Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
 
Handling in-game consequences

So I managed to finish Red Dead Redemption over the Easter weekend. One trick I used was a way to get basically infinite money without using a cheat code: Save game, play high-stakes poker, reload if you lose, save game if you win, rinse, lather, repeat. That trick works in pretty much every single-player game which has both a save game feature and a built-in game of chance. And it made me think about how games handle consequences.

Especially in PC games there has been a trend towards "save anywhere, anytime" features, with quick save and quick load function keys. Thus the "penalty" for not succeeding in some activity is having to reload and do it over. And over. And over. The developers know that players can try again, so they don't mind putting in scripted nasty instakill surprises in their games, which players can only possibly avoid after having been killed by them once. Not the very best game design, in my opinion.

In console games you often can only save your game at specific points. Thus you need to play through each sequence without saving, and need to redo the whole sequence from the last checkpoint if you fail. As that sequence might have several of those nasty surprises, you need to memorize them while playing. Every subsequent attempt gets you further, and gets easier, because you will know what will happen.

Multiplayer online games have respawns instead of reloads. It used to be that this respawn involved some sort of penalty, thus trying the same activity over and over by dying your way through it was not a good option. That has changed: Modern MMORPGs let you respawn with just a token penalty of repair cost. As thus there isn't much of a difference between respawning at the graveyard and reloading at the checkpoint, a raid encounter plays remarkably like a level on a console game: You succeed once everybody has memorized what will happen at each step of the encounter. The only advantage of multiplayer games is that you can't reload after every random roll that doesn't come out in your favor.

Personally I am not a big fan of failing your way through the content game design. I feel it is somewhat lazy, as the designers don't really need to worry whether their challenges are reasonable. But I can also see the advantage in guaranteeing that everybody will be able to finish the game and the story. In Red Dead Redemption there is no possible way you can get stuck: Fail a mission repeatedly and you get an option to skip it, with the only consequence being not getting the achievements related to it. I just wonder whether that couldn't be achieved by a different design, one that doesn't rely on the player dying repeatedly without consequences.

Comments:
Is there any objective difference between playing poker and reloading if you lose and simply installing a cheat code?

I ask because I would save and reload but I'd feel cheesey if I used a third party cheat. Now I'm not sure why I distinguish between the two.
 
It's tough to design a game for multiple skill sets w/o using gcd's.
 
Is there any objective difference between playing poker and reloading if you lose and simply installing a cheat code?

Is there any objective difference between doing a gunfight and reloading if you lose and simply installing a cheat code?
 
There is a objective difference between cheat codes and reloading.

Cheat code "beats" game by eliminating whatever problem you had.

Reloading "beats" game by adjusting your memory/pattern matching skills to task at hand using multiple repeats.

As success at tasks (as well as matching patterns right) often has real-world benefits, you feel "joy" in second case - endorphins release and all. Anything that provides survival benefit has to feel rewarding.

And then you feel either indifferent or somewhat annoyed using cheat codes - as evidenced by players quickly getting bored once they start using them.
 
I think reloading just lets you beat the random number generator. So if you feel that's cheating you might prefer less random games.
 
"Is there any objective difference between doing a gunfight and reloading if you lose and simply installing a cheat code?"

I would argue that losing a gunfight involves failing a "skill check". This could involve failure to effectively use cover/line-of-sight, spatial awareness and maybe twitch reflexes. Choice of weapons and use of gun time also have an impact.

Restarting from a save point allows you to learn from your mistakes and have another bite of the cherry.
There is a certain amount of satisfaction in improving to the extent that you eventually pass such skill checks, which is robbed if the challenges are RNG based or can be skipped through cheat codes.
 
There is a certain amount of satisfaction in improving to the extent that you eventually pass such skill checks, which is robbed if the challenges are RNG based or can be skipped through cheat codes.

Wouldn't "skill" be if you can beat anything the random number generator throws at you? I am kind of doubtful of the "skill" which consists of "I died from the scripted enemy popping up at the right, so next time I know he'll pop up there again and will be prepared". To me that suggests more of a skill in playing Memory than of a skill in playing a shooter.
 
Reading this reminded me of the very first Civilization game, which (at least my version) had the interesting oddity that a loaded game always started with the beginning of a "fresh" turn with no units moved. So you couldn't just game the rng so that your spearman would ultimately win over the mech inf, you could effectively conquer whole continents in just a single turn (I think loading a unit on board a transport actually made it unavailable after reloading). Doing this taught me in a very real sense how easy it is to optimise the fun out of games.

More specifically on topic, for me the problem is mainly one where you don't fail completely at something. Failing usually means dying in some "game" sense. I never mind retrying, because like Shlacker and Bernard pointed out I usually feel a bit more accomplished after succeeding the second, third or even thirtieth time. I'm still a "gamer" at heart that way.

Instead, I have difficulty with those instances when things don't go as well as I'd wish. Like when I get caught by cops in Grand Theft Auto and get sent to jail. That prompts a "voluntary" reload, which makes me feel like a cheat. Same thing as with those Civilization reloads: it makes me feel like a cheat, a bit inferior. Un-great. I wish they could work out a way where I would feel more invested in my character, where I would feel that it was acceptable to continue playing even after a temporary setback like that.

One way of doing that, I think, is to do away with the "achievement" culture. There is always a nagging sense (in me) that the game on some level keeps track of my progress and will (or won't) award me with some achievement or other at the end for getting caught very few times or not being hospitalised and so on. If I could know while playing that there would be no serious repercussions later on for one of these "minor" failures, I'd have more incentive to just keep going.

Of course, that would never work for strategy games. If you suck (like I still do), you suck – and then you just have to stick to the tried-and-tested lose-reload-lose-reload-win technique!
 
Wouldn't "skill" be if you can beat anything the random number generator throws at you?

Whether it's skill at beating the RNG or at repeating memory patterns, it's a learning process that gives many people satisfaction. That's what sells games. I think!
 
I am kind of doubtful of the "skill" which consists of "I died from the scripted enemy popping up at the right, so next time I know he'll pop up there again and will be prepared".

My definition of "skill" in this context is to differentiate human influence from RNG.

If you fail because you rolled a 6 on a d20 and succeed the following attempt by rolling a 20, I would not consider this to be skill.

However, to use your example Tobold, you used your memory, anticipation, choice of weapons and muscle memory to kill the newly spawned enemy before he killed you on the second attempt.

You passed the "skill check" and are entitled to feel a small buzz from it. On a higher difficulty setting, knowing where 1 enemy spawns will not be enough to see you succeed, but the pay-off will be bigger... :)
 
You can't cheat unless there's a rule to break. If there is no rule against saving and reloading, it isn't cheating. If "cheat" codes exist and can be obtained legally, using them isn't cheating.

In fact, it isn't possible to "cheat" at any single-player game in any way that justifies the term. You can open a murder mystery a couple of pages from the end and read whodunnit and that's not cheating because there are no rules to reading a novel. Same applies to playing a computer game.

In order for "cheating" to exist, there must be not only be rules but also enforcement for their breach. You can break the rules in a video-game Tournament or competition, but it's the competition at which you are cheating, not the game and it's the tournament's rules that are enforceable. Similarly, you can cheat in an online game because the shared space has rules which can be broken and enforced.

Cheating is very different from spoiling your own fun, of course. Only an individual can decide whether cheat codes or repeated saving and reloading is spoiling his or her fun. For my money, the main reason I abandoned Dragon Age half-way through was my growing irritation with progress-through-repeated-failure. After a certain point I couldn't help thinking that my team had utterly failed by dying many times and their cause, even if I ever finished the tedious process, would long ago have been lost.

This doesn't occur in MMOs because of the universal respawn mechanic. When nothing ever dies for good, not characters or monsters, progress by repeated failure becomes intrinsically acceptable within the notional world.
 
"whether that couldn't be achieved by a different design, one that doesn't rely on the player dying repeatedly without consequences"

Killing player character is valid punishment, because players are supposed to care about their characters.

To punish the player in some other way, designers first should create something else that players care about.

Instead of killing a player character, each failed quest could destroy a whole city in the game world, making it permanently unavailable (or better transforming it to scorched ruins), or cause an NPCs to die (naturally, both locations and NPC should be good enough for player to miss them). Unskilled players still make progress and can beat the game, but only the best players get happy ending.

I'd definitely would play a game where someone else has to pay a terrible price for your mistakes. That would be emotional punishment instead of punishment with frustration, which sounds better. I guess.
 
After a certain point I couldn't help thinking that my team had utterly failed by dying many times and their cause, even if I ever finished the tedious process, would long ago have been lost.

I usually rationalise that using the logic of retroactivity. The game that I finally finished was the real outcome in that game's particular universe. All the failed attempts were also true, but in some parallel universe that I no longer need care about. Kind of like your (and my) life up until now: a long chain of successes leading up to the present-moment perfection.

There was a game that did this literally. I think it was one of the Uncharted games, but I can be mistaken. Every time you died, the protagonist would say over the death screen something along the lines of "Oh wait, that's not quite how it happened...", and restart. Even though it got annoying to hear all the time, the idea stuck with me.

I'd definitely would play a game where someone else has to pay a terrible price for your mistakes. That would be emotional punishment instead of punishment with frustration, which sounds better. I guess.

Interesting. For me, it's the opposite. That's exactly the kind of mechanic that causes me to reload a previous save, significantly reducing my enjoyment of the game. Particularly so if the "punishment" has not been advertised in advance.
 
I think of raid deaths as part of learning. That's also what I did through my school years. I know you and many others might say that it's supposed to be fun since it's a game, but some of us like a certain degree of learning and think even through a game.
 
Fail a mission repeatedly and you get an option to skip it

I don't care about achievements. If I were given an option to get to end game quicker by repeatedly failing quests, then my objective would be to figure out how to fail the objective as quickly as possible.

(And I don't know why my previous comment posted twice.)
 
A notable exception to the "Save then gamble" hack was in Knights of the Old Republic. If you won several hands in a row, then the NPC accused you of cheating and would refuse to continue playing.

Not a perfect solution, but pretty satisfying given the limitations.
 
"That's exactly the kind of mechanic that causes me to reload a previous save, significantly reducing my enjoyment of the game."

Of course, not every game would benefit from this.

For example, in an average dating sim, where the whole point is to get the harem ending, killing NPCs is unacceptable :]

On the other hand if the game theme is already about loss, it's another story.
Imagine a game where you're trying to save a bunch of survivors from hordes of zombies. Losing a squadmate is tragic, but perfectly logical in this kind of world (the point in zombie apocalypse being "everybody eventually dies").

I believe this is counter-intuitive for achievement-based philosophy of gaming, but death of an NPC could mean something other than just -1000 to your score, it could be as meaningful as, you know, death of a character in a book or movie. By losing something, you acquire something else. Emotions. Meaning. Experience. Wisdom. And, after all, you aren't stuck and can progress further in the game :]

So, you've finished a game/book/movie and got a great, sad story. Would you actually want to reload and try to save Juliet?
 
Random,

Yes, meaningful sacrifices would be cool I think. Sales figures might be the basis for a new Shakespearean comedy though...

Seriously, I like it. A forced choice between two bad situations happen sometimes in games and even though it feels awkward in the moment, I do think it adds to the emotional depth. But you certainly can't overdo it.

And the game has to communicate the definiteness of this in some (hopefully subtle) way. Otherwise the majority of players would go "Damn, my heavy died. I'll reload and save him to get the awesomejuice ending". After five reloads they'd be mad and quit the game. Cue Metacritic score of 62.
 
Mass Effect 1 and Dragon Age 2 both have moments where you are forced into a hard choice between companions; you will lose one, no matter what decisions you make or how often you reload your save. The attachment that was made is evidenced by the lengthy and repeated forum threads about what was the Right Choice.

But in any case, I agree with Tobold that 'reload until you learn all the stupid tricks' gameplay is dumb and barely a game. All the things that happen are pre-scripted, so it's just learning your part in the play without being given the script beforehand.

The Saint's Row series, say what you will about it, at least got that part right. They give you an objective and you can do what you want to make it happen.
 
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