Design Sins #1 “Die Once, You May as Well Quit”

How Bad Level Design and Bad Power Up Mechanics Can Ruin a Game

Some games will win. Some will fail. Some will fail hard...

Creating a great video game is like digital alchemy — part science, part art, and art is subjective. Because of this, what makes a game "great" is also subjective. Some people may love a game, whilst others may hate it, for the exact same reasons! My youngest daughter loves Mario because he is cartoony and cute. I hate Mario because he is cartoony and cute. 

One man’s pleasure being another man’s pain and all that…

However, there are some features of some video games that are objectively bad. Not just "different." Not just "not my cup of tea," but straight up bad. I call these features "Design Sins," and in this series, I will go through them, make examples of their worst offenders, and explain just why these features are so objectively bad.

Not all Design Sins occurred at the same time. Some have been there since the early days, whilst others came later and were the product of imperfectly evolving technology.

Let's dive in with a lesson about how not to implement power ups.

Many games feature power ups, which make your character, fighter plane, space ship etc. more powerful. The power ups may increase the potency of the weapons, spells, and the like that you currently possess. Other power ups may provide you with completely new weapons and abilities. Some may give you more armour, shields, health etc. 

A well-designed game will provide just enough power ups to make the game interesting, and make playing it fully "upgraded," a "power fantasy." A well-designed game will, however, allow you to progress even without them, so if you die and lose your power ups, you can keep playing. In a well-designed game power ups serve only to enhance the experience, and are not essential to it.

But not all games are designed well. 

Some are designed so poorly that if you lose your power ups by dying, or if you miss your opportunity to get them in the first place, the game becomes impossible to play. Not just "difficult." Not just "frustrating." Not even "simply-not-fun-anymore," but actually impossible.

Let me walk you through a hypothetical.

Scenario one:

You are playing a side scrolling space shooter, similar to R-Type, Gradius etc. You are skilfully piloting your ship through a narrow passage. Enemies are crawling along said passage towards you. They fill the passage completely, so there is no room to maneuver around them. To survive you must kill them before they reach you. You are at full power, and they die in droves whilst you revel in your god like abilities. All is right with the world.

Scenario two:

As above, except you died just before the passage. You respawn in front of the passage, sans all your power ups. You pilot your ship through the passage, firing the default "Pea-Shooter MK1" your craft is armed with. You hit the enemies, but they are not dying. You keep shooting, mashing the fire button so fast your fingers are a blur. They get closer and closer. The first enemy finally goes down, but the second enemy is now so close that you simply cannot damage it fast enough before it reaches you. So you die. You respawn in front of the passage. It happens again. By the third time, your gamepad is flying through the air as you 'rage quit' out of the game. Your cries of frustration terrify the cat and wake up the baby. All is most definitely not right with the world.

"Surely no game could be this badly designed?" "Surely the play testers would pick up on this?" You would think so, but alas no, some games simply are this bad.

Project-X for the Amiga was an example of this. Its PSOne sequel, Project-X Two, was just as guilty. Although these are the examples that jump to mind, I’m sure a little research would uncover many more. 

With full power ups, this bit is tricky but possible. Without them, you die. A lot. Keep watching to see other examples of this. How many will you spot?

I call this Design Sin “Die once, you may as well quit.” I sentence all developers guilty of this to 10 "Hail Marys" and having to listen to a full Justin Bieber album.

The above is also a prime example of “You're re-spawning me here! Are you crazy!?", a Design Sin I will tackle in more depth in a future episode.

That’s enough Sins for one day. See you all in the next one. 

Iain Baker
Iain Baker

A 'pushing 40' life long gamer, reader, writer, film buff and amateur war historian. Loud and proud member of the 'The Oregon Trail Generation - the first gamer generation.' 

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Design Sins #1 “Die Once, You May as Well Quit”