game designer's bench: Golf Story

I've been playing Golf Story on the Switch and was pleasantly surprised. It's weird but in a good way, and I like a lot of things about it. Some things about it mechanically and overall bother me, so I brought it to the bench to ponder why!

note: there are very minor (but not really) spoilers.
also note: you don't have to have played to find this interesting reading, I hope.
also note note: If you want to enjoy it without me whispering "this is weird?" while you play, play it first!

“Game designer's bench” is a design work bench! It's a bunch of words about game design. The aim is opinions and insight into design from one perspective, and to keep posts free of senseless negativity while still being fair and direct. Also, ideally presenting solutions or ways to tackle design problems presented.

More directly, the hope is to raise interesting questions and be critical of the medium, and hopefully help us make better games.

You can subscribe to these posts directly via the game design tag or subscribe via this mailing list at the bottom of this post.

Golf Story is an RPG around a young golfer looking to turn pro. You play through a series of areas, encountering people, items, mini games and puzzles. The game is longer than I expected (I'm over 16 hours in) and better than I expected (for an RPG about golf).

This game has a lot of good moments. I laughed, and I have enjoyed playing it. I can recommend it, as it's surprising in ways that I think make it a nice experience. You can watch the trailer below, to see what I mean and if you'll like it.

I'm going to approach this post from a mechanical and design consistency perspective, not a narrative or tone one.

For all the good parts that I like about it, it also seems to suffer from things that appear to be a side effect of either rushing for a launch window (even though it's been out a while already), or a lack of design experience.

I can't assume either of those, but that's how it FEELS to me. Sometimes the design decisions just don't make any sense, especially in the context of a fairly well made and polished game like this.

Identity, vision and pillars

Golf Story seems uncertain of what it is.
I kept asking "wait, but who is this piece of the game for"?

It doesn't seem to have an answer.

Misunderstanding "challenge"

In a game about golf, there are a lot of natural obstacles present (like the elements, trees, hazards, and so on) that the game has but doesn't really utilitize to it's fullest. It has wind, water, weeds, bunkers and trees but you're never really challenged by them - they just exist and slow you down by the normal rules of golf. There's no segments that use those in a mechanically interesting way.

The game does add new and often novel ideas like the turtles, moles and birds and I like that, however it also fills the gaps in the game with tasks that give me the impression they don't really know what challenge, especially in this game, is about.

Golf Story has many boring non-challenges, lots of easy challenges, unfair challenges, and later on some difficult and (sometimes) frustrating challenges. I'll go into details on some of these later.

Order, progression and balance
The progression doesn't feel well defined, like sometimes it feels well balanced for the stage of the game you're in, but often not.

An example is in the second area, you have to run around and race time with a fairly tight time window, on a course you've likely never walked on before, and this is only the second foot race (iirc). The previous one you'd have been in that area a while, the "track" was basically square, so this challenge feels comparatively tricky. This took a few tries, and especially compared to the later footrace challenges which have a much simpler courses to navigate, these footrace challenges can feel out of order.

The game swings pretty far toward the "non-challenges", task lists and easy puzzles earlier in the game, book-ended by 9 hole games on the courses. The more challenging things to do only start showing up much later - like in the last area - except for a few that are mixed between the often trivial tasks and puzzles.

There are some 'challenges' that don't actually give you any goals - like when you're tasked with mowing a lawn. There are obvious things to ride over (like weeds) and that's it, your actual purpose isn't told to you, so you end up running around aimlessly unsure of what you're doing. There's no progress indication like in every other challenge, and then you're interrupted and the sequence suddenly ends. It was confusing and inconsistent.

I don't mind most of this really, it's just worth noting that I feel a lack of intentional structure in the challenges pacing and progression makes the game feel a lot more inconsistent to me as a player.

Challenge overall
Overall, some things require failing to figure out how they work. Some things are near-impossible to fail. Some things take several tries and are challenging. It's a rollercoaster of ideas in no logical order.

One could say that it's a varied experience for various player types, but I personally consider it rather just inconsistent, as there are inconsistencies in almost every layer.

Good challenges

Golf Story does have some sense of the things that it's about, because it does have some challenges that are good. Things like "play only the rough", "play only bunkers" give you a different way to play the same hole. It challenges you to try things differently, explore your clubs, and get a better feel for the later challenges. There's many examples like this, where the designer seems aware and the game seems to have insight into the player.

This isn't just mechanical either, in the secrets and mysteries, sometimes in the narrative - there's an awareness of good design and the challenges are interesting enough, and rewarding to progress through.

Giving the player tools to get better at the game through the mechanics in a cohesive and consistent way, while also building the game and the world up at the same time, means there is lots of good stuff going on. That makes all the rest of this stuff so confusing.

Non-challenges and wasting the player's time

Then on the other hand we have these kinds of challenges. As one example, there's a section in the game where you hit a ball into the water to some turtles (there are no turtles in the water yet).

The “challenge” here is non existent. You have double the amount of chances to make three shots. Each shot is already pre-configured to hit directly into the target. The target you have to hit is massive, very hard to miss (even if you max-slice it into the wind). Literally any player can hit them first time, without changing any swing settings. But, you still have to do it "twice", because there are 6 shots and three targets. (Once you have the turtles, you also have to do it again, just differently).

Golf Story doesn't seem to recognize how little value there is here for the player. This is isn't challenging to any of it's perceived player types. Like, it's not a problem that they give you the space to fail, but it is a problem that there is no real space to fail mechanically at all.

All this ends up doing is wasting the players time doing a checklist, you can "beat" this with your eyes closed.

This feels like padding, because it adds nothing, and doesn't ask anything. It doesn't progress a narrative, it doesn't build the world, it doesn't grow the player. There's a bunch of examples like this that feel tacked on, I won't enumerate them all but the inconsistency is strange.

Almost like someone said an RPG has to be x many hours so there's a bunch of stuff in the way to make it take longer. Almost...

Pointless input mechanics

The only terribly silly mechanic worth mentioning is the "electric wedge ore mining". The implementation is really not great. Below the description is a short video showing both digging and mining.

With the digging mechanic that is similar to the mining one (which is introduced first), you have to press a button at the right time and the window of time gets smaller and moves around as you succeed. Missing incurs a small input delay. The digging mechanic is consistent with the world and the gameplay, and it makes sense. It also actually asks something of the player, it's not tedious, and you can get better at it.

The ore mining however, feels like an attempt to flip this idea on it's head - the input moves faster on each success but the input window stays still. On paper, it's ok as an inversion of the time window getting smaller to press - it's almost the same conceptually.

The problem is this mechanic is just plain tedious. It's long winded and doesn't really ask anything of the player. Compare the two side by side, in the video below. The digging even has a failed attempt, slowing it down. The mining is executed without a mistake. The mining is over 16 seconds of button mashing, hitting the button 20 times in a row.

It feels like mashing a button to just dismiss it, and the failure state becomes actually annoying, because input is blocked when you're trying to escape a dialog you've been stuck in for what feels like forever. The ore mechanic is not interesting for the player in the slightest.

It also wastes the players time, by asking them to do this on 5 different pieces of ore, in a row, every time.

Progression obfuscation

This section is harder to articulate, because it's the inconsistency and lack of vision/clarity in the overall design, across the whole game, that bothers me.

The connection between the progression, the mechanics, the narratives and the player's mental model of the way the game works throughout isn't particularly well defined. It ties into why it feels like it's just unsure of itself as a game.

On their own or without the context, the more difficult challenges can be seen as optional things to do that the player can ignore. However, they're not telegraphed as optional, often challenges block progression.

It means that I'm never sure if my progress is hinged on any particular challenge or not. Sometimes literally every challenge is connected in an intertwined order-of-operations fashion, and sometimes none are related at all. As a player, you probably won't know till you progress, and often you progress by accident.

This is mentioned in the general design section too, but often you're sent along the progression in the game without warning. This usually involves progress being tied to pressing a button to talk to someone, when you weren't read to progress yet. This is worse when the section you progress into is blocking, or changes the world.

Lost connections
As a concrete example, in the Coldwind Wastes course your narrative progresses by retrieving a fire ball. You're asked to unfreeze some things using it, and by doing so unlock several challenges.

Here my mental model is maybe that my progression is tied to the challenges from the frozen people right? Except there are several challenges that are (suddenly) actually challenging, some even require dexterity that more casual players may not have, or care for.

If you can't tell that you're not stuck here and you just want to continue on your progression, I imagine you may just quit out instead. Throughout the game up till now, the model of progression has been all over the place, so it's not really easy for the player to know whether to attempt the challenges to find out (like "normal").

There also seems to be a bug here about the character who gave you this task not recognizing that you've unfrozen everything, their dialog remains on asking you to unfreeze the others. But that's not a design issue per se, just something I got mildly frustrated with. (side note: since writing this, I noticed a frozen thing in other screenshots, which may have caused this but I can't check and I really don't feel like replaying 14 hours to find out.)

source: kotaku

detour: one off other-genre mechanics

A concept that games seem to have gotten better at over time, but for some reason Golf Story went for, is “Suddenly-A-Racing-Segment”. It's really lazy design to me, and feels like they had all these ideas and nothing to measure them against for whether they made sense.

While I can imagine that a section dedicated to this mini game in particular would have worked pretty well in the Golf Story world, and would be welcomed by players that would enjoy it, it just doesn't fit well in the game as is. In the current game it feels bolted onto an unrelated section, it's isolated from anything else like it mechanically, and mainly serves to compound onto the other frustrations.

"What purpose does this serve, here?"

This entirely new mechanic introduced in this area only has a pretty tight time window to beat, and has several instant failure cases on the most obvious paths (hitting trees/rocks, you just explode). Since racing RC cars in tight corners - with drifting and high time penalty for not being precise - hasn't been a mechanic the player has had a chance to warm up to means it could easily take several tries. Even for an experienced player that likes racing games (like me), I think I got it in around 4 attempts due to the unfamiliarity of the track, the controls, and the mechanics. Afterward I was just confused as to why.

The difficulty of the challenge isn't really the issue, it's this "who is this for?" question that repeatedly comes up, why is this here, what does it serve in the game where it was placed.

And do I need to beat it to continue?
The frustration was piling up.

Pacing obfuscation

The other challenges in this area range from hunting for hidden things, putting or chipping through snow, lofting over a camera man (which has a sort of order of operations with the blacksmith), putting on ice, etc. They all made sense, some were trickier, some were trivial, some were annoying (the ore mechanic). They weren't consistent, but can you guess how many were tied to progression if you just wanted to move on?

After I did all of them, I was still stumped for a short period. The quest giver kept saying there was more... so I ignored that as a potential bug, and stepped back to methodically try everything again.

It was only then I then realized I could have progressed long ago, without doing any of these challenges! This wasn't JUST an issue of the progression not being well communicated to the player, but I viewed it as a brewing storm that had been growing over the whole game, where the inconsistencies piled on top of each other to frustrate, obfuscating everything.

I felt bad for the types of players that don't recognize bugs, or who aren't stubborn that would just clear all the challenges before asking "ok now what" like I did. I can imagine they may have felt stonewalled here pretty easily.

I was burned out by all these challenges, because they followed right after another longer sequence, and instead I just quit and didn't feel like returning for quite a while after that.

source: destructoid. I don't want to play many hours to grab screens cos I didn't know I'd write this.

Unfair challenges

Unfair is a weird word, but it's the right one for how some of the challenges in the game are constructed. This is the problem when you don't seem to understand what the game you're making is, so you don't (always) know how to craft interesting challenges for the player, so you fall on weird options that may feel terrible to a player.

Did you ever play an older game where enemy AI can just see you through walls, and for example shoot you through them, instantly ending your fun? This is something games seem to have solved a long time ago, yet unfair challenges from AI felt like a blast from the past in Golf Story.

In later challenges, someone else hits your first shot in a round of golf. You can guess how they do... They hit it into water, into trees, 1m off the tee, and just terribly, "on purpose", every single time. The AI is ridiculing you here, it's not a challenge. You're not asking the player to do anything, you're not testing their skill, their mind, their understanding of your game. You're just slapping them and saying “deal with it”.

If you wanted the player to start with a deficit in score, there are so many ways that don't just punish the player for no good reason and make them feel like crap. This is by far the most confusing design choice in the entire game for me.

"Who is this for?"

To make it worse, the opponent AI in these later ones is also hyper accurate, lands on every beneficial "hazard" on the entire course, and has no bad shots. The "bad" shots are "oh no I hit a tree, it just happened to bounce directly back onto the green a few centimetres from the hole".

This too mocks the player because it's so predictable. It's just the AI "cheating" via a thinly veiled pretense - they're just getting lucky. Even the character is named Lucky, which feels so heavy handed as a way to make this seem ok. That's pretty intentional design, which goes back to why it seems so confusing. There's design it's just in the wrong direction, like the game doesn't know what the player wants or likes so it ends up feeling terrible, but it's still designed. This one feels like inexperience to me.

A lack of design pillars

Good game design often has a set of pillars that you use to invalidate design choices that don't mesh with the type of game you're creating.

These are like the foundations you can use to ask if mechanics for your game make sense, like "does this make sense in this world we're building" and "does this match the types of players this game is for".

If you don't have a well defined view of what your game is, who it's for, what matters to the player, what the player is doing there and how to challenge them, you kinda end up all over the place. This is how Golf Story feels, like a random mix of ideas, some good and some pretty bad, with no strong sense of consistency or cohesion which would have been provided by design pillars.

It also means that you're easily tempted by padding to reach x hours of gameplay, because anything is valid. It hurts the game in my opinion!

General inconsistency...

and design quirks. skip to the conclusion.

So many small things add up when the rest of the game is well made (and it is). I'll try to add suggestions from a design perspective, but so many of these repeat the same patterns that I just made a list instead.

  • You can't record video of the game for some reason?? The switch has it built in so it's odd choice. When I made dramatic shots... oh nobody will ever see it. Oh well!

  • Pacing is inconsistent. Going from long session to long session, or short session to short session, it just doesn't seem intentional about what you've just been doing, or are going to be doing next. Consider the player mental state, rest periods, ups and downs etc. Rewarding challenging sections with relaxing sequences, for example. There's no formula, but at least be intentional. The game has all the pieces of a really nice place to build pacing too, and sometimes the pacing is great, but grand scheme it feels like coincidence.

  • Challenges often have an obvious fail state, but have no option to quit. For example, if you do the mini golf challenge, if you mess up the second hole, you have to putt through seven other holes just to restart. It's terrible! This happens in several harder challenges on the pro course too. Just tedious. Don't waste the player's time.

  • Balance in the world is inconsistent. You can only find certain things late in the game, but they give you $0.50 - when other challenges are giving you over $200 at the time. Further demeans the 'reward' into a checklist.

  • Often unskippable camera pans and dialogue. Don't waste the player's time.

  • Overarching side quests are tied to the progress, and often told to the player via clues, so instead of letting the player find and discover things on their own, they're handed over. I was excited by the cachers hunting challenges, before I realized you have to wait to unlock each one by progress, and then it was beyond trivial because they tell you where it is. Some of them have a hot/cold radar. This felt like a missed opportunity.

  • Some challenges ask if you're ready, some don't, some launch you straight into very long sequences you can't quit from. Some launch you into a full 9 holes of golf you can't quit from, and some into segments of the game can't leave from. Maybe you just wanted to see what they were saying? NOPE. You're here now, whatever your intent was - oh well. Don't launch into unskippable sequences, don't force the player into things they can't back out of unless they know they're explicitly choosing to do that. At the very least, be consistent and don't disrespect the player intent.

  • And from above, some missions have "retire" in the menu, most don't. Gotta play through all holes just to restart or quit.

  • The inverse is also true, sometimes there's a challenge that takes 4 shots but gives you 10+ attempts. If you're any good at the game it and land them in the first 4, you have to pointlessly play through all 10 just to continue. This ties to the lack of challenge in some too, where you can't really miss, but still have to pointless play trivial shots over and over. Don't waste the players time.

  • Some sections feel like the designer was just pleased with the idea and then went overboard. There's a section where some people do a rap, it is soooo much longer than I feel necessary. Like, please just end it long. It's silly and fun at first, but ask "Who is this for?". Not the player... not after the first few minutes anyway.

  • Theming. The rap section ties into general overarching theme coherence... The world is full of strange and interesting ideas, and has some good world building going on (like the details on Lurker Valley being giant footprints - that's great. The ideas of golf on a beach, the haunted manor - all great). It's a bit all over the place but in a good way, and many of the themes and ideas fit just fine in the world. It's also funny and silly and charming.

    A lot of the themes though are just heavy handed, in both the writing and visuals. The sports announcers are insufferable, but have the most dialog in the game for example. Even the "scoundrels" theme with the bandanas feels odd here, what's the audience here, "who is this for?". This is mostly subjective though, and thankfully the game has a diverse cast of people types, despite some of these other overt stereotypes.

  • Dialog preambles before challenges can sometimes be several sentences, and you have to sit through them every single time. This piles on frustration because you know you're going to be coming back if you fail. Some dialog remembers and only prompts you yes/no, so it's another inconsistency. Don't waste the player's time. Just skip to the yes/no in all cases if you've already gone through, especially if it isn't a hint/reminder (some of them are reminders which is good design, but these aren't tied to yes/no states so they don't matter here).

  • Dialog can be sped up often, by using the Cancel button. Why the cancel button? To skip past dialog, you have to press B to skip text animation, and then A to continue, so you have to tap A and B alternating (B is cancel).

    My theory: As mentioned in the previous issue - challenges sometimes have yes/no prompt. If you're unlucky you'll hit "no" on the prompt when trying to skip dialog... That means another round through the dialog, slower, just to hit yes the next time. It can happen repeatedly if you're impatient or frustrated.

    The only reason I can think of this being done this way, is that people kept accidentally hitting yes, and then being pushed into long segments (like being stuck in a round of 9 holes with no quit). Switching the skip dialog button to the "no" option "fixes" that... but I don't know. Band-aids don't fix usability issues, use a short time delay to prevent mashing yes OR no, and allow both buttons to skip the dialog.

Golf Story is pretty good

It has a lot of charm, a lot of good moments, and is well made. It's really polished and the art is often really vivid and nice. There's a lot of neat ideas, things that reward the player and encourage exploring. A lot of it may be linked to progression and dialog but it still holds.

For what it is - an RPG around golf - it builds an interesting world, has a decent progression system that ties well to unlocking areas and feels good to make it through. The writing and theming is sometimes not my favourite but in context it's fine, and mechanically it brings some interesting ideas to a 2D golf game.

Hope you enjoyed the ramble!
(p.s These posts will get better formatted and better structured over time, and there'll be other game designers chiming in).

You can subscribe to these posts directly via the game design tag or the game designer's bench mailing list. I'll only ever send an email when I post one of these.