Dealing With Death: Streamlining The Player Experience
December 28, 2011 Page 1 of 3
One of the most jarring aspects of playing a game is the reload sequence. Through its nature, this form of entertainment requires a certain level of investment from its consumers -- more specifically, that they actively take part and immerse themselves in the world set before them. When it reaches its peak, this creates a feeling of "flow", of continuity. It's what makes us lose track of time and become oblivious to our surroundings when playing. However, this flow can be broken when users are faced with a reload or a "Game Over" screen that only serves to add insult to injury.
Since this hasn't changed a lot since the beginnings of the industry, one might consider it a necessary evil. The question this feature seeks to answer is whether we can find a way around it, while presenting some practical examples used in popular games over the years.
I feel that this issue needs addressing sooner rather than later, because reloading a game is sensible when we're resuming our gaming sessions; having to redo something we've already done only seconds before is unpleasant. And, of course, this approach encourages players to take the brute force approach by trying everything until they find one that works.
Blizzard's Diablo II is one of the first games to come to mind, since its developers took a special interest in creating a flow-based experience. Since it has a pretty straightforward quest system and combat-based gameplay, they chose to remove the traditional "Save" function.
This means that certain features became feasible: gambling, random recipes, or drops. It also meant that player characters couldn't just die (with the exception of Hardcore Mode).
However, to retain the challenge factor, a certain penalty had to be applied on death -- big enough to encourage people to avoid it but small enough not to be synonymous with "Game Over". Blizzard's answer to this problem was an experience and gold penalty along with a "respawn in town" mechanic. Basically, the game punishes players in a way that sets them back but doesn't force them to redo anything.
The jarring effect of loss is still present in Diablo II, but to a much lesser degree. Fate or Torchlight reduces this even further by giving players the option of reviving in the same area or in the very spot where their character has met his or her end. Of course, each option has a steeper price.
Another example can be seen in shooters games, such as Unreal Tournament. The player's goal is to reach a certain number of kills before the others do -- the classical deathmatch scenario.
The death penalty is deceptively simple -- when a participant dies, his or her opponent is one step closer to victory. The fast-paced action coupled with immediate respawning ensures that the experience is very dynamic, but also smooth. The jarring is virtually non-existent because failure (death) constitutes the basis of the gameplay: in fact, it depends on it, and it's what drives it forward. The popularity of the genre, if nothing else, is proof enough that streamlining player experience is something worth doing.
Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
Crystal Dynamics took another approach to overcoming death in its 1999 title, Soul Reaver, by allowing Raziel, the the main character, to traverse between two realms -- a physical one and a spectral one.
Raziel feeds on the souls of his enemies, and it is these souls that serve as his life force. When defeated in the physical realm, the character is transported to the spectral one. If he is defeated there as well, he is taken back to a special hub from where he can make his way back to the place of his demise.
There is a small nuisance in that the return to the physical realm requires a portal to be used -- and this introduces a certain amount of backtracking. However, this "spirit realm" approach has proven popular, and has been used several times since -- a more recent example being Venetica, developed by Deck 13 Interactive.
A possible alternative to this method could involve sinking the player character deeper and deeper into successive spirit worlds with every death. The avatar could either become stronger with every descent or the enemies weaker. Return could be immediate or sequential through the same layers; it could depend on the opponents being dead or some in-game currency such as experience or a soul pool.
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