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.

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