A few years ago Prince of Persia was rebooted a second time featuring cel shaded graphics. One of the main points that gamers argued about was the removal of being able to die or fail in the game. What happened was whenever the player missed a jump their AI companion would save them. Some people argued for this as it made the game more accessible to casual players while others felt that it removed the sense of challenge for expert players.
I don't know why this popped into my head but I had an epiphany this past weekend as to not only why gamers felt cheated but also the right way to still have challenge without penalty of failure. The solution came from Nintendo and a certain garlic loving anti-hero.
Before Wario was known for micro games he also did the 2d plat-former gig like Mario. His first game was a re-skin of a Mario adventure (which was still good). When Wario got his own series in the form of Wario Land for the game boy the designers had to do something to separate him from Mario.
What they did was remove his ability to die. Wario could be stabbed, burned, squashed and other painful things and still come back for more. There still needed to be something to challenge the players and Nintendo came up with an excellent solution.
Wario is not interested in saving a princess and instead wants money and treasure. The regular path from start to finish in a level was simple enough. Hidden in every level of the game are several treasures for Wario to collect and in order to get to them the player has to make use of his immortality.
Whenever Wario is hit by a fatal attack he transforms into another form for a few seconds such as fire Wario or zombie Wario. Getting to the treasures requires the player to solve how to use the forms available to find them and turns the game into a puzzle plat former.
In a nutshell what the designers did was alter the finish line for the type of player. For casual gamers they moved it up so that they can get through the level without fear of death. For better players the finish line is moved away by giving them the treasures to find. This allows both casual and expert players to experience the game-play and at the same time rewards players for getting better at the game and not punishing people who aren't as good.
This approach was also adopted with the latest Kirby title, Kirby's Epic Yarn for the Wii. In the game Kirby cannot die and the same kind of level design is applied here, easy enough for younger and lesser skilled gamers but still having a challenge for those that want it in the form of finding items. Similarly Kirby's Canvas Curse for the DS also had this kind of challenge however the game was on the harder side to begin with and had a lives system.
The problem with Prince of Persia is that it removed the penalty of dying and replaced it with nothing. There was no reason not to worry about dying or get better at the game. The finish line remained the same for both groups of gamers. What they could have done in my opinion to promote getting better at the game would be similar to what happened in Wario.
Let's say that there are sections in the world blocked by a magical gate that your partner can break through that leads to harder sections or treasures/ achievements. To open these gates she needs to expend magical energy which is the same power she uses to save the player. The more times the player is rescue the less energy she has to open the gates. If the player wants to see everything in a level they would have to play without dying, however for those that aren't able to do that they can still beat the game normally.
For fans who just want to play for the story they can make it through the game from start to finish without breaking a sweat. For gamers who want a challenge that option is also open to them and they can still be rewarded with both the story and more challenges and rewards.
One of the differences between gamers who want a challenge and gamers who just want the story is that the former can be rewarded with harder content. In A Boy and his Blob for the Wii if the player can collect all the treasure chests in a level they will unlock a bonus level. The bonus levels usually have different level design and a challenge compared to the main game and just like Wario and Kirby there is no threat of failure. If the boy gets hurt the game just reloads the closest checkpoint.
Being able to open your game up to newcomers while still retaining your fans is always a challenge. The concept of having "lives" and "game over" has faded away for the most part; I think the last game I saw that still used lives was Super Mario Galaxy 2. While it is more work to create more content as opposed to simplifying it for everyone it does allow you to have the best of both worlds, game-play easy enough for casual gamers to play through and a challenge to keep your existing fan base happy.
Even games aimed specifically at kids can work this way, a few years back I was told by friends to try out a Kim Possible game for the Ps2 and this kind of philosophy was there. The regular path through the levels were easy enough for the younger fan base, but bonuses and collectibles were set up in harder areas for more skilled gamers. The game even featured bonus levels similar to the Bionic Commando remake level of difficulty.
My next entry will be going further about rewarding expert players when I examine the right and wrong way of designing post game content.