It’s been interesting watching the trends of the industry lately from the perspective of a game designer. Ever since the popularity (and financial success) of casual and social games captivated the big publishers, players have seen a plethora of casual design patterns seep in to games of all types and genres. This trend caused a divide between the ‘hardcore’ and the ‘casual’ gamers, that in turn caused the hardcore group, which tended to enjoy most of the attention, to feel like the games they knew and loved were going extinct. This feeling culminated in the reaction to Ubisoft Montreal’s 2008 Prince of Persia, when those who disliked the game’s forgiving nature took up arms and fiercely debated the direction of the franchise on forums across the web.
A year later, From Software released Demon’s Souls, a radical departure from the inclusive design trend that was found in most mainstream games. This game met critical and financial success and led the resurgence of challenging and unforgiving game. This resurgence found its peak with Dark Souls, which received several game of the year awards and showed that this type of game is sorely missed and dearly loved by gamers. Here on the indie side of things, where we grow our games in the shade, we’ve seen Roguelikes such as Dungeons of Dredmor and FTL find love and audiences. The trick for the game designer is break down these trends and understand why gamers like these games. The best way that I know to do that is by analyzing the common mechanics and by asking the players who love these games. Permadeath, “Hard but Fair”, and a user based narrative are the common things found when analyzing games like Dark Souls, FTL, Realm of the Mad God, and XCOM.
Why Permadeath? Why are gamers so attracted to a game mechanic that represents an experience so different from the inclusive design that was so popular just years prior? Permadeath introduces a new level of importance to the aspects of the in-game economy. Everything from health potions to crew members become more valuable when the player knows that one wrong move can boot them back to the title screen (or at least the last save). This type of mechanic conflicts with the RPG-style progress system that we, as designers, have learned is so sticky (or “addictive”). Games have overcome this conflict by allowing players to go back and retrieve their past life’s progress or by placing the progression system on something with more stability like an army or a ship. This set-up has allowed game designers to have their cake and eat it too with both an RPG progress system and the added meaning created by permadeath.
Permadeath was a common design strategy back when games were designed to eat quarters, but modern developers have moved past that archaic design by creating games that are “Hard but Fair”. This level of difficulty is important because it is how permadeath can be successful with today’s audience. Every failure point is telegraphed and preventable, so when a player does die/fail/lose, he or she feels fully responsible for that failure. Better yet, these players are able to learn from failures and take that knowledge to improve on their next experience with the game. This creates the incredibly satisfying feeling of triumph over adversity, and through permadeath this adversity feels severe and very real. These triumphs and failures hold such meaning and are so memorable that players feel compelled to share them.
Ask anyone who’s played Dark Souls or XCOM about their favorite moment of gameplay and I guarantee you that you will have an earful as they vividly recall a triumph over adversity. These games have found success by handing the keys over to their players to craft their own narrative, and because of that, players are finding these stories to be the richest in the medium (except for maybe Walking Dead #ForClementine). I guarantee Subset Games did not place a tenth of their time developing FTL into narrative development, but I have countless people recalling crazy ship flights with moments of epic heroism from their crew. This type of narrative sticks with people because they helped create it, and it is very personal and unique to them.
At Shadegrown, we want to focus on making games that we find fun and worth the investment of our lives that we place in to each. We will also continue to play games, make games, talk about games, and think about this unique medium as it grows and changes.
Talk to you again soon.