*What Happens When Failure Isn’t an Option*
To truly examine the impact a complete lack of punishments and failure states can have on video games, players need to look no further than the rise of Zynga and other social game makers. It’s not a coincidence that core gamers have such a deep and intense disdain for the entire category. It’s true that you hear complaints about how they make their money. You hear complaints about their spammy nature. But what underlies all of it is a low grumble that “they aren’t even actual games.”
This complaint is the perfect window into the mindset of a true gamer. It’s the perfect summation of why the potential to lose, and the punishment and inevitably follows, is absolutely essential to our enjoyment of games. Even though we don’t like losing. Without the possibility to failure, there can be no success.
*My crops may die, but I never will!*
Despite the naysayers, Zynga’s games are actually incredibly complex. They feature elaborate storylines, detailed artwork and offer up collaboration with friends and strangers on a grand scale. What’s more, they give players an almost unprecedented level of freedom for self-expression. Despite all this, many core gamers don’t consider FarmVille a game because it is literally impossible to lose, even if one were to work at it. Try as you might, the game will keep giving you more coins. Your game will never truly be over. The worst you can ever experience is a farm plot full of withered crops.
Yet these “little” flash games with their lack of failure states or player punishments have managed to eclipse anything the else games industry has ever accomplished. At its peak, Zynga’s CityVille had 100 million active players.
But the verdict is still out on whether this truly represents a sea change for the video game industry. Zynga is on rocky ground, with many professional pundits beginning to wonder if the entire social game category is materializing into a massive fad.
The meteoric rise of Zynga, born on the backs of games that appease the player at every turn and never allowed them to fail, sent traditional game companies scrambling. But it now looks more and more likely that the basic psychology of failure used by game designers for decades hasn’t actually been upended after all.
When I was little, I was once allowed to eat whatever I wanted for dinner. Eight-year-old me picked cookie dough, and I ended up with a terrible stomachache that lasted all night. It was too much of a good thing. It turns out I only tolerate cookies after a real, balanced meal.
Zynga’s recent fortunes might be proof writ large that game players don’t know what they want from a game’s difficulty. Just as eight-year-old me picked cookie dough for dinner (and would have picked an easier, friendlier Castlevania), Zynga’s casual game players have picked the company’s friendly fare over the more punishing titles the traditional game makers produce. It is very possible that the waning interest in social games is the latest proof of the maxim that players can’t be asked what they want – they sometimes need to be told what they want.
*Without presenting failure as a contrast to victory, the victory feels hollow.*
Gamers want to be challenged. We want a game to bring us directly to the peak of our abilities and push us into a flow state. But I believe that this alone isn’t enough. Without a fear of punishment, a victory over a game feels hollow. Everyone absolutely loathes losing rare gear to the aforementioned unexpected patches of lava in Minecraft, but without that fear of loss, there is no tension. Exploring the creepy, blocky cave wouldn’t be as fun. Even though we don’t like it, it makes Minecraft a better game.
Game makers have been pushing more “user-friendly” consequences and punishments onto players for as long as video games have existed. But this trend can’t continue indefinitely. If you follow that thread to its end, it terminates at the Zyngas of the world, with a library of “games” that aren’t games at all. They are colorful interactive distractions.
But if ’80s gamers weaned on Castlevania and Mega Man were to skip ahead 30 years, would they view Gears of War or Uncharted any differently than gamers today view social titles? Both shooters feature the recharging health and checkpoint systems that gamers insist they don’t want to live without. But do we truly know what we want, or are we just eating too much cookie dough?
- Justin Davis, IGN.