Losing and Pure Punishment
I want to talk about winning. A lot of games, whether they be competitive or single-player, really prioritize winning. That feels natural; given a challenge, something in which you can win or lose, winning is the intended completion of that challenge. Failure has to be a part of that, though. If you only ever win in a challenge-based game, it's not typically very engaging. What is the role of failure, though? Is it just what you're trying to avoid? Is it a punishment? Does it have to be a strictly negative event? Maybe by better understanding the role of failure, designers can learn how to design more fulfilling games.
To start, consider games with very clear win/loss conditions. If you fall in Mario, you lose. You start that level over, and any points you achieved, items you collected, etc. are gone. The game's only recognition of your previous journey through that level is the life you lost from it. The rest is lost to time. In this context, failure is, mechanically, solely a punishment. Conceivably, you've learned more about the level and the game. Through your experience, you've gotten better, and you apply that increased skill in the level again to perhaps come out victorious. The game doesn't measure that progress, though. It doesn't tell you that you've gotten any better. Mario uses failure as negative reinforcement: without it, winning would be meaningless, but it's meant to be avoided.
Many other games, like RPGs, won't mechanically punish you for failure, but only take your time. When you fail, that failure is not a part of your character's story, and it's only vaguely a part of yours, as a player. Suppose you're playing Final Fantasy. You fight through a dungeon to face a boss and reap your treasure. You fall in battle against that boss. You return to the title screen. You reload your save file. Everything that happened between this saved state and when you fell in battle is erased from history. Like Mario, the only difference is you, your skill. You'll play things differently this time, certainly. You know more about the enemies, and you can learn from those mistakes.
However, this pushes the player toward certain behaviors. Failure is purely a punishment, so you want to avoid it. There's a particular method in RPGs that helps with that: grinding. Frequently pointed to as a signifier of poorly balanced RPGs, grinding is when you perform a simple, easily achievable task repeatedly in order to make your characters numerically stronger. Grinding is antithetical to the entire point of the game, since an RPG's systems are entirely an exercise in resource management. If you simply dump tons of resources in your favor, there isn't much management to do.
Avoiding failure doesn't sound unexpected. Obviously, I'm going to try not to fall while playing Mario, because that's how I proceed to more content. However, if the game handed me a pair of wings that made losing almost impossible while simultaneously telling me to avoid failure at all costs, I'd probably take those wings. Games that even include grinding encourage grinding, because of how it affects one certain resource, time. The game is going to take your time either way. If you don't grind and then fall in battle, you've lost time and gained nothing. If you spend time grinding, you've lost time, but gained power.
Bask in my extremely detailed info-graphic.
Not all games treat failure as a shameful event to be forgotten, however. Dungeons & Dragons gives essentially ultimate narrative freedom. Most game masters do not rewind time as video games do. If the players fail, time simply moves on. The story does not have to end, even if it means creating new characters to replace fallen ones. The game master can weave that failure into the fabric of the story. It's not even necessarily a bad thing. It could be tragic, but it can also mark new beginnings. It can be comical. It can be so spectacular a failure that you tell the story for years to come. This treatment of failure makes gameplay focus on the journey, not the destination.
When failure isn't only a punishment, we tend to take greater risks. We focus more on our journey. A D&D player may choose a suboptimal, even downright destructive action in a given moment because it makes sense for their character in context. "In a fit of rage, my player disregards the party's request to keep our hostage alive and fires a crossbow bolt!" This decision is flawed, it's controversial, but it puts less pressure on winning. It's authentic to the story and the journey.
While D&D allows near infinite freedom with which to handle unexpected failures, digital games don't typically have that luxury. In a digital game, content is (mostly) finite, but can they still acknowledge your failures in a constructive way? Roguelike games, like Risk of Rain, are all-or-nothing in design. If you fail, you must start the entire game over, without any checkpoints. However, Risk of Rain recognizes everything you'd done. During gameplay, you can find and complete puzzles to unlock new characters. Even if you die immediately after, that new character remains unlocked. Ironically, in a game without checkpoints, failure is a relatively minor punishment.
How else can games weave failure into your story, rather than simply encourage a power fantasy where failure never happens? I think it's an important question to ask, because how we represent ourselves in games reflects how we represent ourselves in real life. A depiction of failure as so shameful it's not worth remembering is unhealthy. Failure is normal. In life, it's unavoidable. Maybe it shouldn't be rewarded, but we could do more to treat it less like the end of the world.
Want to Argue?
If you have any counterpoints, additional points, tangents, or other notable examples related to the topic of winning and games, come fight me on Twitter @kiefjerky. I'd love to hear other designers' and players' perspectives on the matter. (You don't actually have to fight me, it can be a kind exchange.)
Follow on Itch.io: https://kiefjerky.itch.io/katjas-abyss-tactics
Katja's Abyss: Tactics is a strategy game using Minesweeper-style level design in tandem with tactical-rpg gameplay. Its conception began with me getting frustrated when I lost a game of Minesweeper. Frankly, the fact that in Minesweeper, guessing is sometimes necessary & one failure ends the game is poor design. It undermines the feeling of progression you get from chipping away at those walls.
Layer 1: Core loop
I began, of course, by recreating Minesweeper. Not very exciting, but here we have one arm of the core loop: marking potential mines & "digging" safe tiles. In order to invest the player as a more direct part of the experience, I wanted to place characters in the map. Instead of clicking to dig tiles, the player directs an avatar to do so.
To summarize, our core loop is something like this:
Layer 2: Secondary progression
The game's title was originally less... original.
The first big step into creating a secondary loop was adding two separate game modes. The first was Infinite Mode, where the player gets a randomly generated level as normal, and when they complete the level, they move onto the next. The highest floor the player reaches without losing–which happens when all your units die–is recorded and displayed on the title screen. This way, there's a high-score that reflects the player's progress. It's not much of a secondary loop, but at least the game recognizes the player's success.
More significantly, the game now has a Campaign Mode, where a character guides the player through a story connected by levels of the game. There is a level-select area, which has a loop of its own: move to next level > complete level (core game loop) > read dialogue. The core loop is embedded in this loop, which is how I'm classifying one as "core" and therefore the level-selection as "secondary."
The Campaign Mode quickly became the game's focus. Step by step, new features distinguished the campaign further from Infinite Mode. Each campaign level has an authored layout, rather than being generated completely randomly. Additionally, there were gimmicks to each one: in one stage you have to move your units to a target location, in another you have to survive for a certain number of turns.
Layer 3: The good stuff
I feel compelled to mention that at this point, the game got a facelift. With the work of some very talented artists, my placeholder assets were systematically being moved into the "old" folder in the project. Although the game itself is no functionally different here, we are but fickle creatures. We want our games to look good, to feel good.
Tertiary Loop 1: Achievements & Customization
Each palette is unlocked via various achievements, like killing 100 monsters or winning a level in Infinite Mode on Deadly difficulty. I define this loop as tertiary, rather than secondary, because it's even further abstracted from the core loop. It has very little impact on the core loop and is essentially just icing on the cake. Who likes a cake without icing, though?
Tertiary Loop 2: Artifacts & lore
Hopefully it's clear at this point what Katja's Abyss's gameplay loops are and how they differ in hierarchy. It was my mission to design this game in order of that hierarchy, with each layer building upon the last. I started with a core loop, with Minesweeper. The secondary loops put that core loop into a context that gave it meaning through progression. The tertiary loops built a world into the game and further recognized the player's success and progress.
If we work backwards, and strip these layers away, we can see how Katja's Abyss still functions down to the core loop, but it loses its identity with each outer layer gone. Without Katja talking to you and collecting artifacts in the caves, the core loop is just a (hopefully) somewhat satisfying strategy system.
Conversely, if we remove layers from the inside-out, the game falls apart much more quickly. Without the core loop, there's no way to collect the artifacts, and there's no point. Without the core, there's no game, just an interactive menu of items that tell a vague story.
What does this mean about the relationship between core, secondary, and tertiary loops? Beyond the obvious, I don't know. Core loops can be fun, but they lack identity, or at least retention. Tertiary loops are what keep us engaged as players, but aren't fundamentally vital to the game's functionality. I've learned a lot while developing Katja's Abyss: Tactics but it's generated a lot of unanswered questions as well. I hope my experiences can help someone work through their own head-scratchers someday.
trusting your dev team
I've been reflecting on project management and working on a team lately. It occurs to me that one thing isn't clear when you're working with others: you have to give up a certain amount of control on your project. In lead positions, this is a shocking realization, and you get people driving projects into the ground because they refuse to let other people alter the vision of their baby. Frankly, I've been in that position in varying degrees.
The weird thing is that being in a lead position sounds like you're the one making all the decisions. It sounds like you're in control. You're the project lead, right? In reality, if you're doing your job right, you delegate a good bulk of the work to other team members. On a high level, you have decisive power on the direction of the project: mechanics, art style, casual vs competitive. When it comes to individual development tasks, however, your influence is smaller.
You can't be granular about it. If I expect my artist to come to me every time they question something about their task, I'll get a hundred questions about what line thickness should we use, is this color green too saturated in context. I have to let the artist make those decisions. I have to let the level designer, the programmer, the sound designer make decisions based on their resources, time, and skill. Otherwise, the project gets bottle-necked with me, because I'm stuck answering hundreds of questions from everyone.
one-act: Words, Words, words
Words, Words, Words is a one-act play I wrote a few years ago in 2016. At the time, I was considering my own qualifications as a writer and what I had to bring to the table. This script is a product of that, as the main character's doubts and inhibitions reflected my own. Through this character, however, I managed to materialize those doubts and falsify them. Thoughts can be clouded and deceptive, but putting them into the dialogue of a character makes them real, tangible. As the writer of that character, I can read his lines and recognize how absurd they are. This was my stand against self-deprecation, and my refusal to tell myself that I am not a writer. I write: I am a writer. From speaking to others, I learned many writers experience that same mental block. I pray the sentiment in Words, Words, Words resonates in others.
Click "Read More" to read the script!
This post is from June 1, 2017, originally posted on Tumblr.
Right now, I’m working in a team of 4 to make a game based on Zelda II, so I was doing some research on concept art for the game. I mainly wanted to gather inspiration to try and capture the aesthetics of the game. Our game will definitely differ significantly from Zelda II (mostly in quality) so I thought concept art would be a good place to look for that core feeling of the game.
The difference between the generations of games, in this regard, is that concept art for old, NES and SNES games played a different role in development. On newer systems with photorealistic graphic capabilities, concept art aims to show accurately how characters and areas appear. Old concept art, on the other hand, wasn’t concerned with accuracy hardly at all, it seems. Proportions don’t matter when the developers are well aware the graphics will look nothing like real life. Link's body had very limited pixel real-estate.
A prime example of this is the fact that the images below are the same scene. Both depict Link fighting the first boss of the game, the cleverly named Horsehead. All of the basic parts are shared in both: the stone, the pillars, the curtains, even the color of the boss’s armor. But when you compare them, the concept art is definitively more impressive than the gameplay. The light flooding in, the upward angle of the frame, Link’s anticipative stance all contribute to the scene of a powerful enemy towering over you.
Still, when I played the game again recently, I discovered that viewing the concept art had an unexpected effect. I laughed at the concept art, at the juxtaposition of coolness between what the game should be and what it is. But when I was playing through this first dungeon, I entered the final room, I saw the curtains hanging down, Horsehead patiently waiting for me, and I got a shiver down my spine. I played the game and I remembered the concept art. In a way, it conceptualized for me the aesthetic experience of the battle. It felt so much more exciting.
The game we completed is called Monumental Pain and can be played on Itch.io here:
New Ep: Sit With Me
I released an album!
After several months of recording and rerecording, mixing and remixing, I've finally called a project done. The EP is called Sit With Me released under the artist name onehundredthousand. It is the first album I have released under this name, and I don't plan on it being the last. Although it is amateur in many ways, completing a project was more important to me than perfecting one. If I continually revisit and rework ideas, none of them will ever come to fruition.
That being said, you can listen to it on Bandcamp here!
Introducing a face
This weekend I did a photoshoot with this great face. I was unfamiliar with the camera and we fumbled in coordinating with the sun, but the day turned up some fun results. These photos only constitute part of everything taken. While I had the time, I focused on ones I either liked the best or thought were fun or interesting for some reason.
Navigating a moving target on camera in addition to the background was awkward. I definitely do not have the skill or experience to process all of the visual information in front of me quickly. Hopefully that can be remedied through taking considerably more photos. The camera does not belong to me, so my practice will straddle availability of equipment. That may hinder swift progress, but will at least facilitate a journey full of experimentation.
The sun began setting, and I began panicking. Again juggling multiple aspects of the photo, the sun's position, the exposure settings on the camera, the actual setting in frame had me fumbling. Many shots ended up a blurry mess. Thankfully, a few survived enough to give at least a fun expression or a curious situation.
In between the modeling, we spent time scouting for locations. The more you look, the more you find, I've discovered. Many spots were interesting enough on their own to be worth capturing, so I felt compelled to include a couple.
I found time and motivation to work on more photos. Some are from today, some are a bit older. Right now, I'm mainly trying things out, seeing what works and what doesn't. Thankfully, I am satisfied with some of the results.
With experimentation being the primary goal, sometimes a good photo isn't always the most pleasing to take. On the other hand, taking a particularly terrible photo can be so eye-opening that it offers the hope of works ten times better in the future.
Click images to enlarge.
What isn't as promising is when the reasons a photo doesn't pass any standard of quality wholly elude me. Not much gets worse than creating something bad that can't be learned from. Perhaps that's the fun in it, though.
In the end, I enjoy taking pictures immensely. I look forward to getting better footing in the art form, maybe to the end of acquiring equipment other than GIMP and a cell phone camera. Until then, I will try to push the limits on what I have as far as they'll go.
I decided that although I do not have a real camera, I have to start somewhere. All I have is GIMP and a smartphone camera, but it works. I'm hoping it'll be a good way to learn the basics of composition and color manipulation without dropping a ton of money on fancy equipment.
I like games. I hope to one day make them as a means of survival.