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On winning, losing, and trying something new

Part of the joy of winning a game is overcoming the challenges that could make you lose. But what if a game was okay with you losing? If losing become fun, does it destroy the pleasure of winning?

John Sutherland, Blogger

September 5, 2013

4 Min Read

I've been working on a mobile game. It's casual, it's got broad appeal, it's supposed to be for everybody. It's about kittens, for god's sake. Talk about unthreatening. It's practically made of YouTube gold.

In the process of designing the game, I made a decision to make losing just as fun as winning, or at least to try to. But that got me thinking, is it still possible to make winning fun in a game like this?  Because if winning wasn't fun any more, it would kind of ruin everything.

So, here's the practical situation. The game is called Knittin' Kittens, and it's based on the surreal idea that kittens have an extra long claw in each of their front paws, and it springs out when we're not looking and they're near a ball of yarn. You know, like Wolverine, but without all the anger and slashing. Instead, they knit sweaters.

Well, it would explain a lot about their reaction to yarn.

The game design calls for you to prevent them from doing this cute thing. If they knit a whole sweater, you "lose" that level. Which is awesome.

But making losing awesome comes with some questions, foremost of which is: Have I taken the fun out of winning?

I hope not. I think this can still work. Here's why.

The satisfaction of winning involves overcoming a challenge. Nobody wants the big red Easy Button in a game. Pressing X to solve everything is the most boring gameplay dynamic in the world.

So if you have a game where you can't continue until you succeed at the level you're on, that's a challenge, and it's satisfying to overcome it. Even Angry Birds does this. Is part of the challenge being prevented from continuing until you succeed?

In most games, yes. But I would argue that these two things are not intrinsically tied together. They can be detached, where you still have a challenge that is satisfying to overcome, but after you've faced it (whether or not you win), you are still free to continue and explore the next level. Or you can play the same level again, and try for a different result. Your choice.

You do have to play through a level before you can unlock the next one. You cannot, for example, just start with level 7. The experience you gain in each level is still important, and prepares you for the increased complexity and challenge you find in the next level. It's the result of each level that matters less.

Let's take this out of theory, and I'll walk through exactly what I mean in this particular game.

Knittin' Kittens has 14 levels, each representing a room in a house. The first level takes place in the laundry room, and has three kittens and one ball of yarn. You have four distractions available to you, always including the favorite distraction of each individual kitten involved in the level. So dark laundry is most attractive to the white-haired cat (you know this is true!), white laundry is most attractive to the black-haired cat, and the Persian cat loves the warm mixed laundry, fresh from the dryer. She's a sucker for heat, and doesn't give a damn about color.

If you manage to distract the kittens for the allotted time, you get a specially themed medal that goes with that room. If you don't, you get a sweater. A delightfully ugly, lopsided sweater. Either way, you've had a satisfying challenge, and you can choose to repeat it. But also, either way, you've had an experience that will prepare you for the increased number of kittens, balls of yarn, and distractions that come in the next level.

This also opens up a "shoot the moon" option, where you deliberately lose all the levels just to collect all the sweaters. And you can always go back and win.

I believe this is a method of scoring that is both challenging and inclusive, and can be fun for a huge variety of gamer types.

It's not that you'll never be challenged; it's just that you'll never be stuck. I think that's what a game for everybody should look like.

Of course, we'll see how the experiment actually works in practice. You can see more details of the game at knittinkittens.com. I'd love to know what you think.

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