video games

Failing Forward: How to Find Fun In Failure

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At 9:00am on 4/18/2018, I attended the presentation “Failing Forward: How to Find Fun In Failure”, Presented by Rebecca Slitt of Choice of Games, at the 2018 East Coast Gaming Conference in At the Raleigh Convention Center in Raleigh, NC.

Failing Forward: How to Find Fun in Failure

Rebecca Slitt is an editor and partner at Choice of Games, LLC. She is also the author of the interactive novels Psy High and First Year Demons. She has also contributed to the tabletop games Timewatch RPG, Noirlandia, and Geist; and is the author of the forthcoming Dark College Years. Before joining Choice of Games, Rebecca was a professor of medieval history, specializing in the aristocratic and military culture of twelfth-century England. She has presented on game design and interactive fiction at Worldcon, Arisia, the Villanova University Popular Culture Series, and the International Medieval Congress on Medieval Studies.

Failure can be awesome

For a story to have meaningful stakes, the protagonist needs to fail. Indeed, the best stories can come from overcoming failure to fight towards a final victory. Would Return of the Jedi be quite so satisfying if it didn’t follow the end of The Empire Strikes Back, when all seemed to be lost?

It’s easy to build this kind of structure into a book or a movie, but what about an interactive narrative medium such as a videogame? First, you can’t necessarily predict when the player will fail, or at what task. Second, if the player fails too much, they become discouraged, unhappy, and disengaged from the story – but if the player never fails, the game is boring: the stakes don’t feel real, and victory doesn’t feel satisfying. Third, failure can sometimes stall the story: if the only outcome of failure is “try again,” then the player can get stuck in a loop.

As a creator of text-only interactive fiction, Choice of Games has made “failing forward” one of its core design principles. Even if the player fails at an individual task, the story must keep moving forward; even if the player has a horrible failure overall, there must still be something awesome about that failure. In my presentation, I will examine some techniques of narrative and mechanics that can help maintain narrative momentum and player satisfaction through failure, such as multi-layered success, multiple goals, success-with-complications, and more.

The player can’t doo everything. Sometimes the story requires it and building the drama of fighting back or items which can show the player they are invested, even though they’ve failed.

What is the mechanical and narrative role of failure, techniques to make failure satisfying, and then some specific examples of how to make failure move things forward with scene-specific ad game-level failures. we ‘ll see some tools and create some awesome failures.

The goal is not to convie that failure happens., but rather to discuss why failure is awesome- how they fill needs. The mechnaical role of failuremechanicla role offeres constratint and boundarieis, rules, and teaches the plauer what they’re allowed to do, what good at, and what they should do. You can get better by trying and failing, and learning my experience.

Narratively, failure evokes emotions, stopping them from doing tng s they want to do and effectively making them wanting it more. Building drama makes sweeter the positive emotions of success.

All of this is caught up in stakes. IF the player cannot fail anything, the story doesn’t feel real. for the story to free real, there must be a chance to fail and also chance to succeed. If there is no success, no way to succeed, they will check out, and not be invested. As narrative designers and writers, we must communicate to the player, why they fail, what happens next, that they could have succeeded, and that there is still something to be done- a reason to continue the story.

Sometime the story line or arc requires failure. Sometimes the story suggests that success should exist, but it does not.

What comes after failure?

is it game over, is it try again immediately, is it a try again later mechanic? Must you go away, build up skills, and try again? some games have different mechanic and they aren’t the right tools for the job in particular.


Choice of Games

At this point in the presentation, Rebecca talked about the materials with Choice of Games. This portion of the material did not strike a chord with the audience because it seemed like product-specific marketing. she discussed her projects, the choice software that she used, and the decisions that she and her team wanted to make. As many people worked in diverse genres of gaming, talking about a pinpoint design that few if any use, it is mainly a wasted moment in the presentation.

Often, a presenter is interested in showing themselves, but the audience is trying to take the information and apply it to their industry or projects. While these items are specific to the speaker, and make the speaker feel good, the point of a presentation is to speak to the audience about a topic they want to hear about and apply. A presentation is not to pat yourself on the back.


Tiered success: partial success

Tabletop games make success and failure a part of the narrative function. They incorporate partial success- not either a success or a failure. One that does this wonderfully is Apocalypse World by Vincent and Meg Baker. Even without a success, you can get some success but still have a consequence of failure. Another tier success model such as found in Archipelago by Matthijs Holter is Yes, But… and No, But… These tiered success and tiered failure models are heavily used in improv.

In tabletop gaming, these items are clear. Its harder in a digital context, as the code is hidden. So we need to find ways to communicate it to the player.

Then there was an example from one of her games. At the mechanical level, the stat is tested. You can succeed well, succeed poorly, or fail. Narratively, at the top tier, you are the star, at success you get a small part, at failure you are out, but there is still a chance to get involve in an alternate fashion.

Similarly, she discussed a 2 items test: You might give bad orders and they are not followed- people die. You give the right orders but no one follows them- some people die. You give the wrong orders but they crew follow them- some people die. You give the right orders and everyone follows to the letter and everyone does well. As a result of this double-test, you may gain or lose TRUST in the crew which can be tested later.

Partial success gives you complexity in story branches. It allows for granularity in tests of character abilities- giving a greater sense of dynamism in the narrative, and a greater sense of customization.

The other major success is a yes… but result. Let the player know  the strengths and weaknesses, and how they might play to those strengths. If failing, yes, the story moves forward, but you lose resources and time. In a No.. but result, failure keeps the story moving forward, but you do not do what you’re supposed to and everyone thinks its brilliant.

Yes/No but… gives you and economy of story branches- introducing new stories through failure. It also allows for interesting tradeoffs among resources. This raises the stakes in different ways.


Extrapolating into long-term success and failure

While success or failure may seem as though it should happen now, digital games have an advantage in that a previous success or failure can reappear much later in a seemingly unrelated way. Rather than setting up a game where you can lose without and item from partway through the game- a 1 to 1 correspondence for satisfying failure may not exist. We need to revisit the top 4 strategies above and find new ones as needed.

Rather than failure-now or failure-later accounting, a system of “cumulative successes and failures” can be used. Small cumulative failures can add up to a point where later in the game a full failure is approached based on previous set of failures. Examples might include failed bluffs in the past, arrests, escapes when confronted, etc which might make you more known, causing you to be caught in the act due to recognition. Another example might be that a small failure might cause a guard to be more wary or more… on guard (on alert) making the chances of success lower and/or the alert levels to rise to make discovery easier.


Multiple goals

Having multiple goals allows for differing levels of success. It allows for strong replay value as you can try again to push a different result. You may be feared or beloved, may have many assets or few assets, may have tons of experience or lesser experience… multiple goals allow you to have specified results and a more personalized experience or also allowing a replay to include a better result at what your players truly desired.

With multiple goals, you can never get them all, you’ll have to make choices. By directing your gameplay, players will have the ability to choose the success and challenges that they wish to emphasize. Increase drama and investment by allowing your players to try, fail, and have a responsive environment which breaks out. You can always try again and succeed.

ECGC: Keynote Speaker Mary DeMarle of EIDOS

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“The purpose of a story teller is not to tell you how to think but to give you questions too think upon.”
Brandon Sanderson the way of kings.

Can the story be art? Can Video Games tell meaningful story? These are bad questions to ask. The real questions should be: “HOW do we combine narrative and play to tell  the story? CAN we use the mechanics of gameplay to evoke emotions on a deep and meaningful level? How do we offer meaningful choices to our players?”

Players should explore and a well-crafted game should force us to make decisions and react or discover consequences, and confront the result of our decisions.

Artists use lies to tell the truth

Interactivity and the gameplay loop
nothing in game world happens without player interaction.

The four major ways in which our players advance through their games are by the same simple mechanics:

  1. Encounter a difficulty
  2. Acquire an ability
  3. Overcome a challenge
  4. Get a reward

The question is, “Will they get the reward?”


Step 1: Recognize that the mechanics of a story operate like a gameplay loop. Break the story into specific sequences of gamelplay within each level.

At this point in the conference, DeMarle showed us an excel sheet which broke down a level of Deus Ex Human Revolution. It did not stay up long  😦

The materials approached the story level in a manner similar to how a project managers breaks their projects down into tasks as part of the critical chain. The level required that 2 sequences be completed. Each sequence was broken into tasks, and each task was broken down into blocks of gameplay. Each block of gameplay included a difficulty, acquiring an ability, a challenge, and a reward.

Example Level: The Compound
Sequence: infiltrate the compound & secure the prototype.
Two items: Infiltration, Securing Prototype
5 blocks of gameplay for each item.
For each level, we introduce the tension, escalate it, reveal in a climax and resolve the situation with a twist!

A reader must have some point of contact with the story to make him feel at home in it, only then can they accept the wonder.

Step 2: Understand what your player can and cannot do

An important thing to keep in mind when creating your games is balancing ability vs Challenge. Too much challenge and game quickly becomes frustrating. Too much ability and the game quickly becomes boring. Challenges evoke fear. Ability evokes hope.

Engaging the player
Player time & energy spent playing a game is equal to the level of autonomy. Do they control their destiny?

Story vs. Autonomy
A great story allows both choice and deviation. A great example of this is the Witcher 2. That said, it is important to grasp and understand that autonomy is not freedom. Autonomy is being in control of choices, and endorsing the path you are on.

If the story isn’t about the hearer, they will not listen. If its isn’t about everyone, it will not last.

Stories take us on a journey and teach us about the human condition, the world, and ourselves. Stories which do not are flat, cheap, and unnecessary.


Step 3: focus the narrative on deeply personal and familiar events. Focus the story on the people, not the events.

Encourage autonomy in your games by offering choices! Choices should show players the emotions released and how their choices affect the other people. But, you cannot hide the choices. You are free to make the choice, but you are not free of the consequence of the choice. Reactions may not be what you expect, but they should at least make sense. Show the consequences, but do not judge the player because of it.

Half the art of storytelling is to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it or retells it. Showing consequences without judgement allows the player to get their own meanings from it.

One last thought, keep your choices clear of conflict by keeping like choices together. A great example of a failure in this regard is as follows:

“You are running out of time to capture the villain! Should you take the door on the right and save the life of the little girl, or take the door on the left and receive the repeating combat shotgun?”

This is a terrible choice. You are forcing your players to choose an emotional success (saving the child), or a tactical success (getting the repeating combat shotgun). Tactical players will choose the weapon because they want to WIN. Emotional gamers will save the child because they don’t want to see anyone die. This unbalances the game, because the player with the powerful gun breezes through the next few levels, while the rescuer has to fight tooth and nail until the end of the game.

Unless you want some players to complain, later in the game the rescuer needs to receive a powerful weapon to re-balance their odds. So, if both characters receive powerful weapons, the choice to rescue the girl was a wasted and unneeded choice, resulting in no difference between the paths. That choice should be removed or reworked. A better solution would be to choose between 2 characters, with one surviving and the other paying the ultimate price.

In the end- stories should take us on journeys, teach us, reveal things about us, and always keep us wanting more.

ECGC Keynote: Game Pitches (and Business Pitches) with Ken Rolston

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The Keynote Speaker at the East Coast Gaming Conference on Wednesday, April 23rd was Ken Rolston, narrative designer, roleplaying designer, and all-around nice guy. His talk was almost entirely about setting up ways to pitch your game ideas, but it also nicely meshed with ideas for promoting business pitches. I’ll chime in along with his notes with leadership or business ideas as I related them.

To prepare us for the talk, Ken setup the following roadmap for his talk:

  1. Game pitches
  2. Premise
  3. Powerpoint
    ——-  Then a brief break  ———–
  4. Discovery
  5. Models
  6. Closet dramas

In setting us up for this journey, Ken notes that he always writes in his margins, and in fact he had the word “Landmarks” outside of the staging area of his powerpoint slides. The point of this, he noted, was that in any presentation, you should talk off the slides, not directly from them. Get the idea across, always imply MORE than what the screens say, and always communicate the full information, even if you have to create only small amount of information in your slides.

At this point, I’d like to highlight the fact that we’ve almost all been in a presentation where the teacher or businessman reads directly off the slide, as though we ourselves were incapable of doing so. What a waste of everyone’s time. Why take notes or even pay attention when you can skim or scan the information in a heartbeat? Show your skill and knowledge by using the  slide as a starting point, not as the entire journey.
Game ideas are the pitch that makes money. It tells us what will happen, what we need to do, the character and the environment’s relationship with users. The ideal approach is that when making your plan and your pitch, it should remain as useful to the end user as when it gets to the publishers.

In looking for new video game ideas for the first time, Ken noted that his ideas followed an original (also reads very naive) plan:

  1. Call for pitches from anyone interested on staff
  2. Receive a premise submission, and allow draft revisions
  3. Short list of operators would be allowed to create a powerpoint if their ideas didn’t suck
  4. Each selected operator would give their presentation
  5. The team would review and decide upon a few select (or just one) winner(s)
  6. Project(s) selected would receive pre-production comments

This did not happen in any way as expected. They were flooded with multiple ideas from staff members, many contributing more than one each. Word got out, and the public started contributing in wild numbers. There was simply no way to approach this in a refined format. Instead, with sooo many powerpoints selected, and so many different forms of premise submission, they were forced to do something fun. They created a “brown bag screening” in which company employees and anyone who submitted content could come and gauge all the submissions. It was an instant success! It has been a plan he’s followed several times after as well.

Premise Submission

What is a premise? Well, a premise is a 2-page executive summary and formal design checklist for your video game idea. When pitching a video game, the premise will be instrumental in getting your idea in front of the best people to get it made.

The premise document is so vitally important, that everyone interested needs to create a perfectly well-formed document. Isn’t it surprising that there is still no accepted format to make a premise document? Ken Rolston outlined the following items to include in your premise document.

What to include in your video game premise document when pitching a video game:

  1. Title of the game
  2. Describe an imaginative entry
  3. High concept of the game
  4. Who are you and what you are doing
  5. What kind of interface will there be/how will the interface be used
  6. Explanation of gameplay
  7. What the mood of the game will be like
  8. Target audience & suggested platform
  9. Finance model (how will it make money- its best if you know how this would be done)
  10. Emulation target (what other game is this like?)

I’d like at this point to note how closely this resembles a business pitch for a large business venture, a new business endeavour, or a new program at your college.

Your PowerPoint

Your PowerPoint document is a major step in getting your game published. You’ll be presenting your video game idea in its clearest, most visual format ever. Do your best to make this a fantastic affair.

What to consider before creating your video game powerpoint presentation

  1. Industry standard information
  2. Define your game by providing example imagery (doesn’t matter where you get it) that provides the mood
  3. Study existing PowerPoint presentations (find them online)
  4. Ken Rolston provided a starter template at the session- if you’re interested in finding it, please visit the ECGC website and watch the presentation. It should be available in November 2014
  5. Share evolving models between ideas
  6. Steal styles and tricks from others and existing powerpoints
  7. Thrive on art director love (learn to do things that aren’t about the words, like designing your own documents, layouts and graphics)
  8. Creating a powerpoint is easier than creating the premise document


A Practical Template for creating your video game powerpoint presentation

  1. Game title & evocative logo
  2. What is it? (what is your game about)
  3. Why should the viewer care (about the game, about the land, about the character)
  4. Who is the video game for (who is the main audience)
  5. List of game features (list these in bullet points)
  6. Fiction flow or progression (What happens in the opening, mid-game, and end game)
  7. Pictures including art and tone (suggest the tone of the game in every shot)


Discoveries on the Path to Enlightenment

When Ken went on to talk about developing a game, he pointed out an important lesson, or set of lessons found on the way to completion. The main lesson to take away is this: Make everything you feel is important into the game. Not everything will survive until the final cut, but starting with the most ideas will ensure that the best will bubble to the top.

Ken’s Suggestions for building the best gaming experience possible:

  • build 400%
  • archive 350%
  • develop all remaining into 100% awesome!!!

In short, build 4 times as much material, 4 times as much story, 4 times as much environments, 4 times as many items, etc. From this, trim out any extranneous material, any slow-moving materials, and unneeded storylines. When only the best of the best is left, expand, expound, improve, and increase this remaining 50% into 100% awesome materials.

unanticipated lessons and benefits: like surviving in the wilderness

Brown bag festival

  1. Test pitch on gamers- By inviting all the gamers, we were able to test the pitches on actual gamers
  2. Gauge trends- See how many game types are re-occuring trends in the minds of gamers
  3. Share process with studio- the whole staff gets to be involved and excited about the games
  4. Celebrate creativity- everyone presenting feels important
  5. Reward initiative and commitment- Those who are active staff members are rewarded for their efforts
  6. Public display of studio mission- the public gets to see your level of excitement and interest in fames

Literature is the sum of the text and the response of the reader!


Final Word: Presenting to the money men

In the end, its all about the premise and powerpoint. But, having our materials presented to the entire staff generated the FAQ- questions which would be about what the executive WANTS to hear. And then you can answer those things. If you could promote to friends, and answer all FAQ they have in an effort to prepare the FAQ for executives, you’ll be gold. If you can answer 3 questions in a row, they know you’re smart, you’ve thought about the product and the process, and you’re a good bet..

The visionary genious must answer each and every question when presenting the materials. The presentation is a way to get executive and user questions, they are different even with studio folks. Have those 3 great answers to win

Last word: Ron Kelton suggests you always use the word “freshness” instead of innovation.