Game Design

Somewhat Interesting Game Idea: A Buggy Game

On the way home last night, I thought, “What if you can make a game that looks and feels buggy, but was purposely made to seem that way? A game that is fun because it seems buggy, but in reality it isn’t?”

It sounds weird. Or at least I think it sounds weird. I don’t know of anyone purposely making a game seem buggy, but if you do I would love to know about it. Software, and video games are no exception, is generally hard to keep bug-free. There is the idea that every program has a bug in it. It’s hard to completely and comprehensively debug a program. But that’s besides the point.

I’m talking about making a game where the “glitches” and “hiccups” are purposely created. You are walking down an alley, and a ninja comes out of nowhere. Except he seems to flicker and splits into two images of the same character. You know, like the Mouser bug in Super Mario Bros 2 (which is apparently not documented on the Interweb?). It was still one guy, and you only had to hit one guy to defeat him, but it had a bug where it move back and forth fairly quickly. Well what if you made the bug funny? Like, the ninja’s split image made faces at you, or looked like a clown?

Or how about that same ninja being able to run through walls? Or if you could run through walls? You know, when you’re temporarily invulnerable because you just got hit. What if it lets you walk through walls? Or what if you jumped at a wall and got stuck on the side of it, allowing you to climb up? I’ve survived pits in the original Super Mario Bros. or Bionic Commando because of bugs that allowed me to stand next to a wall without falling. Wouldn’t it be interesting if they were purposefully placed into a game?

It would make the gameplay interesting because part of the fun is figuring out what weird thing you could do next. What inconsistency would you be able to leverage to progress through the game? Would you be able to use water to put out a fire but find that the water itself burns because, you know, “fire burns everything”? Could you use that? What if you could punch a firepit? Or swim both in the water and in the air? What if you could kill your ally, but your ally comes back for a cut-scene? Original War had a bug similar to this one. Generally people in your army talked, and an image of the person speaking would appear. Once in a great while, the image and/or the voice would not match the person who should be speaking. So what if your ally returned, bloodied and bitter, but due to obligations in the game, HAD to come back to make a speech?

So maybe it isn’t necessarily a “buggy” feel so much as a “this-is-not-the-universe-you-think-it-should-be” kind of game. The point would be that reasonable expectations are thrown out in favor of surprising the player with odd behavior and unexpected reactions. It might be tough to develop such a game. After all, keeping track of real bugs, the difference between actual results and expectated results, would be a chore. But it would also be different enough that it might confuse players more than anything. Who would find it fun? I know I like to explore the boundaries of a game. I once jumped over the flagpole in Super Mario Bros. I’ve fallen off the edge of the screen in Super Mario World while spinning. Side note: are Nintendo games that much more buggy, or is it just me? B-)

NOTE: If you are somehow reading this post without the comments, I would strongly suggest you read them, too. Some good discussion is coming out of this post, and you’ll miss it!

14 replies on “Somewhat Interesting Game Idea: A Buggy Game”

As any comedian will tell you, pretending to be stupid is 10 times harder than being the straight man. Doing what you’re talking about would be extremely difficult to do well.

If you could, though, it would be really cool. 🙂 It would need a proper setting; say the God of the Universe is sick so reality is slowly coming apart, so things may not behave the way they’re supposed to while you, the arkangel, try to track down the evil demon that gave him the sniffles and stop him. Along the way you face all the faces of evil, including street thugs, evil demons, used car salesmen, etc.

Getting the wrong stuff right would be very hard, but if you could, that would be an awesome game.

It reminds me of the tree trunk bug in Monkey Island I. If you looked into that trunk (IIRC), you’d get a message telling you about some missing disks. It was supposed to be a joke, but LucasArts’ support desk got so many inquiries about the ‘bug’, that they urged the developers to remove it from the next release.

The point is, I guess, that it is very dangerous to work against the intuition of your players. It certainly would rule out the majority of casual players.

That’s not to say that I don’t like the idea of a ruleset that has the player explore all its possibilities. I just wouldn’t create rules that are completely counter-intuitive. And I certainly wouldn’t present such a feature as a bug.

I don’t think the problem would lie with the development of the game, I think the design would be the real challenge. How could you come up with a ruleset that’s weird enough to seduce the player to explore the possibilities, but reasonable enough to not leave the player frustrated?

That is some deep thinking there 😉 And very interesting. I think it would be quite hard to pull it off so it looked completely “polished” while retaining it’s buggy ethos. Everything is worth a shot though and you obviously have thought about it enough to maybe do justice with the idea.

The closest game I can think of with some “similar” traits is Eternal Darkness on the GameCube. In that when you “get scared” or your “sanity meter” starts dwindling strange things happen to the game – like the controller stops responding, or things are drawn upside down / distorted. You are supposed to feel like you are going a bit mad while playing it (“PLUG THE CONTROLLER BACK IN” – Huh? It is plugged in!).

However it is more an emotional trigger than a gameplay concept but may be worth checking out.


Larry: Yeah, I’m sure I’ll have my hands full making games without accidentally allowing bugs for the foreseeable future. Trying to make a game like this would require me to level up…or something.

William: I agree. Designing it so that it made sense, even within its own ruleset, would be a challenge.

Sharpfish: Hah! It was seriously just an idea that had all of about five minutes to sit in my head before I got to writing about it on this blog! And I actually remember reading about Eternal Darkness. Apparently you could find an item, but later check your inventory and it wasn’t there. Or you would walk into a room and your limbs would slowly fall off. Lots of things to trip you up!

Maybe in a few years I might look at such a game and say, “This is THE game that I want to make.” For now, it will just be one of many ideas in my Game Ideas file. At the very least, it sounds innovative.

I’d say don’t even try it.

Players like consistency and predictability. Nobody wants things to be so predictable that they know exactly what’s going to happen before it happens – but they do want CONTROL so that they can “win” the game. Anything that violates what *appears* to be the rules of the game undermines their ability to control the game, and will make them blame the game instead of their own abilities on failure.

They will get frustrated and throw down their controller in disgust.

YOU are the ones presenting the rules of the game. If ninjas can walk through walls that nobody else can, it’s your job to define that rule for your player. Do they walk through the walls all the time? No? Then how is a player supposed to know they are about to take a shortcut through a wall. Do they pause and become blurry? Excellent. Now the player has a way of recognizing the rule being invoked, and won’t blame the game for “cheating” with a “bug.”

Just imagine playing a game of Pac-Man, one of the closest to “perfect” games out there (mainly because it was so focused on a single experience). How fun would the game be if the ghosts suddenly teleported with no warning to your location? Not at all. Now, if a ghost began glowing yellow on-screen, and you knew that this meant that in one second he’d teleport to your CURRENT location (meaning you had one second to get out of there), then this would be a reasonable design decision. It wouldn’t look like a bug. It would be reasonable to players. I doubt it would make Pac-Man a better game (more likely the opposite), but it wouldn’t break the player’s control.

While I understand what you mean, I think the point of this game isn’t to do things randomly so much as change the rules in a way that is expectedly unexpected. Like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, maybe? Things just don’t always make sense in that book, yet in Wonderland that was the point. As you read more and more, you started to expect the strangest things.

Yes, there would be indicators. As I had mentioned, what if the ninjas or your own character could only pass through walls when you were temporarily invulnerable after getting hit? In old er games, usually getting hurt temporarily allowed you to move through enemies or hazards. Walking through walls in that temporary state was generally a bug. But if you can’t get hit by an enemy or get harmed by spikes, why not take the logical conclusion that you just can’t touch anything physical anymore?

As for your Pac-man example, suddenly teleporting would be a detriment, I would think. Of course, it might be interesting to try and make a Pac-man clone in which the ghosts could teleport suddenly without warning, but I digress. If the ghost blinked yellow and then teleported, that would be a game mechanic that has similar implementations in other games (an enemy doing something visibly different prior to doing a special action). On the other hand, if a ghost would randomly go through a wall upon touching it, flickering on the way there, it would look like a bug, but it would also change the way you anticipated a ghost’s actions. You couldn’t rely on the walls to protect you all of the time. Of course, a ghost flickering through walls would look mostly like a ghost going through walls, but ninjas? Clowns?

The point of the “buggy” game idea wouldn’t be to do random things without any warning. It would be more about making a game that has its own rules that might not always make sense if you were looking at it as an outsider. A long time ago, games were really abstract. These days, they look more realistic, or at the very least, less abstract. You could put a dot somewhere and it could be a basketball, a warp point, or a wall. Now, you would have an actual basketball, a warp point, or a wall, each with their own images. But why should the basketball, warp point, or wall actually represent what they look like they represent? Obviously to keep players from throwing their controllers (do any of them actually do that?), but what if it was made clear from the start that they are supposed to keep an open mind and not assume anything?

The point would be to do weird things with what you expect to happen. What if you could take down a wall, wrap it around yourself, and have it act as armor? Becoming a walking brick wall would be intimidating and weird. Cartoons would sometimes feature characters paint dark circles on walls, then dive into the “hole” they just created. Others pick up the hole, then throw it somewhere else, and then use it as a hole. It’s a cliche in cartoons, but why stop there? Pick up the phone, and reach into it to pull out a friend to help you fight. Or pick up the phone and find yourself holding a potent weapon.

How about using your voice as a weapon? Or as a tool? Your voice can echo, and each echo would help you get past an obstacle.

It’s all very weird, and maybe it would be similar to the adventure games of old. You usually had to guess the correct words to type in order to get the desired results.

THROW BABY INTO LAKE didn’t work, but PLACE BABY INTO LAKE would, for instance? PUT LAKE AROUND BABY would be even weirder.

Obviously it would be difficult to get right, of course. Usually when you have a tank, you can blow up other tanks or enemies, but somehow the walls on a building, no matter how crumbly they look, will stay standing? That makes no sense in the context of the real world, but it obviously works in a game. Well, what if you could not only destroy whole buildings but also parts of the environment? More realistic right? Well take that, turn it on its head, and now it is possible to shoot a shell into the air and tear a hole in the sky. After all, the sky was just a bitmap, and if you pretend it was a painter’s canvas, it makes sense that a tank shell would rip through it, right? The surprise would be in finding out that the sky isn’t a real sky but a flimsy canvas that just happens to look good.

Some things obviously wouldn’t work, but I don’t think it would be good to dismiss it just because “that’s not how it is done”. There are some good and solid gameplay techniques that have been tried and tested. No, purely random actions without any warning probably won’t result in fun. But who said you couldn’t do something unexpected with an ordinary object? Why do crates explode in some games? Why do they always have keys, ammo, and health? Why not actually have stuff you would put in crates? But exploding crates or crates with ammo are common enough that people expect it.

Well, what if a crate held a smaller crate? Or if it held Your Mom? Or an important note from the game creators? Or stuffed animals? Apples? Apples that moo? A person showering? Two beetles professing their love for one another? Two beetles fighting? An epic war between insects? What CAN’T you find in otherwise common, everyday crates?

Of course, at the moment, I think this is just a fun and creative exercise. How can you take common gameplay elements, twist them around, and make them funny? Wario Ware is a good example of a game that takes standard games and boils them down until you get the basic game mechnic or makes it slightly different enough to poke fun at it.

Hah, this should be your IGF game. I could see a well done “purposely buggy” game winning the IGF.

Speaking of Peasant’s Quest and its ilk..what you’re talking about reminds me of the “Level -0” that the Chapman Brothers designed for “Stinkoman 20X6” in that the two levels within are extremely glitchy on purpose and, upon first glance, make very little sense, though the levels aren’t impossible to play through since the glitched mechanics stay mostly consistent. For instance, the trap doors they borrowed from Mega Man are always reversed in this level and there isn’t a random one designed to work the “right way” and thus have the player fall through it when they expected an invisible platform to be there.

I was about to say that Stinkoman sounds familiar, but then I found that it was indeed a Homestar Runner game. B-)

I think if you were to give me a dime for every time I’ve said, “Man, it’s been awhile since I last read sbemails” I’d be at least 50 cents richer. At least!

I’ve had something along similar lines in the ol’ notebook o’ games to make for about a year… only instead of being purposefully glitchy it was just purposefully confusing — even to the point of changing genres on you while you play.

For now it’s way off the charts as far as things I’ve got the resources to put together. : (

Joe, thanks for the link. I’ll be sure to check it out.

Tim, it’s nice to see you have a blog. Did I just miss it in the past?

Naw, It’s brand spanky new…. hopefully I’m be reasonable about updating the damned thing. Gotta make progress before I can post about it though….

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