Column: Player Death is a Game Design Failure

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OccultAssassin

I have to completely disagree. I think that equating player death to real life is a terrible analogy. Although that analogy does impose interesting mechanics of cautionary choices like in DayZ it doesn't work as a whole for games. Games at their core are an ongoing experience of trial and tribulation. What death in games indicate is a failure or lack of skill to further the journey. Every human who isn't an ego driven narcissist will undoubtedly agree that we as a species learn far more from our failures than triumphs. Player death is like when you are coding a long sequence and you go to debug and compile but the expected outcome fails. You then have to go back and troubleshoot your code trying to find the place where you failed to correct it and hopefully/eventually make it work. Just like in a game where you face a certain situation where you end up dying and having to restart from where you left off to rethink your failure and overcome it. Player death is one of the most glorious successes in any game. I suggest that if you wish to choose a medium where you become engrossed in the narrative without interruption then pick up a book or watch a movie. Video games have a journeyman's approached to its core where you constantly strive to succeed and yet on the path to mastery you must accept and learn from failure. I don't want to live in a world where self entitlement of mastery is a given and not earned.

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Shalbatana

This harkens back to the beginnings of games. The issue becomes most obvious in text adventure games, most likely because it can be considered as the basis of many other types of games reduced to its most basic.

There are philosophical rules for successful "dying", They go like this:

- If a player needs to die in order to figure out the solution to a puzzle, the game design has failed.

- In a game where the character is put in perilous situations, if the player cannot actually die, it destroys the illusion once the player figures it out. (Starship Titanic with the bomb Countdown) Thus "dying" in some form or another becomes actually essential as long as all other rules are followed.

- If someone does something stupid, they should be told as such (a good rule for life in general).

- If a player dies for attempting something logical, the design has failed. No one should be punished for trying things, especially when perfectly logical.

- If a player dies, resurrection should be considered (depending on the game), but there should be a penalty.

- If a player dies, they should not have to replay the entire narriative game from the beginning re-making the same exact moves. No one will ever finish it.

- The programmer should never expect the player to die in order to finish (with the possible exception of games like Zork II, in which the player gains insight if they die at least once, but if you by some magic never die, you can still finish the game, you just don't get all the insight you would have had.

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MaximumMike

This is probably the best take I have seen on the issue on this thread.

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Shalbatana

much abliged!

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Biceps

I find it odd that no one has mentioned the most recent game to solve this problem completely WITH permanent character death: Day Z. Day Z has used permanent character death as a function to enhance suspense, and drive a deeper commitment to a character (and keeping them alive) than I have seen in any other game.

Thomas, I get where you are coming from and agree that being able to just redo a part of a game takes away from the immersion. What is your take on the Day Z approach? For me, the permanent character death is preferable to 'character death as a design flaw', because otherwise you are basically arguing for character immortality, which would be just silly and would remove a lot of suspense from the game.

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West996

Permanent character death or Hardcore Mode as it is more commonly referred to is not a new concept. Most games make it an optional mode rather than force their players into it though and there is a good reason for that.

I'm not sure it is a great solution to this topic. You have not fixed the issue that a character you are invested in dies, you have just changed the penalty for such a death. While it is the most realistic or 'true to life' penalty, it is also the harshest and doesn't always make for a good game play experience.

Certain players may enjoy the thrill of permanent death to their characters but they will most certainly be the minority, and even for those players, how long does it take before that thrill turns into frustration. What kind of longevity or reply value does a game that forces permanent death on their player base have?

Diablo has it, the player base is considerably smaller and I am sure if we could see the attrition rates for this game mode it would shed some light as to this being a viable game play option if it was your only option.

It most certainly would not work in an MMO setting. Could you imagine devoting days, weeks or even months into a character that you lose because of a single group wipe? One bad move? Or even worse, a system crash or power outage? MMO's tend to keep their players for years at a time. I don't think you would see that kind of loyalty if you forced permanent character death on them.

Even games with harsher death penalties are strongly criticized. Asheron's Call was a game that when you died you respawned at a "Life Stone", and left a body behind. On your corpse you lost valuable items like weapons and armor. You had a time limit to recover that gear, but here is the catch. When you died you also took a stat penalty making your character less effective that was only cured by earning experience. If you tried to go get your gear back and died again, you lost more stuff and earned more of a penalty. It was not uncommon to see a naked player standing in the middle of town pleading for a group of people to help them recover their gear..

No, permanent death is not the answer here.

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Biceps

Double Post, sorry

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burntham77

Dishonored is a great example of this problem. The stealth elements were very fun and ultimately satisfying, but the game required way too much trial and error to figure out how the mechanics work. It got to the point a few times where I considered quitting the game because of pure frustration with the stealth system. There needed to be better ways to determine how enemies regarded you.

I don't mind failing at a game because I wasn't good enough. What I hate are cheap deaths. The original Far Cry did this a lot. I can't see any of the bad guys through the trees and grass, but for some reason they can see me and shoot me. Not fair.

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RtDK

I think what the writer is getting at is, like with games such as Neverwinter Nights or KOTOR, etc. where you create your own character, develop that character over time, and make it yours, you should grow to care about that character enough that you won't take stupid risks, and put yourself in a situation where your character will die.

In real life, you wouldn't rush into the streets of a terrorist-occupied city and just blow all of them to hell. No, you would take cover, be careful, and use all the means at your disposal to remain safe first, while conquering your enemy is the secondary objective.

The same is true in roleplaying games and the like--the author feels that the players should take care like the characters were us. Instead of rushing into a hoard of goblins and relying on our maxed stats or good equipment to help us carry the day, we'd take it slow, find a weakspot, and hammer at it to give us the maximum advantage possible.

Stealth games are a good example. Minimizing risk and maximizing gain is the entire point of them. Killing your enemies quietly without drawing the attention of the hoard of them down the hallway--which would surely kill you--is the only smart way to play them.

Now, do I think all games should be modeled on stealth mechanics? No. In fact, I'm not even sure if I agree with the article--that is, if I'm interpreting it correctly. I DO feel that game characters were meant to be cared for and treated delicately like our own lives were hanging in the balance ... originally, but no one ever really caught onto the idea. Hell, even I just make a quicksave point before every fight, and if I lose I just try again.

Still, the idea is interesting. What if you made an FPS that was entirely realistic--one shot can kill you--and if you die, you're dumped from the match? Would that mean that people would be more careful, and guide their character like a real life commando would? What if there were no save points in a roleplaying game? What if you died in a chapter, and had to start that chapter all over?

Granted, balance would become a huge issue. You would have to make sure that the game never threw anything at you that you couldn't handle. And that would be the difficult part.

I would like to see some more unforgiving games come up in the future, games that truly made you think. That truly tested your skill, and made you take care to not screw up. It'd kind of have to be a sub-genre though.... There are a lot of bad sports out there.

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West996

The problem with what you are saying, is no matter how careful you treat your charcter, you can still die, mistakes happen.

You may not rush out into a terrorist filled street and spray and prey, but even if you took cover, hunkered down and tried to carefully pick off targets, you can still get caught, flanked, or whatever else and die.

There was an FPS that was very realistic in this manor. The old Tom Clancy's Rogue Spear series. I am not sure how the new games in the series are, but in Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six - Rogue Spear, one or two shots and you were dead. One shot in the leg would hobble you, the next shot killed you. One shot from a sniper rifle you were dead, and you were out for the rest of the match. It was very realistic. Thing is.. you still died, and you were back in for the next match.

No matter how realistic you make the game, if you are in a senario where your character can die, he/she wille eventually die.

Even a game designed around steal like Metal Gear Solid, no matter how careful you are, you will still die, and respawn. Snake dies.., that is what the author is getting at, the problem is, he does not suggest a solution.

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West996

Well I am glad I read through the comments before I responded otherwise I would have been repeating a lot of what was said. Most of us are disagreeing here, and that is either because the author has an unpopular opinion, or it is because he didn't explain himself properly.

So rather than state why I disagree with the article I will ask a question and maybe we can get a follow up article because I think there is need for one.

I see where you are going with the narrative theme, and the goal which is not to break immersion, or we can call it the third wall. In games without a 'clever' mechanic to explain death to our characters, take Borderlands for example, when we see our character die it breaks immersion, it reminds us we are playing a game, I get that.

Like many of the people who responded above, I've been playing video games since Mario Bros and Contra. I also played Vanilla WoW, while it is not the most difficult game, especially now, let me tell you if you were one of the first people through Molten Core when it was still a 40 man dungeon it took a lot of 'trail and error' to get through the thing. Even wow though tries to let you know your character isn't actually dying. Your ghost appears at a spawn point and you run back to reunite with your body in order to continue. So I guess I don't expect full immersion when I am playing video games.

What would a game without this 'design flaw' you speak of look like though? How would you keep it challenging? How would you keep it realistic? Your game couldn't gave guns in it. It couldn't have swords in it. Are you going to make a game about paintball? Or are you going to do what almost every other game does and just find a cheesy way to explain your characters death like Boarderlands?

I'd love to play a completely narrative immersive, yet still challenging game. When someone figures this out and does it well I'll be happy to play it. Even then, it will still be just one of many games and I still wouldn't expect all games to uphold to that standard.

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Maggard

This column is hogwash and serves the "entitled" mindset of today's gamers (and public in general) who never grew up on Mario and Contra!

The BEST raiders in WoW, Star Wars, and pretty much every other MMO heralded from EverQuest. Vanilla EverQuest was BRUTAL with character death RAMPANT and XP loss everywhere you looked.

What did it teach us?

Same thing Contra did: don't suck.

We've carried that into the games we play now. My kids "marvel" at my skill with games as I completely destroy the "bosses" that they can't pass with just a few expert moments of my time.

Then scratch their heads when I explain back in my day we didn't have boss health bars. They just flashed different colors.

Player death isn't a design failure, it's a fact of gaming. Let's stop handing out trophies for "trying" and get back to the part where you actually feel like you've accomplished something, winning that Cloak of Flames off Nagafen on that 200+ person raid that DID NOT HAVE VENT or any other voice comm. software on 56K dial-up.

Yeah, we earned our gear, sonny-boy. Not like the CoD or WoW: MoP generation(s).

*Puts his teeth back in*

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Renegade Knight

We are entitled to enjoy the games we pay for. It's as simple as that. I don't like boss battles where the challenge is simply killing a big beastie that's bigger than the other beasties and so it's just more hack and slash. Some people do like that.

I do like story line. I do like growing my character. I do like battles with strategy. Where my brain matters in solving the problem.

It's a big world and room enough for hack and slash, puzzles, stories, character development, or just picking up a gun and blowing things up.

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jonnyohio

What he is getting at, I think, is this: you make a mistake (don't play the game how the developers want you to play), you die. No other outcomes, no choices. Most of the games coming out these days are like that. Very shallow and lacking in design....dumbed down would be more descriptive. I think that's the flaw he is driving at....die, go back to checkpoint, try again, repeat. If that's what you like, okay, but the article isn't hogwash just because you don't care for games that make you think; games with depth...games that let you make choices and have different outcomes depending on those choices, and not just death if you don't play as the devs want you to.

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thematejka

You still describe exactly the kind of thing Maggard is talking about, that he doesn't like. While I understand the modernist idea that a game is boring, unartistic, shallow, or not worth the time if it doesn't have choice, I also think there is a danger in getting carried away with that idea.

We are human. Last time I checked, humans die. Even if the games we play have non-human characters, we know 99.9% of living things we meet will die either of old age or by something else. Death is an incredibly deep subject that humans need to spend some time ruminating on and accepting. If all games didn't incorporate death in some way, we would not be forced to deal with it as much. The fact that any gamers are calling for character death as too shallow or problematic, is a result of living either an incredibly cushy North American life or not being able to death with death in general. And those two can go together.

When/if my kids play games someday, they will be forced to deal with two things around character death: One, that life is hard, even some games. Two, with death itself. They will wonder what it actually means for Mario (or whoever) to blip and fall off the screen. Quite honestly though, if they don't really get the death element, then they are either too young to be playing the game or too absorbed in a gaming world which is still an easier place than the real world no matter how hard the game is.

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aarcane

Death is necessary and proper, and works perfectly when combined with either a save or checkpoint system. It's a reprimand to the player that they're overreaching, or trying to do something that their character should not be able to do. Usually there are other hints prior to death that you're barking up a dangerous tree, and many players ignore these hints. Death is the "You've gone too far, go back and _____" sign.

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HiGHRoLLeR038

I think Batman Arkham city had the worst dying scenarios. everytime you die, you get mocked by the antagonists...

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yammerpickle2

There are creative ways to handle death. Guild Wars 2 has a downed condition, that keeps you kicking barely. If by chance you can get a heal, or even take out an enemy while downed, you can recover. Sands of Time had a nice, but limited time reversal effect.

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RUSENSITIVESWEETNESS

Everyone's a winner! Lower the bar, so even little retard Johnny can make it over!

I remember when games were hard, maybe even impossible. But that was back on the old consoles, when the side-scrolling format that was the de facto standard. There were an ass load of games I never finished, because they were so freaking hard. But you kept trying. You could play all day long, just to lose that last life and have to start all over from scratch.

I don't remember anyone crying like a little bitch about it, though.

Every PC game I've played in the last ten years has been a training wheeled joke. Designers are scared to death of hurting anyone's ego with a tough game. The only games that present any challenge whatsoever are online games pitting player against player. Aside from that, it's water wings and kiddie pool time.

It's game design for the great unwashed masses.

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MaximumMike

I agree. Games have gotten easy. The absolute hardest game I have ever played was Super Glove Ball on the original NES. I have never met anyone who beat it. That game was impossible. I even revisited it a few years ago- still impossible.

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buttersoft

The rise and rise of the console casuals. Even the online FPS stuff is getting majorly dumbed down. The lock-on mechanic in BF3 is a prime example - got forbid you should have to work to take down a helipcopter.

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wolfing

I completely disagree. First of all, games are NOT narrative. Narrative is part of the game, just as music or animation/3d models. Game is gameplay. Pure narrative are movies and books.

Even for narrative, player's death is a very important aspect. Just like life is a result of a series of decisions, games can explore all the 'what ifs', and death is basically part of those scenarios. What if I had attacked the guard instead of talked to him? Guard kills you, so that is one story. To me that's very immersive, and not being able to die regardless of my decisions destroys my immersion in the game as much if not more than suddenly a getting a popup with a Coke ad in the middle of the game.

This article is a result of why our society is going down the drain, where kids are not allowed to fail. Guess it's now part of everything.

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scottmana

Video games do not need an exact format. Being games they can change it up following artistic rules and end up working nicely. The Key to it all is that if the game ends, well, there is no more game!

The lack of different mechanics is what I noticed. Many games should not let you die it is true. Getting locked up, waking up in a hospital and other mechanics can all offer a player reason to keep going but not make that mistake again if at all possible.

In resent times I find myself looking over skills that are blan and difficulty sliders that only give the enemy more health and dmg. In truth I think the creativity is limited to graphics and whatnot while many areas of games stay static. Player death is just an easy non-creative thing that is cheap and easy to implement.

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tony2tonez

Man i miss Shadowbane, a great open PvP. Kill and loot. The way PvP was meant to be played. Not this WoW crap that is structured.

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Teeebs

Well that might explain why the Mass Effect 3 ending rubbed so many people (myself included) the wrong way....and continues to do so.

It's really hard to feel like you've won the game when your character is dead as a dodo. Oh sorry, having the main character die in the end is all Hollywood epic. More like cliched artistic crap. Doesn't really work in a role playing game where you spent 90+ hours (over the course of three games) becoming this character, does it?

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buttersoft

Get over your narrative fetishism, or worse, go work for EA already. Chess does not have a design flaw just because you can lose at it, and neither does King's Quest. Dark Souls made you pay heavily for dying, and ppl love that game.

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CitizenVII

Is there more here? This doesn't feel like a column; it's just an introduction. We're told that "death is a design flaw" but not what can be done about it. Where are the examples of games that bypath player death in interesting (or not so interesting) ways, like Prey or Biosphere? Where is the discussion about how a game can be exciting and fun without player death? Or is Thomas just saying "I want to play a game without losing"? A game that you can't lose isn't fun (just put in some cheat codes--instant fun killer). And a game where you can't die isn't scary (try playing Bioshock with death turned on--it suddenly becomes far more terrifying). What about a discussion of a game where dying is actually so much of a feature that you can't save and reload, like Dungeons of Dredmore? I'm disappointed that such an interesting thesis (death is a game design flaw) would be raised without any real discussion, if what was really meant was "Dishonored isn't a very good stealth game."

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And3rs0nTX

I'm sorry you felt Dishonored was too difficult.

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zNelson24

Yes and No.

I don't agree that "death" is a game design flaw, I do agree that modern games have very minimal consequences for failure.

I remember playing older games, where you had an allotted number of lives before you fail the game. It does put pressure on me, and think about what I do. For if I fail, I'll have to start from the beginning.

Today's games have none of that. If you die, you restart at the last checkpoint. Doesn't make the game challenging, nor does it make beating the game rewarding.

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Scatter

Without death then there's really no risk which eliminates much of the excitement from many types of games IMO.

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Mikey109105

I'm sorry, Thomas, but I have to disagree with you on this one. Player death is not a game design failure at all. If there was no player death then how do you expect to lose an FPS match? Without player death, there would BE no FPS games. Sure, you could use god mode in those games and never die or take damage, but the game experience would NEVER be the same. Also, you have to remember, it is a GAME. It's there for our entertainment, so I do concede the point at the end of the article that there are no reloads in real life, because that is true. If you die in real life...well...you're dead, no re-dos. Other than that, like I said, I have to disagree with the rest of the article. Its a good article, and it brings up good points, but still, my opinion is quite different from yours.

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briansun1

this is an intrasing way of looking at games... but think about is if games did not have this then they would be way to easy to win... for example is you could not die in COd all I would do is run through the level what doing anything else.

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