Thursday 1 June 2017

The player death cycle

Some time ago I wondered if the game mechanics in most of today's games have become standardized. Occasionally we find some innovation here and there but most games in the industry follow the same tropes, specifically when we're talking about failure.

I've recently started playing "Shadow of Mordor" (way overdue, I know) and upon my first death I was amazed at the elegant way in which it was handled in the overall game loop.

In most games there is a quite simplistic risk/reward mechanism that relies in player avatar death. In order to keep the player engaged there is a risk - failure leads to restarting a section of the game - which usually can be simplified as player death. The reward is progress and the feeling of accomplishment.

This is a classic mechanism for game design: you can see it on anything from RTSs, where you have to restart the mission, to platformers where you have to redo anything from a specific section, level or even the entire game (for more "old-school" titles) once all the lives run out. You can see this failure - go back - repeat concept in most games you can get your hands on.

Of course, there have been attempts at subverting this. "Wario Land 2" for instance, completely removes player death but still relies on the same formula of failure leading to repetition. It does this in extremely ingenious ways but the end result is still the same. The most notable level pattern being failure to clear a vertical platform section will make you fall and have to repeat parts of it, but not too much. This mechanic can also be seen in titles so disparate as mainstream Mario games and the Assassin's Creed series.

A good example of the Warioland II mechanics at play: being set on fire by an enemy will make you break the "flame" blocks and inevitably fall. The player will then need to climb up again.

So-called "open" or "sandbox" games have an easy cop-out of this mechanism. The non-linearity leads to more interesting approaches - enemies may not be there and force you to take a different approach. Bioshock handles player death and failure as a simple consequence, the player is recreated elsewhere, but the world remains as he left it. Yet some players have said this removes some of the challenge - after all, where lies the enjoyment of the game if failure has no consequence? The entire game experience becomes busywork.

Curiously, Roguelikes are an interesting subversion of all this. By some definitions of Roguelike, the player literally shouldn't have a chance at repeating a section he has just failed at. Failures are permanent and openly embraced. The fun is derived from the potential of doing better next time by taking better choices when faced with similar situations.

There's also other interesting approaches to player failure: "Life Goes On" uses it a mechanic. The remnants (corpses) and consequences of your failures are used to (sometimes literally) build a path towards success.

Coming back to "Shadow of Mordor", every time the player dies - that is, every time he fails - he isn't forced to repeat gameplay sections, he comes back, the world left as it was, but his failure will lead to consequences in the world, usually punishing. The enemy you fought against and failed, is now stronger. It's an ingenious concept: failure isn't rewarding yet isn't punishing in itself. Yet even his failure has changed the world in noticeable ways. Failure can just be a part of progress after all.

Sunday 19 March 2017

My problem with most F2P games

I've been meaning to write this article for some time and I'm never happy with how it flows. I think it's time I just poured it out and maybe do some adjustments later.

I've seen a few people throw around that if you want a successful game (especially if it's online or for mobile) it should be Free to Play (or Freemium if you want). I think this is inherently true, but most people I've asked don't seem to understand what's going on to make this business model so prevalent for those two cases.

Lets define the success of a game. For most this could be some sort of formula that could relate profit with (for those of us that actually care) some amount of critical praise, player count and the desired impact on the target audience.

All of these goals more or less depend on making people want to play your game. So what's the easiest way to get people to play you game? Just make it free, now all you have to do is convince people to try it rather than the much harder process of getting them to actually put money into something. But wait, you say. I'm no longer making any money from people trying out my product. How am I supposed to make money out of it? There's thing thing called monetization and it's an entire discipline which could be (very horribly) summed up as finding a solution to the problem of having lots of players yet no money coming in.

For most companies this has an inherent tendency to become a really shady practice rather easily. You're luring people in with a premise (free game) and trying to make the game fun so they keep playing, yet not so fun so they actually feel comfortable not purchasing anything. So you're compromising the most important part of your game (the fun part) because you followed the F2P model. I'm not even going into the balance issues you'll have if your game is competitive. Soon you'll be designing your game in a way that will lure players into associating microtransactions with dopamine drips: the waiting games with instant gratification if you pay, the powerup slot machines that get you another roll for a few extra cents, the instant energy refill that lets you play for 20 more minutes today.

Note that I'm lumping convenience purchases like Path of Exile's extra slots as a compromise due to the fact that you will also have to consider convenience as a factor that affects the gameplay. Lumping content behind paywalls also falls into this category. The only alternative to this (that I'm aware of) is to sell purely aesthetics items.

In short, picking a F2P model for your game should be a carefully considered decision. Its main advantage is that it will net you a ton of players (very useful if you're going for a multiplayer title where player count is extremely important) but then you will have to shift your gameplay efforts into making sure some percentage of your player base is spending money.

And this is the part that scares me. You're shifting your design efforts to extracting as much money as possible from your fans. Usually some extremely low percentage of players that spend thousands of dollars on things like hats and slightly faster movement speeds. I could never get behind this practice as it feels intellectually dishonest and the best results seem to be appealing to basic human emotions like gambling and immediate gratification. You're making your product successful not by making a good game that people will purchase, but by luring as many people as possible into downloading it and then convincing some small percentage of players to spend as much money as possible.

Can you do F2P in a way that doesn't make me want to take several showers? Kind of (my moral compass is extremely sensitive). Both Path of Exile and Warframe seem to have found a balance where the F2P model helps keep player counts high, and the benefits for paying are designed for the most dedicated fans in such a way that it doesn't give them competitive advantages or make the game simply more enjoyable for them (game design is hard to quantify).