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Design Roundtable 1: The Death of Death


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#1 mittens   Moderators   -  Reputation: 1315

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 03:17 AM

Here's the firstsecond game design round table, coming at you with new guidelines, newthe same suggested reading, and a new topic! I have no idea how I'm going to handle the next attempt at integrating the "Conclusion" article in with the base round table, but I'm hoping for a somewhat more successful approach than last week's. Guidelines Here are some of the rules/guidelines it would be nice to have people adhere to (or read and then willingly ignore):
  • What I write as part of the topic description is not intended to be an argument for or against a given mechanic, nor does what I write necessarily reflect my full thoughts on an issue. It's mere intended to be an introduction to the topic that, hopefully, more people will expound on.
  • The goal here is to talk intelligently about the topic at hand, as such, any responses would hopefully attempt to make some sort of argument.
  • An argument does not have to be lengthy to be well-constructed or well-written.
  • Don't just toss in buzz words for the sake of using buzz words; the idea here is to discuss the mechanics at hand for the purpose of determining why they are good or bad and to convince other people of your own perspectives. Tossing in buzz words "just because" does more to segregate a discussion than promote it.
  • This post will actually be closed when the deadline is up as to keep the discussion fairly self-contained. The closing date for these is up in the air at the moment; this thread will be closed either a week from today or two weeks from today (depending on the number and quality of responses received).
  • Don't be afraid to generalize your points as you discuss points with users. It goes without saying that a good game design may depend heavily on the game it's being used in and the way it's implemented, but the idea here is to pick out great ideas and argue them for their intrinsic worth.
  • Don't get too caught-up in minor details and always realize that, generally, the goal here is to make intelligent arguments to comprise a design discourse.
  • Please, please, please use your real names in your post if you feel comfortable; the resulting article just feels awkward when I have to reference a bunch of aliases.
Suggested Reading The most important and relevant work which relates to this discussion was actually written about ten years ago by Doug Church: "Formal Abstract Design Tools". It's a great read for any designer. Round Table Topic -- The Death of Death There has been a slow and steady progression of the role that death plays in video games since the days of Ghouls and Ghosts and Super Mario Bros. No longer are most games tied to the old tenet of providing a player with an arbitrary number of lives, typically three for some reason, before the player is sent back to a previous spot in the game. This was a particularly brutal practice back in days of arcade games (which the aforementioned Ghouls and Ghosts and Super Mario Bros. were no doubt influenced by) where the goal is to punish the player and, more to the point, convince the player to insert an additional quarter or so. There were also extra lives given to players along the way to sort of feed the mini-addiction that these arcade-inspired games needed to feed in order to get players to cough up more change. This practice has persisted in the industry for ages to the point where designers still treat death and the process of player punishment much the same as we have for ages. Game developers and designers have largely abolished the system of giving players a finite number of tries or lives in a game, but so many games still cling to the concept of a player having a "life" to work with. This approach to handling the mortality or failure cases for the player can often lead to frustration (oh hey look at that) and that, for most titles, is not a desirable trait to aim for. There will always be the occasional Ninja Gaiden that will be released where designers very intentionally challenge player's skills. These kinds of games rely on a failure case as a means of reinforcing the lack of player skill or, alternatively, enforcing a certain in-game aptitude. There have been a handful of recent AAA games which attempt to make death less deadly. One of which is Lionhead Studios' Fable 2 which allows the player to die but then instantly resurrects him/her with permanent aesthetic scars applied to the player's avatar (also a minor experience loss). This mechanic still allows players to die and experience a failure case but it does not impede their progress through the game or, really, make for much player frustration (faux-challenge). The most recent and notable game which attempts to make its players think about death differently is Ubisoft Montreal's Prince of Persia. Prince of Persia treated death as a mere "misstep" and, essentially, gave it players an incredible number of mini-checkpoints that they would be restored to in the event of failure. Should games continually rely on death as a means of enforcing player skill? Is "death" the best way to do that? Is the current system of dying and returning to some designer-specified game checkpoint the best way of managing a player's progress through a game? Dying isn't fun, but is overcoming what caused a player to die before fun (and worth the annoyance of repeating a gameplay segment)?

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#2 demonkoryu   Members   -  Reputation: 976

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 04:57 AM

Computer games that involve lifes often (even if only remotely) resemble simulations of life, and transport some of the authors views and experience with life. And life is deadly, we all know that. Being able to die in the game maybe makes the gaming experience richer, because as we (players and game designers alike) know that simple truth, that there can be fatal events, we can relate more and easier to it and create/play more lifelike games.

Losing the three lifes are three non-fatal failures to the player, and it communicates the simple rule of thumb:

If at first you don't succeeed, try harder.
If you don't succeed at the second attempt, try even harder.
If you don't succeed at the third attempt, give it up. There's no need to make a fool of yourself.


There'll be so many ways to handle life and death in games as there are game designers. Diversity is good. Personally, I like PoP *and* NG.

#3 loufoque   Banned   -  Reputation: 93

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 05:35 AM

Making dying just a misstep makes dying something trivial and unimportant. This inherently reduces immersion, but also challenge.

There is a whole community of people in favor of permanent death in online role-playing games. The wikipedia page on permanent death explains why they think it is a good idea: it makes the actions and choices of the player more significant, heightening the sense of involvement while also consisting a true achievement to stay alive.

#4 thk123   Members   -  Reputation: 180

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 05:52 AM

I think this topic ties strongly in with difficulty within a game. It is all about balance. I'll use two extremes to explain my point. In the first game, there is no punishment for failure. Death (or equivalent) is simply not possible as you have infinite health. In game B, if you die once, which is perfectly possible, the game resets. You have to start again, your save wipes.

The problem with the second one is fairly obvious. If you played a game for more than about 20 minutes and you had to do all that again, you simply wouldn't.

The problem with the first one is there is no challenge. If there is no challenge, there is no reward. Not only do you lose all sense of realism, and hence, immersion, the game ceases to be tense in any way. You no longer feel connected to the world or your character. If you can't fail, there is no point in succeeding. You'd probably turn the game off just as quick as option B (unless the game isn't focused on failure/success eg. in an exploration game, in which case everything changes all over again)

So, like difficulty, it is about balance. In Fable (2), I feel no fear when rushing in, as I know I can't die. I don't think this is a straight out bad thing - your meant to be a super powerful hero whose going to save the world, I would find it very difficult to believe that some small time criminal can take me down. Indeed, any death breaks immersion because, in real life, you can't die then try again.

For me, the answer is that the player should constantly fear death (depending on the game, but as a general rule) but never actually experience it. Obviously, this is nearly impossible to implement. One (ridiculous) idea I had was, make it so the player failed early on, which reset the game, but then make it very difficult/impossible to fail ever again. The player would constantly fear death, knowing it would reset the game, but never get frustrated, and honestly believe that they were just playing well. This wouldn't work, not least because it would get out on to the internet and the whole game would break. None the less, I think the principle still stands. You have to make the player fear death; creating tension, immersion and "oh snap!" moments, without them getting frustrated by having to retry everything.

Another thing to make sure you avoid frustration is, as that article the OP linked to, avoid cheap deaths. I, as a player, won't mind dying if it is fair game. If I know that miss timing a jump will result in death which will result in reload, that's fine. If, when walking along, something appears and I just die, I don't care how scary/tense/realistic it is, if there is nothing I can do about it until I have died and know it is coming, it is just frustrating and cheap.
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#5 Spoonbender   Members   -  Reputation: 1254

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 06:09 AM

Quote:
Original post by loufoque
Making dying just a misstep makes dying something trivial and unimportant. This inherently reduces immersion, but also challenge.

Just a quick note, but there's nothing immersive about dying either. Death will, pretty much by definition, always destroy immersion. No matter how you handle it.

I think they're separate issues: "How to make the game challenging and keep the player on his toes" (the threat of dying and having to start over is one way to achieve that, but is it necessarily the only/best way to do it?) is a completely different question from "What should happen when the player dies".

Of course there's some overlap. "Harsh death penalties" can be used to answer both questions, but there's no reason why the answer to both questions have to be the same. That's what's always annoyed me about the "permadeath-clique". They lack imagination, refuse to think outside the box. They want their actions to be meaningful, but refuse to even consider other ways to achieve this than the "good" old one of deleting your character and being forced to start over if you make a misstep. In particular, they're so blinded by this permadeath-obsession that they forget that they're only really interested in half of it. Your actions are meaningful if you can permakillothers. But if others can permakill you, how does that make your actions more meaningful?
And of course, the good old "permadeath allow meaningful actions and involvement" only really makes sense in the context of a MMO. It's not a general answer to "how to deal with death in games". In pretty much every singleplayer game, the main character makes a pretty meaningful impact on the world, without having to be threatened with permadeath.

So a question: Wouldn't it be more immersive if the player just didn't die? Any time the player dies, you ruin immersion. Whether you start over, rewind time or lose a life, neither option is realistic, every one of them remind you that it's just a game. So perhaps you shouldn't put the player in this situation in the first place. Heroes don't die (at least not until *after* they've saved the universe). So why should the game even portray a situation where the hero died?
Would Monkey Island have been a better game if Guybrush had been able to die?
Of course, in adventure games it's probably easier to arrange things so that death situation simply don't arise.

But perhaps it is something other genres could still learn from. Go and watch a typical action movie. The hero regularly screws up, experience setbacks and so on, but they don't die. They might have to start over from scratch, get booted out of the police force or whatever else. They get punished, sure, but they don't die. Perhaps games should do the same thing. Rather than killing the main character every time they screw up (and then ending up in a situation with no realistic/immersive way out), just let them, well, screw up.

#6 bakanoodle   Members   -  Reputation: 100

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 06:20 AM

One of the things we must overcome is what we define as a challenge. Do we really need death in order for a game to be perceived as challenging?

The most common challenge in games today is the avoidance of death. While this works for many games, this does not mean that we cannot think beyond this.

Challenges and the difficulty of a game can become more grey instead of just a black and white, 'do-or-die' situation. Puzzles, World navigation, character modifications are all examples of challenges that don't necessarily need to involve death.

#7 Kaluriel   Members   -  Reputation: 115

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 06:31 AM

Quote:
Original post by Konfusius
There'll be so many ways to handle life and death in games as there are game designers. Diversity is good. Personally, I like PoP *and* NG.


I have to agree, the new PoP way to handle death was a nice change from "oh I told the story wrong" of the originals. And if you died enough times, the bosses lost their regenerative ability.

#8 swiftcoder   Senior Moderators   -  Reputation: 9860

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 06:31 AM

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Original post by Spoonbender
But perhaps it is something other genres could still learn from. Go and watch a typical action movie. The hero regularly screws up, experience setbacks and so on, but they don't die. They might have to start over from scratch, get booted out of the police force or whatever else. They get punished, sure, but they don't die. Perhaps games should do the same thing. Rather than killing the main character every time they screw up (and then ending up in a situation with no realistic/immersive way out), just let them, well, screw up.
I think this may be a bit of an archaic impression - in much recent literature, a few movies, and many TV shows, the heroes do die. I don't know, however, whether this is truly a result of changing attitudes toward fiction, or just a crutch used by struggling writers to add drama to otherwise mediocre writing.

Tristam MacDonald - Software Engineer @Amazon - [swiftcoding]


#9 swiftcoder   Senior Moderators   -  Reputation: 9860

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 06:40 AM

Quote:
Original post by bakanoodle
Challenges and the difficulty of a game can become more grey instead of just a black and white, 'do-or-die' situation. Puzzles, World navigation, character modifications are all examples of challenges that don't necessarily need to involve death.
Tetris is challenging because you are trying to avoid 'death' (the playing area filling up), world navigation is challenging because you have to avoid certain situations that risk death, and character modification is challenging in that it affects your ability to avoid death.

Quote:
One of the things we must overcome is what we define as a challenge. Do we really need death in order for a game to be perceived as challenging?

The most common challenge in games today is the avoidance of death. While this works for many games, this does not mean that we cannot think beyond this.
Most games quantify player progress in the form of resources - be it gold earned, stats/levels, or just time. Challenge is synonymous with Risk, and the player can only risk resources - challenge then is allowing the player to be deprived of resources, a mechanic commonly called 'death'.

We can of course call it something other than death, and disguise it however we choose, but the core Risk/Reward mechanic remains.

Tristam MacDonald - Software Engineer @Amazon - [swiftcoding]


#10 bakanoodle   Members   -  Reputation: 100

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 06:41 AM

Quote:
I think this may be a bit of an archaic impression - in much recent literature, a few movies, and many TV shows, the heroes do die.


The heroes may die, but then they stay dead.
This reminds me of many strategy RPGs where once a character dies, then there is no way to get them back.
There is definitely something to be said for permanent death as a mechanic that could be explored more as well.


#11 thk123   Members   -  Reputation: 180

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 06:45 AM

Quote:
Original post by swiftcoder
Quote:
Original post by bakanoodle
Challenges and the difficulty of a game can become more grey instead of just a black and white, 'do-or-die' situation. Puzzles, World navigation, character modifications are all examples of challenges that don't necessarily need to involve death.
Tetris is challenging because you are trying to avoid 'death' (the playing area filling up), world navigation is challenging because you have to avoid certain situations that risk death, and character modification is challenging in that it affects your ability to avoid death.

Quote:
One of the things we must overcome is what we define as a challenge. Do we really need death in order for a game to be perceived as challenging?

The most common challenge in games today is the avoidance of death. While this works for many games, this does not mean that we cannot think beyond this.
Most games quantify player progress in the form of resources - be it gold earned, stats/levels, or just time. Challenge is synonymous with Risk, and the player can only risk resources - challenge then is allowing the player to be deprived of resources, a mechanic commonly called 'death'.

We can of course call it something other than death, and disguise it however we choose, but the core Risk/Reward mechanic remains.


I think the point he was getting at wasn't simply the act of disguising death, a very common thing, eg. in racing games. What I think he was referring to is games where you don't fail (die, loose, whatever), but instead just don't succeed. Take a puzzle game without a time limit, you can never fail. You only lose when you give up. This is not a disguising death - it is chosen by the user. So no, I don't think that a game is dependant upon a death/failure mechanic.

*Edit: fixed spelling :(

#12 bakanoodle   Members   -  Reputation: 100

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 06:52 AM

Quote:
Original post by swiftcoder
Tetris is challenging because you are trying to avoid 'death' (the playing area filling up), world navigation is challenging because you have to avoid certain situations that risk death, and character modification is challenging in that it affects your ability to avoid death.


You are right when you think of it like that. When I mention puzzles, I don't exactly mean puzzle games, more puzzles IN games.
The Lego games from Traveler's Tales are a good example of this, often one must figure out exactly how to progress to the next area.

World Navigation doesn't need to involve death, scaling a tower and falling means you need to do it again, but you don't 'die' as a result.

Character Modification can have both positive or negative effects. Getting your character drunk in GTAIV and attempting to driving can be quite challenging but again does not necessarily involve death.

As for the Risk example, and risking resources, I think there is a fine line between risk/reward and what we define as actual death.


#13 JasRonq   Members   -  Reputation: 156

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 07:36 AM

Death is not a very fun way of losing a challenge. I think what we need to look at here is ways we can create a challenge situation where losing does not result in death but results in some other situation, preferably a situation that is also a challenge, but one more likely to be won by the people who would lose the first challenge.

#14 gxaxhx   Members   -  Reputation: 128

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 07:39 AM

Death is just one motivator that can be used in game’s design. It’s a state of failure and the player has to work to avoid it. You can call a failure state something else and wrap it up in a pretty bow but it’s the same concept at its core. The player knows they will be punished if they fail to succeed at some part of game. Yes, the type and extent of the punishment varies, but its punishment none the less. This motivates them to achieve the game’s goals while giving the player a sense of risk. Since, risk is often associated with fear & adrenaline (and hence excitement), well introduced punishment mechanics like death can make games more exciting while motivating the player to advance.

The other powerful motivator in games, reward, can motivate the player but seems to lack the element of risk. A game that doesn’t use death (or punishment in general) has to rely on the player seeking some sort of reward to motivate them to continue advancing. This reward could be something in game like completing a quest and getting gold or it could be personal satisfaction at completing a puzzle, etc. Getting a reward can lead to satisfaction and excitement (especially with random rewards like finding a rare item in a game) but still lacks risk and the feeling of danger about it.

I remember in my psychology classes when I was getting my undergraduate degree, they always said that the most powerful motivator is random reward because consistent reward quickly lessens the emotional impact of it and punishment is only a powerful motivator when the source of punishment is around (which isn’t realistic in the real world). However, in the game world, it is possible to have a consistent source of punishment that is always around. So, I would venture to say that consistent punishment combined with random reward is much more effective than simply having random reward.

Death is just one way of punishing someone for failing at the game. Some games try to take the sting out of the punishment, like the mentioned above Fable 2. Finding the right balance is important because if the cost of making a mistake is too high, people will just stop playing the game. However, if the cost of making a mistake is too low, you’ve effectively removed the motivator associated with the punishment.

Personally, I don’t like dying and having to repeat some section of a game. It lessens the impact, not because I “died”, but because I’m now going through the motions I just went through simply because I made a mistake. I’ll now defeat the challenge of the game but not because I played better as much as I simply know what’s going to happen.

Everyone’s tolerance for death and having to replay parts of the game is different so I don’t think there’s a right answer but I think in the perfect (unachievable) world the threat and risk of death would exist but the game would keep the player on the cusp of death, always teetering over the edge of the cliff but never letting them fall.


#15 mittens   Moderators   -  Reputation: 1315

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 07:50 AM

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Original post by mittens
  • Please, please, please use your real names in your post if you feel comfortable; the resulting article just feels awkward when I have to reference a bunch of aliases.

Cough, cough.

#16 swiftcoder   Senior Moderators   -  Reputation: 9860

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 08:03 AM

Quote:
Original post by bakanoodle
As for the Risk example, and risking resources, I think there is a fine line between risk/reward and what we define as actual death.
My point was a little lost in all that - what I meant is that the current implementation of death in games (with auto-saves, checkpoints, soulstones, etc.) is just a resource mechanic. Permadeath is a different matter, but in the majority of games featuring death, death is just a name for depriving the player of time/experience/gold.

Tristam MacDonald - Software Engineer @Amazon - [swiftcoding]


#17 Azenrain   Members   -  Reputation: 122

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 08:21 AM

I think a lot of the beginning confusion starting here(at least when I started writing heh) is based on the idea that "death" is really just a specific form of defeat. In the reasoning of "death generic" that is surfacing, even climbing the wall with risk(falling)/reward(the top) can be said to be that the falling is equivalent to "death generic" in that you have to restart from the beginning.

So with that said, if we are actually talking of 'death specific'(as is commonly thought of), I find that it is hard to address the flaws and merits of (D)eath in games without also delving to a deeper level of abstraction in order to understand the foundations of what is happening when we chose death as a gameplay 'punishment'(as we can pretty much all agree that dieing really feels like a punishment for failure to surmount a given obstacle).

pun⋅ish⋅ment
   /ˈpʌnɪʃmənt/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [puhn-ish-muhnt]
–noun
1. the act of punishing.
2. the fact of being punished, as for an offense or fault.
3. a penalty inflicted for an offense, fault, etc.
4. severe handling or treatment.

3 & 4 are brutal when you consider that is what a death system can represent to a player.

What I mean to advance, is that in determining the other options to Death as we know it in game design, what are we really asking?

# Is it a question regarding the 'ultimate punishment' for failure in the game that we embody with the grim shadow of Death? What is another form of 'ultimate punishment' that can take its place, perhaps only in a new guise?

# What would keep immersion?(as per Spoonbender's valid point)

# And finally, the basics of death have usually been the forcing to REDO content. (PoP had you REDO in small increments, Super Mario Bros. where if it was your last life it was the title screen and quitting for a week because you were on the last stage...again) Is it the fact that content is so static that is the root cause of not wanting to REDO/Die, making it not the death mechanic at fault, but instead the actual gameplay?





#18 gxaxhx   Members   -  Reputation: 128

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 08:42 AM

Quote:
Original post by Azenrain
# And finally, the basics of death have usually been the forcing to REDO content. (PoP had you REDO in small increments, Super Mario Bros. where if it was your last life it was the title screen and quitting for a week because you were on the last stage...again) Is it the fact that content is so static that is the root cause of not wanting to REDO/Die, making it not the death mechanic at fault, but instead the actual gameplay?


I think that's *part* of it but there's also the aspect that when this happens the player is no longer progressing (instead, it's quite the opposite) which can have a negative impact on the player's motivation to continue playing.

Think about if your save game became corrupt (Sort of a death by game bug instead of game mechanic). Even if the game is dynamic and starting a new game won't be the exact same experience, the loss of all of that progress may be such a blow that the player will just shelve the game and move on.

#19 OrangyTang   Members   -  Reputation: 1294

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 08:55 AM

Quote:
Original post by mittens
There have been a handful of recent AAA games which attempt to make death less deadly. One of which is Lionhead Studios' Fable 2 which allows the player to die but then instantly resurrects him/her with permanent aesthetic scars applied to the player's avatar (also a minor experience loss). This mechanic still allows players to die and experience a failure case but it does not impede their progress through the game or, really, make for much player frustration (faux-challenge).

Surely Bioshock is a more important example than Fable 2? Fable still actually punishes the player for dying (albeit relatively lightly), whereas in Bioshock there's zero consequences for dying - you're simply resurected in the nearest vita chamber, which is never more than 30 seconds walk away. You lose no experience, ammunition, status or kudos other than the personal frustration of not hitting "heal" quick enough.

Personally I'm not a fan of having death have minimal or zero side effects - not only does it make a mockery of people who actually play the game skillfully, but because it can mean a player can force their way through a game without really understanding it. I've witnessed this first hand when a friend was trying to play Bioshock like they'd play Quake 3 - run around frantically while shooting everything that moves. The result is that they miss the subtler stuff (like listening out for enemies or security cameras), and fail to learn how to use the weapons or environment properly. They end up dying repeatedly (and frequently) but because they're making slow (but painful) progress they never stop and realise that they're missing the point of the entire game, and end up dismissing it as too frustrating to be fun.

Games need to have consequences for wrong or bad decisions, otherwise there's no satisfaction in making the right decisions. Unfortunately big budget games have been sliding towards the politically correct "everyone's a winner" approach because the more "casual" end of the audience only want to win and will go and play something else if they loose even once.

It's not unreasonable to remove the possibility of dying in a game, but if you're removing death (or trivialising it to the point of being a minor annoyance) then you've got to add in other ways in which the player can fail to compensate (such as running out of time and having to repeat a section, or having resources removed). Otherwise you're just making a glorified "press X to win" game.

#20 Draiken   Members   -  Reputation: 122

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Posted 21 April 2009 - 09:08 AM

One of the things that I would really like to see with Death would be game altering.

For example if your playing Splinter Cell (I think the guys name is Sam) but if you die 3 times or fail 3 times trying to break into the office building through the vents on the roof. Each time you die the security strengthens that area you were in. Making it harder to get through. However the security is diminishing in another place which you have to find to resume your mission.

Or maybe your trying to save the princess playing mario... you die too many times then just let her die so he can go get another prisoner.

This way your not really getting punished, though you do have to back track and rethink your strategy, but it can also fit into the story.

Chris Tucker




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