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why games shouldn't punish you for dying

gamebrain1 Jun 18th, 2019 105 Never
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  1. Disclaimer: I am going to be presenting this point with the well being of good game design, player choice, design space, and high level play in mind. Individual enjoyment has nothing to do with the freedoms a player is given and the programming of mechanics into a game.
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  3. Unless we’re talking about being moved slightly before your death, having a penalty for dying in a game fundamentally limits its design space. If I had to summarize why in one sentence, even though it isn’t fully accurate, it’s because games need to be approachable to sell. If your selling point is the story, the average player needs to experience it, if it’s the gameplay, your average player needs to enjoy it. If your selling point is difficulty, then the average player NEEDS to FEEL the game is difficult. Notice in all these cases what you are selling doesn’t need to necessarily be GOOD, just fulfill its purpose.
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  5. Going to start with an example that doesn’t really have anything to do with difficulty, and is one of my favorite video games: Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep. From a game design perspective, this game is utterly garbage, I admit it. It makes you feel like the hero, the main character, with tons of flashy animations and situations you find yourself in, while in truth you are simply pressing two buttons. When examined incredibly closely the story is terrible and ruins parts of the rest of the series, but on the surface it is enjoyable. Basically what I am trying to get to is that the game is fun even though it is a bad game. Why is that a problem? Well because of the “flashy mechanics” the game sacrifices top level play potential. Whether it is spamming cartwheel or spellweaver, or a surge command at it’s hardest difficulty the game gives the player no motivation and no tools to improve. Basically to make the game flashy and give the illusion of top tier gameplay, deep mechanics were sacrificed.
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  7. While there is a lot more depth in the situation above the point is simple. The game achieves its purpose, it is fun, has a large fanbase, is acclaimed by many as one of the best in the series, and is played to this day even though it was a 2010 release. But one asks the question, how many devoted top players does it have? The answer is less than 10. Most people play it once or twice in their casual playthrough of the series and never pick it up ever again. Does it have hundreds of hours of gameplay? Sure. 3 characters, 4 difficulties (5 if you count the level 1 restriction), large amounts of side content/post game, time consuming to 100%. However as mentioned above from a game design standpoint it is terrible. From a top player perspective (i speak with experience) it is also terrible. So while the game appears good on the surface, the fundamentals of how it was built hurt it from reaching its true potential as a “good” game.
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  9. The first time I played Dark Souls I was amazed out how off from what I considered difficult the game was. Wonky character control (bad weight mechanics), off screen kills which are impossible to recognize on your first playthrough, and most importantly, a death penalty. While you may disagree with my point about character control and offscreen kills being something bad (sadly this write-up isn’t my opinion on Dark Souls) let me mention about why Dark Soul’s death penalty is actual flat out bad. Quick summary for those who don’t know, when you kill an enemy in Dark Souls you obtain souls which you can sue to basically give your character stat boosts. If you die, your soles drop and you revive at the last “checkpoint” and you need to run back to fetch them. If you mess up, sucks to suck, they’re gone now. A major problem with this situation is that many times these checkpoints are incredibly far away from your death and there is a very realistic chance you die on the way to retrieve them.  Basically Dark Souls makes the mistake of your character being able to “lose” exp as well as a terrible checkpoint system. Here’s the problem, when designing a game a major component is to make sure your game is beatable (it might be hard but a game that “can’t be beat” is fundamentally bad design). Whether you like it or not, games are built around that fundamental foundation. Now in a game where you can consistently lose exp, the devs need to make sure the game is still realistically possible to be beaten. That means that they design their game around that idea. Well here’s the problem, since many players may be entering fights with far less or far more stats than each other you somehow need to make the fights “balanced.” And usually you always balance towards the weaker player, since they too need to have a realistic chance. Going beyond dark souls here, and game that pretend to be difficult in general, this applies to gaming in general.
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  11. A game must always allow even a weak player to have a chance. Many people confuse this and assume it implies that all games should be easy but in truth all it means that someone putting in the effort to get good, should get at least decent. Having a major death penalty the affects your stats/progress for the remainder of your playthrough forces a balance around the weakest of players who are expected to be able to beat the game. Imagine how much more complex boss battle could be in Dark Souls if there was literally 0 penalty for death (except respawn). Examining situations like Kingdom Hearts 2’s Data Organization show the limits to which a game can be pushed when there are no restrictions on its design space. Imagine if every time you died to a data org member you had to redo the whole cavern of remembrance. With many casual players averaging deaths in high double digits and some maybe even the triple digits, having to redo a 20 minute segment (approximate time for a casual player) would be ridiculous. If a casual player died 100 times total for 13 fights (which is very reasonable considering their difficulty) that would add an extra 2000 minutes of unnecessary play time to their game. Instead, the checkpoint is placed right before each boss fight.
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  13. Going back to the game who’s selling point is difficulty, think about this, if entering white mist (boss fights) acted as a checkpoint in Dark Souls, would the game be considered as hard as it is now? Probably not. A large amount of time playing dark souls is spent trying to get back to where you where, greatly increasing playtime. Furthermore this repetition gives the illusion of greater difficulty, since the player needs to repeat challenges they have already faced only to die again. By dragging out the game the player feels the struggle and without thinking about it assumes difficulty. Compare this once again to the KH2 Data Organization considered one of if not the most difficult set of fights in action games. These fights have what I describe as “true” difficulty. The player has access to all the available options in the game, has had hours and hours to prepare, can use any combination of tools to its perfection in a game that allows for very high top level play and yet you still see top players die to these bosses if they don’t play well. Difficulty is derived from the pure challenge offered by the clash of different mechanics, that allow for incredible freedom. Meanwhile in Dark Souls, a boss needs to be designed to be beatable with the assumption that a player has crossed the entire area before it without resting AND the fact that the player’s stats may be lower than many others. While deaths do occur in top level dark souls play they usually results from multiple misplays (basically playing bad instead of just not playing well), the game fails to deliver pure challenge and instead makes the experience more tedious.
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  15. One might argue that I am simply picking on Dark Souls (I’ll bring more examples later), but that also I am comparing it to a game that doesn’t have the same selling point as it (ironic then that a game that sells for story and gameplay has more challenging fights on its highest difficulty than a game that literally has a “prepare to die edition”). Nevertheless, let’s compare to another game which claims difficulty as one of its selling points, Cuphead. The only death penalty Cuphead has is that you have to retry the boss (or level). That’s it. Once again this allows for much more complex boss design with bosses having multiple phases that effectively act as their own battles. The most you’ll see in Dark Souls in a phase change (if one even exists) is small changes in animation, frame startups, and maybe one or two more attacks. Anything more would kill players a lot more (since they would effectively have to learn 2 bosses in 1), forcing the process to actually become tedious since they would have to walk there every time. Meanwhile Cuphead features insane boss design with constant new attacks and mechanics being introduced in the different phases. Cuphead is indeed a truly challenging game as it requires proper use of tools paired with adaptation to the phase changes.
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  17. Now that basic death penalties are out of the way, let’s get into the juicy stuff: inventory loss, and permadeath. Regarding inventory loss, simple problem. Item you can lose regularly must be easily accessible. Simplest example of this case is minecraft. You can literally get a sword and a pickaxe in seconds, and with backup iron which you are likely to have stored safely somewhere you can also get armor back immediately after death. What’s the point of a death penalty then? It forces the game developers to make these resources readily available so the loss doesn’t prevent the player from progressing. It also makes the player unnecessarily waste time to have backup items and get important items back if they lost anything. This hurts games in two ways. First, it’s flat out repetitive for no reason. Inventory loss literally adds nothing to minecraft. You can argue it’s realistic or whatever, but it seriously adds nothing. Wasting more time to do the same thing without improving at anything is bad game design. A player should be allowed to do this if they want, but the mechanics of the game should not enforce it.
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  19. Second, and probably the biggest problem, of inventory loss: it limits item game design. Think about all the games you know with inventory loss. How many of them have items that do more than just give you stats or slightly alter your gameplay? Before we even move on to weapons, let's talk about basic items. For a game so critically acclaimed about its combat (and one of my top 3 favorite games) Nier Automata has a terrible equipment system when it comes to chips (which you lose on death and like dark souls need to run back and pick up). So what do they do? They give you stats. More damage, more defense, and a few make slight effect adjustments such as projectiles for your melee attacks. But as I mentioned only a few. Interesting how no chips directly alter your gameplay. When it comes to aiming for top level play, the player needs to have a consistent environment and character to practice once they have achieved their desired build. However, having game changing chips that changed animations and combos would mean that a player could lose these just by practicing the combos themselves on an enemy, causing a chaos of inconsistency with the player having to switch to a worse gameplay style upon death. Basically, Nier’s death penalty prevents it from creating even more unique and diverse combat and stops it from giving the player even more options.
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  21. Now let’s compare this to Ragnarok Odyssey’s cards. RO cards and Nier chips function in the exact same way in terms of how they are equipped and their purpose, and both games have a near identical fundamental combat system. Ragnarok Odyssey has no major penalty for death (simply means you lost the level/boss fight similar to cuphead). Now let’s see at what abilities cards have. Well, stat boosting cards do exists, affecting attack, health and defense, but you have a plethora of cards with fundamental game changing effects such as changing how your dodge works, changing frame of animation, power and speed of certain combos, allowing for magic to be cast in different ways, allowing melee projectiles, changing how the game stores certain values (effectively making certain abilities charge differently), and much more. These abilities fundamentally change how you play your game. Most top players usually stick with their choice for hundreds of hours of gameplay (I actually haven’t changed my dash modifier in Ace since 2016 and changing it would basically make me incapable of dodging anything since my timing would be terrible). Here’s the problem. In RO you die a lot. Like any high difficulty action game even top players need to play out of their minds to solo the hardest fights. A death penalty of invetory loss would be incredibly detrimental as it would force swittching back and forth between playstyles. While some may not have a problem with this, it actually fundamentally limits the skill cap of a game. In a game all about timing and combos, post game content is designed to only be soloable by incredible players. In the original Ragnarok Odyssey there are actually only 4 players who have proof of soloing all 16 star missions (hardest in the game) having spent hundreds of hours per mission with a single setup. That is the true representation of challenge and top level play. Practicing hundreds of hours with set mechanics. Now imagine if a single death 500 hours in fundamentally changed how you play the game. For anyone saying you could just get another card, many of these cards and abilities take upwards of 30 hours to get in the first place. So ye, my main problem against death penalties in gaming is this. I strongly believe that the hardest games out there don’t need a penalty to be hard, and that death penalties only hurt the people trying to be the best at the game. I’ll explain more of this after permadeath.
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  23. So here we are. Permadeath. I’ll start with the simplest argument. In terms of difficulty, no game with permadeath can ever be the greatest challenge out there. Having to restart an entire playthrough after one death has a simple effect, it kills design space. Going back to the beginning of the write-up a game needs to be beatable. That means when you decide to include permanent death in your game and restarting from zero, the fundamental rules of your game are built around it. First problem, that means enemies are by default easier than in a scenario with no permadeath. Notice I use the word easier and not easy. They can still be difficult, but by default everything needs to be beatable in a row with no deaths at a certain skill level. Second problem, everyone needs to be able to die. If a player can get to a skill level or an item set where death is nearly impossible then they break your game since they will easily squash everything with minimal effort (and then we get to the BBS point of top level play being incredibly limited/nonexistent). That means you instantly need to hard cap all items in the game to not be op. Problem is many abilities in games are powerful because of what they do, not their effective stats. A major example of this is canceling animations (I’ll talk more about this later). Secondly, as mentioned above, you must make sure all players can die. Either through an rng element, a one-hit-ko attacks or some other method, that implies even top players can die regardless of how good they are. Thats a problem and nine times out of ten leads to bad enemy design. RNG should never outvalue skill and there should always be a realistic chance for a player who has gone above and beyond in the thousands of hours to always survive. This contradicts with the game design forced by permadeath however resulting in an ugly mess where the game mechanics force something that is unhealthy for the nourishment of top level play.
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  25. Whether intentionally or not, many times games have mechanics that transcend what is thought to be possible and complete change how the game is played. Usually games like these foster the best environment for top level play since these mechanics are nearly always precise or frame perfect. In most games, these are left untouched if patches exist allowing top level play to develop to the extreme and create true master of the game (usually these mechanics are so hard they can never truly be mastered to 100% consistency, examples being grimm eclipse animation canceling or ocarina of time hessing with even top players dropping the inputs from time to time). The problem is many of these mechanics trivialize the base difficulty of the game, in the sense that using them removes the challenge from the fights themselves. However, these tricks themselves then take on the difficulty since they are much harder to perform/execute consistently than any of the challenges presented by the game. Basically these techniques become a challenge in themselves and define top level play. You may ask how this relates to permadeath but it's simple. No game with permadeath has anything like this. Notice I'm not talking about top level play but instead the fostering of something beyond the game’s difficulty. Whether you like it or not, a game needs to be beatable by devs and testers to be released and sorry to ruin it for you but the devs and testers will never be the best players of the game. Advanced mechanics that give the player insane freedom if mastered but are impossible to truly master are the definition of an ideal skill cap, where a player can spend thousands of hours on a game and improve. However, a game made around permadeath cannot foster such mechanics. As mentioned above, if a player was to surpass the threat of permadeath then the games falls apart since many times a large part of these games is to avoid permadeath. If you can show me a game with permadeath, and I mean true permadeath, not transferring over things, that has advanced mechanics (not just people playing well, but a fundamental part of the games function) where someone would need to spend thousands of hours to master, and that game having no BS ways to kill that person then I would suck this entire rant up and accept that game as something that’s fine. However in all other cases, there is literaly no way someone can show that permadeath is healthier for top player cultivation than no death penalty. This is my primary reason for disliking permadeath, everything I will say from here on comes second far below this. I am someone who has pushed to the top in many different video games and that is only because there is an environment that allows people to push to the top. Permadeath is like Birth by sleep’s gameplay. On the surface level it presents difficulty, but sacrifices true potential of long lasting top play to do so.
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  27. As said above this doesn’t really bother me as much but I felt like it’s something worth noting. Time investment. While nothing lasts forever, for me at least, video games are a form of escapism that isn’t necessarily meant to mirror the real world. When creating a character I become invested in them. I spend time making them as I like them, and in a way form a connection. Having tens maybe even hundreds of hours of investment disappear because I failed to dodge one attack is actually kind of ridiculous. Not only does it feel like a waste of time, it is also flat out not fun. A good video game rewards players who continue to play and try their best, permadeath is the exact opposite of that. No matter how many times you restart you can always lose everything (or mostly everything). What a terrible feeling to include in something that’s meant to put a smile on people’s faces.
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  29. I mean that’s the basics of it. I could into details about exacts mechanics and so on but I feel like this is a decent summary of the situation. A casual player will most likely be unaffected by the situation since they will just play until they beat the game and move on, or just never push themselves more, but someone who does want to push themselves needs to have the tools to do so, and sadly death penalties limit those tools due to the game being designed around them. At the end of the day how much you enjoy a game is up to you. In terms of fun some people may enjoy a penalty for failing. However in terms of top level play, no game that actively punishes players for trying something harder than they can achieve will be able to compete with games that give their players pure mechanical freedom.
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