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.


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