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May 20, 2019
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Death, Readability and 'Hard' vs 'Unfair'

by Asher Einhorn on 08/11/15 01:53:00 pm   Expert Blogs   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.


When games first started appearing, many of them were devilishly hard. This was mostly because at the time, they were solely about challenge. Their inception rarely saw them include goals other than beating the system. Also, due to the nature of coin-ops, It made sense that they would be of a structure where the game would get harder and harder until you broke and the game won.

Games then moved to the home computer and evolved a little. They now begun to offer the player stories and worlds to explore. However, they were still brutally hard - a hangover from their previous incarnation as arcade cabinets.

In the following years designers would become more and more obsessed with attempting to get every player to finish their game - to experience what they’d laid out in full. This in turn lead us to start developing ways in which we could make games easier - in fact there were a few years that saw the release of games such as the rebooted Prince of Persia where it was very difficult or even impossible to ever fail.

This essentially ruined our sense of challenge. It’s not satisfying to beat something that is so obviously letting you win. Then, more years pass and a rising tide of indie and ‘super-hardcore’ games started to challenge the status-quo. Dark Souls being the often referenced, often emulated breakout hit in this genre.

Recently this has certainly become commonplace. Games where death is a main feature like XCom and Dark Souls have championed a growing trend which is now very much in vogue. I took part in a roundtable at GDC that discussed death, and while it was clear how much people were excited about the emphasis on challenge and punishment, there was absolutely no talk of trying to avoid death elegantly, which I think is still a valid goal.

The less talked about issue is that so many of these hard games actually require you to die as a part of the learning experience. This is the distinction between a game that is hard, and a game that is unfair. Let’s not forget that many games are fantasies, and in our fantasies we never die. We may come close, but we always manage to win out. For this type of game, we want to keep players on the brink of failure but provide them the tools they need to survive.

Readability is one of those tools.

Now of course you’re still going to fail sometimes just due to challenge and difficulty, but a lack of readability is the main culprit for why so many games have a lot of mandatory death in them. Not only does this feel frustrating and unfair, but if a player can’t tell why they died, then they can’t learn and get better at the game.

Following are some examples of different types of readability, though not all of them will necessarily apply to your game’s design.

Reading your surroundings

  • Vulnerability of enemies and objects - This is only really important when making a wrong move can result in a penalty. In a fighting game for example, this is very important: You have to be able to read the enemies stance as a split-second mistake can leave you vulnerable.
  • Things that can harm you - This is something that most games do. For example, fire hurts you, but beyond this having a consistent visual language so that people don’t have to interact with things just to see if they are in fact dangerous is important. Dying because the right information has not been communicated is frustrating and unnecessary.
  • Telegraphing terrain advantage - For example, in a Gears game, it is made very obvious which areas are suited to which weapons. Unreadable level design would make this games frustrating to play and would lead to a lot of death.

Predicting future actions

This is mainly about making the player aware of a threat before it comes into play - physical attacks, advances by the AI and so on. This is the type of readability often omitted from games.

  • Telegraphing incoming threats - This is about giving the player the opportunity to react to threats before they happen. This can mean a wind-up on an enemies attack giving you the opportunity to counter or evade, or the presence or a gameplay element like a trap or a situation that you may need to prepare for or avoid.
  • Telegraphing tactical movement - For example, flanking plays by enemy AI. In The Last of Us enemies talk to each other to let the player know what they are about to move up, giving the player the opportunity to react.

Of course there are many more examples, but essentially the true purpose of all of this is twofold.

  1. That the player may be given enough time and information to react to a threat, so that they don’t get killed by something they couldn’t avoid.
  2. So that if you are going to die, you know why. It is a way of coaching the player so that, if there is indeed a correct way to play, this is communicated clearly to them.

The other very significant benefit to many of these systems is that, once you have taught the payer a visual language, they will know how to tackle an encounter that is completely new to them, increasing the chance that they won’t break the narrative pacing by having to restart a boss section for example.

A classic example of this is Ikaruga, the game about two colours - white and black. You are able to switch between the two, and in doing so become invulnerable to your matching colour. Now, it goes deeper than this, but the key take away here is that after you have learnt this early on in the game, the developer can throw any number of new situations and opponents at you - you don’t have to have encountered these enemies to know how to face them, because no matter how they’re presented, the mechanics are the same - dodge the opposite colours. Of course, you will still fail, it’s a hard game, but you will know why. You will know what you need to do to avoid death in the future and you will have a chance at least of beating the situation on your first try.

Colour mechanics are the most obvious implementation of this concept. Again, Wildstar takes this concept to an extreme where enemies telegraph attack patterns on the floor for you to dodge.

Of course this telegraphing exists in many games in less extreme forms and often draws on the rich vocabulary we’ve got from real-world reference - fire, spikes, black-and-yellow warning-stripes, things that are unstable and crumbling, shockwaves, electricity, the slow wind-up of a powerful punch we get from basic animation principles and so on. None of these things have to be taught, players will inherently understand these languages already so it isn’t necessary to create a system of bright edge glows to achieve this level of readability.

Again, if and where you choose to apply these techniques is down to your game’s design, but as a general rule, unless you have a specific design reason why the game should not be readable, you should be implementing this as fully as you can. In too many games can I block some attacks and not others with no way of learning which through anything other than trial and error.

By telegraphing threats you increase the chance that some players may even play through your entire game without ever failing - still getting better as the challenge increases, still coming close to failing often, but managing to pull themselves back from the brink.

This is the second in a four-part series on difficulty in games.
Part 1 is about dynamic difficulty
Part 3 is about mechanics that allow players to set their own difficulty

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