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[Gamesbriefers] Failure is definitely an option

By on November 2, 2012


One of the GAMESbrief design rules is that players must not fail, using examples such as Backbreaker and Bejewelled Blitz. It has also been one of the more controversial, with comments via Twitter and the web saying that learning from failure is an important part of playing games. How would you adapt the rule, is failure good or bad, and what is your recommended best practice for managing failure in a free-to-play game?


Stuart Dredge Journalist at The Guardian

Speaking as a player really: failure where I know why I failed, and (think) I know how not to fail next time isn’t a problem at all. When that’s not the case, it’s just frustration, and kills a game very quickly.

That said, every game should come with a ‘Dad Mode’ for lapsed gamers like me, which is easier than easy mode. This needs to become an industry standard.

Teut Weidemann Online Specialist at Ubisoft

Failure depends on the game and genre. In the past couple of years there has been the trend of no-failure games: being nice to the user, or ‘carebear’ as they call it in MMOs.

But the anti-trend has startetd already: DayZ has perma-death, and XCom has perma-death soldiers. It’s coming back. And you know what? People love it!

Tadhg Kelly Consultant at What Games Are

I think this is a rule that you should dump entirely, Nicholas.

As many others will no doubt say, player-caused failure is an important part of games because without it a game feels purposeless. It comes in many forms, from the mild frustration of failing to collect your crops in a timely fashion to large-scale failures like permanent death.

The fear of failure (from a game maker’s perspective) is that it drives users away. If they experience too much negativity or frustration then they have probably reached their maximum mastery in the game. So they won’t play any more, and – in f2p circles – this means they won’t pay any more. I would advise anyone who has convinced themselves of this particular rationale take one look at the gambling industry and revise that assessment.

The key is “player-caused”. In gambling and sports the attraction of winning is often fuelled by the perception of the near-miss, the poker hand that could have been played better, the ball that could have been struck better. It’s the (sometimes illusory) sense that things could have been improved with only a tweak or a better move or a bit of luck. This means it’s good to challenge the player and have them fail, but not to arbitrarily or obliquely fail. The perception of unfair failure is the real enemy.

I see no difference in f2p games versus any other in this respect.

Oscar Clark Evangelist at Applifier

I agree with Tadhg… This rule needs to be dropped into a pit of no return.

I believe it comes from a misunderstanding of the data.

Traditional Hardcore games have a tendency to punish players for failure with a loss of loot, delay to restart (often at the beginning forcing you to repeat actions) or worse still some variation on Perma-Death.

When these techniques are applied cold to a casual or F2P game we see a huge drop out of players. Not because there is a failure, but because we punished the players more that they were engaged with the game. Risk and reward have to be meaningful and if the failure is too taxing, players will churn.

I argue that the possibility of failure is an important motivation in play but that it can take many forms and be graduated throughout the lifecycle of the game. However, we should not overly punish players in the process and should get them back into play as quickly as possible so that they can engage with solving that playing puzzle caught them out.

Although I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable that gambling is the best analogy, we do need to put the responsibility for the degree of punishment into the hands of the player themselves. For me the example of CSR Racing comes to mind. After a period of play I realised that I no longer particularly cared about the races themselves, indeed I stopped seeing that game as a racing game. Instead I was choosing to ‘bet’ my fuel against the difficulty of the available challenges in order to maximise my revenue from each tank full.

I know I used the term bet, but this isn’t meant in the gambling sense. I think a better view is that I am playing game theory seeking to adapt to predictable circumstances and where my failures were of my own making. This made the game all the more worthwhile playing (although interestingly that also meant I had stopped paying).

Mark Sorrell Developer at Hide & Seek

I’d definitely on the side of failure being fine, and agree this is a bad rule. Failure’s feelings depend entirely on how it’s done. Angry Birds absolutely has failure and that seems to have done ok.

I’m currently playing Hotline Miami, and while it’s a million miles from casual, it’s as much about death as it is about killing, and all the better for it. Every time better. And look at Skate’s bails for making failure fun. Ha ha, my man is all mashed up! Ha ha!

Games are about learning and you learn from your failures. Removing failure is also removing some ‘game’. Failing can be of benefit in other ways – XP gradually creeping up to make the challenge easier for example. Ahh hell, Oscar and Tadhg have nailed this already.

Oddly, it’s more in the hardcore arena that I object to failure. When I play a Batman game, and I die, I am always annoyed. I’m Batman, goddamn it, Batman doesn’t die. Likewise James Bond etc. In these cases, I dislike failure, as I’m the goddamn Batman. I want to succeed for sure, and my skill, my coolness, should be the barometer I measure myself against. Not failure or death. Fail to be cool, that’s what should be at risk, not my objectives.

Andy Payne Founder of Mastertronic

This rule is not one I agree with.

In terms of adapting the rule, I always think it should be clear why you have failed. Even a post mortem style rerun can help. But players must be allowed to fail all be it early doors in a game it is nice to get a gentle lead in!

So adapt the rule by allowing there to be a graded skill and experience level that is needed which just gets more demanding the more you play.

Failure is not bad. It is all part of the learning process, indeed continual success or a scenario where everyone wins all the time is just rubbish and thus bad.

I a free to play game, the key for me is ensuring that players have a reason to play. Achievements and bragging to friends drive the primeval need in all of us competitive types. This F2P games should ensure that they allow this. Balance is essential not just in games but in life.

Stuart Dredge Journalist at The Guardian

Oh, also, failure as a narrative moment – e.g. the bit right at the start of Infinity Blade where the big fella kills you (and again every time he does it) – something used to build the story and mark your progress, rather than frustrate you

I like the idea of that though: ‘Your first fight, you’ll ALWAYS lose and die. And this is what sets up the narrative…’

Rob Fahey

There seems to be an interesting consensus emerging that failure is an important part of gameplay (in any form of game, F2P or otherwise), but that developers need to be very careful about how failure is used, and how players who fail are treated.

In short, failure must be part of a larger “loop”; it must feel like part of an ongoing process (of improvement, of learning, of moving forward in some way) rather than simply hitting a brick wall. If I fail in some way, do I end up feeling frustrated and punished; or do I think, “okay, I know what to do next time, I’ve learned something and I want to try again”?

I think F2P games do need to be more careful about how they treat failure than traditional games. A game like Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden, which force you to fail often (as part of a learning process, but a slow, often tortuous one), can get away with it because the player has already paid up. Dedicated “core” gamers sing their praises, but we’ll never know how many people hit a few brick walls and end up dumping the game on the “I’ll get around to it some day” pile in favour of more pliable pleasures. With an F2P game, if that happens, you’ve just lost your customer.

Perhaps, then, there’s a more nuanced version of this rule that makes more sense – if I fail, it must feel fair, and I must feel like I’ve achieved something anyway, whether that’s learning something or gaining something (I’m thinking of old shmups like Radiant Silvergun where you accumulated XP and improved your weapons each time you played, so dying still gave you a sense of progress).

Martin Darby COO at Remode

My opinion is that a game is not really a game unless you can fail. However how that is presented & implemented is a completely separate issue. In fact I think you could go as far as to call it one of the core pillars of what differentiates game experiences irrespective of genre, theme etc. For example in most AAA games there seems to be an unwritten rule that a solid single player campaign is 10-15 hours, however whenever I play one to completion I probably sink more like 30 as I spend half the time re-doing bits where I died! Resident Evil 5 was a classic example. However in something like Bejewelled you still have failure but it’s easy come easy go. More carrot, less stick: the failure isn’t reinforced in the same way and the player gets back into a new experience that makes them forget the previous one faster. The reality is that some people are going to prefer one and some people are going to prefer the other but both have failure and therefore both are games.

This probably touches on a very interesting wider point to do with how you could cognitively profile game players in certain market segments, but saying players shouldn’t be able to fail is way too broad brush.

Andrew Smith Developer at Spilt Milk Studio

I’m ill, so this is going to be short:

Players must never feel like they cannot succeed.


Players must never feel like failure is unavoidable.


Failure should always feel fair.


Success should never feel more than one try (or one play?) away.

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