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Dealing with player failure

Dealing with player failure
« on: February 24, 2013, 07:37:01 am »

Axcho posted this link in another thread: http://lostgarden.com/Mixing_Games_and_Applications.pdf
While it is fairly useless to designers not interested in generating feelings of victory in players, it did make me realize one thing. That in my games there is no room for the player to fail.

I work hard on designing my work so that people can simply play it without having to learn anything. But players often fail to enjoy the game because they approach it with the wrong attitude. I wonder if our games could detect this and tell people that they failed, and suggest a different method, like regular games would.

Can we define the fact that you only need to walk, or even stand still, eg as a skill? Without ruining the mood?
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Re: Dealing with player failure
« Reply #1 on: February 24, 2013, 10:37:37 pm »

It seems to me that the real skill is the thing you're doing while walking or standing still, like appreciating beauty, contemplating, planning, etc. Maybe that can be the learning process. It's like the idea of using content as the difficulty curve.
Re: Dealing with player failure
« Reply #2 on: February 24, 2013, 10:40:39 pm »

Short of making the game aware, I do wonder whether we can be more clear on what 'our' games are like. That seems to be difficult no matter how much you describe it; players will assume the competition. The culture of games runs very deep to the point where people defend the violence as being 'part of the story'. Why that has to be 10 hours of shooting is rarely clear.

I also believe there ought to be no way to fail (or win) in my games. I do try with Cheongsam to reward the player for acting naturally and to offer no encouragement for him trying to game the system (though there is no permanence of data for over 10 seconds so this is impossible). I thought of having an auto-cue system to encourage the player to do things; thinking gamers (including myself) like to follow orders when in doubt. A seasoned player would not have to do that.

Perhaps that type of 'tutorial' is possible, if not absurd. The Path had the 'don't go off the path', which I did not do (you told me not to!) and which every other person I did do. Perhaps you can play with this? Or even a straight-up tutorial and a non-tutorial version; the former version instructing the player on the purpose, the goal, &c. A little like a the information sheet you get at concerts. Your tutorial may actually have a 'stand still, breathe in the air, walk around...' type of text. The danger would be meta-narration but for someone like me (who struggles with Bientôt l'été on an experience level) it might show what you intend. In the same way I would want a friend to instruct me when he introduces me to something dear to him.

PS: I mean 'goal' in the same way books have a 'goal' and purpose, not in a quantifiable outcome.
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Re: Dealing with player failure
« Reply #3 on: February 25, 2013, 10:08:54 pm »

It seems to me that the real skill is the thing you're doing while walking or standing still, like appreciating beauty, contemplating, planning, etc. Maybe that can be the learning process. It's like the idea of using content as the difficulty curve.

Yes... Could you share some of the insights you may have come across in trying to do this for your own project? Smiley

In the same way I would want a friend to instruct me when he introduces me to something dear to him.

This seems like a great way to approach it. It doesn't have to be ridiculous.
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Re: Dealing with player failure
« Reply #4 on: March 03, 2013, 07:26:26 pm »

The Civilopedia from Civilization teaches you a lot about history without coming across as didactic. Maybe that could be emulated as a way to teach players art appreciation?
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Re: Dealing with player failure
« Reply #5 on: June 04, 2013, 01:04:53 am »

Thinking about this some more, I've come to the conclusion that denouncing challenge and failure as such is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The problem is not challenge but gamified challenge. Take Heavy Rain. This is pretty much a notgame, but it still has plenty of skill challenges. It's just that the world doesn't end if you fail. Even if you die to one of the copious numbers of serial killers, the story goes on without that character. Any other title would force you to replay some awful death sequence again and again until you pressed the right buttons, but not here. These work like challenges do in the real world or in fiction. And the dramatic tension is much greater than in a gamified challenge, since you know that if you fail you cannot (or rather, must not) try again until you succeed.

In truth, the whole complaint about failure in games is rather hilariously misplaced. We act like the big problem with games is that they have too much failure. But in fact, there is no failure in games! And this is one of their biggest problems! In reality, if you fail, you have to deal with it. But games don't let you deal with it, they make you start over. Games do not allow failure! And this despite the fact that failure is one of the main sources of both comedy and drama!

It's clear that challenge and failure are absolutely key to videogames as to all other fiction. You just have to degamify them. It's the same as with all other gamified interactions.
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Re: Dealing with player failure
« Reply #6 on: June 04, 2013, 03:50:54 am »

It's clear that challenge and failure are absolutely key to videogames as to all other fiction. You just have to degamify them. It's the same as with all other gamified interactions.

Is it? There is quite a large amount of work that is not challenging. Not to mention that there is a large difference between a fictional character being challenged or you yourself being challenged. I would not like to be able to fail in a book, nor do I like it in a game when my purpose of playing is not explicitly to be challenged. The skill challenges in Heavy Rain, for instance, I thought tedious and annoying and reminded me of being a player, rather than an audience. I do not want David Cage to judge me on whether I am a good father - I want him to tell me whether I am and just leave me to get to it.

I do not see challenge as an essential part of games at all.
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Re: Dealing with player failure
« Reply #7 on: June 04, 2013, 10:19:42 am »

I like to be intellectually challenged in any media. Why can't games be intellectually challenging?
(Tale Of Tales stuff is Wink)

and of course I do not mean the intellectual challenge to master a complex game system.
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Re: Dealing with player failure
« Reply #8 on: June 04, 2013, 03:16:29 pm »


I do not see challenge as an essential part of games at all.

Allow me to rephrase: Challenges are a perfectly valid component of the medium of videogames. They do not have to be in every notgame but nor should they be excised from them. The key is that the virtual world should not be structured as one big challenge; challenges (if they exist) should preferably exist in pockets within the larger world which operates on different logic. And of course there should be more meaningful results of success or failure than getting or losing some points. This is how challenges work in the real world - a world without any challenges is just as unreal as one where time stops if you fail a challenge. (And traditional challenge-worlds that work entirely on game-logic can also be perfectly good, if abstract, art - see Rohrer's work - but that's the constricting standard we're trying to get away from)

How else would you instill the feeling of failure (the actual emotion, not the gamified facsimile) other than allowing the player to fail?

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The skill challenges in Heavy Rain, for instance, I thought tedious and annoying

I agree, but I would argue that the problems are more a matter of execution than design philosophy.

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and reminded me of being a player, rather than an audience.

Isn't that the whole point of this medium? Wink
« Last Edit: June 04, 2013, 03:36:04 pm by lophiaspis »
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Re: Dealing with player failure
« Reply #9 on: June 04, 2013, 04:13:02 pm »


I do not see challenge as an essential part of games at all.

Allow me to rephrase: Challenges are a perfectly valid component of the medium of videogames. They do not have to be in every notgame but nor should they be excised from them. The key is that the virtual world should not be structured as one big challenge; challenges (if they exist) should preferably exist in pockets within the larger world which operates on different logic. And of course there should be more meaningful results of success or failure than getting or losing some points. This is how challenges work in the real world - a world without any challenges is just as unreal as one where time stops if you fail a challenge. (And traditional challenge-worlds that work entirely on game-logic can also be perfectly good, if abstract, art - see Rohrer's work - but that's the constricting standard we're trying to get away from)

How else would you instill the feeling of failure (the actual emotion, not the gamified facsimile) other than allowing the player to fail?

You could have pathetic failure, in the sense of you sympathising with a character who goes through a failure. This works for fiction as a whole... You are right about personal failure, which is part of the ladder of Starcraft, but the actions of characters in games is not really something that I feel translates well to 'personal' failure.

My personal problem is that challenge as a form is hard to integrate with narrative (if failing a challenge creates a narrative branch) or exists as a meaningless bubble where narrative laws are suspended and resumed. In both cases I am not sure I truly feel the challenge added anything to the game. I am personally a proponent of 'meaningless interaction' as a way forward- i.e., the player performing actions which have no 'large' consequences and rather just serve to increase engagement, presence, &c.

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and reminded me of being a player, rather than an audience.

Isn't that the whole point of this medium? Wink

I should say not - you can be an audience in a game as much as a player or a participant. I want to sympathise with characters more than I want to have the illusion of responsibility.
« Last Edit: June 04, 2013, 05:15:54 pm by Jeroen D. Stout »
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Re: Dealing with player failure
« Reply #10 on: June 04, 2013, 08:39:41 pm »

You could have pathetic failure, in the sense of you sympathising with a character who goes through a failure.

But can't you get that from a cutscene, or indeed any other medium? I don't see why you need a notgame for that.

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This works for fiction as a whole... You are right about personal failure, which is part of the ladder of Starcraft

Failing at Starcraft is just failing at a game. It has little in common with failing to overcome some serious real world problem.

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but the actions of characters in games is not really something that I feel translates well to 'personal' failure.

Just some hypothetical examples off the top of my head:

-Failing to get a job
-Failing to get popular at your school
-Failing to preserve your marriage
-Failing to prevent the suicide of a loved one

I don't see why you couldn't make the player feel personal failure by simulating such events?

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My personal problem is that challenge as a form is hard to integrate with narrative (if failing a challenge creates a narrative branch) or exists as a meaningless bubble where narrative laws are suspended and resumed. In both cases I am not sure I truly feel the challenge added anything to the game. I am personally a proponent of 'meaningless interaction' as a way forward- i.e., the player performing actions which have no 'large' consequences and rather just serve to increase engagement, presence, &c.

A valid position, although not the only possible one. I think both Heavy Rain and things like DayZ and Crusader Kings (the latter two in a much less purified notgame state) show that challenge and failure can be powerful narrative tools. The unique strength of the medium is to immerse people in particular states of mind by letting them do stuff in a virtual world which would trigger that state of mind if they did it in real life. Quite frankly, if you want to give the player a sense of failure, what better way to do so than to let them fail? It may be hard but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying.

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I should say not - you can be an audience in a game as much as a player or a participant. I want to sympathise with characters more than I want to have the illusion of responsibility.

Fair enough. I'm not insisting you have to provide the option to both fail and succeed at some goal, as opposed to having the player go through a linear interaction that simulates failure. All I'm saying is it's a valid component part of notgames in general.
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Re: Dealing with player failure
« Reply #11 on: June 04, 2013, 09:14:27 pm »

You could have pathetic failure, in the sense of you sympathising with a character who goes through a failure.

But can't you get that from a cutscene, or indeed any other medium? I don't see why you need a notgame for that.

You can get a story from a book, but it can work well in a film - you can get pathos from any other medium but it being a game can work well for it, too.

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but the actions of characters in games is not really something that I feel translates well to 'personal' failure.

Just some hypothetical examples off the top of my head:

-Failing to get a job
-Failing to get popular at your school
-Failing to preserve your marriage
-Failing to prevent the suicide of a loved one

I don't see why you couldn't make the player feel personal failure by simulating such events?

Speaking for myself, I do not have the suspension of disbelief to make me failing to get a job in a game feel like failing to get a job in real life. If you were to present me a character in a game that I am to portray and tell me he is struggling (and failing) to save his marriage then of course I can sympathize. But giving me a system that pretends to be a marriage never really grips me. Perhaps it is overly symbolic for me; I can tell the mechanics only symbolise the real world rather than having a more clear artistic voice.

That is to say, I would rather play a tragedy in which I cannot not fail, because then I know what I am doing. In a game with a system, I would not see this loved one and the suicide - I would think about the underlying mechanics.

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My personal problem is that challenge as a form is hard to integrate with narrative (if failing a challenge creates a narrative branch) or exists as a meaningless bubble where narrative laws are suspended and resumed. In both cases I am not sure I truly feel the challenge added anything to the game. I am personally a proponent of 'meaningless interaction' as a way forward- i.e., the player performing actions which have no 'large' consequences and rather just serve to increase engagement, presence, &c.

A valid position, although not the only possible one. I think both Heavy Rain and things like DayZ and Crusader Kings (the latter two in a much less purified notgame state) show that challenge and failure can be powerful narrative tools. The unique strength of the medium is to immerse people in particular states of mind by letting them do stuff in a virtual world which would trigger that state of mind if they did it in real life. Quite frankly, if you want to give the player a sense of failure, what better way to do so than to let them fail? It may be hard but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying.

Of course one can try - it can go both ways. But personally if a game lets me fail I cannot help but try to play the system to win, rather than focussing on the artistic content of a game. For me playing a tragedy is a better way to experience failure.
« Last Edit: June 04, 2013, 09:17:43 pm by Jeroen D. Stout »
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Re: Dealing with player failure
« Reply #12 on: June 06, 2013, 07:55:00 am »

I am currently struggling a bit with the concept of failure. In a normal game failure is part of a gameplay mechanic, it is part of the loop that the game wants you to go through. For instance if a fall down a hole in Super Mario I have to restart further back and retry. The game is designed around this and it expects the player to fail sooner or later. When playing a Super Mario, I do not really mind failure as such, it is part of the experience to retry challenges and to become better at them. It is classical "theory of fun" stuff.

When we play a game that is not about mastery, as Michael alluded in the first post, we want to make sure that the player has a smooth experience as possible. Once we start using mastery loops all sort of problems pop up, that I am sure all of you are familiar with. The most important one is that it takes away focus from the narrative experience and the game's fiction gets viewed as systems.

However, there are instances when not having failure creates the opposite effect. In our new game, we will have dangerous elements that the player is supposed to fear and see as threats. That the player view them as threats is a core part of the experience and we build a lot from this*. So it is crucial that the player has these feelings. Now, it is pretty easy to build up a sense of threat without having a failure. Knowing that the threat is out there is enough and so forth. But it is not possible to sustain this state indefinitely, there comes a point when you need to show your cards. When this happens, you either have something or the player will call your bluff. For instance, in The Path, there is not really a fail state, BUT eventually the wolf will get you and your journey will be over. This is not really a normal fail state, but it is a sort of bottleneck or possibility collapse. I think The Path solves this very nicely, failure = end of this part of the game, and it works very well from the set up. (Sidenote: There is a lot of brilliant stuff in The Path, that I wished had gotten more attention, perhaps time for blog post on it Wink )

This sort of collapse does not just happen when the player is out to "troll the designer", but it can happen even when the player is playing her role perfectly. Of course, we can do things to delay it (player is merely hurt by the threat, etc), but these are just stalling tactics. Sooner or later we need to own up to our claims.

How to solve this? Here is a just a quick list of thoughts:

*Just do it the gamey way and restart from checkpoint! Focus on making it unlikely this state occurs. But with enough threats the likelihood is pretty high of it happening.

*Do plot branching and make the death matter. This makes things seamless, but it is extremly hard especially if we have more dynamic situations where we are unsure of the possible states that can occur.

*End this scene, and continue to next. Only works in some cases (like The Path) and might destroy the narrative.

*Have some story related thing happen, eg inflicting pain on an NPC. This can be really hard to sustain though, and really just postpones the owning up part.

*Make failure compulsory. Sort of like how it works in the path, but feels like cop out. Problem sometimes is also that we want to avoid the failstate as much as possible.

*Threats are often best when the player has most of it in their minds.

*Remove the threat. This just is not possible all the time, sometimes the entire experience hangs on the player feeling threatened (as in our case)


How to solve? I dunno. I do not think there is one good solution to all this, but I at least want to get some better way of thinking about it.

*This is actually a new route we have taken very recently, but have to get in on that some other time.
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Re: Dealing with player failure
« Reply #13 on: June 07, 2013, 01:50:57 am »

I've always thought that the feelings caused by someone being worried they'd lose progress in their game weren't really the same emotion (difference of kind) as fear for their life, such as you can simulate with a creepy atmosphere (difference of degree).

I totally agree one can't keep that fear up indefinitely — but maybe one shouldn't be trying to! Maybe when the fear runs up, it's a good time to wrap up the story. That's how they do it everywhere else, after all!

That said, all of your ideas definitely can make for compelling gameplay. I especially love supposed-to-lose situations Wink
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"Wonder had gone away, and he had forgotten that all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other."
--H.P. Lovecraft

Call me Dale Smiley
Re: Dealing with player failure
« Reply #14 on: June 07, 2013, 12:39:11 pm »

A quick thought;

Can we see the emotions possible as such:

Real failure | Game failure | Sympathetic failure | Observed failure

If this is as good dimension, I would think that we can only go so far in making failure and that sympathetic failure is not much less than game failure
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