Mission: Inevitable

Psychochild posted an interesting article about what’s missing in our games these days, and it got me to thinking.

On a very basic level, it’s not possible to fail in the vast majority of content we’re consuming, in the vast majority of games.  Once having accepted a quest, you can feel confident that sooner or later you will complete that quest, unless of course it’s bugged.  The content might be too challenging for you right now, and so occasionally you might need to gain a level or two, or improve your gear a bit, but even this is pretty rare in my experience.

What happens if we don’t succeed?  Well, nothing.  Not succeeding immediately is always possible, though frankly it’s pretty uncommon for me not to succeed the first time I approach PvE content in any game I play.  I don’t intend this to be a paean to my l337 gaming skills, but rather a simple acknowledgement that most PvE games aren’t at their core all that terribly difficult; they’re designed to be accessible to a wide range of players, and so they are.

What we’re missing though is the possibility of actually failing.  If we don’t manage to complete a quest, or to kill a boss, we gird our loins and go back and try again.  Sometimes we might have to try over and over, but eventually the boss falls, the quest is completed, and we return to the immobile NPC who patiently waits for us, serenely unconcerned with how long it’s taken us or how many times we didn’t succeed.  What does not happen though is actual failure… whereby we attempt to do something, and don’t succeed, and that’s it.  Move on and try something else, pal, because you flubbed this.

The reason failure isn’t possible is fairly obvious; it’s a limitation of finite static content.  Given there are only so many quests in game, if players are allowed to fail, there arises the very real possibility that they will run out of content and have no way to proceed except by grinding mobs, which isn’t always even an option.  There are only a set number of instances to try, and so the designers very reasonably won’t lock us out of any of those instances just because we completely screwed up; instead, we can just throw bodies at problems until we swarm them under in the classic zerg maneuver.

This, to me, is a powerful argument in favor of… ok, you knew this was coming… procedurally generated content.  “Yeah, yeah, thanks foolsage,” you reply, “we already know you like PGC as a concept; you go on about it at the slightest provocation.”  But wait, I say… don’t you see?  If there were NOT a finite number of quests to undertake, then there’s no reason why we couldn’t be allowed to outright fail at them.  If there were NOT a finite number of instances to challenge us, then we could reasonably be excluded from trying again and again and again until we eventually whittle down the bosses or just get lucky.

What would this add to games, really?  I contend that the possibility of failure adds a lot of excitement and unpredictability; we no longer know how the story will end.  Maybe we’ll rescue the farmer’s daughter from the evil cult, and maybe we’ll fail and they’ll sacrifice her.  Maybe some other hero will have to defeat the Cyclops Lord, because we just weren’t able to.  Wouldn’t this make our actual victories far sweeter?  Wouldn’t this provide a sense of adventure that’s all-too-lacking in modern MMOs?

There are few good options for making us invest emotionally in our success.  Oldschool games like EQ approached this by having a punitive and draconian death penalty.  Dying in EQ was painful… it could set you back hours or even days of hard work.  You could lose levels.  You had to seek out your corpse and recover your gear, which could be very time-consuming and sometimes was simply impossible.  That’s certainly one approach that provides a fear of failure, but most players didn’t find that approach very fun, and so modern games have steered sharply away from such measures.  At the same time though, without anything in place to make us care about failing, games lose a lot of their excitement, and consequently it’s hard to feel like you’re having a real adventure in modern games.

It seems to me that procedurally generated content solves this problem nicely, allowing players to fail without punishing them unduly for it.  This would cause us to care about outcomes, to pay close attention, but at the same time, allows for a more gentle and modern approach to failure.  If you didn’t save the farmer’s daughter, well, it sucks for the farmer, but you can always go find something else to attempt.  Maybe you’ll win next time.

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26 comments so far

  1. Brian 'Psychochild' Green on

    I wrote about failure in MMOs a long time ago on my own blog. Might be interesting reading, especially the (archive.org) link to Damion’s blog where he tries to explain why failure in MMOs is a bad thing from a player’s perspective. I agree that failure could be more interesting, and I’m not sure it’s just a content problem. In fact, I think generating too much content could work against meaningful failure because then people don’t care if the succeed or fail. I think the root issue here is the need for content in order to advance so that missing content through failure causes larger problems. What if you were doing the content for content’s sake, not to level up, so that success and failure were story elements and not a reward/punishment for character advancement?

    I’ll not further rehash our discussions about PGC; people who are interested in that discussion can go read our comments on my blog. :)

  2. Tesh on

    “What if you were doing the content for content’s sake”

    Aye, that would be the best place to build from in my mind. I don’t mind some failure when it’s a story element or just me botching something. If it becomes a barrier to entry in a level-gated system, it’s going to be annoying.

    …which isn’t to say that I disagree with the core premise. I think that a lot of good can come from a little failure. (If memory serves, Puzzle Pirates is calibrated so that most pirates will lose 20-25% of the time while pillaging. The risk of losing your loot makes each time you sail an adventure, and keeps you at the top of your game.)

  3. foolsage on

    Psychochild said, “What if you were doing the content for content’s sake, not to level up, so that success and failure were story elements and not a reward/punishment for character advancement?”

    That, my friend, is precisely what I’d dearly love to see happen. I think though that this level of immersion in the story qua story requires the possibility of failure; else there are no branches in the narrative possibilities. If there’s only one outcome possible in the long run, and everyone’s experiences are in the long run identical, there’s no real story there.

    If we accept that involving, immersive narratives require more than one possible outcome, how do we achieve this without the possibility of failure? And if we accept that failure must be possible, how do we allow for this if there’s a finite amount of handcrafted content?

    Thanks for the link; it was indeed interesting reading. :)

  4. Brian 'Psychochild' Green on

    foolsage wrote:
    That, my friend, is precisely what I’d dearly love to see happen.

    Got a spare few hundred thousand dollars lying around? ;) My current rate of progress is painfully slow.

    And if we accept that failure must be possible, how do we allow for this if there’s a finite amount of handcrafted content?

    I think we have to accept that, like a story, a game will have an end. Eventually you’ll run out of content, then you’ll decide you’re either fine with going through the same content again (re-reading a favorite book), or you’re done with this content and it’s time to read another (finding another book, perhaps by the same author). We do this happily with other media, why do MMOs have to be eternal and undying?

    Take it from me: it should be painfully obvious to everyone now that these games do not, in fact, live on forever. Having the story draw to an end isn’t a problem; in fact, sometimes it can be a saving grace if the story has become formulaic and boring. The storyteller can go on to tell other wonderful stories instead of rehashing variations of the same one to the same audience.

    More thoughts.

  5. foolsage on

    Psychochild said, “Got a spare few hundred thousand dollars lying around?”

    I’m working on it. ;)

    Psychochild also said, “I think we have to accept that, like a story, a game will have an end. Eventually you’ll run out of content, then you’ll decide you’re either fine with going through the same content again (re-reading a favorite book), or you’re done with this content and it’s time to read another (finding another book, perhaps by the same author). We do this happily with other media, why do MMOs have to be eternal and undying?”

    You’re right of course. I’d just like to see a shift towards a more immersive, narrative-based MMO, wherein the content players consume is targeted towards and customized for their character. I’d like to shift the focus from achievement for its own sake, with everyone running the same metaphorical race, and towards having each character develop their own story. The static handcrafted content we have now just doesn’t seem capable of supporting such a game. Right now, my character’s story is basically the same as your character’s story, even in relatively story-heavy games like LotRO.

    To me, it’s not a question of whether the game ends or not, or even necessarily the sheer quantity of content a given player has to consume, but more the quality of the experience.

  6. [...] It started with Brian Green musing about something being missing in our MMOs, which was followed by Steve Danuser weighing in on the issue as well. The specifics are under debate, but there's been quite a bit of furor on the basis of that simple concept — that something ought to be there that isn't. We've lost the sense of adventure, of the game and the story being epic. What is it? An interesting idea has been put forth on Fool's Age: perhaps what we're really missing is the opportunity to fail. [...]

  7. Fighting Monkey on

    Thanks for writing a great article. It really echoes what has been in my subconscious lately.

    I think what you are touching upon is the fact that people are attracted to games because of uncertainty. This could be the roll of a dice (real or virtual) or the seemingly random pattern created when one breaks at the beginning of a pool game.

    In MMORPGs, many people get their uncertainty from their interactions with other people, since, as you have pointed out, the content itself is not uncertain. When you run with a PUG, is it a good experience, or more than likely a bad one? Guild drama is another source of uncertainty: who is going to be chosen to be part of the raid? What crazy stuff will people yell on vent during a difficult raid battle? I find these are all the things we really remember and reminisce about later on, suggesting this was the most rewarding part of the experience.

    For myself, I am really missing this type of uncertainty in my current game Champions Online.

  8. [...] It started with Brian Green musing about something being missing in our MMOs, which was followed by Steve Danuser weighing in on the issue as well. The specifics are under debate, but there's been quite a bit of furor on the basis of that simple concept — that something ought to be there that isn't. We've lost the sense of adventure, of the game and the story being epic. What is it? An interesting idea has been put forth on Fool's Age: perhaps what we're really missing is the opportunity to fail. [...]

  9. Nym on

    I’ve been working on something akin to this, but sans the PGC. I know I’m not the only one, and likely by the time I ever see fruition in this area (the time it takes to become an ‘insider’ as I’ve no programming ability) then the industry may well recognize the shortcoming and correct it.

    The real trick is writing failure in. This should be simple but it’s as though you’re writing a “choose your own adventure” novel, that spans a library’s worth of books. The upswing, however, is no two players stories would be the same. Combined with a ‘sandbox’ style game, wherein you give players reign to create their stories, alliances, enemies, etc (think Eve Online) I would forsee a game that players would have a difficult time walking away from.

    • foolsage on

      I think it’s incredibly difficult to allow for unique narratives with the “choose your own adventure” approach; that’s what all current MMOs use and it just doesn’t seem to have the potential for players to tell their own stories. I mean, ok, granted, it can be taken further than it currently is, e.g. player A might experience story items 1,2,4,6, and 8, and play B might experience story items 2,3,5,6, and 7… and that’s better than what we have now (where everyone experiences story items 1,2,3,4,5, and 6)… but it still doesn’t allow us much agency as players to shape our own stories.

  10. Arnold Hendrick on

    I believe the question is not so much whether players can fail, but rather the penalty for failure. WoW-trained MMOers will blindly charge into near-hopeless situations multiple times, hoping to get lucky if nothing else, because the penalty for failure is so trivial. EQ-trained MMOers were far more cautious because they knew that the dreaded party wipe would mean an hour or two spent orchestrating “corpse runs” for the fallen, often right under the noses of the very enemies who had just killed them. What’s gone out of kilter is the balance of risk-reward.

    We are now a generation of gamers who have grown up with computer opponents who happily “lose” all the time. This is very different from earlier generations of boardgames where there were always winners and losers. I remember many a hex grid wargame where the adventure was discovering how a close-fought campaign or battle unfolded, and from that deducing the “perfect plan” for next time.

    From a design standpoint, I tend to agree with Brian Green about the value of a clearly stated challenge. When you (or your party) pokes their noses into an unknown dungeon, being cautious and figuring out whether you can handle it is part of the fun. If you can’t, you want to stage a wise tactical retreat to get additional help, or wait for a more auspicious day.

    From a business standpoint, it IS important that players CAN surmount the challenge eventually. The computer-gaming generation needs to triumph in the end, just as the fantasy novel reader won’t enthusiastically follow a book series where each volume ends with the heroes all broken, dispirited or dead while evil once again triumphs.

    • foolsage on

      Hrm. I don’t really agree that death penalties are the best way to implement failure; that leaves us with the position of having no real narrative agency – so over time, in the long run, everyone’s story is the same. That gets pretty boring and has a lot of downsides I addressed in the article.

      I think players prefer to succeed, and I agree that nobody wants to play a game wherein they lose all the time… but using your example, how many (good) books feature protagonists that never, ever fail? Sherlock Holmes failed to catch Irene Adler, and Watson always said there were a lot of other cases Holmes never solved. Luke was defeated by Vader the first time they met. I think it’s important to allow for failures in among the successes, to make the successes themselves more meaningful.

      When I complete a quest in WoW, or LotRO, or CO, or any of the other modern MMOs… it doesn’t make me feel special or heroic. I KNOW I’m going to succeed eventually, even if I sometimes have to try two or three times. Without that fear of failure, the successes taste a bit too much like ashes.

  11. Derek K. on

    I agree with your point, in a general sense. Depending on how you define failure, I’d disagree that you can’t fail.

    I seem to recall instances in WoW having a climax that you either win or lose. If you lose, you fail the quest, and have to start over. So yes, you can do the entire instance over again, but you’ve effectively failed.

    Similarly, there are timed or escort quests. However, Escort quests are routinely among the most annoying in the game.

    However, that being said, I don’t want to fail entirely except in rare circumstances. I’m the kind of person who reloads and plays 30 minutes over in Fire Emblem if one of my characters dies. I would very possibly reroll if I failed a large piece of content. And after 2-3 times of that, I’m done playing. Additionally, knowing that I can entirely fail means I’m going to feel that I need to read walkthroughs and guides for just about every thing. And then, again, I’m not having fun so much any more.

    Also also, online games are inherently unstable. I’m gonna be *pissed* if I’m on stage 6 of a 7 stage quest, only to have the map server go down and boot me out, leaving me AFK to be killed, fail, and then learn that “Nope. That’s it. No second chances.” It’s frustrating enough in online shooters, when your K/D ratio or Win/Loss is dropped because of a disconnection (Wolf Team, my favorite free shooter, kicks you if it determines your ping is too far out of whack. My network has occasional spurts of 800 ms pings to their servers, for about 3 seconds. I can get booted from the game in that 3 seconds. And then I lose all gold I’ve earned, lose an additional 100 gold, and get a loss. That’s frustrating as anything).

    However however, I may well be a product of my environment. If failure was part of the game, and you’re taught early on that you can fail regularly, and still progress (CF, presumably, Darkfall?) it might be different for me.

    And it’s all out the window when PvP gets involved, cause then failure is a required part of the process….

    • foolsage on

      Failing and trying again until you repeat isn’t really failing, in a narrative sense. Failing is when you try and don’t EVER win at that particular challenge. You tried to save the maiden but the dragon ate her. You tried to stop the invasion but the bandit chief knocked you unconscious, and they razed the village. So you dust yourself off and move on to another challenge.

      As you noted, this really only works though when failure is part of the game and part of the players’ expectations from the start.

  12. Deigh on

    I’m a big fan of the idea PGC in MMOs, but I’m not sure how fear of failure is one of it’s strongest points.

    Could a procedural system ever generate dialogue compelling enough for me to care that I don’t save generic daughter #67 when I know I can always just go find generic daughter #68 and try again?

    Just look at a recentish SP RPG that used a similar system, Fable 2. In that game you could marry a procedural wife and have procedural kids who would then proceed to do nothing involving the storyline except spit out procedural dialogue and demand gifts. At some point (possible spoilers) you’re meant to be sorrowful about their death and you’re given the choice to ressurect them. I don’t know about most people but I felt no remorse at all, chose the “noble sacrifice” option and immediately went out and married another procedural wife and had more procedural kids who looked and behaved exactly like the old ones.

    Compare that to an earlier quest where you have the option of inflicting permanent harm on a non-procedural character or take it upon yourself and you immediately have more emotional involvement simply because that character has unique dialogue.

    The only way I can see PGC creating a fear of failure is if the failure has permanent consequences beyond procedural dad #67 spitting out “sad response #5″ upon learning of your failure. Perhaps that could be part of a living world system – fail to save enough farmers daughters and watch the area stagnate due to lack of reproduction ;)

    • foolsage on

      I agree that a real, immersive narrative requires a dynamic world, where actions have consequences, and the world changes based on what players do (or fail to do). If failing a quest means another NPC pops up immediately with virtually the same quest, that makes the failure hollow and empty. If failing to save a village means that village is razed to the ground, and maybe now you can take a quest to help some NPCs from surrounding areas repopulate and rebuild, then all of a sudden that world has real depth and meaning.

  13. Nym on

    Foolsage: Actually, my fault for using a common phrase from most big game advertisements. What I mean by allowing players to ‘create their own stories’ is literally that. If one were to create a system that actually supported the roleplaying that players do (ie: Hit up Pocket D on the Virtue server for CoH/V). Allow players to create their own places (homes, shops, clubs, etc), work with or against each other, have dedicated live GM’s for more than customer support, remove the limitations of play such as artificial levels, etc.

    Basically think of it this way. Take a skill-based system (World of Darkness, Cyberpunk 2020, etc) and make that into an MMO. Granted this would take a LOT of work on programming and art to make it accessible, but it is something that is very much balanced to begin with when getting into the RP system.

    An example: White Wolf used to (haven’t checked lately, don’t know if they still do) run a Java chat specifically for RP games in a relatively open ‘environment’ (granted this was all just chat and dealt with imagination for graphics) that was quite successful for a time and spawned numerous clones. People still attempt to do this sort of RP in current MMO’s (WoW, CoH/V, CO, AO, etc and even on Second Life re: City of Lost Angels) and these are just the cases that I’ve seen. If one were to create a system to support this, I’m willing to bet we’d see a spark return because the adventures aren’t just handed out by a static quest giver. You’d have players (sub base and GM’s) filling this role, and would likely see people investing a lot of time into playing the game were this sort of thing possible.

    • foolsage on

      Ahh, gotcha. I do think live events by GMs can help a lot in creating unique and meaningful narratives. The problem there is always having enough GMs; quality storytellers aren’t usually cheap. This definitely does help though to bridge the gap between the static, predictable games we play today and the dynamic, unpredictable games we’ll hopefully be playing someday.

      I do tend to prefer skill-based systems, simply because they often offer a lot of flexibility in customizing characters. The more unique our characters can be, and the more control we have over their development, the easier it is (all other things being equal) for us to immerse ourselves in their stories.

  14. Nym on

    I think the issue of quality movements by the GMs would be a bit easier if you got people who were decent enough storytellers, not professional quality but fair in their own right, and guided them with an overarching storyline from behind the scenes. The greatest initial demand would be for the metaplot, while the minor plots and smaller back-and-forths could easily be handled by a GM capable of a decent modicum of storytelling. And again, let’s not forget the potential talent pool available among the player base as well.

    I just tend to think that if you ascribe the mechanics to make people rely on one another within the world, and give them the opportunity to turn coat on their ‘friends’, there would be much story coming from just those interactions, and on the small scale of personal experience, it would be something that actually mattered to you, instead of running just another ‘kill x rats, boars and beavers’ because the guy with the ? said to.

    • foolsage on

      GMs are really dependent on the scale issue in my experience; the more players a game has, the harder it becomes to supply a guided gaming experience with an appreciable level of GM interaction per player. The more GMs you have, and the more active they are, the greater the problems you have to deal with – not only cost, but quality control. What happens, for instance, if a GM abuses power by giving out rewards that are inappropriately good? What if a GM has a bad day and takes it out on the players? Because these are paying customers, these issues are quite serious – you can be certain players will complain about favoritism, corruption, unfair distribution of GM time, being ignored by GMs, being picked on by GMs etc.

      I was a GM and designer for a small niche game that had about 10,000 players at its peak, with a GM staff of around 30 people, give or take. The game’s appeal lay largely in its immersive RP, and the players definitely appreciated and desired GM interaction… but all of the above problems cropped up again and again. We were supported by donations so didn’t have to worry about our paying customers (we just worried about the vision for the game), but had it been otherwise I can only say it would have quickly devolved into a nightmare. People became GMs because they wanted to indulge in power trips, because they wanted to give unfair rewards to their friends, because they wanted to tell stories that didn’t fit the setting or violated core rules of the game, etc. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people became GMs because they wanted to tell good stories and make the game fun for players, but it was a lot harder to keep everyone in line and produce good output than I ever would have guessed.

      I’m not saying GMs don’t add a lot to games, but the downsides to relying on them are significant.

  15. Nym on

    I can see the issues with abuse of power in either direction really, but there are a few ways around this though a few may be cost prohibitive or counter productive. I’m actually enjoying this discussion, it’s helping with my design structure. :)

    The first step to take is, taking a page from CoH/V, set the GM’s up as characters within the metaplot. Leave the actions behind the ‘GM screen’ out of the players view (such that you could have several people running one character over the course of a day). Secondly, separate the duties. The GM’s should be the visible face that helps the major plots along, recognizes players who are exceeding the norm, etc. Have them act more as storytellers than as customer support. The CS role would be handled by Customer Support, essentially. These are the people working behind the scenes to ensure that things run smoothly and deal with trouble. By separating what each is capable of doing, if a problem with abuse of power happens, you know where to look.

    The role of GM’s is far too often nothing more than customer support for the static world, but I think utilizing them to create a more dynamic world, in sync with a proper support team, would help to create a better sense of immersion and a feeling that the game is actually going somewhere.

    • foolsage on

      We did all of that; GMs could “possess” NPCs and generally did so stealthily, so they’d just drop in on players. A PC would walk along and a normally static NPC might say hello, leading to a conversation, leading to a quest, etc. Customer support was a different function.

      The drawbacks are still significant even if you do your best to make GMs work. Again, I don’t think it’s impossible but I’ve come to think that it’s better to have a world that supports dynamic player interactions, with scripted consequences (preferably using PGC to allow for changes over time, such that the world evolves based on player actions), and to use GMs as “frosting” if you will. If GMs are to provide the whole cake, stretching this metaphor a bit far, you’ll very likely end up with something indigestible. To the extent that you rely on GMs to make the world work and the stories progress, you’re opening yourself up to a lot of serious and compelling problems.

  16. Nym on

    I agree that relying on GM’s for the ‘whole cake’ is flawed. But this is where letting the players have an impact can be brought in to advantage of the game as a whole. An example being one I mentioned before, Eve Online. It may not be the equivalent of the 900lb Gorilla, but it works, and it’s showing a profit. The players create their stories via alliances, pirating, mining, and generally doing whatever they see fit.

    This is the sort of thing I mean when I say leveraging the player base for stories, as opposed to PGC, though likely the best option would be a combination of all three working in sync to create a living world.

  17. [...] A few contributors to the video games blogosphere have been in a buzz for the past week over a few issues pertaining to MMOs, which has garnered the attention of Massively as well as Creative Director for 38 Studios (you know, MLB pitcher Curt Schilling’s super secret studio), Steven Danuser. While several topics are currently being discussed, the umbrella issue at hand seems to be that something is missing from today’s MMOs: the possibility of failure. [...]

  18. [...] A few contributors to the video games blogosphere have been in a buzz for the past week over a few issues pertaining to MMOs, which has garnered the attention of Massively as well as Creative Director for 38 Studios (you know, MLB pitcher Curt Schilling’s super secret studio), Steven Danuser. While several topics are currently being discussed, the umbrella issue at hand seems to be that something is missing from today’s MMOs: the possibility of failure. [...]

  19. [...] suffering on the part of the player.  Sometimes that suffering is considered acceptable, because the risk of failure and loss can make games more exciting.  Death penalties though can easily lead to frustration and a lessened desire to play a game, [...]


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