The Lazy Designer

Designing Frustration (Part 2)

Part 2

In my first post on Designing Frustration I suggested that some frustrations (in life or in games) are good things. Well-designed frustrations compel us to remove them. In this post I’m going to focus the discussion on game design, specifically role-playing game (RPG) design.

What are Frustrations

Game frustrations should lead to in-game player choices. Frustrations that the player cannot remove are not good design.

I think an example might illustrate effective use of game frustrations:

A common feature of old RPGs is the idea of a limited inventory. Basically the player can only carry a limited amount of equipment. Certain RPG designers, in an attempt to make their games appeal to mainstream crowds have remove the system or attempted to ‘simplify’ it
One solution has been to expand the inventory available to the player (sometimes so much so that the inventory becomes infinite). This solution can introduces new problems. For example, a large inventory becomes difficult for a player to navigate and they can become overwhelmed, in some cases stopping their use of the inventory system entirely.

More importantly, to me, is that the designer has now lost an opportunity to make a game system enhance gameplay. Sure a frustration has been removed, but the player was not active in removing the frustration (lost gameplay) and the replacement simply introduces a new frustration (which also adds no new gameplay).

I think it is a design oversight to make too many of these simplifications.

Inventory is a very easy concept for non-RPG players to understand. A limited inventory also makes sense… in my opinion the more a game mechanic models a real life situation (i.e., I can only carry so much in my backpack/briefcase/whatever) the easier it is for a player to understand how it should work. When a player encounters a full inventory (a frustration) it is very simple for them to think of solutions to their frustration.
They can:
1) Return to a previous area to sell the excess equipment — which encourages exploring existing areas, an opportunity for a game designer to add simple dialog and other cues to reinforce the player’s effect on the world.
2) Find a way to expand their inventory — thus potentially triggering the player to undertake subplots or find specialist merchants who can sell them very expensive methods to upgrade their inventory (magical backpacks, houses, starships — whatever makes sense in the context of the world being explored).

Basically a game system (inventory) has the power to encourage exploration and make the player feel in control of their experience.

Other examples abound — perhaps fighting mobs of low-level opponents gets boring at higher levels. Why not encourage the player to take a sideroute (or a series of ever more dangerous sideroutes) to obtain an artifact that makes those kinds of opponents faster to defeat?

If a particular opponent is very difficult to defeat maybe there is a weapon that can be bought at high cost that can vanquish it more efficiently — the expense requiring the player to undertake several subplots to raise the funds required.

Even if these subplots are simple, if done correctly, they can make the player feel like they are making decisions and are not being forced down a singular path. Encourage exploration of the world, and potentially revisiting existing areas… but don’t make it tedious.

It is a balancing act. The player needs to be encouraged to reduce the frustration but in most cases the game should still be playable without reducing the frustration.

Drawbacks of Frustration

If the gameplay is too frustrating it is possible that some players might quit playing the game — or not play it in the first place if negative word of mouth reaches them before they purchase.

Many designers will say systems like limited inventory, party management, and games with ‘too many choices’ are the frustrations that stop mainstream players from enjoying more complicated titles. I disagree.

Bad design stops mainstream players from enjoying these games. You can’t just recycle gameplay elements and expect every player to understand them immediately. As a lead designer I’ve fallen prey to this trap many times myself, just assuming every player would ‘get it’. They can… but they need guidance.

Beware of murkiness places in the design where a player hits a frustration and does not understand what they can do to minimize that frustration. This is not a problem with the feature itself… it is a problem of presentation.

This is a very real issue with designing traditional role playing games because there are so many assumptions designers make because they assume the audience understands all the terms, the history, and the expectations that come from this style of game. It takes effort but I think many ‘older’ game concepts will work with modern gamers… they just need strong design. This will take time, effort, playtesting and iteration.

To save time and energy why not just get rid of the frustration in the first place?

If you take out all the frustrations you diminish the player… there becomes fewer opportunities for them to take an active role in their experience. . Lose all frustrations and you don’t have a game.

The solution is NOT to remove frustrations… but they must be unveiled to players in a way that newcomers to the experience can become educated. Teach players to solve problems and they’ll enjoy the game. There’s nothing fundamentally confusing about an RPG… but expecting a new player to jump into a genre that has had decades of development and just ‘get it all’ is short-sighted.

More Suggestions

When players complain about repitious, boring combat or uninspired levels or a flat progression system, there’s a good chance that there are not enough moments of opportunity for player’s to solve problems. Your game needs more frustration!

When a game mechanic or rules system frustration crops up in playtesting as a bug, do consider other solutions than simply cutting it. There might be an inexpensive option that not only reduces the frustration but also increases the player’s sense of control and ownership over the game they are playing.

I’ve already seen roleplaying game mechanics, generally rule-system and progression (gaining levels, new powers) creep into a wide host of non-RPG games. I hope we’ll start seeing more of these ‘niche features’ in more modern titles over time. There’s many cool game concepts that introduce novel frustrations that modern gamers have never seen. It is just going to take talented designers to figure out how to present these frustrations in a way that enhances gameplay.

I have a bit more to say about this but I’ll save it for another part next week as this post is way too long.

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.


  • Dyalad

    Good read. I can’t help but think that it must be difficult to make the split between knowing your audience as best as possible versus avoiding the traps of assuming they’ll understand all the mechanics put in to the game.

  • Brent Knowles

    Thanks Dyalad

    It is indeed tricky! And something I don’t think I gave enough thought to until later in my career… definitely advice I wish somebody had given me earlier on.

    – Brent

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.