Cursed Problems in Game Design

This article is based and researched from Alex Jaffe's Cursed Problems in Game Design for GDC 2019.

Players Expectations in Video Games.

As designs become implemented into a game’s core mechanics, they also augment the audience's understanding of the rules. These essential experiences must be in line with how the player continues and expects their inputs and actions to behave. As Designers, we must be willing to make promises about the expectations of the game's rules, for instance, no unfair deaths, instant response to input controls; and then respect that promise we've made throughout the experience.

Example of Cursed Problems in Video Game Design.

The idea of a cursed problem can be describe with an analogy using the Super Smash Bros an Action Platform Brawler by Nintendo.
Super Smash Bros, with items and 4 people in a free for all, is a bad fighting game, in the sense that your technical skill isn't as important as the politics of the moment — two players ganging up on another player can do wonders.

If you try to make it more of a fighting game, though, by no-items 1v1 final destination, you have a terrible party game. Smash is in a good place in that it lets you turn off and on all of those features, so you can slide the game along the bar, but most games don't have that option. A cursed problem is when you have element A and element B, but A requires C, and B requires D, but C and D cannot coexist.

I would point out A., that in the single player smash games, you can't change those options, and as a result, I think they aren't very fun. They're normally all these 1 on 1 duel but there's all this nonsense everywhere so it feels silly. If it is a cursed problem, it isn't solvable. Smash doesn't solve its problem, it just sidesteps it by letting you choose its mode.

Cursed Problems can ruin a Player Immersion.

Katana Zero is a deep, skillful action game, where one hit kills you. That doesn't sound like a cursed problem, but if you've played the game, you know that the game is forced into one of two modes: impossibly hard, or impossibly easy. The solution was adding a time-slow which unfortunately makes the game still, impossibly easy if you abuse it. In fact, the best part of that game is the only part that DROPS the one hit killAnd I think that demonstrates another cursed problem with a solution that didn't work.

The smash bros thing makes me think of a board game called Pentago. The standard version is an intense 1v1 battle of wits, like chess. But they also made a 4 player version, which pretty much follows the same rules, but somehow becomes a wacky party game. It seems like you would have a similar intense problem to solve, but instead, it's just everyone sabotaging each other and feels too chaotic to really work through the problem as you do in 1v1.

It's a common problem in board games re:scale. Sometimes games can be like smash and be okay with that change, but I think most of the time, they just lose their soul, or plain don't work. XCOM also has a well known cursed problem.

XCOM Cursed Problem Case Study.

It manifests in its intense positive feedback loop. You know, the soldiers doing well keep doing well, but if you die, everything sucks, that's the problem. That's because the designers wanted and designed two key features

  • soldiers which level up on their own
  • permadeath

These two things together with the players expecations create the Cursed Problem in XCOM. It may have been a great idea, and consistent with the lore, in theory, however, many lament they have restarted their load files of games in order to keep a favorite squad member. XCOM broke their promise to the player by creating this Cursed Problem.

What Games keep their Promise to Players?

Fire Emblem solves this by having a much smaller cast, and essentially encouraging you to restart on each death. Darkest Dungeon solves it by removing an implicit design choice of "I give a dang about my characters" and also not evolving the world state along with the player state.

Incompatible Player Promises in a PvP Free-For-All

1. "I want to focus on combat mastery"

Does not require Politics and can be achieved through skill and determination.

2. "I want to play to win"

Requires knowledge of politics for effectively positioning one's self throughout the course of gameplay to win.

How can we Address Cursed Problems in Video Games?

Thanks to Jaffe Alex for his hard work and research into this subject,

One thing you can do is soften both promises. Say, hey, you can play to win, but you can’t control it that much. And you can focus on combat, but not all that much. You do this by inserting chaos. Changing the game in this way naturally changes the player’s (and designer’s) understanding of what the game is all about.
And as a consequence, you get something even better.

Alex Jaffe | GDC 2019

Quarterbacking Cursed Problem

Like the Free-For-All politics problem, Cursed Problems happen in many turn-based co-op games, in the form of quarterbacking. Players have a great time playing a co-op game like Pandemic, each doing their part in an Ocean’s 11-like fantasy of cooperation. But over time, one player starts to make suggestions, the other players accept them (because they’re good suggestions), and eventually, one player is doing all the thinking. It’s like a single-player game with many pairs of hands. This is a natural tension between promises. We want a cooperative, harmonious experience, but we also want to win.

But true cooperation involves interdependence between players, not just being aligned. And playing to win in a typical turn-based co-op game is usually a matter of strategy. Unfortunately, strategy at this scale is usually best planned by a single centralized decision-maker. So you have a fundamental tension. Unless you give something up.

All Pages in Game Design Masterclass

    Game Design Masterclass

    Explore high-level game design and production courses that will bring you closer than ever to the game design pipeline. Learn from real industry veterans the secrets and tips of navigating the Design world. Expand your portfolio and design skills to be used in industries beyond Game Development. Game Design is a huge field, leveraging parts […]

    Unread — 1 minute read

    Designing and Improving Game Feel

    Game feel is entirely a subjective construct, it is the idea, the essence, and the soul of what makes a game feel, Good, Awesome, and overall, fun. It is hard to describe, as it changes from game to game. Game Feel is not just the mechanics, it takes literally any form of a particular games' […]

    Unread — 5 minute read

    Functional Game Design Theory

    As games in their current form, reach the age of f more than 40 years we can begin to ask ourselves about how the design and patterns, the mechanics and rules, and the functional abilities have progressed over that time. Overall we have made a significant improvements to graphics technologies, input devices and turn on […]

    Unread — 2 minute read

    Strategic Dominance in Single Player Games

    In scenarios where there is only one player, there can still be dominant and dominated strategies. For example, consider a situation where you are walking along a street, and you know that you need to cross the road. As you reach the first of two possible (and identical) crosswalks that you can use, the light […]

    Unread — 8 minute read

    Macro vs Micro Video Game Design Thinking Approaches

    If you're looking for an article describing Micro vs Macro as a study of Cursed Problems Game Mechanics and player strategy, check out our Optimizing Player Strategies page. Macro Approach In the initial days of a project, a Macro vision approach to game design should be the first step. It is like observing something on […]

    Unread — 9 minute read

    Accessibility in Game Design

    What can we do to Improve Overall Accessibility? Accessibility means avoiding unnecessary barriers that prevent people with a range of impairments from accessing or enjoying your output. Preserve depth of the core mechanics: Those game remove the fat down to what matters. Expansion of core while keeping accessibility: drifting and snaking as an example, in Mario Mart […]

    Unread — 8 minute read

    Video game pacing methods

    Video game pacing can be thought of in two main categories, the first being in which the playtime is expected or estimated by the designer of the game, or by which the speed and action potential of the game change or increase over time. Expected player play time As we designed a game we must […]

    Unread — 2 minute read

    One Button Video Games

    Consider that most RPG’s today required quick inputs, and a memorization of the skill set of the character in use. As designers take more experimental approach is to video games, a one button RPG, or any other genre, for that matter it is an interesting concept in and of itself. Usually the point behind making […]

    Unread — 2 minute read

    The Science of Player Motivation

    Almost every game relies heavily on extrinsic rewards. You accomplish a task and the game gives you a reward (sometimes). These rewards work very well in a simple game like Bejeweled or Peggle — Many will play Bejeweled for hours trying to beat their high scores, and many would wonder if there had been no […]

    Unread — 4 minute read

    Health Systems in Video Games

    The hitpoint system is simple. That's why it works. I once played a shooter that simulated realistic injuries. Different parts of your body could be damaged. If your arm got injured your accuracy suffered if you got a leg injury your movement speed declined. Eventually without aid from a team member bullets wounds would cause […]

    Unread — 5 minute read

    Achievement Systems in Video Games

    All games have goals. Used properly, achievements can provide an alternative set of "success" criteria to the main game mission, providing incentives to play the game in different ways. Different ways which are, hopefully, also fun. For years, video games have been a fringe market, traditionally viewed as "for kids" or "for nerds".  Now, we […]

    Unread — 2 minute read

    Intelligent Avatars

    When most games provide a playable character, they exist as a "blank canvas" for the player to impart their own idealisms into. A Character that thinks for themselves. There are, however, games in which your avatar can communicate to you, thus showing some degree of intelligence. While subversive to the game's end goal of winning, […]

    Unread — 3 minute read

    How to tell a Video Game Story without Words

    First off, why would you want to do this? Why make things so abstract and obtuse? Three reasons: Writing is hard. Bad writing is worse than no writing, in the same way, that saying something dumb is often worse than saying nothing at all. This gives you more flexibility in what happens in the story […]

    Unread — 4 minute read

    Creators Statement and Experimental Games

    How do we describe what a game is? More specifically, how do we describe what our game is? If a games experience could be accurately described with words, why make the game? If we don't agree that games are art, then there's no need for a creator's statement because there isn't any underlying meaning to […]

    Unread — 4 minute read

    Cursed Problems in Game Design

    This article is based and researched from Alex Jaffe's Cursed Problems in Game Design for GDC 2019. Players Expectations in Video Games. As designs become implemented into a game’s core mechanics, they also augment the audience's understanding of the rules. These essential experiences must be in line with how the player continues and expects their […]

    Reading — 6 minutes

    Optimizing Dominate Strategies in Video Games

    Most Efficient Strategy for Winning Games First Order Optimal (FOO) Strategies are the lowest effort strategies that reap the greatest reward. They’re what experts of the game would consider beginner strategies. They’re typically (but not always–as we’ll see) the first thing that new players gravitate towards, and they’re the easiest strategies to execute and still […]

    Unread — 5 minute read

    Game Design Document

    Game Design Documents So now that we've thought about what our game might be like, it is critical that we begin to document and solidify our ideas. Whether or not we're a one-person army, or are planning to gather a team, this document will serve as the Vade-Mecum of our journey. Keeping ourselves on track […]

    Unread — 10 minute read

Game Design Masterclass Topic Completion: 5%


    Indie Video Game Studios

    Indie video game studios are usually run by a small number of people, and usually, don’t have very much capital or resources to work with. Regardless of this many Indie Studios have been known to create beautiful, engaging, and groundbreaking/ world-changing video games over the past many years. Some of the most influential and transformational […]

    Unread — 3 minute read

    Video Game Publishers

    What do Video Game Publishers do? Real publishers can offer a wide range of services including funding, localization, hardware compatibility, market expertise, marketing, communication, etc. It really depends on the services you are after, but you should try to get a contractual quantification for every aspect (if PR, for example, number of articles in x […]

    Unread — 3 minute read

    Game Design & Development Courses

    Game Design & Development courses provided by are one of a kind, up-to-date, and sourced from real industry Game Developers. We cover the theory and practice of the fundamentals of Game Design & Development as well as an introductory to major concepts and ideas. Making Video Games as a Hobby Whether it's just you, […]

    Unread — 2 minute read

    The Gaming Industry

    What would we say if we could say anything about the gaming industry? Look how much it’s grown. There was a time long ago when some people believed that the games industry would be a passing fad and fade into obscurity. They turned out to be incredibly wrong, as consumers spent $108.9 billion in the games […]

    Unread — 1 minute read

    Making Your First Game

    Making a video game for the first time can seem just as hard as climbing a mountain before we've written the even first lines of code. If we follow the right steps, though, any task is doable. Here are the crucial steps we should follow when making our first video game. The Idea and Prototyping […]

    Unread — 8 minute read

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *