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Examining Negative Feedback in Game Design
by Josh Bycer on 07/24/13 02:50:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


In past posts I've used the term: Lost Cycle as a troublesome mechanic of game design. The technical term is negative feedback. Mechanics that are nothing but negative feedback are a concept held over from the arcade era and if not balanced right can do more harm than good.

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Getting Kicked While You Are Down:

The use of negative feedback originated in the arcade as mechanics designed to make the player weaker or increase the chance of losing another life. Their use was designed around adhering to the same metrics of requiring the player to consistently put in quarters in order for the machine to turn a profit.

Two major examples of genres were Beat-em-ups and Shoot-em-ups. Beat-em-ups featured an actual mechanic in the form of energy draining attacks. In these games the player could press a combination of buttons to unleash a special move that probably did a little more damage compared to their regular attacks.

However, these moves always cost the player health and in a game with no way to recoup lives (outside of spending more money) and rare health items, the player would more often than not leave themselves in a worse position by using them. Expert players realized this and instead relied on simple attacks like jump kicks to fight through waves of enemies.

Shoot-em-ups featured a more insidious form of negative feedback as it wasn't something the player could actively control. Most shoot-em-ups started the player off with a basic weapon that could kill minor enemies and not much else. Collecting power-ups were vital to improving the player's ability to fight enemies and deal with bosses.

Every time the player died they would lose all collected power-ups and reduce them back down to the basic weapon. What ended up happening was the player would die in an already hard section and would find themselves out matched with their regular gun and continue to die.

This kind of design philosophy also led to the "perfect run" strategy: where the best and easiest way of playing a game, would be to not die as it would be hard to recoup any losses.

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Like most arcade games at the time, players could spend life to activate special moves, but were better off using regular attacks.

The phrase: "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer" can be applied to the concept of negative feedback design.

With early game design,  negative feedback wasn't meant to add anything to the game, but instead made it harder for the player to continue playing.

As game design evolved, titles built around rogue-like design would use negative feed back mechanics, but with a different application.

Rolling the Die:

The thrill behind rogue-likes is testing yourself to see how far you can go on a single run; most of the time you are not going to see the end of the game but instead die in any number of ways.

To facilitate that, many rogue-likes have enemies or situations that would make the game harder if not impossible to win. Some examples would be enemies that could damage or destroy the player's equipment, picking up a "cursed" item and so on.

In these types of games, the playtime of a run is short enough that the player won't lose a huge amount of time due to punishing mechanics . Also, due to the randomness of rogue-like design, the player never knows if they will find something to turn things around.

The rogue-like series: Shiren The Wanderer had a negative feedback mechanic in the form of hunger. Every few turns the player's fullness would drop down and when it hit 0 the player would start losing health. In this case the mechanic was designed to keep the player going and force them to weigh the decision of continuing to search levels, or move on and hope for the best.

The use of hunger in Shiren acts as a countdown for the player and was a great way to focus their attention. We saw a similar effect in A Valley Without Wind 2 in the form of the big-bad who after a select number of turns, came out onto the field to wreck havoc. If the player wasn't properly prepared they would be in a lot of trouble as it began to take out the player's resources.

Now, negative feedback can also be considered punishment mechanics: mechanics that are meant to punish the player for messing up. However, not all punishment mechanics can lead to the player failing, which depends on their impact on the game.

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Sine Mora was a challenging game that truly rewarded those that mastered it and punished those that didn't.

In both Demon's and Dark Souls, the games featured a very punishing mechanic in the form of the player losing all their experience/currency and having it fall to the ground when they died.

Die again, and it is all gone. While this can be a major setback, it doesn't mean the player is unable to win, as they can recoup the experience over time.

But if the mechanics of a game cause the player to start failing and it becomes harder and harder to recoup, that would be an example of a negative feedback loop.

In Children of the Nile by Tilted Mill, like most city builders if your city fell too far into disarray, you wouldn't be able to recover. But COTN had two systems in place that once you started to fall, it was very hard to stop.

First was that villagers remembered if you weren't able to provide them with a specific service or item when they wanted, lowering their max happiness. This memory lasted for a while in terms of game time and could be compounded on by any additional issues.

Second was that in order to have enough food to feed everyone, you needed to keep expanding your farms which required more elite citizens to move in. The amount you could have was based on your prestige and would rise and fall because of it.

If people started to become unhappy and revolt, you wouldn't have the food to feed everyone causing more unhappiness. Causing your prestige to drop and elite citizens to move out which further decreased the amount of food you could harvest. No food meant that specialized citizens wouldn't eat causing them to move out and losing services could cause even more unhappiness.

As you could see, once you started to fall into that vicious cycle, it was difficult to recover. That is a problem when negative feedback is so absolute and self sustaining that it becomes an unending cycle which the best thing is to restart instead of continuing to play.

Sine Mora which I examined on Game-Wisdom last year was that way. As a shoot-em-up, every time you were hit you would lose power up orbs that increased your attack power. If you weren't able to recover them or get enough during a level, you may not have had enough firepower to take down the boss before time ran out.

Mechanics that are nothing but negative feedback are to some extent, held over from the early days of game design. In most cases and genres, you as the designer want to avoid their use as there are more balanced ways of challenging and punishing the player.

But as we've talked about, if the general play time of a game is short or designed to be replay-able, hitting the player with negative feedback can add challenge to the game: either as a mountain to overcome, or a figurative doomsday clock.

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Fabian Schneider
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I would argue, however, that "lost cycles" come in two flavors: one, as a conscious design decision conceived to increase difficulty, play time and/or wrest more money from the (arcade-)player's hands - I'd call this the gamist approach - and two, as a result of the game's inherent underlying logic demanding that the possibility of a "lost cycle" cannot be completely eliminated without breaking the core mechanic - the simulatory approach.

One example: games like CK2 or most city-builders, as you mentioned. Here, the lost-cycle is not necessarily a conscious design decision and more a product of the game being designed as a system of rules rather than a sequence of events. The process of losing, here, is part of the gameplay as the complex underlying dynamics make it hard or even impossible to recognize just when the "point of no return" is reached - one lucky marriage or inheritance, and a CK2 player can basically find their way back from the dead, even if it is very unlikely. There is no point short of the actual fail-state in these games where you can guarantee, with absolute surety, that the player WILL lose.

Many modern roguelikes try to do the same thing in a different way: take Dwarf Fortress, for example, a game where, according to the main wiki, "Losing = Fun" (yes, the wiki treats both as synonymous). Here, it is very much possible to reach the point of no return - for example, your fortress is caught in a cascade of dwarf madness and suicide, with each dead Dwarf causing the next to go mad; or your adventurer is dragging themselves through the mud after being mortally injured in a fight, only waiting to bleed to death.

The difference: losing the game and having to start anew is not treated as a 'bad' thing due to the immense level of detail that goes into describing wounds or the goings-on of the fortress as it falls. This is a very simulatory game, and through that, I would argue, applying the concept and criticism of "lost cycles" can be somewhat difficult here.

Robert Marney
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Many modern "difficult games" will zero out the player's progress without causing it to actually go negative. Rogue Legacy is a recent roguelike example, where an unsuccessful play session will result in zero progress, but a lucky strike from the random generator will provide a small but permanent advancement. The Souls games, already mentioned in the article, have "lost cycle" mechanics like the need to repair equipment, but are careful to keep repair fees so low that the trip back to the blacksmith to perform repairs will pay for any repairs you need to conduct, so that the player never truly goes negative.

Mark Venturelli
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Just playing my regular "vocabulary police" role here for a moment: why not used the well-established "positive feedback" and "negative feedback" concepts instead of "lost cycles" - which is a pretty weird term I've never heard before? There's plenty of literature on the good and bad uses of positive feedback loops already.

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Jorge Ramos
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There are some genres were such concepts don't really make sense to implement, or where "loss cycles" are considered expected.

Ninja Gaiden practically gets off on it. It is a series that is infamous for its brutality in difficulty. Same with System Shock 2 in spite of how revered that title is. And yet when people compare it to Bioshock, Bioshock is chastised for making things "too easy". 2K then had to make a "survivor mode" that basically took away the ability to respawn in order to create the challenge, as well as an even higher difficulty setting for the PS3 version.

I don't necessarily agree with getting rid of Loss Cycles completely, even as a gamer. But they should only be implemented (A) where it makes sense to do so, and (B) as an additional 'bonus' challenge to players who'd otherwise think they just "rolled through" a given game.

Daniel Cook
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There are several stages designers go through:
1. I play games and they all seem unique.
2. I see patterns in many games and come up with fuzzy idiosyncratic names. "Lost Cycles"
3. I learn common industry terms for the patterns and through trial and error seek to recreate them. "Positive Feedback Loop"
4. I learn the abstract system behind the patterns that allows me to design new patterns directly. "Internal Economy"

This essay is a great example of stage 2 thinking about games. Very much a critical thing that suffices for most working designers.

The stage 4 version of this same essay would rely on something like Machinations (

That goes into a lot of depth about how you can abstractly think about resources, transformations and loops to create the exact situation you desire. If Lost Cycles interest you, digging into other forms of resource manipulation networks will no doubt be an enjoyable exercise.

Josh Bycer
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Thanks for the clarification, I've gone through the entire article and edited it along with the title. And thanks Daniel for the book recommendation.

Richard Vaught
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On other minor edit. What you are talking about are "Positive Feedback Loops", not Negative ones. They are not referencing whether the outcome is positive or negative, but whether a series of actions reinforce each other in such a way that they enhance the likelihood that they will repeat/grow stronger, or in such a way that they grow less likely/weaker.

Using your coin arcade example, the games difficulty would continuously ramp up until you lost, and the further along you were the more the difficulty increased and the more often you died. There was no way to moderate that effect, which made it a positive feedback loop. The longer you played, the harder it got.

Super Mario Kart has the opposite example. The further ahead you are, the faster/better the other karts drive, making it less likely that you will win. That is a negative feedback loop. Similarly, the player in last place is more likely to get the blue turtle shell which only attacks the lead driver, evening the odds.

There is a good article on it here: d=rja&uact=8&ved=0CB0QFjAA& F3%2Fwiki%2Flevel-4-dot-4-feedback-loops&ei=w0QRVM6-Dcn8ygPoxIJw&usg=AFQj CNH8C2yA0CmidHAQ1nxzuyKQ4Uwz3Q&sig2=k2piHhKXW_kvQNZ4IQ1d3A&bvm=bv.7489405 0,d.bGQ

Daniel Cook
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I found out about positive and negative feedback loops looking at strategy games. There were games were it got close near the end and games where players got further apart. For years I called it 'Converging' and 'Diverging' patterns of play and used that as a design rule of thumb. Took me a long time to switch my terminology. :-)

It reminded me of the physicist Richard Feynman. As a child, he came up with his own notation for arithmetic. But no one could understand it so eventually he standardized. Not bad company to be in. Creating your own language is a stage of smartness...most people never even get past stage 1.

Rosstin Murphy
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Cool article! I love designing roguelikes with these sorts of mechanics, it's illuminating to see an article that explores the idea a bit further. I'd like to see a more detailed analysis of these mechanics, though.