One bad thing about being a tester is that you can't talk publicly about the games that you're testing until they've been released. I'd really like to talk about game I was working on last week, because it had such potential in the production values and an acceptable premise, but it was just hamstrung by bad, easily-reversible design decisions. I can't talk about it yet, or at least, I can't name names.

The game centers around the player tagging walls with spraypaint and posters. It follows a fairly standard gameplay model wherein there are a number of primary and secondary goal spots in the level, each of which must or may be tagged by the player to proceed. They also included combat with roving enemies, and PoP-style pipe climbing and gap leaping to turn the gamespaces into puzzlespaces. In theory, this could work, as it's essentially Sands of Time but with graffiti.

However, the combat is irritating and cheap. Combat with the higher level enemies is simply punishing, in that the attackers both team up on you, and hit you with cheap shots that you can't avoid. When three enemies are crowded around you all taking free hits while you try to stand up, the combat has gone to a very bad place. Later in the game, some enemies get guns, which the player can never use. There are also turrets in some areas which fire on the player from offscreen.

Fixing the combat:
1) Limit unavoidable hits on the player. For instance, giving the enemies one free hit on the player when he falls down is fine as part of a combo; allowing multiple free hits on the ground from multiple attackers is unacceptable.

2) The player must be invulnerable to attacks at gameplay-friendly moments. The player cannot be hit while standing up (and thereby knocked to the ground again, allowing more free hits.)

3) There must be a give-and-take of vulnerability for the player and enemies. If the player blocks an enemy combo, that enemy must be vulnerable for a moment afterwards, allowing the player to attack. The opposite is also true. The player must not be vulnerable when executing a successful combo. If you get through an enemy's guard and begin landing a series of attacks, you do not want to be interrupted by that or another enemy. This is a case of being punished for success.

4) If the player does not have guns, the enemies do not have guns. If I'm going up against an enemy who is wielding a firearm, it needs to be feasible gameplay-wise to dodge all of their fire and disarm them. The player must have to mess up pretty badly to be hit by gunfire at all, and the damage from the gunfire must be extremely high. In this game, taking a three-round burst from an assault rifle hurts about as much as being roundhouse kicked. The player can also withstand constant fire from a remote turret for approximately 30 seconds without dying. When the player is wearing no more armor than a hooded sweatshirt, this is unacceptable. Considering the overall mechanics of this game, firearms should be omitted entirely (see: The Warriors.) Removing the remote turrets altogether and adding a weapon disarm move to combat could be an alternative.

There are a number of other inconsistencies in the game. The pipe-climbing and edge-scaling mechanics are pretty much carbon copied from PoP, but the placement of the scaleable elements ingame is disappointing. Pipes randomly jut out from walls then duck back in, twisting around the edge of structures with seemingly no purpose but to be climbed on. Why are pipes attached at strange angles to the girders of a suspension bridge? Is there a sprinkler for the magical orchid garden that's been planted high atop the bridge that needs a water supply? Why would pipes be exposed on the side of a corporate office building? Easy access for wall-scaling plumbers? Bird perches? Who knows. The scaleable elements needed to be better integrated into the setting. One option might be to add unuseable segments of pipe to create logical, symmetrical pipe layouts. The unuseable segments could be tagged with a standard rust pattern, and shake then crumble when the player attempted to use them, leaving the same path that's already available, but in a much more convincing context. Also, elements besides pipes need to be used. Scaffolding, crevices cut into the wall, ledges, edges of support girders, sculptural architectural features, signage, and so forth should be mixed into the design but serve the same purpose as the ubiquitous pipes. This would avoid that "Why does this bridge's support beam have water pipes welded to it?" situation.

The spraypainting is also lacking. One of my co-workers was testing a fishing game, and noted that the fishing mini-game in Zelda: Ocarina of Time was better than the entire fishing system in this fishing-based game. The same could be said for, again, the game I tested vs. The Warriors. The Warriors tagging system took some precision, concentration, and skill. One has to trace the contours of a shape that popped up on the screen. The faster you trace the shape (which maps generally to the tag design going up on the wall) the faster the challenge is completed; if you go outside the lines of the target contour, you lose time and resources. There were a variety of contour shapes for each design to keep the challenge from getting too repetitive. In the game I was testing, you were simply shown the large outline of the tag to be placed on the wall, and had to "wipe" all over it with the analog stick to cover the entire area before time ran out. It was the same for every tag. The time limit never came close to providing a challenge as I was able to finish every tag with more than thirty seconds to spare. No matter which tag you chose, the challenge was always identical. Considering this was the main objective of the game and therefore was required up to a couple dozen times during each level, the tagging mechanic quickly became repetitive, tedious, and unsatisfying. NOTE: If you are making a game about graffiti tagging, make the tagging itself enjoyable.

SECOND NOTE: If you are making a game about graffiti tagging, allow the player to create his own graffiti tags. Even Tony Hawk's American Wasteland, a game about skateboarding, allows the player to create his own graffiti tags using an MS Paint-style program and a number of premade templates and stamps. This game does not.

Being a tester is good, though. I'm definitely playing a lot of games I never would have played otherwise, and a lot of bad games at that. I'd venture to say that you actually learn more from playing bad games than good ones, as the way that the good games succeed is put into sharp relief when compared to a similar game that fails. It highlights the ways one must approach a game design not to fail. I feel like this near-minimum-wage job, existing on the outside periphery of the games industry, is nonetheless beneficial in its way.

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