Archive for the ‘Permadeath’ Category

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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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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