How should games respond to the player’s mistakes? Does easier, or harder gameplay make a better game?

Gareth Williams on the 'concept of making mistakes' in games and how getting the balance right is crucial especially with the increasing number of casual gamers becoming a core target market for every developer

Game Over

Everybody makes mistakes when gaming. Your finger slips and you accidentally use a fire spell on the water enemy who absorbs it and ruins your day. You think you’ve got enough ammo to take on the guys ahead of you but you run out, getting shot down whilst reloading. It’s a common occurrence to us all, and most of the time we just have to roll our eyes and continue on. But I have to wonder: in this modern age of gaming, with the mix of the hardcore audience and the casual gamers, how should games respond to our mistakes?

To clarify, I’m going to be excluding specific game modes or difficulties made to be extremely difficult to challenge the player, so any hardcore/”permadeath” modes or challenge modes like “Heaven or Hell” mode in Devil May Cry are for another time.

Now video games can respond to the player’s mistake the easy way or they can do it the hard way. For instance many games like to just use the tried and tested “checkpoint” system: when you die you go back to the last checkpoint you reached. It’s here that games can decide whether they’re going to punish a mistake or let you off lightly, depending on how often the player reaches a save point. Many times the player will get sent right back to a point in the middle of the action and make the same mistake again, or they’ll be sent so far back that they’ll have to redo a substantial amount of the game again. Is this treating the player too hard for what could have been a simple mistake?

Some games have taken this to the extreme in either direction. For instance, Demon’s Souls decides upon your death that you must start the level over with all the enemies respawned like most games. The catch? You are still technically dead, and you have to continue the game with a much lower maximum health and the loss of all your accumulated souls (which are the currency in the game world) until you can return to that spot and collect them from the scene of your demise.

Dark Souls

If you fail again, then you can say goodbye to your hard earned souls for good. Sure this poses a challenge to the expert gamers, but what of other players? This can be the reason that some players will be unable to continue with the game.

On the other hand, there are the games that treat the player as if death is just a slap on the hand. Take the 2008 remake of Prince of Persia. Death is absolutely no consequence. If you fall when attempting to climb from A to B, then your partner Elika can rescue you and place you back onto the last chunk of solid land you stood on. This cam get to the point where you can throw yourself off a cliff ad nauseum to the point in which you wonder if Elika would ever just not catch you for once. This is made slightly better in the battles with the bosses wherein if you lose all your health you have to complete a Quick-Time Event with an infinite timer, and the boss regains all its health as well. For players with little experience with a game this can be a godsend, but for most players it takes any semblance of challenge from it. Is there even a point to playing if you know that there’s no risk involved?

So what’s my opinion in all this? I like a good challenge like the next person, but when the game isn’t even going to give me a chance then what’s the point in trying? On the other hand, where’s the fun in a game with no significance of I fail? Personally I think that there has to be a balance between extreme punishment and no punishment. Have any games kept this balance between games?

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time used the “reversing time” mechanic it’s famed for to allow the player to go back up to 8 seconds into the past to correct a mistake they had made, which got somewhat necessary in the tricky platforming sections or endgame fights. Its legacy continues in many other games that utilise the ability to rewind time, like Race Driver: GRID, Braid and Forza Motorsport 3. The big twist upon this that makes it better at responding to mistakes than its successor? You have a limit to how many times you can reverse time.

Sands of Time

To gain more attempts to reverse time, you have to collect more sands. This means that you are allowed to make some mistakes, but you have to be careful with how you climb and fight. Sure you can be reckless when you’ve got a full load of rewinds but the game forces you to learn from your last jumps when you find yourself in a traditional “success or failure” situation.

Continuing on from learning, mistakes in game can be reduced if players can practice how to play before they are thrown in the metaphorical deep end. Many games have a way for the player to practice: many versus fighting games have special training modes to practise combos on an AI character that can be modified to the player’s use, some games like Bayonetta andSuper Smash Brother Brawl use the otherwise tedious loading times to practice moves, and other games like Half Life give a training course outside of the main game to allow the player to get to grips with the gameplay.

But the method of most interest to me is when practice is implemented into the game itself. This method was implemented into many games until the majority of games decide to give in-game tutorials. When the game decides to allow you to learn how to perform an action of your own accord by the design of the level, it means that the player can be more likely to be able to avoid making mistakes from then on. Take for instance Mega Man X as explained by Arin Hanson (contains strong language).

Megaman X

In one instance, the game gives no obvious method of escaping the pit. However when running into the wall a smoke trail is clearly seen and the player character slides down the wall.  This is indicating to the player that they can interact with the wall and therefore “wall-jump” their way out of imprisonment.  This sounds complex but in reality it comes to humans easily.  We’ve learnt how to play by associating what we see with what we should do, and by teaching the player how to do this then the game can instead reward them for playing well than punishing them for their mistakes.

Overall, I think that the concept of making mistakes is as integral to gaming as it is to everything else.  Games just simply need to find the right way to react to mistakes and to help the player to get better so mistakes won’t happen as much.

Gareth Williams thinks that ‘Games simply need to find the right way to react to mistakes, but what do you think? Should games be harder on the players or easier?  Which games do you think have the meanest reactions, which are the most lenient, and which are just right?