Monday, April 9, 2012

Handling in-game consequences

So I managed to finish Red Dead Redemption over the Easter weekend. One trick I used was a way to get basically infinite money without using a cheat code: Save game, play high-stakes poker, reload if you lose, save game if you win, rinse, lather, repeat. That trick works in pretty much every single-player game which has both a save game feature and a built-in game of chance. And it made me think about how games handle consequences.

Especially in PC games there has been a trend towards "save anywhere, anytime" features, with quick save and quick load function keys. Thus the "penalty" for not succeeding in some activity is having to reload and do it over. And over. And over. The developers know that players can try again, so they don't mind putting in scripted nasty instakill surprises in their games, which players can only possibly avoid after having been killed by them once. Not the very best game design, in my opinion.

In console games you often can only save your game at specific points. Thus you need to play through each sequence without saving, and need to redo the whole sequence from the last checkpoint if you fail. As that sequence might have several of those nasty surprises, you need to memorize them while playing. Every subsequent attempt gets you further, and gets easier, because you will know what will happen.

Multiplayer online games have respawns instead of reloads. It used to be that this respawn involved some sort of penalty, thus trying the same activity over and over by dying your way through it was not a good option. That has changed: Modern MMORPGs let you respawn with just a token penalty of repair cost. As thus there isn't much of a difference between respawning at the graveyard and reloading at the checkpoint, a raid encounter plays remarkably like a level on a console game: You succeed once everybody has memorized what will happen at each step of the encounter. The only advantage of multiplayer games is that you can't reload after every random roll that doesn't come out in your favor.

Personally I am not a big fan of failing your way through the content game design. I feel it is somewhat lazy, as the designers don't really need to worry whether their challenges are reasonable. But I can also see the advantage in guaranteeing that everybody will be able to finish the game and the story. In Red Dead Redemption there is no possible way you can get stuck: Fail a mission repeatedly and you get an option to skip it, with the only consequence being not getting the achievements related to it. I just wonder whether that couldn't be achieved by a different design, one that doesn't rely on the player dying repeatedly without consequences.

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