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  • Designing Player Death: Using Intention And Meaning To Add Depth

    - Jay Johns
  • About a year ago I watched a video entitled Redesigning Death from Mark Brown on his YouTube channel GameMaker's Tool Kit. Mark Brown did an excellent job illustrating the point that more game developers need to put deeper thought into player death. The video cites a variety of games such as Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, Transistor, and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and speaks on how these games take chances on interesting designs regarding player death.

    Inspired by Mark, I developed a system that I used to design player death in my latest PC game Snowman VS Fire and will continue to use for my future games. Believing that developers should design player death with intention, this system is a line of questions that have helped me be creative with my designs. Hopefully, these questions will get you thinking of creative ways to handle player death instead of falling back on default concepts. When I say default concepts I am referring to forcing the player to drop recently acquired loot or restarting the player back at the beginning of a level.

    Although I am talking negatively about default options, there are no correct or incorrect answers to these questions. If you end up using the default options, at least you will have chosen them on purpose rather than adding the mechanic out of habit. A stronger game will be created when all aspects of the designs are considered.

    This blog post will be broken into two sections. First, I will list the series of questions I used for the design of player death. Feel free to take this list and modify it for your own purposes. I am sure not every question worth asking is on the list. Second, for those interested, I will add the design choices regarding player death with my latest PC game Snowman VS Fire as an example of how this exercise helped me.

    Let's get started.

    Meaningful Consequences

    Ultimately, the overarching theme of this exercise is to generate meaningful consequences of the player's death. The first question you should ask yourself is the following.

    How meaningful is it when the player dies in your game?

    Players will adjust play styles based on the incentives and consequences they experience when the player character is killed in your game. Answering a couple of sub-questions will help understand how meaningful player death will be.

    a. How often will the player be killed?

    All of the decisions you will make regarding player death should be seen through the lens of how often the player will reasonably expect to experience failure. Typically, the regularity of how often a player is killed is largely based on the skill level of the player. However, there are games in which the expectation of player death is high regardless of skill. Super Meat Boy is a great example in which player death is expected to happen repeatedly, especially if you are a new player.

    Super Meat Boy

    If your game is similar to Super Meat Boy in which player death is projected to happen often, should the player restart at the beginning of the level or can you design something more novel? Let's say that your game has items to collect, will it make sense to penalize the player by removing chunks of currency and items upon player death? Or would the loss of collected items push the player closer to losing interest in your game rather than be inspired to master it? Don't worry about answering these last few questions just yet; we will cover them in more detail later on.

    b. Should the player fear death in your game?

    Using the term "fear death" is a bit harsh, I am referring to the reaction a player will have when player death occurs. We already mentioned games that have high failure rates, will the player continue to feel positive about the gameplay experience after repeated deaths in close proximity?

    Let's switch gears and talk about designing an experience that builds empathy for the player character and pulls emotion when the player character dies. Typically in a video game, a player character death is only temporary. What if you implemented permanent death? An example of empathy mixed with permanent death is Final Fantasy VII. One of the playable characters, Aeris Gainsborough, is permanently killed within the storyline. It is emotional when the death occurs for a couple reasons. First, it is a defining point that illustrates the vast capabilities of the antagonist Sephiroth. Second, due to player investment in the storyline and high likeability of Aeris, her death inspires a strong desire in the player to seek revenge. Third, aside from the compelling storyline, the player has taken the time to level up Aeris in order to make her a better fighter in the game. The permanent loss of the character is felt more deeply because the player personally invested in her well-being, with playing time, that could have gone to another character. The loss of Aeris is felt on multiple levels. I am not saying that you should always have permanent character death in your game, but how much more invested will a player become if there is a chance of permanent death?

    Final Fantasy VII

    Now that we have a baseline of ideas and somewhat of a direction, let's move on through the rest of the list.

    Should the player be forced to restart the level?

    One of the classic repercussions of player death is restarting at the beginning of the level. Super Mario Bros comes to mind as an example of this action. If a player is near the end of a level restarting at the beginning can be demoralizing, a Groundhog Day effect can start to happen to a player.

    Modern games are more player-friendly with checkpoints in different sections of the level. The player returns to checkpoints as opposed to the very beginning of the level when respawning. An extreme example of being player-friendly is Prince of Persia. If the player character falls off of a platform, an ally appears and grabs the player character placing him back on the last platform. Most of the time avoiding death from taking place.

    Prince of Persia (2008)


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