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.