Tobold's Blog
Thursday, November 28, 2013
 
Game over - You lost!

Once upon a time the main business of video games was arcades, because the home computer and console market was still in its infancy. And video games were designed after the same principle as other arcade games, e.g. a pinball table: Your quarter bought you a number of lives, and you played until you lost all of those. Games were designed to be lost, because if you could play for hours for your quarter, the arcade owner would only find one quarter in his machine every day.

Fast forward to today, and really losing a video game has become a rarity. I'm currently playing XCOM again, due to the recently released Enemy Within expansion, and if you get to the screen where you are told in a nice cut-scene that you lost and the aliens now control Earth, it comes as kind of a shock. Because this harsh kind of "Game over - You lost!" has become so unusual these days.

Now you'll say: "Nonsense, I'm playing League of Legends / World of Tanks / World of Warcraft Arenas / etc., and I'm losing often enough!". But are you really? You don't lose previous progress in any of these games. Quite often it is a system where you even get rewarded for losing, only that it is less than for winning. You can lose World of Tanks all day long and still get to the next tier of tanks. There is never a screen that tells you that you have permanently lost, and will need to start over from the beginning. Basically many games have a short-term combat module and a long-term progression linking the fights together. And in XCOM you can lose the long-term progression, while in many other games you can't.

Of course you could say that not really being able to lose long-term progress is an improvement of game design. As we don't operate on quarters any more, there is no business logic behind letting people lose games any more. Just the opposite: If we talk about a game with a business model in which players pay more over time (by subscription or item shop), making somebody lose and rage-quit would be counter-productive. On the other hand losing the game works reasonably well in XCOM, because the alternative is winning the game, which also ends all your progress.

I have been playing games with eternal progress where I deliberately stopped playing with an advanced game only to restart from scratch. Often you need to make a new account for that, unless there is a beta reset or something. Progressing in a game isn't all good, sometimes a game is more interesting in the early phases. So sometimes I wonder whether we need more games which you can actually lose. What point is there in "winning" if it is the only available option?

Comments:
Thankfully there are still a number of games that give you a hardcore mode where death is permanent. And some games where that is the only option. I've been playing Don't Starve a bit recently, which gives you some mechanics to resurrect on death but it is still pretty easy to Game Over.
 
What we need are clearer lines between the many kinds of electronic entertainment. Far, far too many things get labeled or marketed as "games" when they could more accurately be represented as pastimes, hobbies or branches of the various creative arts.

I'm not all that interested in playing games but I'm very interested in being entertained.

 
In the old days you ran out of lives and it was game over. I think of Spectrum/C64 games.

However many of these would only take 30 mins to complete if you didn't die - which didn't happen without cheats because they were rock hard - often for technical reasons (poor collision detection, laggy controls, low frame rates) as much as anything else.

Go look at playthroughs on Youtube, I just checked out some of my favourite ZX Speccy games and they were 20 minutes in length!!! Of course I spent many hours playing them because I rarely got more than 10 minutes in and kept repeating from the beginning.

Now in WoW you can spend 20 minutes on a boss and die at 5%. You end up worse than you started. Unlike PVP there are no rewards for losing. You gain no emblems, no gear and you lose gold, food buffs and potions. That is actually worse off than in the old days of home gaming although yes in the Arcades you would have lost money.

Because games are so much longer and deeper you cannot lose your overall progress because no sane person would consider it worthwhile. That worked in the days of 20 to 30 minute games but won't fly today with games lasting anywhere from 10 to over a 100 hours!

The actual maximum time penalty I pay for failing hasn't changed much over the years though. Yeah check points have been getting closer more recently but I don't have an issue with that.

Even with generous checkpoints you still have to successfully clear everything. Without the checkpoints spaced further apart the difficulty hasn't changed as you still have to overcome the same trials. A lack of checkpoints merely increases the repetition and that challenges a players spare time and not their skill. It simply wastes your time re-clearing trivial content that you already mastered before you can get back to the bit that challenged you.

That was what the old school games used to do.

I do like Bhagpuss' phrase about being more interested in "entertainment" than "games". The older I get the more that applies to me. "Games" tend to be the 20 minute type which can have perma-death. "Digital entertainment" for want of a better phrase tends to be the longer variety.

Think of GTA5. It has 100 hours of "digital entertainment" but is broken down into 20 minute "games" (the missions). The "games" do have a game over screen and do force you to start from the beginning having lost all previous progress. The "Digital Entertainment" sees you permanently advancing.
 
Outside computer games a pastime with a win condition and a lose condition like football or chess is generally considered a game and a pastime with no win/lose conditions like stamp collecting or dressing up is considered a hobby or just play.
 
I like how "hardcore mode" of today was just the normal mode in years past.

You'll probably like State of Decay. It uses auto saves where your progress is always stored, even if that "progress" is getting your guys killed and such.
 
Yeah, good old times. Now if a game has a game over screen, they call it Hardcore Mode (Diablo) :)
 
But Joseph the regular mode today is the same as the hardcore mode from the past. As I said a single GTA mission can be longer than an entire arcade or 8 bit computer game!

The hardcore modes of today can't be compared to those past games as back then you were not putting as much time on the line.

Also don't think there is anything "hardcore" about those modes because whilst it does encourage slightly more cautious strategic play, it is still primarily a test of time and a players resilience to repetition than an outright test of skill. Indeed a low skilled player that suffers from autism would prefer a hardcore mode more than a high skilled player with no such condition.

I often wondered about my brother. He never finished games but would repeatedly "start again" after getting for our five hours in. It became a running joke in our house. I never understood why he liked to destroy all that progress and precious time and see the same parts again and again and again.
 
Games like Faster than Light or Sword of the Stars: The Pit have permanent death with game over screens, and are still quite fun. There are some facets of the games that can still carry over to new games (new ships in the former, recipes in the latter)that help you to get farther along, but all it takes is an increase in difficulty and it's like starting from scratch. You can have a single session that lasts twenty minutes, or several hours yet still results in your demise. Or you can finally make all of the right choices (and have a little luck) and win the game. It's still not going to take twenty minutes to complete though. These games were both released within the last year or so, and are proof that old school concepts can still work with modern gamers. Either that or I'm getting old.
 
Another problem is that there seems to be no way to provide a meaningful "you lose" condition. In all games, you lose = start again = play again the same stuff you just played. I've never seen a game which makes use of the "loss" to lead to anything different than grinding....
I always joke and call "permagrind" what others call "permadeath", because in reality that's what it is.... it's not permanent at all, you just have to start over again.
 
This is why Rogue-likes and survival games are reemerging as a genre, it just feels so fresh to be stomped in-game and be told to start over.

FTL and Don't Starve are staples of those genres and for good reason, I suggest you check them out if you haven't already.
 
I can see where Woody's brother is coming from, especially if the games are CRPGs. To me they nearly always seem like more fun in the beginning and turn into more of a slog as they go on. Of course, he might also be suffering from perfectionism, i.e. going back to pick up every item and unlock every locked door that he might have missed.

As for perma-death / perma-punishment, it's all about balance and fun. CRPGs used often penalise you for dying by reducing character experience - that was no fun and has pretty much died out.

The survival of hardcore play in Roguelikes is not so much due to them being short, as to the worlds being procedurally generated. So when you start again it's a completely new adventure with new maps etc. That takes a lot of the pain away from having to restart.
 
Another problem is that there seems to be no way to provide a meaningful "you lose" condition. In all games, you lose = start again = play again the same stuff you just played. I've never seen a game which makes use of the "loss" to lead to anything different than grinding....
I always joke and call permagrind" what others call "permadeath", because in reality that's what it is.... it's not permanent at all, you just have to start over again.


I think the question is whether you can be expected to learn something valuable from the loss which you can apply to the next iteration, hopefully making it more successful. For example I restarted one XCOM game because I simply forgot to build satellites, so once I had finally finished my satellite uplinks, I didn't have any satellite to launch. I'll never make that mistake again. But if your death in the previous game was more or less random, you don't learn anything.
 
Basically many games have a short-term combat module and a long-term progression linking the fights together. And in XCOM you can lose the long-term progression, while in many other games you can't.

I think that the ability to lose the long-term game progression is simply a genre-specific trope.

Other commenters have mentioned roguelikes as a bastion of permadeath, but "you lost!" screens are also alive and well in strategy games, such as Civilization V, Crusader Kings II, Total War, and yes, XCOM.
 
Dwarf Fortress! There is NO win condition. It always ends in well, mass slaughter. Eventually.

Also it is actually possible to finish Mass Effect 2 (i.e. get the Mission complete screen for the final mission) with Shepard dead. At which point... That save can't be imported into Mass Effect 3.
 
For example I restarted one XCOM game because I simply forgot to build satellites, so once I had finally finished my satellite uplinks, I didn't have any satellite to launch.

I ended up not playing the latest XCOM, but I played a lot the early ones (first in particular).
The reason why "permadeath" was not really a big problem (at least the first few times), is exactly what you say: you have to restart but have learned useful information (such as which weapons to research first, etc.), as a result the second game can be significantly different from the first.
The randomized encounter zones also make it look more Rogue-like than a static scenario.

BTW I also agree with the other posters: the big difference is the length of the game: restarting in a shorter game is no big deal, but I would never raid in WoW if I had to re-level a character after wiping on a boss..... Even in XCOM, after you knew what you were doing you would press fast-forward a lot and actually play the initial part a whole lot faster.
 
It's really just a question of how far apart the check points are.

Even if the only checkpoint is at the very end of the game, when you have already won it (ie, you can't loose that condition of having won it)

Further the distance, harder the game.
 
@Callan

Have you analysed why that makes the game "harder"?

What particular attribute of the player would that require/emphasise?

Take save scumming as an example. Many argue it makes the game "easier" although like many gamers they don't understand the difference between a test of your spare time/tolerance of repetition and the outright difficulty of the mechanics.

A save scummer will finish the game having ultimately overcome exactly the same challenges as someone who did not save scum. The difference is that he did it faster and with less repetition.

Is that "easier"? Not by my definition of "skill" it isn't.
 
Woody, when programers allow quick saves, they essentially remove any challenges that involve a longer sequence that they could have had in the game. I can't exactly say you are not following a challenge that the programmers gave, because they put quick saves in and so removed the long sequence challenges.

I will say, compared to longer sequence challenges the game could have had, the programmers did make it easier than that by putting quick saves in.

A challenge doesn't care if you find it repetitious - either take up the challenge, or say it's too much to take up. It's a blog post in itself about the gamer culture of avoiding challenges not by admitting it's too tough, but by saying it's boring. It's a dodge.

I say this knowing I will not be taking on the game 'Desert Bus'. As much as it's just a bum on seat challenge, it's beyond my gusto. It's also boring, but that's a side point. Hey, actually I could say the same for world of warcraft too, but that's another post...
 
The Binding of Isaac is a good example of a game with a very frequest "game over - you died" situation, remininscent of arcade games. I like it.
 
@Callan I understand what you are saying but the key point is that the "challenge" is not related to an additional skill requirement . I think you agree with me on that.

The nature of the challenge determines the kudos that goes with it and that is important as many obsessive gamers gain a sense of accomplishment from their achievements.

 
@Tobold

"But if your death in the previous game was more or less random, you don't learn anything."

I think part of the problem is that in many games the death CAN be more or less random -- "GOTCHA" moments from the developers.

Thus people are wary of permadeath because they've died too many times to "GOTCHA" stuff that they had no realistic chance of surviving the first time.
 
Woody,

Challenge CAN be related to additional skill requirement. If the game author does challenge you to additional skill requirement, then that IS the challenge.

Complaining about it in terms or repetition is a way of frightening game designers into making much shorter (and thus comparatively easier) challenges. It's a way of dodging challenge (not turning down a challenge - dodging it!)

Why not argue for a game where you can select to play through on quick save or a checkpoint system? Because that would lessen the kudo's for completion on the quick save mode!

You seem to be treating it that A (then quick saving), B (then quick saving) and C (then quick saving) is the same as doing A + B + C.

It isn't.

If one is so good at A, B and C, then you'll be able to do them all in a row. If you can't, then you aren't that good at doing A + B + C.

Don't want to face the A + B + C challenge? Okay. Want to say its boring and repetitious? That's just dodging the challenge.
 
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