"Placeholder" Game Design

A few months back I tried out that Sonic Robo Blast 2 fangame and it‘s real interesting! It’s not faultless by any means and it does take a little while to get the feel of it, but it‘s a solid concept and a nice window into another dimension where 3D didn’t steamroll 2D games out of existence for a hot minute and a different template for 3D Sonic games was established.

For those who haven't played it part of their solution for 3D Sonic movement was to give him a dash/attack where Sonic launches himself directly towards the middle of the camera, so you sort of aim him like an FPS and part of the friction is moving Sonic in one direction while always trying to look at where you need to go to next. This solution isn't for everyone but it does give a satisfying feeling of control that Sonic rarely has in 3D when you get the hang of it.

What I've discovered since playing it is a lot of people really hate this because it's not the traditional "homing attack" that most Sonic 3D games have leaned on for the past 20 years, and I've realised thinking about this that the homing attack kind of sucks! It takes any real control away to focus the level design on set pieces of bouncing off springs and rows of enemies with many of the games encouraging you to mash the button to launch yourself into bounce pads you can't even see.

This is functional enough (well, it us when the lock on doesn't screw up and throw you into a pit) but it's not...compelling, and the more the level design is built around it the less interesting these games get. It's a placeholder solution to jump over some early design hurdles that doesn't actually answer the question "how do you make 3D Sonic fun", as a result we have a whole portfolio of Sonic games that feel more like janky rhythm games than platformers and this is gone on so long a lot of the kids won't stand for anyone trying literally anything else.

So, whether or not you agree with this specific example, what do you consider to be a piece of "placeholder" game design; a feature of a series or genre that has become a staple but really is only filling a gap or sidestepping a design dilemma that isn't actually fun, interesting and/or complement what the game is supposed to be about.

This may too obtuse a question but I feel like I have this thought all the time and can't think of any examples right now other than Sonic, sorry Sonic! Sonic R was good!

The FPS thing is definitely in there, because this is based on the Doom 2 engine after all, yeah?

With sonic's homing, it does feel like a stepping stone that became a path through overuse, and they never got to build the final roadway because the stones became familiar as a path. It was a band-aid on the problem of "how do we keep sonic moving fast in 3D" - probably on a more specific problem than that, like "how do we keep sonic moving fast but not explicitly on rails, while still keeping him on rails, since the rest of the game is on rails" or etc

I think loads of games do this, including two out of three necrosoft games. Sad to say, the band-aid approach has been something I've had to rely on as a designer due to always being behind and just needing to ship. Oh, Deer! and our next game are exceptions to this, but Gunhouse and Gunsport both fall prey to it.

You can read a huge number of Gunhouse examples in this thing: https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/BrandonSheffield/20181025/329403/Game_design_deep_dive_The_creation_of_Gunhouse.php

Because this has happened to me, I feel like I recognize it pretty quickly in a lot of games, but I am having trouble remembering recent examples that anyone else would recognize! I reckon there are tons of these that we never identify because they just wind up working. But any mechanic that began in a designer's mind as "hmm, I need the player to do X" is a candidate.

Maybe the biggest thing I can think of is the energy mechanic in free to play games. It's there because they want to gate the player's time playing without paying. But there are more elegant ways of inspiring the player to pay which many companies never reached because the idea of energy worked well enough. Energy mechanics always create a negative player loop but they work well enough, so they're still in countless f2p games.

Games like Clash Royale got more clever with it and made it so you could only open X chests per hour, so you could play all you wanted, but rewards were time limited.

I might be completely misreading the topic but I feel this applies on some level to more and more games these days. Especially with loot driven games, where the main compulsion to play comes from the rewards at the end of a session, it feels like you could put basically anything in the game itself, whatever combat mechanics are there exist only to contextualize the player characters ‘build’, including cosmetic items and upgrades, rather than serving any intrinsic purpose.

If I may drag an entire genre, the combat mechanics in diablo-like games feel placeholder to me. The point is not that they are unoriginal, but that they feel boilerplate, and the main bulk of the design and innovation within the genre seems to focus more on tweaking the reward loops and the depth to which you can optimise your character, whilst the actual act of combat could really be anything, so long as the performance of your particular character build was accurately reflected.

Fast travel is the ultimate placeholder mechanic. It‘s generally used as a ’skip the boring part‘ button, in lieu of actually making long journeys compelling. Such a big deal is made of huge worlds in games, and after a few hours you’re normally presented with an option to skip having to move through them.

Breath of the Wild is a great game, but once you've found enough towers and shrines, the character of the game completely changes - the box-ticking completionist urge kicks in and exploration becomes unimportant and possibly even inconvenient. It becomes too easy to teleport your way around the map.

Another example is Metal Gear Solid V, where the big, empty open world really has no reason to exist. The game even splits itself into 'episodes' and teleports you around the map whether you like it or not! In theory you *can* play the game without being helicoptered around, but the lack of things to do or see outside the structured mission areas soon becomes apparent if you do.

Exceptions would be games where moving through the world *is* always compelling, like maybe Death Stranding where your skillset improves and radically alters so often that repeat journeys serve as a reminder of how far you've come, Metroidvanias where backtracking reveals additional secrets or gives an opportunity for some grinding, or maybe even Grand Theft Auto where taking a taxi ride is convenient and believable in-world. All these games offer 'skip the journey' fast travel options, and I almost never feel the need to use them.

A recent podcast question asked what complimentary descriptions turn you off a game. "HUGE OPEN WORLD" has definitely become mine.

I‘m going to take some time to respond to some of these properly later but I’m relieved to see some great answers! I was worried I had done a horrible job setting up the topic lol

I‘d be hard-pressed to get too deep into this, since I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, but it often feels like the entire design history of RPGs, from the 70s pen and paper systems to today's games, is a horrifying spaghetti-plate morass of placeholder systems compounding each other. Most RPGs, it seems, are more about number crunching and warehouse-supervisor-like efficiency management than actually getting to play a role.

I've got a brain that enjoys that sort of thing, luckily, so I'm not too bothered by it - but maybe that's only because I've been indoctrinated since childhood into accepting those number-heavy turn-based battle systems as normal and expected. (TTYD and FF3's DS port were my first RPGs.) I even jump to the defense of turn-based/ATB systems because I enjoy the strategy/planning my moves, taking calculated risks and dealing with the results, but it's often remarked that those systems were only in place at first due to the technical limitations of the systems those games were made for. It's gotten to the point where, for years now, RPG-like stat-based loot systems have infected most of the biggest AAA games.

I'd love to see a fantasy AAA RPG without a single goddarn number shown to the player. Would be interesting.

For my money, you‘ve got to lean all the way into it or obscure it as much as possible. I appreciate a game with a pointed stats bent, like raising/growth sims. Tactical Fighter for Saturn is a good example. You set a training regimen, do work to earn money, etc, and watch your stats raise and lower day by day. It’s all about stats, and those micro decisions, but there‘s some room for experimentation and learning because it happens in slow motion and you’re not fully committed to something like a job system.

On the other hand, I'm not sure how you make an RPG and show progress without showing numbers and stats. I'd be interested in seeing what that looks like. Increasingly powerful armor bequeathed upon you by certain events? a system that's entirely skill-based with no dice rolls? a conversational battle system? I haven't thought about it long enough to really get in there, but there's definitely some interesting space to play with !


@exodus#2958 On the other hand, I’m not sure how you make an RPG and show progress without showing numbers and stats. I’d be interested in seeing what that looks like. Increasingly powerful armor bequeathed upon you by certain events? a system that’s entirely skill-based with no dice rolls? a conversational battle system? I haven’t thought about it long enough to really get in there, but there’s definitely some interesting space to play with !

The *SaGa* games are kind of like that, aren't they? There are numbers, but they're not particularly meaningful because the experience is measured more through characters acquiring new skills during combat.

Now then, onto my serious contribution:

Before I get into it, I want to clarify that placeholder design has to be understood in the context of the game in question, IE it's not so much a matter of a given feature intrinsically being placeholder design as much as it is of what a game does to elaborate on a given aspect of its design. I'm pretty sure everybody already understands as much, but it's valuable bringing up anyway to acknowledge the meaning seemingly placeholder features can take within specific games. RPG stats become very meaningful in *Super Robot Wars* and the first *Kingdom Hearts*, albeit for very different reasons (how they interact with other systems and simplifying the range of stats for clarity's sake, respectively). Fast-travel works really well in *Grand Theft Auto IV* because it comes in the form of a taxi driver you have to pay and who will boot you to the curb should you run out of money before reaching your destination. (Guess how I found that out.)

By contrast, consider the horn in *Mario Kart 8*. I've watched an unhealthy amount of *Mario Kart* videos, and I've learned that the items in these games tend to serve subtle but distinct purposes: bananas provide defense against oncoming projectiles like shells, and fake item boxes act as a firm obstacle because you can't break them with projectiles like shells. Unfortunately these nuances were diluted with *Mario Kart 8*, and in the horn's case, that item only exists so fans would stop complaining about the blue shell supposedly being unbalanced. Sure, you can technically use it for crowd control, but when are you going to be around enough people at once during a race to make it worth it? Worse still, this balance is completely unnecessary because there's already a very reliable counter to blue shells. Just boost past them with a mushroom right before they hit you; I've seen players do this before in *Wii*. Yet nobody ever bothers with this strategy in *8* because (I'm guessing) they can't resist boosting through that one patch of grass Nintendo puts near the finish line of every *Mario Kart* track, regardless of whether it actually makes sense.

Come to think of it, those patches of grass probably qualify as placeholder design. In fact, there's a lot you could argue qualifies as placeholder design for *Mario Kart 8* specifically, from the anti-gravity sections that don't add anything to the experience to the flying sections which also don't add anything to the experience.

yeah, everything you‘re describing with mario kart 8 feels like band-aids to problems, including those grass patches. "we want to make it extra dramatic right at the end, let’s add a grass patch." it sort of works, but it also feels like a kludge. It‘s the sort of design decision I’d expect from me when I'm coming up against deadlines, and not from Nintendo.

@billy#2881 YES fast travel is a perfect example in a lot of games, as Tim likes to say “your game only needs fast travel when your slow travel sucks” There‘s only game I can think of off the top of my head where I like the fast travel outside of being a necessary evil and that’s Grand Theft Auto IV, which also has very good slow travel!

@Wooben#2872 you didn't misread the topic, it's a little vague on purpose to see how people interpret it! Games with unfun combat that are more interested in locking you into feedback loops of loot/EXP so you can do even more unfun combat with larger numbers are a perfect example of designers missing the forest for the trees.

@exodus#2741 interesting to get a designer's feedback on this! Even from a micro hobbyist perspective like making Mario Maker levels I've run into issues like "ugh it's no fun but I have to put a thing here or the whole level will break", but if it's in service of a solid idea overall people never notice that part!

This is a reality of a lot of game design, I think the reason why Sonic's homing attacks sticks out to me as my Main Example is because it's something that doesn't work that's become hard wired into the formula over two decades without them even trying anything else. It's definitely not an issue when it's a pragmatic solution to a specific problem.

@neuroshmancer#2950 numbers can be beautiful without being plastered all over the screen, I wish more games were smarter about this!

@Video_Game_King#2962 oh wow I hadn't read your post when I wrote the first part of this reply, glad there's more GTAIV taxi stans in the world lol

Mario Kart 8 leans a little different for me tho, I don't disagree with you're saying but I feel it's more an issue of over polishing and reliance on visual gimmicks that fuel the shiny soulless Official Nintendo Licensed Product vibe of that game. When I think about the item balance of that game I don't necessarily think "this is a superfluous solution to a problem" as much as I think "boy someone at Nintendo found out a lot of dudes hated Mario Kart Wii". They're trying to balance it in a way that panders to all of the audience at once rather than solve "issues", look at the Deluxe re-release where they brought back having two item boxes because everyone moaned about it even though the original game was obviously designed around the changes to how you hold and use items.

You could argue they could swap out the Blue Shell for a better rubber banding gimmick in the first place though!

I also remembered a different kind of example from a recentish game, when I was playing that PS4 Spider-Man game and saw the Peter Parker Pipe Mania circuit puzzles I literally shouted out “GOD DAMNIT VIDEOGAMES BIOSHOCK WAS OVER A DECADE AGO”, which was fun for my girlfriend who doesn't know what that is.

And I consider that another insidious example because if you bring that up a lot of people will wave it off like "oh it's fine" "you don't have to do it that much" or "well I like that kind of puzzle!" I also like that kind of puzzle! But it's hard not to feel like a nub sitting in a lab doing optional mobile game time killers for bonus EXP because someone on the dev team watched Spider-Man 2 again and remembered that the duality and balance of Peter Parker's life is a vital part of the character and he spends as much time being a nerd as he does doing Arkham Asylum combat rooms on rooftops.

So yea it is "fine", but it's only there because in this industry a game fuelled by Sony money would burst into flames if a developer even attempted anything other than an open world format built around combat and side missions. There's no way to get Peter Parker in there other than give him an icon on the map for a chore list that vaguely thematically lines up with "nerd stuff".

I won't argue for or against it being placeholder game design as, to be honest, I am still not entirely sure if I understand the topic and what @Lesmocon is looking for, but regarding the horn in Mario Kart 8:


@Video_Game_King#2962 Sure, you can technically use it for crowd control, but when are you going to be around enough people at once during a race to make it worth it

I don't know if this applies to Mario Kart 8 Vanilla or was balanced differently in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe but, from my very recent experience, in multiplayer, you will very rarely use the horn for blue shells because it requires an insurmontable amount of luck to keep the horn and wait for that situation; items such as the ghost or the lightbolt almost guarantee you will lose your item if you keep it for too long, and they now have twice as many chances to pop up with the two items per driver configuration. It's of course not impossibe, but you need a combination of circumstances and lucky timing to be both first and in possession of a horn when a blue shell strikes.

I know this because I was kinda forced into an online Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Sunday tournament every week with other developers since the beginning of the Quarantine, even though it is the bane of my existence (competitive online multiplayer, not MK8DX itself, or the Quarantine). I only joined them to be kind, and stayed not to miss on the banter and gossip, and by now everybody has more or less caught up in skill and knowledge of the game and tracks, so the races are pretty tight in front. I am sure we are far from the best players' skills but, in our races, the horn is indeed better used as crowd control, aggressive attacks against a leader (especially near ravines/jumps) or as regular defense against red shells, rather than the elusive miracle escape from the Blue Shell we were all(?) going for early on.


@Lesmocon#2991 “boy someone at Nintendo found out a lot of dudes hated Mario Kart Wii”

I am a dude who hated Mario Kart Wii and really like this one, so I guess this much is true! I do wish there was an option to set up online races with only one item, if only to mix things up with the aforementioned group.



I haven’t thought about it long enough to really get in there, but there’s definitely some interesting space to play with !


Definitely would take some time to un-learn all those design laws. I think it'd be worthwhile to explore how to give the player feedback on their character's progression without explicitly telling them they just got +5 int or whatever. Maybe something like "You feel your will strengthen"? This approach might also have the side effect of cutting down how (to borrow a Tim term) paraphernelious RPG equipment systems can be. if you can't see that X armor has +1 more defense than Y armor, players won't ever equip it, and they'll probably be none the wiser - so instead, a designer of this imaginary game would have to make sure all pieces of equipment with significant stat differences are otherwise meaningfully distinct.



that one patch of grass Nintendo puts near the finish line of every Mario Kart track, regardless of whether it actually makes sense.


Y'know, I'd never actually realized this until you said it. RE: the anti-grav/flying sections, I feel like those justify their existence at least a bit due to the mechanical changes (collisions causing a boost in anti-grav, gliding/momentum management for flying sections).