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Some of my thoughts on how frustration works in video games, and how I balanced it by working on OkunoKa and OkunoKa Madness.

Alessandro Mattozzi, Blogger

August 18, 2020

7 Min Read


In 2018, the first game I ever worked on was released for Nintendo Switch: OkunoKA.
OkunoKa Madness (the enhanced edition), will be released soon, on Steam and all consoles.

It is a 2D  "masocore" (= very hard) platform. I took part in the development as a Level Designer. When I worked on OkunoKA I could analyze more closely the phenomenon of frustration. I’m fascinated by how human beings like to play something that irritates them, so I decided to dig deeper to better understand the players’ bias.

Why we play games?

 (This section is a simplified explanation of the self-determination theory, you can skip it)

Each person is different, so there are really many reasons to play games. But which is the human bias that makes us want to play games? Human beings have three basic needs to satisfy, and it seems that videogames are one of the best ways to do this. These needs are:

  • Competence

    • Situation under control

    • Improve

      • In video games, you feel to improve in different ways, one for each type of progression present in the game

  • Autonomy

    • Independence feeling

    • The feeling of control over our actions

  • Relatedness

    • We want to be important for others

    • Feel useful

So why most people do not feel better after winning an easy challenge? And why do we play Frustrating games?

I answered this way.

I consider a match as a story in which the player is both protagonist and spectator at the same time.

And every story contains the following components.

  • Goal

    • The player wants to complete the level

  • Stakes

    • The player risks to lose his time, energy and self-confidence, also for the Sunk Cost effect, the more time he has lost, the more time he will be willing to invest.

  • The expectation of a result

    • It can be:

      • the expectation of material reward (Coins, equipment, collectables, narrative breakthrough, etc.)

    • it pushes players not to give up, you can disappoint the player to increase frustration and increase satisfaction the next time he gets a reward.

    • Without the expectation of a reward, the player has no reason to move forward

  • Obstacles

    • There is something that puts the plan’s success at risks

    • Without challenging obstacles, the next step is meaningless for us

    • The obstacles make the player to find a strategy, and this give Agency

  • Resolution

    • How does the story end? In most video games cases, we designers have to make sure that the player that likes our game, is able to complete the game sooner or later. The resolution is the moment in which the player reaches the goal. At this point, there is the tension release and the release of dopamine.

When you reach the resolution the more these elements are present and well designed, the more is greater the Fiero moment reward.

So, if Frustration is well utilized, it can be fundamental in many video games, it is at the centre, to enhance the stakes, the obstacles and accordingly the resolution.

Returning to OkunoKA

In the specific case of OkunoKA, frustration and therefore the degree of challenge, are provided by Level Design more than Game Design. OkunoKA is made to push the player to the limit of his possibilities, but it isn’t only frustration. Because as I said before, the greater the obstacle is overcome and the greater the Fiero moment. In fact, there are many features that work to give the player experience as smooth as possible.

Testing & Tuning

Testing and tuning during my work in Okunoka have played a fundamental role.

In fact, after thinking of a concept and putting everything in the scene, the level is anything but ready to be played!

In each level, a tuning work has to be done, even if at times it ends up distorting the basic idea because in the engine it is not always as in our mind.

Tuning is the tool that gives the possibility to zero the difficulty and frustration or to bring them to extreme levels to make damn the player.

What have I considered during the tuning of OkunoKA levels?

Making small or big changes to these elements, I tried to guide the player to make him have the best experience possible. So, I could choose:

  • Where the players lose more often

  • Amount of frustration

  • Which levels will he have to redo when he is better (to recover collectables)

  • Perceived Difficulty, this element makes you believe that an obstacle is more difficult than it is, so it gives you greater Fiero moments.

    • Stress. Enemies that move, or a laser that is about to reignite in your direction, make you feel better than you are

      • Whether you have a laser that tracks you or not, the movements you should do to reach the end of the level are the same. But if you have to do it with precise timing, you have to exit the comfort zone of your rhythm and adapt to the one imposed by the game

        • This increases the perceived difficulty and the consequent Fiero moment

    • Complexity. many simple obstacles together form a complex gameplay section, even better if the obstacles are threatening enemies

      • If obstacles seen individually are all simple to overcome, if put together in the right way, they can give the player the feeling of being in front of a mountain. As soon as he understands how to approach every obstacle with that rhythm, he manages to overcome the level without problems. Each level, excluding those in the tutorial, puts the player in front of a different mountain, which at first seems unstable but one step at a time becomes feasible.


In every game, whether it's frustrating or not, tuning has a fundamental role.

Give players a smooth, fair and balanced experience. It also can be utilized to give as much reward as possible (dopamine) to the player with the minimum effort required. We must always remember to reward players, and thanks to the Fiero moment, it is also possible in games where there are no currency or trophies.

  • So:

    • Goal

    • Stakes

    • The expectation of a result

    • Obstacles

    • Resolution

  • This is only my way to answer the big question in the title, and I’m sure that there are many other ways to do it.

The frustration in entertainment is really a complex topic, I'm just waiting for other opportunities to understand more!

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