The Obsolescence of Lives

I twitted that “restarting a long multi-screen level on death” and “limited lives” are examples of retro mechanics that should stay dead. I thought that I would expand a bit on what I meant.

In part, this is a corollary to my past writings on challenge and punishment. In my definition, challenge is when a task is difficult to accomplish because it requires a high amount of skill, ability, or experience. Punishment is when failing a task imposes a burden on the player, usually in the form of lost time.

In classic Nintendo games, the player typically has a set of 3 or so lives. When the player character dies, the player loses a life and the level restarts. If the player has no lives left, the game ends and the player must start over from the very beginning. Levels in this style are typically rather long, so that if the player character dies, the player must replay thirty seconds, a minute, or perhaps more in order to return to where she last reached.

This is punishment. The player’s failure is punished by having to start over. There’s also a certain amount of challenge that goes along with it; instead of “get through this level,” the player must “get through this level all in one life.” Still, I don’t think this is a good approach to take with regard to difficulty. Excessive punishment is frustrating, especially when it involves repeated playthroughs of the same content.

Limited lives provide the same problem, writ larger. Instead of playing the same level over and over, the player must play the entire game over and over. Some games provide the option to continue, where game over means the player is sent back to an arbitrary checkpoint, rather than the very beginning. This helps a bit, but is still annoying. Some games even have the audacity to limit the number of continues!

My perfect alternative to restarting a level on death: place checkpoints or respawn points frequently throughout the game, or allow the player to quicksave. If part of the challenge of the game is passing several obstacles in a row, place the checkpoints before and after each set of obstacles. Under no circumstances should players have to replay the exact same challenge they’ve already surpassed in order to progress.

Not good enough? Want to stop the dedicated but unskilled player who tries again and again on each challenge until she passes by coincidence? Create implicit checkpoints by using a health system. The player has X hit points, and getting hurt or otherwise failing removes one. Where you would otherwise provide checkpoints, have health-restoring items instead. By restoring Y hit points after each set of challenges, you are effectively giving the player Y attempts at each challenge. Depending on the values of X and Y, skilled players may be able to build up a buffer of hit points by beating challenges “under par,” while less skilled players will feel constantly challenged by their low hit points. If you use this approach, recognize that you’re likely to frustrate borderline players: those players who almost make it to the end of the level before dying, every damn time.

Limited lives are less defensible. They stem from a time when each “continue” required a quarter, and it was in the developer’s best interest to stop players from finishing a game. If you want to encourage players to fail less, attach a more “soft” punishment to failure. Score players’ performance by giving them big red Fs if they use up too many deaths, or loudly declare how many deaths they’ve experienced and allow them to retry segments in order to reduce this number.

Stephen “increpare” Lavelle (half-jokingly?) demanded I offer five counter-examples before he found me credible. That’s a good proof of a law, I think. So, situations in which level-restarting and lives are okay:

  • Rogue-likes, and other games with perma-death. If the player only has one life, and knows that going in, then she is prepared for a situation in which death really matters and the stakes are high. The frustration of punishment is tempered by a randomly-generated world, meaning that the player need never endlessly replay the same set of opening levels.
  • Games or game modes played for competitive scoring. It’s perfectly fine to include limited lives when players’ primary goal is to set a high score. Games like this usually have a limited amount of different levels, anyway, so a player that gets an early game-over doesn’t miss out on a lot of content.
  • Games in which progress persists across plays. Spelunky allows the player to accumulate money to open up shortcuts, and Super Crate Box unlocks new content as a reward for performance. These approaches give a sense of accomplishment and add variety for subsequent play-throughs.
  • Games in which frustrating the player is one of the design goals. Are you trying to portray a frustrating, annoying situation? Do you want the player closing and deleting the game in disgust as part of the game’s message? By all means, limit their lives. This is a trick that only works a few times, though.
  • Games which subvert these mechanics. What if dying and going to the beginning of the level is a shortcut, not a punishment? What if lives are currency, and the player must wager power against security? What if death is a way of “banking” experience points and upgrading the character, so that the player can replay the level with new abilities? In these cases, make sure to be aware of the annoyance of replaying identical content.

Do you disagree with my hatred of limited lives and level-restarting? Do you have a counterexample that I missed? Leave a comment and let me know.

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33 thoughts on “The Obsolescence of Lives

  1. Yeah, lives and continues are a throwback to the old arcade environment, in which the machine needs to give the player his 10 pence/cent’s worth of gameplay then get rid of him for the next punter. Obviously playing at home is a different environment.

    On a related note, I’m often fustrated by console games that have to reload a level from disc (taking 30 seconds, 1 minute, 4 minutes, etc.) on character death. Surely the level data is already stored in memory?

    1. I can sorta understand the need to reload. Of course, it’s possible and optimal for the reload to be quick, but consoles tend to have limited memory, and it’s complex to keep around the original state of the level as well as the current state, especially in a situation where parts of the level are changing, as is often the case in modern games.

      Still, there are some things — textures, models, sounds — that don’t need to be reloaded when you reload the level geometry and entities. That’s really more of an implementation issue than a game design one.

  2. Good thing you put the roguelikes counterexample: I was about to bring Necropolis as an example of your hypocrisy.

    I can’t believe how some game designers just don’t want players finishing their games.

  3. Can you reconcile your dislike of the “repeat a long level without checkpoints” games with Bit Trip: Runner, which you appreciate and enjoy quite a bit? In my observation, it’s not trying “to portray a frustrating, annoying situation”–the developer just felt like making a hard-ass game.

    You’ve argued in the near past that developers have the right (and that it’s acceptable) to be strict with quicksave/checkpoint functionality in order to produce a fixed, developer-dictated in-game experience. Even a health-based system wouldn’t fit in Bit Trip: Runner.

    Have you backed off the latter viewpoint?

    1. Most of Runner‘s levels are short, compared to old-school platformer levels (e.g.), and the respawn is quite quick and painless. In the case of Runner, the challenge is to complete the whole level without failing, so it can’t easily be broken up by checkpoints without changing the game. Still, I think Runner goes too far in a few levels, especially near the end; it generates more frustration at repeated failure than elation at eventual success. I might prefer a Bit.Trip-Beat-like system where you could get hit once and could recover from the “nether” failure state.

      I think the phrase “fixed, developer-dictated, in-game experience” is a misrepresentation of my views; a fixed experience would be a failure to properly use the medium. However, the developer can and should constrain the player experience with their rules choices. In many cases, choosing a more sparse checkpoint distribution can adjust difficulty to make the game more fun and rewarding (rather than an effortless cakewalk); in others, it can ruin a game. It varies from work to work.

  4. Limited continues/lives have no place in modern game design.

    Starting from the beginning of a level can be justified in games that feature short levels (Cut the Rope, N), or games whose levels are intended to be completed without making a mistake, and whose mastery of the levels *is* the game (Schmups).

    Even starting from the beginning of the entire game can be justified in games that build player skill through death and present different, usually randomized, scenarios on each playthrough in which to apply those skills (Roguelikes, Spelunky).

    But a limited set of attempts per level? That is irrevocably anachronistic.

    I remember first playing N and thinking, “Wait, I can retry the level as many times as I want, *without penalty*?”. It was such a breath of fresh air, putting the focus on level completion, rather than lives management. Some modern FPSs like Halo took a cue from this more modular experience, and replenished health between encounters within levels. Also a breath of fresh air. Many casual games like Cut the Rope have, in addition to doing away with limited continues, also added the ability to skip levels altogether.

    The one jarring experience that comes to mind recently in regards to limited continues was Little Big Planet, where you must make it from one checkpoint to the next without expending your limited, shared continues. This was a patch on the limited continues problem, at best. A genuine fix? Allow the users unlimited continues, then score them based on performance at the end.

  5. Did anyone play Steel Battalion (Tekki) on the Xbox (2002)? The one that came with the controller the size of a small coffee table? It was a mecha simulation with permadeath, and fixed linear missions – lengthy missions that needed to be completed in one sitting. If you weren’t fast enough on the eject button then boom, all the way back to level 1. It took me six months to complete it. I can’t think of a worse perpetrator of the player-punishment Gregory describes. However, it was one of my most exciting video game experiences. I think it could only work in such a deliberately harsh, simulationist, immersive approach. ~~~~

  6. I agree with you, but only to a degree. I do not think limited lives/continues is a bad thing, provided your game would benefit from having it, like any element of a game’s design. The games that benefit from having it are hardcore games. Games with a very high skill-based roof (like a lot of schmups, roguelikes, etc) benefit from this approach, as the thrill of the game is increasing your skill at its logic, and its reward to you is new content. You replay the same content over and over because the game has not deemed you masterful enough of that content to progress to later content. I think outright disliking that approach is fine, but to say it is “anachronistic” is only true in that it is an old method, it is certainly not worse off because of it. The only time I find this taken too far is repeating the entire game, as that is usually such a large skill-degree backwards from where the player currently is that it is likely just a waste of time for them, rather than an actual punishment.

    A recent encounter with this, for me, was Pacman Championship Edition, which is available on PSN, and might be on 360 Arcade. It’s just Pacman, but there are additions to the game’s play that have made it a harder game in some ways, but easier in others. It is still a game that demands repeating content to become better, but you can do that far easier than in the older games that this idea relates to, and the game is perfectly fine with a player being just rewarded with score rather than new content.

    I’m not really a fan of scores unless the game is tremendously difficult or one-track. I think if your game is about content mastery, it’s going to be a lot more satisfying and engaging to me as a player to unlock a new piece of content than simply see a large number. The numbers have a great feel to them, sure, I love getting a new high score in Sinistar, or Robotron at my school’s arcade machine, but the real reward for masterful skill has always been content, whether that is story or levels or what have you. It’s an absolute rush to be playing Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup and finally get to a new tileset of dungeon, with new monsters and kinds of items, all as a reward for your hard-played skill, and know that at any moment your lack of skill could lead to your downfall. As you said, roguelikes do sidestep the issue a bit by having a randomly generated experience, but even linear games like Ninja Gaiden are incredibly satisfying to progress in due to their difficulty. I’ve heard people call it masochistic, I really do not think so. Trying to solve a puzzle is not masochistic to me just because it is mentally taxing and I have to struggle to do it.

    The only thing I really think will rarely have a place in any skill-based game that rewards player mastery is repeating the entire game over. Surely it furthers the titillation and your re-encountering of the challenging segment of the game, but it feels like being taunted by a school bully right as you walk out of the school, and wishing you could go back to that moment when you later think of what would have been a witty retort. Very often when such an event happens to me, I know exactly what I should have done, having gained that knowledge upon losing and understanding the incorrect logical space I had chosen in that situation. Typically letting me redo the encounter/scenario one or two more times and I would have gotten it. I like your idea about checkpoints, but I think that poor use of that system will demand far less skill out of a player (almost all the time, even).

    All this talk of designers “not wanting people to finish their games” is bullshit as well. Unless a game’s difficulty is unwarranted or unfair, or is not something a player can become very skilled at due to random circumstances and so on, a player should take it upon themselves to meet the challenge if they want to finish the game. I feel like this kind of mentality is exactly the reason most modern games are very, very easy. They cut out the “meat” of older game design, and while they cut out the bullshit like restarting the entire game and nonsensical difficulty that arises from unfair/unreadable game mechanics, they also cut out the tender parts that made the meal satisfying beyond a narrative: challenge. Struggle and some suffering are part of the skill factor of games because of the contrast of those things to a pleasurable victory or well-done skill-based action. Some games are enjoyable purely for that reason alone, no narrative, no characters, etc. Some are not, and some are enjoyable for that and other reasons. For example, I think Majesty of Colors is great, and would be totally ridiculous being a skill-based game that revolved around repeated content mastery. I can think of only a few games I have ever played that suffered from anything you are complaining about, though, with the exception of restarting the game.

    I just recently replayed MYST, which has no negatives to the player what so ever, no way to lose, no way to be hampered in any way except your own lack of understanding of a puzzle, and it handled this idea very well. It remained challenging because the player could not progress without a precise idea of what he is doing. Unlike most point-and-click adventure games where ramming objects together can usually solve a puzzle, MYST likes a player to experiment, but will simply not allow progress without a perfect idea of the answer. The way it does this with puzzles is by making the number of possible combinations or variations of an answer rather numerous, so you have to know which one it really is and why. That’s a good alternative, and I’ve not played many games I can recall that took that approach of having a totally non-dangerous play space but completely challenging answers required for progression. And again, you cannot see all of MYST unless you are skilled at it, its reward is both narrative AND content! I suppose the designers just didn’t want anyone to see anything besides the initial island? I don’t know how this would be accomplished in a more action-oriented game, where you would like the player to be immediately threatened by something that can cause a lose state, but I’m sure some thinking and design skill would solve that problem.

    1. I discussed roguelikes and competitive scoring in my post.

      I think that denying a player progress because “the game has not deemed you masterful enough” is incredibly hubristic and lazy. I haven’t played Pacman CE, so I can’t comment on that specifically, but I assume it’s relatively content-light and varied from playthrough to playthrough. If so, it falls more into the “roguelike” category, in which content’s not really being repeated. If not, it’s poorly-designed.

      If a game’s purpose is teaching you mastery, then rote repetition is a terrible way to do it. Your game should have enough original or dynamic content to take the player through the whole experience. The problem here is not forcing the player to struggle against a single hard problem; it’s that the player must repeatedly defeat the problems they’ve already mastered in order to reach their current challenge. Making a player re-demonstrate their mastery of levels 1 through 3 in order to test their mastery of 4 is bullshit.

      Most modern games are not very, very easy. This is a fallacy based on two things: the increased proficiency of players as they gain experience over the years, and the conflation of challenge with punishment. Challenge is when something is hard to defeat; punishment is when failure sets you back half an hour. Modern (hardcore) games tend to be very challenging, but allow you to quicksave before each challenge. This does not make them easy; it makes them efficient. Sure, there are Farmvilles and other casual games that offer less challenge, but they’re aimed at a target demographic that has less experience and therefore is suited to a less difficult game.

    2. How can a game benefit from a limited number of continues? As Greg mentioned, punishing the user by forcing the replay of levels 1-3 to test the mastery of level 4 adds nothing to the experience.

      I am glad to see this level of unnecessary punishment largely eradicated from modern game design. Even notoriously challenging games like Demon’s Souls allows for unlimited continues. All the same, Demon’s Souls still manages to be overly punishing by forcing the replay of large chunks of levels each time you die (and die you do).

      Sure, it’s satisfactory to overcome a challenge and simultaneously avoid a painful punishment; but is this the point of most games? This is why Greg questions whether many game designers implicitly want to prevent players from progressing in a game if the player is punished continuously. Dynamic difficulty systems such as those in Flow and Wii Sports address this issue directly; and it’s no surprise that they are a product of modern game design, now that we have understood that while failure can be fun, punishment can quickly become frustrating.

      The topic of limited continues is a non-issue if you want players to both complete the game, and have a positive experience while playing it.

  7. I do think modern games are, on average of what I have played, a lot easier than older games. Part of it is that new games are less punishing, as you said, but I think challenge has mostly been lowered to reel into a larger pool of players. Games are more casual than they have ever been. That is because of the target audience, as you said, but that target audience is now everyone and their mom, so it’s obviously going to be easier since those groups likely are not as intuitive about a game as a gamer. That’s not a bad thing in my mind, but that’s why I think this kind of game design only works for hardcore games. If anything it defines them.

    “The topic of limited continues is a non-issue if you want players to both complete the game, and have a positive experience while playing it.”

    Perhaps that is the difference here, I do not want the player to finish a hardcore game just for the sake of it, I want him to actually earn the finish.

    “I think that denying a player progress because “the game has not deemed you masterful enough” is incredibly hubristic and lazy. ”

    I don’t. I think if your game is interesting and engaging enough, harcore players will continue to want to play it, and if it is a skill-based game/hardcore game, that kind of player will be more attracted to a game that disallows progress without a level of skill. That is precisely the drive for most hardcore gamers. When I play a hardcore game, the game just letting me into later content even when I have not displayed much level of skill or mastery of its logic is more insulting than anything.

    Perhaps I misunderstood you earlier in regards to the difference between punishment and challenge though. I definitely don’t want people repeating a part of a game they are definitely a master/skilled enough for, that is simply a waste of time, as you said, and therefore punishment, not challenge.

    For me the ideal solution would be something like MYST, since it offers challenge without punishment. For an action game though, it is better to find the perfect balance between setting the player back (not because you are arrogant, because the player needs more time on a specific segment) while not setting the player back so far it causes repeating unnecessary play. Repeating is always, I think, avoidable if you spread the mechanics of the game more evenly in their discovery, and judge the player multiple times rather than a single segment for a single mechanic. I think there is some replaying that could benefit a player though, and as you said some games have certainly done that well with either checkpoints or some sort of pacing mechanic.

    “Making a player re-demonstrate their mastery of levels 1 through 3 in order to test their mastery of 4 is bullshit”

    “As Greg mentioned, punishing the user by forcing the replay of levels 1-3 to test the mastery of level 4 adds nothing to the experience.”

    I don’t necessarily agree, it does add something, it just does it in a less-than-best way. At some point you have to assume that if a player cannot beat X levels with 5 lives, or whatever the number is, they needed more time on easier segments to build that skill up (assuming the game’s mechanics are layered). It really just depends at that point how the game’s difficulty is structured. Also note that just because the player beat section 3 or 4 of a game doesn’t make them masterful at it, that is the accidental side effect of games that make you repeat a lot if you fail, or punish you, you become better at the easier parts, building up that skill for the challenging segment. The first time through you might have been good, the second or fifth time you should be golden. So the problem is always finding how to replicate that learned effect (that thing repetition adds) without wasting their time with older content, if at all possible (which I think it usually is).

    Again I don’t think this works for every game, I think it is a choice on the designer’s part that could be positive if the game calls for it, but as you have obviously proven it often does not call for it.

    So, challenge is good, punishment is bad. Make sure the player repeats challenges they cannot complete (or spread that challenge efficiently so they never repeat), but don’t punish them, as punishment is a waste of time. with the exception of reinforcing earlier skills, as I said, but that is rarely going to make the game more enjoyable unless the player simply doesn’t mind doing that, or is a total masochist.

    1. Keeping unskilled players away from content in order to please “hardcore” (skilled and experienced) players is a mistake. That’s what difficulty settings are for.

      If players need more practice on early challenges, the solution is not to make them restart the game on every fifth (or 15th) death. The solution is to extend the early segments with new and different content that teaches and reinforces the material.

      Disallowing access to advanced content is hubris, as I said. If a player wants to, they should be able to skip ahead. Certainly, the designer should tailor the experience for their intended difficulty arc, and reserve special content for rewards, but the player should be able to ignore that if she wants to. This is what cheat codes used to be for.

  8. Some players enjoy a game that is simply a challenge to make a perfect brush stroke, so to speak. They work on that stroke over and over and over patiently honing their skills to make that stroke in a single movement without any jittering of the brush, again so to speak. Perhaps you guys are not attracted to that kind of game, but adding a little checkpoint where I can continue the stroke from the middle of the totality of the stroke ruins the entire point of that kind of game. Perhaps that is the simplest way to get my point across? That is how some games work. I enjoy that kind of game and many others, so I don’t see a reason for the “full stroke or failure” approach to be obsolete.

    1. That’s what hard mode is for. If you want that sort of challenge, pick the hardest difficulty. Or restart the game every time you fail, and don’t use every save point. I agree that it’s a good idea for developers to include options for “hardcore” gamers, but if that’s the only option, it’s an unnecessary exclusion of people who might become “hardcore” with enough years of practice and guidance.

      1. I think there’s a strong argument to be made for not having this. Simply put, “X, the Jumper” doesn’t have multiple difficulty settings because that would require the game to be completely remade in an easier fashion. Yes, I’m sure someone wants to see the easier version, but that’s not the will of the artist creating the game. Especially since not every game has room for multiple difficulties, mechanically. Take Braid for example. There’s no easier mode for Braid. A lot of people find that game hard. Braid’s choice in not having a easy-mode is not a flaw. It’s just not part of the design.

        Personally, I don’t want to tell someone they’ve completed the game (implicitly by letting them get through all the content, ie “Winning the game” or “Seeing the end”) If they’re not completing the challenge _I_ feel that ending should be worth. When they do win, it’ll be even sweeter a victory for it.

        1. Braid doesn’t have limited lives or continues. It barely ever punishes the player for failure beyond making her rewind time. In fact, the player can walk through (I believe) the entire game of Braid without getting a single puzzle piece.

          Withholding content from a player because you don’t think they’re good enough is pretty controlling. Will you make them pass a proficiency quiz before they can play the game at all?

          1. Okay, Braid might not have been the best example with the over-arcing question being Lives, but that wasn’t the point I was using it for. My point was that there’s a solid reason to not use multiple difficulties in a tightly woven design.

            Braid actually is crueler, in some respects. Being a puzzle game, it tells your you’re not good enough to continue if you can’t figure out a puzzle. Lives are unnecessary in this regard, because the challenge is already brutal enough.

            “Withholding content from a player because you don’t think they’re good enough is pretty controlling.”

            But we’re always being 100% controlling, even if it’s subtle. If the player is standing on pressure pad A, he can’t be standing on pad B at the same time. If he’s just beaten level 1, he can’t jump to level 3 instantly. If we were completely without “control” it wouldn’t be a game, it’d be an art gallery. Storybook at best.

            The question is HOW MUCH control do we exercise. All games exercise this control to some degree. Demanding that they don’t completely belittles the _Interaction_ part of the game. At some point on that line, one asks “Why is this not just a movie or storybook?”

            “Will you make them pass a proficiency quiz before they can play the game at all?”
            That’s silly :P The game SHOULD BE the proficiency quiz. That’s the point of hardcore gaming. (Obviously this point does not apply to games where challenge is not a intentional part of the design.)

  9. “The topic of limited continues is a non-issue if you want players to both complete the game, and have a positive experience while playing it.”

    Anyways I really do think you two are simply of a different mindset than hardcore gamers. If I gave any hardcore gamer I knew a bunch of continues on Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, they would immediately leave it for another game. The same is true for any arcade schmup, most hardcore gamers try to beat them without dying a single time, repeating the game over and over.

    If you think that is dumb or silly or not the “future”, go for it. I don’t think it is anything but a preference you two may not possess as strongly as them.

    1. “The same is true for any arcade schmup, most hardcore gamers try to beat them without dying a single time, repeating the game over and over.”

      Isn’t that still an option in a game that does offer multiple lives/continues? Can’t they just restart the game as they will in order to get that perfect playthrough?

    2. Roguelikes and arcadey games like SHMUPS are special cases, as I discussed in my post. Roguelikes are different every time. The lack of continues is integral to their design, and they mitigate most of the issues with this approach. SHMUPs and similar arcadey titles aren’t really about getting to the end; they’re about the high score and the fun of the pure mechanics, not the story.

      This is a topic for a longer post, but the games you’re discussing aren’t about a single playthrough. The player’s exploration of the game is based on the repeated iteration of different versions of the same simulation, with changes each time. It’s a different structural pattern.

  10. I think there are actually a fairly large number of reasonable counterexamples that can be made, to be honest.

    The archetypal (and classically “quarter-munching”) action game design perspective that challenges the player to be at a certain state of mental and physical ability at one point to see an ending (“Mastery”) would be subverted by checkpoints. One could beat Level 1 of the game and the “game muscle” developed by Level 1 would atrophy by the second or third try of Level 2. The player can beat the game, but never at one point were they MASTER of the game. If the designers goal is to try and get the player to reach this state, limited Lives makes sense. It challenges the player to not waste a resource on negligence. “These lives are my number of attempts to beat Level 4, and I want to maintain my skill at Levels 1-3 to ensure that I don’t waste one.”

    To remedy this, the designer would have to incorporate Level 1’s challenge in Level 2, both in Level 3, and all in Level 4. A very restrictive approach that will probably leave Level 5 with no room for new challenge, just a recap before a lackluster-“You win!”-screen experience.

    Like Maher says, though, this type of thinking is a major part of hardcore gamers’ mentalities, but not everyone’s. This does bring up my personal concern, though, and that is the mentality of arguing that certain mechanics are “dead” or “obsolete” when clearly there are places to have and not have these mechanics, as brought up by these comments and even the original post. A place for them to NOT exists has definitely been carved out recently, but that doesn’t mean previous games that used them are wrong in some way. It assuredly does not mean that new games shouldn’t do it. Mechanics need to have a proper place in the game’s design, and if they don’t, they’re dead weight, from the design perspective. They’ll end up doing dumb things to the player, like frustrating them or confusing them.

    One point I saw thrown around that I found a bit backward was that the designer was somehow being lazy or sadistic by “punishing the player” with having to repeat a part of the game. While it is possible to have the mentality of “punishing” sadistically or just being lazy and trying to pad hours of gameplay, the assumption that this is what a designer is doing, by a player or outside observer who only sees the final piece feels very pessimistic and cynical to me.

    I see this a lot with bad D&D players. The one’s who jump to blame the DM when something bad happens. They don’t understand the design or what’s going through the DM’s head and are actively making it harder for themselves to enjoy the game by second-guessing it’s design. In a participatory player’s approach, he’s not seeing the designers focus choice between story, reward, and difficulty. He’s seeing what he’s done and searching for the path to progress the way he wants. If he’s not willing to accept the challenge of the path he finds, he’s not playing the game. This isn’t necessarily a problem with design. It’s just a justification for genres.

    Strong consequence, what could be called punishment if you were to infer (almost unjustifiably, I’d argue) a sadistic designer, just makes the victory more meaningful. If a player doesn’t like it, I’ll refer him to smaller mountains, but I see no reason to curtail my own.

    1. When a game designer or GM has a frustrated and unsatisfied player, and doesn’t communicate the design of the game, that’s a failure on the designer’s part.

      There are no bad D&D players. There are people with social problems, or people who have trouble crunching the numbers; D&D isn’t the game for them, or maybe they need a bit of assistance. But if the GM has an elaborate and amazing structure set up that the players don’t appreciate? He’s running the game wrong. Obviously, it’s impossible to be perfect, but it’s important to recognize that these are flaws with the game’s design, not issues with players.

      Likewise, if continues are a problem because they make your player’s skills atrophy halfway through Level 2, then you’ve designed your challenges wrong. Why are your skills not reinforcing each other? If the Level 1 skills don’t belong in later levels, why are those skills included? Why isn’t Level 1 a different game altogether? Why aren’t you willing to let a player who hasn’t achieved “Mastery” finish the game? You could award a title of Master to a player who actually gets mastery, or even have a Mastery mode. But the lack of an Apprentice mode means that you’re deliberately excluding the players who will eventually become able to master the game.

      1. Are you implying that every game should satisfy every player, ideally? That just seems a bit absurd to me. We all have different tastes and are satisfied by different types of games. If a player likes platformers exclusively, him not liking Deus Ex does not make Deus Ex a bad design. It’s a conflict of interest. A disagreement between design (and by proxy, designer) and audience.

        I don’t see how you can think there are no bad D&D players. Maybe you think by saying so we’re implying something is wrong with them as a person, but we wouldn’t be. It’s actually exactly what you said. If they can’t do the task involved (number crunching is an example, but rarely the case. Usually it’s a matter of disagreement, like I said, or inability to immerse-the-self/roleplay) then they are not going to be an effective player. They’ll hamper the game for other players and the DM (usually with causing hangups outside the game’s clear ideal bounds.)

        Personally, I am a vegetarian. This makes me a bad judge of meat-wielding dishes. I hate them all indiscriminately. This doesn’t mean foods with meat are poorly designed foods. I’m just not in agreement with the idea.

        If I intro a game with “You rise to your feet after kneeling to your king. You know he’s summoned you for a great task, and begins explaining it to you,” only to be constantly interrupted by the complaints and questions by a player who didn’t want to kneel to the king and is chaotic neutral so he thinks this means he needs to interrupt the king with a thousand “BOING!” screams until we actually have to roleplay throwing him in jail because he’s being a jackass, this is a bad player. Yes you can argue that the game wasn’t tailored to him, but if our players aren’t willing to meet us at SOME point between our ideas and their wills to understand and reason, every game is going to be the same lowest-common-denominator. A terrible game where minimal interaction breeds a constant stream of reward.

        I could come up with multiple handfuls of reasons. Maybe I had an idea for Level 2 that doesn’t mesh well with Level 1’s mechanic? Maybe I can’t include every little part of Level 1? Maybe I want them to master every level’s mechanic so that when I throw them into Level 5, they can revisit old challenges with the new, final one, making victory and mastery all the more apparent and satisfying? The core idea might not fit in the crystal design box you’re presenting here, where all mechanics play into eachother perfectly and are constantly apparent. It’s not wrong to design a game with this if there is a reason. Yes. Not including Apprentice mode excludes players who aren’t willing to try, but if that’s by design, it’s not bad design, just different than the kind of game those people may have been expecting.

        We’ve had similar revolutions in other media forms, as well. If your friend comes walking out of a theater after watching a movie you loved and says “That was a the worst piece of shit ever” that doesn’t mean the movie is bad. He has conflicting tastes, at best. He could be unreasonable, a BAD movie goer. If he thought Bladerunner sucked because it didn’t have enough tits and explosions, I’d call him a bad movie patron before I called Bladerunner a bad movie. Now, of course, if he had reasons that he could pick apart from Bladerunner in particular that made it too difficult for him to enjoy, but was **clearly the director falling short of a mark he was trying to hit** then, if, of course, I could see what he was talking about as well, I would agree that the movie had some flaws.

        The same can be applied to books, paintings/graphic arts, music, or anything, but especially comedy. We’ve all seen the comedian’s nightmare illustrated. He gets on stage and they’re already ready to boo him off. They don’t want to agree with what’s going on on stage. Some bias has turned them into a bad audience for what the comedic designer’s trying to accomplish with his act.

        Some art pieces, like the game designs you’re talking about, are meant to appeal to a broad target audience. Some are not. Neither of these are wrong or bad. All art works on the idea that the audience and designer are meeting somewhere between the audience’s participation and the leading hand of the designer’s contraption. If I refuse to keep my eyes open to look at the painting, literally or figuratively, I’m not trying and there’s no reason a designer should be trying to reach that far. I’ve asked too much of him.

        Yes this kind of thinking can be taken for granted by stubborn designers, but we cannot dismiss it for some bad tomatoes.

        1. Oh, and this is all to say that there are plenty of cases, as you’ve mentioned some, where multiple-lives/level-restart-on-death makes sense in a design, and that it’s improper to blanket-statement that all uses of it are inherently wrong. The mechanic is not dead. There aren’t concrete rules to have exceptions here, just fluid ideas that either clash or don’t, at least, not at the scope of a single mechanic.

          1. Your comments are so long that it’s hard to make sure I address every issue, but I’ll try. That does result in this response being a collection of scattered thoughts; bear with me.

            I do think that every game should ideally try to appeal to every level of experience. Obviously some players won’t want to play a cyberpunk game, or a platformer. But if they want to play it, they shouldn’t be prevented by lack of experience.

            If the GM works with a player to make a character that’s resentful of authority and then tells him that he kneels before the king without giving him an option, the GM is doing a poor job by railroading. If the player is disrupting the game with nonsense, then there’s a social problem there; I suspect that the player would also mess up a game of Risk or an outing to the bowling alley.

            No game will be perfect, but in an ideal world a game should have a unity of design. If you have two concepts that don’t fit together, discard one.

            “Not including Apprentice mode excludes players who aren’t willing to try.” Wrong. It excludes players who want to try, but are at a skill level where Mastery mode is too hard. You don’t give a five-year-old a Calculus book and then yell at him for not trying to do integrals.

            Skill level is rarely a matter of taste, like the genre of a movie or a comedic style. There are some game designs that demand experience, but very few of them actually do. If you want to challenge the player a certain amount, take the player’s skill into account. Say you (for some reason) want a player to try 10 times before succeeding at something. If you have a single difficulty setting, then a highly-skilled player will get it on the first try, but a beginner will try 47 times and give up. There is virtually no connection between a taste for challenge and skill at a game.

            For a more detailed discussion of this concept, see my latest post.

          2. Are there any good examples of games that are made more enjoyable by their limited continues?

            This matter is fairly clean cut to me. Either have 0 continues, as in roguelikes, or have unlimited continues. There is no place for a limited, non-zero amount of continues.

  11. So I suppose the better idea is to make a book that has all of basic math through Calculus in it so that the player/math student can be sure to understand Calculus?

  12. At what point do I draw the line? Should a 5 year old ideally be able to play dungeon crawl stone soup or it is bad design? Does that mean I need to spend years developing multiple points of entry to my game where as many people as possible can get into it and into the higher levels of play? And what do I do about people who simply want to jump into something difficult and figure it out, which is most of hardcore gaming?

    1. Draw the line with common sense. Ideally? Ideally a 5 year old should be able to pick up your perfect, impossible game. Are you a genius with billions of dollars and years to perfect a work? No? Then draw the line with common sense.

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