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Analysis: The Game Design Lessons Of Permadeath
Analysis: The Game Design Lessons Of Permadeath
July 27, 2009 | By Andrew Doull

July 27, 2009 | By Andrew Doull
More: Console/PC

[Permadeath is frustrating, especially in roguelikes. But in a world of quick saves and regenerating health, permadeath makes the genre what it is -- and this analysis, by Unangband developer Andrew Doull, explains in-depth why it's compelling.]

There have been a number of intriguing articles written over the last few weeks about one of the key concepts, and most criticised features, of roguelikes: permanent death, often shortened to permadeath.

This is the notion that should the game avatar die, the player should start from the beginning of the game. Permadeath is the reason why it can take years to beat certain roguelikes - in my case, I have never won a game of Angband or any variant of it in over ten years of playing - and why so many people initially turn away from the genre.

But in a world of quick saves and regenerating health, permadeath is the one compelling design feature that you need to appreciate to understand the genre.

The challenge of playing Far Cry 2 with one life made by Ben Abraham of Sometimes Life Requires Consequence has been picked up and commented on by lead designer Clint Hocking. He goes on to explore the conflict between what Ben is attempting and the narrative losses that Clint designed into the game.

(As an aside: the immediacy of playing the game and being responded to by the designer of that game plays to the strengths of the blogging medium, the dialog between auteur and audience. This was a triumph - I'm making a note here etc. - for the rise of the game critic/blogger.)

In Infinite Caves, Infinite Stories, Anthony Burch explores what makes Spelunky so compelling - a freeware mix of platformer and roguelike, one of the nascent roguelike-likes if you will - and identifies a mix of three elements: 'randomized [...] levels, emergent gameplay and permanent death'. Think of these as three legs of the roguelike game design triangle - each of which cannot stand unsupported without the others.

Randomized levels, built from procedural techniques or randomly chosen pre-assembled components, is what you immediately think of when talking about roguelikes. But randomized levels feature in the RTS genre without permadeath - but on reflection, the RTS genre does intra-level permadeath: it is possible to lose and restart on a single map while keeping progress between maps.

It turns out that many genres have permanent death and restart as a core component of the game - arcade fighters, horizontal and vertical scrolling shooters, strategy games - in fact, permanent death is only seen as a negative in narrative based games, especially those like RPGs that feature accumulation of resource over time, and it is roguelikes that are unique out of these types of games in continuing what started as an arcade tradition.

What almost all other genres featuring permanent death have in common is that there is a resource accumulated from game to game: player skill. Improved twitch resources required to dodge an ever increasing swarm of bullets or rote memorisation of the patterns of enemy waves, increased understanding or yomi of the opponent's mind - all of these attributes can be improved and reused in repeated play.

But with roguelikes, it's not obvious what skills are being developed. Certainly not reflexes, and with a single player game, no understanding of an opponent is required. Puzzle solving is closer to the process, but puzzle solving in an environment where the board is reset differently every time, and the pieces are sometimes unfairly tipped against you.

I'd argue that there are two important but distinct phases of skill development that in roguelikes: discovery of emergent game play and the trade off between exploitation of resources against evasion of risk.

Emergent Game Play

Emergent game play in most roguelikes rests on a foundation of the combinatorial explosion caused by designing verbs and objects to maximise the number of verbs which can interact with each object (and implicitly, through throwing, falling, collisions and other game 'physics', maximising the number of ways objects which can interact with each other).

From Spelunky, it is possible to rescue a maiden by picking her up and carrying her to the exit, but also, by noticing carried objects can be thrown, a thrown maiden can be used to interact with targets in a number of different ways. Nethack and other roguelikes do this by expanding the number of verbs and ways those verbs can be used - which leads to that Nethack saying 'They thought of everything!'

The process of learning the emergent rules of a game with permadeath and randomized levels transforms the game play from a fixed author led narrative into a meta narrative about the experience of the player learning through repeated and hopefully interesting and unique failure. As the developer of Dwarf Fortress puts it 'failing is fun' - provided you don't have to repeat the same sequence of narrative events each time you do.

But why does this 'failing is fun' approach to learning not work in a game where the player's progress can be saved at any point?

The problem with save games is they capture the wrong sort of progress. The player may have made a critical error of judgement, and failed to acquire a necessary resource or game play skill, somewhere in playing the game prior to saving the game state - and neither the player nor the game designer has any way of knowing this. This is why so many games are designed with gated progression: discrete levels over which a player has to demonstrate supposed mastery of a particular skill. But if a skill is only significant for a subset of the total game, then why have that skill at all? Why not release a series of mini-games instead?

The only guaranteed point at which the player is open to all lessons is at a complete reset of the game state. This does not necessarily have to be a complete restart of the game: it is possible to save player progression provided that all players will end up in exactly the same game state at some point during play. This could be the start of a or new level in a puzzle game which resets all the pieces in play or a new map in an RTS which does not allow units to be kept from previous successes or failures.

Without randomized levels, it is possible for a player to progress simply through rote learning, without having improved the necessary skills. More importantly, repeating the same sequence of actions and narrative sequences is frustrating and ultimately unfulfilling. Think of each play through of a game as being set an exam with a pass or fail mark. If the levels are not randomized, it is possible to sit the same exam over and over, memorising the answers to fixed questions as a method of passing, but not an indication of underlying ability. The process of quick saving and reloading is akin to being able to guess every answer to each question and trying again if you get the wrong result.

Varying the rarity of objects, seen in genres such as MMOs and collectable card games as a callous way of manipulating players to endless grind, instead becomes a useful way of extending the player enjoyment of this learning process, ensuring that some learning situations occur less frequently than others and consequently remembered more vividly. The requirement to identify items through using them common to many roguelikes also helps extend learning, in that the player is not necessarily aware of what resources they hold at any time.

But - even despite my best efforts in Unangband - it is possible to discover all possible emergent properties in most games (not quite true in all cases: self-evolving systems like Galatic Arms Race will prevent this in the future, and the pimpest plays in Starcraft have continued to evolve over that game's lifespan) - and once learned, an emergent property is just another line in a FAQ.

Exploitation and Evasion

In an information complete game, where the player has complete knowledge of the rules, the processes of exploitation and evasion become primary. Take a typical game of Rogue. The player travels through a number of rooms spread across multiple dungeon levels, accumulating resources as they do so.

But as the player descends in the dungeon, the level of threat from monsters increases, exponentially so, without a consequent increase in the rewards for defeating them, so that in the last few levels it is better for the player to evade encounters with monsters and conserve the resources he has accumulated earlier in the game, than attempt to stand his ground and fight.

This process can be modelled as follows, where the horizontal axis is the playing time, P indicates the overall accumulated power and R is the risk at any point:The exploitation phase of the game occurs when the player has more power than the risks they can encounter - the evasion phase of the game occurs when the opposite is true.

In reality, the both player power and risk change in step wise increments, and because resources can be lost as well as gained, it is not necessarily a consistently upwards progression. And most roguelikes have a combination of attacks by monsters which can only be avoided by the player having specific resources to resist these attacks. This complicates the picture, because at any point there is a multi-variable level of risk depending on the player's location, and known and unknown threats in the region the player is located.

The key player skill then becomes recognising when the player is in an exploitable situation and taking advantage of the opportunity to collect useful resources, versus an evasion situation, where the player should continue moving and avoid any imminent threats. This reaches a logical conclusion through the what is known in Angband as diving, where a player descends as quickly as possible through the dungeon, stopping only when exploits obviously present themselves - a technique very similar to speed running non-procedurally generated games.

This works in Angband because the rewards deeper in the dungeon are progressively more valuable than earlier in the game and so it is always worthwhile going deeper even as the risks escalate. Similar behaviour occurs in Left4Dead, where quickly running through a level is almost always a more effective technique than going out of the way to find the limited additional resources hidden on the map.

On the face of it, exploiting is grinding like behaviour: techniques from Angband such as worm farming to quickly gain experience through killing a self-replicating monster strongly resemble grinding monsters for experience in MMORPGs. But what distinguishes exploiting from grinding is two-fold: limitation of exploitable resources and permadeath.

Grinding in a game with permadeath still has an element of risk - that of dying through boredom or statistical happenstance. At any point in time, there should be a non-zero chance that the player will die, and lose all the effort accumulated through relatively safe resource accumulation. More importantly, any time spent grinding at an early phase of the game, is time wasted not playing at the maximum level of reward vs. risk later in the game.

This is a design balancing act: the player must be made aware that progression escalates reward as well as risk, as well as ensuring that the player is never able to accumulate all the necessary resources required to win the game through grinding. The balance in Angband is maintained by preventing the player from grinding unlimited resources for equipment, and ensuring that a player with maximum experience but no equipment will quickly die. (This is not quite true: the technique of stair scumming allows equipment grinding, but an honour system encourages the Angband community not to take advantage of this.) The use of explicit timers, such as food in Rogue, and the ghost in Spelunky, can also ensure that the player is pushed onwards instead of grinding any exploitable situation they find.

Permadeath adds another interesting facet of the exploitation vs. evasion and progression vs. grinding balance. Provided progression through the game brings greater rewards, and the player is able to evade threats at the current level of risk, there is no incentive not to progress to a higher risk area. The rewards are comparatively higher for same the time investment in the game, and the increased risk will either be successfully evaded or result in permadeath, which is the most time efficient way of highlighting the player has judged the level of risk incorrectly.

So the design incentive appears to be to be to allow the player to progress through the game relatively easily, stopping off at points determined by the player to acquire the resources needed to survive at all in the next region of escalated risk. In Angband, this is summarised ironically as:

1. Visit general store
2. Buy Lantern
3. Kill Morgoth

because of the lack of fix requirements to complete the game.

Randomized levels require some form of grinding be present in order to guarantee the game is winnable. This is because the player may experience either a resource poor series of levels or a string of bad luck which depletes a high level of resource, through no fault of their own. The extent to which grinding allows the player to alleviate this bad luck is another design decision. It may be that some games are unwinnable is a viable choice here. At the same time, emergent game play through object interaction maximises the chance the player will have some resource available to counter any randomized situation that they find themselves in.

Primal Instincts

At any point in time, the player is faced with the decision of fight or run. This is answered by a careful weighing of the odds, what resources does the player currently have, what is known about those resources, and what threats are known and unknown. Information becomes a precious commodity in a game with randomized levels, and permadeath is used during the learning phase of the game to provide a final lesson in determining if the player understands all the variables of every situation they find themselves in. Once the player understands the game well enough to win it, permadeath is a final backstop to the ever tightening vice between progression and risk, one technique of ensuring that the player does not endlessly loop in a grind.

The question becomes, is this process of learning worthwhile? Is an intuitive understanding of multivariate analysis over a complex risk topology subsumed into a flight or fight instinct something worth playing? Whether this is true is beyond the scope of this article, but I would argue that this skill is something that makes us human.

[Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand, now based in Sydney, who spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams.]

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Alex Altman
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Excellent article.

I would argue, though, that permadeath is also used as a form of "risk-fulfillment", if you will. Lots of people enjoy the risks that come with trying to beat a game. With only one life, everything is fraught with peril, and the players are forced to be far more cautious: is there an enemy behind this door? If there is, can I take it on, or should I run away?

Additionally, in games with save points, players may find a certain bit tricky, and will find that continuously trying to pull it off over and over, only to respawn again and again, forced to face it. Or, after passing one of these, they are killed before they reach the next save point, forcing them to try it again. This can lead to players just giving up. With only one life, there's no such tediousness: make it or die. If you make it, good for you, have a cookie. If you don't, tough, start again. Then again, this could be solved by intelligent save point placement.

On the other hand, permadeath when you're at high levels can be a real kick in the teeth. Over ten hours of gameplay, flushed down the toilet because the randomiser shoved a bunch of higher-level monsters in the room you enter, blocking the doors. Admittedly, if you've managed to get to that sort of high level, you have probably mastered the game's carrot/stick dynamic, and have at least a decent chance of surviving.

Gregory Kinneman
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As one who has never really enjoyed roguelikes, this article helped explain to me why players enjoy permadeath besides my assumption that they enjoy incredibly hard challenges. As a (mostly) non-self-competitive gamer, achievements, difficulty mods and roguelikes have never mattered much to me. I didn't care that Half Life 2 was easy, I liked that! However, I feel this article has really shown that permadeath can be an effective strategy towards providing a certain experience that cannot be found in a game with saves. Bravo Andrew!

Joshua McDonald
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Hard to give an overall opinion because there were too many things that I found myself disagreeing with. Take for instance, these two lines from the same paragraph:

"Provided progression through the game brings greater rewards, and the player is able to evade threats at the current level of risk, there is no incentive not to progress to a higher risk area."

Of course there's an incentive: Get more powerful with less risk of starting over. In a game like Eve Online, for example (which isn't exactly permadeath but comes a lot closer than most games) it is very common for players to spend a lot of time doing "safe" missions or mining to build up to a certain point.

"and the increased risk will either be successfully evaded or result in permadeath, which is the most time efficient way of highlighting the player has judged the level of risk incorrectly. "

I can only assume that you meant something completely different from what you said here. You say that permadeath is the MOST time-efficient way of telling the player they went in over their head? It is by far the LEAST time-efficient.

Roberto Alfonso
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Thanks for the article!

Gregory, I support roguelikes and enjoy them because I see them not as a battle between my character against the game, but between me and the game. It is hard to explain, because you may say that any game puts the player against the game itself (kind of explaining what role playing is and having someone tell you that in Super Mario Bros. you roleplay Mario), but in roguelikes you accumulate experience inside your head instead of your character. You learn that certain enemies must be killed in a certain way, that you should evade certain places, that you should obtain certain items to access certain areas. Dying makes you start from the beginning, which makes you think it twice before doing something risky. How many megalixirs we saved during Final Fantasy VI, because they were really rare? Well, in roguelike games you either use them or die. I love that.

raigan burns
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Everything about this article is great, except for the use of the term "pimpest", which is the exact opposite of great.

Aaron Knafla
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When you reach the bottom line, this industry is about creating entertainment for a wide audience and making money.

The method of game design outlined here is known (now and forever) as "cult" or "indie" gaming. There's a very good reason for that; most people are not masochists.

It's my opinion that only a very small subset of gamers are out to "prove" anything when they play video games. Most people don't want to work hard for a sense of accomplishment. They are just trying to have some fun--to be entertained.

I agree that random elements (in level design) is an interesting tool that isn't used often enough. But, I don't believe that creating unbalanced or impossible game play is ever justified. You can offer fresh challenges without punishing your audience. Uneven progression and frustration alienate the player. (Players are the ones with the cash, remember?)

Like good writing and cinema, video games must consider the audience first--and remain squarely focused on catering to that audience.

Peter Dwyer
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Permadeath only works if the player is given ample opportunity to avoid it. In rogue-like games this is achieved by the ability to run screaming from a battle and knowing that the creature tha almost ended you is waiting in room 347. You then have a chance to bulk up and come back tooled for the job. In such circumstances only the stuborn will tend to die often enough to lead to frustration.

The worst kind of permadeath comes from unavoidable situations. A room on level 1 of a dungeon containing a level 50 dragon for instance, who kills your character with the first attack. A pit of doom that you simply couldn't have ever had the spot hidden skills to avoid etc. etc.

The way games have evolved to remove the frustration is best seen in the first Diablo game. Your character had a permadeath of sorts in that they were forced to run back to collect their corpse after they died. The chances were that the corpse contained half your gold and your best weapons and armour. True permadeath will eventually lead to frustration no matter how dedicated a gamer is. Starting from level 1 every time is simply not fun in the long term.

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I am pro perma death. I've never played this "roguelikes", but have often had the idea of perma death in the MMO genre. MMOs are all about grinding, leveling, and gearing up. I figure why would someone want to spend hundreds of boring automated grinding hours to create a powerful character when they could spend hundreds of fun and interactive hours trying to survive. It should be about the experience getting to the top, not actually being there. Not only does it make every moment not a grind, but it makes attaining certain levels mean something which in turn results in remembrance for those few that have attained top levels then died. I realize most people are opposed to this idea because I've brought it up on many occasions to see what people thought.

I had an idea for an MMO where the player is part of a family line, not a singular character. For instance at character creation you would select a surname that all your characters would be identified by (the same name that would be used for /tells from other people). The game would be perma-death, but with a twist. Upon death you can pass equipment down to the next warrior in your family line (it's physical goods and makes sense that the new family member should be able to inherit it). The equipment will degrade due to aging, so some stats will be reduced. The game will have certain mastery quests which will allow the player to learn skills. These mastery quests require multiple lives be lived as a certain class. So even though there is perma death it doesn't mean that you are totally punished. Your knowledge is passed down the family line, and certain quests will only be opened up to 3rd generation mages for example. So to learn the skills from that quest it requires having lived 3 lives as the same class. Then there will even be mixing and matching of classes and skills by living multiple lives as different classes. Some knowledge of skills and class specific stuff is passed down the family line upon death. There's a lot more to this game idea that I've written, but that is the main point of it.

Rodain Joubert
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"When you reach the bottom line, this industry is about creating entertainment for a wide audience and making money."

That would depend strongly on your own views as a developer. Some devs enjoy pursuing games as a craft rather than as a business, and I don't think that appealing to a broad, cash-laden audience is the first commandment of game design at all. In fact, I think that sticking to such views is what causes the industry itself to atrophy. Then we get problems such as franchises which long outstay their welcome and titles which "play it safe" over doing something more interesting and rewarding.

With regards to the general discussion, permadeath (of sorts) was what made Uplink an entirely thrilling experience for me. Throughout the course of the game your game over scenario was always respectably avoidable, but it still loomed over players who got too cocky or clumsy. I also feel that it's interesting because it focuses on much longer gaming sessions than most permadeath games: when you consider that you could easily kill ten Spelunky characters in one hour, but have to spend days building up your hacker only to get him caught and his account banned ... well, the risk is most certainly elevated. The reward? Well, I feel that gets pushed up even higher.

Aaron Knafla
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I completely agree that there are developers that see game development as art. Self indulgent game development is alive and well; I agree completely. With that said, the labels "indie" and "cult" aren't going to be coming off those kinds of games any time soon.

I have no problem with making something interesting for yourself; but this article uses some strong language. I can't stomach the claim that popular software designers are doing "wrong" when they: try to control player frustration and design even pacing into their games. Those things are very important to the majority of players today...

Does it really matter if the player is skilled enough? Does the audience really want to be pushed to the limit? Or, did they really grab a controller to be entertained?... That's the question I'm raising here. What makes the people happy? What do they really want? How much frustration is too much?

The game has to be fun. And, the game design itself needs to allow for a satisfying experience for as many players as possible. That's what putting your audience first means.... Anything less is self indulgent. And, there's (honestly) nothing wrong with that. Just don't expect anybody to invest large amounts of money into a project that will alienate most of it's audience.

Monopoly is a great example of a game that was initially rejected because publishers felt it would be too complex for average players. So, you can make an argument about the dangers of "playing it safe". But (from where I'm sitting) incidents like Monopoly don't prove that alienating the audience is a good thing. The real problem was a failure to understand the game audience... Am I failing to understand the players when I say "most people aren't masochists"? No. I'm right. I'm certain of it.

The author's ideas bring two of my favorites to mind: Castle Wolfenstein and Beyond Castle Wolfenstein. Everything he wants in a game is right there. I love those games.

Aaron Knafla
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With that said...

And, as much as I love Silas Warner's Wolfenstein games...

I know my wife would quit either game in minutes.

Outside of indie development, you've got to grab more than the masochist hardcore gamer. After all, it is a business.

Michael Rivera
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Permadeath can work well in a variety of situations, and you don't always need a "masochistic" hardcore gamer to make it work. You can even make a mainstream-friendly permadeath game if you make sure that player progress is not measured in the strength of you character but in their affect on the game world.

Chris Proctor
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The mention of permadeath makes me cringe for one reason: lag.

It's one of few reasons for death that genuinely can't be avoided by a player, and IMO is a key reason why not even niche MMOs have it as a feature.

OTOH, I've played games of Civilization 4 that are effectively permadeath. Playing a huge multiplayer game for 6 months, then getting eliminated and having to wait until the next game starts up (it ended up running 3 months longer) is, if anything, _worse_ than standard permadeath!

Ben Hem
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There are many self-fulfilling and (I would say) downward-spiraling trends in modern media, like the shrinkage of expected attention span. Could a young moviegoer raised on today's 2-second-jump-cut-fests sit through an early James Bond movie? But playing to those trends doesn't necessarily help developers make fun/lasting games.

I'm very interested in the question of "what is fun," and I recommend Seymour Papert's brief essay on "hard fun:"

The "Flow in Games" (also worth looking up) approach is also interesting; it's about allowing the player to choose their own difficulty level, essentially by diving quickly or by scumming/exploiting (replaying the same levels to get stronger and keep the curve low). Roguelikes, of course, allow this by their nature...

I am also especially interested in the last aspect you mention, "primal instincts." Not so much "what is fun" but "why?" I feel that most of what the human organism finds "fun" (activities that capture our attention, promote struggle, are rewarded with endorphins) relate closely to "fight or flight" situations, and self-preservation. Even puzzles, which give a little "I beat it!" rush, are probably evoking a response that evolved to reward us for figuring out a clever way to survive despite the odds. Remove that link to our fight-or-flight mechanisms, and one's organism is no longer participating on the same primal level.

The assertion that after a while, "it is simply not fun to start from level 1 again" may be true, in certain games. For many players, though, level 1 is the most fun. I wish I could dig up a recent article that had dozens of comments to that effect: "I loved setting out, working my way up to my first longsword," whatever. I think it's partly due to the challenge of dealing with limited resources at that point. And if it really isn't fun to start over, the game is probably not offering enough variety, either between sessions or within one session, and that's a different problem altogether.

I second B N's suggestions. The "pass down an heirloom item" is a mechanic I am using in Wayfarer. One of the only reasons NOT to do this is: it will unbalance the ascension posts, and the high-score lists. But you would really be playing to a cult audience at that point. A possible variation: let the player pass more items to their successor if they die on a shallow dungeon level? (It makes sense in a way -- their body was found before being looted by too many monsters). This could be another way of encouraging beginners.

Also, consider the simple impact of how the death is conveyed: early Roguelikes were *very* masochistic, with mocking death-quips and a giant ASCII gravestone. How about the message "A new champion steps forward to take ________'s place?" And to echo Michael Rivera's comment, if the game world was persistent, and contained storylines affected by the character, there would be the added interest of continuing the legacy of your predecessors. Quick note @Chris Proctor: I don't think this is about MMOs. There are many issues that make permadeath fail in that setting.

Anyhow, nice article, hope it continues to spark discussion re: deepening the game experience.