Tobold's Blog
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Failure in games about building

Last night in Craft the World I had an unfortunate incident when I tried to snatch a dragon egg from above a lava lake. It turned out that there were more dragons around than I had thought, and their attack knocked my dwarves back into the lava lake. In the end I got the egg, but half of my dwarves were dead, with their equipment irretrievably lost at the bottom of the lava. But as I didn't turn on the permadeath option in Craft the World, new dwarves spawned, and while it took me the better part of an hour to gather the resources, in the end I had crafted the equipment and was back at full strength.

While I am still busy playing Craft the World, I read that another similar indie game about crafting and building is being played by several other bloggers: Banished, a game where you need to build up a town so that your group of exiles survives in the wilderness. And apparently failure is handled differently in that game. I've read several descriptions of bloggers forgetting something in the complex economic cycle of the game and having their population starve or die in other ways. And then you need to start from the beginning.

Now I do consider the system in Craft the World to handle failure quite good: You are definitely made aware that you messed up, and it takes some time to repair the damage if you do; but you don't have to start all over again. If on failure you always need to restart, you end up frequently repeating some rather basic and boring stuff, not just fixing your errors. Of course that depends also on the time scale of the game, it doesn't matter much if you have to restart after half an hour, but if you have to start over after being already 10 hours into the game, that would feel extremely harsh and frustrating to me.

As much as I like games about building and crafting, and am happy to see their revival (I've last seen so many building games in the 90's with the Caesar and Pharao city building series), I must admit that the more complex the building game is, the more difficult is it to handle failure. If you completely messed up basic infrastructure early in the game, starting over from the beginning might in some cases be the only viable option. Nevertheless I am not yet convinced whether in some cases it isn't the "real games play with permadeath" masochism which makes developers put in too harsh punishment for failure.

Some games work with perma-death, others done. Some crafting games are about the monuments that you can build while others are about how spectacularly you can die. For those games, losing is half the fun.

The key factor is to make sure you are playing the right one. It can be a pain being half-way through a mega construction and dying because you did something silly.
I thought the Dwarf Fortress had "Losing is fun" slogan...
Permadeath is in reality no different from grind. A cheap solution to extend the lifetime of content.
It's been going away because you don't put in a coin for every three lives anymore.

I've always liked how roguelikes used each death to modify the game on the next playthrough. Like in Nethack, where you could end up finding the same level that your last character died in. Of course, being able to loot your own corpse would be profitable, but you'd also have to deal with whatever killed your previous character. And maybe even with the ghost of your character; Still very powerful, but a mere shadow of it's past self.

Likewise, crafting games would run an entropy filter on whatever you built last time to make some ruins for your next game. Sprinkle some of your lost items around and spawn some monsters or vagrants to guard them. That way each permadeath would add an another interesting decision to the new game: Should you spend time and effort to salvage the fruits of your previous labor, or should you avoid settling into the same failed groove and start fresh?
Without permadeath you can simply brute-force victory. Like you did in Craft the World: you simply thrown enough dwarves on the the task and you got your dragon egg. Despite you made grave mistakes, you got rewarded.
Which in my opinion is the definition of a game: You have the freedom to try out things, to make mistakes, without being severely punished. We don't want our games to resemble real life too much.

In the original Everquest, entering a dungeon with a level-appropriate group was a high-risk undertaking which on the slightest mistake could end up costing you levels and equipment. In consequence nobody went there, except for high-level characters farming gear for sale or for twinks. Something like heroic dungeons couldn't have existed in Everquest. Only the relatively mild death penalty of WoW makes such a thing viable.
Without permadeath you can simply brute-force victory.

You can do the same with permadeath, but you just need more grinding, since you have to get back to the same starting point every time.
Permadeath does not add anything to the game, it only makes sure that you'll waste a ton of time in the early part (replaying it) and play conservatively (to avoid risks).

Honestly, if you're serious you go Iron Man Mode.... (the real one, delete account and uninstall forever upon death)
It's a risk/reward thing.

No risk gaming means you can experiment and find things that you like doing enjoying the experience for what it is.

Add a component of risk and the game changes. Experimentation becomes prohibitively expensive and it is more important to think things through. At the same time, your mind is getting a pressure work-out and your body is throwing chemicals all round the place.

It depends on what you are after. Do you want an opportunity to relax and play or stress yourself and get a buzz.
Do you want an opportunity to relax and play or stress yourself and get a buzz.

That might be age-related. "Getting a buzz" from the adrenaline of virtual stress only works if you believe that games are serious business. With age comes the wisdom of putting things into perspective, and then losing a game doesn't cause much of a buzz, because it doesn't really rank all that highly in the greater scheme of things.
>That might be age-related. "Getting a buzz" from the adrenaline of virtual stress only works if you believe that games are serious business

I've had the opposite experience. When I was younger I hated perma-death because losing my progress made me very upset, made me feel sick to my stomach, precisely because I did care more about the game. Now that I'm older I find myself enjoying stricter penalties, and losing my progress fills me more with chagrin and lots of ideas of what to do better next time.

I do prefer that loss of progress should be limited to progress within an encounter, not your entire game. Having to start over from the last checkpoint is sufficient. Imagine playing dark souls where if you died you had to completely restart.

In building games I much prefer a penalty too strict than too easy. Take a game like the new sim city, where you can build damn near any combination of buildings in any proportion and you'll still end up with a huge, profitable city, no matter how inefficient or how badly you screw it up.

The issue with Banished is you're limited in how much control you have over resource distribution. If you suddenly are only going to have half the food you need to survive the winter, then everybody uses up that half and then they all die. Better to be able to deny food to half your population so they'll survive and let the others die. Or send them away to be nomads or whatever, to put a nicer face on it.
From a strategy perspective, punishment for mistakes is needed in order to set up a scenario where decisions matter.

Play Civilisation with infinite reloading, and you can send your settlers out without protection, and just reload if they run into barbarians. Only if you play without allowing a reload in such circumstances do you have a meaningful strategic decision to make on whether to take the risk or wait until you have a military unit to accompany the settler.

Similarly, poker played for matches is pointless and boring.

Sure, these things can and are able to be modulated. You can have reloading rules for yourself in various games that still leave you with tactical decisions, yet don't mean you have to go back to the start every time you make a mistake. You can play poker for small stakes, and still have everybody want to win.

It's a question of striking a balance, in any given game.

That's the point of Banished. The game doesn't have monuments or decorations. It is simply about seeing how long your city can survive.

While I miss games like Pharaoh, Banished has thus far been a breath of fresh air for the genre.
I think there is a difference between games like Dwarf Fortress and Banished, and rogue-likes or "iron man mode" games.

In DF and Banished the eventual dying out of your colony is one very common natural outcome of the game. The enjoyment of the game is the journey to that point.

In rogue-likes we perhaps foolishly expect to keep winning and progressing and it is always a kick in the teeth when that one careless move ends up with our character being killed.
Somewhat like Helistar I was going to say permadeath is a question of whether it's going to ask you to grind resources over again. Nothing wrong with perma death if you don't have to go back to grinding.
I've been playing Don't Starve pretty obsessively over the last few weeks. Each time you die, you get a little better. "You die and you learn," as they say.
Then I died on day 299, close to 50 hours spent on that one character, and lost everything. I don't feel like playing it so much anymore...
The fun in Banished is the trial and error of learning to survive. Once you master how to survive, the game loses a lot (if not all) of it's appeal. That said, it's worth the purchase price and I certainly enjoyed the journey of figuring out how to succeed.
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