David Redl
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Welcome to the weird mind of David Redl, capable computer scientist, sometimes ScrumMaster, and aspiring author.

I am passionate about stories and started this blog to share my experiences with the written word as a reader and, hopefully someday, an author.

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Discouraging Game Mechanics and How to Make Them Work

A primer for creators

essay video games game design

2023-08-20 - David Redl

There are some mechanics in video games that can turn off prospective players but can still offer interesting dynamics that drive player engagement when done well. A few controversial mechanics include full loot (also described as dropping inventory on death), full player-vs-player, and permanent death (also known as hardcore). While the former two mechanics are often linked, that need not be the case. Each of these mechanics can be discouraging and hamper player advancement within the game but designers can mitigate these negative aspects and have done so in many popular games, even all of them at once.

Full Loot

In a full loot game, or a game where the player’s inventory is dropped on death, players can be discouraged when their player dies and they lose their items. While there is greater risk in player-vs-player games, the two mechanics need not go together.

For example, in games as different as Diablo 2 and Minecraft, instances can be started that are single-player or friendly multi-player and in both cases the player’s inventory will still be dropped upon death even without a player-vs-player aspect. While this can be frustrating if the player had particularly good items on their character, these games allow the player to run back to their body and retrieve all their dropped items. This mitigation is lessened somewhat in Minecraft where some items dropped in the world can de-spawn, or in either game when player-vs-player is involved and another player could collect those items instead. To address the risk of losing your items upon death, both games offer storage solutions where a player can store spare items to allow them to pick up where they left off in the game’s progression or to assist them in retrieving their items from where they died.

When done well, players experience a temporary disappointment followed by a rush as they try to retrieve their dropped items. This mitigation also adds a new layer of engagement as players figure out what to store and how, just in case.

Full Player-vs-Player

In a full player-vs-player game, players can attack and even kill each other’s characters in most, if not all, locations and without the opposing player needing to consent to the fight first. While this is often a core mechanic of a game, such as in popular First-Person Shooter games or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games, sometimes it is an extra mechanic on a game that otherwise allows for player-vs-environment play. In this latter type of game, players more interested in the player-vs-environment aspect can find their enjoyment interrupted by other players attacking them.

In many multiplayer games, and Massively Multiplayer Online games, players have the option to join player-vs-player or player-vs-environment instances so they can still enjoy the game if they don’t wish to engage in player-vs-player combat. In World of Warcraft, there are many forms of player-vs-player combat but on player-vs-player servers there is a chance that player-vs-player combat could break out just about anywhere as players of one faction attack players of another faction. World of Warcraft is not a full loot game, so if another player kills your character, they do not get to take your items. The largest risk to players is to have their playtime interrupted by a fight and to have difficulties completing objectives as they need to travel from a respawn point back to where they were playing and where the hostile player characters may still be lurking. To mitigate the risk of being attacked at anytime, World of Warcraft has a few mechanics. First, there are non-player characters belonging to each faction that are hostile to the opposing faction. These characters can be found most often inside cities and outposts as well as along major routes in territory controlled by their faction. They act as a deterrent or additional defense force that can provide a sense of security to players.

When done well, full player-vs-player encourages players to play cautiously and to work together with other players, be they friends or strangers, to defend against possible attacks, thus driving engagement and making the game feel more like a community.

Permanent Death

In a permanent death or hardcore game, a player’s character’s death stops their forward progress and they must start the game’s playthrough at the beginning. This can be frustrating for players who wish to see continual progress in their gameplay or who want to reach the game’s objectives quickly. Some games allow for hardcore play as an optional mode, including Doom (2016) where the highest difficulty introduces permanent death. Still more games feature permanent death as a core mechanic, often referred to as roguelike or rogue-lite games such as Hades.

The frustration of resetting progress can be mitigated in multiple ways. In Doom (2016) there is very little in terms of mitigation but the player’s progress will be marked by a skull appearing in-world for them to see on all future playthroughs. This can at least give a sense of satisfaction when it becomes obvious the player has surpassed their own achievement. In Hades death is an expected part of the game and while the player’s progress is reset on death, they can still improve their character’s attributes and unlock items and abilities to improve their chances of escaping on subsequent playthroughs. In the game Medieval Dynasty, permanent death is partially mitigated only when the player’s character has an adult child that they can switch to controlling upon their original character’s death. This child will have attributes that are a mix of their parents’ and they will have access to the buildings and items their character has accumulated, so their character’s progress is partially carried on to the next generation.

When done well, permanent death can drive engagement as players strive to outdo their previous attempts or setup future attempts.

Everything at Once: EVE Online

One game where all of these mechanics come together is EVE Online. In this game, players control a pilot that learns skills over time by accumulating skill points and equipping cerebral implants. Their pilot can, in-turn, control a ship that players customize with weapons and other equipment. While in space, any player can attack any other. If their ship is destroyed in combat, the player will need to replace it and any equipment or inventory from the ship’s cargo hold are available to be looted. The player’s pilot character is spared temporarily by escaping their ship’s destruction in a pod, but even that can be destroyed, causing the pilot’s death and potential loss of progress via skill points and implants. The designers of EVE Online mitigate the discouraging elements of all three of these mechanics in ways similar to those described above.

First, the full player-vs-player mechanic is mitigated by different zones in space having different security ratings which will impact how much of a police-like response arrives to defend innocent pilots and their ships when attacked by players. Players then get to choose whether they want to spend their time in high-security space and play it safe or in low-security space where they have a chance to obtain more valuable resources.

Second, the full loot mechanic is mitigated by the existence of an in-game insurance broker. Players purchase insurance to cover a percentage (including up to 100%) of the value of their ship and its equipment. This means that while they can rush out to loot their own destroyed ship, they can also just prepare for the eventuality and relax a bit.

Third, the permanent death mechanic is mitigated by the existence of clones of the player’s character. Clones in EVE Online come in two varieties. The standard clones are a type of insurance policy that must be upgraded as skill points are accumulated to increase the limit of preserved points upon death. Jump clones can be used even before death to allow the player’s character to switch bodies. This can be used to quick travel or to have different implant sets for different situations meaning that death won’t result in the loss of all implants, just those in the current jump clone.

The designers of EVE Online used discouraging mechanics to add challenge and excitement to their game and drive player engagement. By mitigating the effects of these mechanics, they hold players’ interest and increase motivation for advancement. This has led to the long-term success of the game, which celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this year. Over those two decades, nearly 10 million players have passed through the game and the number of daily active players remains above 180,000, according to MMO-Population, proving that players do not need games to be nice, easy, and encouraging to enjoy them.


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