’d take the untouchable Sylvan/Scarlet combo and force the sword down the evil one’s throat while dodging its attacks. Not a bad idea, especially if I’m able to avoid most of the lesser enemies in the process. I quickly realized, to my immense stupidity, that the final boss is more difficult than the boss before it, so while Sylvan is able to dodge most attacks, there’s still a 30% chance of getting smacked down. That doesn’t count the numerous underlings charging forward.

Needless to say, Sylvan died after only a few turns, followed immediately by Scarlet.

And back to chapter 26, where I get to fight through that stage again. And again. And a few more times after that. Impatience breeds rash behavior, and rash behavior results in mistakes. Those mistakes usually take the form of an allied unit perishing, and that frustration only made me more impatience. It’s a circle of crappiness by my own creation.

Most frustratingly, it’s a circle that never needed to exist. I understand the lack of a save was likely formed to increase tension (which is succeeds at), but being forced to replay two stages instead of one because of an unintended mistake is cruel, especially after 25 previous chapters of digital blood and tears.


My Plea: There’s a fine line between difficult and abusive, and forcing people to waste their time by replaying stages they’ve completed time and time again sits in the latter camp. I’m not asking for the ability to save whenever (because that always exists in Casual mode), but don’t take away a save point from a location I’ve relied on throughout the game only to add pressure. It’s not fun, and will likely lead to too much wasted time.

So please stop.


Deep below the surface of Thedas, within the dwarven-built Deep Roads, exists an otherwise unexceptional cavern teaming with darkspawn, monstrous creatures said to be the result of humanity’s attempt to usurp The Maker. And in that cavern lies the sequence that almost caused me to quit Dragon Age: Inquisition’s DLC The Decent.

My problem isn’t that the cavern is full of enemies because I’m able to handle most genlocks and emissaries, along with the occasional shriek, with mostly success. Maybe I resorted to a weird instance of enemies being physically unable to occupy the same platform as my elvin Inquisitor, but the point is I managed to best the decrepit freaks. Ogres — hulking foes roughly twice as tall as my heroes — proved more difficult, but I managed regardless. Somehow.

The cavern went from ruins to a thin path to a passage in the far wall, and traveling meant fighting an endless river of genlocks, emissaries, and if I recall correctly, ogres. But reaching the far passage meant that The Decent would curb the flow, correct? Then I’m able to focus on fighting whatever is stomping about inside? Seems logical, I think.

After a few instances of retreating to heal up and the age-old tactic of running in circles like a coward to avoid being smacked by enemy weapons, I reached the opening. The enemy flow halted as I gazed at the next threat: two ogres. Fortunately, a cropping of rocks in the corner gave my Inquisitor a ledge to fire long-range magic from safety. My three companions wouldn’t be so lucky, but as long as they keep the enemy occupied, they’ve done their job.

Problem is that those two ogres were hanging with a Emissary alpha, probably the toughest darkspawn outside of an Archdemon. They’re magical bastards with an attack that causes severe damage to multiple characters, and they’re equipped with a regenerating shield. That’s a hell of a combination, and fighting them was equally hellish.

Also, The Decent turned on the faucet again, meaning an endless flow of lesser enemies to gradually poke away at my allies and yank their attention from the more pressing threats.

The three major monsters would’ve made a difficult-but-manageable fight, but the endless flow turned it into a war of attrition, one that I was not destined to win after several attempts. I cursed BioWare and tweeted a few impolite messages expressing my frustration. The internet gave few answers, but I eventually discovered a spell that forced the Emissary alpha to become immobile and useless for a short time.

Only by that spell — which I was lucky to already have — did I best the Emissary alpha. At no point did the game suggest using this, assuming that I was already aware of its existence, I guess. I probably wouldn’t have needed that spell if not for the endless lesser peons making everything that little bit obnoxious.

Of course, Dragon Age isn’t the only franchise to use an endless line of enemies. Call of Duty often tosses out expendable enemies until a certain space in the environment is reached, and Fire Emblem also occasionally falls into this trap. (The aforementioned Endgame level in Birthright appears to stream in enemies, at least until their portal is blocked. Hopefully.) Naturally, other games take this method as well, so please stop.


My Plea: Tossing out endless streams to battle through is annoying, but isn’t horrible as long as that sequence is managed correctly. Tossing out endless streams during an already difficult boss battle is stressful and infuriating. It’s forcing difficulty not through careful design, but by tossing in a random and constant element. To put simply, it’s like laying down floor tiles as a stream of water pools around your workspace.

So please stop.

Leave a Reply...

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s