Lost in the reams of design documents and technical specifications is that we are trying to make games. Mixed with stories and graphics and sounds, sure, but at their heart we are still trying to negotiate some sort of molded puzzle. And one of the first things a designer tends to gloss over is what happens when the player fails. We want the player to have fun, and most of the time that means we want the player to succeed. But in game design, the one thing we fundamentally cannot count on is the way the player will react, and that means we have to plan for the worst.
We have to plan for the player to lose.
A lot of modern design seems to draw from the ancient coin-op origins of defeat. You lose, pop in some more money to continue. For the arcades, this made some sense. The shops want to make money, and the only way they can do that is by encouraging a steady flow of gamers to beat top-scores. The developers were banking on failure; winning was a loss proposition.
At the home, the theory changed. There’s no coin-slot, just a huge up-front payment. The player has an expectation – not discrete, but still there – that they will get a certain amount of enjoyment for those dollars. Those once useful game over screens amount to nothing more than a digital slap to the face for getting something wrong. Instead of encouraging replay, the gamer begins to question whether they should leave the game running, not to mention questioning whether they made the right purchase in the first place.
That’s not to say negative input is a bad thing. Like sides of a coin, we need to punish and applaud the player for the actions they take. But the old school of loss theory – the original art of defeat – is one step too far. Instead of punishing the player within the context of the game, it punishes the player for playing the game. We’re stripping them of their experience like parents would ground an unruly child, and it’s a practice that has to stop if we want to make experiences that don’t lose the audience after a few inevitable mistakes. Consider these game examples:
Irrational‘s rethinking of today’s FPS included a new take on the art of defeat, actually working the details into the environment of the story. The moment the player dies, he is reincarnated at the nearest vita-chamber, with all of their progress intact. If you try to apply some sort of story logic to it, the idea fails miserably, but as a gameplay element it is marvelous. And to the player who never dies, it’s simply invisible.
Here’s a fresh example of how the art of defeat was not taken into account. Fail during a game event, and not only does the event end, but the player is thrown onto a giant-sized pool table, with the game’s king and narrator shouting profanity while shooting pool-balls at the player as he scrambles around. The player is left to scramble for their life until the the retry screen appears. In execution the event is quite funny, but over time it begins to sound more and more like an angry diatribe aimed at the player himself.
Here’s a more cut-and-dry example: a simple puzzle game. Each puzzle asks the player to draw the picture according to the numerical clues. Drawing a pixel in the wrong place results in a progressively higher time penalty, and the player has only an hour to solve each one. But what if they go over that hour? No sweat. The game still allows the player to complete the puzzle, only their time record is not saved. The designers realized that there was more value to letting the player learn through completing their struggle than through penalizing their attempt at it.
So what is the modern art of defeat? Should we baby the player through each obstacle or relentlessly punish their mistakes? I say neither, for the modern art of defeat is that of teaching.
Teach through repetition, as Picross suggests by allowing uninterrupted play. Teach through redemption, as Bioshock suggests by allowing the player to clean up his mistakes. Hell, teach through instruction – Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (PS3) not only auto-reloads, but also offers a hint button that triggers after significant player confusion.
As developers, we shouldn’t be trying to stop the player from playing our games. We should be trying to teach them the line of thinking that we had when we designed our games in the first place. (Even a sandbox title like GTA relies on the player knowing the basic mechanics!)
Because if the player doesn’t understand how to play, how are they supposed to have any fun?