You Lost me at Lost Viking

Despite of all that praise, StarCraft II has also some really horrible parts. I received the full brunt of one of them doing the single player achievements: the top-down shooter Lost Viking.

At fist sight it’s a cool feature. If you click on an arcade machine in the adventure part of the game you can play a StarCraft-themed arcade game. It’s called Lost Viking (a reference to The Lost Vikings, an old Blizzard game from the time they weren’t called Blizzard yet) and it’s an old-school top-down shooter. I think I heard somewhere that it might have been done completely with the StarCraft II level editor which would be quite astonishing. Whether it’s true or not it uses exclusively assets from the strategy game and it features some quite funny tongue-in-cheek humor. The game has 3 levels and even shows some polish. There are 3 huge boss battles, a power-up system. Levels also increase in complexity when you re-play them after beating the game.

This would haven been peachy if it was a little bonus that you could check out, laugh about and move on. But then the developers came in and spoiled it by introducing achievements. So now there are 4 achievements associated with it. They are categorized as campaign achievements so they are a legitimate part of the single-player experience. One is awarded for completing the game which is somewhat tolerable. The other 3 are associated with getting a certain high score. Especially the last one requires you to get 500,000 points which means beating the game 3 times in a row without running out of lives.

And this is where the joke turns sour. Because once you start playing the game seriously, some quite annoying flaws turn up. The collision detection is horribly fuzzy and unforgiving, the controls are clunky, the power-up system seems unfinished and the levels get boring very soon.

Take the the collision detection for example. Japanese shooters have evolved a very interesting philosophy of hit-detection. The player’s sprite is often a lot larger than the area where collisions are registered. The collision box is actually very small in general while bullets are quite large. This makes up for exciting moments where players miraculously graze bullets that seemed like they would have hit them. Ikaruga is a prominent example. The hitbox in Lost Viking is as big or even slightly larger than the player sprite. All this does is creating moments of infuriating “WTF!! How did that hit me?!?!”.

I eventually got so frustrated that I hooked up a gamepad into my PC and used Xpadder to map the gamepad onto the Lost Viking keyboard controls. The rapid-fire functionality of Xpadder and the improved usability of the gamepad helped to get through but it certainly wasn’t something I look back at favorably.

All in all, Lost Viking is inferior even to most no-budget indie shooters. It’s no wonder. I don’t think Blizzard set out to make a great shooter with StarCraft 2. They focused on creating a great RTS. It’s funny and impressive that the game engine can also handle a top-down shooter but it should have been be obvious that such a mini-game would be far cry from the cutting-edge. The game design mistake is that they expected too much from it. Instead of focusing on the strengths of the game, the achievements needlessly emphasize a weak part of the game. What could have been a cool bonus turns into a obnoxious chore.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

20 responses to “You Lost me at Lost Viking”

  1. Mike

    At the risk of sounding dumb: If an achievement isn’t fun to try and get, why not just skip it?

  2. Kimari

    I’d argue that there are two mistakes here: The first one is on the part of Blizzard for giving too much importance to this … thing that should be just a fun little optional diversion. The other mistake is on the part of the player: Playing something horrible even if it isn’t any fun just for achievements is always going to be a recipe for unnecessary frustration.

    So… yeah, what Mike said.

  3. Krystian Majewski

    Good Point. I was wondering myself if I’m not simply over-reacting. On the other hand, couldn’t you use the same argument to deny the critique of everything?

  4. Mike

    Oh, your critiques are still valid of course. I’m not disagreeing so much as pointing out that in order for this to bother you, you have to intentionally play the game in a way that is not enjoyable for the dubious “reward” of an achievement. At least, my understanding of the achievements is that they are completely optional and have no benefit other than lighting something up on the achievement screen.

    It is interesting that achievements have this effect on people.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Well yes. If I wanted just to have fun then this was certainly the wrong way to go.

      But my motivation is different. I do find it quite interesting to play not quite as polished games or play parts of games that aren’t as polished. It’s easier to understand how to design a good game if you’ve seen a game fail. Good games are often so polished that you don’t notice all the details that make them so great. It’s the same with movies and books in this regard.

      But on the other hand I can’t deny that it’s sometimes hard for me to draw the line between exploration and achievement grinding.

  5. Kimari

    “On the other hand, couldn’t you use the same argument to deny the critique of everything?”
    Short answer: No, not exactly.
    Long answer:
    If an optional side-quest in a final fantasy game was very difficult, could you complain about it? Sure, pointing it out and saying you dislike it is a valid course of action, but outright saying the developers made a mistake is going too far.
    There’s a reason why it’s optional: It’s something the developers acknowledge that not everybody will like … said optional part may not actually be very good, but that’s besides the point.
    It’s optional, if you dislike it you can skip it, the developers gave you that ability for a reason.
    Granted, as I said earlier, Blizzard made the mistake of giving this optional feature too much importance by assigning very difficult achievements to it. If they were easy to get and just used to point out this neat little feature, then awesome… but that’s not what they did.
    In my opinion achievements should only be used to point out interesting things to do and strategies to try out. Because, at the end of the day, if what you are doing is frustrating, boring and uninteresting, then why are you playing? For points? Hollow, unimportant and meaningless points? … Why?

  6. Kimari

    Mmmmhhh, sorry if I came off a little strong.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Oh, no need to apologize. Thanks for commenting! The longer the better. :D

      You raised some excellent points. Let me attempt to answer them:

      Something may have limited appeal but that doesn’t mean that quality standards don’t apply. Even if I’m not into some game, I can still somewhat recognize if it has been executed well. Ikaruga is actually a great example. But the problem with Lost Viking is not the fact that it’s niche, it’s simply poor execution.

      It’s not so much about difficulty either. Sure I had to retry a couple of times but once you get the hang of it the game becomes a challenge of endurance rather than a challenge of skill. Again, I would argue that this is a sign of poor game design as well.

      Finally the “it’s skipable” shouldn’t be an excuse. Nowadays games feature quite flexible campaign structures where players are able to skip large portions of the game – StarCraft 2 being one of them. If skipable parts would be immune to critique, we wouldn’t be able to comment pretty much the entire game. ;D

      1. Kimari

        Hahahaha, yeah, good points.
        The question is, if Lost Viking didn’t have achievements, would Starcraft 2 be better off with or without this shmup?
        Just like a typical flash game is a good 5 minute diversion even if it’s not exactly the most wonderful piece of interactivity out there, I’m wondering if Blizzard was shooting for something similar: A fun little thing to do to pass the time and nothing else. Sure, they shot themselves in the foot by giving it too much importance without the appropriate polish, but I’m not sure if demanding a more polished shmup is … well, appropriate.

        1. Krystian Majewski

          Ha! But the thing is that the typical flash game is made by a tiny team, in short amount of time with no budget. And yet:

          StarCraft 2 was made by one of the the richest and biggest game studios IN THE WORLD. They took their sweet time too. If there is a game where it’s appropriate to expect perfection, it’s this one.

          And don’t get me wrong. I do get that this is an isolated part of the game. I love the RTS parts and I’m having the time of my life with it.

          1. Kimari

            You win this round Batman, but I’ll be back again!

          2. Kimari

            Also: insert evil laughter *here*.

          3. Krystian Majewski

            The world is safe. But for how long? *dramatic gaze in the sky*

  7. GhostLyrics

    I have to admit that this reminds me of following article I’ve recently read:

    We’re advancing to a future of gaming that might not be a good one.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Yeah I was thinking about that one as well but you know what? I disagree with Chris Hecker. His findings on external motivation are spot-on. But the thing is that it’s difficult to classify Achievements as external motivation. After all, they are a part of the game and quite meaningless for people, who don’t play this particular game.

      The correct analogy for external motivation in respect to games are contests, competitions with monetary rewards. Those are definitely external motivations and the effect he is talking about is certainly there.

      But otherwise games are quite complex systems that flood the players with a constant stream of feedback. How is the score counter any less external than an achievement? Or how about reaching the next level with your RPG character? Isn’t that somewhat like an achievement? Or how about even the tiniest details such as the juicy coin pickup sound in Super Mario. Are we really picking up the coins because it’s intrinsically fun or do we simply lust after the way it feels. But wait! What exactly is the difference?

      Here is a simple test to see if a reward is TRULY external: Ask yourself “would the players prefer getting the reward without doing the task associated with it if they had the choice”?

      1. GhostLyrics

        I don’t think I’m qualified to answer this as I mostly play games ’cause of their story. I use the easiest difficulty only because I want to know how the story goes on and on and I’m personally not that into the gameplay aspect itself. *shrugs*

        1. Krystian Majewski

          Even Tetris?! ;D

          1. GhostLyrics

            Of course ;) no… normaly not, though I spend some time watching a friend break the highscore to see what would happen. :P

      2. Mike

        Err… I think we are getting caught up on terminology a bit. The research Hecker talked about dealt largely with intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, and the difference is actually not a vague one. You are intrinsically motivated if you find the act itself enjoyable even without the reward at the end, and you are extrinsically motivated if you do the action to get the result.

        “Reward” might be an issue, too. For instance praise is an extrinsic motivator, but you didn’t get a reward in the sense people often mean. Which I guess is why the psychologists say “intrinsic/extrinsic motivator” and not “internal/external reward”.

        Achievements are not the thing you do, thus they are extrinsic motivators. Leveling up and good coin sound effects are also working as extrinsic motivators.

        At least that’s my understanding of it. But I am not a psychologist, I just make crappy computer games.

        BTW I don’t mean to say that coins, achievements, or other extrinsic motivators in general are evil and manipulative.

        1. Mike

          Actually now I’m second guessing myself. Sure if you do things to get an achievement, then that is extrinsic, but there is also pleasure in challenging yourself to something and accomplishing it regardless of the result. You could say that many achievements are suggestions for ways to challenge yourself and thus can help people find things that they will be intrinsically motivated to do once it occurs to them to do it.

          I guess I don’t really have a point. People are complicated and it’s hard to make generalizations.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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