The Death Of Losing

Since a few years now there have been a wave of released games that are known to be hard but fair. My preferred ones are Dark Souls, Demon Soul, VVVVVV, Super Hexagon. These are hard games but they are built in a way that makes dying being part of the game mechanics. It’s not the end of the game. It’s not loosing. But it took me a while to be able to formulate it this way. Before I could say that in these games death is part of the game mechanics and death is fair, because you can see that there is a solution to the problem at hand but you just didn’t manage to use that solution. Or maybe you did and it was not good enough but trying did give you information about how to solve the problem. Part of these games are based on pure skill, but frankly skill (I mean, dexterity mixed with coordination and speed of fingers) is required only if you try the advanced “modes” or optional harder parts of these games.However, all I was saying at the time was only the visible trut, the facade hiding a more fundamental truth that made these games truly important to a lot of people.

It only occurred to me recently, after a lot of deep thinking that I will expand on, that these games just made loosing a non-activity.
They killed loosing. In all these games, loosing is exactly not playing. They are fair and well designed in a way that make playing generating learning, so if you are persevering you will keep learning until you abandon or get to the (or one of the) end of these games. To stop learning you have to stop playing. To definitely stop playing means you lose, and real death has come. Because in the end, you still can retry without loosing everything.

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The mix of fairness, clarity of information provided by the game about what is happening, forces the player to be totally focused to the task at hand, thus forcing the game to learn, simply because the game did all he could to put the player in front of the data she have to decipher. Added to the possibility to come back quickly to the point of death, the player can only learn. Learning to learn is one of the major skill that most (good) video games tends to grow in players. Once learning and fairness are in a game, the missing ingredient is to make the player focus on what he is doing. In D.Soul games, there is no pause. Dying (in the sense of the game) is easy but just make you jump physically a bit backward, so you just have to get back there with your learning of how to get there. However the fact that there is no pause imply that it is not a good idea to answer the phone while playing. Or even talking to someone else. You have to focus. Super Hexagon does it in another way: the constant flow of walls is just fast enough to make your instinct understand what is happening but not allowing you to have your eyes somewhere else than on the screen. In these games, when you begin to play, you have to focus until death or you stop playing.

Once all these ingredients are in a game, it can look difficult compared to most commercial games out there. They are easier because they don’t demand you to focus or to think (most of the time), they give you hints all the time, explain you things. A lot of people think that the recent wave of hard but fair games is just a retro-gaming thing: in game history, the early game designs were mostly inspired by arcade games where death loosing (money and time). You could easily loose without learning anything. One good counter example was MegaMan which is known to be incredibly hard but fair.

But Mega Man was actually an exception. Most games made loosing a non-learning process, a punishing event which only made you feel bad. That was what old games were about. Don’t die. Be perfect.

However, the recent hard-but-fair games feels, to someone strongly educated in game design history, totally different. It was hard until now to point exactly the difference. As in these games dying is just the game telling you you’re doing it wrong and showing you all data necessary to understand why and why to try next, they don’t feel at all punishing. These games are incredible learning-to-learn teachers. They are not punishing. Well they can be if you repeatedly die without learning, which can happen if you are hasty or if you don’t even try to understand what is happening exactly. The clues are always there so the fault is on the player, not the game. I think this is very hard to make in a game, but I lack experience on this. Here is a good expansion of what I think from Extra Credits guys:

Recently I also watched this presentation from Mark Cerny in 2011. It don’t look important at first but I think he nailed it, with history data.

Also, in the last years I’ve been thinking a lot about education in general. There have been a lot of recent talk about this subject, in particular pointing to the fact that the classic school systems are built to make people either hit or miss their education, structured using a uniform batch model like if schools were factories, taking people as input, producing new people with specific base knowledge at a specific pace, putting defects that couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the rhythm aside. From today’s perspective this system is really awkward. Learning is a personal process. People used to live with internet in mind do know that peer learning is the best way to learn. There are a lot of things that could be made better in education in general. But I digress. One important thing I noticed is that one fundamental problem in classic education systems is how grades are used or more importantly perceived. Having a bad grade means you are not good at it. But do you have time to learn to be good at it? With a steady pace, it’s actually incredibly hard. It also prevent learning to learn, where school should be the place where you learn to learn, not the internet or video games. There is now a lot of experimental schools which change things (which you can read about in Reality Is Broken). One of the fundamental thing they changed is that a grade is just an indication of how you’re doing now in the domain. It’s the initial meaning of grades, but the classic education system ( or maybe only most teachers) turned it into a meaning of failure defining what you can or cannot do. It’s, I believe, the main reason why Math is often considered by non-scientists like something you have to like to bear with. Now, if you restructure how school work around a progression which is not steady but turn around a more learn-to-learn approach, suddenly students feel empowered and take grades as feedback, as it should be.

It’s exactly the same things in the hard-but-fair: failure is a feedback, nothing prevent you from learning from it. Failure is not death. You should persevere. In these games, they are not putting you back to the beginning of the game when you failed (Super Hexagon does but from beginning to end of a game mode there is exactly 60 seconds…so it’s not getting far back). You don’t have a limit of failures count after which you are considered a looser by the game. The game is just waiting for you to understand what he shows you.

Why did I took the time to think so hard about all these things? Because of NetRush.

NetRush can be categorized as a Real Time Strategy game, but it have actually more dimensions to it. Also I think it will not easily look like a RTS.
In these kind of games, most of the time you have a setup, a “map”, which define both the limits of a game session and the topology you have to work with. If you die, you have to retry everything or load a saved game from few minutes ago. Unfortunately, both the world setting and game mechanics of NetRush don’t fit well in this model.

One possibility I’m thinking about is to make the full game “world” somewhat persistent. I don’t mean persistent in the same way than a MMO, that would be foolish (or maybe not). What I mean is: what if when I go into a place in the game, there is a challenge, and when I “die” – in NetRush dying is just being disconnected from the Zone you are in- when I die I just am ejected into a safe place from where I can get back to where I went and die, but in exchange I get there like I went the first time. The game would save constantly the state of game sessions, and dying would not mean that things are reset.

Actually, this is fuzzy. What I am wondering is how to manage “dying”, saved games and loading past games. NetRush is oriented to be a multi-player game but it still need solo content to be there for learning the game concepts progressively. As there is no real rule in game design (or in creative activities in general) I’m looking for a way to design death and rebirth so that it both match the game setting and the game mechanics.
I want to make death a feedback. But it’s hard in these kind of games.

The epiphany of “failure is not loosing” now helps me consider tons of non-classic ways to design a die-and-rebirth process for NetRush. Hopefully, I will manage to find a death mechanic interesting and appropriate in the coming month. I don’t need to decide now, so I take the time to think a lot about this.

With luck and inspiration, I might find a crazy-cool way to handle this.