Game Design: Punishing For Success

One thing I’ve noticed when playing games is that many games intentionally or inadvertently punish successful players. Some of this is necessary, to prevent abuse, but other times it feels damaging to play, especially in a single-player experience.

The core example of this would be games with “adaptive difficulty”. This takes a variety of formats; sometimes they’re based off of a universal game slider of difficulty, but sometimes they just determine the challenges faced in the game. This would include something like the AI Director in Left 4 Dead, which will occasionally add more challenges if the players are doing exceptionally well to keep things interesting, but also like GearHead‘s reputation system. The problem inherent in GearHead’s system is that Renown is earned like experience whenever the player is victorious, but can ramp up quicker than players’ levels.

This gripe is also inherent in games like Oblivion (as I’ve discussed before), where the world around the player grows in power as they do. Unfortunately, in Oblivion, this scale is based off of the skills that the player chose during character creation-if they chose certain skills their level could very well be independent of their combat ability, leading to frantic fights with powerful opponents. This also works in the other way-by assigning an arbitrary progress meter, it doesn’t actually assess combat prowess, so someone built to be a god of war will beat the snot out of even appropriately leveled foes on all but the hardest difficulty settings.

This, however, is distinct from punishing players for leaving all their resources intact-for instance, having a player gain more resources in other forms (increased attack ability or special attack regeneration) at lower amounts of certain things considered valuable (in a closed system this could be victory points, or otherwise health or something else you’d want to keep) is not the same as punishing them for success, because it makes letting themselves take damage be a survival constraint. One example of a game that did this was the poorly-received Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader (which I loved) in which players could take a number of feats or “flaws” that allowed them to do certain things, including a vow of poverty that reduced money in exchange for a direct power boost-limiting the chance of affording something awesome in a shop in exchange for being more awesome directly, so these don’t count as punishments so much as exchanges. If the berserk barbarian loses health, they may do more damage. This is a trade-off, not a punishment for being at full health.

There’s also not that much of a concern over outcomes here; yes, a player who is an epic hero and is backstabbed by the jealous king instead of receiving his reward has found himself at an disadvantage, but that’s a narrative device rather than a direct mechanical penalty, which is what typically aggravates a player.

So what are some ways, as game designers, that we can avoid punishing players for success?

  • Avoid arbitrary distinctions.

This is something that I hate in a lot of games I play-the game assumes that if I’m doing well, I want a bigger challenge. A good example of this would be a sandbox game (Just Cause 2 comes to mind) where completing objectives leads to an increased potential hostile response. Fortunately, Just Cause 2 typically rewarded the player, and since the increased opposition led to an amplification of the game’s over-the-top combat it was not so much a problem, but this has proved to be a bane of good games.

In particularly with Oblivion’s leveling, this can be avoided by calculating what enemies get based on what players have-perhaps more in a limited leveling style where foes spawn based on the player’s level, but their combat abilities are limited based on the player’s highest skills, and their equipment is generally limited to being a fraction of the value of the player’s, to keep non-combat poorly-equipped characters from being confronted by bandits with Daedric armor.

Some of this can also be counterbalanced by providing assistance equal to the player’s level to help them deal with parts of the game that they don’t want to worry about-in tabletop games this is what the party is for; the rogue levels up and takes care of high level traps while the wizard takes care of high level foes that require magical attention and the fighter or barbarian soaks and deals high-level melee damage. In Oblivion, making sure that traveling guards can always kill bandits provide a way for players to stay safe (though it’s well outside the scope of Oblivion). Another example of this would be basically any casual game, particularly trading games which assess players’ potency based on their net worth-players who have high values by exploiting the optimal routes may find that they have not upgraded to deal with high-tier pirates.

  • Don’t automatically change difficulty.

One thing I always find interesting is when game developers talk about doing something for a player. “This way the player has the optimal experience as we adjust (slider) for them.”

I like to consider myself a game designer, but that’s just pretentious. “I know better than the player what will keep them happy.”, essentially. That may be true for some cases, but other times the player wants to play games a certain way and it isn’t permitted because “It’s not how it should be.”, a problem typically found among game creators who insist that their game is a work of art and must be experienced under exact conditions. The truth is that there’s a reason for those difficulties to vary in the first place-I played Deus Ex: Human Revolution on “Tell Me A Story”, rather than on the highest difficulty, because I wanted to be Adam Jensen, destroyer of the puny Illuminati. I often cheat at single-player games (not at multi-player games, since that ruins the legitimacy of the experience more than I’d like) to give myself an avatar I’d like to play as-yes, my Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (ah, Bioware!) character will have +15 saves, because I want to be able to play solo, just like how my Avernum character will have more health than the final boss. I want to win, and see the story advance, more than I’m worried about mechanical constraints, and while I appreciate them in games, if they don’t allow me to get straight to the parts I want to see I will skip them.

  • Consider adding optional challenge.

This is one of my favorite things about roguelikes. I don’t even remember how many challenges Nethack had, but it’s a dungeon-delving game where you can go vegetarian. Yes, that’s right; you get a special blip on your postmortem (or debriefing) if you don’t eat meat while on your quest, and in a game where starvation is possible and a frequent killer, not everyone has that luxury.

The nice thing about this is that it also adds depth to the game without forcing players to conform to a play-style that may not suit them. And, unlike Fable’s “Eating meat is evil/corrupt”, you don’t have to have it be a heavy-handed moral message; it could be something like a bonus boss that is more difficult than any of the challenges usually in the game to push the players to their limit (I remember Eternal Sonata for this, though little else).


In short, when designing games it is important to consider how certain things will be received by the players; it’s like the Oprah “Bees” video, where her audience gets swarmed by bees rather than being given the customary gift-if your player sits down and expects to get a pat on the head, but gets a necromorph in the spleen instead (side note: I’ve never played Dead Space, so my representation may be off), they may not enjoy the “reward” for their spotless performance. This is especially true if the difficulty is unfair, or ramps up for achievements that do not necessarily reflect player or character ability.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *