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Archive for August, 2009

A couple weeks ago, I posted about how I’m not a big fan of linear predictability in level design, and the Groundhog Day effect described by Jonathan Morin (Lead Game Designer at Ubisoft Montreal) in his talk about predictability in games and how to avoid pre-conceived experiences in game design. Put simply, I think it ruins replayability, and thus the effective length of the game — and that’s something I value highly in games.

But I just got done reading another argument comparing Groundhog Day to repetitive gameplay, this time favorably. Robert Buerkle argued in Digital Déjà Vu, an article in The Escapist, that the opportunity to replay a section of the game and fix your mistakes can be a tremendous pleasure in playing. After all, isn’t that a chance that people can’t get, but often want, in the real world? He makes a persuasive argument that there’s pleasure to be had there, and even though I argued contrary to his view on those kinds of sequences, I have to agree on a basic level that I can enjoy the same thing, at least for awhile. And when he uses Groundhog Day as well, this time he’s pointing out that while the time loop is a curse for Phil, it serves to allow him to grow and learn and adapt until his old miserable life has been turned around and he has the perfect day. It’s a curse for him, but it’s also wish fulfillment for the audience — the fantasy that we could have the chance to do the same thing.

I think he’s right, and that’s a lot of the appeal of the movie; indeed, it’s one of my favorites. I’ve even read the screenplay. But while on a small scale, fixing your mistakes is a blessing, when extended over a long time, many people find it to be a pain when they’re forced to do so. Phil starts out bewildered, then becomes decadent and enjoys his predicament, but eventually he becomes bored and depressed, even resorting to suicide. For me, it’s the same thing — as fun as it can be to redo a section to get things right, if you’re forced to do it again and again and again without letting your mistakes be forgiven, it becomes a serious problem.

I think that’s why a lot of modern first-person shooters implement constantly regenerating health. The Call of Duty games started out with health packs, and I can say from personal opinion that my enjoyment increased greatly once the series switched to constant health regeneration. While a bit of Groundhog Day is not bad, over the long run it’s more fun for me to be a James Bond or John Rambo, enduring endless action without dying, than a Phil Connors, repeating the same scene over and over again.

But doesn’t Phil Connors get the girl in the end? Doesn’t he grow and become a better person? And haven’t I seen that movie more than First Blood, the only Rambo movie I actually liked?

These are weak and pointless objections, but what I’m really trying to do is segway into a defense of the movie that draws a division between what Groundhog Day does, and what games that restart you at checkpoints do. First, it’s worth noting that Groundhog Day represents the entire day as one large loop; he doesn’t get to do things piecemeal and revert if he makes small mistakes, he has to do it all in one go. This eliminates some of the nasty five second life grind I get on occasion in Call of Duty games. Of course, restarting at the start of a level is even worse — now the player has to repeat all the things they did right. That, I think, is the other difference with Groundhog Day. The movie represents a time loop trapped in a small town, but within that town are infinite possibilities. He can replay the same sequence of events, or he can do something entirely different. I haven’t played The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, but I know it’s based on the same principle, only on a three day time cycle. Like Groundhog Day, the Zelda games have never been linear affairs, the original was the closest thing to an open world that existed when it was released. Shigeru Miyamoto drew inspiration for the game from the woods and caves outside Kyoto — the possibilities and sense of exploration and adventure. If I’m going to repeat a sequence or scene, I want to be able to play with it, explore it, immerse myself in a broad possibility space. I want it to have replayability.

I believe that a big part of the pleasure of repeating the same sequence of events over and over again is the pleasure of learning and mastery through practice. I think the exploration of this through repeating a precise sequence of events is interesting for awhile, but too puzzle-like and frustrating to give a game longevity. Roguelikes expand this from a micro-scale “learn the level” cycle to a macro-scale “learn the game” cycle. Because they use procedural content, you aren’t replaying the same sequence of events, avoiding much of the drudgery. Because the monsters, spells, and mechanics stay the same though, you can still learn how to fight different creatures, what tactics work, and how to stay alive in an unforgiving world.

After all — the chance to live life over again and use your wisdom from past lives is just the macro version of Groundhog Day.

I’m not saying that roguelikes are for everyone, or that they’re a superior form of game, or that Robert Buerkle is wrong for taking presumably greater pleasure in learning a specific level than I do. But I do think that on a fundamental, psychological level, roguelikes (which are more my style) grant a very similar gratification to players that he’s describing. They appeal to the same kind of perfectionist instinct, just on a very different scale.

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Due to some unfortunate data loss several days ago, this is the inferior, reconstructed version of this post. I hope it serves well enough.

Sid Meier is often quoted as having said that a game is a series of interesting choices. It can be fairly argued that a game can be other things as well, such as a series of fine motor skill challenges of escalating difficulty, and debating this point gets into semantics. But if we accept the idea that a strategy game, at least, is about choices, then a very pure implementation of this can be found in the game Hidden Agenda.

Hidden Agenda is a game about taking on the role of the newly-appointed Presidente in post-revolutionary Chimerica, a fictional Central American country. Chimerica has long been under the corrupt governance of the right-wing Farsante dictatorship, but the people have risen up and overthrown the old government. Now in de facto control of the mechanisms of government, as well as the extensive estates of the Farsante family, a junta formed by the three key opposition parties has been formed. These parties represent Chimericans from all walks of life, from the wealthy cotton farmers and army brass to the poor campesinos and revolutionaries. Even the military has been boldly merged into an extremely fragile reconciliation army, with two army chiefs of staff, representing the traditional army and the revolutionaries. You have been selected as the compromise pick to lead the intrim government.

Your job is to restore order and maintain unity during the fragile post-revolutionary years, balancing the contrary political and social interests while acting to secure a better future for the people and the country. Do do this, you first must appoint a cabinet of ministers to advise you and make policy. Your cabinet has four posts — Agriculture, Military, Internal Affairs, and External Affairs. The candidates for these positions are drawn from the three political parties, National Liberation (communists), Christian Reform (compromisers), and Popular Stability (libertarians). Your choices of these ministers determines, to a great extent, the direction you will go in each of these departments. Each of the parties has the support of a substantial faction within Chimerican society, and neglecting any of them simply because you disagree with their beliefs risks your overthrow.

Once your ministers have been hired, you then play the game in week-long turns, each turn meeting with either one of your ministers, to discuss an issue they think is important, or one of twenty-one sample members of Chimerican society, ranging from foreign diplomats and army leaders to labor organizers and coffee workers, who will all petition you with an issue important to them and the people they represent. Regardless of who you meet with, they will bring up an issue, explain what they believe is the best course of action on the issue in a usually reasonably persuasive argument, and give you an opportunity to accept their advice. If you are meeting with a minister, you can call the entire cabinet to meeting and take the input of other ministers on the issue, possibly going with an alternative proposed by another minister instead. If you are meeting with a petitioner, you may ask the opinion of the single most relevant minister, but may not hold a full cabinet meeting on the issue unless you elect to instruct the minister to place the item on his or her agenda to address at a later time. This broadens your options, but you waste a turn by not taking action that week. Finally, you can request cabinet members resign or appoint new cabinet members as a free action, and review news excerpts and an almanac of quarterly statistics about the country, also as a free action.

If, one way or another, you can make it through four years in office without being voted out of office in an election, thrown out by the national assembly in a no-confidence vote, or, more likely, forced to resign in a coup d’etat, the game ends, and you might consider yourself to have “won” the game. Certainly, to simply maintain stability for that long is the most pressing goal for a new player. But there are other priorities as well, such as preparing for elections, and managing the future of the country. Even if you make it to the end of year four, are you really happy with your accomplishments? As you read an encyclopedia entry giving a historical perspective on your first four years in office, will you like what they had to say about you?

A full game of Hidden Agenda probably takes ten minutes to half an hour to play, depending on how thoroughly and carefully you read all the arguments presented to you by petitioners and your advisors. I have probably played Hidden Agenda about fifty times, and have explored the possibility space in it fairly comprehensively. Despite my attempts to treat the game like a puzzle to be solved, there is no “Golden Path”, or solution to the game that is clearly dominant. I can survive, easily; I can even swing the government far right or far left without losing my grip on power. But still, there is no one right way to solve the country’s problems. This is partially because there is no objective standard to pass judgment on the player’s performance with, and partially because the game is designed to make a comprehensive victory in all areas impossible, even by most subjective standards — you must weigh your own values against each other, and make choices.

From my meagre experience developing games, I can’t help but be impressed by Hidden Agenda. There are very few logical hiccups, despite the extremely open-ended storytelling — the game appears to have been tested pretty thoroughly. The quality of the writing and the limited black and white art and animation is high. The game has a noticeable bias toward the left, but other than the seemingly constant inability of right-wing ministers to acquit themselves rhetorically, and the general tone of the end-game descriptions of your accomplishments, it does not greatly affect the game, and in all cases the outcomes of your actions seemed generally believable under the given scenario. Ultimately, what’s most startling, however, is that Hidden Agenda, released in 1988, managed to do what game designers today still struggle with, though many still strive for it — it gives real moral choices to the player, choices that matter, and choices for which reasonable people may disagree on the best option. It’s also one of the best persuasive/serious games I’ve ever played, despite it predating the entire movement. For me, Hidden Agenda evokes an image of an alternate reality in which an entire evolving genre is modeled along the same lines of dynamic storytelling and strategic and moral depth.

Hidden Agenda is currently distributed by the game’s author, Jim Gasperini, as described at the web site of the Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction.

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I recently argued that permadeath should not be masochistic, and if it is, the designer is doing something wrong. But what makes permadeath masochistic? I mentioned bullet hell games as one type of game I find to be masochistic, but is that really an objective judgment, or does it just reflect my personal taste? And while I might find roguelikes to be enjoyable, are there not plenty of people that do find them to be masochistic? Is simply arguing that roguelikes do not require progress oversimplifying?

I was talking to a friend, and he was saying he disagreed with my post on permadeath. But after discussion, it wasn’t so much the argument that the mechanic itself is fundamentally frustrating, but that games that use it frustrate his goals in playing them. For example, in a roleplaying game, a lot of his enjoyment came from playing characters through a long arc of their development, watching them grow as you adjust and develop their skills and abilities until they eventually become overwhelmingly powerful. A roguelike’s permadeath is punishing to a player looking for this out of their game, and it becomes analogous to restarting a linear FPS from level one every time you get shot. In that sense, he argued, roguelikes are indeed masochistic for most RPG players.

He’s got a point. Nobody really likes gameplay that seems so painfully frustrating and unrewarding that it seems like someone would have to love pain and frustration to enjoy it. And that is subjective, because reasonable people may disagree on what is frustrating or rewarding. If a player is playing to explore the game world, a vast procedurally generated world with minimal barriers to travel and lots of rare things to discover would be wonderful, while a “permadeath” mechanic that wipes out the record of explored territory is likely to be frustrating more than anything. The right balance of features could make a game perfect for that player, and anywhere from dull to angering for another player.

It’s important to know your audience, but also your game, and what’s the core of the game. Is it the exploration? Is it developing the skills to defeat monsters in tactical combat? Is it the mechanics of lifting a poor character into a decent living? If you can identify the various “sweet spots” of your game, you can determine how best to focus the game around these, removing barriers to that enjoyment. A game about progressing through a series of hand-crafted challenges may have no use for permadeath, while a game that focuses on the accomplishments of the player as they learn to use their character and the random environment, you may find permadeath has a role.

Permadeath (and penalties in general) should not be implemented such that the player’s ability to enjoy the core game is frustrated, and it’s important to identify which gameplay styles will be frustrated by one, even if they aren’t the game’s targeted gameplay style. For example, if after you die in a roguelike, the entire monster table and item table are re-generated from scratch, and the classes, races, and spells are all scrambled, the game will appeal to a unique audience. Some will enjoy the game based on always learning about a strange new world and trying to learn the mechanics without dying, while others may be frustrated that the mechanics keep changing, preventing them from learning how to master the game. Realizing this may be crucial to understanding how to make the game work for the audience you want.

I still feel that permadeath should not be masochistic, because nobody really likes masochistic games… even if they do play bullet hell games that I think are insane. But I have to yield the guess that what’s happening is that they aren’t looking for the same kind of space shooter I am, and because I’m looking for something the game isn’t offering me until I master a skill through endless practice, I’m getting frustrated while they’re having fun because they’re enjoying learning those skills.

If you’re a designer and you’re finding your own game to feel masochistic, you’re still in serious trouble. But I admit, from a consumer perspective you may personally find a game to feel masochistic even if it’s a great game. It’s all about what you are looking to get out of it, and what the game is looking to give you.

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The first time I played Far Cry 2, I thought, “What a shame. This could have been a great game. But I just don’t like it very much.” After an hour or two of play — and a real effort to enjoy it — I put the game down, never to play again.

Thanks to a combination of the Far Cry 2 permadeath experiment and the blog of the game’s Creative Director, Clint Hocking, that would change. The better part of a year later, I started the game again, picked a new character, and this time, I played to completion. And I liked it. Visually, it’s amazing. There is no problem there. Mechanically, it’s fantastic. I do think those checkpoints on the roads are a serious mistake, and should have been removed or at least set to respawn only after 24 hours or more, but aside from that, the game was a lot of fun, and I hold tremendous respect for it. So why did I almost miss out on this gem?

One basic reason. Because I was so incredibly alienated from my own avatar. In a game that strived so much for immersion, this was absolutely devastating.

If the plot advances in a video game because my character does something stupid, immoral, or unjustified, I find myself disgusted and divorced from any investment I had in the character. I wrote about this problem with Prototype not long ago. Far Cry 2 has the same problem Prototype does in this regard, but it’s another order more severe. This is partially because Far Cry 2 is far more immersive, but it’s also because the alienating moments are more frequent and severe. I want to explain exactly what about Far Cry 2 was so alienating to me, but it will involve spoilers if you haven’t played the game, so be warned.

When you select a character in Far Cry 2, you’re tasked with choosing from one of various totally immoral characters that I could not identify with at all. Being unable to identify with these people was a strike against my immersion when playing as one of them. Still, I readily accepted the backstory that I was there to assassinate a notorious arms dealer, and I could understand why such a hard-bitten killer like myself would be the one chosen for this task.

The introduction grabbed me, and I was incensed (in character) that The Jackal found me and my orders when I was incapacitated with malaria. This was probably supposed to make me like him, but instead of liking the guy, I just thought “Bad idea, letting me go. He’ll get what’s coming to him.” When fighting broke out in the city, I grabbed a couple guns, jumped through the back window into an alley, and fled town. Unfortunately, I collapsed, still sick with malaria, and was captured by one of the two factions and forced to work. Oddly enough, the guy was mad because he imagined that I’d shot a bunch of his boys back in town during my escape, even though I didn’t fire a shot. Once this tutorial mission string was over, I went into town and did a mission for the underground, for much-needed malaria medicine.

Initially, when I met the journalist in Mike’s Bar, I started to form a plan. “Aha, this guy has interviewed The Jackal. Maybe if I work with him, I’ll be able to get closer to finding my target.” This relatively sane strategy was not within the range of creative thought available to my thuggish avatar, however.

According to my journal, the only way to get to The Jackal was through acting as a hired killer for the bloodthirsty factions. So, I figured, I’d take sides with the UFLL. I would do so reluctantly, of course; I knew nothing about these factions, but at least the UFLL had propaganda superiority and thus were likely to have greater popular support. Plus, the APR boss seemed a bit slimy. My strategy was that I would fight with them until they trusted me enough to give me information I could use in my mission.

Alas, this back-up plan was boxed when my avatar decided that was not within his temperament. Rather than follow my own idea of an at least partially sane strategy, I was degraded to acting as a complete mercenary, forced to play both sides when missions on one side dried up, befriend self-centered psychopaths who kept encouraging me to be even more murderous, and generally kill people left and right for blood diamonds.

By this point, I’d given up on playing Far Cry 2 with my first attempt. I just couldn’t get invested in a game that was about being a stupid psychopath thug. I mean, I’d played GTA III: San Andreas and GTA IV, and those had similar problems, but at least I could follow the reasoning of those characters. CJ and Nico were missing a few brain cells and had a severe deficiency in their respect for human life, but they had personal systems of morality and ethics, that while not my own, could at least be made sense of. In fact, those Grand Theft Auto games told compelling stories about people sinking deep into criminal behavior due to a combination of poor judgment and poor circumstances. These games had take-aways; I’ve written an academic essay defending GTA III: San Andreas to a ethnic studies professor.

But in Far Cry 2, I was playing a brute chosen from a lineup of nasties, and I appeared to have no moral fiber whatsoever. My character wasn’t acting out of personal indigence or a sense of vengeance, I wasn’t defending my cousin or sister or family or gang, I didn’t even need to do these things to eat — in Far Cry 2, I was playing a soulless butcher whose only motivation appeared to be his next blood diamond. Rockstar makes their leads human and sympathetic, even in the most controversial games; but Far Cry 2 seemingly didn’t even try.

I play games for escapism, for entertainment. Being made to feel like such a monster doesn’t fall under this category; it isn’t my idea of a good time; this moral tone for the game is so thoroughly alienating that I actually stopped playing. And I missed how much Far Cry 2 did right, because I was slammed to the floor under the extent to which it did this one thing so incredibly wrong.

Eventually, I did come back. I came back to the game because I read about all the things Far Cry 2 did right. I wanted to experience these things, to analyze them, to enjoy them, to embrace the fun in the game. I managed all these things, but unfortunately, the problems didn’t stop there.

So. Moving on in the game, I came to a point where the only mission left was a task from the APR to assassinate the leader of the UFLL in this part of the country. I normally wouldn’t touch this mission with a ten-foot pole, especially as I didn’t like the APR boss nearly as much as I liked the UFLL boss, but my thick-skulled avatar thought it was a good idea, so who am I to override such a plot-advancing decision? I figured I wouldn’t kill him quickly; I’d walk in and wait for him to give me a counter-offer. I did this exactly. The UFLL boss figured out I was there to kill him, had his hands in the air, cursed the APR boss, and did nothing to try to save his life except stand there and then, some five or ten awkward seconds later, decide to pull a submachine gun on me and shoot me. Which got him killed. And at that, I was betrayed by the APR and left for dead while doing a mission I wouldn’t have accepted in the first place. At least the game let me try to defend a church of innocents instead of trying to save those psychos at Mike’s Bar; as I imagined my silent protagonist telling the Catholic priest, I’m not a good person, I’m just a very bad person who fears for his soul.

Life continued in this vein. I was promptly forced to take a mission trying to aggravate and prolong the conflict by starting a battle in the middle of the capital city; not that I actually wanted to do such a horrible thing. The one doctor left in the entire country praised me as a good person for warning him about what I had just did, even though my warning came about two seconds before he was about to find out for himself. I was certain he was missing a few brain cogs when he made that judgment, especially since he knew full well this was my fault in the first place. Not that I was complaining; I needed to be in his good graces to get my malaria medicine, which remained one of the only motivations about my character that I actually understood.

Eventually, I had the opportunity to make peace between the factions, and my best buddy among the psychopaths that I called my friends here in this country advised me to betray the mission, steal a mess of diamonds from the factions, and use them to bribe a pilot and escape the country with the others. I was a bit confused here; if all we needed was a mess of diamonds to get out, then what about that hundred diamonds I had kicking about not so long ago? Why couldn’t we get out then? I am one hundred percent certain that was enough rough diamonds to get us all out on that plane. But whatever; the diamonds were a macguffin, and I had to concede that. Though characters in the game lectured me that the peace would only bring more rape and pillage of the civilian population, I decided that they were doing plenty enough rape and pillage already, and shutting down the bloodbath aspect of the situation could only be an improvement.

I didn’t even have the opportunity to walk into this betrayal willingly though; the choice was taken away from me by a cut scene when I picked up the diamonds, and I ended up in prison, where my buddy lectured my silent protagonist about not keeping to what he promised to do. Silent being the key word here. Well, since my character apparently promised his buddy to get the diamonds to them, and my journal says quite surely that I intended to go with his plan, I concede that this was what my character wanted. But, because my character is silent, he was summarily unable to profess innocence and explain that he was ambushed in a cut scene, even after demonstrating good faith by busting this guy out of prison.

And when, in time, the opportunity finally came up to put a bullet in the head of The Jackal, the one that I took my entire motivation in the game to be to kill, the game inexplicably took away my weapons, similar to when I’ve been searched at the door of a faction office. My only option was to have a chat with the guy and make a deal, betraying my allies and killing them as they tried to escape the country when I would just as soon have shot the guy I was dealing with and taken off with them. I mean, what was my character even thinking, trying to work with this madman on some grand exodus? Has he gone as far off the deep end as the guy he’s trying to assassinate? Maybe the guy’s had a change of heart, but screw that, and besides, my malaria was so bad at this point that I was afraid I could die if I didn’t leave this hell-hole and get some real medical treatment! What a grand absurdity that the very end of the game is the moment when my character decides to start acting with moral conviction, only for that to be the one moment when I finally want him to just solve his problems with a bullet and leave, because I want him to do what he came to do.

What kills me most about this ending to the game is that they could have easily implemented my chosen ending without compromising gameplay. This is literally the bleeding end of the game. Shooting The Jackal and using the diamonds to leave with the other mercenaries wouldn’t cheat the player out of any but maybe ten or twenty minutes of gameplay. So why couldn’t I do that?

While the term “role-playing game” normally refers to a specific genre, almost all modern games with any kind of preset narrative have some form of role-playing implicit in the play of the game. The fact that this happens is important to consider when making games, especially when making games with an imposed narrative, because what the player character does in the story can either reinforce the player’s sense of identity with their avatar, or jar them out of the game. If the player doesn’t like their own character, they will have trouble liking the game. Rockstar gets it: they may make a game like Bully or GTA, but they are careful to make the protagonist sympathetic and likable, with clear and understandable motivations. You can’t just be someone inexplicably messed up and murderous, not if you want a broad audience anyway. Games with black and white morality scales regularly see the majority of players going for the heroic side. And even movies require likable protagonists. Ignore this at your peril.

Of Far Cry 2, in the end, I liked it. There was a lot to like in that game, once I managed to tolerate my dislike of my own character. But I have to wonder; did the developers think about this kind of thing when they came up with the story? Was it something they even considered? Am I simply not the target audience for the game? Or were they going for a deeper, more cinematic and moving effect, that merely misfired or went over my head?

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I’ve been reading a lot about permadeath over the last couple weeks, from various blog posts and discussions. The discussion of the feature has been percolating in the blogs I’ve been following for over a month; in particular, Andrew Doull wrote about it here in an article that showed up on Gamasutra two weeks later. The comments there were an interesting contrast to those following the blog, as they represent a more mainstream audience; Andrew Doull is a roguelike developer, so his audience (myself included) skews toward favorable views of permadeath. One of the comments on the Gamasutra article, by Aaron Knafla, caught my eye:

The method of game design outlined here is known (now and forever) as “cult” or “indie” gaming. There’s a very good reason for that; most people are not masochists.

There’s more to the comment too; I just excerpted the part that struck me and is relevant here. While I’m not sure what precisely in Andrew Doull’s article invited this particular comment, I suspect it may have a lot to do with the mention of Dwarf Fortress’s striking philosophy that “Losing is Fun” — a seemingly masochistic assertion that is displayed as a reminder every time you start a new game. Regardless, it got me thinking about the sentiment that permadeath is an inherently masochistic mechanic. I think this is an idea that comes out of a simplistic understanding of what permadeath is, and more importantly, how it’s used.

Mechanically, permadeath is some failure state in which all material, mechanical gains the player has acquired over the course of play are lost, and the internal game state (aside from score boards) is reset. Another way to put it is that permadeath represents complete failure; you lose the game. You can try again, but that’s it, you lost. Standard death in a game, which may display a “you lose” screen but allow restoring a saved game, is always just veiled partial failure.

Many games have this mechanical permadeath, though it’s less common than it used to be. Arcade-style multi-level shooters, brawlers, and platformers may have a lives and continues system even today, in which you have several chances to make mistakes for partial failure before you’re judged to have totally lost the game. My own Politician Paul, as a steeply difficult single-level shooter, has this total failure implicitly; every time you die, you start again from the beginning, with no legacy benefits from your last play. There’s nothing crazy or hardcore about this; at the extreme, a game like Politician Paul is only a few minutes long from beginning to end, so complete failure in that game is no more repetitious or lossy than partial failure in longer games.

But permadeath usually refers to larger losses than just restarting the sole level in the game; it means dropping back to level one from level four, losing your hard-earned equipment, and reverting material gains made only after hours of play, thereby creating a sort of treadmill in which it becomes very difficult to ascend the “ladder” of material progression in the game.

If the game has a linear story or mission structure, this can easily be the death of the game as a source of entertainment. In the movie Groundhog Day (see Jonathan Morin’s talk on predictability in games, discussed last post), Phil Connors is fairly quickly driven to repeated suicide to attempt to get out of the endless cycle of the same repeating day. Instead of suicide, Players will just turn the game off in utter frustration — a sort of complete failure for the designer. If you have permadeath in this kind of game, this is where seeming masochism comes into play.

But Roguelikes, which seem to be the nerdy poster child for permadeath, don’t have this kind of linear story or mission structure. They do have dungeon levels, but it’s so quick to get to the next dungeon level that this is an insignificant loss. The actual loss is in the accumulated experience and gear — loss of power, as opposed to losing your place in a content progression. For these games, the enjoyment in the game is primarily from the strategic and tactical play emerging from the game itself, rather than from consumable one-shot content that forces the player to progress if they wish to continue to be entertained. Power is gratifying and motivates play, but is unnecessary to enjoy it. Left4Dead single player, for example, could tolerate permadeath, because its level progression is rewarding but not absolutely necessary; Half-Life 2 single player could not.

For some people, it’s probably too much trouble to worry about permadeath. There are successful models for games with very light death penalties, and the alternative of trying permadeath is fraught with danger, without guaranteed benefits, so why worry about a risky idea like permadeath? If your only goal is to advance your games as a business, I can understand that. For me though, that seems like denying yourself knowledge, and limiting your understanding of games and therefore you ability to synthesize new designs that go beyond parroting existing conventions.

While Dwarf Fortress’s “Losing is Fun” may sound like a mantra of masochism, it’s really more of a recognition of the fact that through massive and proficient use of emergent gameplay and procedural and user-generated content, Dwarf Fortress is actually still fun even when you lose, to such an extent that losing becomes part of the play experience and the game’s emergent narrative. There are no doubt some masterful design ideas that you can learn from something like this, as that’s something most commercial games can only dream of accomplishing; how much are you missing as a designer if you write it off as a cultish, minority interest?

Unless you’re trying to make something akin to a bullet hell game based on exacting mastery of specific patterns, any usage of permadeath should not feel masochistic. If it does, there’s something wrong.

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Politician Paul

My first game done for school at DigiPen, Politician Paul, was a top-down space shooter with a single level and a sharp difficulty curve. The game is set in the far future in which politics has become such a spectator sport, and the public so disinterested and disgusted with it, that it has degenerated into violent one-day space battles between candidates. You play a home-town hero, Politician Paul, who has to prove to the public that you have what it takes to replace the ruthless and corrupt Senator Radcliffe, by defeating him in live ship-to-ship combat.

This story of a political analogy for the space shooter combat was not just padding fluff around the game; it informed the game’s unusual mechanics. As with a real political campaign, your basic goal early in the level is to budget your primary resource (money) to the greatest effect and earn as much popularity as possible, in order to build momentum. Money was required to heal your ship and to fire any of various secondary weapons. Popularity was earned by hitting enemy ships and avoiding damage yourself. Your popularity level determined your passive income; you would bring in more money per second in donations when you had more of it, which in turn means you’re able to heal more and fire better weapons more often.

This created a very strong positive feedback loop early in the short game. If you are merely surviving, and not getting kills or barely hanging on, the viewers back home aren’t impressed, donations dry up, and you quickly find yourself unable to heal or fire anything other than your primary weapon. On the other hand, if you destroy enemies swiftly and without sweat, viewers are swayed to your side, and you will quickly find yourself flush with resources to take on the next challenge.

In addition to this basic mechanic of forcing consistent basic competency, special rewards were made available for adhering your play to styles that special interest groups respected. The ammo conservation league supported more accuracy with your primary weapon. The technology companies supported you for showcasing and relying upon their extravagant and expensive secondary weapons. And the green space society rewarded you for keeping your health maximized, so as to not pollute space with your smoking (and particle effect spewing) ship. As these groups liked you more, the three power-ups you could pick up from stronger enemies would be upgraded: accuracy let you upgrade your primary weapon further; health let you upgrade your armor further; and special weapon usage gave you bigger lump sum cash infusions.

Mastering the game meant you had to play repeatedly to refine your skills to the point where you could balance the graceful play required for popularity with the skills expected of the special interest groups, while taking on increasingly intense waves of enemies. Only once you mastered the art of maximizing popularity while balancing your play to all these interests could you survive long enough and build your strength to a sufficient degree that you could fight Senator Radcliffe’s boss ship and win the game.

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Back in spring of this year, I was taking a class on 3D level design that focused its practical work on building a series of levels for Half-Life 2. Our final project was to have the entire class make a campaign of individual levels, with students being divided into teams of three or so people, each team assigned a different level in the campaign. My team was assigned the final level, in which all weapons and enemies were available, and the pumped, final conflict was to take place. It could have been the most exciting level, or easily the most catastrophic failure.

We decided to implement it as a sort of “last stand” level, in which you and many allies would mount a defense of a street intersection against wave after wave of mixed enemy attackers, culminating in an attack of overwhelming force which would segway into the closing cinematic. Hanspeter Ziegler designed the street and building layout such that we had multiple enterable buildings with internal rooms, stairs, and windows to shoot out of, and I set up the positions of friendlies and enemies, laid down the AI node graph, and set up the attack patterns that would let enemy troops sweep from building to building.

Our team worked early, hard, and with intent. We cared about what we were doing and we wanted it to be fun. I spent many hours playing our level, finding bugs in pathfinding or odd geometry, areas of the flow of battle that could be improved. Despite the instructor being concerned if we had too much ahead of us, we kept to schedule and had time to refine the balance, optimize for performance, and add elements of polish.

In the end, we had a level that was a lot of fun. It was open-ended — you had hard points, medics, and weapon caches distributed throughout the level in different buildings, and waves of enemies that could be dealt with using a wide variety of strategies and weapons. Your actions would determine whether NPC allies survived or fell.

I remember mentioning to the instructor that I was really happy with how our level was turning out. I even liked it more than playing the base game of Half-Life 2. She suggested part of that might be pride; I disagreed, because I already knew what it was. Half-Life is an extremely linear, refined game. Our level was an open-ended, arena style level, where every play was new, and you used tactical strategy to learn the terrain and experiment with strategies.

Just today I was watching Jonathan Morin’s talk about predictability in games and how to avoid pre-conceived experiences in game design. He showed a clip from Groundhog Day — a great movie, but the clip showed Phil Conners bored out of his mind as he recited events before they occurred and robbed an armored car without risk of failure, because he knew the exact moments people would turn away and knew his efforts would succeed. Jonathan Morin then talked about the problem of games being just like this with repeated plays — too predictable after the player goes through the same sequence again and again. This sentence resonated very strongly with me:

[Game designers] want to control what the player does, we want to control when he’s going to do it, we want to control why he’s going to do it, how he’s going to do it, and what he is going to feel when he’s doing it.

It was an extremely well-chosen video clip that really captured the problem with highly linear game structures, and that incisive concern seemed to capture at least my personal impression of some of the highly polished, highly refined linear levels such as are found in Half-Life 2. A specific experience, a specific difficulty, a specific set of challenges. This experience might be calibrated to be incredible, but it’s still only one experience. I like these levels… once. And that’s if the designer did a good job. But I prefer a level that lets me play with strategies and tactics, that lets me experiment and decide how I want to play.

Our Half-Life 2 map let you choose if you wanted to snipe from rooftops, shoot from the fire escape on the third floor into the street below, or fight in close quarters to hold a stairwell in a storefront shop with three friendly NPCs and a medic. If one tactic wasn’t working, you could try another. If you ran out of ammo for one weapon, you could switch to a different tactic, or sprint across the street to the hard point across the way and try to hold that one. Our level encouraged intentional, strategic, and improvisational gameplay that changed with every play through.

As a player, I find those experiences more fun the first time, and far more replayable in successive times. As a designer, I find levels and mechanics that create these experiences to be more challenging to create, but far more satisfying.

Jonathan Morin was the lead level designer on Far Cry 2, a game I’m currently playing, and one that epitomizes the kind of dynamic, player-driven gameplay I’ve described here. His blog is the Game Design Cave.

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