In the first two parts of this series we introduced the topic of consequences, talked about what different audiences look for and saw the effect of consequences in action through the death of the player’s avatar or characters.
In this concluding article we’ll discuss consequences unrelated to death, the fascinating role consequences play in strategy games and MMOs, the player’s relationship with consequences and how designers can use that to their advantage.
So without further ado, let’s wrap things up!
Consequences Unrelated to Death
Death nearly always results to the most significant consequences games have to offer, but there are a variety of other situations still worth looking at. We’ll cover a couple more of the big ones here.
One way consequences secretly pull the strings behind the curtain is with abilities and item use. The most important question is, when – if ever – can they be used again? The lightest consequence is a short cooldown timer of some sort. Any mechanic which takes this approach I’ll call an “ability.” Cooldown timers feature in both real-time games as well as ones with turn-based combat. Fire off a powerful spell, and you can’t use it for another 10 seconds, or maybe 4 turns. Developers creating a game with a tactical combat mode detached from normal play also have the option of whether or not players are allowed to use the ability more than once per battle. Obviously the shorter the cooldown the lighter the consequence. In fact, consequences are almost nonexistent in games where combat is frequent and cooldown timers are short. The same is basically true when performing some kind of special action that requires spending “mana” or “energy,” and this resource either recharges automatically or can be easily refilled with cheap items or at ‘refill stations’ (such as inns).
I’m personally not a fan of these approaches simply because the consequences are so light that players can ‘fire and forget’ and rarely, if ever have to worry about a situation where a vital ability is unavailable. After all, if you’re never realistically going to run out of mana, why even have it in the game at all? Unfortunately, most JRPGs and many western RPGs suffer from this problem. “Action RPGs” like Skyrim usually don’t offer enough time to strategically plan combat once it has begun, so running out of mana is more of an inconvenience than something you plan for or around.
Which leads us to heavier consequences for ability/item usage. “Items” are basically anything which, when spent, is gone forever. The trouble items have in most games is that they are usually either A) so plentiful that spending them requires no thought whatsoever, or B) not important enough that they’re actually worth spending instead of just hoarding. This is often addressed in games that have options for increased difficulty, such as the Persona and Witcher games. Unfortunately, many titles steer players towards the easier settings where strategy is typically unimportant. Sure, you could just fire up a new game on a tougher level, but only a small number of people play RPG-style games more than once. Even so, there is definitely good gameplay here when a title offers enough challenge such that item usage is an important ingredient to success. It’s a narrow tightrope for a designer to walk, but when pulled off can be very rewarding for those who seek heavier consequences.
Another way consequences can play a subtle role is when the development team decides to incorporate branching points – that is, players are unable to do everything in a single game. This ranges from minor consequences such as non-gameplay dialogue choices (answer X and you’ll never see the character’s response to Y), to more serious decisions such as what NPC to recruit, and which to leave behind forever. Unlike most other consequences, the type of audience branching appeals to (and vice-versa) is mainly based on the completionist tendencies of a player. Some individuals like to be able to see everything, do everything in a single playthrough. Others are more willing to give a game another spin just to see what happens, or accept the fact going direction A forgoes the option of seeing where B ends up. There are no clear-cut rules here for developers – it’s just another one of those personal and design preferences. However, if I had to make a guess I would say that the majority of today’s gamers fall into the former category.
Consequences in Persistent Games
MMOs and Facebook games where a player’s accomplishments persist and remain relevant over years have a very strange relationship with consequences – one that can make the designer’s job very, very hard.
Ultimately, the reason people spend any time at all on persistent games is because their time investment will be rewarded, and it’s virtually impossible to lose something once earned. It’s one thing to make a long, successful run in Spelunky only to see it end tragically at the 30-minute mark… it’s quite another to spend 30 months on a World of Warcraft character only to have it permanently killed in a particularly tough fight. Although I definitely favor heavier consequences in the games I like to play, even I have to acknowledge that consequences in persistent games need to be on the lighter end. No permadeath here, folk!
The question is then – is it possible in MMO design to go beyond the 15-60 second ‘slap on the wrist’ consequence that is virtually meaningless? Major events like raids where a group people try to complete a dungeon together already does a solid job of this. If you spend an hour in a raid trying to earn some loot, only to be killed by the final boss – that can definitely be a fairly heavy consequence! (As nearly every serious MMO gamer can tell you) I think this is the best approach possible in this genre – overall progress is permanent, but short-term gains can still be at risk.
Even the most hardcore have a threshold past which a game is just unfun. Dying in the last area of Spelunky is painful, but at most I’ve lost a half hour on a single run. If it were much more than that then I probably wouldn’t have spent nearly as much time with it. One of the unique qualities about persistent gaming is that players nearly always pour much, much more time into them than any other type of genre. Designers need to be cognizant of that and the fact that simply scaling up consequences in a ‘linear’ fashion does not work.
Consequences in Strategy Games
Few strategy games feature the death of important player-controlled characters, but this is the genre where consequences can really shine. In fact, if I were one of those people who liked to obsess over drawing dividing lines between genres I might argue that the definition of a ‘strategy game’ is something like “a game that has a very high proportion of actions taken that have consequences to those which don’t.” But hey, thankfully I’m not one of those people!
Strategy games are one of the most interesting environments to examine the role of consequences. Unlike games that are story-based or centered around progression towards a specific goal, most strategy games have no natural undo state. Oh, you attacked with that unit at the wrong time and it died? Tough luck, buddy, it’s gone! Deal with it. The possible loss of units typically forces players to make tough decisions about who to send into the fray and who to hold back. Lighter games such as Advance Wars allow units to survive multiple ‘losing’ engagements, while heavier ones like Chess make no such concessions – an attacked unit is immediately toast.
Even Advance Wars can be fairly brutal though, as misplayed units can and will die fairly often. In the strategy universe even the lightest possible consequences can be extremely painful for those accustomed to other genres. This makes the job of the strategy game designer very difficult – if players do not accept the consequences you present them and simply reload then your carefully-architected systems have actually contributed negative value to the game. I’ll talk about this in more detail in the next section.
Along with the nearly-always-permadeath-inducing consequences of combat in strategy games, use of resources is frequently another factor to consider. Do you spend that money on improving your infrastructure, or upgrading your front-line units? Even the deployment of units is resource management. Sometimes the spending of resources can be reversible (didn’t like where you put that unit? Just move him to the space next door before the enemy arrives!), but the tougher ones give no quarter. Our old friend Chess is one of the heaviest-consequences strategy games out there – every decision you make is permanent and impactful. As a result, Chess generally appeals to a fairly hardcore audience, with its historical popularity allowing it to spread a bit beyond that core.
The recent strategy hotness XCOM: Enemy Unknown (along with its now-old-enough-to-vote ancestor) is one of the few strategy games where death has a role beyond simply the loss of resources. It does this by incorporating RPG elements: you have a limited number of distinctive soldiers, each possessing a unique appearance and set of abilities. This elevates distinguishing between your squaddies from ‘luxury’ to ‘vital to success’. The ability to name and associate with your soldiers even brings a personal element, which is something lacking from nearly every other member of the genre. The loss of one of your own hurts not only your strategy but also your gut. The consequences XCOM forces onto its players aren’t for everyone, but they provide gaming bliss for those who desire that rare mix of strategy and role-playing which almost no other game offers. Japanese SRPGs (Strategy RPGs) like Disgaea and Final Fantasy Tactics can do something similar, and they too have found a dedicated and passionate audience across the world.
One of the most fascinating tendencies in gaming is how many players refuse to accept consequences and will reload until they get the result they desire. Thinking about it in more detail, this is not terribly surprising, since most people look to games as an escape from the often-harsh, always-permanent consequences of the real world. Why make your entertainment painful as well?
Even I have some skeletons in my consequence-accepting closet. When I was much younger I played strategy games like Panzer General, and while doing so I would nearly always reload if I lost even a single unit. I don’t fully understand the psychology behind this sort of behavior, but I imagine it has something to do with the fact that games aren’t real, and players think to themselves “hey, this is my world, where I wield ultimate power – given that, why would I ever accept a bad result?”
As I grew older I changed, and today I’m able to take gaming setbacks in stride. In fact, there are times when I relish it – in a strange way, losing an important unit or character is almost a badge of honor. The ability to fail is what makes experiences memorable and meaningful. If there is no valley of defeat, then there will also be no peak of victory. The stories where you know that the characters are all going to survive and live happily ever after don’t have the same impact as those where literally anything can happen.
So what does this all mean to a game designer? Ultimately, we must be at peace with the fact that there are some players and some times where the consequences we’ve crafted or allowed for will not be accepted. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t shape the design of a game to discourage reloading.
Paradox’s Crusader Kings II does an excellent job of incorporating consequences that aren’t so heavy that reloading becomes the knee-jerk reaction. For example, a defeat in war will often cost the player a large amount of money and a province or two, but it’s not game over. It’s very much possible to recover and come back even stronger. This is almost never the case in the strategy games from other companies. The trick is a very structured system for diplomacy where limits steer players in a particular direction. Wars of aggression are still fruitful, and the price of defeat is not intolerable. No design appeals to everyone, but this is a great example of how a balance can be struck to sidestep an issue that’s plagued strategy gaming since the ability to write to a hard drive was provided.
Most players want to always feel like they have the ability to recover from setbacks – the best designers are able to identify that sweet spot where consequences are heavy enough to entertain their audience without going beyond that line. It is my hope that this series has helped shed some light on a few of the decisions designers are faced with, and how we might collectively step up our game. I, for one, am excited to see what everyone comes up with in the future!