There’s a game design “rule”, as arbitrary and loosely held as any other, which I try to believe in and I think it should be understood and used for each and every game out there.
It generally goes as follows: a player should be able to complete a game in one attempt provided they are given suitable warnings and have sufficient skill.
At its core, that means a player (if they’re playing a game correctly and appropriately in the view of the designer) should not be constantly dying. The game should be balanced in all aspects of play. That’s easier said than done, but the difficulty should be “just right”. The player shouldn’t be part of some cruel scheme where they have no idea how to survive and have to fail and repeatedly suffer the view of a game over screen.
As any good D&D games master will tell you, the designer should not be trying to kill off the player at every turn. It’s all about having fun, of course, and that means players want to be challenged but at the same time they also want to feel empowered and have a sense that they’re actually good at a game.
At most they should have a fair chance of winning.
Most designers will agree that a well designed game needs to slowly introduce a player to the game mechanics, part by part, and gradually increase their confidence in it. That’s why tutorials are so important, as tedious as they seem to veteran gamers, but it’s also why you’re rarely thrown straight into the deep end.
Batman: Arkham City is a brilliant example of how a game can slowly introduce a player to mechanics throughout play.
Some designers argue that a design is all about crafting an illusion to fool the player into thinking they have a high level of skill in it. Most games do this, typically with easy objectives in the first few levels and large amounts of congratulatory feedback, before the difficulty slowly curve begins to increase.
As always, what I put here seems so obvious, but in practice it seems so far and away.
Just ask yourself: what was the last game that you completed in one attempt? Even including the use of save games so you can play over multiple sessions (I’m sure most of us don’t have the endurance to complete a typical AAA game these days in one go), it’s highly unlikely. We’re not perfect beings, but after playing games for years shouldn’t we be able to anticipate what will happen? Not so, it seems.
True, there are some genres where there aren’t actually fail conditions – i.e. “game over” – and this doesn’t strictly apply. There are games where it has to be easy to keep kids or casual gamers happy and interested (From educational games to The Sims) or games where you technically don’t lose and just keep trying again (e.g. certain racing games) or games with multi-player (where you die due to being beaten by other players – and the designers can’t compensate for that) but for any game where you can die then chances are you won’t be able to do it all in one go.
For the most part it’s action games that I’m referring to as there are so many mitigating factors that come into play rather than mistakes that the player can make. It’s based on reflexes and quickly absorbing knowledge of the battlefield or arena. And either you’re skilled at evading gunfire and shooting the enemy or you’re not.
I can’t see myself beating this fella in one go…
Ultimately, what I’m questioning here is whether designers should be held to account for this. Is it an inevitable shortfall of any game’s design? Or is it impossible to balance a game due to the huge demographics involved, even when targeted at the average player?
If you die in a game through no honest fault of your own, who is at fault, then? Mustn’t it be the designer for not giving suitable warning or is that too much to ask?
– You Really Should Have Seen that Coming
The worst is a designer assuming fore-knowledge on the player’s part that leads to their death or defeat. Oh, you died? Well at least now you know not to do whatever got you killed. Just try again. You’ve got time to play a game, so you must have time to re-load and persevere.
“Try again” seems to sum it all up, actually. Aside from breaking all immersion, allowing the player to be killed without warning is a result of terrible design.
Some of the Sierra adventure games, for example, were notorious for killing off the player without any warning. Even worse was putting the player into a position where they can’t win and they aren’t even told – sometimes never and sometimes only when it’s too late. Oh, you forgot to get that obscure item? I guess you have to re-load. Don’t have a savegame? You’ll have to play the whole game again.
Are you having fun yet?
Take the original Leisure Suit Larry for instance. You walk into an alleyway. There’s a thug running towards you, so if you’re quick then you walk away. If you don’t, you get assaulted and the game ends.
Overall, that’s acceptable, if barely. It’s not amazing design but at least there’s a chance for the player to react and escape even if it’s only a few scant seconds.
However, take the first screen in the game. You start outside a bar next to a road. Try to cross the road, bam, you get run over by a taxi. This time there’s no warning or chance to avoid death. It’s a cheap way to stop the player exploring (Why?) and also shows how frustratingly unfair Sierra’s designers could be in their bizarre idea of fun. That’s not a challenge, it’s torture.
And there are actually examples where it’s even more atrocious.
King’s Quest V is probably the worst of Sierra’s game for this. It’s like the whole game was designed as a series of traps to kill off the player at every turn, as if the designers produced the locations and puzzles of the game in one day, didn’t check it over with anyone else and then had it implemented. At that point it was too late for them to change it or they were ignorant.
How bad is it? One of the first screens in the game has the entrance to a dark forest. There’s an actual warning sign to not enter, but it’s an adventure game, right? Shouldn’t you be adventurous?
So you go in, walk around, bam, an evil witch appears and turns you into a frog. You have to re-load a saved game or restart.
That’s at the very start of the game. There are no clues and the player has had next to no chance to learn the rules of the game or the style of the designer to have any chance at knowing this.
To eventually defeat the witch you need an item from later on – a genie bottle which can kill you if you open it for yourself, so even finding out the solution involves trial and error!
Or the area where you see a snake in the game, but are told that it’s a poisonous snake (courtesy of your feeble owl companion who sounds like Mickey Mouse overdosing on meth). Fair enough, if you approach it then you die. You were directly warned in this case, though it’s still ridiculous that an actual king (most tend to be capable warrior knights) can’t defeat a mere reptile.
Those two examples are all over King’s Quest V, particularly the first. Here’s another: you enter a tavern in the local town – just like in countless fantasy stories where the hero is after information or has to meet up with someone, like the Prancing Pony in The Lord of the Rings.
So there are two guys at the bar talking to the owner. You can approach them.
It turns out they’re criminals and you overhear a plot of theirs so they knock you out, tie you up and leave you in a cellar. Game over. Your character can escape IF you did two fairly obscure actions in the game – rescuing a rodent from a cat, who would nibble at your ropes to free you, and getting a hammer from a cobbler, so you could smash open the door’s lock.
It is likewise ludicrous to know that you had to do these beforehand. Having the player die and re-load is not part of a fun experience, it’s tiresome and petty.
There’s even a whole video on Youtube for every way to die in the game. If you’ve never played it, you may not understand the context of each, but take it from me: the vast, VAST majority are impossible to see coming.
Have I made the point most thoroughly?
But that’s just an old adventure game, back when, sans internet, customer feedback or quality assurance wasn’t especially prominent and designers were not quite so thoughtful or keen to keep players happy.
Meanwhile, Lucas Arts (RIP), during their hey day of glorious adventure games, generally ensured that such never happened in their games. The part of being killed off was actually parodied in The Secret of Monkey Island where Guybrush “dies” by walking near the edge of a cliff.
I have fond memories of adventure games, but not the situations where needing fore-knowledge is a requirement.
– Back in Today
So, in the present, what do we have? I mentioned earlier that action games are the main offender for this rule of unfairly killing off the player. Let’s look at one series which is also one of the biggest franchises out there – Call of Duty (COD). It’s not the only one I want to critique, but I use it as it’s one of the most popular, so it’s more likely that readers can relate.
COD, for those who don’t know, is a hugely popular First Person Shooter. You play a military operative in various fields of combat, completing objectives and shooting enemies.
I die a lot in COD games. The earlier titles had more simplicity in how you survived in a World War 2 battle against enemies – you really had to use cover and be very selective in your shooting. However it is still chaotic enough that death is easy to walk into and it must be difficult to play through any of the games without dying.
Sometimes there’s an unseen enemy shooting you, sometimes you run low on health and can’t endure the fire, sometimes a grenade can’t be avoided, sometimes you may be confused by a mission objective and fail it. I think it’s safe to say that the level design in the early COD games wasn’t as stream-lined or as considerate as they are today (And maybe that such has now gone too far, with strictly linear paths as if you’re travelling along a rail, though that’s a topic for another day) but overall each game in the series still has very tough and unforgiving sections.
There are several COD levels I can remember where it’s a frustrating process of what seem to be unavoidable deaths, but there’s one that stands out for me: “Loose Ends” from Modern Warfare 2.
The last section has the player fleeing towards an extraction point and fighting through enemies, all the while being bombarded by mortar fire and then enemies attack from the rear. It’s absolutely brutal. One strategy guide actually recommends that players work out where the enemy are, die, re-load, learn how to best navigate the route and then hope for the best on your next go. I think it took me two dozen times by the end and that included trying different strategies. I certainly wasn’t having fun.
And if you don’t believe me, go and try to play through that level, and especially that final section – and do it in one attempt. If you happen to go for a “sloth strategy” of inching your way across the map, letting your AI companions absorb the enemy fire or some other trick, then let me know if you find that engaging at all.
I’d actually love to conduct an experiment where I have 25 or so average gamers try to play through a whole COD title and if they die then they have to restart from scratch. It would take ages to get a winner and I think that would say a lot about the point I’m trying to make here.
So I think it’s a waste of time and it isn’t fun for a player to be in a situation where they will constantly die like that. It doesn’t seem like good design and it seems to turn the experience into that ‘memory’ game (AKA “Concentration”).
Remember that childhood game? It’s the one where you have a grid of cards and have to select two cards and work out where the matching pairs are.
So far so good, except I’ve seen versions where there are only two possible cards to match together (e.g. ace of diamonds and ace of hearts only) and where you have a limited number of picks. I remember playing one and falling under the impression that it must be very statistically unlikely for a player to be able to view all of the cards so they can be matched. At that point, it actually comes down to luck so, again, what’s the point? It’s still a game, I suppose, but not much of a fun one at that.
Where’s the fun in chance instead of skill?
Would you feel a high sense of pride in guessing a series of coin flips? If you got 90% of them right then I’m sure it would still feel fun, but not so much when you realise that it’s down to chance, not your ability to guess. It’s also likely that you’ll start getting more and more incorrect the longer that you play.
This can actually be explored further with what’s called “intermittent reinforcement” where subjects will keep trying to get a reward even if it’s only some of the time and feels like chance. I have to confess I’ve done something similar before in MMORPGs like World of WarCraft (‘If I kill monsters in this way with this specific skill then it causes them to drop this item!’), but I think it was more to do the sheer amount of repetition involved and feeling bored as a result, of wanting to find a way, any way, to speed up an item drop rate.
This is all not to say that chance has no place in good game play, there are plenty of games where it’s part of the fun. Die rolls are the cornerstone of Dungeons and Dragons (Which is itself the cornerstone of RPGs) and there are RPGs where random “loot drops” are a huge part of the experience such as Diablo (And I’m actually curious at how far players will go for what’s essentially a dressed up random number generator but that’s also something for another article). There are strategy games with random landscapes where players have to make the best of things (Don’t have any oil resources in the modern era during Civilization V? You had better get some if you want motorised vehicles!), but I argue that chance can’t make up the majority of a satisfying experience.
Die rolls lead to moving across spaces in a board game which can be about chance in a game like “Snakes and Ladders”, but a good player may know where to navigate on a board in, say, Trivial Pursuit. At least then the player can choose to go with a topic that they are more knowledgeable in and so can answer correctly.
In video games, if players fail because they didn’t act or react in time then it’s surely their fault. They may be frustrated, they may blame the game and think otherwise for a time, but deep down, they know it.
If they failed purely due to the roll of some dice or because they were obscurely expected to know something without fair warning then that’s harder to swallow.
Yet I’m no closer to the issue of player’s dying in action games for no fault of their own.
Where to next?
– I’m going to Miami
On the indie side of games development, there’s Hotline Miami. It’s a top-down, ultra-violent action game where the player, as a psychotic hit-man taking orders from messages on his answering machine while undergoing a crazy trance-like episode, will enter a building and proceed to murder everyone they encounter. Excessive and inane, it proved a hit (You can get it on Steam here).
It’s all about speed and very quick reactions otherwise you’ll die, but fortunately restarting a level is almost immediate. It’s very satisfying when you happen to kill everyone flawlessly, like being the footballer who dribbled past the entire enemy team and scored a goal.
Hotline Miami is a great concept and a very fun game but I was surprised at the outpouring of acclaim it received on release. Why? Because as much as I enjoyed it I could see that it had some serious faults, the sort that a game scoring 9/10 does not deserve. One of these is the same issue that I’ve mentioned – a reliance on chance. Adapting to the speed and flow of the game takes time so there is an issue with the difficulty curve, but that’s not my gripe. There are levels in the game where if you don’t have a certain weapon then you will die. A dog attacks but you have no weapon? Instant death. Several enemies with guns? You’ll very likely die if you don’t have a ranged attack available.
Granted, though it’s almost inevitable that you’ll die it at least feels like there’s some sort of balance going on. Also, on each re-load some enemies and weapon placements are randomised and this makes each attempt different, but there are still times when this backfires. Once you’re taking on lots of enemies with guns then the required reaction speed is extremely high. Worse is when this is combined with the awkward camera; you can’t always see enemies approaching so you can’t always react or plan out your assault.
One particular section has a long corridor with an armed enemy at the end and I found it impossible not to die several times trying to draw him away, avoid the gun fire and take him out. For a player’s first attempt this has to be impossible, along with the boss fights through the game – there’s no easy way to survive long enough to watch their attack patterns without dying. I couldn’t believe that the developers had such a series of blatant oversights, but I did try to bear in mind the indie status of Hotline Miami. It still has its charm, but it’s far from perfect.
(Like COD, I’d love to have players endure a marathon of Hotline Miami where they’re not allowed to die. Or swear after they die)
There are other indie titles that thrive on a need for pinpoint accuracy (and thus difficulty), games like Super Meat Boy and Trials, but they also allow the player to very quickly restart a level so frustration is kept low. Both are, however, very clearly based on skill rather than chance.
It’s unlikely that a player will complete each level, or each entire game, in one attempt but that’s based more on the player learning exactly how to play the game.
Still, it seems like the rule I mentioned at the start is all over the place across the industry.
– In Conclusion
So what’s the solution? I honestly don’t know. I’m not a writer who pretends to be the mystical oracle with a clear answer, so I can’t help but say that.
Let me try to make sense of it all, though.
The days of wholly unfair design (e.g. King’s Quest) are at least very rare, it’s more evident that developers generally make games easier than 20 years ago. They’re also more accommodating and help players get back into it more easily – like, for instance, the use of check-points which automatically make a save state rather than forcing players to go through some or all of an entire game again. There are games which automatically or offer to modify the difficulty level during play if the player is struggling rather than making them restart on an easier mode.
There are other efforts and I think they are usually made to widen the appeal of a game (there’s no easier way to drive off a newcomer than letting them constantly fail), but this doesn’t affect when players unfairly die throughout the rest of the experience. These oversights where players couldn’t know something still exist in modern games.
I think some of these games would benefit from extensive difficulty testing and get feedback from average players, especially games in the action genre. Most developers do perform this, with both internal testers and external people brought in, but it can’t be enough given the state of things. To get to the point of perfect balance – a situation where a decent player is trained in the game so that they only die due to their own mistakes – would probably take a huge amount of time which developers barely have as it is.
There’s only so much that developers can do, but I still get the impression that the rule is overlooked or even ignored by some, if not most. They must think that as long as players can keep trying to get through a game, what’s the problem? They’ve still bought it, they’re still playing it and eventually they can win, even if it takes 500 tries. Maybe it even adds to the ‘longevity’ of a title to them.
Or perhaps it’s that the systems of game play are just too complicated to take this all into account? For manic action games, perhaps, but for instances where there’s no warning and the player dies, not at all.
It’s an enormous shame if players are not enjoying as much of the experience as possible. That is definitely a failing that needs to be addressed.
We shouldn’t be putting up with poor design that overlooks this aspect. We shouldn’t be undergoing trial and error a dozen times or just playing a memory game with fancy graphics.
We should instead be put in a situation where we’re given a fair chance to win if we pay attention and have a willingness to learn the rules.
That would lead to us experiencing the actual, intended game itself, as purely as possible and in one feasible attempt.
That’s how it should be.