What Takes Priority: Design or Execution?

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I’ve recently been playing two games that both sit in the, rather expansive & popular, genre of ‘Survival’ games. Those games being Terraria & Conan Exiles. While no one would really call these games similar they do share one key trait. You are dropped into the world with nothing and expected to flourish by chopping trees, breaking stones and crafting weapons to fight mighty beasties.

Conan Exiles Artwork Image Credit: Funcom

However, I’ve run into difficulties with both games. One game I find to be very well made yet poorly designed and the other to be the opposite; poorly made but very well designed.

Terraria, in my opinion, is a very well made game. Everything works as intended, I’ve never had the game crash and I’ve never run into any bugs or glitches. That’s not to say they don’t exist, just that in my personal few hundred hours in the game I haven’t personally run into trouble. But when it comes to the design of the game I think the game is pretty lacking. It’s filled with big ideas with poor follow-through.

Image Credit: Re-Logic

When it comes to Conan Exiles, however, I think the games concept, world-building, atmosphere and overall feel is fantastic. In terms of actual execution, the game is pretty poor for something that’s been developed by a big company compared to Terraria’s indie team of, originally, two people. The game crashes, there’s dozens of bugs and general jank to how objects interact with the world and some systems randomly decide to just not work. Now, this isn’t a review of either game, I enjoy both games and would honestly rate them pretty equally. The point of this ramble is just to discuss how games are made and what’s important in that.

So, back to the question, what’s more important? The design of a game? i.e difficulty curve, core concept, world building and visuals. Or the actual execution of those things on a mechanical level? i.e How the game actually feels to play.

Let’s use an example that everyone will know; Minecraft. Back when it was first released the game had almost nothing really to do. Once you had mined Diamond (which wasn’t difficult) you had peaked. All that was left was to build a giant monument to Sean Bean and be done with it. Yet the game has become one of the most popular games on the planet. The reason behind that is because, while the games concept was simple, the actual game play was near flawless. Classic Minecraft could be summed up, design wise, in a few words: “It’s like Lego but with monsters.” But it executed that simple design perfectly. I honestly don’t remember seeing any game breaking bugs or crashes in Minecraft bar the occasional zombie inside a wall.

So let’s look at an example on the other end of the spectrum. Pathalogic, now you would be forgiven for not having heard of Pathalogic, it’s a niche mystery/horror-ish game released back in 2005. The core concept of the game couldn’t really be summed up without a paragraph or two. It’s a story of a small Russian town in the middle of nowhere which is about to suffer a massive plague caused by possibly terrestrial or supernatural means. The objective is to play as one of three different types of healers and discover a cause for the plague. It’s not an action game so most combat is deadly and the dialogue is one way and non-repetitive; you actually have to remember what people have said and each quest is an exercise in wasting your time. But you’re doing it for moral reasons not the benefit of yourself and there’s this giant floating trapezoid thing in the sky that is run by a sort of Illuminati of this small town and on, and on, and on . . .

However, the gameplay and execution of the concept can easily be summed up with less than a sentence. Garbage. The gameplay is horrifically unfun and unengaging. Not only that but it also barely functions. The game is held together with string and Russian prayers more so than solid coding. Yet the people that like Pathalogic think it’s a revolutionary title and should be commended endlessly for ‘not hand-holding’ and its deep narrative that faces real issues that the player has to decide if they morally agree with or not.

Image Credit: Ice-Pick Lodge

As I said, this is not a review for any of these games. Every game I have listed is something I’ve put hours and hours into playing and discussing at length. The thing I want you to think about is which is more important to you? Or is it something to be judged on a case by case basis?

One of my favourite games of all time Mass Effect is basically made out of tissue paper and Star Wars Fan-Fiction. But It’s a game I’ve completed over 11 times. Or Raft a game that would sooner have you staring into the ocean waiting for resources to arrive than actually let you play the game but everything in it works perfectly.

Overall it’s a question one man cannot answer, or perhaps there isn’t an answer. Game creators will forever be creating games, some will be wonderful story masterpieces with the game play of a shoe box where others will be more functional than any machine but have the narrative and concept of, well, a shoe box.

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