If geeks love it, we’re on it

Gaming 101: How we die—player punishment in video games

Gaming 101: How we die—player punishment in video games

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?

A stylish, but difficult to read and entirely subjective chart depicting the history of player punishment by genre


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.

None of us ever made it to this level.

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.

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.

A Mohrg is a different type of Abberation

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.

  1. 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.
  2. I hope you weren’t looking here expecting some kind of citation because I totally just made that up.
  3. A game of some renown.
  4. 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.
  5. A topic for another article.
  6. Image copyright Wizards of the Coast
  7. 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.
  8. 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.


  1. MAGIC
    MAGIC Back in EQ you a death resulted in experience debt. They would double the amount of experience it took towards the next level for the next x%.

    This was harsh if you got stuck in a tough spot that took 3-4 deaths to train out of. Might take an entire day to work off the debted experience.
  2. TiberiusLazarus
    TiberiusLazarus I remember the long hours I put into older adventure games such as King's Quest (II comes to mind most specifically). The game was quite large for its time. Not only was there a lot to do, but it had that level of punishment that existed only in early adventure games. Did I get frustrated by it? Of course. Did I push through it? You're damn right I did.

    This trend of taking away punishments has made us soft. I know if I come across a game anymore that doesn't let me save or quick save whenever I want and I come to a difficult section I get incredibly annoyed at the developers for not implementing this. I don't stop to think that just a few years back I would have accepted the challenge. I would have pushed myself until I was able to progress beyond whatever the challenge was. Instead I whine and complain and bitch and moan, and I don't like that this has become the norm.
  3. UPSLynx
    UPSLynx So, fighting game punishment took a nosedive in 2004? hmmm... I guess we either blame Soul Caliber 2 or Def Jam.

    Great read, CB.
  4. Koreish
    Koreish I like how strategy is completely level.
  5. UPSLynx
    UPSLynx I keep thinking about whether or not punishment SHOULD be required.

    A great example of why it should be implemented is Bioshock. In that game, if you die, you respawn at a nearby respawn chamber, and you jump right back into the game. There is no penalty. This means, if you're fighting a big daddy or something else particularly large (heck, even the final boss), you can respawn and continue to fight, and they retain their health from where it was when you died. There is no way to loose. It removes the fear. You just stand there and attack until you die, come back, and do it over again.

    I think punishment should play a role in all games.
  6. Canti
    Canti Oddly enough your comment about respawns in Bioshock made me remember how one of my favorite NES games was about the same way. In Guerilla War you had a set number of lives and when you lost them all a screen would come up asking if you want to continue. Pick yes and you get 5 more Che Guevaras or Fidel Castros (depending on if you're player 1 or 2) and you start back at the same spot you died in. I hated the respawn thing in Bioshock but loved it in Guerilla War even though they're basically the same mechanic. I wonder if this has to do with the age difference between when I played each or if it's because instant respawn in the late 80s was an unusual and welcome change from the unforgiving difficulty of most other games at the time, while today it's more common and takes away from a sense of accomplishment.
  7. kryyst
    kryyst Some games death should be punishing and in others it seems pointless. Plus it really depends on how much time you can sit down and play. If I only have 15 minutes to kill I can actually play a game that has frequent save points or the ability to save whenever. If I die, I still get something out of it.

    However if the game requires a massive investment of time between the ability to save, like say you must clear a full level first. Well then typically I don't find myself playing those games anymore.

    Plus on a console it's often easy enough to just shut off the machine if you are a type of person that doesn't like losing which mitigates the point of death penalties for non-persistent world games.
  8. CB
    UPSLynx wrote:
    So, fighting game punishment took a nosedive in 2004? hmmm... I guess we either blame Soul Caliber 2 or Def Jam.

    Great read, CB.

    I know it's hard to read, but the line with the drastic nosedive in 2004-2005 is the Adventure game genre, and is attributed to TellTale games.

    The fighting games took a dip with the release of Super Smash Bros. in '99, but went back up again for a bit, with a return to some retro style games in the last 5 years or so.
  9. CB
    Koreish wrote:
    I like how strategy is completely level.

    That one was a tough one to figure out, but I finally had to admit that strategy and tactics games have always been about the same level. The only reason that they are as high as they are is that Fire Emblem games keep coming out, which raise the average.
  10. Agius Well-written. There are still some "Nintendo hard" games coming out in backlash to this trend (Demon's Souls, new Ninja Gaiden games), but it's definitely a trend, resulting in things like the latest Prince of Persia.

    I wonder if it's because gamers have grown up, and on average we have way less time and patience to learn games and get really good at them?
  11. moJoe The threat of loss does indeed sweeten success. Ask anyone who has ever done high level raiding. If it was impossible to fail, taking down that giant dragon wouldn't be nearly as awesome. In fact... it wouldn't be awesome at all.

    The way things are heading, soon players won't "die" at all.

    Here's another way to look at it: if dying sucks, and it's not fun, don't do it.

    Pretty simple.
  12. Bandrik
    Bandrik A fantastic read, CB! Taking a more psychological look at gaming and the whole punishment/reward system that goes into game design was very thought-provoking. Awesome job. :D
  13. Winfrey
    Winfrey In my opinion for most genres the developers can make the game as difficult as the want but please please PLEASE allow the player to save/load the game when they want to. You can make a game difficult to accomplish or require a lot of skill and still cut down on the frustration level.

    This is how I beat Call of Duty and its expansion on Veteran without raging to the world in a final blaze of glory.

    Also, Bioshock got a patch that let you remove the respawn chambers if you wanted to. Thus restoring a penalty to dying in the game.
  14. Thrax
    Thrax This is a great article. +More like this.
  15. Richard Save game features are essential, and removing them just makes long games pointlessly 'grindy' and take up way too much of your life if you 'have' to quit for even a few moments
    personally I like the idea of 'death' or having a continual reward for no deaths, like higher chances to get an item / titles / bonus levels
    a few examples are batman: aa, where the easy mode is just so pointless that any even remotely intelligent person will beat it within a long evening gaming session, but on hard it suddenly becomes an intense game that you HAVE to learn the game mechanics or die, repeatedly, and get nowhere and beating it is far more rewarding because you know you did something to earn it, but on the other end of the spectrum is racing games with 'flash backwards' buttons, which completely eliminates any need to learn the tracks, making an easy win that throws you into harder content that the player cant handle because they haven't learned the basics properly
    point is, failure needs to be punished, or people slack and fail more..
    a good challenge is key, and that's also one thing I blame for computer games sales going down to piracy more and more often, because they don't provide enough incentives to buy them and people want to 'try them out'
  16. Jon Great article. It's a good jumping point for discussion.
    Just wanted to point out that Telltale games weren't actually the pioneers of punish-less adventure games. Lucasarts had the "no death, no stuck spots" philosophy down back in 1989 with "Indiana Jones and the Last Cruisade" (arguably even earlier) and all of their subsequent games including "Monkey Island", "Maniac Mansion: day of the tentacle" and "Grim Fandango" followed this philosophy. This was in direct opposition to the "die at every turn" Sierra style of gameplay, which was actually parodied a few times in the early Lucasarts games.
  17. fatcat
    fatcat games should have hard, medium, easy. you have no choice but to do hard mode until you die X times at a boss, area, etc. then it allows the option to do the situation in medium mode. if you still suck, easy becomes availible. but once you are past that point it goes back to hard mode. the rewards|loot|money are based on which level you defeated whatever at

    no one wants to be stuck at a point in a game that cause them to quit playing it, but games are WAY too easy these days

Howdy, Stranger!

It looks like you're new here. If you want to get involved, click one of these buttons!