ArenaNet’s recent claim that death should be fun brings up a point about punishment in video games in general. Why do video games punish players for failing at the game? Would it not always be more fun to not be punished?
There is a long tradition of frustrating consequences for failure in video games, starting with the earliest adventure games, and continuing through the latest and greatest MMOs, but this tradition is not a constant. In every genre, we can see a downward trend in the use of punishment. Think of the games you played 20 or thirty years ago (or even 10 years ago, though the change is not as dramatic). What was the punishment for failure? In most games, across genres, complete failure meant completely restarting the game, which, depending upon time investment, was a strong disincentive to fail. Many of the games with the greatest punishment were on consoles and in arcades, where it was not possible to save one’s progress—but even on the home computer, many adventure games would incorporate item-puzzles which, if failed, would render the save-games useless, since the failure actually occurred (unknown to the player) way back in the first scene of the game1.
Part of this was due to a shift in focus that video game scholars refer to as The Great Score Shift2. Most early converts to the video gaming hobby got their start in arcades, where all games were pay-for-play, and each player was completing with all other players in the history of that machine for the “Hi-Score”. The objective of these games, and the later console games designed to emulate the experience, was to have the largest in-game point total, and get your initials (or a clever three-letter word) immortalized at the top of a scoreboard. Failure meant that your score stopped tabulating, and thusly that if you wanted a higher score, you would have to begin again (and pay again). Success was measured in endurance, rather than skill. The player who completed the most levels, or killed the most enemies,won. These games could not be “beaten” the way we think of games today. There is no “final boss” for Pac-Man. There is no point at which Arkanoid‘s enemies are all destroyed. The games themselves were simple, and it was an easy thing for the designers to write an algorithm that made each successive level more difficult without any real additional design.
This did not translate well into the home video-game console market, where usually only one person would ever play a particular copy of a game, and so the scoreboard would fill with the accomplishments of only that one person. With no one to compare themselves to or compete against, score became less and less relevant. This shift in mentality about score forced game design to change drastically, finding other ways to reward players for success. Consider one of the early popular Platform Jumper games, Super Mario Bros.3 The game still has a hi-score to beat, but it was popular because if you could just get a little further, then you could see more of the game. Score began to take a backseat to “progression”. This was essentially a combination of the basic arcade formula and the more plot-oriented PC games formula. This mix can be seen in console games ever since, and has proved successful.
Sometime in the mid-90s however, developers in almost all genres started allowing more save features in their games, sometimes allowing players to save anytime they liked. This was especially true in the RPG genre, making it the genre with the least punishment (assuming that you remembered to save). The further introduction of the auto-save and the quick-save allowed some games to remove all in-game player punishment.
Adventure games win the prize for the most dramatic, though late-trending, turn. Telltale Games established a new style of adventure game in 2005 with their remake of Sam & Max. This new style incorporated a removal of irreparable failure (the protagonist never “dies”), unfailable puzzles, and even a hint system to keep a player from getting too frustrated with any one puzzle. This new style has been so successful that others have begun to emulate it, and most new adventure games have a much lower punishment level than adventure games only 6 years ago.
A few developers have attempted to buck this declining trend in punishment, but aside from some nostalgic releases4 , these games have been universally unsuccessful in the market. Players are no longer accustomed to heavy penalties for failure, and are especially weary of games that force them to completely restart when they lose, which is thusly almost completely unheard of in today’s games.
What does this all mean for modern video games? Well, the history speaks for itself in most cases. Modern design shies away from punishment, especially in the form of setback. Instead designers focus more and more on rewards for doing particularly well, like achievements5. Often, failure simply requires a player to retry the challenge they failed. Even Final Fantasy, a franchise renowned for its ability to punish and frustrate, has changed their ways recently, allowing players in Final Fantasy XIII to go back to the beginning of a battle with no other consequence if they fail, or even if they just feel like they will soon fail.
The aberration here, if you refer once again to my very scientific chart above, is Massive Multi-player Online Roleplaying Games or MMORPGs (not to be confused with Mohrgs6). When the first MMORPGs hit the market in the middle of this decade, they were about on the level with other genres for punishment, but with the release of World of Warcraft, we see an increase in punishment. The game designers were treating death in a way we hadn’t seen before. Since the games were multi-player, and essentially “live” there was seemingly a worry about verisimilitude, and a need to punish players in the form of lost time. This loss is made more stark by the fact that the time isn’t lost in the past (like having to reload a save), it is lost in the future. In many of these games, WoW included, a dead character must travel the world as an ineffective ghost for a period of time, or even if the character is allowed to return immediately, they are forced to return to the most recent encampment, so that they must endure the trek back to the battlefield—a journey that could take an hour or more in some circumstances.
Why such a harsh punishment, and why out of proportion with other genres? It can only be surmised that these punishments were developed because the traditional punishment for a failure in a single-player, or even just a non-massive co-operative role-playing game is to force the player to reload their game. They must go back to a version of the world in which they have not yet failed, so that they may try again. Instead, these new Mohrgs had to find a way to punish players that didn’t roll back the game clock. Early experiments with XP penalties, or lost inventory proved unpopular, so the current time-wasting model has remained in vogue.
This still, however, doesn’t answer the question: Do we need to be punished? The thinking on this, from a Behavioral Psychology standpoint, is that players will not be able to revel in their successes nearly as well without the risk of failure7. If you know that no matter what you do, you will never be punished for failure, it might diminish the joy of success. How many times have you felt the elation of finally solving a video game challenge which has punished you for hours?
Other genres, however, are showing us that we punish ourselves enough on our own when we fail. We are able to experience that sense of elation, even if the game does not punish us any further than simply placing us back at the beginning of the challenge, making the challenge fundamentally unfailable8, or using social punishment. MMORPGs, however, have not yet followed suit.
In reference to their new game, ArenaNet comes right out and says “Defeat in Guild Wars 2 is intended to be an experience, not a punishment”, and goes on to describe a system in which player parties do not need dedicated healers. Players are merely “downed”, rather than immediately killed by monsters. Players may even continue to join the fight with special last-ditch skills, while waiting for an ally to help them up. All this creates a sort of meta-game out of failure and revival, which sounds a lot more fun than health-bar management.
Perhaps it’s time for an online world in which player punishment is not so quickly doled out. How this affects player enjoyment of the challenges is yet to be seen.
- One example, for those who never played that era of adventure games, is Roger Wilco’s athletic supporter in Space Quest: In the opening scene, the player can collect Roger’s athletic supporter from his employee locker, and add it to his inventory. Later in the plot, Roger needs to use the supporter to construct a sling-shot to defeat a monster. There is no longer any way to go back to the ship, so if the player did not pick up the supporter, Roger was doomed, and the player would have to restart the game or give up.
- I hope you weren’t looking here expecting some kind of citation because I totally just made that up.
- A game of some renown.
- Mega Man 9 for the Wii had almost the same punishment level as the original Mega Man games, but everyone still loved it because it was Mega Man.
- A topic for another article.
- Image copyright Wizards of the Coast
- Raynor, Joel O. and Charles P. Smit. “Achievement-related motives and risk-taking in games of skill and chance.” Journal of Personality. 34.2 (1966): 176-198. Print.
- Not meaning, of course, that one automatically succeeds, only that one remains in the challenge until success is reached without having to ever actually “fail” except in the sense that one has not yet succeeded. Of course, this can still feel like a punishment.