Monday, March 30, 2009

Memento Mori: How Player Death is Killing Horror Games (Part II)

In Part I, programmer Nels Anderson explains why there's a fundamental problem with player death in horror games. In Part II, he offers some suggestions on how to deal with it.

So what can we do about this? I have a few suggestions of my own, but these are really meant to start conversation and brainstorm, and are certainly not edicts on how to create fear correctly.

1) Getting Death Right is Essential

Shamus Young wrote about this problem and his suggestions involve making the player seem more threatened than they really are. It’s certainly better than a punish combat and death system, but should the illusion break down, I imagine most players would feel taken advantage of. But if one can focus the gameplay more on evading and running away than being able to actively confront foes, this is more viable. Fatal Frame does this well, and although I haven’t played it in years, I remember my experience with Silent Hill was much more about running away and being afraid of dying than actually being killed and being forced to replay things I’d already done.

I would prefer to be more experimental and move even further away from our old tropes. We’ve seen Planescape: Torment make the protagonist’s immortality central to the narrative. Far Cry 2 had a literal buddy system where an NPC ally would revive you from unconsciousness, allowing the player to “die” without damaging the narrative. There is a lot more room for experimentation with player death that wouldn’t cause the replay frustrations that so quickly sink the horror aesthetic.

2) Keep It Short

Horror is strongest when it’s condensed and pared down as much as possible. I wrote about two horror films that I think are exemplary in terms of aesthetic and pacing, [Rec] and The Descent. The former’s runtime is only 75 minutes and it doesn’t need to be a minute longer. Some of the best writers in horror, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Guy de Maupassant, were masters of the short story. Famous horror directors recently collaborated to produce something similar. Most responses to horror games are something akin to, “It was great at the beginning, but then…” (see Steve Gaynor’s reaction to Haunting Ground)

I think a series of short games that have a similar mechanical and aesthetic structure, but are entirely self-contained, could address this. A horror version of Grimm or Telltale’s offerings, if you will. The protagonist’s death could come at the end of some episodes without jarring consequence to the narrative. It would also be much easier to maintain the illusion of danger. Eternal Darkness has a structure that is similar to this and they utilize it quite well. Alternatively, just one level or section of a game could be especially horrific. Half-Life 2’s Ravenholm section is an example, or the absolutely brilliant Shalebridge Cradle in Thief: Deadly Shadows.

3) Make Limited Resources Interesting

While the execution appears to have fallen flat, a recent game adaptation of John Carpenter’s The Thing has a core mechanic that seems solid. At any point in the game, one of the player’s NPC allies could really be host to the Thing. With some reworking, the core gameplay decisions could be how the player reacts to the possible infection of their allies. Not killing an infected ally could be disastrous, but killing an innocent ally could cause distrust in others, in addition to having horrifically murdered someone for no reason. Survival horror’s tension comes from managing very limited resources, but in this case, the resource is trust rather than bullets or ink ribbons.

4) Less is More

While horror is hard to pull out, there is one ally the horror designer will always have - the player’s subconscious. Establish the right tone and mood and the player’s imagination will create something more horrifying than any designer or artist could ever hope to. Polish here will pay off in spades. Spend lots of time getting sound and music right.

There’s a lot of opportunity for interesting and scary horror games. I cannot even begin to describe how excited I would be for a multiplayer game similar in design to Betrayal at House on the Hill. The unknown betrayer has worked for literally decades in the form of social games like “Mafia” and dinner party murder mysteries. But to create frightening experiences that affect in ways more primal than other games, things must change. We have to stop designing mechanics, especially those related to the player death, that inevitably sabotage the tension and tone so essential to horror. Do you think we’re up to the task?

Nels Anderson is a programmer at Hothead Games. He's probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He writes about games and game design at

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Memento Mori: How Player Death is Killing Horror Games (Part I)

In Part I of this article, programmer Nels Anderson explains why there's a fundamental problem with player death in horror games.

“YOU HAVE DIED” flashed on the screen, crimson and dripping with viscera. He furiously threw the controller against the coffee table. For nearly 45 minutes, cyborg loup-garou commandos had fallen to an unending hail of hollow points, grenades and rocket-propelled grenades. He had finally reached the last boss, the dhampyr cult leader masquerading as the Secretary of Energy, but ran out of mauve herbs before he could finish the creature. Seething, he pulled the disc from the console, tossed it in its case and grabbed his keys. It might still have a decent trade-in price at GameStop …

I picked up Deadly Creatures a few weeks ago and my reaction to it set me thinking a lot about horror and death in games. I absolutely love horror as a genre across media, but its most common manifestation in games, survival horror, far too often resembles the above. It may begin a bit creepy and unsettling, before shortly becoming an exercise in frustration. Yet Deadly Creatures still has me a bit on edge, and I think it is because the source of my apprehension in the game doesn’t become any less spidery as the game continues. But using death as a failure condition in horror games drains the reservoir of fear very fast. For horror games to reach beyond their current aspirations, which if anything have sunk in the last half-decade, some fundamental assumptions about the design of player death need to be dramatically reexamined.

(As a prelude, I want to repeat Chris Remo’s observation that debating what is and isn’t scary is akin to debating whether or not asparagus tastes good. It is wholly subjective and everything here is intended to be nothing but. This is my own observations and those I have heard echoed from others. As always, your mileage may vary.)

Creating horror, especially in games, is deceptively challenging. All the individual components are simple- have the player interact with something most people fear (death, isolation, the unknown), place them in an appropriately thematic atmosphere and make them feel vulnerable. The failure lies in the execution. Looking at Resident Evil 4, one of the most popular survival horror games of late, these failings are obvious.

For being, ironically, far past the 4th Resident Evil title, the game begins surprisingly well. The creepy, isolated European forest is a solid setting, and your police escorts are quickly dispatched in a fashion most gruesome. The villagers are not obviously zombies, but certainly bloodthirsty and dangerous. The reveal of the first chainsaw-wielding villager is especially unnerving, given that he is likely to decapitate the player regardless of their current health. Then the village’s church bell tolls and all your attackers immediately cease hostilities and simply shuffle off. It’s quite effective at combining the feeling of vulnerability with not having any notion of what is truly happening.

Unfortunately, the atmosphere cannot be maintained. The first encounter with an El Gigante may be unsettling, but it has become wholly rote by the seventh. Dying time and time again to invisible enemies is frustrating, not frightening. The Resident Evil tropes of abysmal writing and voice acting return, literal shooting galleries and ridiculous midgets torpedo the atmosphere further, and soon any sense of horror is gone. It’s still an extremely fun game, and one that I like a great deal, but it’s also exemplary of how nearly all horror games cannot reconcile their fundamental design decisions with the aesthetic and emotions they’re attempting to invoke.

The major challenge for creating horror in games is that the feeling of fear largely relies on the audience knowing their character is in constant peril. For the majority of games, death of the protagonist is narratively meaningless. The player’s free time is threatened, for if they die, they’ll have to repeat some section of the game. Fear of death becomes fear of wasted time. The intent is to create tension, to make the player anxious about dying. But the consequence is that player is now forced to repeat the same section of the game and it will not be nearly as scary the second, third, nth time. Groundhog Day does not chill the soul.

This is the fundamental design problem with using player death as a penalty in horror games. By attempting to make the game tense by increasing the consequences of failure, every time the player actually does fail, the fear of the unknown so essential to the atmosphere is dismantled.

Swinging the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, and removing the consequences for failure completely, is rarely successful. The genre of narrative games that most eschews player death is the graphic adventure. There haven’t been many horror graphic adventures, at least partially because tension is hard to maintain when the only failure state is being stuck on a puzzle. There were a few solid attempts, including some live action games (and wow, would you look at that cast?), but ultimately, they did not prove successful. Horror games simply do require that feeling of vulnerability and the tension it creates.

There have been a few instances of making the player character’s death permanent (and then giving them control of another character). Unfortunately, it’s also problematic due to the many times the player will die in the course of normal gameplay. Despite not being a horror game, Call of Duty 4 features some pretty powerful scenes involving the death of the player’s character. But the dozens of temporary deaths the player has experienced up to that point mute the potency of the moments when they die “for real.” Folks still enjoyed them, but it is clear they are not as powerful as they could have been.

Nels Anderson is a programmer at Hothead Games. He's probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He writes about games and game design at

Monday, March 23, 2009

April 2009: Designing Quality 2-3 Hour Games

April 2009's topic, Designing Quality 2-3 Hour Games, was submitted by game designer Reid Kimball.

Reid writes:

As I grow older with more responsibilities and interests to pursue, my time available for playing games becomes limited. I often hear from friends and colleagues who bemoan the same problem, that they are unable to finish their favorite games.

With regard to singleplayer narrative based games, I often see gameplay mechanics repeated ad nauseam and I wonder, “What’s the point? There are no new gameplay mechanics to experience and the story is developing a snails pace because this is an obligatory 10 - 20 hour game.”

Why not develop shorter, tighter focused gaming experiences that are specifically 2 to 3 hours long? Here are some things I hope we can discuss this month about short 2 - 3 hour long games.

· Arguments for why a 2 - 3 hour game is a good idea.
· Arguments for why we shouldn’t make shorter 2 - 3 hour games.
· How can you ensure all players hit the average range of a 2 - 3 hour gaming experience?
· How would you design a game with a range of 2 - 3 hours in length?
· How does one market this new breed of short game to a customer base that is intimidated by lengthy games and those that expect lengthy games?
· How do we debunk the myth that quantity of playtime equals value for
their money?
· What price is appropriate for shorter 2 - 3 hour games?
· What types of games are possible for a 2 - 3 hour gaming experience?
· What should this new breed of game be called, if anything at all?

Reid Bryant Kimball is a versatile level and game designer who has worked for Ritual Entertainment, LucasArts and now is currently with Buzz Monkey Software. He's also a game accessibility advocate and closed captioning for videogames expert, having designed the Doom3 closed captioning mod.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Viva la mort ! (en français)

In this article, lead designer David Calvo muses that death doesn't have to be an ending or punishment, but could be a goal or another realm of play.

Souvenez-vous de la première fois que vous êtes mort en jeu. Goûtez ce moment, quand l'éternité du pixel vous initiait à l'antique simulation d'un mystère enfuit : patience, croissance, décroissance, la vie, la mort. Un rythme étouffé par des siècles de sédimentation sociale.


En 2005, j ai créé un groupe sur Second Life (on ne rit pas - j'y suis allé comme une pute se serait ruée sur Habitat de Lucasfilm), Postmodern cadavers, tentative démente pour dénicher de l'organique dans le virtuel - le pixel déliquescent est excitant, sa mousse de rez, strates de bugs et d'aliasing, scintillant. Etrangement, la mort y semblait plus virtuelle que le sexe - ses particules de sécrétions, ses agrégats de visuels, tristes charniers de corps et de vertices. Je me suis suicidé 2 fois dans SL - et ce n'était pas du snuff. La première fois devant des amis, je me suis jeté du haut d'une statue, j'ai déco en pleine chute. Puis j'ai effacé le compte. La seconde fois, c'est quand j'y suis retourné pour savoir si ca m'avait vraiment fait mal, ou si mon ame de joueur m'avait jouée des tours (ah). J'ai fini dans une vierge de nuremberg.


Sujet impossible : la mort en jeu, le troll parfait pour enterrer les designer un peu aventureux - je creuse ma tombe, là. Les motifs récurrents : écran de game over old school ; restart au dernier checkpoint, sauvegarde ; indisponibilité des personnages pendant le combat ; réincarnation dans réceptacles perpétuels, après le jogging de rigueur à travers des shaders d'outre tombe ; respawn intantannée ou retardé sur le champs de bataille, armé jusqu'au dent après la gymnastique du clavier ; la profusion des modes hardcores ; les outils meta, les vies, les crédits, les continues... la sauvegarde est-elle l'illusion de la mort ? Un rappel extra diégétique de ce mur impénétrable entre l'information et la vie ?


Prince of Persia est un jeu sans chute. Mais si vous étiez mort, l'effet sur le jeu aurait été le même - recommencer à la dernière étape. Quelle est l'utilité morale d'un sauvetage ? Economiser les temps de chargement ? Punir le joueur d'avoir échoué ? La mort comme fouet ? Ou bien la mort comme commencement d'une perception - voir les oiseaux pour la première fois, comme au premier jour de ce premier homme sorti de la première caverne. En bas, dans la vallée profonde qu'il appellait le monde souterrain : d'étranges bruits, des territoires perdus, des mystères éternels. La mort, et aù-delà. La vie, entendue, pas vue.


LucasArts ne nous a pas appris à mourir. Ils nous ont appris à aimer la persistance d'une expérience non chiffrée, la continuité. Guybrush Threepwood ne meurt qu'une seule fois, noyé. Le reste est juste un subtil dosage entre la frustration d'être en vie sans être capable de résoudre une énigme. Il y a plusieurs façons de mourir a Bioshock, mais on ne meurs jamais vraiment. Parfois, en manque de munitions, il est plus utile de mourir et de retourner fracasser Ayn Rand à la barre à mine. Planescape Torment nous a fourni les arguments pour comprendre que la vie et la mort étaient les clés d'une optimisation de la personnalité, d'une force émotionnelle. La mort dans Mirror's Edge nous ramène aux rêves de chute, quand nous nous réveillons avant d'heurter le béton. Si nous touchons le sol dans un jeu, devons-nous avoir peur pour notre vie réelle ?


L'objectif- Réiventer la mort dans les médias occidentaux, pour la société occidentale, enclavée dans son confort et la religion. Réaffirmer le besoin de la mort non comme punition - parceque nous pouvons punir à tout moment, parceque nos vies sont concernée par d'autres échecs - mais comme outil pour rendre un pixel vivant. Pourquoi ne pas vouloir finir un jeu pour y mourir (ie Passage, or The Graveyard) ? Et que penser de la Mort Definitive, tous ces modes hardcores réduisant des heures, des jours, des semaines, des mois d'expérience à néant ? Le linceul de la mort est le voile de la vie virtuelle. Pas la mort elle même, mais le passage de l'autre côté, comme ce pont étroit que les Initiés des Mystères d'Eleusis - le premier jeu vidéo grandeur nature - devaient franchir pour assimiler la grandeur de la croissance et de la décroissance d'une pousse de blé.


Dans le RPG Reves de dragon, la vie est un rêve dans la tête d'un dragon endormi. Certains personnages peuvent accéder ces terres médianes, tout près de la conscience du dragon, et par leurs actions là-bas, peuvent influencer l'autre monde en temps réel. Pouvons-nous faire l'expérience de la mort comme celle d'une quête virtuelle ? Un autre royaume hypodiégétique, régi par ses propres règles, nous privant de l'expérience du soleil, mais nous donnant les jeux d'ombres. La mort comme Empire, la mort comme Powerplay après le niveau 80.

Restons-y. Reprenez de ces champignons, arrachés aux rives de l'Acheron...

David Calvo is a game designer, writer and cartoonist. He’s currently Creative Director of Ankama Play , and is Lead and Narrative Designer on Islands of Wakfu, due for the Xbla in 2009. He’s part of the collective Univac 1951 and draws daily on Beulah. He can be find on Twitter as Metagaming.

Vive la mort !

In this article, lead designer David Calvo muses that death doesn't have to be an ending or punishment, but could be a goal or another realm of play.
Please note: The original article was written in French and this is an English translation.

Try to remember the first time you died, in game. Seize the moment when you tasted eternity through pixel initiation: patience, growth, decay, life, death, ancient simulation of a long gone mystery, antique rhythm muffled by centuries of social sedimentation.


In 2005, I created a group in Second Life (don't laugh - though not a game, I went there like a whore would have gone to Lucasfilm's Habitat) called Postmodern Cadavers, an hysterical attempt at finding organic life in a virtual landscape. The sight of decaying pixels was exciting – its foam of rez, stratas of bugs and of scintillating aliasing. Strangely, there, death looked more virtual than sex - sex, and its semen particles, visual patchwork of sad flesh, heaps of corpses and vertices. I committed suicide twice in SL, beyond the scope of traditional torture fun: the first time, in front of my friends, I jumped from the top of a statue of Cthulhu and disconnected in mid-fall. Then I deleted the account. The second time is when I went back to SL to check whether my first suicide had really hurt me or whether my game-playing soul had simply tricked me (ah!). I ended up locked inside a Nuremberg Mistress [a torture device] forever.


Impossible subject: the death in game, the perfect trap to bury any mildly adventurous game designer - digging my own grave there, that's the point. Current patterns: old school “game over” screen; restart at last checkpoint; unavailability of dead characters during battles; reincarnation through perpetual vessels, after a good jog around creepy graphical shaders; instant or delayed respawn on the battlefield, armed to the teeth in a few seconds of keyboard gymnastic; the florescence of hardcore modes; the meta tools, lives, credits, continues, saves... Is Saving the illusion of death? An extra-diegetic reminder of the unbreakable wall between information and life?


Prince of Persia is a game where you never fall. But, were you to die, the effect on the game would be the same – to respawn at the previous step. What is the moral utility of a rescue as opposed to crushed bones? What about Permadeath, all those hardcore modes where days, weeks, months of experience are reduced to ashes? Boring paradigm: Death as punishment for failure? Or Death as the beginning of a new perception - seeing birds as alien constructs, like the clouds seen by the first man coming out of the first cave, looking at the sky for the first time. And down there in the dark valley, what he called the underworld: strange sounds, lost territories, eternal mysteries. Death and beyond.


LucasArts games have not taught us how to die. They have taught us to love the persistence of unquantified experience. Guybrush Threepwood dies only once, drowned. The rest is just a subtle dosing between the frustration of being alive and the inability of solving a riddle: life itself. Dying in Bioshock is sometimes advantageous, to spare ammo: you keep coming back from the pod to whack Ayn Rand's face with a crowbar. Planescape Torment gave us the arguments to understand that death and rebirth can be the key to good personality optimization and to emotional strength. Death in Mirror's Edge brings us back to these dreams where we fall and wake up just before hitting the ground - if we hit the ground in a game, should we fear for our real life ?


The goal – to reinvent death in Western media, for the Western society, seized by comfort and religion. To reinstate the need for death not as a punishment - because we can punish anytime, with anything, because our lives are concerned with failures other than death - but as a basic tool to make the pixels come alive. Why not finishing a game to actually --- die (i.e. Passage, or The Graveyard)? The shroud of death is the veil of virtual life. Not death itself, but the passing to the other side, like the narrow bridge crossed by the initiates of Eleusis, the first life-size video game, inspiring thousands to the greatness of growth and decay.


In the famous French tabletop RPG Reves de dragon, life is a dream inside the head of a sleeping dragon. Characters can access this median world, near the consciousness of the dragon, and, by doing deeds there, can influence the world in real time. Can we experience death as part of a virtual quest? Another, hypodiegetic, realm, bound by its own rules, shutting us out of the experience of the sun, but giving us shadow plays. Death as a kingdom, death as Powerplay beyond level 80, Death without return.

Let's stay there for a while. Enjoy some of these mushrooms from the banks of the Acheron.

David Calvo is a game designer, writer and cartoonist. He’s currently Creative Director of Ankama Play , and is Lead and Narrative Designer on Islands of Wakfu, due for the Xbla in 2009. He’s part of the collective Univac 1951 and draws daily on Beulah. He can be find on Twitter as Metagaming.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Player Death in Games: Towards a Critical Vocabulary For Assessing Difficulty (Part II)

In Part I, game designer Ian Schreiber proposes a methodology to classify and measure what is "death" in games. In Part II, he gives examples of games in each classification.


Easy games:
  • You Have To Burn The Rope offers literally no chance of dying, making it by definition one of the easiest games ever made (by design).
  • Bioshock (at the lowest difficulty level) gives the player plenty of health, has them take minimal damage from enemies, and in general makes it so that the player does not die often. Even when the player does die, they are simply teleported back in the level to a previous vita-chamber with no other penalties, so the only thing the player must do is trek over a section of level that they have already cleared of enemies, setting them back maybe a couple of minutes.
Easy but obnoxious games:
  • Contra (with the 30 lives code) has many threats that cause an unskilled player to lose lives constantly, but there is little penalty for doing so. The player’s next life is dropped at the same place after a couple seconds, so there is literally no penalty (other than the loss of a weapon, if one was being carried). The game was considered easy in spite of its high probability of death, simply because the setback received was negligible.
  • Prey, likewise, was considered easy. The player would often die several times in a boss fight, but “death” simply took the player to a 30-second mini-game where they would regain some of their lost health, then be teleported back to where they were before they died.
Easy if you’re careful games:

I actually had difficulty coming up with any good examples of this, so it is more of a theoretical than actual category. Usually, a game that has a relatively easy difficulty level gives the player the expectation that they will not be punished much for failure. I suspect games that are easy but punish the player heavily if they do something stupid will give the player a feeling of frustration that is best avoided, except in very special cases.

Ridiculously hard games:

Most PC roguelike games (Angband, Nethack) only allow the player to save as a convenience so that they can halt the game and continue later. These games have many ways to kill the player if they do not play extremely well; a novice player can expect to die often while they’re learning, and even an experienced player will likely die every now and then. Death is total – the player’s save file is erased from the disk and they must start over from scratch with a new character. As a complete playthrough can take hundreds of hours, the loss of a high-level character is both a realistic threat and a massive setback.

Older PC RPGs (such as the Wizardry series) would also only allow a single save file. If one of the characters in the player’s party died, that character was dead but could be resurrected. If a resurrection attempt failed, the character was permanently erased from the disk. A high-level party could still conceivably survive with the death of a single party member, but adding a new low-level member and taking the time to level them up would still be a major setback in terms of time spent.

A special case:

Tower of Druaga is a interesting case where analysis of difficulty requires our earlier definition of death. In this game, the player’s power is largely determined by their equipment, and all equipment is lost in the case of death. Since good equipment is gained slowly and only by luck (random drops), dying is a severe setback. However, the player always has at least one permanently-restorable item that will remove them from all danger as they exit the dungeon, fully heal, and return to town. So unless the player is careless, they should never lose their equipment.

There is one catch: once the player enters a dungeon, they must stay in the dungeon until they either fight successfully all the way through, or else they exit by choice (and have to start the dungeon over from the first level next time they enter). Some dungeons are many levels and may take several hours to successfully complete in a single play session. This means their escape item is itself a setback; though player-triggered, it still requires the player to replay several hours to reach where they were before. This means use of the escape item is the player’s admission that they have failed, and they are simply choosing to set themselves back a bit in order to avoid an even worse setback if they keep going. This makes the game quite difficult, because failure-by-escape-item is common (the player takes damage frequently, and healing opportunities are rare). So even if the absolute worst case is easily avoidable, “death” by escape is still common and still a relatively painful setback.

Which is best?

I don’t think any individual method of creating difficulty is inherently superior to any other, they simply cater to different audiences. More difficult games appeal to a more hardcore crowd, and the more difficult the game, the more status (and presumably fiero) the player gains upon finally beating the game. Easier games give a greater percentage of players some sense of accomplishment, at the cost of potentially reducing the feeling of conquering a difficult task. The optimal mix depends on the particular game, genre, and audience expectations.

Ian Schreiber has been making games professionally since 2000, first as a programmer and then as a game designer. He currently teaches game design classes for Savannah College of Art and Design and Columbus State Community College. He has worked on five shipped games and hundreds of shipped students. You can learn more about Ian at his blog, Teaching Game Design, and website.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

April 2009 Poll

Please come and vote for the April 2009 topic!

You'll see the poll to the side. The choices are:
  • Designing Quality 2-3 hour Games
  • Dual Currencies in Games
  • Designing for Demographics
Please choose by March 23, 2009!


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Player Death in Games: Towards a Critical Vocabulary For Assessing Difficulty (Part I)

In Part I of this article, game designer Ian Schreiber proposes a methodology to classify and measure what is "death" in games.

Commonly in games, failure is framed as “dying.” This is a little misleading for a few reasons. First, obviously the player can start the game again, so it is not permanent death in the same sense as dying in the real world. Second, “dying” is a story element; in some games you die, in others you are “defeated” or “incapacitated” or you “retire” or you “fall down” or any number of other things. Mechanically, there may or may not be a difference between these, so singling out “death” from the others is incorrectly treating the back story as a game mechanic. Third, there are many different ways “dying” can be handled in a game. We need a better way to classify what “death” is and how it works.

Dying is a setback as a direct result of player failure

I think it is more constructive to think in terms of “setbacks” than “death” when thinking of penalties for failure. If a player must redo an entire level, does it matter if the cause was that they “died” at the end or that they need to repeat the level to gain extra resources that they lost due to their carelessness later on? In either case the end result is the same: replay of the level.

Is this different from if the game forced the player to replay the same level later in the game, for example as part of a special quest? Yes, for two reasons. First, if the player must cover old ground, they are still progressing through the game, so there is a feeling of advancement rather than setback.

How about a game where, as part of a story event, the player is forced to lose something permanently? In many RPGs, for example, the player will permanently lose a party member, or is robbed of their gold and possessions. This is certainly a setback that takes some time to rebuild; why does it not feel like “dying”? The key difference here is that the event is caused by the game itself, and not as a result of the player failing to perform a task.

The concept of “dying” in a game, then, requires two elements:
  • The player must have a setback, either in terms of time or resources.
  • The setback must be a direct result of the player’s failure in the game.
Dimensions of death

Dying is worse in some games than others. In old-school arcade games, you had to start over from the beginning. Later on you were given the chance to “continue” from the last level that you reached. Some games allow you to save (either anywhere, or at predetermined save points) and dying simply knocks you back to your last save. In other games there is a penalty for dying, such as loss of cash or equipment, but otherwise no lost time (other than the time it takes to regain what you lost).

In some of these games, death is worse than others. How do we compare the severity of dying in one game versus another?

I think death has two dimensions that can be measured:
  • Probability of dying
  • Intensity of setback when a death event occurs
Probability is important. If a game is so easy that one never dies, the level of setback is irrelevant. On the other hand, if a game involves the player dying constantly, a slight change to the penalty for dying will affect the player experience a great deal.

How can probability be measured? You could express it mathematically as either a percentage of attempts to overcome an obstacle that end in failure, or an average number of failures required to succeed, or even the mean time between failures. If hard data is not available, it can generally be categorized as high or low based on the overall perception of difficulty in the game.

How can the intensity of a death event be measured? The easiest way to express this is in terms of lost time, i.e. how much additional time must the player spend in the game to get back to an equivalent (if not identical) position before the death occurred.

By multiplying these two things together – the probability of an event and the severity of the event – we can get a measure of just how much of a threat players will feel from failure/death.

Ian Schreiber has been making games professionally since 2000, first as a programmer and then as a game designer. He currently teaches game design classes for Savannah College of Art and Design and Columbus State Community College. He has worked on five shipped games and hundreds of shipped students. You can learn more about Ian at his
blog, Teaching Game Design, and website.

Monday, March 9, 2009

March 2009: Player Death

This month's topic, Player Death, was submitted by game designer Liz England.

She writes:

After playing the new Prince of Persia, I've been thinking a lot about how games handle player death. Most popular games use death as the primary means of failure so the challenge in the game relies on avoiding death as much as possible.
  • What punishments does the player have after dying?
  • Are there permanent punishments for death? (ex: losing lives)
  • Are there temporary punishments for death? (ex: debuffs)
  • Are there punishments for death that can be worked off? (ex: broken equipment, lost experience, failed quest)
  • How quickly can the player return to the game after dying?
  • What kinds of games don't use death as a failure state (ex: puzzle & management games)?
  • Does dying give any kind of reward or new gameplay experience?
  • How much do previous deaths affect the difficulty of the game (ex: limited lives)?
Some of the games that have interesting mechanics to take apart in regards to how they treat death, especially in comparison to each other and their genre - Prince of Persia, PoP: Sands of Time, Braid, Prey, Super Mario Galaxy, Mega Man, all kinds of MMOs (WoW, FFXI, Guild Wars)

Liz England is a designer at 5TH Cell. She has a Master's degree from SMU's Guildhall program where she focused on emergent cooperative gameplay.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Blog Entries

Submission Guidelines

When submitting a blog entry or blog response, please heed the following guidelines:
  1. Include all pertinent links in your article if you are referring to them
  2. Blog entries are at least 500 words long.
  3. Write a 1-3 sentence bio for yourself
  4. Send all of the above to my e-mail address with the subject header: GDAM Blog Entry

Regarding editing, I will only do so if there are obvious misspellings and such. For articles written in a language other than English, please provide both the original and the English translation.



Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Topic Submissions

When submitting topic suggestions, please heed the following guidelines:
  1. State your interest in the topic and why you feel it is of relevance to game designers
  2. Provide a list of open-ended questions
  3. Write a 1-3 sentence bio for yourself
  4. Send all of the above to my e-mail address with the subject header: GDAM Topic

Each month, I will put up a poll so that readers can vote on the topic for the following month.

For samples, see:



Sunday, March 1, 2009

Hello World

Welcome to Game Design Aspect of the Month!

Each month, we'll select a game design topic for discussion. Guest bloggers from the game industry (various game designers, programmers, artists, writers, academics, and others) ponder the issue and submit their thoughts. The blog entry could be an analysis, an overview, a rebuttal, or even a response to another blog post.

I don't see Game Design Aspect of the Month as formal as a journal, but at the same time, it's not so informal either. I hope to see analysis here that we, as a community, can refer back to and build upon in our design work. What's helpful is analysis of past games, theory, or proposals for new ways of thinking.

As a guest blogger, you're free to follow your own musings. The topics aren't meant to be binding. However, since the topics may be broad, there will be questions included to direct the discussion.

Feel free to submit topic suggestions or offers to write blog posts. I'll be typing up the submission guidelines shortly. It's not necessary to write every month on every topic, but you're certainly welcome to do so.

Looking forward to reading your posts,