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Design Roundtable 1: The Death of Death

80 posts in this topic

Here are my two cents:
It has struck me that no one has even mentioned the death in Prey.
For those who don't know that game there's death, but instead of having to reload you go to an afterlife where you must battle spirits. By shooting those spirits you regain health, and so the more you hit the higher your health will be when you get back to game.
So far this is my favorite application of death. By putting in a penalty mechanic that can be used to the player's advantage you leave out most of the frustration player feels when he died Nth time because of low health, or by accident, while maintaining the penalty (lost time, which often is wasted on loading screens).
In my opinion this kind of temporary death is better than the Bioshock one (barely any penalty,game becomes too easy, you don't feel like you're taking any kind of risk) and the classical one (full penalty: lost time, progress, and having to repeat everything. Basically you create a rip in the gameplay).
Mikolaj
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Quote:
Original post by spliter
Here are my two cents:
It has struck me that no one has even mentioned the death in Prey.
For those who don't know that game there's death, but instead of having to reload you go to an afterlife where you must battle spirits. By shooting those spirits you regain health, and so the more you hit the higher your health will be when you get back to game.


This sounds like the mechanic in Soul Reaver.
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Original post by Alpha_ProgDes
Quote:
Original post by spliter
Here are my two cents:
It has struck me that no one has even mentioned the death in Prey.
For those who don't know that game there's death, but instead of having to reload you go to an afterlife where you must battle spirits. By shooting those spirits you regain health, and so the more you hit the higher your health will be when you get back to game.


This sounds like the mechanic in Soul Reaver.


Yup, and one of my fave games too. And along the lines in the quote, I think we're all aware of the possibilities that can be had with a death mechanic so we were more exploring the fundamentals of the topic on a whole.

In relation though, the 'death as a concept' brought up by Tyler most recently, and the branching paths of death, or heroic death (Aaron), seem to offer the most room for development. Like multiple stages of 'death' worked into the game, layered like an onion. How deep does the rabbit hole go? Will you fight your way back or fall further into the void?
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If I'm not mistaken those types of death are to develop the story and give motivation to the player. The concept of the player dying, being impervious to the death, or death-resistant heavily influences the gameplay. Unless you want the player to "Quantum Leap" from one character to next. The death of one character allows the player to take control of another character and a completely different storyline/path.
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Original post by Sandman
How about rewarding the player for NOT dying/failing? Achievements and similar mechanics work well here, and appeal to the right demographic; casual players won't care if they don't get the "Completed on Super Impossible Difficulty Without Dying" Achievement, but the more hardcore demographic who want that challenge and sense of danger can strive for it.


If you're striving for it, that's quickly getting back into the "oh noes you just died and completely reset your progress" stuff that, hardcode or not, I'm generally wanting to avoid. It's not scary, just irritating as hell -- for me, anyways. It results in many colorful cursewords, instead of the "Oh shit... shit shit shit SHIT SHIT SHIT AHHHHHHH AAAAAAHHHHH AAAAAAAHHHHHHH" as the situation progresses from bad to worse to being on fire, which I assure you is much more fun.
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I think the type of game plays a major role in the handling of death as a mechanic or death as a concept.

In games that lack a personal avatar such as Tetris or Bejeweled, death as a concept simply isn't applicable, while "Game Over" is their death as a mechanic and its an integral mechanic to the game. You can't have a final score and thus a high score without the game mechanics including some terminator even if its "Game Over" by completing all levels (even though you've beat the game your still effectively dead since the score is reset).

On the other hand in a (rare) game like Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, death as a concept and death as a mechanic are one and the same and the death event is integral to gameplay and doesn't break immersion since it just shifts you to the spirit plane. While it does take time to get back to where you were on the material plane, you don't have fight the same stuff over again as a reset doesn't occur and in the process you may take care of something you needed to do in the spirit plane anyway.

Then there are single player first and third person PC games where "Load Saved Game" is their death as a mechanic and death as a concept is not even represented and immersion is frequently broken by the save game screen as the player is trained to save at a time interval equal to the time they are willing to spend redoing what they just did (and this time isn't always doing something challenging, could just be getting from here to there or collecting some resource before they got ambushed).

Then there are single player first and third person console games where "Load Last Checkpoint" is their death as a mechanic much as in the PC game "Load Saved Game", except that the player has to replay as much of the game as the games' creator have deemed necessary rather then how much the player has decided was necessary by their last save.

In my opinion, these last two types of games have wasted an opportunity to build death as a concept into the game and the "Load Last Checkpoint" version has caused me to put down more then one game never to return nor anticipating the next title from that developer.

As far as punishing players goes, I gotta wonder how lucrative it is to target a game at masochists...
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Original post by MaulingMonkey
If you're striving for it, that's quickly getting back into the "oh noes you just died and completely reset your progress" stuff that, hardcode or not, I'm generally wanting to avoid. It's not scary, just irritating as hell -- for me, anyways. It results in many colorful cursewords, instead of the "Oh shit... shit shit shit SHIT SHIT SHIT AHHHHHHH AAAAAAHHHHH AAAAAAAHHHHHHH" as the situation progresses from bad to worse to being on fire, which I assure you is much more fun.


I don't really see how - as an achievement it's purely optional, and therefore if you miss it, then you can just settle for the next best one. If you're only playing the game to get that one, ultimate achievement, then maybe - but I imagine that anyone doing that would likely be a hardcore gamer who has probably played through the game several times, at least once on the hardest difficulty. By that point, if you give up in frustration, then fine; you've already played the game half to death and got more than your money's worth from it.

You can scale the achievements easily enough. "Get to level 2 without dying" could be one. "Get to level 4 without dying" could be another, and so on. The cost of failure is loss of bragging rights - which to most people, aren't so important as to make them restart the game, but always nice to have.
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An example of a game that did it right IMHO is Mirror's Edge.

The normal campaign has an insane amount of checkpoints, so that you never have to do a large part twice, but broke up the challenges is small parts, that you did have to complete in one go.

However in the speed run/time trail is where the game really shines. If you die, it is almost impossible to achieve the target times for the levels(because dieing takes a little time). You can however still finish it the level.

This combines many ideas. The first run through is usually the campaign. Low cost of dying, just provide little pieces of gameplay that you have to play through in one go (between the checkpoints).

Later run throughs, the speed run, you can still finish the whole level, for practicing, but if you die, it is extremely difficult to still make the target times. This makes this type of gameplay far more interesting, because there is a real challenge, but down time small because you can still run through the rest of the level after dying.
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As it has been said, first of all we should check the particular case of the game. If it's an endless game where it's "last as long as you can" (e.g. Tetris), some kind of stop is needed. But I'll assume we're talking about games that aren't like that.

The whole point of this is discussing what effect has death over the enjoyment that can be gotten from the game, right? Well, I won't say if death is good or not (then again, it's very game-dependent in the end), just that having to redo a part of the game isn't really bad as long as the player feels that it's making progress, or that it has hope to be able to make progress (if you get stuck somewhere that you know how to complete, e.g. a boss, you'll probably just keep trying hoping that you'll improve and eventually beat it - giving the feeling of acheivement). I'm pretty sure that having to redo the entire game because you lost your last life isn't as bad as this (if you know what I mean by linking to that video, I feel sorry for you, I was stuck there for 8 years =P).

So yeah, while of course extreme punishments are bad, it isn't really a matter of making a game as forgiving as possible but that the player feels that it can make progress or that it is making progress, because that's what makes the player wanting to play the game. And this is even true even after a game is complete, e.g. acheiving a higher score, a smaller time, reaching that impossible secret area or just testing its own skills.

-- Javier Degirolmo

EDIT: grammar ._.
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I think that if th standard save and reload structure isn't working for your game then it just shows it has gameplay problems. Generally if the learning curve is reasonable then the player shouldn't have to reload too often, and more importantly replaying a particular section shouldn't be a chore, the basic game mechanic is supposed to be fun. The very best games I've played typically had me reloading constantly even when I didn't die just to play through the awesome parts again, I end up not just trying to win, but trying win in a dramatic, stylish or perfect way.

The main legitimate reason for avoiding reloads is if a game is very story based and you don't want to disrupt the narrative immersion. Unfortunately I've never seen an attempt to provide an in character explanation for why the player can't die that didn't break immersion just as badly. Even if there are sound plot reasons for your effective immortality it doesn't explain the behaviour of the bad guys, after your fifth attempt to kill them wouldn't they get the message and run away or try something else?

The worst death system I encountered was in GTA 4. It managed to be both immersion breaking (hmm I was shot to pieces in a shoot out in which I killed a half dozen cops, and now I'm walking out of the hospital) and also really frustrating, since jumping to the start of a mission still often left you with 5 minutes of travelling time for a payoff of thirty seconds action.

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I've thought about perma-death in an MMO. I can only see it working if the game is largely skill based, there's no point having sixty levels to grind if the players can lose everything. Something that could help would be if the player could acquire titles and wealth that are inherited, so you would have in game marriages and when you die you get to reroll as one of your kids.

A sort of Mount and Blade style feudalism simulator MMO thingy would be great in principle I think, but there are probably huge problems in practice.
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I think GeraldL raises an excellent point. Death should come in two forms. The compulsory punishment and the optional punishment. What I mean by that is, death/failure by itself is not punished too heavily, maybe a quick reset, but for perfectionists, it is still a major set back. Time trails is an obvious way of doing this, but you could also have it in other ways. For example, in Fable 2, dying didn't really matter, but it would leave you with a permanent scar. I don't think the optional punishment is severe enough in that example, as it was hardly hard to get someone to fall in love with you, but I think that is the basic principle.

-Thomas Kiley
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I think it's going to come down to 1 thing with every single one of these articles and that is...

It doesn't matter what the mechanic is, how well it works in this or that game, but how it works in the game your looking at right now. In some games it is the best method, like say Mario, imagine Super Mario Bro.s without deaths. That game wouldn't be fun at all. Or you can take Fable II and add those types of death to it and that would be a worse design than what it is now. When they are used with the right game the mechanics are good, but when used with the wrong game the mechanics are bad. I can say this of just about every mechanic out there and no matter how many questions you ask about how good is this mechanic or how good is that mechanic it will all result in the singular answer of...it depends on the designer and the game. No specific mechanic alone is or will ever be good or bad.
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Are you seriously trying to tell us that its fun to play till near the end of a Nintendo Hard game like Super Mario and have to do the whole freaking game over again because you flubbed the last jump with your sweaty thumbs because you have been spending the last month, or even year, trying to beat the game?

No, I'm sorry, but I don't buy it. Yes you have a point in that some mechanics are appropriate in some games and not others, but some mechanics just don't ever produce fun results. Forcing a player to start the whole game over because of a failed challenge is just not good design. Maybe instant resurrection and a scar isn't the right mechanic for Mario, but restarting the whole game sure isn't it either.
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Re:

But games were like that and people used to dig it. Super Mario on Gameboy was fun because enemy moves were deterministic. So after a while, you could race pass stages because you know exactly where the monsters were. This was a situation where the game was fun because after repetition, the player develops a routine.

On one hand you have players that keep saying, "give the enemies better AI so that they don't do the same things over and over", on the other hand, there was the case where the game was fun because the monsters do exactly the same thing.
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The thing is with Mario the area wasn't that long between save points via levels and really if you couldn't get past the current level without using up all your lives you probably weren't skilled enough to go on so it was best to go back to the beginning because then it allows you to play more variations while building you skill...

The hinging point you seem to be working on though is that if it takes a long time and then you are sent back to the beginning then you get frustrated. That's not true. I've never seen anyone get frustrated at mario type games for the death mechanic but rather themselves for their lack of skills. And further more we can counter that more by pointing to Battle Toads stage 2 and Metal Gear for NES. Metal Gear killed you every few steps and sends you back to the beginning..no long trek, just annoying. Likewise Battletoads stage 2 when in multiplayer pretty much garentees game over, but the more frustrating part is that you sit there and have to repeat something over and over again in a relative short amount of time.

Same mechanic used in pretty much the same way. 2 out of the 3 are horrible. Are you going to say its' the mechanic that made the games frustrating? No. It's how it was used in relation to other parts of the game.


Not to go too far off track but let's take another mechanic. The special move in fighters. You press a special combination of buttons and you do a move. Some games went super easy with 1 button specials like GG or SSB which aren't all that popular as serious while others like Mortal Kombat make you put in a string of several button pushes and d-pad whirls to even get a single special to come out which makes it irritating to play and as such is unpopular as either a casual or competitive game. But we have street fighter which makes you push more than a single button, but it's natural and most people can master it as if it were pretty quickly and on top of that allows for players to invent and use their own strings of button combos...this game is by far one of if not the top fighter.

It's the same mechanic, but the area around that mechanic are slightly different which make it good or bad. We can do this with every mechanic one can ever think of so the bottom line will always be implementation and not individual pieces.
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Just a few quick ideas that came up, what if instead of death one would halt progress for that level until it is reloaded, fail too many times within a level and the possibility to continue is diminished each time.

So for a simple mario clone, fail too many times within a level and the door to the next one or a bonus level is closed to you, only other possibility is reset and try again. It would lend itself to increasing the skills needed for higher levels easily and/or for bonus material.

(Level 1, 10 tries within, else door closed)
(level 10, 5 tries within, else door closed)
(level 20, 3 tries within, else door closed)
(level 30, 5 tries within, else door closed)
(level 40, 1 tries within, else door closed)

Next to this one could make it so that one has to master certain parts to unlock a new group. It would mean if a player gets stuck they can go to the part/level select and play within the range of parts open, but need to master a set (90%) before continuing. (inside mmo's this is done via gear level, or key items to unlock a new range, no permanent death, you're just stuck at a certain group.)

Or on death for for example platform games reverse the level and play through as a ghost to get to your body to reconnect at that point.

J. Rosenboom ing.
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Note before hand: Level means physical height difference in this post. Not the levels you usually find in games as in measure of progression.

The previous post made me think about 2D platform games. Often in these games its preferable to stay has high in the level as possible (because due to gravity its usually easier to go down then up).

In this specific case you can use it to handle failing. Say you have three levels above each other. If you fail to make a jump or something like that, you fall down a level, but here you can continue. After a certain amount of time perhaps you have a possibility, if you are good enough, to climb back up again.

Make the rewards higher, in the higher levels, voilá.

Ofcourse the lowest level you cannot die, but there are no rewards, just many opportunities to go back up again.

I wouldn't appreciate this system, but many people seem to have a problem with dying. I think this is just one example of handling this, for a specific subset of games.
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A couple people have mentioned load times as the real punishment, not the actual death mechanic itself.

Perhaps we are looking at the wrong issue. As games become more complex and longer to load, the more time we spend waiting around not playing the game we purchased.

Do games with little to no load times naturally engage the player more easily?
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Of course. A forced break from the game by a load screen is very disengaging. Seamless non-stop game play is very engaging. So optimally, however death is handled, it should not stop the player from playing the game. After-all, as designers, do we really want to tell the player they can't play the game as punishment for even a minute for failing a challenge?
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I think we should look at real life and see what happens there. You obviously rarely die in real life. (actually only once) But very often you will experience obstacles which impede you, damage you, make life worse, or harden you in a way that next time you will not do that stupid thing anymore.
We should apply the same principle to games. Make death rare, but include many challenges and harsh punishments for it.
One approach to this would be to make death "permanent" (as in: you have to restart the whole level), but at the same time your character should be able to suffer numerous hits and blows which will directly be visualized on him - and have impact on his future performance.
This way players will try very hard to cause as little harm as possible to their character, and each injury will still be a great loss to the player, since it makes the path ahead more difficult to finish. At the same time, though, the player can restart the level at any time, or applied to casual games: restart from the last checkpoint, which might be just a few steps behind.
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I am on the fence about the idea of death, it does add risk but can be frustrating, in the end we play games to have fun, sometimes im just tired and want to unwind by playing for a while, i might not be playing to my full potential and dying a lot can make it a frustrating as opposed to relaxing experience.

The idea that death unlocks a new story mode is really nice in my opinion, i hate having to go through the same thing over and over because i pressed the 4 key instead of the 3 key, now if i had to do something different because i died, it would not be that frustratin.

Instead of punishing players for dying maybe we could reward players for not dying.

Not dying for x amount of time gives you some cool new power, makes you look cooler, rewards you with better stats or extra experience, while not dying for 2x amount of time gives you a much cooler power, 2x experience and so on.
This still adds an element of risk because no one would want to loose the reward by dying, and it would be incentive to play better because you know you are going to get rewarded for staying alive longer.
On the flipside players might not want to explore and take the easier way out of situations because they want the reward for staying alive, and dying 1 second away from getting the 17x cooler ability might be even more frustrating than "normal" death.
So it comes full circle, quite a conondrum.
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I think the problem with the previous two posts is, if the player is not dying, they are not the ones that need the power ups. I am all for cool looking armour and special powers, but with things like lasting injuries if you die, it just means you are more likely to die, and you were already struggling. In real life, if you got a serious injury, you would sit in hospital for weeks, but that would hardly be fun for a player. And if you just let the player fast forward through the time at the hospital, doesn't that defeat the whole point as players would just go to the hospital every time they got injured?

Thomas Kiley
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Here's an unusual example: Populous 2. It's a real-time strategy game, so there wasn't much of a "death" penalty. Loosing meant you restarted the level. The interesting thing was that the game had 500 levels - which would take weeks of solid work to complete if you had to do them one by one. But the game didn't make you do that; instead it bumped you up several levels at once, depending on how good you did on the last one. Experienced player? You'll destroy level 1, bumping you up to, say, level 50. Newbie? Might take you a couple tries and the win will be narrow, so the game will send you on to just level 2. But hey! that means you get more practice.

In this game, loss (or even just not doing so well) still means something, but it tends to not lead to unnecessary frustration. Overall, I see this as similar to Kachaka's suggestion; reward players for doing well.

Tom Brooks
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There have been a couple people that have pointed this out in some way or form. A player's strategy is devised in response to the rules and goals of a game. A light death penalty will cause the player to create different strategies than if there is a harsh death penalty.

A light death penalty might cause a player to develop strategies that are more focused on the completion of the game at any cost. This may even involve leveraging the effects of death to accomplish a particular goal if it is expedient. Take for example a room that is filled with deadly traps. Instead of the player taking their time to locate the traps, they may die repeatedly in order to discover the locations of the traps or bypass them using brute force if they are instantly revived every time they die.

A harsh death penalty might cause a player to develop strategies that are focused on survival. This would include doing things like hoarding resources, building impenetrable defenses, or putting more consideration into the effects of their actions in different situations.

Some players want to just win a game without having to try. Maybe they are just in it for the game's story, want to mess around with the game, or just happen to be a pansy. If you punish them like their father should have so they could grow up to be a man, then they will get frustrated and quit. On the other hand, people who prefer challenges are in it for the accomplishment of doing something few others can. Presenting them with a game they they can beat the first time without trying will cause them to lose interest quickly.

The real question you are asking is, "How can I make my game attractive to all of these people?" Well, it is pretty simple really. You give the player an option in how they will play your game. You leave death in the game if it fits, you provide difficulty levels, you add a system of achievements, and you provide players with an optional god mode and cheats. A player doesn't have to worry about death if they can enable a god mode.
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