Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
May you win every game you play!

There are sayings, often referred to as Chinese curses, which appear to be blessings on first sight, but on closer inspection are in fact a curse on the recipient. I believe that for games such a Chinese curse would be "may you win every game you play!". Because, with the obvious exception of gambling where there is a financial gain to be had from winning, the interest in playing games is the excitement to find out whether you can win. If the win is assured, the interest in playing disappears.

Unfortunately video games evolved in part from arcade games, which had a "win to progress, lose and you need to put in another quarter" business model. Our PC and console games don't need quarters any more, but the "win to progress" design stayed with us. Games still frequently use a design in which you *need* to win to get to the next part of the content. If you lose, you are punished by having to play the same content again, over and over, until you beat it.

It appears that this instilled into gamers an absolute horror of losing. They believe that if they play and lose, they can't have fun. Warsyde, The Babbling Gamer, tells the story of a friend who doesn't want to play World of Tank any more, because he can't win all the time in that game. But if you want to always win, you can only play PvE games, and then you still have to either use god mode cheats, or play games with a difficulty level so low that it is practically impossible to lose.

The sad thing is that this is purely psychological. In World of Tanks you do not need to win to progress. The developers realized, rightly, that while it is impossible for everybody to win in a PvP game, it is perfectly possible for everybody to progress. You just need to remove the arcade game artefacts from game design, and have people progress even if they lose. Less fast, with less titles, medals, and achievements, but letting them progress anyway.

I do think that there is a lesson to be learned here for good game design, which is not only applicable to PvP games. Instead of tuning a MMORPG like World of Warcraft or a single-player game to such a low difficulty that there is simply no challenge any more, just to avoid anybody getting stuck, you can simply make sure that progress is always possible. For example L.A. Noire allows players to skip sequences they get stuck on. I'd rather have such legalized cheating in games than game companies realizing that very few players ever finish single-player games any more and deciding that games are too big and too hard.

MMORPGs are even further away from what players actually want than most single-player games. They developed a "single difficulty fits all" game design philosophy, in which even the exceptions to that rule, like "normal" and "heroic" dungeons, end up not being alternative choices. Some content exists only at extremely easy difficulty, other content only exists only in one or two flavours of "very hard". Thus players find themselves in situations where they either always win or always lose. A curse indeed, because neither is much fun. It would be much better to encourage players all the time to tackle the hardest possible content they can handle, while always giving them the option to tone things down a notch or two if they are in danger of getting stuck.

"Win to progress" is such a sad phrase to me because the compulsion to win is almost entirely a result of the progression scheme being there. Remove progression, and people care less about winning, or if they care it's for competition's sake. The reason games don't do this is, as you mention, a result of the desire to equalize players. Removing progression practically guarantees your games tilts towards skill-based mechanics because it has to interest players on a session-by-session basis (chess, LoL, TF2). That is, the game has to be interesting. Progression-based games can be incredibly boring (The Sims Social, the Villes) because people want to progress, not to play. If you want to move away from single-difficulty-fits-all, ditch traditional EQ-style progression.
I have played some single player PVE games that in theory allow you to progress even if you lose battles but somehow it never seems to work out that way.

An early example was Earthsiege that offered a branching mission structure depending on whether you won or lost battles. Unfortunately the players natural tendency was to keep re-loading until they won meant that most players never got to see the "loser" missions.

Total War games and probably other RTS games don't end if you lose one battle. You can in theory rebuild and reconquer. Again though it is very hard to resist the temptation to reload and try again. This temptation is re-inforced by the knowledge that even a single loss puts you further behind in the resource race.
Funny, i just read an article in "Die Zeit" about Dark Souls, which is going exactly the other way and is aiming for the hardcore gamer and punishes every mistake with death and corpseruns.

not that i will play it, but funny that you write about it at the same time.
The importance of 'progressing while losing' in WoT hadn't really struck me until you highlighted it. It's a massive reason to keep plugging away.

My win to loss ratio is 48% - recovering back to the mean I expect as it had dipped to 46%.

It took a while to get used to the fact that one will lose half your games no matter how skilled or unskilled you are in open play. When you can kill 8 enemy tanks (evil evil arty) and still lose it hits home to you that your individual performance isn't really important.

I'd be interested to see how a PvE game could reward 'losing' though in any meaningful manner that players wouldn't start to game.
I think you've put your finger on why the current trend towards story-driven MMOs doesn't really make sense. Other narrative-driven entertainments simply don't have a "lose" factor.

You can't fail to read a novel or watch a movie. You can decide not to finish, but that's entirely different. As long as you keep reading or watching you will inevitably reach the end of the story.

For a story to work in an MMO, you have to allow everyone to get to the end of it. There can be no "lose" condition. Without the "lose" condition, you don't have a game. Without the inevitable success of reaching the end of the narrative you don't have a story.

For my money, MMOs shouldn't be games. I came in through the "virtual world" door and I don't require the "game" part to maintain my interest. Equally, however, they shouldn't be stories. They should contain stories, but that isn't at all the same thing.
In the Terry Pratchett novel "Interesting Times" the villan wishes for an opponent to play chess against who is just as intelligent as himself. He then reflects on that, and decides that he would rather play chess against someone who is *almost* as intelligent as himself, but with some subtle but deep flaw such that the villan always wins every game. I have some sympathy with this view after winning 2 and losing 4 games of Starcraft last night.
I think Minecraft is a good example of this.

When I first started playing Minecraft I lost a lot of sleep and thought it was an incredible game. I still think its great, but now its just a building simulation, because the survival part is too easy.

I'd love to have monsters and the environment progressively more threatening so I had a reason and a challenge to make me build bigger and more advanced projects.
Of all the games I've played lately, LOTRO appears closest to this standard. There are classes that are more difficult than others (and you are told this when you create the character) and there are difficult "solo" quests that some players would have more difficulty than others, regardless of class. And of course there are group-only quests, some of which you can choose to attempt solo with a quest specific power boost (which still doesn't guarantee success).

The notion I can venture into an area where I am likely to die all by myself does indeed make the game more enjoyable. Of course at some point I can overpower pretty much any quest (although in LOTRO, its not always as fast as you think). But the choice of challenge adds flavor to the game.

Its still a sword and sorcery text based story telling game. It can be very grindy at times and the gameplay isn't drastically different from other MMORPGs. But its not a faceroll-on-rails. And that's what I'm enjoying about it right now. Ask me when I have 2 level 75 characters, I may feel differently.
The whole concept of winning in a virtual world is weird to me. Progress is progress and different players should be able to choose their measure of progress that is appealing to them. I guess the idea of winning-losing applies more to battlegrounds.

Any progress (attainment of a goal) itself should be the win in the player's mind. If my goal in WoT is to research all trees, the actual "winning" part of the matches is merely incidental to my real "winning" end-goal.
You are making the assumption that progression equals fun. That all that players are interested in is progress. That is not true or we'd all be playing Progress Quest. The degree to which progression contributes to fun depends on the player.

Some players enjoy grinding for hours to collect virtual rewards, while others don't care about progress at all and enjoy challenging themselves against others in pure PvP. And there are all variations in between.

You've made it clear, in this post and others, that virtual progress makes a significant contribution to the fun you have when you play. However others may not feel the same. The degree to which the progress you make when losing a match in WoT can offset the sting of the loss itself is very player dependent. I don't agree that there is anything 'sad' about that at all.

"If the win is assured, the interest in playing disappears."

What if I replace the word "win" with the word "progress"?

If progress is assured, the interest in playing disappears.

Obviously you don't agree with that, I assume. There is still interest in the challenge of trying to win. However I can make a similar statement in response to the original quote. Even if the win is guaranteed there is still fun in the progress to be achieved. Millions of farmville players would seem to agree.

My point it that fun is very player dependent. Challenge, progress, competition, results, and other factors all contribute to fun and in different ratios for different players. Suggesting that everyone should share your perspective on the matter is naive.
The idea of winning every game you play as a curse was taken up by an old "Twilight Zone" episode. The main character was in the afterlife and won at everything he did. At first he thought he was in Heaven, but as he realized that life held no real attraction when everything he tried succeeded, he soon realized he was actually in Hell.
"I'd be interested to see how a PvE game could reward 'losing' though in any meaningful manner that players wouldn't start to game."

Just give smaller rewards for losing than winning. The important thing is that the reward must not make it worth signing up and making no effort (like that old AFK in Alterac Valley thing). It should not be beyond the wit of game designers to reward only players who made some effort.
Reminds me of an article I saw quoting some famous critic about video games as art. To paraphrase: 'Clearly video games are the highest form of art - no other art form requires you be good at viewing it to see more of it.'
@Savrukk: Dark Souls is... interesting. It's very different. Something draws you on, wanting to see what's around that corner. Because when you die, you get the feeling it's not because the game is too hard, but rather because you screwed up somehow and you KNOW you can do it better. It's evident every time you take a single monster for granted - even 'trash' - and are swiftly punished for your hubris. It means that to get to the next desperately-desired save/safe point, you need to be on top of your game, the entire time. And soon, you find yourself rising to that challenge. Realizing this is exhilirating.

It has kind of inspired me to go through and try other games on much harder difficulty settings than that which I normally play. To force myself to adapt and improve as second nature, rather than only when required. I watched a friend playing BF3 recently, and to me he seemed like some sort of invincible cyborg-ninja incapable of firing a shot that wasn't a headshot. In my narcissistic bubble I refused to believe that he is naturally superior - I reasoned that he worked for these skills, and that I could too. So. Nightmare difficulty it is. On everything. Failure will teach me.

Similar to when working out at a gym, you won't get any bigger if you don't lift weights that are too hard for you and cause you to fail after the appropriate number of reps/sets. It's why body-builders and trainers talk about 'to failure' as your goal. Failure IS success. Because when your body rebuilds, it will rebuild better.
Progression through failure also has some serious drawbacks, which are clearly visible in WoT:

- people AFK-fighting ("who cares, I get XP anyway")
- people dropping group or AFKing as soon as the battle seems lost ("less time spent, same XP gain, XP/time goes up! whohoo!").

The forums are full of QQ about how there should be harsh penalties for this kind of behaviour (i.e. remove the "progression through failure").
If progress is assured, the interest in playing disappears.

Depends on what kind of progress. If "lack of progress" means you are condemned to play through the same content over and over, then yes, players need progress to remain interested.

But a game in which you don't "level up" but still get fresh content frequently would be quite viable. People don't stop to play chess because their ELO score isn't going up fast enough any more.
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