Why I Hate the Term “Permadeath”

upright-1Despite the fact that I’m a guy who designed one Roguelike and is soon to release another game that many people will end up calling a Roguelike even if I don’t, you’ll never hear me use the term “permadeath”, unless it’s to explain why another person shouldn’t use it, or with extreme air-quotes around it.  This is because it’s a word with extreme baggage, and it hurts everyone’s ability to make great strategy games.

That’s my claim here:  if we don’t get rid of this horrible terminology and way of thinking, we can never make great single-player strategy games.

Up front, though, let me make clear what I am *not* saying, because I can already picture the top comment saying something like “yeah, permadeath is bad, it’s way too harsh!”  This is not my claim at all.  I am not saying that permanent death is too harsh, at all;  if anything my claim is more like “all competitive strategy games require permanent death“.

 

What is Permadeath?

Just in case I have some readers who don’t know, permadeath is… well, it’s actually hard to explain what it is without all of the videogame baggage.  Like, I can’t even describe it because to do so I would have to make some horribly offensive statements.  So, here’s the Wikipedia definition:

In role-playing video games (RPGs), permanent death (sometimes permadeath or PD) is a situation in which player characters (PCs) die permanently and are removed from the game.[1] … This is in contrast to games in which characters who are killed (or incapacitated) can be restored to life (or full health), often at some minor cost to the character.

In my opinion, that accurately reflects what most people think of as permadeath in videogames.

There are two major problems with this terminology.

1.  It assumes that persistence is and should be the default way that things work

2.  It erroneously mis-characterizes “permanent consequences/persistence” as a non-central “feature”

3.  Minor issue, but still problematic – it presumes/implies that every game has some central, singular avatar.  Like, you wouldn’t call non-persistence in Civilization “permadeath”, would you?  “Death”, everyone should be aware, is a thematic element, not a mechanical one.

 

 

Persistence By Default?

Persistence, just so I’m clear, is this concept that you have some save-game file that never gets erased unless you erase it yourself.  It usually means that your character/avatar/town’s power and resources are growing over time.  Each time you sit down and play, you are adding to your save file.  Very rarely is anything ever taken away, and if it were, you could just load the game to just before that point and do that part over.

I’ve met people – only people who come from digital entertainment backgrounds, mind you – who tend to think of persistence as the default way that everything should go, although with a huge caveat:  only for single player.  Videogamers tend to understand that you won’t generally be carrying stuff from one match in Counter-Strike over into your next match (well, at least, that used to be the case… becoming less and less so, with persistent elements in online FPS games being the new norm).

But when it comes to single-player, a lot of people don’t get the permadeath idea.  I’ve heard some smart people say it’s “some kind of joke rule”, as in, it’s so absurd that you would have permanent death in a game, that it must be a joke.  Of course, Tetris technically has permanent death, and so do multiplayer games, and yet that’s totally acceptable?  Why is this?

 

Types of Systems

Many of my readers probably know about my hierarchy of interactive systems (if not, read about it at Gamasutra, here at my site, or in my book).  Today, though, I’ll be drawing a very specific line in the sand that hopefully won’t be too hard to accept.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s divide videogames into two categories: Competitive Strategy Games and Non-Competitive, Non-Strategy Games.

 

Competitive Strategy Systems are basically things that can be won and lost, that include decision-making, that you can “get really good at”, and are often long-lasting.  Sports are competitive strategy systems, as well as videogames like Civilization, Tetris, and Counter-Strike.

Note that by “competitive”, I do not mean multi-player, and I recognize that that will sound weird to a lot of people.

This is a point in the article where I almost stopped writing because I have to explain so much to get this point across.  Basically, games like Civilization or Tetris at their core are competitive, despite being single-player.  This is due to the score mechanism, the random generation, and the emergent nature of play.

The way that we need to start thinking about single-player competitive strategy games – games not focused around story or experience, but around skill-building, strategy, and winning – should be more like the sports golf or bowling.  We should think of skill-based single player games as actually asynchronous multiplayer games, even if the opponent we play against is ourselves.  This is a big topic, which I sort of just touched on for a recent Dinofarm Games article, if you want to read more about it there.

 

Non-Competitive, Non-Strategy Systems are just the opposite – games that aren’t supposed to be competitive, and aren’t supposed to have deep strategy.  RPGs would probably be the classic example of this, but really most single player entertainment software, especially those driven by a narrative, would fall into this category.

I think that most videogames fit into one of these two categories.  Almost all of the time, “single-player” videogames are in the latter category, with notable exception of stuff like Civilization, abstracts such as Tetris, and also the Roguelike genre.  An example of a non-strategy competitive game, though, would be something like Guitar Hero.

 

Why Competitive Strategy Systems NEED “Permadeath”

For Competitive Strategy Systems, you absolutely MUST have “permadeath”, and I’ll explain why.

  • Reason #1:  Impossible to Balance.  If you have persistence, then numbers and resources are increasing, and the game is getting easier.  If this is a system wherein the player can achieve skill, then you have a two-pronged attack on the difficulty that very few systems can survive.  At the same time the player is getting better, his tools are ever-increasing in power.  In pretty much every system that ever had a chance of being a competitive strategy system but that also allowed loading and saving and persistence, this was the cause of its eventual demise.
If this was a strategy game before, it's dead now due to persistence.

If this was a strategy game before, it’s dead now due to persistence.

  • Reason #2:  Decisions Can’t Survive.  If you can hit undo anytime you want, you never have to make a decision, ever.  You just have to guess-and-check, trial-and-error, slog your way through the entire web of possibilities until you find one that makes you win for any given setup.  In any game where you can just “re-load”, you never have to make choices.

 

What I’m saying is that Civilization should absolutely have “permanent death”.  Tetris and other abstracts already do, as well as roguelikes.

But what bothers me is that people don’t understand that for these kinds of systems, permadeath isn’t some “option” or “feature” that’s nice to have.  It isn’t some personal preference.  In single-player competitive strategy games, permadeath is ESSENTIAL.  The system breaks down into incoherence immediately without it.

This is why it bothers me to hear people say that they “like permadeath” or “dislike permadeath”.  It’s fine to have a preference, but you should understand that if you’re dismissing permadeath, you’re dismissing the single-player strategy game altogether.

Choose-your-difficulty

The “difficulty select” screen from Dungeons of Dredmor actually allows you to turn “OFF” permadeath, as casually as turning on or off the music.  I won’t comment on “no time to grind”.

When Don’t You Want Permadeath?

For non-competitive, non-strategy systems, of course, it’s usually the opposite.  If your system is story based, then you almost certainly want persistence.  You don’t want the player to have to do everything over, you want them to experience the story.  Half-a-story isn’t really worth much to a person, any more than half-a-match of a great strategy game is, so you want them to get through.  It’s no good if you built this amazing story with a fantastic climax if many people don’t even get to that climax.

So, I would say that Zelda should certainly not have permanent death, at all.  In fact, I suspect that Zelda and most RPGs shouldn’t have any kind of death, because these systems cannot support any meaningful consequences.  I expect that in the future, games like these will follow in the steps of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, where death is not possible, instead it’s just that you lose some sort of metagame bonuses for taking damage (note:  you’re still gaining stuff, just gaining LESS stuff).

Other kinds of systems that shouldn’t have permanent death would be “collection” based skinner-box machines, like Diablo, Farmville, or Pokemon.  These aren’t really story based so much as they are just about perpetually adding +1s to your levels.  Since they are always about that – collection – then it doesn’t make sense to really ever reset it.

In short, some systems require permadeath, and some require persistence. It is not like some “cruel joke”, and it’s also not “I LIKE PAIN!!”.  Failure is not punishment, it is a measurement.

So, when I hear that a game has “permadeath”, I feel like the speaker doesn’t really understand what’s going on there.  Like, no one would say that Tetris has permadeath, and not just because of the theme.  To people, it’s obvious that Tetris with persistence would be pretty silly.  It’s also obvious to most (if a decreasing amount of) developers that adding persistence to multiplayer competitive games is a bad idea.

I hope that this article will push the conversation forward, where we can understand what permadeath is in a more holistic way.  If we do, we can realize a lot of stuff, and make better single-player strategy games than the world has ever seen.

  • Jo

    Dude I totally agree but I gotta say I appreciate knowing that a game features permadeath, so I don’t accidentally get into an RPG or worse, a dopamine drip gambling sim (DiabloIII).

  • KammanderKhan

    I very much agree with the spirit of your argument on the issue of the necessity of permanent loss of resources in competitive games. However, I feel like this may be an oversimplification due to looseness in terminology. You strongly are against the term of “permadeath” yet you continue to use it throughout the article. I feel that a more adequate description for the message you are trying to get across would be “consequence for lose condition” or even simply “losing” or “penalty”. I can definitely see where you’re coming from by trying to have a stance on the issue of “permadeath” yet I feel it is a cultural artifact that arose out of videogames that really has not much place when examining formal game design, competitive or otherwise. The term presents a false dichotomy that you fall victim to in this article.

    Games do not merely have the potential to be purely competitive and strategic, or purely non competitive or non strategic. I do very much agree that competition and strategy cannot meaningfully exist without irreversible consequences, but “permadeath” is not the only means of achieving this. Consider segmenting challenges with levels or check points in a single player game. Each segment could have effective output randomness yet the consequence of losing is only losing progress in that segment (say each floor to a rougelike dungeon). The meaningfulness of the decision is contained within that segment, and if the segment is completed, then the choices would permanently carry out to the next segments.

    Another point I wish to respond to is your insistence that lack of persistence of resources is vital to balancing. I agree that when accumulation of skill AND resources are present, it is, as you put it a “two-pronged attack” when it comes to trying to balance. I would like to add to this by elaborating why balance in itself is so important. A system can be as deep and challenging to play, but if improperly balanced, then the player cannot experience that depth or challenge. Without permanent loss of resources as a consequence for losing, there is the possibility of players accruing a “safety net” of resources.The player may be able to interact with the system as normal, but if they have an unbalanced amount of resources, the need to actually learn interesting ways of winning becomes diminished. The player may feel empowered and have the illusion of challenge( big scary monster that takes a lot of hits means it’s hard right?), but if they have this “safety net”, they will never feel the need to experiment and be creative with strategy for success. This is evident in so many games and the problem with an unbalanced ability to grind. It ruins an otherwise fun and rewarding game and turns it into a playable and boring game.

  • keithburgun

    I agree with your point about permadeath not having a place in a formal game design discussion, but then again, I see people using it all the time, even gamey-designey-people, so I felt the need to say something. And in saying something, it seemed to me that I had to use the word to explain why it’s not useful. Maybe I didn’t do a great job of that, though. Anyway, thanks, I agree with most of what you’ve said.

  • http://www.facebook.com/benjamin.loxley Benjamin Loxley

    I think what you’re saying here is essentially what he was expressing in the article. One of Keith’s main issues with the word is that, while it *means* the core, fundamental all-important part of a game that is loss, it’s usually not equated with loss. It’s equated with some stupid feature like “super hardcore insane” difficulty level; it has baggage, and that’s why it’s not a good word for game design discussion.

  • http://twitter.com/dto1138 David O’Toole

    good analysis, i.e. “no one would say that Tetris has permadeath.”

  • http://twitter.com/metasynthie Naomi Clark

    I’ve always thought “permadeath” was a stupid term when applied to roguelikes, especially since for classic roguelikes it’s just a standard feature. As Raph already said on Twitter, the term originates in tabletop role-playing games, and I suspect it only migrated onto roguelikes because of the similarities: a “lengthy” fantasy dungeon-crawl with stats and character advancement. I say lengthy because if you made an fantasy dungeon-crawl with stats that you played more like an arcade action game (like I don’t know, a beat-em-up or Smash TV type game) nobody would think of dying as “permadeath” there either. It would be “oh shit I lost my last life, game over.” Context is everything.

    This does raise an interesting question for roguelikes, which do have this grindy, stat-based character advancement, long session time genetic material in them, probably inherited from D&D, sire of ten thousand bastard offspring. The session times and investment of effort/choice into a resource pool (your character) is far greater than most competitive strategy games, with the possible exception of something like Civilization. It’s the long playtime and resource pool investment that creates the experience of persistence, whether you still have permanent loss conditions or no. I’d hazard that if we could measure “perception of persistence” in players, games that take you more than eight hours to finish a play session would rate highly. Plus, games that last that long tend to start requiring saves as a matter of course; games with sudden, risky-situation deaths like most roguelikes can have permanent loss get rid of a save, but that would be kind of meaningless for a game with slow decline towards loss like Civ.

    The solution that a lot of game designs (and game design theorists) seem to be trending towards these days is shorter sessions. Short sessions neatly sidestep a bunch of these problems, can offer tighter systems, be consumed in bite-sized chunks, etc. But not every game is gonna be short.

    I’ll disagree with you on a couple other points, especially when you start talking about non-competitive non-strategy games. We all know they’re not your favorite kind of games! Maybe that’s why I’m noticing a few gaps in what you see people getting or not getting out of them.

    – the word “permadeath” shouldn’t be used for strategic competitive games, but I think it still has tremendous value in other kinds of games, from tabletop RPGs to MMOs and even linear, ten-hour-long FPS/adventure/rpg hybrids. In those games, it should be something the player opts into — either with a toggle or by understanding that they’re agreeing to loss of their entire investment upon a failure state. The term evolved in tabletop roleplaying because of how it enhanced/altered roleplaying & strategy — people make decisions differently when they know their character could die, forever, and that they’d have to roll a new character and never more play as Krystara the cranky Dwarf Priestess or whatever. I’m totally for allowing players to sign up for that kind of massive feeling of loss, even if what they’re losing is “I grinded for 65 hours and then I STUPIDLY DIED.” That stuff is great if you ask me, as long as players know what they’re getting into. It’s one of the good things that come out of games that run on time investment: being able to lose your whole “stake” to sloppiness or a bad decision, etc. Even Farmville could benefit from this kind of permadeath, though it would have to be framed differently. (I do agree with you that tuning a game for this kind of permadeath is not really compatible with an “optimal story experience” for a story-game, although some kind of intersection there might be interesting, stories that change if you perma-die while everything systemic simply resets, etc.) So, persistence + permadeath does make sense. It can be masochistic, it can be a jaw-dropping punishment, and there’s nothing wrong with that as a choice.

    – Given the above, I have no idea what you mean by “these systems cannot support any meaningful consequences” — a player who’s been playing a multiplayer RPG (tabletop or online, roleplayed or no) for years will clearly experience meaningful consequences if they lose their character. If you simply mean single-player games like Zelda, the meaningful consequences are a little different, but there are plenty of scenarios. In many such games, saving is a decision with huge impact on gameplay, and forgetting to save is like not clipping your safety harness properly; you will lose a lot more time if you die. I’m not really in strong favor of time-punishment penalties for death (few people are) but being forced to repeat a section DOES have some meaningful consequences in this kind of game: if there’s skill involved (let’s say, a platformer) repeating the area prior to your death is a very standard way of forcing practice of those skills. In Zelda, it’s meaningful to have a little mini-failure-state inside of a boss battle, because boss battles are basically puzzles that you have to solve under time pressure / while juggling multiple tasks. If you die, you have to do it over, and maybe you suffer some other kind of penalty to your resources. Death is an extremely convenient metaphor for this — it’s why it’s stuck around so long, not simply due to convention. There’s an interesting confluence of the way games allow or encourage us to “time-loop” back to similar scenarios — in competitive strategy games, this happens across multiple sessions, and death as a fictional metaphor has come to stand for the time loop inside not-exactly-competitive single-player games as well. So I don’t think you’re going to see it vanish completely, although 2008 Prince of Persia is an interesting edge case. One that people didn’t really like because it was too non-deathy!

  • Joshua Day

    Reloading is just another move the player can make. It can be loaded with emotional connections or consequences, just like any other move. But as a move, it changes the entire future of the game. An unlikely but huge payoff at high cost isn’t worth pursuing in a roguelike; in an RPG, it is, because you have a boundless stack Potion of Ex Post Facto. You can’t design a strategy game around a super weapon the player “doesn’t have to use,” and that’s what reloading amounts to; you can allow it or not, but if you treat it as a system command you’re in trouble.

    Players imagine playing their favorite game-with-reloading without reloading and rightly hate the idea. Mario’s no fun without jumping, either.

  • Maurog

    Wait a minute, aren’t roguelikes also “collection” based Skinner-box machines, just like the Diablo they spawned? Is Diablo III rebelling against the persistence inherent in the system by having an optional permadeath mode, or is it merely returning to its roguelike roots?

  • James

    idk sounds just like semantics. I think anyone with a brain already knows some games need respawns and some dont.

  • Steve Johnathan

    I get why you hate the term permadeath and I can agree that it has its value but there are so many things that don’t sound right or are unclear.

    “Competitive Strategy Systems are basically things that can be won and lost, that include
    decision-making, that you can “get really good at”, and are often long-lasting.”

    “For non-competitive, non-strategy systems, of course, it’s usually the opposite. If your system is story based, then you almost certainly want persistence. You don’t want the player to have to do everything over, you want them to experience the story.”

    The problem is your terms are so general and overlapping and you make everything too black and white. Zelda and even Pokemon are absolutely games that can be “won and lost, include decision-making, that you can get really good at and are often long-lasting” (also have no idea how you call Pokemon a “skinner box”) yet you claim they need “persistence” which is the opposite for what’s needed in competitive strategy systems that you define. Zelda not having any kind of death is probably the most ridiculous suggestion I’ve heard.

    “Persistence, just so I’m clear, is this concept that you have some
    save-game file that never gets erased unless you erase it yourself.”

    But you’re not clear. There are so many games that fit in your competitive strategy system definition that have this but I would hardly say need “perma-death”(a term you continue to use despite your not liking it) or benefit from lack of “persistence” . What about Mario? or Advance Wars, Ninja Gaiden Black, Dark Souls, Vanquish or even Fire Emblem, a game with “permadeath” but also “persistence”. Your reasoning for why perma-death MUST be in every competitive strategy system is also incredibly weak.

    “Impossible to Balance. If you have persistence, then
    numbers and resources are increasing, and the game is getting easier.
    If this is a system wherein the player can achieve skill, then you have a
    two-pronged attack on the difficulty that very few systems can
    survive. At the same time the player is getting better, his tools are
    ever-increasing in power. In pretty much every system that ever had a
    chance of being a competitive strategy system but that also allowed
    loading and saving and persistence, this was the cause of its eventual
    demise.”

    Impossible to balance? Pardon me but that’s bullshit. You also contradict this by saying that “few systems can survive”. If few systems can survive the attack on difficulty due to players gaining skill and resources, then it’s not impossible now is it? Don’t mean to sound rude but there’s a clear error in word choice and you are exaggerating and oversimplifying things. I also have to ask, what about games like Spelunky? They have perma-death but you clearly get better at it like any other game and get better stuff as you go on. If you think the difficulty suffers then clearly balance isn’t about having perma-death or lack of persistence unless you mean to tell me that Spelunky is a non-competitive non-strategy game.

    “Reason #2: Decisions Can’t Survive. If you can hit
    undo anytime you want, you never have to make a decision, ever. You
    just have to guess-and-check, trial-and-error, slog your way through the
    entire web of possibilities until you find one that makes you win for
    any given setup. In any game where you can just “re-load”, you never
    have to make choices.”

    This is more like an argument against quick saves. This doesn’t actually argue in favor of perma-death. In many games with persistence, you can’t undo your mistakes. I’m well aware that perma-death is a term used for RPGs but when you
    apply this to games like Zelda, Tetris and Civilization and extend this
    concept along with “persistence” to all games which fall under either
    competitive strategy system or non-competitive strategy system, it just
    gets messy.

    Also, there’s problems with your dislike of the terminology. You say that:
    1. It assumes that persistence is and should be the default way that things work
    No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t say that anywhere. That’s your assumption. The term only makes a contrast of perma-death with other RPGs where characters can be brought back from the dead. As I’ve argued above, you don’t actually explain why this being a default is even a bad thing.
    2. It erroneously mis-characterizes “permanent consequences/persistence” as a non-central “feature”
    Again, no it doesn’t. It actually characterizes it as a situation. Even if it did, I don’t even understand how this is a problem with the terminology anyway. Some games have game overs, some don’t. Some have Savepoints, some don’t. Some have perma-death, some don’t. You don’t actually explain how this is a problem.

    Despite the fact that you dislike the term perma-death, it’s still a useful term to describe certain aspects in games. All in all, these are all or most of my problems with this article. Sorry to say, but I don’t think this was very good.

  • keithburgun

    Yes.

  • Blake

    Mario is no fun without jumping is a terrible analogy. Try “Mario is no fun with save state.”

    “Just don’t use it,” is a cop out. It is not the player’s job to balance a game. It’s the game designer’s. It’s like telling someone who has a film on DVD with a superfluous scene that is widely hated, to “just skip it every time you watch the move.” As if that makes it ok. As if that fixes it, or as if it’s somehow a defense of that scene!

    Reloading is not a “move.” In Sands of Time it’s a “move.” Time control. Save scumming is time-control. But i was not designed nor intended as time control.

  • keithburgun

    One of the big points that I didn’t mention, but is universally true of not just all games but of all kinds of things you expect another human to experience is, “they should be as short as they possibly can be”. Despite the universally true nature of this claim (beyond some kind of avant-garde artwork whose purpose is to illustrate what “wasting your time” is like, or maybe being about boredom), videogames have adopted almost the opposite philosophy: longer is better. So, this factors into everything. Like, if I say that Civ should have permadeath, people are like, “yeah but some of those games take like 20 hours to finish!”, and I have to go back and be like, okay well that’s a different problem that also should be solved!

    So yeah, that’s a good example of one of those many many things that makes it hard for me to talk about game design. There’s just TOO MUCH that has to change. The entire background needs to be flushed, the entire paradigm has to shift. I operate in a completely different world than that of most people who will read what I have to say, so it’s like an alien coming down and discussing Alien Politics 101 with a human. Even if they’re a super well-educated, experienced politician, they’re likely to be like “what in God’s name are you blathering about!?” That’s how I feel about it.

    >>’m totally for allowing players to sign up for that kind of massive feeling of loss

    One of my big points is that this specifically should not be some “elective” quality of a system. Some systems require it, other systems require that they don’t have it. Really when we talk about permadeath we’re talking about game-end condition, so that can’t just be something a user chooses, it’s too fundamental to a system.

    By “these systems cannot support”, in reference to Zelda or other AUTHORED story-driven systems, they can’t have meaningful consequences to choices because they both can’t have a meaningful game-end state other than “you reaching the story’s climax”, and they can’t alter the story. But the latter is a huge topic, of course, which maybe you disagree with.

  • pkt-zer0

    > Try “Mario is no fun with save state.”

    People go out of their way to do tool-assisted speedruns, it’s not as if they’re devoid of fun. It’s a different kind of fun, I suppose.

  • KirbyKid

    It’s important not to use the word “fun” when you’re trying to make objective/clear statements about design.

    The nature of the challenge of games does change depending on what kind of save/reload options players have.

    http://critical-gaming.com/blog/2011/9/25/save-system-design-pt1.html

  • KirbyKid

    To your first question, no.

  • KirbyKid

    Tetris is one level/room. There is no suspended/persistent elements. Therefore, the term permadeath doesn’t really apply.

    Tetris Attack. Go through the single player. Collect characters. If you lose a round, the characters are lost forever. This is a permanent lost. I don’t remember if you have infinite continues on all the difficulty modes.

  • KirbyKid

    I think you address most of the concerns and comments I had with this article very clearly. You quoted lines, you talk about arguments, you pinpoint specific words. This is exactly the kind of detailed response I’d expect to carry on a real discussion.

    Besides, just relying on a wikipedia definition without any tweaks can easily set a shaky foundation.

  • keithburgun

    Sorry, I should clarify my answer since you asked several questions.

    Are roguelikes also collection based skinner box machines, my view is yes, absolutely. The RL community loves to believe that their games are vastly different than Diablo – they tend to hate Diablo. While RLs are definitely much better due to having a goal and being shorter, the psychological DRAW of both are basically the same. Both of them are random slot machines.

    As for permadeath in Diablo, it’s god-damned stupid and makes no sense due to a few things – primarily that it’s WAY too long for such a feature.

    Also, I think all Diablos had an option for permadeath mode.

  • keithburgun

    How exactly does one “lose” Zelda?

    > Zelda not having any kind of death is probably the most ridiculous suggestion I’ve heard.

    Ok! Why?

  • keithburgun

    > to “just skip it every time you watch the move.”

    It’s worse than that. It’s more like: OK here’s the movie, but 10-40% of the scenes are totally unnecessary. You figure out which ones while you’re watching and skip them if you don’t like them.

  • KirbyKid

    I can’t speak for Johnathan, but I assume that not having death in Zelda would work against its combat gameplay. The simple idea is that you only have so many hits you can take before fainting/dying. In specific combat situations (boss battles, mini bosses, combat set-pieces) if you die, you have to try again. Just like with so many other games where you have to do your best with the lives/hits you’re given, Zelda’s combat is designed around being able to die.

    Obviously, having HP/lives/hits isn’t as important when you’re solving a puzzle, exploring, or traversing the environment. So there are elements in the design that how focus/streamline certain consequences. LIke if you fall into a pit, they take some of your health and put you back on the land. In some Zelda’s they don’t even take your health.

    Bottom line, if surviving and fighting are the core ideas of your game, and you want to test player combat skills, dying is important. You may be able to substitute dying with the lost of ruppees or points or something ala Epic Yarn, that design choice changes other aspects of the design for better/worse.

  • keithburgun

    Right. I guess I just don’t think that anyone really plays the modern Zeldas for the “combat” anyway. It’s mostly a exploration toy, a spectacle reel, and a medicore puzzle machine. Combat is really just there to sort of stretch the thing out a bit. A good example of what it would be like without fighting random popcorn monsters might be Shadow of the Colossus. Then you can just spend the rest of the game doing those above things which people actually DO like about Zelda.

  • KirbyKid

    Well, I do. I love zelda combat.

    Yeah, yeah. We get that you don’t like Zelda. I think it’s important to say insightful things about the games you don’t like. Here, you do not. We’ve already talked about how Zelda is a combination of multiple types of games/genres. Generally, combat, puzzles, exploration. You can’t say that combat is there to stretch things out. If you’re trying to talk about “padding” or “filler” then you’ll have to do a better job clarifying your statements. I think those two terms shouldn’t be used objectively. http://critical-gaming.com/blog/2012/4/17/design-space-infinite-undiscovery-pt2.html

    Also, if you haven’t done any kind of survey on what gamers like most out of Zelda games or you can’t point me to one, don’t bother talking about what people actually DO like in a game you DON’T like (or seem to like).

  • JohnReinhardt

    “It’s important not to use the word “fun” when you’re trying to make objective/clear statements about design.”

    Really ought to be the mission statement of this site.

  • puzzlefan

    The quality that makes actions consequential is *path-dependence*. All that is required is for each action to restrict the actions can be performed in the future and *when*. Persistence is in fact necessary to have path-dependence. Resetting the game to some initial state wipes clean the consequences of all previous choices, and signals that you have run out of interesting consequences for the player’s decisions. Though persistence is necessary, it is not sufficient to increase path-dependence. After all, you can simply let the game roll on, ignoring player choices entirely (as is common).

  • Dasick

    Personally, I don’t get why people like Zelda VGs, so I’m actually curious as to what exactly you love about Zelda’s combat. Which Zelda by the way?

    Combat in VGs tends to have game-like qualities, but in Zelda games I’ve played, all fights were straight-up puzzles. Even the boss fights, they’re also puzzles. And I don’t recall even one instance where the intended solution was getting hit an losing health (but I haven’t played that many Zeldas to be honest).

  • Dasick

    I want to repeat Keith’s question – how exactly does one lose in Zelda? Or Pokemon (not the battles, the actual package that is Pokemon)? The only ‘game over’ condition is winning (for Zelda), and there is no

    Pokemon is not a CSG, it contains one – the battle system, although it’s not certain that the battle is the central focus. At any rate, even the ‘battle screen’ most of the time it’s full of no-brainer choices, such as when you’re grinding levels or catching monsters. The actual game is sharing space with a ‘skinner box’ of catching and training pokemon (it’s a skinner box because you have to run around in tall grass, getting a ‘reward’ at random intervals of time, either a random pokemon or an effectively random experience reward ). There are parts of it that would benefit from lack of persistence and there are parts that would hurt from it. Also, what is the reason for this union?

    “What about Mario? or Advance Wars, Ninja Gaiden Black, Dark Souls, Vanquish or even Fire Emblem, a game with “permadeath” but also “persistence”.”

    “This is more like an argument against quick saves. This doesn’t actually argue in favor of perma-death.”

    It doesn’t matter if you can’t hit undo – if in a couple of turns you can return the game to the previous state, there’s no real difference in terms of the system. If I die to a boss in Zelda and have to back-track and grind up some rupees or whatever, when I face him, the situation is exact same as when we fought last time.

    The problem with the terminology is that it assumes that gameover is some sort of a special feature that some CSGs have, and some don’t. Which is false – if you want to have meaningful decisions, you need both an actual lose condition as well as a win condition, and the match needs to end in order to determine whether you’ve won or lost.

  • puzzlefan

    Having read the comments, I can see what you’re saying – essentially that save scumming nullifies choices. But your attempt to clear up the terminology is a disaster. If anything you’ve confused the debate even further by trying to use existing terminology and concepts, which are completely fucked. It doesn’t seem to have escaped your attention that almost everything written on game design is retarded. You should be thinking of a game as a Labeled Transition System with a partial desirability order on states (states are hidden, some transitions are too). This eliminates all of these terminological problems; e.g. “death” is just a transition to a state much lower in the order on states. Save states are equivalent to having, from every state (call it ORIGIN), a transition to another state that has the property that every state reachable from it has a transition back to itself, but is otherwise *observationally* equivalent to ORIGIN.

  • KirbyKid

    Good honest/focused questions Dasick. Though this is a bit of a side topic, I hope things don’t derail too much.

    I’m not a fan of Zelda 2, but you can pick any 2D or 3D Zelda. I like Spirit Tracks, Majora’s Mask, Skyward Sword, Link To the Past combat the best I think.

    Just moving and attacking in a space is interesting to me. 2D or 3D space alone is the gameplay dynamic that allows for so many interesting elements and enemies to exist in one encounter. As much as I like challenging-complex games, they often clutter up some of the simple core experiences that I like about combat.

    I like interplay (push-pull between elements). I like when combat is made from deliberate clearly presented actions. I like it when enemies are simple, take fewer hits, yet layer together to create more challenge.

    I like how the 2D top-down Zeldas have combat that is like playing a SHMUP sometimes (LTTP). I like how the lock on camera in Zelda is still the best 3D combat player controlled camera system. I like how it simplifies a complex 3D encounter into more of a clearly presented 2D encounter that still operates in a 3D space.

    I like the variety of items that you can use. I also like how a sword and shield is mostly all you need. I also like how Zelda games have Nintendo’s usual high level of polish and care in terms of controller feed, controller design, and feedback.

    I like how the combat is pretty simple and straightforward, but like Mario platformers, there is a lot of room for skillful play and to style on enemies.

    Calling Zelda combat a puzzle isn’t accurate for any of the games. Though many have used “puzzle” to describe it, Zelda enemies are designed no differently than Mario enemies if you think about it. To create different enemies with different strengths and weaknesses they have to counter some (but not all ) of the player’s options. The more an enemy is designed to play to this role, the more people see them as being specifically designed with one counter strategy. While this is true in a basic way, there is still a lot going on design wise in how these enemies layer/work together and how you can find other ways to combat them if you’re skilled enough. So if you see a hammer bro or a buzzy beetle and don’t think (that’s a puzzle enemy) then you shouldn’t think the same with Zelda enemies.

    The basic idea of games teaching players new skills is done through creating challenges with more limited solution possibilities.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “intended solution was getting hit and losing health”. Are you saying that combat is good/deep/interesting if it has this quality?

    I hope that answers your question.

  • Joshua Day

    I guess I needed to write twice as much. Let’s start with the trivial misunderstandings: “‘Just don’t use it,’ is a cop out,” is exactly what I said. “It is not the player’s job to balance a game,” is exactly what I said.

    Now a little harder. Let me assert this again, and actually explain it this time: Reloading is a move whether you like it or not as a designer. When programmers stick in reloading reflexively without thinking about it, it’s exactly like anything else they stick in without thinking. Lots of games are full of junk that no one really thought through.

    At the same time, part of the design experience is the testing experience. You make something work a certain way and then you see how it plays. If you’ve put saving into the game, and if you use reloading during testing (which is certainly to be expected of, say, the designers of an RPG), then you’ve designed around reloading.

    You can make a good platform game without jumping. Mario without jumping is terribly broken because it was designed around the presence, not the absence, of a feature. Like any other feature that changes the game dynamics, everything else has to change when you change it. Roguelikes aren’t just RPGs with saving taken out; Loderunner isn’t just Mario with jumping taken out.

    When I wrote that “players imagine playing their favorite game-with-reloading without reloading and rightly hate the idea,” the meaning is that those games have traits that make that kind of play unpalatable. For instance, they don’t tend to give the player much of a chance to prepare for situations that would kill you. The King’s Quest series was notorious for instadeath — oh, you clicked on that rock? It had a deadly scorpion under it! Game over. That sucks, but it sucks even more without reloading.

    Finally the really big one. “As a move, it changes the entire future of the game.” The availability of moves changes the meaning of other moves. I might run into a risky situation if I have an extra health potion lying around. I anticipate the fact that I might be hurt badly, and I anticipate my response, and I go for it. I might stay away if there’s a small chance of being destroyed completely, if that costs me something. The availability of reload changes how a player thinks of the game, and it changes it in exactly the same way that any resource or move does. (Find some concrete reason it doesn’t.)

    Look. Lots of potential “moves” are terrible. You can add a nuke to kill all enemies. You can add a P-Wing to let you fly over the level and ignore all the design. As a designer, of course, you can bend other traits of the game to make things match and fit together — one of the major problems with reloading is that that doesn’t happen. And unintended consequences (from the point of view of the designer) do happen; just because “it was not designed or intended as time control,” doesn’t mean that’s not what it is.

  • keithburgun

    Any specific individual might *like* Zelda’s combat, but my point was that Zelda’s combat is not generally a selling point, because it is not interesting. Almost all of it is a no-brainer.

    Obviously people like Zelda in general, but my position is that the draw of it does not come from its combat, which is mostly a chore.

  • KirbyKid

    I’m done talking about Zelda with you for now. You’ve ignored the posts I made and the articles I’ve linked to. In our podcast you said that Zelda combat actually has “decisions” and now you’re saying it doesn’t. You called zelda combat popcorn and now it’s a “not interesting” “no-brainer” “chore.”

    Obviously your own language, terms, and criteria here are falling apart. That or you’re just not using them to take this conversation seriously. It’s cool to like and prefer games of interesting choices. But it’s not cool to rashly cut down the gamers and games that fall outside of such games. And it’s foolish to claim that games with interesting choices are not just because you haven’t taken the time to play them/know what you’re talking about. If you’re going to continue to “Burgun” this conversation, then at least stay true to your guns (beliefs and terms) not your biases. That’s my position.

  • puzzlefan

    This is horribly retarded. You lose Zelda when you give up without finishing. That the game does or doesn’t say “you win”/”you lose” is purely aesthetic. I appreciate Keith’s passion for deepening mechanics, but his terminological and ontological suggestions are *worse* than what is already there.

  • puzzlefan

    By giving up without finishing it. Zelda is a terrible example, because it’s a ridiculously easy game. Doom 2 (a game with save states) on nightmare is a much better example.

  • k

    > Like, if I say that Civ should have permadeath, people are like, “yeah but some of those games take like 20 hours to finish!”, and I have to go back and be like, okay well that’s a different problem that also should be solved!

    Even discounting the fact that Civ should be shorter, I don’t see how this is an argument against persistence. The mindset that winning somehow validates time spent playing (or that it needs such validation) seems really wrong. Particularly when contrasted with reloading, which does invalidate time spent making strategic decisions imo.

  • k

    I don’t see the similarity, at least with good roguelikes. You can’t think that the draw for the people playing in the Crawl tournaments (there’s one going on right now – http://dobrazupa.org/tournament/0.12/ ) is in finding random loot to be forgotten about after a 5h game, not in skillfully overcoming random challenges.

  • keithburgun

    No, that’s not a reasonable way to use the word “lose”. Are you arguing that you can “lose” a jigsaw puzzle? I think that that is a stretch on that term, and further, if we allow that, then we are losing a way to refer to the product of a contest.

    Winning and losing is different from Solving and Not-Solving.

  • jonsebox28

    I’m trying to figure some things out here.

    I’ve watched your Functional Theory video on youtube a couple times and I’ve taken notes, all in an attempt to grasp the basic underlying theory.

    I will preface this by saying that I played Diablo 2 hardcore-mode in which there was permadeath. I liked the feature.

    I’m commenting about this because, from what I understand, you’re saying that Diablo 2 should not have had the permadeath feature?

    Your reasoning is, I assume, that the goal in Diablo 2 is to earn +1 points. So to die and reset would be counterproductive. But what you’re skipping over is that in Diablo 2 hardcore-mode there was also a top 100 ladder for each class that reset periodically. This added a great deal of competitiveness because it acted like a scoring system. The fact that others could see that you were on the list added a motivation to play. So this made Diablo 2, if it wasn’t already, much more competitive. And while there was a great deal of persistence in acquiring more stats and items and levels and money, somehow it worked for a lot of players.

    Another thing I’d like to say is that another reason I liked hte hardcore mode, and like similar modes in other games, is because the increased penalty for failure acts as a motivation. YOu might call it bragging rights or you might just say that it’s more interesting to an adrenaline junky. Perhaps some players require more counterweights to win-conditions such that lose-conditions become permadeath?

    It’s hard for me to pin down exactly what’s going on with your theory. There’re lots of places I could be getting it wrong. As I understand it, all of hte forms in your often referenced circle diagram overlap somewhat with previous forms. For example, the puzzle layer will overlap with the interaction layer whne they’re combined. More importantly, the game layer will overlap with the contest layer. What this means is that no game is likely to be completely empty of contests, since the game form is inside the contest form which is… So this whole idea that there’re competitive games and non-competitive games, is just a measure of relative competition. There can be no game that has absolutely no competition at all since the game form is inside the contest form.

    Sorry this is a long post. The problem with your theory is all of the words can easily be mixed up and there’s a lot that you say and it’s very difficult to have a conversation about it between two people since so many things can go wrong if one or the other person doesn’t have the exactly same infromation.

  • puzzlefan

    So.. you don’t like the existing terminology, except when it suits you to appeal to it? That is a very stupid argument. If I sit down to solve a jigsaw puzzle and I fail to finish it I have lost. The fact that this is a very costly loss and that I need to buy a new jigsaw puzzle to try again only makes the failure more consequential. I can even use your (pointless) idea of asynchronous multiplayer games with previous puzzles I have bought thus making it a competitive game.

  • keithburgun

    When existing words already have a good amount of useful utility, I use them (see: all of the words in this sentence). Only when words do not – such as “game”, for instance, do I prescribe new definitions, for the sake of clarity.

    At what point have you failed to finish the puzzle?

    In my view, any kind of CONTEST requires some constraint on that so that winners and losers can be determined. Puzzles don’t work that way. You either know the solution to a puzzle, or you don’t. There’s no “winning the jigsaw puzzle”. Put a timer on it, and then sure.

  • jonsebox28

    One more thing, you wrote “So, I would say that Zelda should certainly not have permanent death, at all. In fact, I suspect that Zelda and most RPGs shouldn’t have any kind of death, because these systems cannot support any meaningful consequences.”

    Yet how can decisions in a game be meaningful if consequences aren’t???? How can I know I’m doing good in a game if everytime I die I just get a slap on the wrist and a “Keep at it champ!”? In one of your videos, you state that decisions must be meaningful or they’re false choices. You cited an example where picking a red or blue hat was not a choice if it had no meaningful effect inside the game. Additionally, the logic you use to cultivate decision-making also mirrors this idea that feedback and consequences are tied to decision-making. You’re pretty much against things that excessively “rig” consequences, things like: randomness, linearity, execution, save-scumming, solutions, optional consequences, etc. So why would you then say that it’s ok to never have permadeath? Is that not a consequence? Have you never heard that phrase about never saying never?

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    They’re concentric circles, so every puzzle is a type of interactive system and contains those qualities. Every contest is a puzzle and an interactive system and contains those qualities.

    However, when you add the newly introduced quality, it also changes the nature of play dramatically, and the value that’s produced is totally different and even conflicts with the previous level. So for games, making decisions is really the value of that kind of system. But decisions would actually be harmful in a contest, despite the fact that the two systems have so much in common.

    Diablo shouldn’t even have DEATH, let alone permanent death, is my feeling. It’s really just a skinner box collection thing, so if you took out health completely it wouldn’t really change it at all. Instead just make it that you only have a certain amount of mana/other action-resources before you have to go back to town to refill.

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    Zelda shouldn’t have choices at all. IMO, that software is primarily about exploration and solving puzzles, so it could be improved by removing anything that’s decisioney/gamey. Or, improve it further by making it just a series of puzzles, or just an awesome exploration toy (bare interactive system).

    But yes, if you’re going to have choices – a property of “games” – then yes, you need meaningful consequences.

    Two major kinds of RPGs I know of – story based ones, like JRPGs, and exploration/sandboxy ones, like American RPGs. The former should just be in a linear medium such as a book or a film, if storytelling is their goal. The latter should remove any semblance of “winning” or losing, any goals, and should really just be an open, dynamic fantasy world simulator (like combine Skyrim with Dwarf Fortress Adventure Mode). In this latter case, permadeath would be great actually.

  • puzzlefan

    The problem is you talk about utility all day but you never demonstrate that your terminology or ontology has any actual utility. You talk about “formal design” but don’t actually produce anything of rigor. And your ontology just plain sucks balls. Every jigsaw I buy starts a new game of “solve the jigsaw”. If I solve it, I win, if not I lose. You can draw the “point” of loss anywhere – after failing to solve it in one sitting, after failing to solve it in one hour, after deciding it’s too hard, and so on. The problem is games of jigsaw are generally just too easy. You talk a lot about “formal” game design, but there is nothing formal, or rigorous about your framework.

  • jonsebox28

    I’m an old player of Diablo, so you’re speaking to a player.

    Are you saying that there’re no consequences to bad choices since “skinner box collection” games are about collecting things and not winning/losing?

    You need to understand that I play many RPGs not so much to collect things, but to triumph and survive the dangerous odds. If I can’t die or lose then there’s no real weight to the threat and thus no point in hanging trophies on my wall or to hold (meaningful) memories of past victories.

    What you’re doing is putting collection above consequences. Why does it have to be that way? I like consequences and want them to be harsh. I want that because it’s a counterweight to doing things right. I can’t appreciate doing things well if I can’t also get bitten when I do them wrong. And the possibility that I should be bitten so bad that I’m mortally wounded or killed should be there at least in a few rare RPGs.

  • puzzlefan

    Did you delete my last reply, or is it a problem with your blog? If so, why?

  • jonsebox28

    I really liked the section in the youtube video named Functional Theory for Game Design where you discussed how to cultivate decision-making in the

    game form.

    You showed how the goals of each form can conflict.

    Like this:
    Toy Puzzle
    Puzzle Contest
    Contest Game

    I really liked that because I could see the conflicts.

    But where is the conflict between sandbox-RPGs and consequences?

    Where’s the conflict between sandbox-RPGs and permadeath?

    As I’ve known sandbox-RPGs in hte past, it’s not about mindlessly roaming around playing different roles, it’s about being able to make your own goals and to survive the world around you. That in itself is dangerous! Monsters and pitfalls and villains lay ahead. Broadly, the goal is to become the most wealthy and most powerful participant in the sandbox world.

    A simulation world necessarily has deterministic rules, right? From the farmer to the soldier to the land owner to the banker to the king. It’s all a great ladder to climb to become the most powerful. So if your goal is to become the most powerful participant then that’s something you can determine if the game allows you to see who the most powerful participant is, right? The game doesn’t have to tell you to do these things. And you don’t need a in-you-face scoring system. All you need is determinism and a method to measure the wealth and power of every participant.

  • puzzlefan

    You have not been able to demonstrate in any convincing way that the term game “lacks” utility. I mean, it’s stupid even on the face of it – since people use it constantly for a variety of purposes. Redefining an existing word that is widespread use is not enhancing “clarity”, it is inviting disagreement and confusion. You talk about utility, but you have no real arguments that demonstrate that your terminology or ontology is better than what is already there.

    As far as the “win”/”lose” question, you can “win” a puzzle every bit as much as you can “win” Tetris – by comparing multiple playthroughs. One person can be demonstrably better at puzzles than another – by consistently being able to finish them faster, for example – resulting in a winner and a loser. Even one person can compare how well they did on this puzzle than the one they played last week. If the puzzle is hard enough you might not even finish it, in which case you have also lost.

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    I deleted it. I’m not going to allow comments full of stuff like “suck my balls” on my site, sorry. Try to be a little more respectful in the future. If you think everything I have to say is stupid, why are you here?

  • puzzlefan

    Are you going to answer my question, or just make excuses?

  • puzzlefan

    Well, not question. My response to your question.

  • jonsebox28

    The diablo-series of games were definitely rogue-likes. But they were dumbed down for a more general audience. This insistence that any game where you “collect” things in a persistent world is a skinner-box is stupid because by that definition real-life is a skinner-box. I mean, how many times have people worked too much to afford MORE things (wealth above $75,000 is NOT linked to happiness) or grinded in factory’s for a meager wage for 20 years?????

    They’re all skinner-boxes. The difference is that some are more interesting because they’re not dumbed down. They’re not as stupidly simple.

    I know why I play those kinds of games. It’s because of the excessive danger and the thrill of overcoming it and then being able to (if the game lets me) build a house and to pretend I’m in another world.

    When I play those games it’s not a game, it’s another world.

  • Dasick

    “As far as the “win”/”lose” question, you can “win” a puzzle every bit as much as you can “win” Tetris – by comparing multiple playthroughs. ”

    That’s the root of the disagreement I feel. See, a puzzle by itself, has no internal metric for winning or loosing. Sure you can add one, but then you’ve modded the ‘puzzle’, perhaps making it not a puzzle, but something different. Minesweeper cares about how long it takes you to complete it, but a crossword puzzle usually doesn’t (unless it’s in a paper where the first X people to mail in a correct answer enter a shuffle or whatever).

    As far as the system is concerned, there is no internal fail state, and without a chance to fail, I don’t see how you can call completion victory.

  • Steve Johnathan

    Sorry this reply is 3 days late. Unfortunately, Disqus or whatever it’s called doesn’t actually notify me when I receive replies.
    Anyway, looks like KirbyKid already answered your question for me. As he points out, you probably shouldn’t rashly assume why other people play modern zeldas. I’m not really going to argue anything further about Zelda since it massively derails the discussion and the points in my first comment.

  • Steve Johnathan

    “Pokemon is not a CSG, it contains one – the battle system, although it’s
    not certain that the battle is the central focus.”

    This distinction is pointless. Anyway, battling is absolutely a central focus of the game. You need not look further than the design of the game and how you progress.

    “At any rate, even the
    ‘battle screen’ most of the time it’s full of no-brainer choices, such
    as when you’re grinding levels or catching monsters.”

    Of course “grinding” is a “no-brainer” (it wouldn’t be grinding if it wasn’t) but catching monsters actually isn’t or whatever no-brainer is supposed to mean. You only proclaim it to be but you don’t actually explain how.

    “The actual game is
    sharing space with a ‘skinner box’ of catching and training pokemon
    (it’s a skinner box because you have to run around in tall grass,
    getting a ‘reward’ at random intervals of time, either a random pokemon
    or an effectively random experience reward ).”

    That’s not what a skinner box is. Random encounters aren’t a “reward”.

    “There are parts of it that
    would benefit from lack of persistence and there are parts that would
    hurt from it. Also, what is the reason for this union?””

    What? Union? I don’t follow what you’re even saying here.

    “It doesn’t matter if you can’t hit undo – if in a couple of turns you
    can return the game to the previous state, there’s no real difference in
    terms of the system. If I die to a boss in Zelda and have to back-track
    and grind up some rupees or whatever, when I face him, the situation is
    exact same as when we fought last time. ”

    It matters because it completely destroys the argument for perma-death. Yes, there is absolutely a difference in terms of the system. All the progress you make when fighting the boss is lost. You have to start over. This is completely different than if you were to hit undo or use a quicksave (or savestate for mario hack players).

    “The problem with the terminology is that it assumes that gameover is
    some sort of a special feature that some CSGs have, and some don’t.
    Which is false – if you want to have meaningful decisions, you need both
    an actual lose condition as well as a win condition, and the match
    needs to end in order to determine whether you’ve won or lost.”

    Re-read my first comment. I’ve already addressed this point. The terminology doesn’t assume anything, you’re the one doing that.

  • puzzlefan

    More gibberish. How can it be an “internal metric” when it is displayed for the user? Who says that score is the metric for winning or losing? It is purely aesthetic. The only difference between Tetris scoring and, say, Dark Souls scoring, is that knowing how to score Dark Souls requires an understanding of the game – as opposed to Tetris’ scoring system, which is understandable even by complete imbeciles.

    You didn’t even come close to understanding my post, which pointed out that you can compare two attempts at a puzzle game and one will be better than another – so there will be a winner. Your response: you can’t have a winner without a “fail state”. For a start, most puzzle games do have fail states – Sokoban, Komeiji Satori no Jousou Kyouiku, Chip’s Challenge, … You are conflating the aesthetic notion of a “failure state” with “the point at which one player loses”, which is a completely different thing. And of course, if we can compare two plays of the same game, then there will be such a point! If I am speed-running Dark Souls, there will be no screen saying “FAILED”, but as my timer ticks up, I am continuously losing against various people who have played the game before and completed it with a faster time!

  • Dasick

    “Internal metric” meaning it’s a metric that comes with a system. It’s internal to the system, even though the user sees it. Minesweeper has a timer, and that’s how it’s “highscores” are sorted. And what the hell are you talking about, of course a good scoring system is a metric of who won or lost. I mean, if two teams play basketball, and one team scored higher, the team that scored higher is the winner, no?

    When you compare two attempts at a puzzle, what is the metric you use to determine who solved the puzzle better? Because most puzzles don’t have any sort of metric for measuring performance, outside the binary solved|not solved. You’re bringing in your own rules when you speed run Dark Souls, or anything really. You’re not playing the original, but rather a variant that you and the community came up with – and yeah, there you can win or lose, because you’ve turned Dark Souls into a contest. But when you’re just trying to “beat the game”, by the rules and metrics it provides, it doesn’t matter how well you perform by any metric, because the system only cares about one binary pass|fail – you either solved the puzzles, or not yet.

  • puzzlefan

    When did I say a scoring metric wasn’t a way of measuring who won or lost? Are you capable of basic reading comprehension? I said it was _aesthetic_. Do you even know what that word means? Please don’t bother replying if you can’t follow.

    Your “internal metric” (lol) is a counter in the game state, that happens to be displayed for the user in a prominent place (AESTHETICS). But Dark Souls also has an time-keeping counter in the game state. In fact, it is displayed on the save game menu! And so is the player’s Soul Level.. so what distinguishes these counters from “internal scoring metrics”?

    “system cares” lol. Are you listening to yourself? The system doesn’t “care about” anything. It simply moves from state to state based upon the input it receives, producing output on each transition. The player doesn’t see the state – only the output produced. Some outputs are seen as more desirable than others (typically, outputs that are hardest to obtain); that is how players are evaluated. That Tetris chooses to keep a counter that ascends as you move to more desirable outputs does not imply that every competitive game has to have a similar aesthetic element.

  • Dasick

    >>”When did I say a scoring metric wasn’t a way of measuring who won or lost?”

    When you typed, and I quote – “Who says that score is the metric for winning or losing?”

    >>”Some outputs are more desirable than others”

    Yeah, ok. But as far as puzzles go, the only clearly communicated desirable output is completion. The score in Tetris is an integral part of the user interface, it’s always there right in your face. Meanwhile, the amount of time you’ve played a “match” of Dark Souls is only displayed in the save slot, which the player seems at the beginning and end of a play session. Which is pretty a shitty way to communicate that fast completion is a desirable output.

    Score isn’t purely aesthetic – it’s a way to communicate to the player what the “desirable output” is. But I do agree that it’s possible to use other means to communicate desirable outputs – but score has a number of advantages.

  • puzzlefan

    Notice, I said _the_ metric, not _a_ metric. Do you understand the difference? It’s hard to continue a conversation constantly correcting your reading comprehension errors. It is not _the_ metric, it is _a_ metric! The user is encouraged to accept it because of certain aesthetic choices, and in Tetris the harder outputs are to be found as more and more blocks are stacked, so even if the score wasn’t there we would understand that someone who stacks more blocks is better. But the exact metric used is not determined by the game’s mechanics – it can only be *suggested* by the aesthetics.

    You spend a paragraph talking about where the score is displayed, then say “it’s not purely aesthetic, it’s a way to communicate” – as though aesthetics and communication were in conflict. If I depict certain game objects as heroes and others as villains, that communicates something to the player about how the game will be played, Nonetheless it is an aesthetic choice, since they could be depicted in any number of other ways. I might reskin the game to have only “good guys” without changing the mechanics at all. The _score_ is not aesthetic, since it is part of the game state. But the choice of where to display that particular piece of state as opposed to another is an aesthetic choice that does not affect the mechanics of the game.

  • puzzlefan

    To correct a typo, the “metric” can be suggested by the mechanics too – by providing outputs that are harder to obtain than others. But it is not a property of the game’s mechanics – that is just how people tend to assign value to game outputs, just as they tend to assign value to game outputs that are suggested to be valuable by the aesthetics of the game.

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    There’s a ton of stuff here to respond to. Can you make one specific statement you’d like me to respond to? Also, don’t do that if you think that I don’t have anything useful to say etc, because that would be wasting both of our time.

  • Dasick

    protip: the difference between “a” and “the” is not as obvious when in written form, especially when I have to consider typos and context. We both could have saved a lot of time if you typed “Who says that score is the _only_ metric for winning or losing?” Or, instead of throwing insults, clarified what you meant earlier.

    It doesn`t matter how good a game or a puzzle is, if no one knows how to play it. Failure to clearly communicate the performance metric, win and lose conditions, and any other rules and parts of the game means that those might as well not exist, without coming up with additional rules (which, by the way, is the job of a designer).

    Open up any boardgame rulebook, it will most like have a rule somewhere about comparing the performance of the players and declaring a winner. That`s not aesthetics – declaring a winner is part of the rules, and how a winner is declared affects viable strategies, balance and whatnot. The point of digital games is to automate rule enforcement. If a digital game doesn`t communicate to the player that winner declaration has happened, then the reasonable thing to assume is that there is no win.

  • Nahil

    Puzzlefan, many people who come here to disagree and argue with Keith do a decent job of bringing up good counterpoints and holding an interesting conversation. You don’t. At all.

  • Nahil

    That’s not losing. Like, no one would call that losing.

  • puzzlefan

    It’s almost as though every post your logic becomes more insidiously flawed . For example, you say some shit about board games and winning rules. Note first that you don’t actually demonstrate that a board game has to have a winning rule. LOL. Secondly, you then say that the point of “digital games” (videogames? or are you confusing things again?) is to “automate rules”. Which is true! But the rules they automate are not the same as the rules of board games.

    A rule book is instructions interpreted by a human being. So it is possible to write a rule that says “regard this player as the winner”, since a human is capable of executing that instruction. A computer is utterly incapable of regarding a player as a winner (or regarding anything else, for that matter). It can only produce state transitions and output in response to input. How the player chooses to play the game has exactly zero effect on its mechanics, which are fully determined by the computer program that implements them. The mechanics of a videogame are, in other words, a different thing altogether to a board game or any other human-run game. Notice how CRPGs are completely different to the real thing? It just so happens that *sometimes* one can emulate the other.

    Your entire argument can be boiled down to the following sentence: “I am used to seeing certain signs associated with winning, therefore you can’t have winners without signs”. The current iteration of this shitty argument is: “Board game rules [1] tell you who the winner is, videogames automate rules [2], therefore videogames cannot have a winner without telling you who the winner is”. [1] and [2] refer to two different things, it remains to be proven that board games have to tell you who the winner in the same way as you are suggesting for videogames, and even if you could demonstrate this, you would have to demonstrate that this requirement carried over to videogames in spite of it being a different beast.

  • puzzlefan

    Bahaha. Nice argument. Do you have anything to say? This is the kind of vague BS dumbasses say when they don’t know what they’re talking about. “Boo hoo I say your argument sux” lol. If Keith wants to talk about “formal” game design, game design “theory” and “philosophy”, perhaps he should be ready to answer the kind of tough questions that are bound to arise in such a discussion.

  • puzzlefan

    What? You only have to reply to my last reply to YOU. You asked me at what point you lost a puzzle game. If you want to continue the discussion you should reply to my reply to that question, and ignore all the posts in response to “Dasick”. Two paragraphs isn’t a “ton of stuff”. Let’s not divert the argument – simply continue where it left off. And “don’t argue with me if you don’t like my ideas” is pretty intellectually bankrupt for someone who has a book out on game design “philosophy”. You should be willing to defend this shit.

  • Nahil

    I wasn’t talking about your questions or your argument (although I think your argument is bad, I just don’t want to get into that because why would I?), I was talking about your additude. I just don’t understand what you’re trying to accomplish. For one, you shouldn’t start a conversation by calling something “horribly retarded”. Why would anyone do that?

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    >You have not been able to demonstrate in any convincing way that the term game “lacks” utility.

    It lacks utility in the same way “art” lacks utility. It’s too broad. Colloquial game covers everything from toys to MMOs to puzzles to contests to interactive installation-art, to what I would call strategy games.

    If you don’t like this prescriptive definition for game, you can use “strategy game”, or “contest of decision-making”, either is fine. The concept is what’s important, not the word.

    >>One person can be demonstrably better at puzzles than another – by consistently being able to finish them faster, for example – resulting in a winner and a loser.

    Within a puzzle, on its own, there is no such rule about beating it “faster”. There is just “solving it”, and it doesn’t matter if you took 8 years to solve it and I took 8 minutes. We both solved it. There is no competition there.

    If you add a timer, then you’ve added a functionality that turns it from a puzzle into a contest.

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    Actually the problem has been for a very long time that I’m way, way too willing to “defend this shit” and get bogged down in flame-wars.

    Anyway, I think I’m responding to the right comment.

  • puzzlefan

    >>It lacks utility in the same way “art” lacks utility. It’s too broad. Colloquial game covers everything from toys to MMOs to puzzles to contests to interactive installation-art, to what I would call strategy games.

    Broad terms are as useful as specific terms. “Game” is a broad term. “Videogame” is a bit more specific, “strategy game” is even more specific and so on. Exactly as it should be. Hitherto this has served everybody just fine. If you’re going to say that it’s too broad, you need to demonstrate that. And don’t “it’s the concept that matters” me! You are the one trying to redefine everything and lecture on the “utility” of different terms!

    >>Within a puzzle, on its own, there is no such rule about beating it “faster”. There is just “solving it”, and it doesn’t matter if you took 8 years to solve it and I took 8 minutes. We both solved it. There is no competition there.

    >>If you add a timer, then you’ve added a functionality that turns it from a puzzle into a contest.

    The presence of a visible timer is part of the aesthetics of the game (the game state probably includes such a timer already). This is one reason your ontology is awful – because you get massive jumps in classification by changing a small part of the game’s presentation. You are apparently eluded by the obvious: that all contests are determined by players, and the game can only suggest contest rules, since contest rules have to be executed by a human being, since it entails things like regarding someone as a winner, which is impossible for a computer to do! And the presence of a counter is not even a strong suggestion, but in your ridiculous ontology it causes something to leap into a whole other category.

  • puzzlefan

    LOL. “I think your argument is bad” <- words of a blatherer with no understanding of what's being said. I called it retarded because it was! I can only imagine what it's like being so small that you worry more about how things are said (on the Internet of all places) than the quality of the content.

  • Nahil

    I guess you’re free to speak however you want, I just don’t understand what it accomplishes. You don’t have to antagonize everyone. But if that’s just your style, I guess I understand.

  • Dudecon

    Man! So great! Ok, here’s the plan: whenever someone comes up with an announcement for a “new game” you make a Kickstarter for the amount you’d need to straighten out their garbage design documents, pay them to actually listen to your advice, and then get psychological therapy afterwords. Maybe we can start getting some decent games, fantasy sims, puzzle software, and art installations on the market without the abominable monstrosities we have today.

  • Exkaiser

    Frankly, I think the skinner box collection thing is a result of the lack of penalty for death. After all, Diablo is mostly just a real-time Angband, but in Angband you aren’t really obsessively collecting weapons just because the numbers are higher- you’re doing it to increase survivability and push further into the game. If you take away the penalty for death you remove the necessity of strategic skill- anyone who wants to get further in the game can do it by sheer bloody-mindedness- thus the only thing left is collection.

    If you were to take the death out of Diablo, you might as well take the game out of the random loot generator. I think it’s more worthwhile to think of ways to actually improve the game in meaningful respects.

  • David Koontz

    Well if you’re measuring time then you’re agreeing with Keith’s point above about putting a time measurement on the activity being necessary for a lose state to exist.

  • puzzlefan

    It is aggravating to re-explain things to people who don’t bother taking the time to understand what’s been written. I suggest you re-read it, then read the following:

    There are no “lose states”, since assignment of success/failure is carried out by humans. The closest thing there is to a “lose state” is a state in which the game outputs some signs to encourage you to assign failure to some previous outputs. This psychological sense is the only one in which Tetris can be “lost”, since there is no hard cap on the number of times you can try again. “Losing” is just another word for “failure”, but because Keith’s terminology sucks (for him there has to be a “contest”) he has to invent stupid concepts like single-player games really being asynchronous multiplayer games against yourself. At the same time he says it only counts if there is a visible score meter (a limp attempt to fix his failing ontology). Dark Souls has a visible timer – is speedrunning now essential to the game?

    Even if you accept Keith’s misapprehension that lose implies contest, if we apply his asynchronous multiplayer idea then we find that every game is competitive, since we are always comparing ourselves to our previous attempts and to others. We know who’s good and who’s bad just by watching the game. The good people are the ones able to obtain the widest range of outputs from the game. The bad people are the ones who are limited to the easiest outputs only. But according to Keith, you need a fat meter in your face with a number to evaluate play. LOL

  • Dasick

    I just played Majora’s Mask for the first time for like 3-4 hours. Reached the first time-return and got to the water temple. The combat sucks balls. Most encounters are solved by spamming attack button, and are completely non-threatening. I haven’t noticed any ‘layering to create interesting encounters’ yet. I’m also not noticing much interplay between the elements.

    Any game with 2d/3d continuous space and continuous time is going to have inherently interesting controls, but from what I saw, it doesn’t do anything really interesting with the use of the space. Controls are simple, yes, but the combat itself is majorly lacking depth.

    Regarding ‘intended solution is to lose health’ – bigger health bars just give the player more room for error in Zelda’s. In Auro and Roguelikes, health allows you to make trade-offs and sacrifices, and in most competitive games it’s also meant to be some sort of a resource or a score-card.

  • KirbyKid

    Hey Dasick, it’s cool that you played Majora’s Mask to get some hands on experience. It’s also cool that you have some questions. I’d be happy to continue this conversation, but can we do it using a Rizzoma instead? It’s a free browser based “google wave” like message board system. We’ll have more room and tools to have a good conversation in a space dedicated for just that.

    If that sounds good to you, just give me the word and I’ll set it up immediately.

    Otherwise, I don’t think we can have a good conversation here.

  • Dasick

    Yeah sounds good.

  • Dasick

    >>So it is possible to write a rule that says “regard this player as the
    winner”, since a human is capable of executing that instruction.

    You don’t get it. It’s not about regarding someone as a winner or getting social ranking or whatever. It’s about providing a measurement of performance at one skill or another, which a good scoring system/win condition will reflect. IE a good win condition requires a player to demonstrate the ability to obtain hard-to-get game states. It is the job of the designers to provide the player with a clear, worthwhile goal to achieve.

    By having winners and losers, you can create a system of ranking, and that rank is a great benchmarking tool for monitoring improvement.

    There’s no such thing in Dark Souls. You could say that the person that beat the game fastest is the better player. Or you could say that the person that farmed the most souls. Or the person who killed the most monsters. Or the person that did the most damage in a single strike. The point is, there is no clearly communicated performance metric, and as such, saying that you can win in Dark Souls is a lot like playing chess against a 5-year-old who keeps inventing new rules.

    Communication of the rules is vital to any game, video games especially, because the actual decisions-making happens in your mind. Because the rules are automated, videogames can have the thing where you have an out-of-synch model of what is happening. A videogame needs to clearly communicate it’s rules so that the mental model of the game the player has is consistent with what the designed game is.

    >>How the player chooses to play the game has exactly zero effect on its
    mechanics, which are fully determined by the computer program that
    implements them.

    By that logic things like balance are unimportant and need to be removed from the field of game design.

  • KirbyKid

    https://rizzoma.com/topic/e7741b1231bb6101f12315804db94bac/0_b_583d_3tmtq/

    There we go. There should be a button at the top that allows you to ask for an invite. If not, ping me at my twitter @KirbyKid. Thanks.

  • http://www.kizi2.com/ kizi

    good analysis. thanks for this infomation.

  • Umbrall

    Permadeath is distinct from the other examples because the much larger investment to restart. Those are match-based games which are at most a few hours in the example of Civ.

  • David Carney

    “In short, some systems require permadeath, and some require persistence.”
    Dont you mean “”permadeath””?

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    Not sure what you mean – are you making a joke?

  • https://www.facebook.com/DigitalDistillery Scot Damn

    For the very reason you refer to it as permadeath is the same reason why others refer to it as permadeath; to identify this element in said game. You shouldn’t have ill feelings towards people who use this term if for no other reason than respecting others as they are respecting others who identify with what PD means. Using different terms than others may end up confusing people. Of course anyone can make up terminology but once they interact with others, all those terms are pointless because it fails to do what speaking is suppose to do which is communicate. Until resolved and understood, it may only impede your efforts for industry wide clarity.

    I believe the approach should be a community effort. A specific and neutral website with a forum to speak about this topic among other related topics in an effort for better understanding. You can’t expect others to be on the same page as your vision without discussion as many may be unaware these terms are being contested. IE: Myself. Though reading your articles have certainly given me a lot to think about.

    I respect your ideas and logic and I’d love to discuss it with you in any way other than text. But if I understand correctly, I believe you may be putting too much emphasis on what makes a video game. (It reminds me of the debate my friends and I would have about what made a sport.)

    Video games can also provide experiences. In fact, one could argue that if a video game doesn’t provide an experience, it probably isn’t very good. Simply discounting a game you see as a “fantasy simulation” that feature missions/quest, deaths (lives) and even saves should be mutually respected. Many people love video games that give them the feeling of power in fantasy setting, such as Diablo or Civ. Building up your character or Empire through many hours of play can feel incredibly rewarding. If we get too fancy, we might actually hurt creative design by keeping things predictable and cold; having all “real games” an absolute lose or death or whatever protocol you feel should be implemented. The current approach in a lot of genres is similar to producing movies, books, and music – all creative outlets rich with life, but games let the player interact with the worlds created.

    This is why I believe we should always have an open mind as to game design AND what the objective is. Interactive entertainment? More specific genres? A video game has much more potential with what you can accomplish than say a jigsaw puzzle. It can be looked at as an expression even. If I’m not mistaken, you have said a “game” that is driven by a heavy narrative should rethink itself into a movie or comic book? But what about the people who love interacting and being in this virtual world and the designer and programming team who worked so hard on to accomplish it? Should they be clarified as fantasy simulators with objectives? I’m all about simplifying complex problems and streamlining processes. But saying these are not games but fantasy sims most certainly makes it sound devalued in todays industry. So there most be a discussion and shouldn’t be a called out as this. As with basic communication, it’s all about tact.

    I’m positive I’m not understanding your exact stance on these things and I speak in total respect as I only seek to learn game design and what can make future projects great.

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    >aren’t roguelikes also “collection” based Skinner-box machines, just like the Diablo they spawned?

    Yes. Diablo is a bit more advanced and pure for not having “death” at all. I mean it technically has it but it doesn’t do anything. Hopefully Diablo 4 will get rid of health completely – that’s the way forward for this system.

    > Is Diablo III rebelling against the persistence inherent in the system
    by having an optional permadeath mode, or is it merely returning to its
    roguelike roots?

    At this point, neither. I think they have hardcore mode because the original had it (which had it because the original Diablo designers were very roguelike-inspired) and “some people like it” – no actual real reasoning behind it other than that.

  • http://www.keithburgun.net/ Keith Burgun

    Name a video game that “does not provide an experience”. My point with this is that by saying “video games can also provide experiences”, you’re actually saying nothing.

    What you’re putting forward is a “hey, anything could work probably!” attitude which does everything it can to NOT BE WRONG. It is safe, but also extremely useless. You’re basically saying “no one say anything about videogames! Just let everyone do whatever and some people will like it.” This seems like anti-progress, I hope that you can see how I would see it that way.

  • https://www.facebook.com/DigitalDistillery Scot Damn

    Yeah, I suppose. However you said nothing to opening the discussion. Also, a bad experience isn’t a worthy experience. And no, keeping an open mind isn’t a “anything can work” attitude. Open minds are really valuable. Also, you did not address much of my comment. But this is what I was afriad of happening. You picking one part out and trying to dismantle it. That isn’t much of a discussion. Also, I feel I need to remind you I am not attacking your logic. I very well may agree. It’s the discussion that counts most.

    Edit: I see you have been attacked and you rightfully may feel everyone attacks you. I however am not.

  • A Name

    That old chip & dale game for the NES had permadeath after you lost all your lives, SO HARD.

  • Avi

    I actually wish I’d read this article before your article on randomness. This clarifies a lot of my thinking on the current “Rogue-Lite” genre, and I think a couple of additions are of note. First, the content of the two articles is really almost identical. The reason is when most people refer to permadeath in the sense you’re using it here, I believe they’re actually referring to randomness.

    If I’m playing Skyrim and a random encounter between a giant and a fox results in the giant maiming me next, that results in me chuckling and reloading my save. If I’m playing Spelunky and a snake pisses off a shopkeeper entirely without my interaction, that results in a permanent altering of my current game if not…wait for it…permadeath. That’s essentially what I think most people, including myself before reading this, have in their heads when using the term. It’s not the permadeath of chess. It’s the permadeath of an acceptable randomized circumstance from another genre destroying my fun. The fun here being the meaningful strategic decisions discussed in the randomization article.

    The second component this doesn’t address is iterative challenge in what you refer to as competitive strategic systems. I made a similar distinction a few years ago between what I called Challenge-Based Games and Story-Based Games so I understand where you’re coming from here. The example that immediately comes to mind is the boss fights of the conventional platformer. These mix what you’re calling permadeath with what you’re calling persistence.

    Most of these climactic battles or more difficult environmental sequences are based around the player learning from what the environment does. The boss has repetitive tactics that the player must become familiar with in order to win. The environment has a new feature that the player must also become familiar with. These sequences are tolerable, if not fun, because the persistence aspect of the game throws away the previously mastered sequences to allow focus on the new one. Imagine playing Mario when you got sent back to World 1 every time you failed in World 8. I don’t think your conclusion here is Mario should just be shorter.

    So I do think the distinction in terms and necessary design elements here is important. I also think your criticisms of the usage of the term permadeath should be blended with your criticisms of randomness. Finally, the analysis is too black and white and needs to leave room on both sides for blending strategic “permadeath” challenge elements with broader persistence and even narrative-driven designs.