Developer Failed Morale Check
Games as Learning

Time & Punishment

Clock What could we learn by examining the time penalties a game uses to punish its players?

Last year, we looked at the idea of reconsidering the usual split between “hardcore” and “casual” players in terms of a preference for punishing or forgiving games. Here's an extract from the piece entitled Redefining Hardcore & Casual:

Casual players are looking for games that are more forgiving – and along the same lines, more welcoming. They don’t necessarily want a big time commitment (but may still spend a lot of time playing a particular game), and they certainly don’t want to be punished for their failures – they want failure to be forgiven...

[Conversely the] gamer hobbyists contain a great many players for whom the “old school” sensibilities of the arcade game and the early home videogame are more desired – games in which you are up against impossible odds, where you will fail often, and be punished for the slightest misstep. Why are these games enjoyed? Presumably because punishing for failure makes success all the more vital to strive towards and so the threat of punishment adds not only excitement to the play of the game, but it intensifies the reward in fiero (the emotion of triumph over adversity) that is received when success if finally attained.

One way of exploring this notion of punishing games (versus forgiving games) is in terms of the time penalties that are implied by specific outcomes. In a forgiving game, the losses to the player for a mistake are usually minimal. In a punishing game, the player is risking their accrued progress for making a mistake – thus (provided the player is open to this style of play) increasing the excitement by adding risks to the play.

In the days of arcade games, of course, the player was consistently threatened with punishment – the loss of current progress within the level when a life was lost, coupled with the loss of all progress in the game when all lives were lost. In Nemesis, for instance (Gradius in the US) the player loses 2-5 minutes of level progress when they die, but they also lose up to 20 minutes of power up progress as well (as all their power ups are lost when dying) – a dual penalty. A full game takes 30 minutes, so this is the maximum penalty on offer.

When the “pump and play” era arrived with Gauntlet, suddenly the player was offered an alternative: instead of paying the time penalty, add money to continue. Many players did so, although whether the overall commercial health of the arcade was helped or hindered by this change in the design is less clear. (Many players paid to complete a game, then stopped – but before pump and play, most players put in one coin and then moved to another machine). Later still, Gauntlet Legends allowed players to record their character progress between play sessions – reducing the time penalty quite considerably.

Games consoles and the casual games explosion moved the design of games in both directions – more forgiving games appeared, but more punishing games were also developed. The more forgiving games such as Bejewelled or Bust a Move, the time penalties are comparatively low. In Bejewelled, there is no long term progress being tracked, so losing the game means simply ending the current game. This is a penalty of a kind, but it is not a time penalty, per se. Compare this with Bust a Move, where failure means repeating the current level. Since each level takes less than 5 minutes to complete, the time penalty here is always less than 5 minutes.

In the middle ground we have games such as Grand Theft Auto which ask you to repeat a mission if you fail. These missions can take up to 30 minutes to complete, so we can see here much greater time penalties being applied to the player. Many Japanese RPGs, including various Final Fantasy games, don't allow the player to save while in a dungeon (making the dungeons “more exciting”, provided you are willing to accept a more punishing game) – these games can be threatening an hour or more of time penalties for failure, and if you expect to fail a particular battle repeatedly it could be considerably more.

In the far end of punishment you have games which threaten permadeath – the complete loss of all progress so far. Steel Battalion, for instance, threatens that you will lose all your character progress if you do not eject in time – a time penalty that could be in the tens of hours, or even days. These styles of games are about as punishing as can be imagined and, unsurprisingly, games with these kind of punishing sensibilities do not sell in good numbers. (Steel Battalion sold fewer than 20,000 copies – although allegedly developer Inaba claims to have broken even on this project). The majority of players these days want the majority of their progress to be “banked” so it is not lost when they fail, and ratcheted progress is very nearly the industry standard approach.

An interesting point of comparison is Dynasty Warriors 6, which applies a different save scheme according to the difficulty setting chosen. On Easy, the player can save as often as they wish (reduced risk of time penalty), while on Normal the player can save up to three times on a level – they must decide where best to save. On Hard and Master, the player can save only once in a level (increasing both the risk of time penalty, and the size of the time penalty) and on Chaos no saves are permitted (for maximum time penalty, and excitement – provided the player is willing to play on those terms). While this kind of approach is not ideal for mass market players, who generally don't want to be troubled with questions such as “when should I save?”, it's an interesting approach for the game literate players to be able to choose how punishing they want the game to be in respect of lost progress.

Now the player doesn't generally think about these issues in terms of time penalties and punishment, but will make statements such as “I don't want to have to repeat the same bit of gameplay over and over again” (forgiving preference) or “if I lose nothing for dying, the game isn't exciting enough” (punishing preference). Perhaps we would learn something interesting about the nature of videogames if we could study players preferred games, and map the time penalties associated with them.

It seems likely that the games that succeed in the casual marketplace (the true mass market) will all have low time penalties – 5 minutes or less, while the games that succeed in the centre of the market (a mix of game literate players with many different play styles) will all threaten up to 30 minute or an hour time penalties, but usually with the expectation that the player will not have to pay these penalties often if at all. Finally, the most “hardcore”, punishment-seeking players will go as far as permadeath – the ultimate time penalty.

By examining games in terms of the time penalties they threaten, and the frequency of occurrence of those penalties (which of course depends upon the skill of the player), we have a potential semi-objective measure of the degree of punishment or forgiveness that a game offers. Even with the inevitable judgement calls involved in interpreting a particular game event in terms of a time penalty, this might yet be a more practical way of understanding one of the fundamental distinctions between players.

Do you enjoy punishing games that threaten severe penalties in the event of failure, or do you prefer forgiving games, which carefully bank your progress as you play? Let us know your thoughts on time penalties in the comments!


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Gaming is an escapist recreational past-time for me, so I am averse to games that overly 'punish' the player - I find such titles infuriating (and thus stressful), which would kinda defeat any sense of them being 'recreational'.

I find it difficult to comprehend, but I suppose there may be a minority of hardcore players who derive some kind of masochistic pleasure from having to go all the way back to the start of a level in order to get back to the point they were previously knocked out, with every likelihood that it will happen all over again!

It would be like reading a book or watching a movie half-way through, then being compelled to go back to the start because your attention got diverted for just a second.

Embracing such behaviour seems somewhat perverse, a bit like 'playing chicken' in your car, ending up in hospital for three months, then deliberately trying it again just to try and 'make a point' ...!?

To deliberately engage in such a style of gaming seems mindless to me, insofar as it's a form of denial, probably symptomatic of a rampant ego, and as such - a failure to comprehend and accept a parameter of reality beyond natural competencies, both on the part of the player - and the developers! To me, such dogged persistence would be an indicator for slavish stupidity, rather than a gritty resolve.

I suspect a preference for 'punishing' games arises more frequently in multi-player games than in single-player, where in multi-player games elements of the 'herd instinct' arise - bravado, peer-pressure, competitiveness - and thus 'status' - all become factors.

I think single-player games tend to be more cerebral, less visceral, but if a game is weighted so heavily against a player that playing it just becomes an ordeal, then frankly, there are cheaper ways of torturing oneself!

OK then,
All The Best!

Wow 1bd..

I'm not going to take your comments personally, even though you effectively just called me a stupid egomaniac just because of my gameplay preferences. :)

First, I'll respond to your comments, and then I'll attempt to explain the reasons I enjoy playing games the way I do.

"It would be like reading a book or watching a movie half-way through, then being compelled to go back to the start because your attention got diverted for just a second."

It wouldn't be anything like that... Since games are interactive in nature, each distinct playthrough can be vastly different as far as the experience you have while playing. The only time I can think this would be similar to starting a movie over, is if you were playing an RPG and kept watching the same cutscenes over and over.

"To deliberately engage in such a style of gaming seems mindless to me, insofar as it's a form of denial, probably symptomatic of a rampant ego, and as such - a failure to comprehend and accept a parameter of reality beyond natural competencies"

That's some pretty heady pseudo-psychological jargon you're throwing around there. I assume that what you mean by "a parameter of reality beyond natural competencies" is that "if players are not already skilled enough to beat a game, then they will never be able to beat it, and any attempt to is futile"... (Please correct me if I'm wrong). The "parameter of reality" that you seem to be in denial of, however, is: Practice makes better!!!

What I am getting at here is that some people enjoy playing games for the sense of mastery they get from playing the game. Practicing a challenge repeatedly many times until you get it exactly perfect can be incredibly rewarding. Depending on the game, to me this is a lot more rewarding than just half-assedly barely passing a level and then moving on to the next challenge. (Particularly games where each level is a short challenge where perfection can obviously be measured -- for example, the platform game N+, I strive to collect all gold on each level... Or Kurukuru kururin (spinning stick game for GBA), I strive to complete each level without hitting the walls even once. Sure, it can take many dozens of restarts (sometimes hundreds for N+), but the sense of accomplishment I get when finally completing that challenge is immeasurable. (Fiero!)

To me, games are usually only worth playing if I am enjoying them during every minute. The gameplay itself is engaging and requires skill and dexterity. Completing the game is rarely a goal I seek, I just enjoy each moment of playing the game. To me, it seems more pointless to feel like you are wasting time while playing a game (for example, grinding in an RPG)

There can be other types of Fiero seeking that can be enjoyable over a longer term than simply completing individual levels in a short leveled game (N+, etc), and that is what Chris already mentioned about Rastan -- attempting to beat games with only 1 credit. This is particularly enjoyable with 2d shooters (shmups) and older platform games (Contra, Super mario bros, etc). Most of these games are intentionally designed to be so difficult that of course nobody can beat them on their first try. But, as you practice the game more and more (restarting from the beginning each time with only using a limited number of credits and no savestates), you start to feel a sense of accomplishment -- the further you get into the game each time. A sense of mastery. Eventually the ultimate goal of beating the game in 1 credit can be had, fiero pays off, you gain bragging rights, etc. :)

I encourage you to read the article entitled "Arcade culture" on the Insomnia blog -
It's a fun read, and a good introduction into the mentality of playing games using only 1 credit. The article is cocky and conceited at times, although no moreso than your opposing comments here. :)

Surely you have read about Csikszentmihalyi's theory of "Flow"?
( )

When both challenge and skills are high, flow can be achieved. If challenge is high, and skills are low, frustration occurs. So certainly, even hardcore gamers can experience frustration when playing difficult games for the first time... But as their mastery of the game increases through practice, their flow experience increases likewise, making each subsequent playthrough of the game more rewarding. Regardless of whether we're playing the same levels over and over (Which doesn't really matter to most of us, it's simply the background)... What may seem like mindless repetition to an outside observer, is actually a highly enjoyable and engaging flow experience to the hardcore player.

Another point I'd like to bring up is: What differentiates playing video games from any other sport or activity where competitors practice to get better? For example, would you consider a professional racecar driver "stupid and egotistical" for tenaciously practicing the same course over and over in order to shave seconds off his time and attain a record?
What about a basketball player, practicing freethrows over and over, to improve his game on the court?
Certainly, these two activities -- driving the same course, and freethrows, could be parallelled to "playing the same game level over and over again", yet I doubt you would condemn them for this activity -- they are simply mastering the nuances of the game or art they enjoy. Why should video games be treated any differently? Everybody has different hobbies. Some people even enjoy knitting! Go figure!!!

(Just as an aside, I, myself, enjoy improving my lap times in the multiplayer racing game Trackmania nations)

I must admit, that in the past, for a while, I too got in the mentality of thinking that progress in games should only be linear. You start at the beginning. You play each level only once, you beat the game. Move on to the next game. Etc. ... It's hard to avoid getting sucked into that mentality if you play mainstream console games. It started in the mid 90's, and around the 32 bit generation, very rapidly, the arcade/oldschool game mentality was pushed to a niche market.
But about 4 years ago, I started having a craving for playing oldschool games again. I even played a lot of them using savestates for a while. After a while, I realized I was robbing myself of the true experience of the game -- If you play a game without savestates, you have more "at stake" (losing your progress)... Knowing that alone can make the experience more exciting and enjoyable -- in the moment of playing! (Which is what really counts, isn't it?)

Now the main reason I use savestates is on bullet hell shooters - but it is not to "restart where I left off", on some of the games I am "practicing", I have a savestate at the beginning of each level and each boss -- I can load them up and practice those levels independently of the rest of the game, to increase my skills for when I do make a run through the entire game in an attempt to beat it in 1 or 2 credits.

1bd, I'm curious to know:

How old are you?
What games you enjoy right now?
What games have you enjoyed in your past? Surely you enjoyed arcade/oldschool games at some point in your past? If so, what is it that has driven you so far from this perspective (So far as to call us stupid egomaniacs :P )


"Many Japanese RPGs, such as Final Fantasy XIII, don't allow the player to save while in a dungeon (making the dungeons “more exciting”, provided you are willing to accept a more punishing game) – these games can be threatening an hour or more of time penalties for failure, and if you expect to fail a particular battle repeatedly it could be considerably more."

How do you know this? That game isn't even out in Japan yet, let alone America, let alone Europe.

I can more or less understand both of you since I'm more in a middle ground when it comes to repeating content.

I think time penalties in (most?) games are necessary. But there needs to be a limit. Generally speaking I'm happy with games that make you repeat a 5-10 minutes long level for a mistake. More than that is pushing it. I might be able make an exception up to 15 if the game is really good. But even if the game is really good, if it makes me repeat 2 hours of content I'm not down with that.

Another thing I'm against is making you repeat pointless content before you get to the part you want to try. Here's an example: in Ninja Gaiden Sigma (great game by the way), they make you have to climb a mountain before the final boss, and every time you die to him you have to climb the same mountain just to get to him. I want to fight the boss, not waste time climbing that mountain 20 times.
It's kind of like making you watch the same unskippable cutscene every time.

And then we have games with bad gameplay like GTA that make you repeat 30 minute missions. That's inexcusable.

Regarding JRPGs that don't let you save in a dungeon, I don't agree with you, Chris. Even if you can't save inside the dungeon you can always go back outside to save. Generally in an RPG, dungeons are designed in such a way that the act of exploring and obtaining all the items/clearing all the puzzles in it takes a long time, but once you've done that, you can go through it quite fast.

So what you're supposed to do if you can't save in a dungeon is explore it in bits. i.e: reveal part of its map, get a few items, then go outside and save. Then go back in and do some more, etc. If you do it this way you won't lose so much progress and levels. Frankly, if you're trying to complete a 2 hour long dungeon in one go without saving you don't know how to play.

Finally we have games where you lose ALL of your progress if you fail. If a game is threatening me with losing 50 hours of progress I'm going to crush it into bits and then burn the remains. Take Hardcore characters in Diablo II for example, where if you die you lose your character forever. That's not hard. That's downright retarded. The fact that Diablo doesn't have particularly compelling gameplay doesn't help matters either.

"To me, it seems more pointless to feel like you are wasting time while playing a game (for example, grinding in an RPG)"

As an experienced RPG player, these days I've come to the conclusion that if you have to grind for levels (outside of ultra powerful optional bosses), you're playing it wrong :)

Well, this is very interesting! ...

Here we have a vehement opponent spewing vitriol over 'punishing' games (that's me folks! ;), a Counsel for The Defence firmly (and competently) countering my position, and the Voice of Reason offering what appears to be a more balanced point-of-view! ...

Scott: I'm pleased to learn you are not unduly affronted by my 'vent' :), for indeed - no offense was intended.

But your response is most eloquent and thoughtful, and deserves a similar reply. However, before I submit my counter-argument, you must first visit this post here, locate the hidden Easter Egg, and upon revealing it, type in the comment "name has did and gone and done it!".

Sorry, but I will not be posting my counter-argument until this task is completed correctly! ...

OK then,
All The Best! :)

No idea if I completed this cryptic challenge correctly. I just spent about 10 minutes searching the source of the post for another easter egg (aside from the ones you pointed out, which makes them not easter eggs, right?), but couldn't find anything...

Let me know if there is still work to be done. Or if not, does the fact that I did extra searching prove that I am a hard agon seeker? :)

I must say, searching the source is most diligent of you Scott! Yes, they're not really Easter Eggs of course - the post is intended more to illustrate the concept as implemented in OBD blogs, for readers who may be unfamiliar with such things, rather than be 'proper' Easter Eggs per se - as you correctly picked up ...

But oops! ... I regret to advise that your attempt was unsuccessful. The most obvious omission was the absence of the exclamation mark at the end of your comment. Also, the ambiguity of the term "name" within the phrase seems to have been misinterpreted, perhaps it should be the name of player making the post ...?

Still, unlike 'punishing' games, at least you can directly access the Easter Egg via it's URL to have another go can't you, rather than be compelled to laboriously follow the trail of re-reading the entire original post all over again, before making your second attempt ...

But I feel that in the spirit of punishment, you should in fact be obliged to re-acquaint yourself with the original post. So accordingly, - to ensure you at least nominally do that - and don't cheat (!), I ask you append to your next attempt - in brackets - the 68th word in the seventh paragraph of the post that accesses the Easter Egg. That'll keep things honest! ;)

So as you can maybe appreciate, I am at present unable to submit my reply to your initial post.

Oh well ...
Good Luck then!

Well Scott, I am delighted to say you completed the task correctly!

However, consistent with the theme of this discussion - Time & Punishment - you er, very plainly failed to reach the level-exit within a reasonable timeframe! No, really!


Oddly enough, you intuitively got this final step right the first time round, in that you recognised that posting here to the effect that you had performed the task was part of the overall process, and you did exactly that within minutes of performing the task!

But on your second time around, for some reason over four hours have elapsed since you repeated the level, and yet you still haven't arrived at the level-exit by posting here to that effect. So um ... sorry, but I think it is reasonable to assert a timeout error on your second attempt. Bad luck!

So if you're up for it :) ... same routine.

Your third attempt should include the word corresponding to Einstein's birthday (the day of the month) multiplied by two, minus two ... in the 6th paragraph ... as you say "each distinct playthrough can be vastly different as far as the experience you have while playing". Well, I do my best!

OK then ...
All The Best!

There was no rule stated in the original challenge that I had to also post here.

I'm leaving it in your court, dude.

While I would like to have an engaging discussion about this subject, ultimately your desire to express your opinion will have to be greater than my desire to hear your opinion.

I do have, as they say colloquially, "other shit to do"...

Peace :)

Hey look, fair enough too Scott!

Similarly, when it comes to 'punishing' games (as opposed to challenging games) I'm of the same disposition - I've got far better things to do with my time. And if they piss me about, I walk away too ...

And because feigned disinterest arising from player exasperation about the need to follow consistent requirements when (re)playing a level, won't change game code, then so too in this example.

Furthermore - such mindless inflexibility, characteristic of machine code, similarly ensures that the reward of a response to your original post will remain unrealised.


Game Over.

Thankyou for playing!
Now, why not purchase one of our other software titles!
(er yeah, right ;)

1bd, you are a strange, strange man.


Scott wins the most gullible person award. *trophy*

Hey, Scott, look, your shoe's untied! *finger flick*

About JRPGs and time punishment - I don't think Final Fantasy has limited saving to the world map since (at least) FFVII.

Final Fantasy XIII is actually a good example of time punishments being reduced in JRPGs, since there's supposed to be a retry command if you lose a battle. ;)

Wow, a strange mix of interesting and bizarre comments. :)

Regarding saving in Final Fantasy: yes, I must have got mixed up about the game here... perhaps I meant Final Fantasy XII? I've changed this to a more general Final Fantasy reference. Thanks for clarifying everyone!

obd: I can understand your opposition to this style of play, but mounting attack on people for enjoying a different style of play is a genuine "failure to comprehend a parameter of reality" - namely: we all experience the world differently.

It is perfectly reasonable for players to enjoy punishing play - I used to enjoy it myself when I was younger, but these days I don't have the time. I feel Scott has already expressed this argument quite comprehensively, though, so I won't reiterate.

The bigger the challenge, the bigger the reward for overcoming it - hence the allure of climbing mountains and competing in sporting tournaments. That you are not particularly interested in this kind of play does not invalidate it. :)

Scott: "If you play a game without savestates, you have more "at stake" (losing your progress)... Knowing that alone can make the experience more exciting and enjoyable -- in the moment of playing!"

This is an important point - players who enjoy punishing play don't enjoy the punishment (that would be masochistic!) but they enjoy the raising of the stakes, the increased excitement and the greater sense of focus and concentration (flow) that this can engender.

And, just as important, the increased excitement also leads to increasing reward on completion - and that, really, is the prize for attempting a punishing game.

Players who have never enjoyed this style of play perhaps can't truly appreciate this aspect, as they have no direct experience of hard-fought victory to draw upon. :)

Sirc: "Regarding JRPGs that don't let you save in a dungeon, I don't agree with you, Chris. Even if you can't save inside the dungeon you can always go back outside to save."

And what's your disagreement? You can't surely be claiming this *doesn't* make being in the dungeon more exciting (which is my assertion), and it is certainly a more punishing arrangement than being able to save anywhere, any time.

So what exactly is your objection? :-/

(Whatever it is, I liked the way you framed the benefits of this arrangement to you as a player - it was clearer what the point of the exercise was in your prose than in mine).

Thanks for the discussion everyone!

Ah, no, my disagreement was @ "these games can be threatening an hour or more of time penalties for failure, and if you expect to fail a particular battle repeatedly it could be considerably more."

Since if you play right it doesn't have to be like that. It certainly can be, but that's like saying you can have hour-long penalties in any other game if you choose not to save.


You don't seem to distinguish between "Punishing" and "Challenging". To take your example of mountain-climbing ... if I choose to climb a mountain, that's a challenge. If I am compelled to climb a mountain against my will, that's a punishment.

In truth, any form of 'punishment' is sadistic. And there are plenty of true sadists around, for punishment and sadism provide a satisfying sense of power and control over others.

Conversely, there are only pseudo-masochists - if there were any true masochists, they would be forming queues outside torture chambers.

You will note that when I subjected Scott to "punishment", he chose to walk away ... thus demonstrating the point I was making about the distinction between a challenge and a punishment - between choosing to climb a mountain, and being compelled.

Whilst I comprehend it as a "parameter of Reality" that some people derive pleasure from punishing others, such a psychological disposition is absent outside the realm of Mind, so in Truth has nothing to do with Reality at all. As such, because such a disposition is absent in Nature, to cultivate it in any form is perverse and unnatural.

And the power imbablance implicit in sadism / punishment is what makes punishment tortuous and surreal (of Mind), and such an imbalance in power means a regime of punishment can never constitute a real challenge to the 'victim', only an ordeal.

Sirc: I take your point, but the fact that one *can* avoid the penalty doesn't change the fact that the larger penalty is a potential and realistic risk associated with the play.

Although I know you like to think ill of people who don't take adequate precautions. :p

obd: In the context of this piece I see no need to distinguish between challenging and punishing, since "punishing games" have been defined as "challenging games" (or rather, vice versa).

A fiero-seeking (i.e. challenge-oriented) player may find the punishment adequately challenging, but since the designation of "punishment" here is relative to the *casual* (i.e. forgiving preference) player I don't see a problem here in blurring the lines.

The point of the piece is to examine time penalties in the context of challenging games - that these are punishing to players who are not challenge-oriented is, after all, part of the purpose of the piece, since I'm suggesting a pseudo-objective measure of the "casual-hardcore" divide (namely time penalties) - the subjective reaction to this falls under the domain of player modelling which is outside the scope of this particular viewpoint.

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