Raw gameplay experiences definitely leave a distinct impression on players, like a undercooked food. With such experiences players get an idea of what the game is trying to be, but the rawness prevents them from enjoying it to the fullest. Gamers commonly describe these experiences in different ways. They say the game just doesn't click, it's too chaotic, or that the game is too slow. The truth is, it's hard to explain exactly what the source is for a disappointing emergent experience. Generally speacking, a negative player experience can stem from bad design, user preference, or other factors. So before we move forward, we need a clear definition.
Raw gameplay experiences are most often the result of poor gameplay design, but not necessarily so. It's the experience of the emergent interactivity of a game taking priority over and exceeding the bounds of the intentional gameplay design. In other words, the gameplay is interactive, but the qualities that make gameplay meaningful and great (the cause-and-effect relationship, balance, and risk-reward of player actions) are unclear or hard to sustain. Masahiro Sakurai often approaches designing games by starting with risk-reward relationships, and I design in same way. Risk-reward and feedback design are very important considerations here.
Raw gameplay design is different from an unpolished game because polish deals with fine tuning the end user experience rather than addressing changes to the core design. Raw gameplay design is also different from what we generally call terrible game design because such games have a lot of good design in them and through their design point to a type of good gaming experience that they fail to measure up to.
Raw gameplay experiences can stem from a lack of clear feedback, a lack of interplay through player mechanics, or a lack of focus on a particular style of design like interesting choices. Like the FPShuffle, lacking player skill can contribute to raw gameplay experiences, but lacking skill can usually be minimized with practice. The other factors more core to the design cannot be minimized so easily.
Many games promise cake and deliver raw products. Some call this a "lie."
The opposite of raw game design is one where developers craft the emergent gameplay experience with complexities (rules) that reflect a meticulously detailed design where all the parts work together well. I tend to use general terms like "solid " to describe such "fully baked" games. Solid games convey a strong sense of thoughtful, informative, and cohesive design throughout the player's learning experience. Raw games do not convey this kind of message.
Keep in mind that the rawness of a gameplay experience doesn't mean that the game is unplayable. Rather, it's when the design itself conveys multiple, conflicting ideas based on how the emergent results play out. Given enough time and dedication, players will surely work through the raw experiences. In other words, when the developers don't finish "baking" a game, players can pick up the slack. In this discussion, we're not concerned with if a game can be played. Rather, we're concerned with who's doing the design work? Designers or players? And who's controlling the message. Designers or the chaos of emergence?
We all have raw gameplay experiences from time to time, but it takes quite a lot of game design knowledge to identify the source of the problem. Perhaps this topic is best discussed with lots of examples. The following is a list of raw multiplayer qualities, design elements that may be the source of the problem, and games (raw or not) that exhibit these qualities.
Stalemates and stalled progress are the bane of multiplayer games. During these moments time advances yet little else changes in the game state. Multiplayer games are designed to have players engage, challenge, and compete against one another. When one player is allowed to play in a way that effectively prevents the other player from engaging, challenging, and competing successfully, the actual gameplay breaks. In more casual competitions players often end stalemates because they get bored. But we all know that among serious competitors, all strategies will be used no matter how boring they seem. Even when a hard stalemate doesn't occur, players can sometimes stall out a match, which has a similar effect of prolonging the gameplay.
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures for the Gamecube has a multiplayer battle mode featuring top down combat and side scrolling combat (like Link's Awakening). In the top down combat players have the ability to roll around and attack in any direction around them in 360 degrees of space. But in the 2D side scrolling sections, players are much more limited in how they can move and attack. In these areas, if one player puts their back to the wall, they can essentially camp in a strong defensive position. Sword strikes don't work because they clash with other sword strikes. If the camper has a sling shot, you won't be able to close in. Or if the camper is on top of a latter, things become particularly hopeless.
The Super Smash Brothers series has a bit of a stalling issue, as many fighters do. Simply by giving players control of their characters to advance and attack, players also have the ability to retreat, defend, and stall. Often times, just a slight disadvantage to stalling or running away is enough to discourage the competitive community from pursuing such tactics heavily. However, there are always a few players that push the limits, even the limits of the tournament rules designed to discourage such play. Needless to say, nothing in competitive Smash play is easy. Players have to work hard at making even the strongest stalling strategies work. And for the blatantly cheap techniques like Sonic stalling, whether we can counter it or not, the community bans the technique and moves on.
Lack of Interplay
Stalling can be thought of as an emergent tactic that's possible when there's a lack of interplay and advantage offensive players. If it's easier and more effective to defend, then the gameplay will evolve into a waiting, baiting, reactionary type experience. On the other hand, it's also possible to have too much of an an advantage from being offensive so that the opponent's control is taken away. Infinite combos are potentially game breaking techniques that tend to emerge when hitstun and animation times aren't well tuned. Because infinite combos give players such powerful, one-sided control, they tend to be a dominant strategy and therefore have a strong effect on the game as a whole.
In the Legend of Zelda: Spirit Track's battle mode, players can lock other players in an infinite combo by repeatedly rolling into them against a wall. In an open space, the opponent can simply move away after both players collide. But in a corner, the targeted player doesn't fall far enough away from the attacker to escape. The infinite roll combo isn't so bad in free-for-alls of 3-4 players because other players can intervene. Furthermore, the game is a timed match won by collecting the most gems not defeating other players. Still, because the combo is so easy to pull off and easy to find, I'm surprised it was left in the game.
Spelunky's deathmatch also has many infinite combos because of the extreme amount of hitstun delivered from nearly every kind of interaction. The repeated use of the WHIP combos. Repeated thrown rocks combo. Repeated ropes combo. Repeated thrown bombs combo. Repeated machetes combo. Repeated camera flashes, and more.
Resets that Don't Reset
Resets are a wonderful game design element. When implemented correctly they give players some time to breath, a moment to anticipate the next wave of action, and they level out the slippery slope of disadvantages. The easiest way for most real-time games to incorporate resets within a round of gameplay is with invincibility and respawning. In Street Fighter, Smash Brothers, Kid Icarus Uprising, Super Monkey Ball, and so many other games, a bit of invincibility here and there allows players to get back on their feet and perhaps make a few more interesting choices. It's odd when a game appears to reset players, yet they remain in an unshakable disadvantage.
Some shooters manage their spawning very poorly; so poorly that players have memorized spawn patterns and used this knowledge to take out players the moment after they spawn. This is called spawn camping. Instead of resetting a player with more health, ammo, and a new location they are essentially forced into an odd combo of sorts. I believe Golden Eye for the N64 suffered from this problem. Though Halo 3 has a more complex spawning system designed to properly shuffle around locations, pro MLG players have learned how to influence the spawning AI and spawn camp (see video here).
In part 2, I'll cover more examples.