How to Tell When You Gave Artists Too Much Control Over Design
A half hour into Earthworm Jim on SNES, and three things became painfully clear to Andy (Hull) and me: 1. wow, Earthworm Jim is a worse game than we remembered, 2. Earthworm Jim was designed by visual artists with little experience in game design, and 3. modern studios haven’t learned from Earthworm Jim, because some of their games share a lot of its negative traits.
Ultimately, what we enjoyed about EWJ were its quirky characters, humor, and animation, which were unmatched at the time. But it’s because those elements came at such a premium that it pales in comparison to other run n’ guns and platformers of the era, like Contra or Mega Man. Though Jim and his cohorts are remembered fondly (and with good reason), it’s not likely to be a game we’ll come back to very often.
- The visuals are great, but hard to parse
Probably the most obvious clue that Earthworm Jim is a “visual artist’s game” is that the graphics looks fantastic but it’s very difficult to tell where platforms begin and end, what can hurt you, and what’s simply background art versus something you can interact with. It shows in level one, but it’s particularly obvious in Heck, where walls and platforms sometimes support you, giant spikes sometimes hurt you, and leaps of faith are often necessary because the relevant graphics are too large to fit on the screen all at once.
- Awkward controls
Action video games need to react quickly and precisely to your inputs, so the animations have to be fairly snappy. Guess what happens when you put overzealous animators to the task? Lots of lag as you wait for long animations to finish (terrible when dealing with fast enemies with small hitboxes), as well as the almost Uncanny Valley-esque feeling of watching a complex sequence repeating itself over and over again.
- Design led by jokes/situations
“Oh wouldn’t it be funny if…” is a bad method of designing games, and it’s obvious why: instead of Earthworm Jim having any kind of discernable rhythm to it it feels more like you’re traveling awkwardly from one compartmentalized joke or funny situation to another. Even with such large graphics you often get the sense that you’re a hamster in a maze that has little purpose except to dump you into the next quirky scenario.
Movie-licensed games often have the same problem when they follow the movie script too closely - movies are never intended to be made interactive, and shoehorning some interactive sequences into one feels clumsy.
- Simple and unfair design
Because the artists had little experience with games, they opted for simple mechanics and levels (simple game design also fits more easily into overwrought artwork and themes). But because games need challenge, they compensated by adding cheap hits, mismatched hitboxes, and hard-to-kill enemies. Then, because the game got too cheap, they gave the player 100 hitpoints and scattered random health pickups around the levels. And so on. Many of the tropes of inexperienced game design are on display from the very get-go, and you can see the layers of fixes that were applied to make it playable.
- Too many games in one game
Lots of crazy things happen in cartoons and we expect a certain amount of randomness when we watch them. In a cartoon it might be great to see an earthworm in a spacesuit bungee-jumping with a booger monster after he wins a space race or escorts a werepuppy through an asteroid field. In games, however, it’s more fun to play as a plumber who pretty much just jumps and takes you through every permutation and extension of the idea of jumping. Not that Mario games don’t have a lot of variety - it’s just that the variety blooms very elegantly from the core concept of the series.
Sid Meier described this with his “Covert Action Rule”, named after his 1990 spy game:
“Don’t try to do too many games in one package. And that’s actually done me a lot of good. You can look at the games I’ve done since Civilization, and there’s always opportunities to throw in more stuff. When two units get together in Civilization and have a battle, why don’t we drop out to a war game and spend ten minutes or so in duking out this battle? Well, the Covert Action Rule. Focus on what the game is.”
The thing is, Covert Action is still a rather fun game, because Sid is a rather good designer, to put it lightly. Earthworm Jim… is not really a fun game (although it remains a charming one!).
-Behind the Scenes at SEGA: The Making of a Video Game
The credits of Earthworm Jim, which are dominated by talented artists and animators, reveal that the game was designed by “many, many Shiny meetings” (literally, that is the only designer listed other than the level designer). As players, we imagine that meetings started with a bunch of drawings of silly characters and situations, continued with “oh, wouldn’t it be funny if…”, and ended with “hey, we’re running the show here… let’s just do it all!” The result is an ambitious stew that smells great but doesn’t have the satisfying taste of other games in its genre.
Obviously, the point is not that artists shouldn’t be game designers. Nor is it a jab at artists over anyone else on the team - you could probably create a similar list for programmers, writers, musicians, or whatever. The point is: no matter what else they’re good at, you DO need good game designers designing the game. Not just people who have played games, but people who can make the very difficult connections between mechanics and everything else.