What I Learned From WATCH+PLAY

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Like many fans of videogames these days, I consume a lot of Twitch content. The channel I visit the most by far is LoadingReadyRun because of the sheer variety in their content. From Magic: The Gathering, to rhythm games, to academic analysis of narrative games, to arts and crafts, and more: there’s legitimately something for everyone. But my personal favorite, and the subject of today’s article, is WATCH+PLAY, a series of streams where Graham Stark inflicts bad games from the feculent depths of Steam (and occasionally other platforms) on Alex Steacy for the amusement of the audience. I’ve watched many hours of this series and learned a surprising amount about game design, specifically what not to do when making a game. So as a way of thanking Graham, Alex, and the entire LRR crew for all that they do, let’s take a look at some of the lessons I have learned from WATCH+PLAY.

There are many different ways a game can be bad.

There is no Platonic ideal of a bad game. A game can be bad in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s bad because it’s a mishmash of assets dumped into a pile with no rhyme or reason. Sometimes it’s bad because it’s completely derivative and entirely devoid of original ideas. Sometimes it’s bad because its ideas are just poorly executed. And sometimes a game is bad because it’s just absolutely miserable to play. But there is also the outlier. Sometimes a game like Tomato Way can be so bizarre that it overcomes all badness and becomes a transcendent experience.

Interior design is way harder than it seems.

One thing I see a lot in bad games is buildings full of randomly assorted furniture. The earliest example I can think of is from Walden and the Werewolf, where the village in the beginning of the game has houses full of furniture that looks like it was randomly distributed all over the place. And let me tell you about crates and barrels. They’re everywhere. So here’s my theory: the developers who make these games don’t want their games to be completely devoid of game objects so they need some kind of space filler and place crates and barrels all over the place haphazardly in an attempt to fill in their world. And at this point crates and barrels are almost a trope in and of themselves. They’re such a classic environmental object that it almost feels like they’re included out of necessity. Or maybe the assets for them are just cheap or free to acquire.

platforms

First-person platforming is surprisingly popular.

I’ve honestly lost count of how many 3D first-person platformers they’ve played on WATCH+PLAY. I’m no game designer, but I feel like a bad platformer is one of the easiest things to make. Just grab some basic objects, put some colliders on them, make a basic jumping functionality for the player avatar, and you’re off to the races. But the problem is that a lot of the games who end up on WATCH+PLAY stop there. You’d be lucky to get royalty-free music sometimes. But designing a good platformer is really quite hard. You need to think about your physics and platform positioning very carefully, and most importantly bring the player into a sense of flow. Basically the only good first-person 3D platformer I can think of that really nailed it was Mirror’s Edge. A random assortment of floating blocks in a void is really not going to compare to that.

Mazes, ugh.

Similarly to platforming, mazes are shockingly pervasive in the design of awful games. I suspect again that this is due to their relative ease to design. You just arrange the environmental objects in some lines and boom, you have a level. But that’s not exactly very compelling gameplay. Like, old videogames often had maze-like levels but the most important thing is that those games had actual gameplay on top of that. Wolfenstein and DOOM had shooting. Pac-Man has enemies to avoid and pellets and fruit to collect. You need more game in your game than just a maze. A maze is a start, not a finished product you can put on Steam and charge money for.

The worst thing a game can be is offensive. The second-worst thing it can be is boring.

It’s astonishing that I can only think of one time in the 6-year run of the show where they actually had to turn off a game because it was actively offensive. But there have been so many games that were just a deeply mediocre military first-person shooter where they played it up to an hour and just had to stop in the middle because it was so impossibly uninteresting that they were both bored out of their minds, and had to move on to something else because they had seen all it had to offer.

Sometimes you have to give up and embrace the sub-ocean.

The sub-ocean is a time-honored tradition going all the way back to the very first episode of WATCH+PLAY, where Alex and Graham find their way outside the bounds of the level and fall off the world to find the void underneath the game and bask in its glory. And sometimes, more often than not these days, a game is either boring or awful in such a way that all they can do is Skyrim their way up a mountain and throw their character into the open welcoming arms of the abyss.

Steam Greenlight was a mistake.

Look, I understand the idea behind Steam Greenlight (and the flat submission fee that replaced it). It was a system that would theoretically allow smaller developers without a publishing deal to sell their game on Steam if they made a good enough case for themselves and if enough people liked them. And I have seen it used properly in the past. Granted, those examples are few and far between the mountains of garbage and asset flips that used shady tactics like offering free keys to those who voted them onto the platform. For a long time now, Steam has had a curation problem so bad that it decided to thrust the responsibility onto algorithms and individual users. And Greenlight only made it worse, allowing literally anyone who can pony up the cash to flood the store with cheaply made trash. It’s been great for shows like WATCH+PLAY because it gives them potential years of content  but it has made the user experience a complete disaster.

Unity and Unreal Engine 4 are powerful but easily-abused engines.

Unity gets a bad rap these days. It’s been used to make a lot of excellent games like Race The Sun or even Hearthstone, and it’s a powerful tool with a robust asset store and feature list. Theoretically it’s all you need to make a video game. But as with all creative endeavors: you can’t make something well without practice. Especially nowadays, with the glut of indie games making their way onto Steam and other platforms, you need to be really good or have something interesting about your work to stand out. It’s just not enough to be another first-person horror game in the absolute landslide of first-person horror games. Unity and Unreal have a lot of excellent tools to get you started, but you really need to go above and beyond the basics in order to stand out. I’ve lost count of the sheer deluge of the same shooter with the same zombie models and the same particle effects that I’ve seen over the course of watching WATCH+PLAY.

keys

KEYS AND DOORS.

I really feel like people learned a wrong lesson from DOOM. It’s an all-time classic that mostly still holds up today. But not every aspect of its design has held up super well. See, in a fair few of DOOM’s later levels you found yourself wandering around the labyrinthine levels looking for the key or switch to open a door and progress to the next level. For some reason this idea –be it literal keys and doors, or finding a generator to turn on, or some other kind of switch to flip– is one I’ve seen so many times. In bad games like the ones featured on WATCH+PLAY, it’s often just an excuse to lengthen the game a bit. It’s basically busywork, but it’s so common now that whenever it happens I roll my eyes. It happens so often that it has become a running joke on the show.

You can get better at playing awful games.

One of my favorite Alex quotes from the series is “I’m offended that I’m getting better at this.” You can get good at almost anything with enough practice, and playing enough bad games can help you understand their language. You start picking up on the patterns: like when to expect the jumpscares in a horror game, or how to wrangle your way up a mountain to completely bypass the level boundaries, or even how to manipulate the basic pathing of enemies to get them stuck on the geometry.

So what is the main lesson I’ve learned from all of this? Despite the negativity throughout this article, I found myself looking at games a lot more positively after watching a lot of WATCH+PLAY. Partially because I now have a very solid baseline for what a bad game actually is. A lot of AAA games that are labelled as “bad” in the court of public opinion are usually mediocre at worst. It’s not often we get a AAA game on the level of, say, Finnish Roller. So I can appreciate the truly good games a lot more. But writing this has also given me hope. Something Graham and Alex often talk about on stream is how important it is to make games like the ones they play. Nobody’s first game is going to be a commercial smash hit, and you need to make mistakes in order to get better. So if any prospective game devs are reading this or watching the streams, please make more games like this. Try things, experiment, learn from them. Just please don’t sell them. Show them to your friends, playtest them yourself, finish them, and move on to the next experiment. And if you want to know what not to do, or just have a good laugh, watch some WATCH+PLAY.

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