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Games For Good – Why Negative Experience Is Nothing But Less Fun

For most games, and other interactive entertainment systems as well, the audience (the player, or players) seeks out the game looking to spend a portion of their valuable time being entertained. As most players seek fun over other kinds of entertainment, if they are not having fun then they consider the portion of time they put into learning and playing the game as wasted. Everyone has their own reaction to wasted time; some people get frustrated, others bored, or upset. When a player starts to get frustrated, bored, or upset with a game they will stop playing that game until they feel inspired to play it again or never at all.

In economics terms, a game is a product made by its developer (As usually games are made by a team of people, on this website we use the term designer to refer to the creators of any game as each of them in their own way help design the experience for the player.) intended to deliver entertainment value to its consumer. Simply put, the demand from the consumers in the market of games is entertainment.

The player of a game only sits down to play a game on their own time, usually they will have other things they would prefer to spend their time doing. So, if the player’s need is to be entertained, the designer must deliver on a game experience that is entertaining to play, else they will make a bad game that players consider a waste of their time.

If a player feels they wasted their time playing a game, then that game is poor in entertainment value (or bad) because it it did the opposite of its intended purpose.

If a player feels they have been entertained playing a game, then that game is rich in value (or good) because it succeeded on its goal of providing entertainment.

Any game regardless of quality is a series of experiences both positive and negative. Positive experiences being those that improve the quality of the game, and negative experiences being those that detract from the quality of the game. It is important to note that negative experience doesn’t necessarily mean negative emotion, but rather a summary of choices, feelings, visuals, audio, and the players own interpenetration of all of the above components.

Overall players enjoy positive experiences in games more than they do negative experiences. But this begs the question, how much negative experience is too much and is it okay to have negative experience in a game?

To start to answer this question I first answer another. If half the players time spent on a game is negative experience as compared to the other half being a positive experience will the player have enjoyed the game?

People will give many different answers there are those who say the game is enjoyable, those who say it is terrible, and those who say that is not half bad. I believe negative experience is more impactful on the player’s perception of the game’s quality that positive experience which is why I would say the half-bad game is terrible. But, what if the game depends upon negative experiences to generate positive experiences?

There are tons of games that use negative experience to make something entertaining for the player, or to enhance another experience. The experience of eliminating an opponent in Call of Duty is enhanced because that opponent now has nothing to do for a short period of time, if it was instead the player who died they would have to wait the short period of time. Call of Duty enhances winning fights by adding a respawn timer to make the loser wait.

Regardless of its purpose to enhance, progress, or encourage gameplay, a negative experience will always be negative and the game would be a better game in terms of meeting its goal of entertainment, without said negative experience. While it is impossible for games to completely remove negative experience, it is my belief that all negative experiences can be redesigned into a positive one or that experience can be removed from the game entirely.

To answer the questions above: any amount of negative experience is too much and designers should minimize negative experiences in their games the best they can. My personal brand, Emergent Designs, has a two-piece mission statement despite not yet being a company. (As my games grow, I will build Emergent Designs into an organization bigger than just myself.) The mission statement goes as follows:

Emergent Designs produces interactive entertainment systems and games that radically innovate an entire genre, or that are new designs that cannot be sectioned under pre-existing genres. Furthermore ALL games produced by Emergent Designs DO NOT rely upon a negative experience to enrichen or improve any other experience. ALL games are designed to minimize negative experience for the player.

This article is meant to define the difference between good and bad games and give the reader insight around negative experience in game design specifically equipping them the ability to perceive negative experiences in games, language tools to discuss game experience effectively, and design methods to minimize negativity. Following this article will be an article about positive experience in game design, and more in-depth discussion on what makes a game good.

I have broken down negative experience into six different variations, though this is not an exhaustive list of negative experiences these are the kinds of negative experiences I believe to be most present in modern designs.

Cost, a physical or mental resource outside of the game is drained from the player; Downtime, the player has a lack of choice in the game; Repetition, progress made by the player is reset. Weakness, the player is disempowered by the game mechanism or controls. Disbelief, the player’s suspension of disbelief is broken. And Confusion, the player doesn’t understand why a series of inputs produces a certain result within the game.

Cost – The Feeling of Loss

Many games rely upon negative feedback to keep players playing and encourage them to spend money. In the most extreme circumstances, there are games that require the player to pay real money or drain themselves of a resource that exists outside the scope of the game to continue playing.

The most plain example of coercive design is stamina in the first few hundred Facebook games. As a player each action costs a certain amount of stamina of which there is a limited amount that refreshes daily. This encourages people who enjoy the game to come back every day, and to pay real money if they want to play longer than five minutes.

This is negative feedback because it restricts the ability of the player to spend the amount of time they want playing the game unless they pay for a certain amount of stamina or actions within the game. For example, ten stamina could cost ninety-nine cents meaning after the first few actions of the day, it’s a dollar to keep playing.

Losing a dollar means a lot more to a player than having to restart a level. This becomes a lot more drastic when it is the player’s hundredth time trying to complete a level, or the hundredth day that they’ve paid one dollar.

Spending money or losing value is always a negative experience, when a game repeatedly confronts the player with a negative experience they will eventually get frustrated, bored, or upset with the game and stop playing.

When it costs the player to take action they are less inclined to do so. Despite their previous standing these stamina-based games have a miniscule percentage of the Facebook playerbase; Most Facebook Gamers are more inclined to play poker, word games, or puzzle games because they aren’t forcing the player to pay money to enjoy the game. The playerbase of these popular Facebook games far outnumbers the playerbase of stamina-based Facebook games because they do not have as much negative experience associated with them every single session of play.

In my opinion the optimal game is an unlimited entertainment machine. A game where the player can chose to spend how much ever time they want on the game, and regardless of total time spent playing the game doesn’t cease to produce value. For my card-based fiction game I plan to add an endless mode on the second stage of release that will let the players keep playing the game as their favorite character, even if they have technically run out of narrative events or completed the game. (Something most adventure games are not able to do, but I believe adventure games mechanics should be entertaining on their own without the story such that the mechanics could be their own game.)

I advise designers to avoid imposing costs to play. There are plenty of ethical ways to monetize that don’t include making the player pay money to take more actions in the game. Purchasable upgrades, pay-to-boss mode (Pay to play the boss everyone fights, this avoids tension between the paying and non-paying players.), extended content for games that depend upon fresh content (Think new level packs for a platformer game), and even charging a flat one-time price for the game are all fair ways to monetize that avoid negative experience.

Downtime – The Feeling of Inaction

Downtime is the most prominent of the six being found in almost every modern video game, some games depend upon ‘boring time’ to make ;fun time’ actually fun. Downtime is a duration of gameplay where the player makes no choices. This can be a series of choices that don’t have any effect on the game, time where the player does nothing but wait, or a puzzle where there are no choices, only the right inputs.

Downtime can be something like the respawn time for a shooter game, the duration of the queue for a match in a multiplayer game, or even something as inconsequential as managing inventory.

I like to use Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) as an example of a game with an outrageous amount of downtime. In PUBG there is a mechanic called the blue circle or just the circle. It is a constricting zone that damages the players if they are outside of it. This makes it so that the players must move into the circle, forcing them to move closer to each other as the game continues.

If the player is outside the circle by a large margin, there is no choice to be made by the player because the only decision available to them that doesn’t lead to failure (In the case of PUBG, failure means death.) is moving forward to the circle. The long period of holding down the movement key or letting the character autorun is downtime.

When there are no choices to be made the player is not really playing the game, instead they are waiting to see the results of their previous play. In PUBG, the player won’t know if they’ll die on the way out of the damaging  zone in PUBG until it is already too late and they die. This is a delayed experience where the player won’t know that they were too slow until it is too late. While delaying the repercussions of the player’s actions can have interesting negative and positive effects in games, this is not the problem that is being discussed.

The problem is downtime, where the player has no effect upon the game, and is burning time deciding to progress rather than actually choosing to move down a path. When the player has no effect upon the game, they aren’t playing the game. Sometimes they’re solving a puzzle, watching a video, or just waiting patiently. Regardless of the case they not playing the game because they aren’t making real choices. Downtime is negative experience because if the player stops playing the game then that technically detracts from the experience of playing the game.

Despite PUBG having an open map, which means that the player can choose to wrap around the circle rather than run in a straight line, there are situations where the player must move forward otherwise they would be ensuring their death. One rework to solve PUBG’s downtime issue would be to modify the circle damage according to the distance between the player and the blue circle, making it deal virtually no damage the first ten to twenty feet of the circle and lots of damage if the player gets caught out. This would create a game state where choosing to run in a straight line is always safe and almost guarantees exit from the blue zone, while leaving the player the option to wrap around the circle and suffer more damage.

A more concrete example of how to redesign downtime is the respawn timer in Star Wars Battlefront II. Instead of waiting for ten seconds and then choosing where to spawn, the player could be in a turret in a ship above the battlefield raining down blasts. This would give the player choices to make while they are waiting to respawn and have a bigger impact on the field. Such as, do they shoot the enemies vehicles to wear them down or do they target the exposed and vulnerable infantry?

Downtime is when the player is not making any choices, or not playing the game despite their intention being to play the game. This is negative because if the game is not being played, then there is a lack of game experience and pure wasted time.

Downtime in games serves no purpose that makes the game better as whole. I encourage developers to minimize downtime in their games and give their players choices instead of punishing them by making them wait. This will make it so the players can enjoy the game on their time and on their terms.

Repetition – The Feeling of Inadequacy & Path to Insanity

Repetition is where the player experiences a sense of loss. This loss can be death, defeat, or in a less design related example the deletion of save files. Repetition comes from either having to replay a portion of a game usually through means of death and a restart, or by a game not challenging its player.

In the infamous puzzle-game Getting Over It the player is trying to climb up a series of things and jump out of the atmosphere into space, the only opponent is gravity which pulls the player down and forces them to reclimb challenges they had already beaten. Having to replay sections of this already difficult game is not a positive experience because it literally moves the player further away from achieving their goals. The developer Bennett Foddy claims in his trailer for the game that it is designed to “hurt” the player.

Getting Over It is designed around a core negative experience of repeating a difficult series of moves. This negative experience is a core part of the appeal of the game, that makes it feel more rewarding to progress. While this does add to the overall enjoyment of the game, the game shouldn’t depend upon negative experience to deliver the on the game’s promise of an entertaining time.

Even though Getting Over It depends upon repetitive negative experiences doesn’t make it a bad game, however the game would be better without the intense amount of repetition. A quick way to minimize repetition in Getting Over It would be to change the gravity mechanic so that the player starts falling at the max fall speed then decelerates as they lose height. This would make it so the player is less punished for failure, and has more opportunity to catch themselves on the level as they fall.

There are plenty of methods to minimize repetition in games, but instead of minimizing it is possible to redesign a negative experience as something beautiful for the player to observe. Such as in Super Meat Boy they do not redesign death, but illustrate it to the player as something they have overcome. After finishing a level in Super Meat Boy it plays a video of all of the player’s attempts, all the different series of inputs they made meaning all of their failed attempts and their one successful attempt, at once for them watch with the camera following the final attempt that beat the level.

In a video from his YouTube series Game Maker’s Toolkit, Mark Brown goes over how several games have redesigned death to deliver upon a more enjoyable experience for the player. I suggest checking it out: Redesigning Death

Weakness – Feeling of Helplessness

Weakness is the where the player has an inability to effect the game state due to unintended design flaws or limiting control schemes. The controls for any game should enable the player to easily execute the actions viable for them to perform. When the controls are confusing to learn or unnatural compared to similar games they disempower the player causing them to succeed less than they would if the game had functional and easy controls.

A game is at its full potential when the player(s) have a complete understanding of the rules of the game. Ideally, a game’s rules should be transparent and simple so that new players aren’t faced with a looming intense learning curve.

In the real-time strategy game Halo Wars by Ensemble Studios, the player has a hawk’s eye view of the map similar to other real-time strategy games. However, unlike the traditional mouse and keyboard that is used by other games in the genre, Halo Wars is played with an analog joystick controller. This is a major issue because the two most important factors in real-time strategy games are the player’s actions per minute and the positions of their units.

As compared to the mouse, an analog stick is not precise. When using an analog stick the cursor is restricted to the sensitivity of the controller. When using a mouse the player can position the cursor anywhere on the screen in relatively little time. The controller-equipped player is slower and less accurate while controlling his units as compared the mouse-equipped player.

For the game’s target audience, real-time strategy players, the low amount of actions per minute and inaccuracy of the cursor feels unnatural when compared to titles in the same genre.

The analog player can always increase his sensitivity so that it is technically possible for him to navigate the screen quickly, however this requires an inhuman amount of thumb muscles and better analog sticks then come on traditional USB compatible controllers. The player has to trade accuracy for speed. If the player cannot accurately control his units, then it feels unnatural. If the player cannot efficiently control his units there is downtime, which is extra negative when the player is powerless to move his units in response to the game state because he is locked into moving a certain group of units.

There are countless ways Halo Wars could have improved the control scheme to empower the player and many ways they accommodated for the awkward controls, but in the end the amount of precision and speed the player needs for a real-time strategy game made the players of Halo Wars feel weak by simply playing the game. Feeling weak is certainly not the ‘game feel’ the designer intended for the player to experience.

Good games include a comprehensive tutorial section so that players can hurdle the learning curve of the game as quickly as possible. Good games have effective controls that don’t leave the player feeling like they wasted their time by taking action in the game. Good games empower the player to interact with the game, not leave players wasting time learning controls or playing against themselves as opposed to the game they sat down to play.

Disbelief – Feeling of Discontent

Disbelief is where the player’s suspension of disbelief is broken. There are many ways that the tension of a game can be shattered which leaves the player surprised by a flaw of the game. It is a negative experience for a player to realize a flaw or to go through a section of gameplay that has no tension to the choices made by the player.

There are too many games which have strange voice acting or writing that detracts from the game and distracts the player from story or the events of the game, but the worst tension breaking moments are when the player finds a work-around in the game or an unintended design feature called a flaw.

In Grand Theft Auto V by Rockstar Games, the player often finds themselves at odds with the authorities or in other words on the run from the police. Finding a safe and hidden spot to escape the chase is a crucial part of the game. However, there are instances of gameplay where the player is just a corner away from the police, and the police decide to give up the chase walking away back to their vehicles.

If after a crucial moment of the story, where the player feels like they just escaped the worst of consequences, they have to run from the police, they won’t experience the police chase as intense. Instead, over many tension-breaking escapes the player will feel like the choices they make to escape from the police have no tension because there is a boring solution that is more efficient than the intended solution.

This can get so extreme that the player can experience entire sections of gameplay as downtime because there is no emotion aside from boredom associated with the choices they make. It doesn’t progress the game anymore if the player is chased by the police for a few hours in Grand Theft Auto, than if they are chased for a few minutes.

For being the highlight of the game and being the general series of events everyone associates with the Grand Theft Auto brand, the police chases in Grand Theft Auto V feel lackluster. They should be something more that is not there, an element of reflection where the character says “Oh my, I hope they didn’t see my face” or “Wow! I cannot believe I came so close to being imprisoned”.

While Grand Theft Auto V’s police chase system is playable, it feels fake and leaves the player with lots of discontent. If instead the police chases started easy in the beginning of the game then scaled up in intensity as the player progresses then player could enjoy the helicopters and other niche police mechanics in the game instead of overlooking them because they don’t change the intensity of the chase.

There could also be more severe consequences to crime in Grand Theft Auto. Maybe the character turns into a infamous criminal that is broadcast on TV so people run away when they see that character, or a warrant for the character’s arrest being put out so now it’s dangerous to stay at their home.

Any game, especially those that depend upon emotion to drive their mechanics or story, should minimize tension-breaking experiences in their game. The feeling the player is experiencing at any moment of gameplay is something that needs to be carefully curated, if the experience leaves the player feeling like something needs to be changed they will feel like they wasted their time playing a game that doesn’t deliver upon its promise. For Grand Theft Auto V, that promise is grand police chases, which sadly it does not deliver upon and over the course of the game the player will experience the police chases negatively.

Confusion – Feeling of Discrepancy & Awareness of Paradox

Confusion is where the player doesn’t have a consistent understanding of the game’s systems and why a set of inputs produces a certain result. Confusion can sprout from hidden random mechanics, long-term feedback that doesn’t inform the player’s decision-making, misdirection on the part of the provided game information, and cheating in multiplayer games. (The last of which is deserving of its own article, and to be discussed specifically another time.)

For an example of confusion in modern games look at the time-tested gambling game, Roulette, with the core mechanic of metal ball that spins around a disc onto a numbered and colored section. The player bets on an outcome before the ball spins, meaning they have no information with which to estimate the result of the spin.

An argument can be made that no game mechanic that uses the physics of the real-world is random, or even pseudo-random. There are plenty of people who claim to turn a profit playing the Roulette tables in casinos. The small differences in different Roulette tables leads to each tables own pattern of results. If a game mechanic has a detectable pattern it is not random it is deterministic.

For this example, consider virtual Roulette played on a computer. This computer generates a pseudo-random number after all bets are placed, and after a short animation displays the result. We also assume the pseudo-random number generation is programmed correctly to the effect that if the player knows how the generation algorithm works they cannot reliably predict what numbers will be generated.

By simply playing Roulette, betting, the player is engaging in the negative experience of confusion. Even in a series of losses the player has no method for improvement, they will always be just as good at virtual Roulette as the first time. If the player plays a thousand rounds of Roulette, they are just as likely to win the first bet as they are the thousandth.

There is an unmistakable clarity in the Roulette player’s mind that they are playing a game that is completely random. A random mechanic that is acknowledged by the player alleviates the confusion; where a random mechanic that doesn’t exist within the players perception intensifies the confusion.

Thought it might be in opposition of its goals as a casino game, the negative experience of confusion in Roulette could be alleviated by removing the random mechanics and making the game physics based so that is technically an element of predictability.

The player of a game should have a clear understanding of the total game experience meaning they could recite the series of choices they made and how it led to their game’s state. If a player doesn’t maintain a clear understanding of why they are succeeding or failing in the game they will decide it is not their fault, it is the games fault. The player will feel like they wasted their time playing a game with mechanics that have no semblance of consistency or fairness.

In conclusion a game is a series of positive and negative experiences. If games have negative experiences players are less inclined to enjoy the game. Good games are designed to have minimal negative experience and produce value for the player. Bad games are full of negative experience, and waste the players time and money.

I do not advocate for dark psychological tricks that are often used by large development companies to get players to play for long periods of time and force them to pay to enjoy the game. These tricks while not only unethical, also are associated with a extreme amount of negative experience. Consider Candy Crush which uses the threat of repetition and downtime to coerce the player into buying one more turn to beat a level or some other purchasable upgrade that progresses the game.

Games should be for good. Games should be filled with positive experiences that leave the player entertained, and with a piece of the game implanted in memory.

I believe through playing games people can learn about life and themselves. I believe game designers should produce positive experiences for others to enjoy. Negative experience detracts from the quality of a game, and doesn’t satisfy the player’s needs for a game.

Suggested Reading On Similar Topics:

Dark Patterns in the Designs of Games

Fun Explained: Fundamental Human Needs

When Games Pretend To Be Games They Aren’t

The Ethics of the Candy Crush Pusher


Games Are Choices


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