Game Design: Success through Failure

March 11, 2016

Odds are if you’re making your own computer games, or are interested in doing so, then you started off by playing computer games. And that’s a good thing. It’s useful to see what others have done and to try to learn both what to do and what not to do in your own designs. Lately, I’ve been playing the 2007 adventure game Experience 112 (a.k.a. The Experiment in North America) and one maddeningly frustrating sequence in the game got me to reflecting on the design concept I call success through failure.

In Experience 112 you don’t play the main character yourself. Instead you’re sequestered away in some control room, observing the action through a series of security cameras. You guide the main character, Lea Nichols, by turning lights on and off, ringing telephones, opening locked doors, and other such “hacker-y” actions.

Later in the game you enter an alien landscape. Here you encounter intelligent creatures that you communicate with by the use of pheromones. In practice, this requires selecting two or three Greek letters from a set of six to create a pheromone recipe. All well and good. Until, that is, you’re put on trial under suspicion of being part of a bomb conspiracy.

[Make sure you're facing someone before spraying them with pheromones.]
Make sure you're facing someone before spraying them with pheromones.

During the trial you are surrounded by five of these creatures who are your judges. You must first convince a single judge of your innocence by correctly responding to three pheromone questions he poses. You must then convince two more judges by answering three questions each, with the catch that you have to alternate back and forth between them. Finally, you must convince three judges, three times each, and again alternating between them. Sounds easy, but not quite. Each judge will only wait for a very short time to be answered. Compounding the time problem is the fact that you must get Lea to turn to face a given judge in order to respond to them and Lea turns like a blimp.

So what happens if you get an answer wrong or you fail to respond in time? Storywise the answer is nothing. The game lets you keep trying the sequence until you pass it. The problem is, if you don’t answer a pheromone question quickly enough or you get the answer wrong then, no matter where you are in the sequence, you are forced to go back to convincing the first judge and working your way up through all the judges again. Even worse, the game won’t let you save during this sequence (not that you’d have time to anyway).

So, the developers put in a sequence that forces players to keep trying it over and over again until they get lucky or (probably more likely) fed up and quit the game. This is an example of failure through failure. It’s frustrating and annoying and you feel more of a sense of relief when you finish it than a sense of accomplishment.

Let’s turn the page now to another adventure game. In this case the 1991 game Conquests of the Longbow developed back in the day by Sierra. Conquests of the Longbow follows the adventures of Robin Hood with you playing the venerable archer, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Like other Sierra games of the time there are plenty of ways to fail outright here, either by dying or by getting into a “walking dead” situation where you’re missing some important item to proceed and are unable to go back and get it. That said, running into these situations do tend to be more apparent than in most Sierra games. When an enemy knight draws a sword on you, it’s a pretty good bet something bad is going to happen if you don’t act quickly.

However, the typical Sierra death syndrome aside, I find Conquests of the Longbow quite interesting as it has a lot of success through failure design. By that I mean there are many things you can do—or not do, as the case may be—in the game that are less than ideal and the game will keep going. Not only will the game keep going but it changes itself in both small and large ways.

For example, anyone who knows anything about the Robin Hood legend knows of Robin’s love for Maid Marian. And that love story is presented in this game. Maybe. It’s entirely possible to play the game and miss the love story completely if you don’t do certain things at certain times. The game leaves that entirely up to you to discover or not.

[Save the townsfolk or just walk away.]
Save the townsfolk or just walk away.

That’s a fairly significant plot line in the game, but the game also has smaller moments as well. Part of the game is concerned with getting Robin pardoned as an outlaw when good King Richard returns. One way to do this is to be the noble outlaw, helping the downtrodden wherever you can. This typically involves saving them from the sheriff’s men, but you can score extra points if you open your purse and give the poor people you encounter money to help against taxes. Or you can play a more selfish Robin Hood and leave the people to their fate. Just be wary of the consequences.

[Your strategy determines how successful the outlaw band is.]
Your strategy determines how successful the outlaw band is.

At certain points in the game you also have to play the strategist, leading your entire band in larger conflicts against the sheriff’s forces. At these times your main lieutenants—Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet, Alan-a-Dale, and Much the miller’s son—will offer their advice. Here the choice is very explicit as to whose advice you will take. Depending on your choice your band may be successful or it may lose the day and a good chunk of your outlaws as well. In either event, or anywhere in between, the game will merrily continue along.

It’s this idea of the game allowing you to make mistakes or to get less optimal solutions and yet still carrying on that I’ve dubbed success through failure. To be sure, Conquests has its share of rough edges, but it demonstrates how a game can truly adapt to what the player is doing in real ways. Not bad for a game over 25 years old. As someone interested in games as a storytelling medium, I find this concept a fascinating one and I want to explore it more in my own designs.