The question of how much punishment should be given to the player when they lose a life or make a bad choice is highly dependent on the type of game being created. Most modern single-player games tend to have less punishment as publishers want people to be able to complete their games. Take an example such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In Skyrim, you have the ability to save your game whenever you wish, as many times as you want. Because of this save anywhere, anytime feature, particularly with the use of quicksave, punishment for the player can be reduced to next to none provided the player doesn’t save at an inopportune moment.
Contrast this with Gradius III, one of my favorite shmups for the Super Nintendo. Released for the arcade originally and later ported to the North American Super Nintendo in 1991, Gradius III is known for its staggering difficulty, particularly in the arcade. It restarts the player upon death at a previous point in the level provided the player has at least one life remaining. One of the main game mechanics of the Gradius series is the power-up meter at the bottom of the screen. Certain red enemies in the game drop power-ups when they are killed, and in addition, killing certain enemy formations will cause a power-up to drop from the last enemy.
By grabbing these power-ups, one of the power-up icons on the bottom of the screen will light up. Getting more power-ups moves which icon is lit up, until the last icon is reached, at which point the indicator will wrap around and start over. The player is allowed to “cash out” and get whatever power-up is being indicated at the time, allowing for interesting player choices where the player must decide when to use the power-up or hold out for something better. During a playthrough, the player becomes gradually more powerful by collecting multiple power-ups to outfit their arsenal until they are a death machine.
Unfortunately, in Gradius III, as well as the other Gradius games, without some kind of shield protecting the player, 1 hit will kill the player instantly and send them back a fair distance in the level. In addition, the player will lose ALL power-ups their ship had, and to add insult to injury, the power-up indicator resets to speed-up (unless they didn’t have a power-up in reserve, in which case, they start with nothing). This is particularly debilitating later on in the game since the ship moves so slow and has such weak firepower.
To compensate, the game always gives you a certain number of ships with power-ups right before wherever you were last, but often this will not be sufficient to face the challenges the player was given since often times they have more power before they died. This leads to a bad situation where the player often will be repeatedly murdered by the same area, too weak to handle it and not set far enough back to earn enough power. Thus, the player may frequently run out of lives and be sent to the beginning of the level before they can actually make progress again.This is an extremely harsh difficulty curve since the player won’t have the same tools available to meet the challenge that defeated them prior. While it doesn’t take the player long to reach the same point, they tend to lose a disproportionate amount of lives later in the game since the difficulty grows with levels.
When designing your game, care must be taken to balance time as well as challenge when the player is defeated and punishment is meted. Released in 1993 in North America for the Super Nintendo (one of the games that drew me to the mecha genre along with Gundam Wing), Mechwarrior penalizes the player heavily whenever they lose a mission. Normally, when the player completes a mission, they receive a certain amount of money for the mission; however, when the player fails a mission, they receive no money. This is compounded by the fact that the player must spend money each mission to repair their mech and restock their weaponry. In addition, they must also draw from these same cash reserves to buy upgrades or new mechs, power-ups that are essential to progress through the game’s increasing difficulty (in fact, it gets so challenging that I still have not beaten MechWarrior to this day). Thus, the player can easily spiral into a no-win state where the player does not have enough money to tackle even the easiest mission, particularly early on when the player is getting used to the game. If the player doesn’t play intelligently, they won’t make it far.
Last on the list that we will take a look at today is one of my favorite indie platformers, Super Meat Boy. Released on Steam and elsewhere back in 2010 to critical acclaim, Super Meat Boy strikes an excellent balance between punishment and difficulty. While the game itself is incredibly challenging, Super Meat Boy doesn’t get as frustrating since the player is respawned right back into the action within moments. No matter how many times the player dies, the amount of punishment given to the player is low. You may ask yourself what the difference is between this and Skyrim, since Skyrim also has a small punishment. The main differences are that the player cannot dictate when they can save their progress, and Super Meat Boy is much more difficult than Skyrim. While the player can save anywhere in Skyrim, if their computer or game system isn’t too fast, the player will have to sit through multiple loading screens, which creates unintentional punishment. At any given moment, the player is more likely to die in Super Meat Boy, but that doesn’t matter because punishment is so low. As a result, the game can be fair and incredibly challenging at the same time.
Depending on what kind of game you are designing, you may not need to punish the player. You may not even want to punish the player very much, fearing that casual players will get turned off by your game. But remember, you have to balance challenge with fun 😀