Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Making Failure Acceptable

I’m back home and didn’t even break any bones skiing. When I came back I had about a million blog posts to read and I still have. One thing happened though that I actually managed to check out – Sid Meier’s keynote at the Game Developer’s Conference. There are a lot of interesting points in that speech, definitely watch it if you are interested in game design. A big point was the idea of adapting your games in order to make the player feel like she’s winning. And it’s true; if I’m playing a single player game, I often hate being straight out defeated by something that I cannot really fathom. On the other hand I’m currently playing a lot of the Starcraft II beta, which is pretty much multi-player only. And I lose a lot.

Oddly enough, I’m enjoying it quite a bit and the game gets my adrenaline flowing much more than any single-player one ever does. Losing fifty percent of your games (which is the obvious aggregated average of multi-player game results) in a single-player game would be incredibly annoying and I bet many players would complain about it. In Starcraft II I sometimes lose games within a few minutes, getting completely stomped. For some reason that is fine, while being beaten up by a computer that thoroughly would make me feel bad.

Sid Meier at the GDC 2010

One difference I can see is the ability to save and re-load. In a single-player game, players can usually save and load at will to circumnavigate any bad things that might happen to them. I know I do it a lot, even though I’m trying to work on that bad habit. Sid talked about how players would save before every (random) battle in Civilization, and that not only destroys the idea behind the game but also any form of immersion players might have. In multi-player, you can’t save (or load for that matter), which forces us to live with our results. Simply removing the ability to save or only allowing it at certain points isn’t a solution though. I absolutely hate having to replay a section of a game simply because of a simple mistake (or the computer being mean to me!), I even get annoyed at quick saves and quick loads that aren’t pretty much instant.

That brings us to a second difference between most multi-player games and most single-player ones: Failure in single-player games has results that are far worse than anything multi-player games throw at you. In Starcraft II, you might lose some standing on the ladder if you lose a game and in World of Warcraft you only have to run back to your corpse and maybe pay some repairs when you die. In single-player on the other hand, failure is often fatal. If I die in Dragon Age: Origins I’m dead. Failure is not a minor setback (unless you reload) but absolutely fatal. So if you wanted to remove save games (or limit them) you first of all would have to make failure non-fatal. What works even better though is to make failure not immediately visible (in addition to it not being fatal). That way people won’t save and load as much, even if they have the ability to.

Looking back, I rarely reloaded in, say, Sim City, simply because the results of my actions weren’t immediate and failure or success were determined by a variety of features. Some cities would work out well and some wouldn’t, but I was never tempted to go back and fix a mistake. That’s how your single-player games should work if it’s at all feasible.

  • Interesting article! And glad you had a good time skiing and didn’t wreck yourself 🙂

    I think the issue of “death” and failure in games is an interesting one. I would aruge that dying in a single player game like DA:O or in WoW is really no different – you end up back where you were within a few minutes and nothing has changed.

    To me, the whole point about death is that you should fear it and not want it to happen. That’s achievable in single player games by taking away save points and in MMORPGs by introducing harsh death penalities. I don’t know about you, but I don’t fear death in WoW 🙂
    .-= We Fly Spitfires´s last blog ..The Price Of Success =-.

  • I’m somewhat torn on that. I think you should fear death, but I also think the choice shouldn’t just be death or victory. If death is your only way of making the player fail, you either need to make them win all the time (which according to Sid they want, but which seems lame to me) or have a very soft death penalty. I’ve thrown away many a game because it made me replay too much of it after a failure.

    I think this is easier to accomplish in, say, strategy games than in RPGs or FPSs. Partial failure in the latter two is hard to imagine for me – making the character lose an arm or a leg seems somewhat odd 😉 In a strategy game, you can lose a battle and still be able to win the war without saves and reloads. In other genres.. I don’t know.
    .-= scrusi´s last blog ..Making Failure Acceptable =-.

  • I think the problem with quick saves is that you never know if the next room has a super boss or a bunch of empty chests. so you just end up saving before any door. this can be helped with fixed save points that you put before bosses for example. Then you do not have to save all the time at least.
    As far as the punishment for dying in between goes it seems to become more and more popular to not punish it at all (prince of persia or little big planet as jsut 2 examples). I think this is very viable for games that are fun based. At least I did play DA:O for the story and dying was only annoying. It might be an idea to punish dying only in higher difficulty levels (first take some exp away in normal, then exp and gold in hard and then loose items on nightmare and permadeath in a diablo2 like hardcore mode eg)
    If you combine the 2 you can pick your own level of annoyance in between bosses and still have the save before very hard parts of the game.
    I am not a big fan of replaying the same thing either.