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The benefits of making your players suffer (and maybe throw up)
The benefits of making your players suffer (and maybe throw up)
October 5, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield

October 5, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Indie, Design

Bennett Foddy, creator of QWOP, GIRP, and CLOP among others, likes to play with his players, and he suggests that more of us should be doing the same.

At the top of his talk at IndieCade on Friday, he asserted, “I'm going to try to convince you to put more suffering in your games.”

Learn a lesson from the Olympics, he says - it's all about the suffering. It's all about the pathos of second place.

“Nobody cries when they come second in a video game,” he notes. “Nobody lays down and cries. Why not?”

In track and field video games, “The way that you run is to either hammer a button really fast, or waggle a joystick really fast,” he says. “There's no joy in that, the joy is in the panic - in your friends watching you injure yourself as you hit the button.”

“It's not just that games are easier - though they are,” he says. “To me it's that games these days are more comfortable. There's less discomfort. My worry is not that games are getting too easy, because easy games can be wonderful. My worry is that games are getting too comfortable.”

What's so good about suffering anyway? “When you're suffering in a game, it makes failure matter,” he says. Counter-Strike uses boredom. If you fail, you have to just watch everyone else play, but frustration is more widely used.

“It makes success matter if there's suffering in the game,” Foddy says. If you get to the end, you feel like this huge weight has been lifted. Thus, “this talk is a love letter to games that put you through Hell just for the sake of it,” he says, “because we enjoy the suffering itself.”

“Often when I start designing a game, I start by thinking about the aesthetics of the input,” he says. Would the interaction be fun if there were no game? “Most sports pass that test,” he says, noting that playing catch is fun even without rules.

One example is drumming your fingers on the keyboard - it's sort of inherently satisfying - and that became the inspiration for CLOP, which uses the H, J, K, and L keys.

“I'd like to have an anti-ergonomic game where it's physically challenging to play the game, and you could say to your friends 'I played for three hours, and I had to go to the hospital,'” he said.

Foddy has been researching pain, confusion, and nausea in games, to make games that give players those sorts of feelings.

Wolfenstein 3D makes people nauseous, but it doesn't make you feel good. “The reason I don't feel good about it is that it's not the point of the game,” he says. “I think you could make a game where nausea is the point of the game, and people would enjoy it.”

Motal Kombat gives you Fatalities, as an example of humiliation. “You might think that's for the pleasure of the winner, but I don't think that's right,” he says. “The computer does it as well. I'm supposed to be enjoying it as a player, even on the losing end.”

Ultimately it's all about playing with the player, as a developer. “The reason I'm cataloging these various dimensions of suffering, is why would frustration feel good? Why would confusion or humiliation be nice?” he posed. “I think one reason is it represents the developer playing with the player.”

The idea among many developers is that confusion is an engineering failure. This means developer is teaching you how to stay interested in the game, rather than playing with you. “To me that's a warped way to look at the interaction between the developer and the player.”

So in a single player game, the developer should be player 2. “Playing” is just an agreement that you won't kill each other - if you take it down to completely not hurting each other, it loses its teeth. “That's the flag football of video games,” says Foddy. “I think you should make the real football of videogames.”

If you do this, he says “you're playing with the player, rather than providing an environment for players to play with themselves.”

Don't worry too much about frustration, and playtesting. “Maybe you shouldn't care so much about what people will think,” he posed. “I wonder if Marcel Duchamp would've put a tutorial into his video games, if he made them? He wouldn't have focus tested his games.”

“Don’t water down your games. I think art should be difficult, I think it should be painful, it should be nauseating,” he says. “It should be more difficult, more nauseating than music or other art because it's more complex,” he concluded. “Don't make the easy listening of video games.”

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Jonathan Jennings
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I definitely think Demon Souls nailed this, the game punished players and didn't apologize for it but with that said for a game like that it forces you to either learn or give up. It sounds counter-productive but i feel like it molds the player into a hardened veteran of your universe , or else. which makes the game all the more rewarding .

Kenneth Blaney
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I would generally say the same thing about "I Wanna Be The Guy". Like "Demon's Souls" it doesn't mislead you into thinking that the game will be easy. The first room of IWBTG shows you exactly how the game is going to be. That is, it is going to show you a room with an obvious solution and then punish you for taking that obvious solution. Then, once you think you have figured out what the trick is, they reverse it on you. Finally, once you figure it all out, the game throws another curve at you (when you drop down the bottom of the first room).

"Demon's Souls" does something similar where they confront you with a massive, seemingly impossible to kill monster that murders you. This teaches you that unfair death is part of the game.

Alex Boccia
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I like to suffer as a player. Why play if there's no challenge? Might as well just watch a movie.

Maria Jayne
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When you finish a game that has made you feel sick, frustrated or it really a feeling of triumph or is it relief that you don't have to play it anymore?

I play games for entertainment, if I wanted to compete I'd take part in an e sport with like minded competitive people. Like how people who run at the Olympics are not the same people who go running with friends every weekend in the park.

This notion that people who want entertainment can't handle challenge because it's too "hardcore" is rubbish. I've been playing games since you spent 30minutes waiting to load one life and then dying 2 minutes into the game and having to reload the entire game to try again. That's a challenge, but it isn't fun.

How you present the challenge to the player is important, teaching the player through frustration alone is a poor design. If I learn nothing from dying I can't get better or improve my theories on how to pass the obstacle. Most of all though, I'm not having fun because I'm learning nothing and I'm frustrated.

If the AI is beating me because it's simply playing better within the rules I'm using I'll keep trying, if the AI is laughing in my face with a bunch of made up rules of it's own the door is looking pretty attractive. Because that feels no more fun then playing against another player with a wall hack or aimbot.

Muir Freeland
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I think a certain degree of coddling often undermines whatever some games are trying to convey. Most modern games are inherently challenge-based; it's why we have concepts like health, like dying, of weapons, of enemies. These rules are created to offer challenges to the player and provide them with ways to overcome them. It's counterintuitive for a developer to spend time and resources creating rules that are challenge-based only to then place a focus on removing that challenge. If a game is genuinely not meant to be challenging, then don't give it those rules in the first place.

One of the worst offenders of this is how a lot of modern games immediately present players with solutions to puzzles. The developers go out of their way to create a brain-teaser, and somewhere along the way, decide that they don't want players to get stuck if they can't figure it out, so they spoil the solution outright as a safeguard. If you don't want players getting stuck on puzzles, why not simply not make them in the first place?

Rob Leach
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- “Nobody cries when they come second in a video game,” he notes. “Nobody lays down and cries. Why not?”

1) In games, nobody trains extensively for years, putting their life on hold to achieve a singular moment of success, of victory... well, at least not YET.
2) In games, when you lose, no matter how badly you lose (think back to the old days of having to start over because there was no save function), you can restart. There is no 'reset' button in a sporting event. When you train for 4+ years for the 100 meter dash in the Olympics, once somebody crosses that finish line, the winner has been declared. The losing players can't say, "Oh, I stumbled... let's start over," or "I want to give that another try."

So, I wonder if the way to truly give games this kind of emotional outlet is in the improvement of competitive tournaments, the creation of games that allow for practice but only 1 true attempt, or perhaps some other method. But just making games harder or more inconvenient to play may not capture the emotional toll a sporting event has on a participant.

Freek Hoekstra
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have you taken a look at E-sports lately?

also offcourse the amount of fiero is directly related to the amount of effort put into it, but it is alos true that some games (competitive games) trigger more release then others.

Ara Shirinian
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Suffering might make success matter, but suffering is neither necessary nor the only way to make success matter. I don't think it even approaches the best way to make success matter.

Matthew Downey
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Agree completely that suffering is a dumb way to make winning feel good.

I do, however, agree with Foddy that comfort is a huge issue in video games. Players don't whine when they roll a bad die in real life, but for some reason they feel powerless when the computer rolls the die for them.

An even worse thing, though, (in my opinion) is camping in first-person shooters, a situation where players feel so comfortable it annoys the rest of the players.

Discomfort does not inherently mean suffering. When I get killed in a first person shooter I'm happy every once in a while because I really like the manner in which my opponent killed me. I only suffer when the player is using minimal amounts of movement and aiming skill to overpower me. Suffering usually comes from failing despite persistence. I generally claim camping goes against every honor code in public first-person shooter gameplay (you may agree to disagree), so suffering (for me) in first-person shooters comes from dying repetitively despite an entirely illogical moral perseverance.

I'd also like to point out that some types of skill get repetitive and are unnecessarily hard, like strafejumping in video games. I personally think some exploitable glitches can become very fun, like denying in DotA, but the majority should be taken out to simplify gameplay.

Wave dashing in super smash bros. melee is one of the grayer features for me: I love the idea but I can't do it so it sort of sucks. Even if I did know it, the knowledge that it takes muscle memory and just adds a layer of complication onto design is a tad frustrating.

Maria Jayne
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"Players don't whine when they roll a bad die in real life, but for some reason they feel powerless when the computer rolls the die for them."

There is an inherent distrust in how the ai rolls dice though, surely you have noticed? Sometimes it a predetermined random number string that was rolled when the game was loaded, retrying the event yields exactly the same result time and again. So the result feels fixed.

Sometimes they even give you a percentage chance of success which never feels like it's accurate. Does it say 75% success rate unyet you fail 7 times in a row? sure, maybe the percentage is calculated over a larger number of attempts but it still feels like it's wrong.

It often feels when playing against the ai that it already knows the dice rolls before it makes decisions. This is very true in games of "chance" where the ai opponent can appear bizarrely lucky with a string of roll successes that a human would have no chance at timing if they played the game all week.

Sometimes random for a computer just isn't random for a human, who can say why...there are all sorts of examples of the strange behavior of computer attempts at randomized dice rolling. I have heard developers often add a bias to ai dice rolling purely to make it seem more normal because there is something wrong with true randomness translated to computers.

I have no doubt that a huge part of the psychology is seeing the dice physically roll as opposed to knowing the computer generates a number and the dice if it is present is purely aesthetic.

Chuan Lim
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I think that "easy listening" quote is spot -on ..!
Developers tend to have huge blobby assumptions about th' literacy o' players up front ., an' we rarely get games which afford a true sense o' wonder ., excitement or surprise that's not pre -scripted or even worse pre -rendered. It's somewhat th' equivalent o' MOR radio programming that's pleasant or tolerable but always operating on a functional level rather than contemplative one.

An' th' other thousand flowers? Making games that can express different ranges o' emotions an' situations [ through interaction ] is difficult but necessary work if we really care about games beyond rote consumerism. For such a rich medium an' all it affords ., it's a shame that very few people like Bennett Foddy / Frictional Games seem prepared to take these risks. An' in some ways they are not even "risks" but just being honest & responsive to th' design process with an open mind an' respecting th' audience enough to challenge them.

When Picasso painted th' first studies for "Les Demoiselles d' Avignon" in th' new cubist -style around 1905 ., both Braque an' himself were genuinely shocked at how rough an' different it appeared. They really had no idea if it was something good or bad an' so kept it hidden in their studio for another 5 -years. Can you imagine that? I guess what I'm trying to say is that a certain "un -knowingness" is par for any experience that's not derivative an' we should have th' courage [ an' smarts ] to chase ideas down these dark alleys with a glorious racket an' abandon. Having th' freedom to do th' same as everybody else is intolerable.

-- Chuan

John Evans
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So in a single player game, the developer should be player 2.

Wow. That's EXACTLY the type of game I don't want to play. If I wanted to play with someone else, I'd play a MULTIPLAYER game. I play single player games to GET AWAY FROM OTHER PEOPLE.

Roberta Davies
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I'm prone to motion sickness. There are a LOT of games that give me nausea, at least occasionally.

What do I do when I find a game that's guaranteed to make me sick immediately, every time? That's right, I put it down and never play it again. There are plenty of other games that give my stomach more respect.

Abusing a player's body or mind is not challenging, it's bullying.

Mac Hart
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This article is interesting but I think its a little one sided. A game doesnt have to be anything, just provide an interesting experience. Making a game in which the Player suffers is a style of development but I dont think it should be a universally thought rule at all... On the furthest side of the spectrum of what you are talking about we have Dear Esther. A game isnt strictly about being messed with or suffering its about providing a unique interactive experience. Games that are too hard are annoying. A game that plays off the Players intuition/problem solving are the best, not difficulty.

“Don’t water down your games. I think art should be difficult, I think it should be painful, it should be nauseating,” he says. “It should be more difficult, more nauseating than music or other art because it's more complex,” he concluded. “Don't make the easy listening of video games.”

I completely disagree with this statement. It's like saying only make punk and black metal... Punk and black metal are great but easy listening has its place too. Its a giant spectrum of experience not one side. If your "art" of the game is it being nauseatingly difficult then thats fine but dont state it as a universal thought for development.