The Lazy Designer

Designing Frustration (Part 3)

Part 3

In the first parts of this discussion on Designing Frustration I suggested that frustration can lead to player satisfaction by enabling them to resolve difficulties (frustrations) in their game. Effectively if a frustration is implemented correctly and in a solvable manner, more gameplay is introduced.

Emotional Narratives and Frustration

I’ve touched on this previously but an offline conversation prompted me to explore the mix of a strong emotional narrative with frustration. By emotional narrative I’m referring to a game story that is built with the intention of a player reaching ever escalating moments of emotional involvement with a storyline. To summarize it more simply… a game experience that mirrors the experience a movie might have.

In this scenario, it can be argued that frustrations, especially ones that lead the player away from the main arc (or lead them to complete it in a non-standard way in which the emotional punch can’t be delivered) are bad things.

And they are.

Allowing the player to go off and deal with ‘trivial’ things (like obtaining a cool new sword, or a method of fast travel, or search for a trainer to complete a level-up), these are all distractions. If enough time is spent away from the main emotional narrative ‘track’, the emotional effect will be diluted.

On the flip side I see games with such tight arcs of expectation as interactive movies. I can play them and enjoy them but some are starting to trend away from being games at all. I fear the word ’emotion’ in game design documents. It comes with too many expectations and assumptions. The less linear a game is the harder it is to railroad players into one path of emotional development. Often the solution, no matter the starting intent of the designers, will be to simplify that path by removing choices. And over time it becomes less and less like a game and more and more like a movie.

(That said skilled designers at studios with loads of money to spend can create succesful compromises. But this is a rare thing).

I’ve heard talented people in the industry argue over whether ‘games are art’. I would be more worried about whether ‘games are games.’

Anyways back to frustrations…

Surprise Frustrations

A conversation with a reader on Facebook got me thinking about ‘surprise frustrations’… basically the idea of radically altering the gameplay.

As a designer I would be cautious about throwing out too many unexpected surprises. Little surprises that work within the existing and expected gameplay framework are awesome but big surprises that invalidate all the learning and time the player has put into the game are dangerous.

In the games I have worked on where levels or sections of the game have had their gameplay radically altered (player’s equipment taken away et cetera) there has generally been a negative player backlash. Some players really enjoy the abrupt change but many seem frustrated because the experience has changed too much for them. They liked the game to this point but it has become too different.

The exception of course would be the game that is entirely full of unexpected events. I was able to enjoy Indigo Prophecy (which is effectively an interactive film!) for example because from the beginning I was trained to realize that gameplay would constantly be changing on me. That was the nature of that experience… I did not become invested in one style of gameplay because I knew it would change. Had it instead started out as a traditional adventure game and then three quarters through radically changed the way controls worked, I’d have been too frustrated.

A (Frustratingly Fun) RPG Game Overview

I’ll end this discussion now with a bit of an overview of how I might use frustration (via old RPG staples that seem to be declining in their usage) to build a RPG. The caveat to this of course is that this is all theoretical and like all things living in the land of theory may or may not be succesful in the marketplace. I’d have to build a prototype first and experiment with some of the suggestions that follow before I’d invest time or effort into fully fleshing the idea out.

Imagine you have a fairly limited area budget (say 10-15 environements) and need to build a 200 hour roleplaying game. How might you go about doing that?

I would try to (wisely) use frustration to expand the available gameplay.

First I would make the environments have four or five key points of differentiation. This has nothing to do with frustration of course but as a designer I want my players to feel some sense of exploration. Fifteen areas that all feature the same type of forest, for example, is not fun exploration. Journeying from deep catacombs to an underwater city to great plains to a small town… a bit more fun. Different art styles = exploration. (Of course the more art styles you have the fewer areas you are probably going to get).

As a RPG game I know we will have a progression system. Here is a great opportunity to introduce fun frustration. While no designer wants to remove the concept of a level up (when a player reaches a new power plateau) I would suggest the following:

  • have some passive properties of the player improve automatically at level up
  • but the player needs to seek out Trainers to improve active abilities (such as learning a new spell or improving an existing one)

This limitation on acquiring a new power would be frustrating to a player but the benefit is that, through earlier explorations, they will have met some trainers and have some leads on where they might go. A mage might know of a fire trainer and an ice trainer, for example, and be forced to make a choice (depending on the progression path they want to take) on which to visit.

So we have a trainer frustration introduced. To satisfy the frustration of not having a new power they need the player must search out trainers. Combined with the need for players to visit stores scattered across our limited world to improve their weapons/armor and to sell their loot, the player has a lot of traveling in their future.

A side benefit of revisiting areas is that the designer gets to present a changing world to players! One impacted by the player’s action. This was a weakness in past titles I worked on despite our initial intentions … there was a decent amount of world-reaction built into our games but players often had little reason to revisit locations they had been to previously.

So we make sure we introduce new content to existing areas, within our limited budget, and players get additional rewards and opportunities for interaction beyond the main reason for revisiting areas (get a trainer or use a store). But maybe over time the player still gets bored (frustrated) with fighting hordes of creatures that are now too easy for them to defeat. We have created a new frustration.

What can we do? Well we won’t be scaling the creatures to improve their challenge. I hate power scaling… more on that in another post.

Instead why don’t we introduce a few magical artifacts that can influence how player’s use their spells. Maybe initially players can only use direct-attack spells (a bolt of fire, a stream of ice). But after finding particular artifacts they can actually change how their spells work (their choice)… a fire bolt can become a fire ball. It might do less damage but it can wipe out a mob of critters more quickly.

Yay! The player has reduced their frustration… but of course now the player has more traveling to do…

And this is another frustration.

Even with introducing ‘growth’ to existing areas (new dialog reactions to what the player has accomplished previously and random combat encounters) players may start becoming frustrated with traveling back and forth across areas they have already seen. So we introduce the opportunity for a player to earn the means to fast travel.

Weak design would be to simply unlock fast travel at a point for all players. A more interesting design (and one that helps us reach our 200 hours of gameplay mark) requires the player to obtain the means and method of fast travel. Depending on the type of game this could be choosing a type of horse, or car, or dragon or spaceship. Maybe there are ways to improve the speed of existing vehicles. Let the player solve the problem themself… choosing when to spend their money, or when to adventure in search of the vehicle and where possible which vehicle.

The player reduces their own frustration. The player plays a game.

Now this game is (probably) not going to appeal to all players. The game player who just wants the story may be too frustrated because they are having to work for their experience. Which is kinda too bad too sad for them I guess, because this is a game after all and not a book or movie :)

As a designer we have accomplished our goal. Because we have kept some frustrations in our core gameplay players now have reason to revisit every area in your game and with a little extra work you can make those visits even more rewarding!

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.

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