Designing Failure: The value of losing

The value of failure in game design is a subject that has always interested me.  Harsh failure conditions are regarded very negatively by many modern players and designers, and are often crushed during feedback sessions and quickly removed from games.  But I see so much value in the possibility of losing that I sometimes have a very hard time getting on board with smoothing out that experience.  Failure is something incredibly important for learning, and the possibility of losing has unimaginable value in increasing the tension and investment of the entire experience, especially when you're on the brink of defeat and are desperately trying to scrape by.  When you can't fail, everything matters less.

I think games have a very unique capacity to teach young gamers how to accept and overcome failure for all of the value of learning from it.  Games are uniquely positioned to offer that intense satisfaction that only comes from earning something through hardship.  So no, I don't accept that failure should be understated or removed entirely.  I demand failure as a possibility.  That being said, I think there's a lot more to designing loss conditions elegantly than is often appreciated, so that's what I want to spend time talking about here.

This is the first post in a small series of posts on aspects of failure within game design.  This one will focus on why I place so much value in emphasizing moments of defeat.


Death Penalties

Death Penalties are one of the clearest places to start this discussion, because they are one of the most direct representations of a design based on failing.

Let me pose a scenario.

You're playing an online adventure game.  It's world is large, and you explore it with your friends, finding new things daily.  You come upon a tomb, and delve into it, fighting tough creatures to clear your way towards the bottom.  After doing this for a while, you come on a dark shaft, dropping away below.  You can't see the bottom, you don't know how far the drop is, and no one you're playing with has ever been here before.  You discuss it with your friends, and the lure is inescapable, you have to know what's at the bottom, so you decide to all jump down together at the same time.

You all leap.

You fall through the darkness and slam into the hard floor below.  It hurts, but you all recover and begin to scan the room, looking for threats.  Something leaps out from the darkness and attacks you.  None of you can get a handle on the situation, and you fall one by one rapidly, until all of you are dead.  When you die in this game, you lose several of the things you were carrying.  You all gather back at the graveyard you were all brought back to life at, and you take a moment to catch your breath.  Most of you didn't lose anything you can't do without, but one of your friends lost one of her favorite weapons.  You discuss it for a bit, and then you all decide to go back down and see if you can recover your things and try to find an escape.  You fight your way through the tomb again, reach the top of the shaft, and linger in the edge, nervous.  You do what you can to better prepare for the fight this time, and jump down together.

Most of you die even faster this time.  One of you manages to recover a few things and escape into a side shaft, but gets chased down and dies shortly after.  And you all lose more of your valuables.

Back at the graveyard again, you feel devastated.  One of your friends in a defeated tone says he's going to leave for the night.  The rest of you all agree that this challenge is beyond you.  You never defeat that creature in the dark.  You never recover the items you lost.

One could easily argue that a death penalty that harsh isn't worth it.  That players will quit in frustration.  That it's critical that it be made more approachable or this game will fail.

I'd argue that this experience has an incredible amount of value.  It means that every time you approach a precipice and gaze down into the dark, you'll hesitate, unsure of what's below.  It means that when you open a mysterious door you've never seen before, the possibilities of fortune and defeat will dance around in your head.  It means that when you look upon a big pack of enemies, the tension will rise, and you'll have to gather yourself emotionally for the fight.  It means you take threats seriously.  It means that you will share potent memories with your friends of challenges you overcame together, and of those times when everything went wrong.

A good death penalty makes you care about everything you do, and invests you more in the entire experience.  When you pair up a good death penalty with a challenging game, and then provide avenues for the player to become better both in personal skill and game power so they can work towards overcoming those challenges, then you have something magic.  And even more so when it's a social experience with friends who are all similarly invested.

That very same game with an incredibly forgiving death penalty would result in players jumping into pits recklessly and rushing into every challenge headlong, with no more than a reset or two holding them back from victory.  They would consume content at a much higher pace, and they'd remember very little of it to the same degree.  Their experiences would be more transient, and they may well just get bored after a time and leave.

Player vs. player combat in that same game could reap all the same benefits.  If enemy players were able to take some of their items when they defeated you, you'd linger on the edge of your seat for every single skirmish.  You'd make every desperate effort to escape when you were sure to lose.  You'd fight for your life against overwhelming odds.  No matter how suddenly you were surprised, no matter how much of a disadvantage you had, you'd fight for your life every time.

Sometimes you'd suffer devastating defeats, and leave for the night crushed.  Other times in desperation you'd overcome odds you never thought you'd be able to, and you'd reap amazing rewards for your efforts.  You'd brag eagerly about it to your friends, and you'd remember it fondly years later, when you weren't even playing that game anymore.

Don't underestimate the value of making failure clear, it may be a trade-off against approachability, but it can do fantastic things for a game.


[My thoughts and opinions are my own.  They are not those of Blizzard Entertainment, and they do not necessarily represent Blizzard design philosophies.]