Meditations On Death And Failing

In game design, which is really just an extension of systems engineering, death is a “fail” state. The definition of fail can be debated to some extent but in general it is a condition where the system parameters/data is in a non-preferred condition and/or the system itself may now have become unstable or non-functioning. In Armageddon Empires the Mutants might have just nuked you and it’s game over man. In Solium Infernum you just lost your stronghold…but if you are playing multiplayer with other humans the analysis can be more complex since others have game states to manage and the game does not necessarily end when you do.

Game over is the ultimate fail state in games as well in life. The problem with offering games as entertainment instead of games as a simulation is that reaching the ultimate fail state is not really “fun” unless you change the meaning of fail or add some type of meta system to the set up. And by not really fun I mean game over means game over. You can’t enjoy pushing buttons and pulling levers on the state machine if it is locked up for you. So game designers often change the meaning of fail by respawning, removing lives, penalizing a game variable or two (i.e. your stats) or just ignoring the ultimate fail completely and letting you try again. Adding a meta game is something that is often done when the system is brutal and unforgiving. Imagine a hard core rogue-like that once your character died would lock up and never let you play the game again on that or any other computer. You can get ridiculous (although there are certainly some sci-fi novels I’m sure that have explored this)taking it one step further and imagine a system where when your character dies so do you. I offer just one (not very original) observation that almost all religious concepts of afterlife or reincarnation or even nirvana seek to add some type of meta structure to what we observe as our system of reality. So the ulitmate fail state… let’s call it perma-death has to be handled carefully.

Failing is actually not a bad thing. In fact according to the design theories of guys like Raph Koster (cf a theory of fun) failing is part of the “learning and mastery” process that makes games fun. Dwarf Fortress’ failing is fun ethos works on so many levels. Failing is learning. A complex system can only be learned by failing in many cases. Each failure adds more information to the picture or map that the player forms of the game system. This might be called “progressive” failure. Small failures that while deemed one step back serve to spur the protagonist forward. Read the biography of any successful interesting hero and you will most likely find a trail of fails that shaped the hero. So as a game designer I see my objective as providing opportunities to fail that don’t frustrate the player. Failure should rather open up new vistas and opportunities. In Planescape Torment failure in the classical sense of character death was actually required to progress the storyline. I’m digressing here a bit but as I approach the design of Rogue Expedition I do so with the goal of making failure and integral part of the design.

Besides the learning and mastery component, one aspect of engineering progressive failure into a game design is the classic risk vs. reward calculus that accompanies the decisions you present the players. Offering choices to interact with the game that cover a broad spectrum of risk vs. reward can ameliorate the “frustration” felt by players when failure occurs. This is because “if you don’t make it, it’s your own damn vault.” In Rogue expedition the key mechanic will revolve around facing “encounters” by succeeding in “challenges” that are resolved based on a player’s stats, the difficulty level of the challenge, and the opportunity for the player to arrange what I will call “tiles” via “heroic actions” to claim points. Claim enough points and you succeed in the challenge. That’s all rather abstract but I will explain it in much more detail down the road. The key thing will be that when an “encounter” is presented to a player, there will be several choices along the risk reward spectrum that each define unique challenges and ultimately unique rewards.

So here are some Design Axioms:
Failing is Learning
Learning is Fun
Choosing how to fail means it’s the player’s own damn vault
Not failing is exhilarating….where the exhilaration is proportional to the cost of failure

I want to conclude with the mention of two games that are on opposite ends of the spectrum in their treatment of failure but both of which I find to contain inspirational design elements:

Demon’s Souls is worth considering for its very unique and clever way of handling failure. Failure, that is death, has consequences but it is not entirely devastating. Basically you lose all the souls that you were carrying and you become a ghost. The souls collected by slaying demons function as both a currency and experience points which let you increase attributes or buy/repair important equipment. The interesting thing is that you can do a “stain run” to go collect these lost souls which can be a lot easier said than done. There is a great risk vs. reward mechanic going on here that you are always massaging in your head….since there isn’t a soul bank you have to always consider just how many souls you want to have on you and whether you should minimize the loss risk by spending some to trim your stash down (and the risk as well) Also, if you find that you are stuck on something in the game, you need to strategize a bit on spending some souls to overcome that obstacle…..that may take you in different directions for your character than you initially intended. Failing and learning by dying is par for the Demon’s Souls course. But the game has a wonderful group of mechanics that ameliorates the frustration and rewards inventiveness and calculated risk taking.

Puzzle Quest is another game favorite of mine that sits on the other end of the spectrum for handling progressive failure. Like Demon’s Souls you cannot end up in an ultimate fail state where it is game over (although consistent high risk fails in Demon’s Souls will gimp you terribly). Puzzle Quest however will pick you up in the most loving care bear embrace, dust you off and set you on your way. I like Puzzle Quest a lot but the one thing that it is missing in my opinion is some penalty or risk vs. reward mechanic to put the fear of “falling skulls” into you. I feel like something is wrong when I can challenge the same Ogre in his tower 5 times in a row until I manage to beat him without any penalty other than by bruised self esteem. Puzzle Quest is great in that it taunts you with persistent challenges that you can fail at and then learn from to best them when you try again but it is lacking a much needed tension because you have no fear of failing. What I do like about both these games it that they each solved the fail and reload problem in unique ways much like Planescape Torment did so many years ago.


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