Designing Failure: The value of losing

The value of failure in game design is a subject that has always interested me.  Harsh failure conditions are regarded very negatively by many modern players and designers, and are often crushed during feedback sessions and quickly removed from games.  But I see so much value in the possibility of losing that I sometimes have a very hard time getting on board with smoothing out that experience.  Failure is something incredibly important for learning, and the possibility of losing has unimaginable value in increasing the tension and investment of the entire experience, especially when you’re on the brink of defeat and are desperately trying to scrape by.  When you can’t fail, everything matters less.

I think games have a very unique capacity to teach young gamers how to accept and overcome failure for all of the value of learning from it.  Games are uniquely positioned to offer that intense satisfaction that only comes from earning something through hardship.  So no, I don’t accept that failure should be understated or removed entirely.  I demand failure as a possibility.  That being said, I think there’s a lot more to designing loss conditions elegantly than is often appreciated, so that’s what I want to spend time talking about here.

This is the first post in a small series of posts on aspects of failure within game design.  This one will focus on why I place so much value in emphasizing moments of defeat.


Death Penalties

Death Penalties are one of the clearest places to start this discussion, because they are one of the most direct representations of a design based on failing.

Let me pose a scenario.

You’re playing an online adventure game.  It’s world is large, and you explore it with your friends, finding new things daily.  You come upon a tomb, and delve into it, fighting tough creatures to clear your way towards the bottom.  After doing this for a while, you come on a dark shaft, dropping away below.  You can’t see the bottom, you don’t know how far the drop is, and no one you’re playing with has ever been here before.  You discuss it with your friends, and the lure is inescapable, you have to know what’s at the bottom, so you decide to all jump down together at the same time.

You all leap.

You fall through the darkness and slam into the hard floor below.  It hurts, but you all recover and begin to scan the room, looking for threats.  Something leaps out from the darkness and attacks you.  None of you can get a handle on the situation, and you fall one by one rapidly, until all of you are dead.  When you die in this game, you lose several of the things you were carrying.  You all gather back at the graveyard you were all brought back to life at, and you take a moment to catch your breath.  Most of you didn’t lose anything you can’t do without, but one of your friends lost one of her favorite weapons.  You discuss it for a bit, and then you all decide to go back down and see if you can recover your things and try to find an escape.  You fight your way through the tomb again, reach the top of the shaft, and linger in the edge, nervous.  You do what you can to better prepare for the fight this time, and jump down together.

Most of you die even faster this time.  One of you manages to recover a few things and escape into a side shaft, but gets chased down and dies shortly after.  And you all lose more of your valuables.

Back at the graveyard again, you feel devastated.  One of your friends in a defeated tone says he’s going to leave for the night.  The rest of you all agree that this challenge is beyond you.  You never defeat that creature in the dark.  You never recover the items you lost.

One could easily argue that a death penalty that harsh isn’t worth it.  That players will quit in frustration.  That it’s critical that it be made more approachable or this game will fail.

I’d argue that this experience has an incredible amount of value.  It means that every time you approach a precipice and gaze down into the dark, you’ll hesitate, unsure of what’s below.  It means that when you open a mysterious door you’ve never seen before, the possibilities of fortune and defeat will dance around in your head.  It means that when you look upon a big pack of enemies, the tension will rise, and you’ll have to gather yourself emotionally for the fight.  It means you take threats seriously.  It means that you will share potent memories with your friends of challenges you overcame together, and of those times when everything went wrong.

A good death penalty makes you care about everything you do, and invests you more in the entire experience.  When you pair up a good death penalty with a challenging game, and then provide avenues for the player to become better both in personal skill and game power so they can work towards overcoming those challenges, then you have something magic.  And even more so when it’s a social experience with friends who are all similarly invested.

That very same game with an incredibly forgiving death penalty would result in players jumping into pits recklessly and rushing into every challenge headlong, with no more than a reset or two holding them back from victory.  They would consume content at a much higher pace, and they’d remember very little of it to the same degree.  Their experiences would be more transient, and they may well just get bored after a time and leave.

Player vs. player combat in that same game could reap all the same benefits.  If enemy players were able to take some of their items when they defeated you, you’d linger on the edge of your seat for every single skirmish.  You’d make every desperate effort to escape when you were sure to lose.  You’d fight for your life against overwhelming odds.  No matter how suddenly you were surprised, no matter how much of a disadvantage you had, you’d fight for your life every time.

Sometimes you’d suffer devastating defeats, and leave for the night crushed.  Other times in desperation you’d overcome odds you never thought you’d be able to, and you’d reap amazing rewards for your efforts.  You’d brag eagerly about it to your friends, and you’d remember it fondly years later, when you weren’t even playing that game anymore.

Don’t underestimate the value of making failure clear, it may be a trade-off against approachability, but it can do fantastic things for a game.


[My thoughts and opinions are my own.  They are not those of Blizzard Entertainment, and they do not necessarily represent Blizzard design philosophies.]

7 thoughts on “Designing Failure: The value of losing

  1. Dos this keep in mind that older games which had such harsh death penalties consisted of a total play time (start to finish) of approximately one hour or less? Items lost in those games were also guaranteed to be returned to you at the same time intervals you retrieved them in your last play through.
    Now with much larger games, longer completion times, and random item drops such a death carries (in my opinion) too much weight. What if you died in the original Legend of Zelda and upon returning to the game found out that not only do you no longer have your sword but the man in the cave does not have a new one for you to replace it with?! RNG drops have this effect today.
    PvP – If such rules were in place I would not dare carry any item I held in value to such an event. If the same rules applied to world PvP I simply would not purchase the game to begin with.
    I play games for fun as an escape from real world problems and challenges. As such I want minimal frustration when I play. I agree that there can be a place for games with serious consequences. I am just not likely to be one of the players that invests in them.

    Much like yourself these are just my personal thoughts on the matter.


    1. I think there are some great examples of games that used harsher penalties and still maintain a very long lifespan for their players (arguably longer, due to the amount of investment to play a game like that). Asheron’s Call is one of the stronger examples for me. But I think your points stand well either way.

      I think there are a LOT of players that, like you, want their games to be a non-frustrating escape, and simply aren’t looking for that more intense and potentially frustrating experience. Fortunately, I think there’s room for both types of games to exist comfortably, each attracting very different types of players.

      Personally, I end up in either of those boats depending on when you ask. I’m eager to see games push forward in both areas. I mostly just don’t want there to be a world in which one type almost entire disappears because of the more surface-level appeal of the other type.


      1. What it comes down to is fear, and the value of fear in games. That’s what we feel when we recognize risk in a game – there’s only risk when there’s consequences to our actions – the reload function in games prevents consequences, which prevents fear.

        Games from Nethack, to Dwarf Fortress, to Dark Souls, enable players to be afraid by allowing them to fail. The design challenge is to enable them to fail while preventing them from ruining their experience in the game by doing so.

        What makes current game design truly ridiculous is the overuse of the Hero’s Journey simultaneously with the prevention of any kind of failure by the player. This is an utter contrast, as a real Hero’s Journey is fraught with peril and risk at every turn – actual heroes have no access to superpowers, reload functions, or most importantly an “all-knowing” puppetmaster possessor to give them infinite reiterations, as in I Wanna Be The Guy, until the player finally “gets it right”. In real life we either get it right or we suffer the consequences of failure.

        The longstanding philosophical battle within game design is whether games are an escape from reality and therefore NEED to be softer, gentler, kinder, a matronly figure to ease our troubled souls as we escape from the harsh brutal all-too-real world and therefore every design choice that makes the player “feel good about himself” is justified, the reload function perhaps most of all as it erases all failures, all mistakes, all “bad alternate realities” finally merging into the “perfect world” that this philosophy claims that we crave when we turn to video games to “turn on, tune in, drop out” or whether games should in fact converge with reality, that they are the most exciting modern artform, that they are merely another way that we engage with the real world, and that the real world informs games but the reverse is also true – games help shape our own world. Those of us who view games in the latter way have always fought a difficult battle with the odds seemingly against us, and the history of games has not favored us.


      2. Fantastic insights. I love all of the topics you’re touching on here.

        For me, the overly idealistic answer to the longstanding philosophical battle you’re referring to is quite simply both. One of the hard truths that hampers that being real, at least to an extent, is that no game exists in a vacuum. Every game experience is impacted by the expectations set by all of the other games played before, meaning that if there’s an expectation of ease, you can’t shatter it without paying consequences. Compounding that, while the highly experienced designer or player might recognize that as a choice and favor the type of game that fits their lifestyle, many players don’t actually recognize that distinction, never actively make that choice, and are offended and backlash at the violation of their definition of what games should be. Words spread, press and sales are impacted, the game is working against itself. I think if creators remain passionate and stubborn about what they individually think is valuable for games, that will all ease over time, in the same way we’re commonly very accepting of very different genres of movies – we’ll eventually seek out more effective styles of reviews, recognize games that don’t fit our tastes, and veer away earlier with less offense taken. It will never be fully that of course, but even a couple strides in that direction would make this a more pleasant experience for all involved.

        The extension of that fundamental conflict that is particularly important to me is that I find games to be uniquely positioned as an growth tool, even for those not seeking them out as such. They provide effective isolated environments for building confidence and competence at overcoming challenges. They nurture creative thinking. They can provide an amazing platform for social growth and connection. And many of those things for me suggest approaches that don’t err towards ease and simple non-threatening escape. Those motivators drive me towards games that mirror the excitement and death of those real-life reflections you’re talking about. I could be satisfied for a time fleshing out designs around strong social components that would still work in the space of ease, but in truth I want to tap into all of those areas in some aspects of my designs, and will never be completely satisfied with any space short of that.


  2. Great post, I wholeheartedly agree: The chance of losing adds a completely new value to winning a challenge, especially in PvP.

    Take a look at e.g. Eve Online. If your spaceship gets blown up, it and everything that was fitted to it is destroyed, with a 50% loot drop chance for every fitted module and cargo item. That puts even some suspense and thrill in the most boring jobs, like hauling items from one place to the other, not to mention the shakes you get when actively engaging your ship in PvP.


    1. Yeah, Eve is a fantastic example! And they smartly let you mitigate the frustration through “insurance” while still maintaining that tension in combat. I’m happy they continue to do so well in the modern market.


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