Theory: Learn from the Worst Game

Rudolf Wanderone, a professional billiards player, once said, “[y]ou don’t learn from smart people, you learn from idiots. Watch what they do, then don’t do it.” While that’s obviously not advice to be taken literally, there are certainly lessons to be learned from the worst games.

There are a lot of lists of “worst games” out there, and everyone has their choices. I’m a little older, so my #1 worst is a PC game from 1994. Everyone, please welcome . . . Outpost!

Outpost is a great game to study because it doesn’t just do one, critical thing wrong. Instead, it makes a bunch of mistakes, all of them different and potentially interesting.

Let’s dig deep on just one of them: the unguided choice of where to go. Early on the player is supposed to decide which star system to travel to—but as the review points out, the data meant to inform that decision is so opaque as to be useless. The player is thus reduced to picking at more or less at random and hoping for the best.

Experience garnered from many games shows that randomness can be entertaining. However, a single random event that can end the game if you get unlucky isn’t a fun implementation. Like a badly-done RPS mechanic, a one-and-done random choice that decides the game at its very beginning isn’t a good experience.

If that were the only sin Outpost’s early game committed, it would be damning. However, things only get worse when one factors in the promises mentioned in the video—that Outpost was to be based on real science, with the choice of where to go based on legitimate astronomy. Trying to live up to that promise likely ate up development time that could have gone into making the game playable. Certainly it built excitement that turned into disappointment when the game hit the shelves. Outpost established expectations, and then didn’t meet them.

Finally, consider the problem the review cites regarding the process of supplying your vessel: you don’t know where you’re going, so you don’t know what you need. What should be an important decision thus becomes an exercise in frustration, almost in being mocked. The game asks the player to make decisions based on information the player can’t possibly have or acquire.

Outpost gives us three examples of things not to do in the very first thing the player does. That’s a pretty good time-to-lessons ratio! If you’re looking for a game that can teach you what not to do, give Outpost a try.

Or maybe don’t. It’s terrible. Just read up on it. 😉