Theory: How to Make Losing Fun

Part of the reason why we have so many sayings to the effect that “winning isn’t everything” is that winning is closely tied to having fun. Yet, it’s possible to make a game fun for players who are currently losing–even for those who have no hope of victory. Providing measurable goals losing players can meet separate and apart from overall victory enables them to walk away from the game with a sense of satisfaction.

The recent poster child for game design that’s fun even when the player is failing is Dark Souls. For those who haven’t played it, Dark Souls is an action game. A very, very hard action game. “Prepare to Die,” its ad copy declares, and die the player will. Many times.

Yet, Dark Souls can be a very satisfying experience even as it clobbers its player. Progress in Dark Souls is easy to measure; monsters are always waiting in the same places, and so one can always tell when one has gotten a little further. Last time the ghoul waiting in the hallway beat me; this time I beat it. Those tiny but clear bits of advancement let players put the controller down with a sense of accomplishment, even if the end of the game is still very far and many deaths away.

Dark Souls’ puzzle-like form–enemies are always in the same place, paths always lead in the same directions–allows for concrete sub-goals. However, there are other ways to introduce objectives that are satisfying even though they are short of winning. Role-playing games, for example, use story for this purpose. Winning might be tens or even hundreds of hours away, but the next chunk of plot and character development is much closer. If the player is enjoying the game and its story, reaching that intermediate point is a powerful incentive and satisfying when it happens.

Games that call heavily on player skill also have this dynamic going for them, although they approach it from a different perspective: they encourage the player to create her own goals. Fighting games, for example, involve a tremendous number of skills. Being good at fighting games is incredibly difficult, so much so that most players will never achieve it (myself included; I top out at a journeyman level). In other words, the vast majority of fighting game players will never “win.”

Fighting games are, nevertheless, deeply compelling, because even if a player will never reach the highest plateau she is constantly achieving things. The first time a player successfully does the forward-down-down + forward motion for a dragon punch feels great. Being able to do it consistently is even better. Comboing into the dragon punch from a standing close hard punch is better still. Pulling off Evil Ryu’s one-frame link to wipe out half of the opponent’s health in a single flurry of attacks is amazing! There’s a never-ending series of little goals fighting-game players can set for themselves, and they maintain players’ interest in climbing the next rung of the ladder even if the player knows its top will always be beyond reach.

These examples offer three different mechanisms by which players can have satisfying, engaging goals short of winning: a puzzle structure that allows one to see progress in concrete terms, a story that is doled out in limited amounts to leave the player wanting more, and a skill-driven model in which players take pride in each small accomplishment. What overall lessons can we derive from the examples?

First, a good sub-goal for keeping losing players engaged is measurable. The player can tell when she has met it. Achieving something isn’t as much fun when the result is in doubt, so there’s no uncertainty about the accomplishment.

Second, these goals are independent of winning. They may involve actions which are conducive to overall victory–hitting a combo contributes to winning a fighting game, and getting part of an RPG’s story is a step toward the game’s conclusion–but they don’t rely on reaching that lofty plateau, or even being ahead at any particular time. It’s possible to get the satisfaction of these achievements even if the game has turned severely against the player.

Third and finally, they’re desirable. None of these are mocking “most improved” awards. They allow one to progress along an interesting axis, even if it’s not the most competitive one.

It’s easy to make winning feel good. Getting losing to feel good is harder–but not impossible. The key is to provide measurable, desirable goals that can be achieved independent of beating the opponent.

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