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Hello there, long time no see. We have been pretty busy at work for a while, and that kept us from writing something. But as all developers would agree with me, there is no better way to learn, than working, and one of the reasons we created this blog in the first place, is to share and discuss what we learn about games, from playing and crafting them.

What about Challenge

What do we play games for? Challenge? Alright, that was a pretty easy answer considering that’s the topic of this article. But we must remind that’s not the only answer, not even the main answer. We play games to have fun, and challenge CAN (and not MUST) be part of the fun. I can steal a car in Grand Theft Auto and cruise around the city and have plenty of fun, and not being challenged a single bit, can’t i?.

To be challenged, a player must first WANT to be so. If a challenge is not interesting, he won’t bother. Second, the player MUST be rewarded when he overcomes a challenge, and the reward must be proportional to the challenge. How would you feel, after an epic battle against the fierce Great Dragon of the Silver Mountain of the North who can melt mountains with his breath and crush entire cities with the flap of his wings, you are awarded with a pair of leather boots with the “amazing” property of letting you absorb 1 point of acid damage. Well, I would definitely curse the designers!

The player must feel capable of overcoming the challenge. Even when he fails, he must feel that he is capable if he tries a bit harder. Incredibly hard games come from the mistake of measuring the difficulty of the game by the skills of developers or even veteran players of a game genre. On the other hand, if the game is too easy, the fun factor will be extinguished by the moment the player is not enjoying the “cruise” anymore.

What about Punishment

This one is simple. Punishment is used on animals (including human beings.) to tell “Don’t you ever do that again!”. If the player is punished, he feels that he did something wrong and probably won’t do that again. If you take something from the player that he is not expecting to lose if he tries something, you are punishing him. Why would I ever “play” a game to be punished? What do we play games again? Oh, right, fun… challenge…

The balance is somewhere out… there?

Some would argue that punishment is sometimes necessary to create challenge. Although i would be glad to discuss that, i cannot agree right away. If you are punishing the player just for the sake of it, that’s bad. “You did not equip your Mega Ultra Blaster Godlike Cannon of Doom, so you will die over and over because there is no other way to beat the game’s Boss.” Does that sound like fun? Not to me it doesn’t. The challenge there was not the Boss, but the decision of equipping the mighty cannon. You can’t punish the player for a decision like that. Well, you can, but he probably won’t play your game anymore (i wouldn’t).

And there comes the reward. If we are talking about multi-player, it would be nice for one player to get what other player lost, right? You could say that, but even that has its limits. Sometimes, the pleasure of teasing your friend over and over for that fourth beating in a row is a pretty good reward, and being teased for the rest of the week is a pretty tough punishment by itself. When that is not enough, statistics and rankings can prove who is better and be a challenge to achieve on its own right.

I have a pretty straightforward thinking about reward and punishment in multi-player games. Here are some situations of rewards used in conflicts between two players. These can be interpreted to fit in single-player games too.

  • Both players win: This one would be perfect if it could be used more often. If the winning player wins something as a reward and the losing player gets something to encourage him to keep trying harder, that’s great. An example of this would be the negative feedback loop that is used in some racing games, the player that is behind is boosted so he can keep up with those in front of him.

Pro: Both players are kept interested in the conflict, one is rewarded for the achievement and the other is stimulated to keep trying.

Con: This approach could make up for unfair situations.

  • One player wins, the other does not: This one is the perfect fit for most multi-player games, in my opinion. One player is rewarded for his skills and efforts, and the other is not. Most common in multi-player shooters, when the winning team (or player) is rewarded with points or money when his team wins.

Pro: Reward the winning party for overcoming a challenge. The fact that the other party did not win anything, increases the prize value.

Con: Players who lose too many times are not encouraged to keep trying if they see they are not much of a match.

  • One player wins, the other loses: Should be used with caution. The fact that the player lost the conflict, is a morale punishment by itself. And more, if the winner gets what was his, and that was not suppose to be at stake (“I would not fight if i knew i could lose that”) the player can feel like he was robbed.

Pro: Winning feels more satisfying if you win something that was useful to someone else, and not just some random prize.

Con: Players who lose feel robbed, and can generate positive feedback loop, players who lose will be weaker for other conflicts and will be less likely to win.

  • No one wins anything: Hold on, why would you bother to design a conflict like that? Why would players engage in the conflict in the first place?
  • One player loses, the other gains nothing: If a player loses something and the other player does not gain anything, it’s pure punishment just for the sake of it. And the winning side is not rewarded for his efforts. Bad, bad design! No donut for you!

Pro: In some games, specially MMOs, this can be used (wisely) to take money from players and avoid economy inflation. Over-design here can ruin the game experience and frustrate players, be advised.

Con: The player will feel cheated if he lost something to the game and was not beaten by the game itself. The winning player will not be rewarded for his efforts, and will probably seek reward by the pleasure of beating weaker players (since he will not be rewarded even if he beats experienced ones).

  • Both players lose: See “No one wins anything”.


Well, that’s about it. I didn’t write half of what i was intending to and wrote twice as much as i have time to, but that’s life. My personal opinion is that players should NEVER be punished by the game. Designers should be wise enough to challenge players without punishing them to be able to do so.
I hope this can be useful for anyone interested in games, challenges, and NOT punishment!

See you next time!


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July 2007
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