Dying in video games, like in real life, seems to be a natural part of the process. You play, therefore you die -- and you usually have to start over.
But does it have to be that way?
Not necessarily. I recently spoke to three developers who've all been making dying in games a little less painful. They explained to me why they're saying no to "game over" screens in their games and what they tell critics who claim they're making video games too easy.
So here's what the makers of "Mushroom Men," "LEGO Batman," and "Prince of Persia" had to say...
[Image: Michael Talbot]
"MUSHROOM MEN" -- How to make dying not so annoying
"Mushroom Men," a 3D platformer on the Wii developed by Red Fly Studio, depicts a civil war between tiny mushroom creatures in a human world. The main mushroom character, Pax, must solve puzzles and combat enemy 'shrooms with his hand-crafted weaponry. His life is indicated by the top of his cap, and each time Pax gets hit by an enemy, a portion of his cap disappears. Once his entire cap is gone, he's dead. But fear not, he actually respawns nearby, and the player's progression through the level is saved. That means if you were fighting a tough enemy and you needed only one more hit to finish it off, all you'd need is that one hit after you're resurrected.
"If you have to start over and do something that's you've already done 10 times... that's really annoying.
"This game is more about exploration than it is about being really tough," explained Matt Piersall, the game's audio director. He said that "Mushroom Men" is pretty open-ended and that players could choose different ways to progress through the levels and defeat enemies. "If you keep dying, take a different path," he said. "If it's something that's just so incredibly tough where you have to start over and do something that's you've already done 10 times -- that doesn't encourage players to continue playing... that's really annoying."
Chad Barron, the game's producer, added that if hardcore players really wanted a more challenging experience, they could replay the level or use a level one weapon in the 7th level. "I think [the way we treated dying] is one of the reasons why we decided to do the weapons system and the encounters the way we did," Barron said. "But if you try to make a game to appease everybody, you're going to be making a game for 20 years. You'll never please everybody."
THE "LEGO" GAMES -- Exploding is enough
For gamers who've ever played any of the "Lego" games by TT Games, players have four hearts and when they've gotten hit by enemies four times (or if they fall off a ledge), they die by exploding and losing some of the studs, the in-game currency, that they've collected throughout the level.
"There were a number of things that we set for the template of Lego games with 'Lego Star Wars,' and our approach to death was definitely one of those," lead designer Jonathan Smith said. "We particularly spoke about children [when developing the game], but we found increasingly that adults appreciate this kind of treatment as well. The adults play in just the same way when they are allowed to and remember how to play in a child-like way."
"With 'Lego Star Wars,' we set off very deliberately not to punish you."
He thought that because there wasn't too much of a penalty for dying, that players -- adults and children alike -- would be more encouraged to experiment within the game. "Very early-on the experience of many games is if you do not perform to the game's expectations, you are punished and forced to repeat the lesson," Smith explained. "There are some players who can respond well to that environment, but we felt that [that style of player death] was not encouraging of experimentation for most players. So with 'Lego Star Wars,' we set off very deliberately not to punish you... but actually to be friendly and to reward you in a positive way for the things that you chose to do."
Smith said that's why they minimized the consequences for dying. "We didn't make you replay any of the game's geography, and we didn't put you back so you had to do things over and over again," he said. "But we always felt that the signal that you character has fallen apart, the signal that you've died, was enough."
"PRINCE OF PERSIA" -- Game over screens are archaic
While "Mushroom Men" and the "Lego" titles wanted to encourage experimentation and exploration, the developers of the new "Prince of Persia" game just wanted to remove the "game over" screen and give players a new way to experience the Prince's acrobatic adventures. Namely, by adding a partner named Elika who will save him from dying while in combat or exploring the world -- all with the touch of button. Longtime fans of the series cried foul when they learned that there's no character death in the game.
"A lot of people mistake this to mean we're trying to make ["Prince of Persia"] a 'casual' game, and nothing could be further from the truth," said Ben Mattes, the game's producer at Ubisoft Montreal. "We set out to make an accessible game without removing challenge."
Mattes wanted to reiterate that when Elika brings the Prince back up after falling, she'll return him to the previous platform at the beginning of that acrobatic sequence. And if the player dies during combat, she'll knock the enemy off but that enemy will regain some health, thus penalizing the failure in combat.
"Game over screens are an archaic legacy of the coin-op days."
"Game over screens are an archaic legacy of the coin-op days when the gaming industry tried to milk as many quarters out of young boys as possible," he said, explaining that he blew his whole allowance trying to jump over the broken bridge in "Double Dragon" back in the day. "We chose to use the 'save-me' approach because it keeps players in the action, encourages the beginner player without penalizing the hardcore -- who will likely be so good at the same that they'll not need Elika's save-me ability. And it maintains the narrative of having a strong connection and mutual dependence between the Prince and Elika throughout the game."
"People giving up in frustration half way through is a bane of our industry and a trend that needs to be squashed."
All in all, Mattes thought this system made the game forgiving but not too easy. "There is a big difference for us between an easy game and one that prevents you from wanting to whip your controller across the room in frustration," he said. "That said, if the price we have to pay to attract more players to our brand -- and hopefully the action-adventure genre in general -- is that a small minority of the hardest of the hardcore are upset over some of our design decisions, that's a penalty we're willing to pay. We truly believe we've created a game that can entertain a wide demographic of players, regardless of their previous experience with 'PoP' or action-adventure games in general."
He added that he didn't think all games needed to have a system like this, but it wouldn't hurt the gaming industry if more of them did. "People giving up in frustration half way through is a bane of our industry and a trend that needs to be squashed," he said. "Anything that encourages someone to play through all the way to the end of your game is a good thing."
Readers, do the ways these games treat dying help or hurt games and gamers?