The Weekend Gamer
Thoughts on gaming culture, living among non-gamers, and growing up in the nintendo generation

Can We Handle Permanency in Games?

At GDC last Friday, Garnet Lee had a whole slew of all-star pundits including N’Gai Croal, Stephen Totilo, and John Davison.  As part of their round table discussion, they brought up something that got me thinking, and I’d like to bring it to you. 

Basically, it’s this–can we as gamers handle consequence?  What I mean is, can we handle the idea of our in game actions having permanent consequences for our characters? 

Peter Molyneux would like to attempt to give you just that scenario.  Last week he showed footage of Fable 2, and while he was demonstrating the ability to invite someone else to join your game world, he also demonstrated that any player character can exact permanent change on the world they’re in.  He did this by having his companion’s character kill his character’s husband.   As Peter said during the demonstration, be careful who you invite into your world.

That might be scary enough, but Molyneux also revealed that he wants to try and push the boundaries of gamers’ expectations in this area further than ever, but that it’s gamers themselves who are rejecting it.  In focus testing, there was a game mechanic in Fable 2 where if you were defeated you could spend experience points to revive yourself. 

But say you didn’t have any free XP left.  In that scenario, your enemies would come and beat on your character, and when they finally awoke, their appearance would be disfigured in some way.  If you allowed this to happen often enough (or failed often enough), your character would become so disfigured that NPC’s would begin to react to your unattractive appearance in different ways, possibly becoming less friendly, etc. 

The focus testers hated it so much (save for those who went out of their way to disfigure their character), that at present that mechanic has been pulled from the game.  Molynuex revealed that players were literally shutting off their consoles to force the system to reset.

On 1up yours, Garnett and crew brought these two examples up, and argued that we’ve been conditioned to expect no consequences for failure–to expect that a fail state will result in a reset of game conditions and we can just try again.  They also observed that this is something that was necessary because of hardware limitations in prior years, but we’re so used to it that when a developer tries to change that paradigm, we reject it. 

So my questions to you is this? Do you like the idea of consequence in your games, or does the idea of permanency on your character and game world make you queasy?

Personally, I have those same thoughts about games.  I want to get the best ending, the perfect result–especially in RPG’s.  I hate to miss secrets or story bits that can only be revealed by accomplishing certain tasks in the right way.  I’ll admit it, I’ve reset my PC or console from time to time to go back and get a more pleasing outcome. 

But at the same time, Fable 2’s ideas of consequence intrigue me to no end.  I would be willing to give up some freedom from consequence in order to experience a world so dynamic that my actions had a real effect on it.  Why?  Because it would make it feel as if those actions mattered, and it would make those choices more interesting, more emotionally charged, and more engaging.  And in the end, that’s what I want in my games, especially in an RPG.

I’m not saying that all failure states should lead to permanent failure.  Consequences that force the player to cease playing the game should be avoided, as they are anathema to the whole point of playing the game.  So, perma-death would be no fun, because it means that you literally are stopped from playing the game once you make your first mistake.  Likewise, the final boss should be a repeatable endeavor (although if one failed, I could see there being permanent consequences other than death). 

But I want to believe that there’s room for a game like this in our universe, and unfortunately some of the evidence seems to suggest that we can’t handle it.  At least not in the full way that the Lionhead team intend. 

–WG

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10 Responses to “Can We Handle Permanency in Games?”

  1. I’m curious to see the demographic of that play test group in fable 2 because i’m heavily intrigued and would support permanency/consequences. I feel at the moment that it takes a more mature player to appreciate this dynamic in a game and can understand that pre-teens and teens probablly would struggle as they are rather bullish with games… wanting to be the best, get the best gear etc. WoW as the perfect example. I don’t think you’d see this pop up in FPS’ers or the like but i can see it becoming pretty attractive in the adventure, RPG realm and am disappointed that the content was removed from fable 2… especially since the fable series has always been about new ways to do old things. Their elaborate good vs. evil alignment tree where all your actions affect it as the example here.

  2. I would like to see the mechanic as disable-able(yikes, what a word). It seems like a pretty sophisticated thing, adding stress and difficulty to gameplay…maybe eventually it will be something that can be switched on and off in options…Permanence or Impermanence.

  3. Unfortunately, what is being compared in Fable 2 is not exactly the same as a general permanence in gameplay. Fable 2 is essentially punishing you for failure and with negative unalterable consequences. I can’t imagine anyone would want that especially if it affected the outcome of the story and deemed your gaming experience less then if you had succeeded. If someone comes into my game world and shoots a key character, why would I want them there in the first place?

    When I think of permanence, I think of having a pack of seeds and being able to plant trees, building new parts of the town, tearing down old parts. I want NPC’s to talk about my exploits as I accomplish them and they can even bring up my failures too. I’d like a sign that says Big Red killed the Dragon planted near my latest exploit.

    That to me is permanence and doesn’t have a negative impact on gameplay.

  4. A couple of things come to mind.

    First, players should feel that when one door shuts, another opens. Major, permanent changes should feel like reroutes, instead of setbacks. For example, “I never would have met [x person] if I hadn’t parted ways with [y person].” If players can be made to perceive such a change more as a turn of events than a loss of content access, then they might be more open to it.

    Second, permanent consequences are more conducive to sandbox gameplay than linear gameplay. Players of open-ended games have fewer, weaker expectations about the course their game sessions will take. Dissatisfaction occurs when one’s experience falls short of expectation. The more dynamic a game is, the more fluid expectations are and the more we’re willing to accept deviance from them. Also, the more frequently expectations are broken in a particular game, the more fluid the player’s expectations will become.

    But Garnet’s group was probably right that Molyneux’s problem is the result of decades of conditioning. Designers like to talk about games that will make us sad and angry the way movies do, but gamers in general don’t want that sort of stuff in games (at least, not in the sort of games we’re already familiar with).

    Unsettling movies and unsettling games are fundamentally different. The saddened or angered movie viewer must only continue to watch further events. The saddened or angered gamer must continue to participate in events. Therefore, negative emotions require more patience from gamers than from movie-viewers.

  5. With advances in technology today it is possible to both have our cake and eat it too – lasting consequences in-game, combined with ability to do 4-5 rolling quicksaves would allow players to branch out and try different things to investigate the consequences of different actions, knowing that they can always go back to a pivotal moment and try to decide things differently without having to play through half the game to get there. This allows the gamer to control the narrative, which is what we all really want anyway – to be the storyteller.

  6. Could you imagine if you were 15 hours in to Mass Effect when a mechanic like ‘permanent scarring incurred from a horrific battle’ kicked in? What would the majority of gamers do? Quickload? Continue? Restart? Hmmm… What would I do? I think at that time I would like to keep going as an experiment on myself to see what would happen.

  7. I am all for it, especially the disfiguring part. Being killed so many times I become a zombie sounds like fun!

  8. I want to get the best ending, the perfect result–especially in RPG’s. I hate to miss secrets or story bits that can only be revealed by accomplishing certain tasks in the right way.

    What if there were secrets or story bits that were only accessible if you ended up with a permanent disfiguring scar (to use the Fable example you mentioned)?

  9. The expectations and resources required by games and gamers will nly cont. to grow over the next comple of years, be looking for laser backed TV in 2010


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