Posts Tagged ‘gaming’

Cats have nine lives


(Originally posted #AltDevBlogADay)


“Oh no I died again!” – not something you generally get to say in real life is it?  Yet gamers readily accept death as a temporary failure state – just a blip towards achieving their goal.  Death has been abstracted in games in many varied ways over the years and in some games abstracted away completely.  It has been used to provoke emotion, to punish,  to teach, to up the stakes or just to increase a score.


But the cat came back the very next day…


Arcades with video games and pinball machines are quite rare now in the UK (now they are full of fruit machines) but are still a good starting point for looking in to players’ lives in games.  Lives in Pinball are represented by identical silver balls – a limited resource per game.  A player may start with three balls and might even win extra balls but eventually the game will end with a score.  Score is used as a measure of success across all of your lives, with each finite reincarnation another chance at increasing the net accomplishment.


Space Invaders sees the player’s ship explode and be replaced with an identical clone  a limited number of times.  PacMan actually shrivels up in to nothing and makes a pitiful whining noise as his little spherical body implodes at the touch of Inky, Blinky, Pinky or Clyde… but another identical PacMan takes his place.  These games are over thirty years old but the themes of credits, lives and scores still permeate throughout modern games in all sorts of disguises.


This kind of death and credit system is useful to monetize failure.  Want to see more of the game?  Well okay then… you have ten seconds to cough up the money and we will let you see some more.  If you do not come up with the money then back to the start for you!  Progression therefore will cost you, mastery of skills and patterns only earned after costly failure.  Is it worth antagonizing a player with this kind of death in games that are not pay-per-play?


Mario and Sonic teach via death.  I cannot believe that these games were designed so that a brand new player could get through the entire game without learning through a fatal kind of trail and error.  Punishment for death can increase from the arcades where you can always bribe your way through a section, because in some games you pay in time instead.  After dying a few times in a row the punishment goes from a pained animation to having to restart an entire area – taking away hard fought progress from the player.  While some players thrive on this type of this type of challenge I would argue this action can be demotivating.  Only a certain kind of player continues on to conquer this, others will just walk away in frustration.


‘Splosion Man has death but you just bounce right back in a glorious  splodey sentient cloud of insanity.  The game has levels and stages to clear and it is not possible to save your progress in the middle of a stage.  The game does offer the player an option to skip to the next stage if you die in a section too many times in a row.  So a frustrated player can skip forward to see new content and get some sense of progress.  I never took up the option… too much gamer pride.  But I did hear something about a pink tutu you have to wear in the next stage if you do!


Games with lives and credits often also keep score, either in terms of points or fastest times.  They promote competition through leaderboards, with players trying to out do each other for bragging rights.


If it bleeds we can kill it (apart from if it is the player)


There is a snowy mountain path continuing to the NORTH.  To the SOUTH a noisy group of villagers carrying flaming pitchforks are closing in on your location.  They all seem kind of angry.  Well apart from the springer spaniel that is wagging his tail furiously.  He seems to think this is the best walk ever.




You tripped over something and fell off the cliff, a whooshing sound fills your ears followed by a very nasty crunching noise.  Breathing heavily and looking up you see the villagers standing where you were laughing.  One shouts down to your broken body “enjoy your trip?”  Another takes your INFRARED SUNGLASSES that fell from your pocket before your tumble and puts them on.  “OOOh INFRARED SUNGLASSES, I’ve always wanted a pair of these! I’m seeing red… oh look at that INVISIBLE TRIP WIRE across the path!”  Rolling your eyes, you promptly expire.




If only the player would have typed USE GLASSES.  Ah well.  It was all great playing that text adventure until you died, then you had to consider if you really wanted to play through all *that* again.  It is like not being able to cheat in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.  Part of the reason I like Monkey Island II so much was that you could not get in to that situation.  Sure you could get stuck, but Guybrush could not die (but could certainly embellish the stories he told about it).  The lack of death (but the presence of peril) made the game a very accessible adventure game.


In Fable III, you get knocked down, but you get up again.  There is a price though; you get scarred up and you could lose some experience towards your next guild seal.  This cosmetic toll is unbearable to some – I have known people to quit to the dashboard to avoid the auto save kicking in and saving their character in a knocked out state.  Of course others play well but get knocked out on purpose… because scars are cool and perhaps they like the villagers making negative comments about their looks (just another reason to take the safety off).


The player in these games has one life that is constantly threatened but never ends.  It gives a player license to experiment without fear of a sticky end.  Games where the player cannot die often focus on telling a story rather than keeping score.  They might also have to fight against the perception of being “easy”.


Ouch that really stings


There are a breed of games where death is both an inconvenience and a common occurrence.  Gone are the limits on lives and credits.  A player can retry many different things in different ways without fear of being sent back to an arbitrary check point a designer decided would be a good place to start again.


In Braid, everything fades and pauses… whoops better rewind time to before that death happened.  No penalty really, unless the backwards noise really grates against you.


Crackdown and Bioshock have the concept of clones… so just like Pacman and the hero’s ship in Space Invaders there is always a new vessel for a player to jump in too.  Though in Crackdown & Bioshock the effects of the previous clone are still present in the world.  You literally are a player clone army and in Crackdown II there is actually an achievement rewarded for finding all the ways an agent can die.  Death then can be its own reward.


Demon’s Souls adds a community aspect to death.  Death can come completely out of the blue but blood stains can be used to communicate to other wary players what is in store for them – death is a form of shared learning experience.


Limbo sees the little boy avatar you control dying over and over again with very little game penalty.  I take it back, the deaths are really quite disturbing and stomach churning though I’m sure there are those reading that just think it is funny!  Heck it is probably a good way of acclimatizing to that kind of horror.  Each death is over so quickly and so little ground is lost that it hardly costs any player time at all to die.


These games attempt to limit the frustration of death by placing the player close to the point of failure.  They dust off the player and say “have another go, try something different”.  Many of these games want you to complete them and know that some of the challenges they offer are tough.


No you really are dead


Something that computers and home consoles can do that I have not known in the arcades is the game save.  A precious area of memory where a player can save their progress through the game and return to it at will.  This allows the paradox of a player dying and a game ending, yet able to return to a certain point of time before that happened.  Kind of like Ground Hog Day, where the entire world in unaware that all this has happened before (and all this will happen again).  The player though has hopefully gleaned some knowledge to progress past that sticky point, so perhaps after x amount of times it will actually happen differently!


The downside of this is that the game does not know you played through a section either, so if there are any sections of non-interactive play then a player is doomed to sit through them again and again.  As a player I really, really do hate times where I am forced to sit through sections of the game deemed so essential that I must watch them before interacting again.  Perhaps there is a happy compromise, a separate save file held that indicates if a player has experienced that oh-so-important content once even if they revert to a previous save?


Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption do sometimes have fresh dialogue for retrying a totally failed mission from a checkpoint.  GTA does exact a penalty for death (or at least lack of heath) – the player does not automatically revert to a save but instead ends up in a hospital with the contents of their previously bottomless pockets empty.


Red Dead Redemption did rely on teaching me that I cannot disarm people in story mission duels via killing me off and reverting me to a save / checkpoint.  I really would have preferred disarmed opponents that had to die to have killed themselves rather than gimping the disarm mechanic and killing me in duels.  Being quite a persistent gamer I believed them to just be formidable opponents, so I did try one particular duel over and over again for an hour before I caught on (sigh).


If a player veers away from where the story teller wants them to go, they are killed off and put back somewhere they can make a different choice.  It does become frustrating if that choice is not clear, or if a player sees what they are supposed to do but lacks the skill to do it.  Perhaps worse still, when the player remembers something from several hours ago that would change things now.  Arguably save slots offer redemption for mistakes… at the cost of perhaps many hours of player time.  Multiple save slots also potentially endanger the weight of player decisions.


Should a player be able to decide to “cheat” and turn the pages back, or should that temptation be removed?  Do you trust a player to not replay one part of the story again and again to see all the different outcomes?  Does it even matter if they do?  I don’t think so if the player is having fun, but Mr. Resetti would disagree!


You wear yellow, they wear red


When a hero dies there is a save point or usually a special something that allows them to fight another day.  The same cannot be said of other characters and things the player interacts with in a game world.  You are Captain Kirk, the other characters are red shirts.


Games in the Civilization, Age of Empires and Command & Conquer series reward units that survive many battles with experience.  They reward the player for leadership that keeps the minions alive.   Cannon Fodder also had this but had an extra twist.  Giving my squad names and knowing the penalty of seeing a new grave on the hill at the end of the level made me work just that little bit harder to keep my squad alive (see comments from other gamers on this vid).


Some game’s deaths actually are a vital part of the storyline and they expect the player to accept that.  Characters in The Sims eventually die if you play with them.  Sure you could just switch characters, keep reverting to a save or allow them to continually imbibe from the water cooler of youth but you are always able to let time take its course and eventually death  will come to collect them.  Then they are gone.  Ok, well you might get a ghost hanging around but they are not remotely the same.


Mass Effect makes the player choose life or death for their own team members at points during the game.  Mass Effect  II rewards good leadership and truly knowing the players own team with extra story and different outcomes.  There comes a point where deep knowledge of a the supporting cast strengths and weaknesses can save their lives.


Having a player care about their supporting cast is terrible when it feels unfair (why won’t this healing potion work on them this time… it worked the other thousand times?!)  When done right though it gives a player extra emotional investment in not only the avatar they control but more of the world they are experiencing.


That’s all folks!


I would be very interested in hearing about how you think player death may evolve in the future, more examples of the above and your own personal experiences in the comments.  Many argue games are getting easier – some would say they are becoming more accessible.  A few designers have designed away player death completely in their games.


Death serves a few purposes, but chiefly to either completely end a score attempt or to impede progress through a larger game world.  Geometry Wars understands that smashing down a button lots of times should just let the player try again (a touch many gamers I am sure appreciate).  Other games use checkpoints and saves to snatch failed player actions out of the air as if they never happened; or return a carbon copy of that character back to the world sometimes none the wiser of the predecessors fate.


While writing this blog I asked an open question on Twitter about player and character death.   The many replies even then just go to show what a wide subject this is in both narrative and gameplay.  Grim Fandango, Planescape: Torment and Die2Nite have been suggested to me as games that explore death itself, though that is a topic for a different article.  As a programmer and gamer I believe the way death is handled in a game very much defines how the game feels and plays overall.  I do hope this article sparks off a few interesting conversations.  You may leave comments here or try joining a conversation on Twitter – I suggest the hash tag #PlayerDeath @paulecoyote.



Tweeters that helped me out in no particular order: @DaveFeltham @zackfreedman @lingmops @glamgeekgirl @oOSTVOo @twonjosh @paulnew @acroyear3 @BusterMcFearson @Stomp224 @JurieOnGames @ChrisA9 @ColleenDelzer @Renmauzuo @NaviFairyGG @FatalWebMunki @bjoernknafla @daredevildave


Also many thanks to my lovely wife proof reading this for me several times before I published it.


Paul Evans is a central technology programmer at Lionhead Studios. He has worked on the Fable II, Fable III and other unreleased titles. You can find him on Linkedin, see other things he has written on his personal blog and You can also follow him on twitter @PaulECoyote. Everything in this article is Paul’s opinion alone and does not necessarily reflect his employer’s views, nor constitute a legal relationship.

Mid-week update


A few things have caught my attention the past couple of weeks.  First off congratulations for reaching 100 podcasts recorded.  Good choice for the centenary too – Daniel Cook’s “What is your Game Design Style” article.

Part Time Gamers” is another good podcast discussing playing games from a part-time gamer perspective.  The presenters work in the game industry but like many of us have many taxes on their spare time.  Decently produced and great conversation – they seem to be off to a good start and they are looking for comments and participants. 

A Life Well Wasted – another downloadable series about gamers and the industry is so well done that it wouldn’t sound out of place on BBC Radio.  It is due another episode but had been delayed for about a week.  The site is also looking for contributions from people working in the industry to show the human side, kicking off with this photographic article about Eskil Steenberg, creator of the game  “Love”.

I was not happy with my draft of the article I was planning to post on the weekend so will revisit it over this coming weekend.  With any luck the sunshine will continue and I will be able to work on it in the garden. 🙂

A final note; has anyone played “Uno Rush”?  It is not Uno as you know it – it is fast paced cross between Snap and Uno with some actual skill to it.  Everyone sees each others cards so it can played locally, which is lots of fun (although draining!)  Anyway if you like the demo and end up getting it perhaps I’ll see you online. 🙂

Podcasts – a great way to absorb extra info


Podcasts are audio recordings usually in mp3 format that often specialise in a particular niche.  If you commute, work out to music, or are at a loose end during a long build you might consider listening to one of these shows.

I subscribe to quite a few podcasts via google reader (my rss client of choice) – though the term podcast itself has iPod heritage so iTunes is also often used as a delivery mechanism.

I have listed a few of my favourite podcasts below.  Please comment and recommend any podcasts you listen too that I might be missing out on. 🙂

Game & Software Development

Industry Broadcast This is an excellent idea; the best game developer blog articles read out for your convenience
Platform Biased Behind the scenes info from Redmond
Hansel Minutes Technological discussion, usually focusing on .Net related technologies


Career Tools Solid advice about how to improve your career prospects
Manager Tools Management tips in plain language.  Even if you are not a manager it can make you think about what you are like as an employee to manage 😉
Manager Tools (Basics) I’ve been listening to these guys for years and they refer to concepts introduced in older shows… these are the foundation podcasts


The C64 Take Away Great remixes and sid tunes from the C64
The Roadhouse Signed and unsigned blues artists
The Raven and the Blues Signed and unsigned blues and blues inspired artists


Major Nelson Xbox 360 celebrity often interviews developers and reports sales figures – amongst other things.
OXM Podcast Pretty good 360 podcast from some of the guys behind the American edition of Official Xbox Magazine

Observations of games at the weekend


So I’ve set up this WordPress blog.  I think I’m going to try and update it on the weekend… weekdays tend to be a little unpredictable as far as free time goes.  Right now I should be able to take advantage of not being in crunch, so the hours I’m doing aren’t always hugely outside of core hours.  My Windows Live blog doesn’t give me satisfying stats… I think I may let that go fallow.  Facebook is where I update for just friends and family – this I want to try and keep for developer thoughts.

Civilization Revolution

Played quite a bit of this weekend and last.  It is a really good turn based strategy game, and I have had fun playing it.  There are a ton of cool touches that have made me laugh and smile.  The advisors pushing each other out of the way when you skip them before they finish.  There are some funny gifts you get given now and again like dancing bears, jugglers and dancers.  They have made use out of a collection mechanic by having a big museum with busts of various leaders, pivotal people you meet through the games you play, and models of the wonders that you have built over the games you have played.

There is a slight curve on the user interface that I’m not sure I’m all the way through yet – and perhaps that’s why when I jacked up the difficulty again this morning and tried another scenario that I started to see the games numbers.  You know how in the Matrix when Neo starts seeing the world around him as green text flying around?  Well certain predictable patterns that were there in previous levels are not… and the virtual dice would seem to roll against you a little more often.  Perhaps I see this because I’m a developer and know what I’m looking out for.  After all artificial intelligence in games is more about creating a believable illusion of being smart, then academics actually trying to make something smart.

I will go back to it no doubt, the game has unbelievable depth.  If you want to get a kid interested in history this would be a game to give them to play… it actually has historical documentation, pictures and even media clips of the various resources and people that make up the game.

Fable II – Knothole Island Expansion Pack

Fable II is a great game, go buy it.  ;0)  Seriously, despite being part of the team and having played the game in the various states it has been in – to still be wowed and awed by it even after it stole so many unpaid hours of my life shows that the game must be good.

Danni, my wife, loves the game.  She loves the controls, the art, the style and humour of the game.  She finds the menu a little fiddle and because she plays on my gamertag sometimes has to have the orbs and stuff switched off, but apart from that it has been a game that turned the head of a casual / Sims 2 player to a role playing game… which is saying something.  The people who have complained about the lack of depth in reviews just plain didn’t go looking for it.

She is loving the island so far, apart from the dexterity challenges (flit-switch squash, timed run through flames, etc).  I guess the pack is probably aimed more at the hardcore – I think I could do the challenges and find them more fun then frustrating.  The ones who are most likely to know how to download content, have a hard drive, etc I guess are the hardcore anyway.  The extra places to visit and other content like the new potions and enemy variants are cool for all though.  It should be enough to make you want to keep Fable II and not trade it in for a bit longer!

Geometry Wars I

Still on the original Geometry Wars… the other day something in my head clicked and I managed to push through a previous upper score boundary.  That game is awesome, easy to pick up and hard to master.  The whole pushing A button a bunch of times to try again is genius for an arcade game like that.  Still looks beautiful today, without a doubt a modern classic.

%d bloggers like this: