Punishment Antipattern

Problem: Player is able to finish the game too quickly, or they are not discovering the strategies the game has to offer, or they are not playing the game as the game designer intended.

Solution: Punish the player in a variety of ways: make them start over and play through a large sequence until they get it right; take away points or rewards; kill their avatar.

Consequence: This is the opposite of PositiveReinforcement. Something that only receives passing notice in the behaviorism world is that organisms don't like punishment and they do like positive reinforcement. All things being equal, if you're trying to encourage a behavior, you'll have happier organisms if you go the positive reinforcement route.

Another way of looking at it: if the behavior you want to encourage is Playing Your Game, you better not punish the player, because they may not realize you're punishing them for pressing punch when they should have pressed kick; they might feel like they're being punished for playing the game at all.

(How many times have you stopped playing a videogame when you were winning? It happens, sure, but most of the time people stop when they're losing.)

The genius behind the new No Punishment wave of videogames would have to be Ron Gilbert, the man who brought us Monkey Island. Before Monkey Island, adventure games consisted of many ways to die and very few ways to advance. Monkey Island turned that around by making sure the player could never hurt themselves, no matter what they did.

This rule is extremely hard to implement; it exists in natural tension with the very nature of games. If you can't fail at a game, then it loses the whole element of challenge, and is no longer a game at all, but a toy. You can't just take Doom, put the character in God mode, and have a 'better' game. I quit playing Starcraft's single player campaign after several missions because they were too easy.

So what's the answer? How do you decrease punishment and still have a game? Several games have made inroads in this area: In The Sims, it's quite rare that your character will die and you have to start all over. (Unless you make the mistake of putting furniture next to the bed while they're sleeping, something I did the very first time I played.) The game here is to grow the character, but the player can do it at their own pace, and the setbacks are usually only minor (burglary, fire...)

Examples: King's Quest, Spider-Man.

Early games are still considered 'good' and 'classics' even though they were excessive in their punishment. Ed Del Castillo thinks there's something in the male psyche that--in a way--enjoys punishment. We like to fail because then it's all that much more satisfying when we finally succeed. This is what makes it possible for us to play the shooting gallery subquests of Zelda over and over again, until we get that perfect score (and the positive reinforcement of a larger quiver.)

Examples of eschewing punishment: In Tony Hawk, you never die when you fail to pull off a gnarly trick.

In Zelda, you have 'hit points'; when your character is hit, you're docked a couple of points. Lose enough and you die. Although this is still punishment, it is much less severe than the punishment in Mario World: you're hit, you start over.

In GTA3, being arrested docks you some money and restarts you outside the jail. Being 'killed' docks you some money and restarts you outside the hospital. No need to go back to a save game here. (Although I personally find the missions to be quite punishing sometimes.)

In Soul Reaver, you don't die. You become temporarily incorporeal and have to return to a warp point to resume physical form.

In Deus Ex, each challenge has a wide variety of solutions; you rarely have the situation where what seems like a good solution to the player wasn't a good solution to the game designer. Also, if one solution does fail (the player gets caught being stealthy) they can often get through another way (pull out the guns and blast their way through).

Research Idea

It would be really good to have some information about what game players considered acceptable levels of punishment. And what kinds of punishment are there? I can think of three:

Video games with complex options often punish extremely creative solutions to problems; they are either considered to be bugs in the game, or are roundly discouraged with negative feedback. When this occurs, it might imply that the design could better encompass player desires with some revision; players that are happy with the intended mechanics usually don't try to intentionally break the gameplay.