Designing Failure: Loss with less frustration

This is the second in a small series of posts focusing on failure in game design.  The first post focused on why I consider the prospect of losing to be a very valuable thing for a game, even in situations where losing is painful and extreme.  As much as I like those designs even in their harsher forms, this time I want to talk about some designs that have less potential to feel so unpleasant.

Some games make failure less painful by simply making the loss less extreme. I have little love for that, because it takes much of the value away as well.  A fair choice if that is the priority for your game, but definitely not what I'm going for in this discussion.

Some games make failure a little less painful by focusing on the positive after death. Score screens.  Playbacks.  I think that works, but it only helps in small amounts.  More of a band-aid than a fleshed out part of the design.

Instead, let's talk about a couple of designs that include failure thoroughly, but manage to mask the frustration strongly in the process.

Following Loss with Excitement

Following loss with something positive is something that many games try.  A few rare types of games take this a step further though, and fully design their game flow around the idea of having some of the most potent highs play out right after losing.  When accomplished well, this has the potential to let the failure still be an extreme motivator, but eliminate that potent frustrating quitting point at the same time.

Some of the best games for illustrating this are Roguelikes, so lets approach it from there.

The term Roguelike carries a variety of meanings to different gamers.  The part that matters for the sake of what we're talking about here is that many of them include permanent death, the harshest of death penalties, but present it in such a way that you are driven to keep trying repeatedly through randomly-generated levels.  Many also include some kind of over-arching progression that lasts outside any character's individual death.  An outstanding example that I'd recommend is FTL, if you haven't already played it.

Title Screen from Rogue Legacy

Title Screen from Rogue Legacy

For this, I'd like to focus on a game called Rogue Legacy.  Don't worry if you haven't played it, I'll walk you through the important details.  In Rogue Legacy, you explore a side-scrolling fantasy castle with all kinds of baddies, finding items and leveling up to face harder and harder challenges.  When you inevitably die to one of the many nasty creatures within, your character's accomplishments are briefly celebrated, and you are given the chance to choose out of 3 descendants of that character, each with quirky random traits like dwarfism, giantism, playing upside down, uncontrollable flatulence, etc.  Over time, you unlock special perks and items for your new characters that can give them ever increasing chances of success.  In truth, most of your advances in power come more from your personal learning of how to face certain monsters and bosses; the items and perks are just icing on your player-skill cake.

The brilliance of many roguelikes that I greatly appreciate is in taking something that would normally be very punishing and frustrating, permanent death, and making it a comfortable norm.  Many players will likely die within the first or second room the first time they play Rogue Legacy, setting a clear baseline expectation that you're going to earn every inch in this game.  That may scare some players away, but it certainly doesn't send mixed messages.  Offsetting that, the very next thing you do is choose a new quirky descendant, which piques curiosity about starting again.  And then you're caught in the loop.

These games get away with harsh failure conditions partly by making the first moments of a new character some of the most potently exciting moments of the game.  It's fun to pick your new character with their new random quirks.  It's fun to kill those first few creatures that you've already mastered, celebrating the skill you earned from previous play.  It's fun exploring the first few rooms, where you will likely find your first item or two that are going to define a different experience for this playthrough.  By making the beginning of a new character's experience particularly exciting, the moments when you'd normally be very frustrated that you had just died are replaced with excitement to jump into a new character.  Through this, Rogue Legacy takes the sting away from the heavy penalty of permanently dying, creating an experience that is immersive, tense, but still not overly frustrating.  That mix is powerful, and I think there's a lot that can be learned from it.

In a similar sense, many of these types of games also reward you with big new unlocks directly after that moment of death, typically based on how well you did during that life.  New potential for the next game if you choose to start again.  The best possible moment to get you interested in a new element that has been introduced to the play.

If you step back and look to other genres that are already on the brink of having their first moments be the most thrilling ones, particularly ones that leverage simple and exciting initial gamepaly customization choices, there's untapped potential there that I'm interested to see more games delve into, even if they don't take on ALL of the tenants of a Roguelike in the process.  In a way, this is embracing a style of rapid life and death that was common in early arcade games, while simply focusing on crafting a rush of excitement at the beginning of an experience.  Combining old with new.

That being said, this is a potentially very confining design space for a game, depending on what you're going for, so I want to touch on another entirely different angle that can hit some similar goals.

Levels of Success

Approaching things from the opposite direction for similar results, it can also work really well to craft a situation that is challenging, and then identify the thresholds of success the player can find along the way to accomplishing it, even if they don't succeed in the idealized end-goal you put before them.

I crafted something in this vein with the Troves of the Thunder King scenario in WoW (working with another amazing designer, @nite_moogle), so I'll use that as an example since it's very familiar to me.  On the Isle of Thunder, as you adventured through other content, you could loot a key that allowed you to make a single run at a special solo challenge.  In that run, you'd be on a timer to navigate traps and threatening patrols and open as many treasure chests as you possibly could.  The deeper you were able to delve, the more rewarding it was, with some bonus rewards if you were able to entirely reach the end before the timer expired.  For most players, even getting half-way through it wasn't a reasonable possibility without repeated practice, and there were no guarantees about how much you would be able to yield from it, as chest locations were mildly randomized.  With not reaching the end being the common case for many, 'failure' was a very strong possibility.  On the other hand, to ensure this always ended on a high note, depending on how well you did on your run when the timer expired, you would be rewarded with a number of slot-machine pulls on special treasure chests in a safe room after it finished.

The end result was an experience that was tense and challenging, but that still rewarded many levels of success and seeded you with the desire to come back and strive for better next time.  This leveraged some of the value of failure from things like falling short of the timer or not hitting your personal goals, but did it in a way that kept the focus entirely off of the string of the failure itself, particularly by capping the experience with a reap-the-rewards moment.  While I don't think it carries the same levels of tension that the possibilities of hard failure do, I do think that it taps into some of that value with very few of the downsides.  Certainly a more complementary design for a game that is favoring approachability.

Isle of Thunder from World of Warcraft

Isle of Thunder from World of Warcraft

These serving as a a couple methods of incorporating failure into a design without being overly harsh, I do think there's one even more interesting step past this towards embracing failure entirely.  I'll be talking about that in my 3rd and final post on failure very soon.

If you have any thoughts on these subjects, whether you agree or think I'm way off base, please chime in.  I love talking about this stuff, and I'd love to hear your opinions.


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