The Power of Failure

It's been a while -- but have no fear. I have a topic for this week. And some for the weeks to come as well.

The topic today is one we are all most certainly accustomed to: Failure. Failure, quite simply, is the state at which one does not succeed in their goals. In games, that can mean many things. The goal can be defined by the game or by the player, and can be an overall goal (beat the level, beat the game) or a momentary goal (get to that platform without falling). In games, a failure state almost always yields some sort of punishment imposed by the development. The player must start the level over, start from the last checkpoint, complete an objective they have already completed, lose some rewards, or the like. The most familiar and iconic failure state in video games is of course the Game Over screen. Today, the most common failure state is the process of reloading back to the last checkpoint and losing any in-between progress (a Game Over screen may or may not be part of this).

Some games experiment with failure. Many have opted to remove the concept of the failure state altogether, replacing it with temporary or irreversible penalties. The Walking Dead game, for example, rarely gives the player a Game Over. Instead, it "fails" the player by causing unwanted consequences and forcing the player to live with them. The player does not enter a "failure state" (Game Over screen, checkpoint reload) and does not lose progress, but instead fails more organically: it happens, and the game moves on. It's still a failure, of course, and one could say still punishment. If the player's goal was to limit death and bad consequences, failure still happens in The Walking Dead. In fact, it happens all the time. But it rarely leads to the classic game failure state. Still other games eliminate failure altogether. Many puzzle games, for example, remove failure altogether. Journey has no failure state -- and why should it? The game is not a test of skill or wits, and was not designed in such a way.

Failure may seem unwanted or confusing to the player, looking inward. Why must I be punished? Why must I fail? Aren't games supposed to be fun? But the concept of failure has it's uses. In fact, it has a lot of uses. Failure, for all the frustrated hate from players, makes certain games a lot more fun. Many challenging games without failure states are by definition, no longer challenging, as the risk to fail does not exist, the challenge does not exist either. One might contend that puzzle games have no failure state -- but I'd argue they do. Being stuck on a puzzle with no solution is a form of failure. Failure does not have a time limit or strict rule for what it must be.

Failure can be many game's greatest strength. Take the example of Dark Souls, a game celebrated for it's difficulty and the player's constant failure. Many players find it fun simply because failure is so common, it's all part of the game. Failure is something that happens to each player who plays the game on a very frequent basis. Learning from that failure and applying the knowledge gained is what make Dark Souls an excellent game. Whereby player's do not celebrate their failure, but their triumph over it.

But, failure is just one part of the equation. Any game can fail the player, but how a game deals with failure is something else altogether. That's where punishment comes in. What is the cost of failure? If the cost is low, failure matters less. In Dark Souls, the cost of failure is high -- possibly loosing one's experience completely, and forcing the player to fight their way back to where death took place. No small task. But in the failure and the strict punishment comes a concept that very few other mediums can provide to such a degree: stakes.

Stakes are to games what tension is to film. Stakes are what make player's stress and worry, but also what makes them cheer and celebrate when challenges are overcome. Without stakes, victory is not as meaningful: victory becomes an exercise of progressing the game, not conquering a challenge. Victory without stakes becomes the equivalent of watching an action hero defeat the bad guy in a movie. Sure, you can cheer for the hero, but you are not the hero.

But when is failure too much? When is punishing failure too much? Some would argue failure is an outdated concept from games of the past. That it is an old, ancient, tradition of game design that is not necessary to games today. While that may be true for many titles, it is not true for all. Games that challenge must have some form of failure to work. And while failure is not fun in the moment of failure, it yields fun in the moment failure is defeated. That form of fun could not exist without failure -- without stakes.

Punishing failure is a balancing act that requires one to examine the constitution of the game's target audience with the difficulty and frustration that players will experience in overcoming failure and reaching their goal. Certainly, punishing a player too much is not fun. And fun, in most cases, should be a designer's top priority. But it's important to remember failure can be fun, too.

Challenging, Interesting or Fun Part II: Dissecting Modern Game Design

In my previous post I defined three elemental features of modern game design I feel can categorize many mechanics and features found in most games today.  They serve, in essence, to justify the existence of a gameplay system, mechanic or feature. As a refresher, here they are defined again:

  1. Challenging  Does such a mechanic or feature offer the player a legitimate but fair challenge to overcome? And does completing that challenge offer a worthwhile reward (psychological or otherwise)?
  2. Interesting — Does the mechanic or feature offer the player a compelling reason to keep playing out of interest, intrigue or curiosity? Does the mechanic or feature compel the player to press on, unravel a story, solve a puzzle, or dive into a deep or complex system?
  3. Fun — Does the mechanic or feature offer players the opportunity to have fun. Is the act of partaking in said feature or mechanic fun in and of itself?

Finally, I defined a fourth elemental feature of game design I feel is used to justify feature inclusion. This is the element of necessity. Necessary features are ones that aren't necessarily challenging, interesting or fun and yet are important to be included for other reasons — be it to alleviate issues, justify other features, or tie together a system.

The famous Mario Power-Up shows it's face for the first time.

Today, let's look at a few famous gameplay mechanics and features and see if we can't define them through the lens of Challenging, Interesting or Fun. Let's start with one of the most famous examples in game design — the powerup And, of course, we cannot talk about the power-up without talking about Mario. Specifically, World 1-1, where the Mushroom is first introduced.

So what's so great about power-ups, anyway? Well, let's look at this specific example, the mushroom.

  1. Is it Challenging? — At first glance, no. But if we examine the design decision behind the power-up, in that Mario begins the game small (the equivalent of only having "1 Hit Point"), you can see that adding a Power-Up such as the Mushroom makes the game harder without it. In essence, the Mushroom Mario becomes Mario's "ideal state", and the player, once he or she recognizes the effect of said power-up, will always seek it out. It's challenging to play without the mushroom and it's a challenge to find mushrooms.
  2. Is it Interesting? — Again, not at first glance. But consider how Mario's health system works.. Mario has no life bar, no heart bar, no indication that he can take additional damage apart from his size, or (later) the color of his overalls. The mushroom allows Mario to grow in size and, once the player takes damage, shrink down again. The player discovers that the mushroom serves two purposes: it allows Mario to destroy brick blocks (which is discovered immediately) and it gives the player an additional "chance" if they make a mistake and are hit by an enemy. It may not seem interesting to us now, 30 years later, but if we consider player's of the day, the power-up mechanics of Mario and how they effected the gameplay were a constant discovery to new players. That is the definition of interesting.
  3. Is it Fun? — Subjective as it may be, I am going to go out on a limb and say people absolutely enjoy growing in size and destroying brick blocks. The joy of finding hidden mushrooms and being rewarded with an obvious visual boost (and catchy sound effect!) is a tried and true enjoyable game mechanic.

So you can see, such a simple mechanic as the mushroom is, when you think about it, vast and deep. And it hits all those points quite easily, without much of a stretch!

Now that we looked at one clearly great game mechanic that's been copied and used over and over and over in game design (truly it's great!), let's look at a game mechanic that I feel slightly less inspired by. Heck, I'll say it bothers me beyond reason, but that's because I enjoy analyzing things to oblivion.

I'm going to talk about two mechanics, that we'll try to classify. Remember, if it doesn't fit into the three elemental properties described above, I'll try to make the case for it being necessary.

First up is everyone's favorite annoyance from open-world games (if you continue to follow this blog you'll come across many issues I have with open-world games): you are over encumbered and cannot run. If you don't know what it means to be over encumbered I count you very lucky, as it's truly one of the most aggravating experiences in modern gaming. Essentially, your character has picked up too much "stuff" and now moves ridiculously slow on account of the excessive amount of weight on his or her person. The player can, however, dump some of his or her "stuff" and be allowed to walk at a regular pace again. So let's examine the mechanic that is "over encumbered" through the lens of CIF:

  1. Is it Challenging? — Maybe? Is it challenging to have to move really, really slowly or decide what stuff to dump to move at speed again? I suppose. But then again, the challenge is more in the deciding of what exactly you are going to part with than it is in the gruelingly slow movement speed. Notice that the act of parting with items has really nothing to do with being ridiculously slow. Developers could very well remove the slowing effect and have a hard item cap. Or better yet, give an easy way to sell off the items when the player gets over-burdened. There are plenty of solutions to this that retain the challenge of making the tough decisions of what items to keep and what to let go of without sacrificing player movement.
  2. Is it Interesting? — I don't know if anyone can make a legitimate argument for why a system like this might be interesting, but I'd be very happy to hear it.
  3. Is it Fun? — Is it fun to move slowly or be forced to throw away items? No.

Ah, inventory management. Truly gaming's most enjoyable past-time.

OK, so it's not challenging, interesting or fun. it necessary? Well, some may claim that yes, it is necessary. And that is because we can't have our players running around with infinite items in their pockets at all times. That would just make for a severely unbalanced game world. That is true. But that, to me, is no justification for including a feature that hurts the fun factor of a game.

I posit that having a state of over encumbered is worse than having a hard item cap. Aggravating the players with a needless weighting system just distracts them from the core experience and forces them to do something they don't want to do when they pick up too much. With an item cap, however, the player just isn't  able to pick up an item and they move on. They are not forced to do anything if they don't want to. As I said before, I believe there are much better solutions to the problem that players should not be allowed to have infinitely deep pockets. Over encumbered states merely fix a problem by adding another one. So, no, it's not necessary.

The last mechanic I want to bring up is Weapon and Armor Durability and Degradation. Ah, another open world RPG mechanic? Why yes! Let's examine!

  1. Is it Challenging? — Sometimes! In certain games, having weapon durability can add a lot to the challenge. What weapon do I use on this enemy? Should I save resources to repair it? These are all questions that pose a challenge to players. But not always.
  2. Is it Interesting? — Not particularly, but again it depends on the depth of the weapon degradation system. Most of the time it's simply "this weapon is almost broken" or "this weapon isn't broken". Not particularly interesting.
  3. Is it Fun? — It's not inherently fun to repair weapons.

So what makes a degradation system challenging? When it's implemented in a way that is fair to players. In effect, the player isn't ever taken out of the main game loop and forced to make repairs unless they've consciously ignored it. They  must be cognizant of their weapon durability levels and alternate options when coming up on enemies, and decide when to spend their hard-earned resources on a repair. In such a system, repairs are relatively cheap and easy to do. As in, players don't have to travel too far repair their gear. Dark Souls and Bloodborne are great examples of weapon degradation systems done right. They add a challenge, but rarely become aggravating.

Unfortunately for us, most games don't balance degradation in any great way. Degradation serves as a mechanic to force players back into town to repair their gear. Degradation isn't a challenge, just an annoyance, another "to-do" on a giant list of to-dos. And if put off long enough (which many players do because of the inconvenience), weapons break or severely weaken, frustrating the player more.

So, the final question: is this type of gear degradation necessary? Well, one might need to justify realism in their game. Degradation adds a level of realism to a game. It adds another system for the player to think about. However, in it's most common form, I'd argue it's not necessary at all. Games would not become less challenging, interesting or fun if most games removed gear durability systems. And I cannot fathom a necessary reason other than realism to include such a degradation system in a game. Because of this, I posit that most degradation systems are needless and unnecessary.

To summarize, I think it's great to examine game mechanics through the lens of CIF. It's really quite revealing looking at modern games and question why certain design decisions were made. It is my opinion that simplicity is king in game design. If one can avoid adding an unnecessary system or mechanic to the game, I think one owes it to the game to try. If a feature is necessary, yet not challenging or interesting or fun, I believe it's very important to ask why.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Challenging, Interesting, or Fun: The Elements of Modern Game Design

Finding ways to categorize and determine what makes a game compelling or worthwhile may well be a fools errand, but considering academia has attempted to analyze the highs and lows of gameplay through the psychology of rewards and flow, I thought it might be interesting to come at it from a purely classic game theory perspective.

After ruminating long and hard about what factors determine whether a game offers a compelling experience and a metric to weight the pros and cons of including specific features or mechanics in a game, I arrived at three elemental properties. These are:

  1. Challenging  Does such a mechanic or feature offer the player a legitimate but fair challenge to overcome? And does completing that challenge offer a worthwhile reward (psychological or otherwise)?
  2. Interesting — Does the mechanic or feature offer the player a compelling reason to keep playing out of interest, intrigue or curiosity? Does the mechanic or feature compel the player to press on, unravel a story, solve a puzzle, or dive into a deep or complex system?
  3. Fun — Does the mechanic or feature offer players the opportunity to have fun. Is the act of partaking in said feature or mechanic fun in and of itself?

Of course, these are hard to define. Definitions by example go a long way in game design theory, and it serves me well to include them here. Fun, for example, is ill-defined no matter where you look, but I think we can all agree that things like running and jumping through a game world have been proven time and again to be fun if executed well.

As for challenge, well, that is up to the player for the most part. Many games offer too much challenge, others too little. Yet some player's relish these experiences like no other and the thrill of the challenge and the reward of victory is a feeling players are hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

The concept of "interesting" features is a relatively new one to games. It covers varied topics like intriguing stories or deep or complex game systems that promote a player's curiosity — whether they want to see what happens next, or want to understand the system or world around them more fully. Many of the features of story-driven games fall into this category. And yet, complex systems in RPGs fall into the category as well. Anything that sparks the player's curiosity and urges them to discover something, anything, could be classified as interesting. Even discovering a new technique or strategy in a fighting game, for example, could be argued to be interesting.

With these three elemental properties of games, I find myself analyzing mechanics and features constantly using this rubric. Is X addition to game Y challenging, interesting or fun? If not, why is it included in the game? If you've been paying attention, by now you've likely realized I've been missing an essential property. A final element of features in games. Something not as exciting to players or as dear to developers. And that is: Necessary.

Necessary features or mechanics are those that are required, for some reason or another, in a game. Why? Well, again, it's hard to define, but a perfect example of a necessary gameplay system would be Fast-Travel. In many open-world games, a fast-travel system becomes almost necessary. If i did not exist, players would be forced to make extended journeys every time they wanted to make their way towards areas they've previously visited. For many players, this impedes on the fun, challenge or interest in the game. For this reason, developers add fast-travel options as a way to alleviate those issues and allow players to immediately skip from one destination to the next. Though never required to be used, fast-travel allows the players some freedom who wish to use the option.

There are, however, "necessary" features that aren't all that necessary after all. It is of utmost importance, in my mind, to question why a necessary feature must actually be necessary. If a something is working against player fun and a feature is required to alleviate that, in my mind that seems necessary. But a feature or mechanic that stands on it's own, is not a remedy to other problems, and does not promote fun, challenge or interest seems like one that, too me, more developers should willingly question it's inclusion in the game.

In a future post, I'll look at common game mechanics and features through these metrics I've drawn up, and see what categories (if any) they fall into. I'll also analyze features and mechanics that some feel drag some games down, and question whether or not they are truly necessary.