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Is Punishing Game Play More Fun?

I learned of a fascinating video put together by Shamus Young called Reset Button: Most Innovative Game of 2008.

Young talks about how the game industry evolved without leaving a way for new gamers to easily join in the fun. While there is no inherent problem with having complex games, the learning curve got very steep for new people. If you’ve been playing games forever, you’re used to punitive game mechanics and adapted to difficult control schemes. If you haven’t, then an Xbox 360 controller might as well be the controls of a 747.

Young claims that the latest Prince of Persia (which I haven’t played) is exactly what new gamers need: a game that’s forgiving. Corvus Elrod wrote about the forgiving nature of casual games, and since I believe that any game can be made casual by making it more accessible, it seems we’re all in agreement.

But Young asks a question: does making a game more punitive make victory more fun? That is, if a game is too forgiving, does it detract from the fun? Could Prince of Persia have been more fun if it forced you to replay entire levels whenever you failed, the way most games do? Is there more satisfaction gained from success because you know you avoided punishment?

I’ve been playing Advance Wars: Dual Strike a lot recently. Completing missions has been pretty easy, in the sense that I rarely failed to do so. I was still having fun, but part of me wondered if I was going to get bored before I finished the game. Then I came across a mission that was fought on two fronts, and not only did you have to defeat all of the enemy’s forces, but now you had to do so in 18 game days. I played that mission multiple times, trying different strategies, until I finally won, and barely. There was something much more satisfying about overcoming a tough challenge in this mission than in bumbling through the previous missions.

I suppose part of the satisfaction came from a sense of improvement. In the previous missions, I might have thought I was doing poorly, but then I somehow pulled off a victory. When I lost a mission, however, I had to replay it, and I could see how playing differently changed the outcome. I learned what did and didn’t work, and learning is fun. In this sense, the fact that failure required replaying a mission seems to have enhanced the feeling of fun when I succeeded.

On the other hand, what if Dual Strike forced me to replay the entire game after losing a mission? It would be analogous to games like Super Mario Bros, in which you had a limited number of lives or continues. I know I tolerated such games when I had plenty of time to play (and replay!), but did I have more fun with those games than I did with games that had unlimited continues? It’s definitely not fun to come so close to completing a game only to have the final boss defeat me, losing all progress, and requiring a restart. Still, does knowing that such a punishment awaits me make victory all the more sweet?

Intuitively, I want to argue that it shouldn’t. I can point to plenty of casual games that are enjoyable and fun, games in which the most a failure can do is set you back a few minutes of your time. At the same time, however, there is only so much Tetris and Bejeweled I can stand before I find myself wanting something more involving. Maybe there is something to this idea that punitive game play is more fun?

I have Etrian Odyssey 2, a Nintendo DS game in the same category as Wizardry. It’s hardcore and incredibly hard, and I find it immensely satisfying. No, it is not a game to recommend for beginners and newbies, and it’s not meant to be. If your party is killed while exploring the maze, you revert back to your last save. If you didn’t manually save often enough, you’ll find yourself repeating entire segments of the game. Prince of Persia would simply put you right back where you failed so you could immediately try again, but does it lose anything in the process? Is Prince of Persia simply Grimm Fandango, an enjoyable story interspersed with puzzles that you just want to get through to get to the next part of the story?

If failure didn’t result in negative consequences, or if the negative consequences aren’t horrible, then there isn’t much incentive for the player to avoid failure. Why learn how to play better when I can just fumble my way through to victory? I feel that a game without negative consequences for failures on the player’s part is going to be pretty mindless or tedious. I’ve only seen game play videos of Prince of Persia, but it looks to me like the Annoying Jumping Puzzle simply got more elaborate with faster iterations between attempts. Am I wrong?

I think Young is right, though. The video game industry needs forgiving games to introduce itself to new gamers. I wonder if such games will be stepping stones to more complex games, or if they will be seen as valuable and fun on their own. Will there always be a barrier between rich, involving games and casual game players? Do the players need to be slowly introduced to the games, or do the games need to reach out to the players?

2 replies on “Is Punishing Game Play More Fun?”

I’ve been wondering about this for a while. I certainly enjoyed playing Lego Star Wars with my daughter, and the complete lack of consequences for failure was a big part of the reason why. And I also think having a no fail mode in Rock Band 2 is great for pick-up-and-play use. And the easiest way for a game to get me to stop playing it is to have me lose an hour of work.

Having said that, I’m not yet sold on a complete lack of consequences. I never turn on no fail mode in RB2 when playing solo or with non-novices. And I’ve enjoyed trying at something over and over until I succeed, even with sequences that last several minutes.

So, right now, my tentative theory is that I’m happy with set piece challenges: I don’t mind (frequently enjoy) having to do a coherent segment multiple times until I get it right. But I don’t see any point in having to watch cut scenes over and over again, or having to travel to the start over and over again (as with his “weird GTA basketball” analogy.) And I’m flexible enough with the length: it wouldn’t surprise me if the PoP set pieces were too short, but I also really don’t like the traditional “triple final boss sequence without saves” that you find so often.

Hmm, maybe this is also an area where the game could give more choice to the player? Traditionally, the difficulty level of a game affected things like damage but not the amount of checkpoints; maybe, though, easy difficulty should have more checkpoints?

Personally, I think it’s all about balance. I certainly don’t enjoy having to replay the entire last level just because I still haven’t figured out how to kill the boss yet, but I also recall a very unsatisfied feeling when the game is too “forgiving” that when I’m done with the game I feel the fun was barely starting with the last level! And, like GB said, it does satisfy a certain part of me to try something a few times before getting it right, while paying an acceptable price for each failure.

One thing that does come to mind that tends to maintain that balance for a degree is, as David mentioned, checkpoints. Having automatic checkpoints was great in both Halo and God of War 2, where at certain points you could easily die on your first few attempts, but always there was that checkpoint shortly before the difficult part to save the day. Sometimes it wasn’t immediately close, and you usually have to replay through a couple of tough sequences between checkpoints, but it’s definitely better than having to replay the last 45 minutes of an already tough level.

Agreed, game difficulty is a tricky business. I do agree with Young that games need to be designed with first-time gamers in mind; but I also believe that if a game is too “forgiving” it will drive away as many gamers as it would bring new ones. A game being “cuddly cute” isn’t the only reason I would have an unsatisfying game experience; it’s all about the balance…

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