A Comprehensive Game Design Methodology
From First Ideas to Spectacular Pitches and Proposals

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Level Six: Integral Perspectives II

Process Phase Level Six

Beat 2. Failure

While player failure raises a good deal of design questions, the fact that players expose themselves to the possibility of failure is not a mystery. For one thing, all three development arcs, as discussed in Level One: Integral Perspectives I, have innate characteristics that make the possibility of failure outright necessary for an intense and fully enjoyable playing experience. The story development arc is driven by the game’s visible goal, with the wants and needs of the antagonist standing in the way of the wants and needs of the player character. The higher the stakes, the more rewarding the playing experience. The character development arc is driven by the game’s internal goal—the player character has to overcome their own self to transform or to maintain their steadfastness. The more tempting the inner demons, the more enjoyable living up to one’s true calling. The player development arc, finally, is driven by the game’s proficiency goal—the player has to overcome physical, cognitive, and empathic challenges. The more formidable these challenges, the greater the triumph of winning or beating the game. Another thing is that everything boils down to learning and competing, attached to mastery and performance goals on the one hand and intrinsic and extrinsic rewards on the other, as discussed in Beat 1. Goals and Beat 3. Rewards, respectively. When we decide to learn something, we do expect failure. Perhaps not sweeping failure, that it turns out to be impossible to acquire the skill, knowledge, understanding, or attitude we’ve set out to acquire. But we certainly expect temporary failure. It would be hubris to assume invincibility or infallibility, and hubris is the straightest path to terminal failure. To sum it up, everything we undertake that is linked to learning or competition or both is fraught with risks, and humans wouldn’t be where they are if they hadn’t evolved to not just manage, but indeed enjoy risks and the possibility of failure.

From there, let’s proceed to design questions. Prominent aspects associated with player failure are player safety and punishment. You need to have a good idea about the implications of both.

Player safety is first and foremost a matter of preserving progress. The player should be safe in the knowledge that time and effort they invested is not lost or wasted. The player should be safe in the knowledge that sudden interruptions from the outside world during gameplay won’t lead to unresolvable conflicts. The player should be safe in the knowledge that they are allowed to try out and create their own playing experiences without being punished for it. All this shouldn’t be controversial. But if, when, what, and how often a player should be able to save a game state during play has been a matter of dispute for decades.

Hardware restrictions that made game saving complicated especially on earlier consoles should, mostly, be a thing of the past. And while developers like to balk at the request to make increasingly complex game states savable on a medium, this shouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle either. Both challenges and solutions are getting more complex all the time.

Probably the most spurious argument against game saves is that the option to save, or even the knowledge that the game has been saved via autosave or checkpoints or task completion, would “break immersion.” As has been discussed at length in Level One: Integral Perspectives I, “immersion” is a non-concept anyhow, and nobody’s “immersion” has ever been “broken” by the option to put a bookmark between any two pages of a spy thriller or a period romance.

Then, punishment. With the exception of a certain range of games that we will discuss later in this beat, punishment in most games is a rule set or a game mechanic that maps the occurrence of player failure within the game world in some way or other to consequences outside the game world. In its most basic forms, the failure to keep the player avatar in the game, or keep it alive, necessitates inserting another coin or entering a menu and reloading an earlier game state. None of this is part of the game world.

Let’s work our way through a set of game types and see which aspects need further analysis.

  • Retention-Focused Games. In retention-focused games like coin-operated arcade games or free-to-play games with in-app purchases, punishment abounds. After player failure, players either have to start from scratch or pay up in some way or other. If players don’t pay up with money, they have to pay up with waiting times, protracted grinding periods, and other assorted cruelties informed by mathematical and behavioral modeling. All of which certainly counts as punishment, but punishment is an integral part of these games. It cannot be abolished without substantially altering the game and the experience players have sought in these games, or been persuaded to seek.
  • Competitive Games. In competitive games that pitch the player against other players, failure means losing the match. Losing a match alone hardly counts as punishment; possible consequences would. But the consequences of failure in competitive games hardly count as punishment either. Depending on game type, the player might lose a brief period of time until the next match begins. Or, as is often the case in arena shooters, the player loses little to no time but their collected weapons and armor and power-ups. The latter might look like punishment. But losing time, equipment, power-ups, and so on as a consequence of failure is an integral part of the game loop and the very playing experience this loop provides. Other possible costs of failure, like not being able to buy better weapons and other equipment for the next match, are merely the absence of rewards. Most importantly, though, such consequences are almost always consequences within the game world, or they are turned into such by their respective narrative fictions.
  • Permadeath Games. In permadeath games, a category that comprises everything from arcade-type games to Tetris to most roguelikes to Dwarf Fortress, the erasure of all progress after player failure is again an integral part of the design and the very playing experience that players who decide to play such a game are looking for. Add to this popular self-imposed permadeath challenges for any game, even open world games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
  • Single-Player Games. In single player games of any type that are neither retention-driven nor permadeath games, going back to an earlier game state is the traditional way to handle player failure. That alone isn’t punishment. But losing substantial chunks of progress, equipment, or resources of any kind as a consequence, or having to watch or skip through the same cutscene over and over, that certainly counts as punishment for several reasons. To begin with, none of these punishments are true game world consequences: the “true” in-game consequence would be the death of the player character, not the loss of progress or resources. Then, lost progress, lost resources, or inexhaustible cutscene confrontations have to be measured in time, which means that player failure within the game world is paid for with the player’s time outside the game world. Sending the player back to an earlier game state is, in most cases, a basic and necessary design choice. But none of these additional measures are necessary design choices by any means.

All in all, punishment for failure in retention-focused games and permadeath games is a necessary part of the design, and losing a competitive multiplayer match doesn’t count as punishment in this sense. Historically, the latter wasn’t always the case—but we wouldn’t want to reintroduce the original Olympic spirit of ancient Greece where the winners were lavishly rewarded by their communities, but the losers shamed and humiliated, and runners-up not even remembered except in very unusual circumstances.

Disputed ground, first and foremost, are single player games that are neither retention-type games nor permadeath games. 1999’s Aliens versus Predator, which already served us well in Level Three: Plurimediality, is an illuminating example that covers many details of interest. This time, it’s about the differences between the original release and its Gold Edition update in 2000.

Gameplay in Aliens versus Predator is demanding, enemy placement is randomized, and some levels are very large and can stretch out forever, especially when players become progressively more cautious. In the original release, there was no game save option within these levels, called episodes. The whole level was lost when the player messed up, and particularly difficult levels could fill their day with an endless stream of rinse & repeats. Were these punishing requirements a good fit for the primary target audience? They probably were. Did these punishing requirements rhyme with the game’s theme? Absolutely. Plus, while its USP was something different altogether, namely three playable species, the missing game save feature was almost certainly part of its value set. So, everything was groovy! Except that it wasn’t. The game was painfully downgraded in game reviews because of it, and players were not amused.

There are two major problems involved with this missing game save option, one game-specific problem and one general problem. The game-specific problem is that the developer team wanted to force their exact intended playing experience on the player. It is a recurring flaw that is also reflected in the infuriating contrivance that the motion tracker stops working when the player character pulls down the helmet’s infrared eyepiece. (A type of artifice resurrected with fanfare several years later by Doom 3’s “there is no duct tape on Mars” contrivance.)

The more general problem with the missing game save feature is that the developers tried to translate the exposure and vulnerability of the player character into the exposure and vulnerability of the player. As has been discussed in Level One: Integral Perspectives I, the player experiences emotions from the fear class by seeing themselves in the game’s dramatic situation. They should not experience emotions from the fear class because the game threatens them with losing substantial amounts of time outside the game world. Of course should the player be terrified! But the player should be terrified along the lines of adrenaline-fueled brushes and battles (Interactivity), terror-inducing audiovisual and architectural design (Plurimediality), emotional tension through primal fears (Narrativity), and a gripping dramatic structure (Architectonics). The player should not be terrified along the lines of possible interruptions and mistakes, shy away from trial and error, and become too afraid for in-game explorations as these would likely be too costly.

One year later in the Gold Edition, players were able to save the game at any time throughout a given level, but, depending on the selected difficulty level (Training, Realistic, Director’s Cut), only a limited number of times. Which turned out to be a fairly decent solution that didn’t sacrifice the original idea in its entirety. And while it would still be preferable to let players decide how they want to play, it struck a good bargain between the designers’ vision and the players’ needs. The motion tracker/infrared contrivance, though, remained.

For console players, not to forget, the experience of not being able to save the game within individual levels has often been the status quo, owing to technical constraints. (And non-console players could become quite furious when console ports wouldn’t implement a game save feature for the personal computer, with Halo: Combat Evolved or Alan Wake as renowned examples.) Many of these constraints have been removed over time, and modern console games have both autosave and game save features. But many titles, like Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, still retain traditional “save point” mechanics where players can manage a number of game saves, but can only save at certain locations within the game. Traditionally, such locations were often quite imaginatively designed, like the sleeping couches in Ico, the typewriters in older Resident Evil titles, the save crystals in early Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy games, or the camp fires in Dark Souls or Rise of the Tomb Raider. (Whereby Rise of the Tomb Raider deserves special mention for its wildly misleading save slot system.) Why, then, without the technical constraints of the past, do many console games cling to such seemingly antiquated habits? Surprisingly, the answer has probably not to do with punishment, but with rewards, and we will get back to this topic in Beat 3. Rewards.

On top of everything that’s been discussed so far, there’s another argument against punishing the player through loss of progress, loss of equipment and resources, cutscene repetition, and similar, all of which translates, as mentioned, to lost time for the player. As has been pointed out above, all three development arcs—story, character, and player development—are about conflict and competition, and all three have to do with learning something: skills, knowledge, understanding, attitude. Now, failure to learn during a game is punished in many different ways already by design. Important plot points, items, or regions cannot be unlocked; NPCs are no longer willing to help and assist or might even grow hostile; gameplay becomes repetitive as new mechanics or new combinations of mechanics fail to appear. Thus, for the best possible playing experience, in which flow plays a vital part, games must always facilitate learning and make learning for the player as exciting as possible. Each development arc’s incentives, with these in-game punishments just enumerated as their necessary flip sides, provide players with intrinsic motivation to learn, so they can have a more interesting playing experience. In contrast, the many forms of time loss for the player as punishment outside the game world are not a necessary flip side to any incentive; they are supposed to motivate qua punishment. And what do we know about punishment? Is it a great motivator to facilitate learning and conducive to great learning experiences? Not at all. For all we have learned about learning, from behaviorism onward, punishment is the worst possible way to proceed. Punishments that are not attached to any of the three development arcs do not and cannot add to any form of progress because they are not part of the game world. What these real-world punishments for in-game failure really provide is a meta-layer of competition against the game itself. That cannot be what you want as a game designer. Don’t force your player into competition with your game! Don’t forget that play also carries the freedom to try things out without being punished or humiliated for it. That’s one of the things play is about in the first place.

Let’s move on to an argument from the opposite end of the spectrum, that there should be no game save mechanics at all because there should be no player failure that would make game saves necessary. This seems to have been forcefully argued by Chris Crawford in his 1995 essay “Barrels o’ Fun,” but the references to that effect and the generally abridged quotations are plainly misleading. Nowhere does Crawford say that there should be no player failure. Instead, the threefold argument he develops in his essay reads as follows:

  • Players should never have to start over after dying, being punished for it by losing all their progress.
  • The game should spare the player the tedious task of saving, reloading, and file management; instead, it should take the player back automatically to the most recent convenient starting point, so they can try again.
  • Game situations that can only be solved by repetitive trial and error with numerous save–die–reload cycles are not well-designed.

This, indeed, should be utterly uncontroversial in its entirety. And during the last twenty-five years, many games have adopted design patterns that do just that. Certainly, many players want to handle and administer multiple game saves manually for various reasons—which has also been taken care of by many games that provide both an autosave feature and game save slots. And that’s how it should be: for the best playing experience, your game should make it as easy as possible for the player to get back on their feet and try again, instantly, but also offer a mechanism for players who like to exercise some control over this process.

But, after all, the save–die–reload cycle cannot be part of the game world proper, even if imaginatively obscured by sleeping couches or typewriters or other solutions mentioned above. Naturally, there have been game designers who aspired to do things differently, which brings us to this beat’s final topic: the search for innovative failure mechanics. At their best, such attempts couple an innovative game mechanic with imaginative storytelling to keep the consequences of player failure largely, or even entirely, within the game world.

These attempts are dominated by two principle approaches: the player character is either already dead and therefore cannot die, or the player character doesn’t die but is rescued and resuscitated, whereby the latter has a variant where the character does die but their spirit remains alive and the body can be resuscitated or reclaimed, best known from World of Warcraft’s “ghost run.” In most cases, both approaches come at the cost of time, equipment, and advantages, but these are in-game costs (in other words, diegetic costs) because they take place in the game world.

An outstanding example for the “already dead” approach would be the undead ranger Talion from Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, who gets even stronger through dying, complemented and reinforced by the game’s Nemesis system for persistent non-player characters. Other examples are Planescape: Torment and, in similarly intriguing ways, Dark Souls. (On a side note, you could also design player character death as a travel system to known, unknown, or inaccessible locations, picking up on Philip José Farmer’s plot device from his fabulous Riverworld novels.)

An outstanding example for the “rescued just in time” approach is the “buddy system” in Far Cry 2. After the player chooses a character, all other playable characters become “buddies” who will rescue the player character after player failure. Which comes not without in-game costs; it’s a game mechanic with a host of imaginative rule sets. Other examples would be the Gears of War 2 single-player campaign where, at least on lower difficulty levels, the player character can be revived by non-player character teammates, or the call to Valhalla in Final Fantasy Legend II, where Odin restores the player character right back to the battle on the promise to fight him at some point in the future. (But the player can decline the offer and return to a saved game state instead.) BioShock’s regenerative “Vita Chamber” devices also fall into this category, roughly. It’s a solution that seems not altogether convincing at first, but is vindicated by being strongly embedded in the narrative.

There are other approaches than these two, of course, but they’re comparatively rare. One is the rewinding of time, as in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or in Life Is Strange. The former even has a meta-diegetic (auto-diegetic) narrator as a backup solution who declares “that’s not what happened” when the player character runs out of magic sand and dies. And then there’s a handful of unique imaginative solutions for a game or series of games, like the famous “synchronization failure” in Assassin’s Creed.

Thus, there is no recipe. Each of the existing approaches is only applicable to a certain range of narratives. For your game, in general, you’re on your own. The most promising places to find a solution that fits your game world are the Interactivity and Architectonics territories: it’s almost always the combination of innovative game mechanics and imaginative storytelling that provides outstanding results.