Overscan: Backseat Developers

Overscan is a chance for one of our writers to throw in their two cents on a topic the other has recently written about. Ben’s article about Backseat Developers struck a chord with Colin, and he couldn’t help but say a few words himself.

Even reading about it was enough to make me narrow my eyes as I remembered. The four notes of failure. A simple measure of piano music letting you know that L.A. Noire thinks you’re stupid. For me just as much as for Ben, it damn near ruined the game for me. I remember finishing a mission, job well done, captured the criminal, all loose ends tied up… and then getting a four star rating instead of five because I didn’t visit the criminal’s house before bagging them. Because I didn’t see every single piece of content they created for that mission, I was chided. Even though they were the ones who ended the mission as soon as I arrested the perp, and wouldn’t let me go investigate their home! What, did it get torn down in the fifteen minutes I was away?

Remember when Devil May Cry asked if you wanted to switch to Easy Mode because you clearly couldn’t handle the Normal difficulty? How patronizing was that? This kind of attitude, that gamers need to have their hands held and be shown everything like it’s a guided tour, it’s nonsense. I’m not saying games need to be hard, but all you have to do is look at a game like Megaman X or Super Mario World to see how games can teach without saying a word. Without being insulting.

I used to read PC Gamer, and I recall they had a big article before the original Dungeon Siege came out– an interview with Chris Taylor talking candidly about how hard making the game had been. I don’t remember what question PC Gamer asked, exactly– something about level design, maybe? This was 2003 or so, long time ago. But Chris’s answer bothers me to this day. He talks about how playtesters were having trouble finding a particular dungeon, the goblin inventor’s lair or something like that. And he said “So maybe we’ll just put up a huge sign that says ‘This Way to the Dungeon.’”


Paraphrased to the best of memory, but what a disturbing quote. Your playtesters can’t find their objective, so let’s not try to work on our level design to make it more intuitive and smooth, let’s just patronize them, hold their hands, and point them where we want them to go. I don’t have a problem with linear games, I’ve enjoyed games that were little more than one long narrow corridor. But when a game teaches me like a child, I get pissed.

This stuff isn’t going to go away, either. If the options for developers are “insult players” or “get better level design,” they’re just going to insult us. And I don’t entirely blame them– instructive, intuitive level design is fucking hard, and it only gets harder the more complex your game is. But please. Please. We’re tired of being treated like mouth breathers. Dial it down, at least a little.