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Failure is a great learning tool and yet is is also frustrating for players and a point in time when they might just up and walk away from your game. So how do you keep them coming back?

Christopher Gile, Blogger

December 19, 2012

4 Min Read

This is a cross post frommy blog here.

Failure is a natural thing in games/life but regardless of how valuable it is as a learning tool, whenever someone fails there is a chance that instead of trying again that they will just throw up their hands and walk away. Given that failure can cause this reaction it is natural that developers might be afraid of making a game too hard as each death is another opportunity for people to decide they are done with your game. Certainly having a fun game is incentive for people to keep playing the game but how do you keep people playing when you have them die 20-30 times? How can you make a game focused on the player dying and keep them motivated? Today I’m going to talk about two games that do just that, Demon’s Souls (or Dark Souls) and Super Meat Boy. 

If you had to do word association with either of those two titles chances are you would say ‘Hard’, but neither of these games takes the difficulty lightly and they both will continually incentivized the player to try one more time.

The punishment for death in the Souls series is to lose all of your souls (money). It is a harsh punishment, but the amazing thing about this is that while it punishes you, it also gives you a chance to redeem yourself. If you actually manage to get back to where you died and touch your own blood stain then you would get all of the souls you lost back, if you died before you got back to it then that blood stain the money is gone, forever. In this way, the game only ever punishes you for failing twice in a row. And when/if you die the second time you still have incentive to try again because while you just lost a bloodstain full of souls, you also just created one.

This first encourages exploration and experimentation because it makes a single failure less threatening. But more importantly during that moment of frustration when you just want to walk away from the game these games are bribing you to stay and try again. ‘Wait, don’t leave! Don’t you want all those souls back?’ Even if you die again while trying to get those souls and lose the ones you were trying to recover, there will once again be a a new blood stain full of souls for you to recover. As such this one mechanic creates a continuous loop incentive for players to keep going forward. It mean that struggling players will always have an incremental goal they can work towards and so they can keep playing while still feeling like they are progressing.

Super Meat Boy gets people to try again mostly by just never giving them a chance to think about it. In most games if you die the game will tell you all about your death, have some screen to highlight your failure and scold you for failing. Then, after proper scolding, it will ask if you want to try again. Super Meat Boy just throws you back to the start of the level. No questions, no screen, no waiting. This means that the state of concentration you get into while playing, the tension you feel while trying to beat a level, never goes away because you are never not playing. When you throw up a screen clarifying ‘Yes, that pit really did kill you’ you are telling the player to stop. You are telling them to take a breath and calm down because it is over, but you can try again. Super Meat Boy doesn’t acknowledge it is over, not until you beat the level and as such keeps players going until they beat the level.

When you do beat the level, the game even rewards you in proportion to how many times you died by showing all of your playthroughs at once layered over each other. You get to marvel at how hard this was and how stubborn you are by watching a horde of Meat Boys rush through the level and slowly get thinned out until there is only one glorious Meat Boy left. The more you died, the more entertaining this is and so if you have played the level 40 times and still can’t win you don’t want to walk away because you want to see all those runs at once.

You don’t have to accept that when your players die there is a certain chance they just won’t come back, you can incentivise them to come back and keep playing. A player walking away from your game is a player you failed to engage, and there are things you can do to keep players engaged in a game while making it really hard. And remember, if you are going to make your game really hard try not to scold your players to harshly for failing, as that is exactly what you expect them to do.

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