Give Something, Tempt the Player to Lose It

Jun 29, 2012

Today I want to devote the entire entry to one gameplay pattern. That gameplay pattern goes a little something like:

Let the player earn or accumulate something, and then tempt them to risk it.

Old examples of this include, say, in Bubble Bobble, one of my favorite games from 1986 by Taito. In Bubble Bobble the power-ups only last until your character dies. Even though the NES port of the arcade game let you continue as many times as you wanted to, every time you lost a life you lost whatever power ups you had accumulated. These lasted until you died. So you could have longer range bubbles, faster rate of fire, you could have improved running speed, and you would be wary of taking chances or dying because you wanted to save these things. These are powers that are useful to you, these aren’t just higher numbers up in the scoreboard.

But then you would be tempted when another power up would appear, and you want that. You know it’s going to vanish soon, and if you don’t get to it soon you’re going to miss your chance to get that other power-up. In the process it creates a situation where you take risks as a player, and you’re more likely to make a mistake while you’re rushing and get sloppy, and then you lose your accumulated power ups. You can keep playing–they weren’t things that were essential to you playing the game successfully–you were having more enjoyment from accumulating that power. Part of the thrill was in those constant temptations to risk it.

This happens all the time in pinball. My Master’s thesis (PDF) was about the parallels between those 80’s and late 70’s coin-op videogames and pinball as an older form of real-time mediated gameplay. In pinball oftentimes there’s numerous goals around that table that you can make progress towards, in terms of progressing lights up a line, or in terms of knocking down drop targets. Per any given life of the ball, or for a given round of several balls, the game is designed in such a way that the player is near completing a few whenever they lose, so they’re always kind of almost there. You begin to care about losing the ball primarily because you’re losing the progress that you made on those things.

Back when games were a little less forgiving, it was frequent that progress, that your time as a player, was what was lost if you failed at it. Saves were not as frequent, in many cases saves were non-existent, passwords might only bring you to a whole chunk or chapter of the game and not to a specific level or part of a level, certainly not a new checkpoint every time you enter a new room or encounter like we’re accustomed to today.

We see this in Pac-Man. When you’re making progress and you’re doing good at the levels, when you get a Power Pill, with that Power Pill you could just ignore the ghosts and take advantage of the fact that while you have that pill they’re getting away from you making it easier to collect pellets in the level. But oh no–instead, we use that Power Pill to go eat the ghosts, bringing us dangerously close to them as the pill is running out of time. That risk keeps us from surviving as long, and we lose that progress that we had earned.

Kid Icarus, from NES, does a good job of doing this by having separate side rooms where the player’s only experience in that room is that there are extra enemies in it that are entirely avoidable. You don’t have to go in that room, you can walk out of the room as soon as you enter it, but when you walk into this room there’s just enemies everywhere doing a hard pattern to dodge. You can take them all out and accumulate all of their money drops, which you can then spend on power ups in the game, or you can leave the room. If you’ve been accumulating coins, or heart drops in the case of Kid Icarus, and enter one of those rooms you can lose that. If you take that chance and then play through the rest of the level and don’t have enough health to finish the level, then you lose what you’ve put the time into earning.

Even something as simple as enemies dropping power ups that vanish quickly, as happens in say Painkiller, is a way that helps pull the player into risky situations to accumulate something. It’s sort of a change in how the timing works, but it pulls the player in the part of the screen or the part of the world that’s dangerous, where the enemies are, to keep them from just staying back. You see this also in a lot of bullet hell top-down shooter type games, where the reason why enemies are dropping power ups and those power ups will flicker away or go off the edge of the screen if not collected in time is because it makes the player move around and not just keep a safe distance from everything, when the primary attack is a distance/projectile weapon.

It’s a simple pattern to follow. It’s not something that I have done in my own games as much as I’m sure that I should have. I’ll be putting particular attention on putting it into the next game or two that I work on. Give the player a chance to earn or accumulate something that gives them greater power as the player, that lasts until they die, then give them some sort of time sensitive opportunity that tempts them into taking chances to lose that until they can next earn it.

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  1. Jonny D says:

    I’m not really a fan of this gameplay pattern. When I design my games, I prefer looking at this choice as more of “Show something, tempt the player to gain it”. I’d rather it be a challenge of how to gain power or points instead of how to avoid losing it.

    • Chris DeLeon says:

      There seems to be a number of patterns and perspectives along these lines that are closely related in effect, and I think the phrasing you’re suggesting here is a good angle on one of the alternatives. While making this entry I realized that several of my own examples fit my initial wording of the pattern only loosely, as variations for example in gain vs. loss, what role (if any) time pressure played in the risk, the nature of what is at risk, and so on. I perhaps ought to dig a bit further in a future entry on distilling some of the distinctions to be better equipped to compare and discuss differences between them.

      One reason why I chose to emphasize the risk of loss is that, as with the role of fragility in Minecraft, being able to lose something can sometimes add to a sense of its worth and our appreciation of it. In that case Creepers, spreading fires, player death and explosives risk partly undoing the player’s building or mining accomplishments.

      Without the risk of loss, I think that both the player (by forgetting what went into earning it, and not needing to think about what it was like without it) and the designer (by assuming the player has it by a certain point, and thus designing to compensate and dilute that gain) are positioned to devalue what’s earned.

      You raise a good point though, and especially since I think these subtle variations frequently can co-exist well within the same game. Thanks for bringing this up!

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