Posted on May 15, 2009 by Doolwind

Is Your Game Underwhelming?

Have you ever played an underwhelming game?  It might be a lack of choice, depth, emergence or fun.  Today I’m going to discuss why many games lack that key ingredient to succeed, giving specific examples of how Dawn of War II (DOWII) and Battlefield Heroes (BH) both miss the mark.  I’ll finish up by giving you an exercise to find out whether your game is underwhelming.

Limited choices

Sid Meier once said “A game is a series of interesting choices”.  This is the root cause of underwhelming games.  It’s as simple as that.  Games lacking enough interesting choices are doomed to fail.  I’ll dive straight into a couple of concrete examples then we can move out to a more abstract look at the situation and general ways to keep your game moving in the right direction.

Case Study 1: Dawn of War II

Dawn of War (one) is a great game.  It spawned the Company of Heroes series and solidified Relic’s position as one of the best RTS developers in the world.  It was elegant, with plenty of choice and plenty of emergent behaviour.  Company of Heroes took that to the next level adding more depth in many areas, while simplifying other parts of the game to make a cleaner experience.  DOWII tried to take the simplification too far with the following core problems:

  • Linear tech tree cake
  • Not enough unit types

Side Note: Notice I didn’t mention base building as a core problem.  Having no base building is a sure way to piss off a small, fanatical, part of the RTS market; however it isn’t enough to ruin your game.  It can be replaced with a tech tree that serves almost an identical purpose.  The problem arises when this abstraction is then hacked back so there is no choice in the progression through the tree.

Just to mock us, Relic gives us a huge printout of the tech tree.  But it’s not even a fraking tree; it’s just got tiers, like a cake!  The issue with this cake is that it’s the same every single game.  There’s no point even having this cake if the player isn’t given the choice.  The FPS world has a name for it, rail shooter.  I guess the best way to sum it up is “Rail-Time Strategy”.

The second core problem is the lack of unit types.  Once again, there simply isn’t enough choice.  The major problem here is the lack of emergence.  When there are such a limited number of unit types there’s no room for deep strategy, let alone emergent gameplay.

Limited choice in tech tree reduces strategic (high level) choice while limited unit choice reduces tactical (low level) choice.  Limiting one or the other is problematic, but limiting both is a sure way to under whelm.

Case Study 2: Battlefield Heroes

The core problem with Battlefield Heroes (BH) is the lack of emergence.  One of biggest drawcards for the Battlefield series has been the sandbox nature of the game.  Playing an FPS where a designer has scripted a hand crafted experience can be great.  Even better is playing a sandbox game where something new and exciting happens most times you play based on the small building blocks set out by the designers.  By limiting the choices too far, BH lacks this emergence without replacing it with a heavily structured gameplay experience.

There are too few class types and their differences feel superficial.  The core idea of classes has been watered down so the choice really doesn’t matter any more.  The strengths and weaknesses of the classes are also too watered down.  Is this to make the game easier to balance?  When there are so few classes, having an overpowered class can be disastrous, so the safest option is to make them all very similar to each other.

So complexity is the answer?

Obviously, adding a bunch of complexity to these games isn’t going to solve the problem.  The key is finding the right balance between too much complexity, and not enough choice.  Also, note that complexity and choice are not necessarily opposites.  You can add large amounts of choice without adding overwhelming complexity simply by making smart choices in gameplay and UI.

Automating no-brainer choices is a great way of reducing the burden on the player and leaving them to make only interesting, meaningful choices.

Bejewelled is a great example of a simple game that works really well.  Love it or hate it, it’s enjoyed by millions of people the world over.  It’s a great example of a game that’s extremely simple to understand, but gains in complexity and depth as you continue to play.  The player is simply swapping one gem with another, that’s it.  Yet layered on top of this is such great depth that players keep playing it for hours.  This is the perfect example of deep gameplay that is abstracted into the most perfectly simple interface.

Is it a cop out?

Is having less choice/depth easier to develop, balance and test?  Is this cut-back going to solve the problem of games costing millions of dollars to develop? No.  There are two ways to reduce the cost of developing games.  Make them simpler, or get smarter with how they are made.  With the right people, and the right processes in place to develop games, we can achieve deep, emergent games without blowing millions of dollars.  Agile development is a great way to reduce the cost of games while still producing extremely high quality.  Focus on making the game fun first and then decide how much money needs to be spent to polish the game up before it is released.

By having the core game created as soon as possible play testing and balancing can begin very early in the project.  This reduces the risk of many choices being difficult to balance as you have longer to make it work.

Making a game simpler to reduce cost is like changing the gameplay to make it easier for the programmers to implement something difficult.  This is the wrong way around.  Choice and fun need to drive the development of your game.

Check your game, right now

Here is a simple exercise for you to try on your current game:

  1. Find someone that hasn’t played your game before, ever.
  2. Sit them down in front of the game and get them to play
  3. Ask them to say “choice” every time they make a choice in the game.
  4. Keep a record of how many choices they make, either for each different part of the game, or grouped per minute of gameplay
  5. Help the player if they get stuck, this isn’t a focus test

Once finished, have a look at your results.  What you want to see is a good distribution of choices throughout the entire time they were playing.  If there are large gaps, why wasn’t the player making a choice?  How could this be resolved?

Try this exercise yourself on other successful and unsuccessful games and compare with the results of your own game.


Have you played a game recently that’s been underwhelming or that you’ve loved?  Add a comment about it and we can continue the discussion.