Winning is great. Losing stinks.
Still, losing doesn't have to be a negative part of the game's experience. Of course, trial and error and learning through failure makes victories more satisfying. And losing can often be just as much fun as winning, especially when developers work hard to make the fail state into a funny or interesting aspect of the game.
Some games take the sting out of defeat by making deaths memorable. Who can forget the first time they encountered the sound and animation of a Frogger squished beneath a car's tires? Other games are carefully orchestrate various aspects of play to make inevitable failures entertaining for players and spectators alike.
We've reached out to a handful of developers of games that are celebrated for their entertaining fail states to talk to them about games where losing is an integral part of the game's lasting appeal.
In a four-player multiplayer game, there will be three losers. As such, it's important to make sure that all four players are having fun on the journey to victory, rather than just at that all-desired winning state. In Landon Podbielski's frantic 2014 Duck Game, feathers literally fly when a player gets blasted to oblivion, and so do bodies. Watching any player death, even your own, is a hoot.
"Duck Game is all about being competitive, but is still fun if you just like setting yourself on fire or hopping around with a car on your head." says Thomas Jager of Blauwprint Games, developers of Super Flippin' Phones.
Duck Game's many silly effects ensure that players are enjoying themselves in the moment-to-moment play of the game. Also, weaker players can still enjoy themselves when playing against better players due to the careful balance (or purposeful unbalancing) of the weapons. "Landon very consciously made the game random enough to not be all about winning and to give even weak players an edge, while also being very fun if you're not even playing to win," says Jager.
TAKEAWAY: A little randomness can make losing feel less like failure.
Failure in games is often predictable, with players dying through loss of health, tumbling into a pit, etc. Gang Beasts makes failure interesting by making it unpredictable, using loose controls and some chubby, gelatinous characters to allow players to make other players fail in surprising, creative ways.
"No other recent game I can think of has looked funnier when everyone is absolutely failing," says Corey Davis of Psyonix, developers of Rocket League."The physical animation makes everything hilarious to watch even if you're losing, and the general looseness of the controls makes every situation unpredictable."
The silly, wobbly characters are set loose in a variety of sketchy environments, like slippery bobbing ice floes. A system where players can grab and shove each other creates opportunities for sudden reversals of fortune, and chances to take your opponent down with you when you fail.
"I think the game is very good at giving players the opportunity to set their own goals--should I take out one specific player or just enjoying the hilarious slapstick physics?" says Jager. "What's important here is that there's more to the game to enjoy than just beating the others. Some Gang Beasts levels can even be played 'co-operatively' if you're just playing to see who can dodge incoming highway signs the longest without fighting, which makes for some hilarious situations."
TAKEAWAY: In giving players an absurd toy box of options/possibilities, players will be able to create their own unique, entertaining fail states within the game, encouraging creativity within the parameters of the game.
"For games that are still enjoyable when you’re playing poorly, my nomination would be Dark Souls," says Bennett Foddy, creator of the masterpiece of excruciating frustration QWOP. "In fact, I found that once I started to get really good at it, a huge chunk of the enjoyment disappeared. I have a reverse-power-fantasy when it comes to those games."
In Dark Souls, failure is near constant, but it is often accompanied by learning some new aspect about the treacherous environment or overpowered enemies. Whenever the player dies, they have often seen some new mechanic or creature that they never knew about, finding yet another interesting piece of the game's world.
One of the reason's From Software's frustrating franchise has become so successful is precisely because failure is frequent and virtually inevitable. That makes the occasional hard-won win far, far sweeter.
TAKEAWAY: Failure gives victory meaning.
"For a game that’s fun to watch when someone’s playing poorly, it has to be something that looks way easier than it is,"" says Foddy. "I guess the best example is Flappy Bird. Watching people try to do the easiest-looking task and failing, over and over, is a special, boutique kind of humor that I love."
Flappy Bird only asks that players fly between pipes. It appears like it should be easy, until you try to master the sketchy flap mechanic. For the player, this can create a mixture of frustration and compulsion to complete the 'easy' task, but for a spectator, there is much humorous entertainment to be had from watching the player get steadily more irritated over a mundane task.
TAKEAWAY: A game that looks simple, but is frustratingly challenging, can create humor and fun for a viewing audience even as it convinces the player to try one more time, and then again, and then again...
Players might wince when their bad timing means that Tony Hawk faceplants in the cement. But they're more likely to chuckle when their screwup means that a snowboarding horses collapses into a snowdrift and loses his top hat.
In the aptly named Snow Horse, players control a snowboarding quadruped, complete with customizable headgear], then send them hurtling down the slopes. The game is very forgiving--you can easily get to the bottom of the track safely. But the temptation to get one more flip in, or trigger explosive confetti effects, encourage players to try one trick too many.
Failure results in a floppy horse collapsing and sliding to a stop. It's a jarringly abrupt transition back to a vague semblance of reality after the impossibly elaborate high flying stunts. That just tempts players to reincarnate their nag and catch more massive air.
TAKEAWAY: A simple realistic fail state can help to ground the most absurd gameplay scenarios.
Play can still be fun when failure is almost guaranteed for the simplest of tasks, given certain circumstances.
"The rope mechanic in the Worms franchise is the worst and best thing ever invented in gaming," says Chris Figueroa of Kinifi games, developers of equestrian snowboarding game Snow Horse. "The rope mechanic isn't the best way to get to one location or another, but if you do it successfully, IT FEELS AMAZING. You fail 99.1% of the time using the rope, but whenever you do, it's hilarious to watch."
Worms involves several heavily-armed worms out to kill each other in outlandish ways in 2D environments. Were it a more serious game, a failure-heavy mechanic like the rope would likely irritate. But in a game where exploding sheep can blow you off the map, such a high-risk maneuver seems eminently logical.
"It's like that with the entire game. There is no reason for me to throw a nuke at your player, but it sure is funny to watch someone explode." says Figueroa. Worms uses its silly concept to get away with high challenge, creating laughter where players might otherwise be annoyed.
TAKEAWAY: Make sure that high risk high reward maneuvers lead to particularly enjoyable fail states.
Surgeon Simulator seems to have been designed from the ground up to make failure appealing. Using a ridiculous concept combined with unwieldy controls means failure is almost guaranteed. The level of stylization is perfect, presenting players with patients [victims] that don't seem quite real even though they are anatomically accurate, which makes the endless malpractice less guilt-inducing.
The game shades over from what at first looks like simple straightforward goals into a surgical sandbox experience. Why not use the bone saw? What happens when I stick myself with the hypodermic needle? Can I remove the brain? Instead of failure becoming something to be avoided, the player seeks to find the silliest ways to fail.
TAKEAWAY: Step back and ask yourself, how can I give player space to create even more fun ways to fail?