If You Can’t Fix It, Make It Fun
It’s a bit weird going between playing Saints Row: The Third and Skyrim like I’ve been doing for the past few weeks. They’re completely different games, in tone, in gameplay, in what they set out to do, etc. About the only things that they have in common are that they’re both open world and that they’re both riddled with bugs, as most open world games are.
In Saints Row, these glitches are generally negligible, often hilarious even. In Skyrim, it’s more of a mixed bag; questlines break alongside giant dragon corpses writhing around due to clipping issues.
A lot of these issues come out of differences in scope (there’s definitely a lot more to Skyrim than SR3) and the like, but I think there’s a good lesson one could get out of this. Developers can easily work around, even embrace, these flaws, but at what cost? Should they sacrifice detail for stability?
There’s no such thing as a flawless product, and, in many cases, flaws help bring out the better elements of it. You know, as long as those flaws don’t reach the point where they eclipse the good points. As much as I like Bethesda’s RPGs, there have been a few times where they’ve come close to it. Skyrim‘s main questline being completely broken for me is probably the worst it’s gotten, and it almost made me quit the game. If anything, the fact that I’m still playing it is a tribute to its quality. (I guess I’m lucky, considering this is my first time dealing with a completely broken questline.)
But along with the broken questlines come strange glitches like dragons clipping into the ground (flapping their jaw in a manner that looks like they’re gossiping loudly) and corpses of dead followers continuing to spawn near you when you fast travel (ruining weddings and scaring spouses). You know, weirdly funny occurrences that you tend to get in games like this, just like you tend to get busted questlines.
Bethesda have said before that they plan on keeping the “fun” glitches in, but it’s gotten to the point in their games where the “fun” glitches are being eclipsed by the ones that screw over the player, rather than provide entertainment. This is a bit of progress on their part; they know that glitches aren’t all bad and that, to many people, they’re a source of entertainment.
The problem is that their games are designed on such a grand scale that they have a difficult time working around these glitches so that they can’t really break the experience.
Saints Row: The Third is an excellent example of how to do that; all of that game’s objectives are so simplistic that, no matter what glitch happens, you should be able to finish it. If not, just reset to a checkpoint, unlike in Skyrim where those glitches love reoccurring even if you scum your saves.
Here, we reach another issue: if Skyrim was designed so that the glitches weren’t as much of an issue, it’d lose almost all of what makes those games so notable. That scale, the scripting in the quests, and the detailed world would be lost because when you set out to do all that, it’s nearly impossible to make it all work together well. Even after working on that game for five years (up until a week before release), Bethesda still ended up with a bug-riddled product, an amazing bug-riddled product, but a bug-riddled product nonetheless.
Really, the only two solutions we have for this are A) stop making such rich, detailed games because there’s almost no way you’ll be able to mesh that all together without it breaking here and there or B) hire a small country to do your QA. Bugs are an inevitability on any sort of game like this, and containing it is a difficult task to undertake.
I think Skyrim should keep being Skyrim in terms of design, but, for other developers making games like this, there is a way you can nip this whole problem in the bud, right from the start: design around the bugs, like Saints Row: The Third does.
Eliminating the bugs is so difficult for many games like this that you can work around it. Of course, this is no excuse to produce a broken product, especially if you’re making something on a smaller scale, something linear, but it’s surprising how many issues you can phase out by not being heavily scripted (so if the scripting breaks, it doesn’t break the rest of the experience) or by not relying on aspects of the game that are easily breakable.
But this comes at the sacrifice of certain aspects of the game, like reducing the setting’s detail or having to replace in-game events with cutscenes due to worries about the scripting breaking, for example.
In the end, there are so many things you could do with your game; you could make a serious, detailed world or a humorous, happy one; you could make a game focused on exploring this world and its depths or one focused on just messing around within it. Both are completely valid designs, and both can work, but one will (inevitably) result in more bugs than the other, since you’re stressing the limits of what you can do within the constructs of the game.
I think the most important thing is to make the game you want to make. Sure, it could be buggy, but if you can make it good despite that, then you did an excellent job. On the same note, your game could be completely bug-free, but if it’s boring or bland, then you didn’t really do much.
Bugs don’t always ruin a game, but you can get rid of their detraction if you make a different sort of game. But do you want to make that game?
Your game can be good despite its instability, and your game can be bad despite its stability. If you do right by what you’re intending to make, then you shouldn’t have too many issues with it.