When Failure in Games Work and When It Doesn't

Reposted from my Gamasutra blog (http://gamasutra.com/blogs/CaryChic…), discussing why failure can be either fun or frustrating depending on how the game handles it.

Failure is an experience we have in close to every game we play, and it’s an experience that’s largely considered to be a negative one. Yet how players feel towards death can vary, when at times they’ll be livid to others where they’re left feeling more hopeful than upset. Failure itself is not what makes an experience unenjoyable, but the context of the game that led to the failure can determine how it affects the player. Here a few examples of how games handle failure and why some methods work while others don’t.

FAILURE FROM NEW MECHANICS (e.g. God of War, Tomb Raider, Dragon’s Dogma)
These are failures that occur outside of what could be considered the main gameplay. Consider the action-RPG Dragon’s Dogma, where it is possible to make a story choice that results in a game over. This game rarely gives the player choices to make in the story, so making these choices is not considered a main element of the game but for some reason can still cause the player to fail. There are also games like Tomb Raider and God of War that have a focus on action and platforming, but when the player fails outside of that gameplay to something as seemingly trivial as a quick time event, then they have a decreased sense of control over the game which can quickly lead to frustration

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UNABLE TO FAIL (e.g. Prince of Persia (2008), Kirby’s Epic Yarn)
With the potential frustration that failure brings, you would think a game could only get better by removing the option. 2008’s Prince of Persia attempted this, but the results were not unanimously approved. If you fail a platforming section then you are quickly returned to where you started, which lessens frustration when forced to repeat a section. This however does not work as well for combat, where if you are about to die then you are instead saved with the enemy then recovering a very inconsequential amount of health. Consequently the combat suffers, and because the ease of passing combat scenarios does not require a ton of effort, the potential of the combat’s depth from combos to counters often goes unexplored by the player. Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a greater offender by not having any notable setbacks for failing, guaranteeing the player’s success as long as they continue pressing forward (I do not mean literally pressing the forward button). Kirby’s Epic Yarn is targeted at younger audiences, and Prince of Persia seeks to offer a more casual experience, so do games that have these goals have a need to remove failure?

CASUAL GAME FAILURE (e.g. Angry Birds, Super Monkey Ball)
One notable poster child for casual games is Angry Birds, which enjoyed widespread success without removing the failure option (at least before they eventually did with the Mighty Eagle purchase option). Casual games are able to keep their games challenging by making levels short and restarts instantaneous. In this game, levels can take less than a minute to finish, and restarting is instant and only requiring one button press; both of these together result in minimal time lost due to the game’s challenges. When retaking challenges is simple and quick it leads to addictive gameplay where you think “just one more level” about ten times before you actually stop. Games like Angry Birds and Super Monkey Ball also include humorous ways of dying, from smashing a bird into a building while leaving behind a row of pigs with bruises to seeing a cute monkey scream and flail when falling off a level. They make the act of failing its own form of entertainment.

FAILING BECAUSE IT’S FUN (e.g. Burnout, Grand Theft Auto)
There are quite a few games where players get more enjoyment from failing or dying than playing the way designers intended. Burnout is a series that’s often enjoyed for its spectacular crashes, and each iteration of the game since its inception has incorporated more mechanics involving crashing, from making other players crash to causing your own large crashes. Similarly, while in Grand Theft Auto games one would normally avoid the police, a lot of fun is had by going on rampages and seeing what crazy methods the police come up with to take you down. With a fairly low percentage of players actually playing through to the end of Grand Theft Auto games, there are quite a few who just take pleasure in getting into crazy wrecks and starting lots of mayhem.

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PERMANENT FAILURE IN MULTIPLAYER (e.g. Day Z, Diablo III (Hardcore))
The element of failure is what makes a player’s actions meaningful, and one of the most potent forms of failure is permanent death for a player. In multiplayer games this can make the world the player inhabits feel alive. You play with a huge gamble where everything you are in the game is on the line, creating an amount of tension that’s hard to find in other games. While the act of failing is not usually particularly enjoyable here, its presence gives weight to everything else. Players often stream their attempts at survival to the world, accompanied with exaggerated reactions to either victory or success. If nothing else, these experiences are not easily forgotten.

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PERMANENT FAILURE IN SINGLEPLAYER (e.g. Mass Effect, Heavy Rain, Fire Emblem)
When you’re not in a multiplayer world and are instead playing offline, permanent failure still has its benefits. Like in multiplayer, your actions are given weight, and titles like XCOM and Fire Emblem will make you think about your actions given that your party’s life is on the line. Singleplayer games also have large focuses on story that incorporate the possibility of failure. There are sections when you can choose who to let live or die, but that is not an example of failure; it’s when you had to opportunity to save a life but failed to do so that the death has meaning. Mass Effect 2 allows you to finish with everyone in your party alive, but anyone unable to do so goes into Mass Effect 3 being reminded of the people they let down. You may not be sacrificing your own character, but anyone with an investment in the story can feel the loss.

From the types of failures mentioned above, I have found that failing does not have to be a frustrating experience. If the developers want to, there are steps they can take to change how the player accepts failure:

1. Player must feel in control: Nobody wants to play a game and feel like they’re losing their sense of control. When they die, they want to feel like they had a fair opportunity to prevent it. No split-second quick time events that are seemingly random (Bayonetta), no strong attacks without expressing some tell on what’s about to happen, no “breaking the rules” (enemy is immune when they shouldn’t normally be). Be challenging, not cheap!

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2. Deaths can be fun: While a fun death will not work in games that take themselves seriously, those that don’t have that requirement have an opportunity to create more enjoyment. Adding a comedic element when somebody fails can make a player smile when they die instead of the usual disgruntled look.

3. Balance challenge and frustration: The idea behind cognitive flow is that the player does want a challenge, but only up to the point where it won’t cause frustration. Low frustration can be achieved with minimal progress loss after a restart, and high challenge can be obtained by doing the opposite and possibly giving no option for restarts! Most games will try to find an even balance of challenge and frustration, but casual or hardcore titles will likely skew in favor of one over the other.

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