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Designing player death: Using intention and meaning to add depth

[Featured on Gamasutra] A series of questions and examples I use to inspire creativity while designing fail states. I hope this can be useful for anyone that wants to be more innovative while dealing with player death within their games.

About a year ago I watched a video entitled Redesigning Death from Mark Brown on his YouTube channel GameMaker’s Tool Kit. Mark Brown did an excellent job illustrating the point that more game developers need to put deeper thought into player death. The video cites a variety of games such as Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, Transistor, and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and speaks on how these games take chances on interesting designs regarding player death.

Inspired by Mark, I developed a system that I used to design player death in my latest PC game Snowman VS Fire and will continue to use for my future games. Believing that developers should design player death with intention, this system is a line of questions that have helped me be creative with my designs. Hopefully, these questions will get you thinking of creative ways to handle player death instead of falling back on default concepts. When I say default concepts I am referring to forcing the player to drop recently acquired loot or restarting the player back at the beginning of a level.

Although I am talking negatively about default options, there are no correct or incorrect answers to these questions. If you end up using the default options, at least you will have chosen them on purpose rather than adding the mechanic out of habit. A stronger game will be created when all aspects of the designs are considered.

This blog post will be broken into two sections. First, I will list the series of questions I used for the design of player death. Feel free to take this list and modify it for your own purposes. I am sure not every question worth asking is on the list. Second, for those interested, I will add the design choices regarding player death with my latest PC game Snowman VS Fire as an example of how this exercise helped me.

Let's get started.

Meaningful Consequences

Ultimately, the overarching theme of this exercise is to generate meaningful consequences of the player's death. The first question you should ask yourself is the following.

How meaningful is it when the player dies in your game?

Players will adjust play styles based on the incentives and consequences they experience when the player character is killed in your game. Answering a couple of sub-questions will help understand how meaningful player death will be.

a. How often will the player be killed?

All of the decisions you will make regarding player death should be seen through the lens of how often the player will reasonably expect to experience failure. Typically, the regularity of how often a player is killed is largely based on the skill level of the player. However, there are games in which the expectation of player death is high regardless of skill. Super Meat Boy is a great example in which player death is expected to happen repeatedly, especially if you are a new player.

Super Meat Boy

If your game is similar to Super Meat Boy in which player death is projected to happen often, should the player restart at the beginning of the level or can you design something more novel? Let's say that your game has items to collect, will it make sense to penalize the player by removing chunks of currency and items upon player death? Or would the loss of collected items push the player closer to losing interest in your game rather than be inspired to master it? Don't worry about answering these last few questions just yet; we will cover them in more detail later on.

b. Should the player fear death in your game?

Using the term "fear death" is a bit harsh, I am referring to the reaction a player will have when player death occurs. We already mentioned games that have high failure rates, will the player continue to feel positive about the gameplay experience after repeated deaths in close proximity?

Let's switch gears and talk about designing an experience that builds empathy for the player character and pulls emotion when the player character dies. Typically in a video game, a player character death is only temporary. What if you implemented permanent death? An example of empathy mixed with permanent death is Final Fantasy VII. One of the playable characters, Aeris Gainsborough, is permanently killed within the storyline. It is emotional when the death occurs for a couple reasons. First, it is a defining point that illustrates the vast capabilities of the antagonist Sephiroth. Second, due to player investment in the storyline and high likeability of Aeris, her death inspires a strong desire in the player to seek revenge. Third, aside from the compelling storyline, the player has taken the time to level up Aeris in order to make her a better fighter in the game. The permanent loss of the character is felt more deeply because the player personally invested in her well-being, with playing time, that could have gone to another character. The loss of Aeris is felt on multiple levels. I am not saying that you should always have permanent character death in your game, but how much more invested will a player become if there is a chance of permanent death?

Final Fantasy VII

Now that we have a baseline of ideas and somewhat of a direction, let's move on through the rest of the list.

Should the player be forced to restart the level?

One of the classic repercussions of player death is restarting at the beginning of the level. Super Mario Bros comes to mind as an example of this action. If a player is near the end of a level restarting at the beginning can be demoralizing, a Groundhog Day effect can start to happen to a player.

Modern games are more player-friendly with checkpoints in different sections of the level. The player returns to checkpoints as opposed to the very beginning of the level when respawning. An extreme example of being player-friendly is Prince of Persia. If the player character falls off of a platform, an ally appears and grabs the player character placing him back on the last platform. Most of the time avoiding death from taking place.

Prince of Persia (2008)

Should the length of time between deaths factor into the severity of the consequence?

Can a game become more engaging when adding the duration of time between deaths to the equation of consequences? Conversely, should the consequences be pretty much the same regardless of player death frequency? I am not sure if I know any games that add the length of time between deaths into the equation of determining consequences. I like the idea. Depending on how much value is placed on duration between deaths it could add an extreme level of awareness to the player or incentivize them to take really big risks right after a death occurs knowing that the penalty will be lower.

How is the world affected by the player's death?

After a player death in your game should the damage created to the environment be reset when the player respawns? Should the enemies respawn or stay dead? If the enemies stay dead will the bodies remain visually persistent?

Is player death mandatory for level progression?

A few years ago for a TIGSource's Commonplace Book competition an Indie developer friend, Kyle Pulver, created a game entitled Verge. The game had an interesting player death mechanic; there are puzzles designed around the player character needing to find ways to die. Once the player character is killed, the character is sent to a shadow type world with inverted gravity as well as inverted controls. The player character needs to die to get to a different section of the game to solve puzzles.


Another example is the iOS game Sometimes You Die. The player character is a square and uses the previously dead body(s) as a platform for the newly spawned player to stand on. Being able to stand on the dead bodies enables the player to solve puzzles. Like Verge, the player is forced to be killed to solve a puzzle.

Sometimes You Die

Does the player have agency?

I have been interested in the idea of giving players the choice of repercussions. I find more interest in the design challenge of coming up with different options for consequences the player must choose. A decision between losing a particular power-up or weapon is the first thing that comes to mind. Perhaps the ability to choose between a variety of spawn points would add an interesting dynamic. A common form of player agency happens in Free-To-Play models. The player is asked if they would like to spend in-game currency to stay at the current level when respawning. This is mainly done to get people to keep purchasing in-game currency with real money through in-app purchases. However, I am confident that great ideas can be generated when asking the player to choose the consequence.

Summoners War HD

Does the result fit the overall design of the game?

A significant factor to think about with any of the designs regarding player death has to do with how it fits within the overall design of the game. Players will feel more engaged if the consequence makes sense within the world that you created. This is a chance to build more of the story or add to a memorable experience.

Bonus Question: Can the player learn from and skillfully prevent death?

This question is more of a playability issue but something to take note. As a rule, you want to make sure that the player can avoid death when skill is applied. Make sure that the player does not become so decentivised that they walk away from your game. **Side note, I am not sure if decentivised is a word but I am rolling with it.


Design choices I made regarding player death in Snowman VS Fire

The following is the design decisions made for my latest PC game Snowman VS Fire, currently only available on macOS.

After playtesting, I decided on implementing three different methods to player death in order to comply with meaningful consequence. To begin with, Snowman VS Fire is an arcade-style PC game that was inspired by the mobile game Don't Touch the Spikes. I looked at this project as a design challenge in many facets, I wanted to design something minimalist and see how being inspired by a mobile game could inform the design of a PC game.

The player controls a snowman and has to dodge flames that move across the screen, mortar attacks, and other enemies with the intention of melting the snowman. Dodging things are difficult because the player slides around without a lot of traction, the playable area is limited, and safe areas are constantly changing. The player needs to be aware of the surroundings to get through all 100 levels. Upgrades are available to increase player success rates.

Snowman VS Fire logo

1. Interacting with the player's previous dead bodies

The first, and for me, the most interesting consequence of player death is the bodily remains. The player melts into a pile of water, sticks, and a scarf. Instead of leaving behind the body to serve a benefit like in Sometimes you Die the bodily remains are an obstacle. The bodily remains are tampered with during the player respawn, triggering two mortar attacks in random locations when the player interacts with one of the previous dead bodies.

Snowman VS Fire is a chaotic game with a limited amount of available real estate. With the knowledge that being killed will limit the available safe space the player is forced to be more aware of what is happening on the screen. In the first few levels activating the two mortar attacks are not big deal. As the game progresses the same mortar attacks may spawn on the only available free space the player has available to stand.

2. Player Agency

I took a page from Free-To-Play games and gave the player an option to spend in-game currency to respawn on the current level rather than going back to the beginning of the game. Carrots are the in-game currency in Snowman VS Fire. Unlike Free-To-Play games, Snowman VS Fire does not offer in-game purchases. The player needs to collect currency through gameplay and not through extra real-money purchases.

I made the decision to restart the player at the beginning of the game because I wanted the choice of spending currency to be difficult for the player. If the player is at level 16 will they be fine with going back to level 1 without spending any currency? What about if they are on level 70?

I quickly realized that going from a high level back to level 1 would be demoralizing. Especially, with a high expectation of player death in later levels. As a result, I added an upgrade that will save the game every ten levels. With this upgrade, the player will return to the last save point rather than the beginning of the game. Going down ten levels because the player did not want to spend in-game currency is annoying but not unfair.

After a few more playtests I decided to be a nice guy and give the save game upgrade for free as soon as the player reaches level 20. I find that giving the players the upgrade for free especially when they are not expecting it adds value to the experience.

3. Balancing easy currency collection

The final consequence was implemented when it became apparent that collecting currency became ridiculously easy in later levels of the game. I wanted to come up with a way to give balance to currency collection. With that in mind, I added a small financial penalty every third time the player dies. The three death penalty is another implementation that incentivizes the player to avoid death as much as possible. The setup of the financial penalty gives a nod to the old three life system of classic games as well as limiting the amount of currency the player has on hand. Although the penalty is not significant, it has a possibility to be applied many times. In Snowman VS Fire the player can have a large number of accumulated deaths, the user interface displays the accumulated number for easy viewing which can add insult to injury.

As a whole, I am happy with the way the game turned out. It was a great experience designing a game with high limitations. Even though I set out to make a minimalist game, the choice to implement intentional player death within the design gave me tools that I will take in future game development.

Click the icon below to go directly to Snowman VS Fire on macOS.

#PlayerDeath #Design

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