Is a game
something that players either win or lose? Or can it be something more
Century Game Design, we defined a game as a toy with some degree of
performance. ‘Performance’ is an intentionally ambiguous term; chiefly it
refers to a measure of success, but there is a second meaning more applicable
to tabletop role-playing games in which it implies theatricality. Ever since
writing the book, this idea has been percolating in my head. If there are
different ways in which the performance aspect can be measured, there must
exist different performance metrics. But what effect does the choice of
performance metric have on players?
begin by looking at the most basic, the most well-worn, the (arguably) most
tedious performance metric: win or lose. This can be considered a digital
metric. Many people consider the definition of a game to be tied up in this
digital metric; I personally find that approach too constraining. A tabletop
role-playing game certainly seems like a game to me, yet it has no win or lose
state. (Some might argue that dying is losing – and yet, the death of a
character might be the most narratively satisfying experience for the player).
consider digital metrics in terms of the chance of success (for a given
chance of success
With a high
chance of success, players usually succeed in any given segment of play.
Because they mostly succeed, when they lose it can be frustrating. However, if
a sense of reward is attached to the win, this can still be satisfying.
Solitaire games demonstrate this – players who enjoy these games (often
corresponding to Lazzaro’s Altered States key, or Wanderer by DGD1) might not
be enjoying the win versus the loss, but rather the process. Short play
segments seem to be key to making this work, however.
middle ground, what is the feel of play if the chance of success is largely
even? If the segments of play are short, and no progress is loss (that is,
ratcheting is in place) it will be similar to the high chance of success,
above. If the play segments are longer, and progress is lost, it will be
similar to the low chance of success, below.
chance of success
little chance of success, the nature of play becomes a struggle. This is fiero
country (Lazzaro’s Hard Fun, or Conqueror by DGD1) – the emotional payoff of
triumph over adversity. While some players become discouraged facing poor odds,
the fiero-seeker appears to thrive on being denied their success. It doesn’t
matter that they must tackle the same challenge repeatedly, because all of the
frustration experienced on the way to victory increases the depth of adversity,
and therefore heightens the emotional payoff of fiero when success is finally
opposite end of the scale are what we can consider analogue metrics. In
the general case, an analogue metric is a continuum of performance, the most
common of which in games is a score. An analogue metric could be one of any
number of different measures, including a ratcheted score (such as experience
points), a letter grade or similar categorised score, or a completion
percentage (of a collection, or of map coverage), but for our purposes we will
consider the general case, and mostly pass over the nature of the specifics.
featuring an analogue metric are actually built upon an independent digital
metric substructure. That is, the score is not directly linked to success or
failure. For example, in Pac-Man, the player’s score does not determine
when a level is cleared, only the eating of all the dots matters. However, for
the purposes of exploring performance metrics let us imagine that these two
elements are intrinsically interrelated. For example, in Pac-Man, the
analogue performance metric of ‘percentage of dots eaten’ is intrinsically
connected to the transient ‘win’ state of clearing each level.
We can now look
at different types of analogue metric by considering how the digital and
analogue metrics interrelate:
lose, with a score in between
of a score in this case varies the way players can approach the central play.
There is more diversity here than can be explored in so short a space, but two
cases in particular are worth examining.
If the win
state is distant and hard to achieve, the score may become a player’s chief
measure of success, as happened with arcade games before the advent of
pump-and-play (which allowed players to complete any game by continuing to pay
money). This is not very popular in modern game design.
If the win
state is relatively easy to reach, but the scoring metric increases by order of
magnitudes in relation to player competence, then the win state becomes the
draw for continued play while the player is learning the game, then the score
takes over as the dominant metric at a later date.
Bombjack had this essential nature, counting
the clearing of a level as a win state. Players who were learning the game
could complete some 20-odd levels, but scored little. Expert players scored
vastly higher scores completing just 2-3 levels perfectly, because of
the huge bonus for collecting the bombs in sequence.
We also see
this in NiGHTS: Into Dreams. Completing the game is not a particularly
difficult goal to achieve, but scoring big combos then comes to the fore as the
player’s chief focus. Players who connected with this challenge came to fall in
love with the gameplay because the nature of the analogue metric was vastly
more engaging than the simple digital metric of whether or not a level was
with a score
no win states have become quite rare, but once upon a time, the arcades where
packed full of this style of game. In essence, play was a continuous (and
repetitive) experience, and players would eventually fail (die) either because
the constant increase in difficulty made this outcome inevitable, or because of
human error. In these games, the score is the only metric of interest to the
player. This approach lacks appeal, because failure is inevitable, and there is
little to draw the player to continue to play unless they happen to hook into
the scoring mechanic.
there is a particular class of scoring mechanic which is so compelling that it
supports tremendous player loyalty. Computer role-playing games are almost
universally built upon a leveling structure in which the player earns score
towards character progress. Although they tend to have an ultimate goal state,
and therefore are not strictly devoid of a ‘win’, the character of the play is
such that the win state can be largely irrelevant to the gameplay (especially
because the win is usually narrative closure, and therefore separate from the
game mechanics). We can therefore imagine these games as instances where the
win state is kept from the player, while the lose state (dying) is always a
of play in these games is terribly addictive to the players that enjoy them.
Almost everything the player does contributes to the progress of their
character or characters, and so the scoring mechanic creates the illusion of
constant progression. The deferral of the goal state (the end of the game)
creates greater focus on the scoring metrics, and thus locks the player into a
near-continuous cycle of progress.
Disgaea is an example of this sort of
approach. Players who strongly connect with the play of this game are not
generally hooked into the story, and therefore the goal state (the end of the
story) is irrelevant to their enjoyment of the game. Instead, they become
totally absorbed in the multi-dimensional analogue metrics. The game design is
packed with them – even the healing mechanics level up. They have to decide for
themselves when to stop playing, because there is nothing that really feels
like a definitive end condition. However, the play of a game like Disgaea
is abstractly mathematical, and so the appeal is quite low. Nonetheless,
players who enjoy the game love it dearly.
with a score
of losing states is quite rare because most game designers do not consider such
an arrangement to be viable. The only class of games in which winning without
losing has been common was the point and click adventure, which mostly (but not
always) included no lose states, allowing players to plug at them until victory
was achieved. However, since progress was mediated by puzzles which were
frequently arcane and difficult, their appeal had a relatively strict ceiling
(hence their decline once development budgets rose above the likely returns for
such a game). Even in the case of point and clicks, score was generally absent.
organised in this way presumably lack appeal to fiero-seekers, because the
sense of struggle is lost. Victory is inevitable. There is therefore little
hope of achieving triumph over adversity. Given the fiero-focus of most game
development at the moment, this probably explains the lack of games built on
this pattern. Nonetheless, there is absolutely no reason that games cannot be
built this way.
that get closest to this are 3D platformers. Ever since the game development
community finally realised that having limited lives was completely
irrelevant to the play of these games (it just created frustration without
providing any benefit) these games have been built in such a way that the
player generally does not have to worry about failing, and just works towards
victory with a number of scoring mechanics (often collections of objects) as
the backdrop of play.
game design of 3D platformers is now rarely of a high quality. Many of these
games contain highly hetrogenous play, such that players are constantly forced
to learn new things instead of being allowed to play with expressive mechanics.
Variety of mini-games and so forth is considered de rigeur without any thought
as to whether building a game out of lots of separate smaller games is a good
idea. (Although there are benefits in variety, it is hard for a player to
really enjoy a game which waters down its identity through lack of coherent
central play). What has really killed this genre however is the loss of
interest of the Hardcore players. Lacking evangelists to push these games into
the hands of the Casual players who might enjoy them, the genre has floundered,
and the more high profile titles (Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank) uniformly
have moved towards violent play to re-court the Hardcore, thus losing the
Casual audience they once had.
approach will doubtless reappear. The capacity to win without fear of loss is
of great value to a wider audience unconcerned with fiero. The problem is how
to get these games to the audiences that enjoy them when the Hardcore
evangelists responsible for spreading awareness of games have lost interest.
New ideas will doubtless appear to regenerate the 3D platformer at some point.
with neither win or lose
perfectly possible to have an analogue metric without win or lose states. Games
such as Animal Crossing, The Sims are perfect examples: the
player is not working towards a goal state, and they are not working to avoid a
failure state. They are just playing. In Animal Crossing, the score is
the player’s mortgage, then their savings. In The Sims, money once again
is the chief metric.
possible to have this form without the scoring metric being money? Probably.
But the advantage of money as a central mechanic is that this is an analogue
metric that people can enjoy for something more than the simple pride of
achieving a high score. Money allows players to purchase things inside the game
world, which is rewarding in and of itself.
this form will become more and more popular as the games industry gradually
comes to recognise the value of play in a wider context than just the win and
lose mentality which we have inherited from an antiquated conception of what
constitutes a game. Sadly, at the moment it seems that publishers don’t
actually understand this side of play, and so it is hard to get games of this
kind funded, despite the vast commercial success of The Sims.
has looked in a broad ranging and quite abstract way at the way performance metrics
serve to define the play of a game. Before closing, we should look at the best
case ways to apply this model to game design. As a crude generalisation, the
more performance metrics a game employs, the more choice the player has as to
what challenge they are actually undertaking. However, it is possible for a
game to have too many performance metrics – complexity is only a draw to a
minority of players. We should, for the most part, stick to using metrics that
are immediately understandable, except when making cRPGs, strategy games and
strat RPGs for a niche market that enjoys complexity.
In the best
case, a game wishing to cater for the needs of a very wide audience should be
rooted on a performance metric with no lose condition. For instance, in a snowboarding
game, the player should always be able to reach the bottom of the mountain.
Success of the most basic kind is therefore guaranteed, but there will still be
a wide variety of different degrees of performance in the journey down. If you
are racing other people, for instance, there is still the challenge of beating
the other racers independent of the base-level metric.
be achieved without the need for a low chance of success and a win-lose
mentality as the underlying framework: in the case of the snowboarding
example, it is perfectly possible to present difficult challenges within a
framework with no overall failure. Indeed, even if a snowboarding game always
allows the player to reach the base of the mountain (a win of the most basic kind)
the player will gradually increase their expectations of what they can achieve.
Losing a race to another snowboarder will feel like a loss to a player hooked
into the challenge of beating them.
our view of what win, lose and score mean, and by layering these elements in
hierarchies to support simple freedom to play without failure at the base
level, and to support the quest for fiero at the higher level, we can build
games with a much greater audience appeal. That’s the theory, at least. In practice,
the games industry and the Hardcore community are so addicted to fiero, we may
struggle to make this transition, even though without it we will increasingly
labour to make back the development costs of games whose budgets are already in
excess of their likely returns.
The opening image is Bayu Utomo's Win or Lose, from the Guandong Museum of Art. I was struck by this piece as the arms held aloft is a universal symbol of fiero. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.