Game Research Feed

What is the Appeal of Brutal Games?

Mortal Kombat Although far from the most successful videogame titles developed, the games industry has a reputation for creating violent, brutal fantasies, and the sales for such titles are often solid. But what is the appeal of this kind of play?

The answer to this question is far from obvious. Comparison to cinema and book sales is instructive: while brutality and violence can be found in both these media, the step off in popularity is tangible. Apart from Jaws and The Godfather (incidentally, both book adaptations), there have been very few violent movies to make good money, and nothing truly brutal racks up good numbers at the box office. Book publishing is dominated by successful children's books, licensed novels and romance; brutality enjoys a minor cult market at best, although there are certainly signs that violent horror movies – being cheap to make, and not requiring expensive stars to draw in an audience – have carved out a viable niche market.

Now compare the paradigm cases of brutal videogames. Both Manhunt and MadWorld can be considered as largely unsuccessful titles (despite the tremendous media coverage generated by the former game), so the poster children for successful brutality in videogames are probably the Mortal Kombat, God of War and Gears of War franchises. The popularity of the former peaked in its early days, in the 1990s, and never cleared 3 million units (although in its day, with lower development and marketing costs, this was a massive commercial success). The G-War twins have had incredible development and marketing budgets, but still God peaked at 3.73 million with the first title, and has tailed off since, while Gears has been pulling in some 6 million punters each outing. (I am putting aside the GTA franchise here since, while undoubtedly violent, the games lean towards comic overtones, and generally avoid brutality).

Lets put this in perspective. On a fraction of the development and marketing budget of these games, Animal Crossing: Wild World sold twice as many units as any of these titles. Nintendogs was similarly developed on a fraction of the budget (although heavily marketed) and racked up 23.84 million units – more than all the violent games mentioned above combined. The high watermark games this year are equally lacking in brutality: New Super Mario Bros. Wii has already sold 15 million units, and Modern Warfare 2 has cleared 20 million units (benefiting in this case from sales on both the PS3 and the Xbox 360, while none of the other recent titles mentioned have been cross-platform). If one were to look at the market for videogames dispassionately, you would certainly see the commercial value of gun violence, but you would be forced to conclude that brutality, as such, wasn't the best horse to back.

So why all the money invested in brutal games – and especially, why all the marketing money invested into brutality? Continental philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek offers one possible diagnosis in his entertaining Channel 4 series The Pervert's Guide to Cinema:

You think it's just a game? It's reality. It's more real than it appears to you. For example, people who play videogames, they adopt a screen persona of a sadist, rapist, whatever. The idea is, in reality I'm a weak person, so in order to supplement my real life weakness, I adopt the false image of a strong, sexually promiscuous person, and so on and so on – but this would be the naïve reading: I want to appear stronger, more active, because in real life I am a weak person. But what if we read it in the opposite way, that this strong, brutal, rapist, whatever, identity is my true self (in the sense that this is the psychic truth of myself) and that in real life, because of social constraints and so on, I am not able to enact it. So that precisely because I think it's only a game, it's only a persona, a self-image, I adopt in virtual space, I can be there much more truthful. I can enact there an identity which is much closer to my true self.

Žižek's claim is thus that players of brutal games do so because they would wish to be this brutal in real life, but are prevented by social norms and so forth. I get the sense that Žižek wants us to take this claim as applying to a very wide range of individuals, but of course the sales figures we see for brutal games only account for at most 5% of the market for videogames. If Žižek's explanation is to carry any force at all, we would have to conclude that the players who buy and play the brutal videogames are closet sociopaths or, at the very least, would be given the right circumstances. He may be right – it's certainly not easy to prove or disprove such a claim – but I find something about this account suspicious.

David Jaffe, the creator of the God of War franchise, has said that his motivation was to create the kind of game he's always wanted to play – apparently, a highly brutal and violent version of Golden Axe, with added irritations and puzzles for maximum sense of triumph over adversity. So if Žižek is to be believed, Jaffe really wanted to be enacting brutal violence in the world about him, but was too domesticated to do so. The use of fantasy (e.g. bastardised Greek mythology) or science fiction settings (e.g. space marines) is justified by Žižek on the grounds that the positioning of the action away from realism permits the player fantasy to unfold without complication. The plausibility of this account is certainly open to debate.

I believe a clue lies elsewhere in Jaffe's career. His first (and to date only) PS3 title thus far has been the budget download game Calling All Cars!, a tightly competitive multiplayer knock-about, in the vein of his earlier Twisted Metal franchise but much more cutely presented. The design of the game is, to my mind at least, clearly motivated by the same factors I identified in Testosterone and Videogames, namely dominance play. Calling All Cars! is a playground that invites this masculine (but not wholly male) battle for supremacy, full of frustration and schadenfreude – the joy of screwing over your friends. And similarly, God of War's relationship with its player is clearly also drawing against testosterone-influenced play themes, in this case, frustrating the player so that they can achieve the ultimate hit of triumph (fiero) when they eventually overcome.

On this reading, Žižek's account must be read slightly differently: it is not that the fantasy fulfils an escapist need for the player to do what they would wish to do in real life so much as it is that the emotions of play correlate with the effects of testosterone. Žižek's psychoanalysis follows Jacques Lacan, and is thus ultimately in the Freudian school: libido is advanced as something of a universal answer in this tradition, and we can easily read testosterone for libido (with, no doubt, some objections). So if this is a valid interpretation, we shouldn't be surprised that the main audience for the G-War games are adolescent males, since these are the people experiencing the most disproportionate spike in testosterone levels.

Game studies researcher Jeroen Jansz published a paper in 2006 entitled The Emotional Appeal of Violent Video Games for Adolescent Males, in which the following claim was advanced:

...violent video games provide a gratifying context for the experience of emotions. The fact that gamers are largely in control of the game implies that they can voluntarily select the emotional situations they confront. This freedom is attractive for adolescents who are in the midst of constructing an identity. For them, the violent game is a safe, private laboratory where they can experience different emotions, including those that are controversial in ordinary life. Gamers may deliberately select emotions that sustain dominant masculine identity (e.g., anger), as well as emotions that are at odds with dominant masculinity (e.g., fear).

In other words, the adolescent male (according to Jansz) is struggling to work out who they are, who they are becoming, and the (single player) videogame provides a safe space for them to experiment with their emotions and in so doing construct a viable identity. This is not wholly divorced from Žižek's account, but it does put it into a different context, and also supports my general interpretation of brutal games in terms of testosterone as the key influencing factor. (Of course, Jansz has no explicit explanation for why Jaffe would want to make a game like God of War as a fully grown adult. But this line of enquiry can only lead to the question of why any adult would work in an industry that still principally targets teenage males, and that discussion risks being tangential: we do not ask this question, for instance, of teachers or toy-makers).

I suspect there is a grain of truth in Žižek's explanation, in so much as it expresses the drive to dominance associated with the psychological effects of testosterone, but Jansz's account does more to explain why brutal games are principally purchased and enjoyed by adolescent males. The final point to raise in this regard is the logic of the publishers in focussing so much money and attention on the G-War games. In part, no doubt, there are sound commercial concerns at work. Adolescents have the time to play games, and thus are a key market. But as the sales figures quoted above show, there's a disproportionate spend by publishers on brutal games that we don't find in any other media industry.

My suspicion, which I have voiced before, is that this reflects the high testosterone levels among marketing executives, who are the individuals with the most influence in the pathways to funding within the upper market for videogames. James McBride Dabbs has shown that marketing executives (both male and female) have statistically some of the highest testosterone levels of any profession – whether because this job market is particularly competitive, or because competitive people are drawn to it because of the high pay and expense accounts, the marketing profession remains dominated by psychological effects of testosterone.

Perhaps the giant marketing spends by Microsoft and Sony on the G-War games is a reflection of this concentration of testosterone in the ranks of the marketing departments – or perhaps I should say the executive department of these organisations, since as one developer quipped to me recently, there is no distinction between executives and marketing when it comes to the upper ranks of a platform holder like Sony and Microsoft. To be a high level executive is to be concerned with marketing. What is certain, however, is that Nintendo has made gigantic leaps in sales and profitability by designing games beyond the testosterone box and hiring marketing firms outside of the videogames space to promote their DS and Wii platforms.

Brutal games will probably always have a role in the market for games. But it seems possible that their commercial value might slide gradually towards that of the viable niche market of brutal films. If Sony and Microsoft are serious about trying to capture some of the wider market that Nintendo has currently cornered, they should think twice about the mass market advertising campaigns for games like those in the God of War and Gears of War franchises: since these games are only selling to gamer hobbyists anyway, the effect of such public displays will be to connect the PS3 and 360 platforms in the minds of a wider audience with brutality. And this, ultimately, will be counter-productive to reaching a wider audience for games.

Do you enjoy brutal games? Or do you dislike them? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Someone's Doing My Brain Research

19549_rel Not that long ago, I suggested that studying the size of brain regions would be a valuable way of exploring the neurobiology of play, a conclusion I reached after learning that one of the hippocampi of taxi drivers is bigger than those of a control group. And this research, I'm pleased to say, is taking place. Via Raph Koster (thanks Raph!), I learned today of a new study exploring the size of the nucleus accumbens (pleasure centre) and two key structures in the striatum (the limbic system's link to the decision centre) - two of several brain features I'm interested in.

The research is by Art Kramer (pictured above, left) at Illinois, Ann Graybiel of MIT (centre), and Kirk Erickson of the University of Pittsburgh (right). The short form of their findings is as follows:

  • Players with a larger pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens) did better in the early stages of the study i.e. began learning more quickly. This suggests that a large pleasure centre increases motivation to perform (an expected result).
  • Players with a larger caudate nucleus and putamen, two key features of the striatum (the limbic system-end of the decision centre) performed better at variable priority training i.e. practising and learning different skills dynamically, within the framework of the overall goal. (This is also an expected result, but is less well studied).

The striatum is beginning to emerge as a key part of adaptation in learning. Whereas both the pleasure centre and the striatum are involved in learning, the former drives habit formation, while the latter seems to be more involved in adaptability and dynamic response. Furthermore, the striatum appears to be directly involved in executive function (i.e. it links to the orbito-frontal cortex - the decision centre). There is much less research on the latter than the former, which is one of the reasons this new study is particularly interesting.

This research requires me to make a slight change in my hypothetical research programme - I had been thinking in terms of a bigger decision centre (orbitofrontal cortex) for strategically minded players, but this could be hard to detect. The striatum, which links the decision centre to the limbic system (the "reptile brain"), is a more obvious place to look for changes in volume. Now I can confidently predict that people who test Rational on Temperament-style personality tests, university science students, and players who enjoy complex strategy games, will show a statistical prevalence for dorsal striatum that are larger than the mean size. (And also, that those three groupings I cite will cross-correlate reasonably well).

Unsurprisingly, this new research supports the "games as learning" model because the focus of this study are the brain centres involved in the dopamine/learning system. However, it would be premature to use this as evidence that learning will provide a complete theory of play or fun - I believe it is already clear that it cannot, since Biederman and Vessel's research on interest and curiosity is memory-focused, not learning focussed (although still links to the pleasure centre). Furthermore, there is still little or no neuroscience providing for a model of imagination, and without this (and more besides!) there can be no complete theory of games. What we can be confident of - and what Koster correctly predicted - is that any complete theory of games and fun must feature learning as a key part of the story. What the new research does suggest is that learning may be more important in the play of people with larger dorsal striatum - such as the three groupings I suggested above.

However, we should be careful of jumping to the assumption that what is implied here in terms of differences in brain structure sizes is wholly genetic - it certainly wasn't in the case of taxi drivers, and I doubt it is here. Genetics and environment probably both have a role, but the taxi driver study suggests what we do is more important than our genetic blueprint when it comes to the size of brain regions. I find this aspect of the current brain research to be encouraging, as it maintains an important role for the self in discovering and inventing who we shall become.

Testosterone and Videogames

Duke-nukem What is the role of testosterone in videogame play? And how has it affected the way videogames are made?

The chemical testosterone is often considered a “sex hormone”, because of its role in sexual development in men, but in fact this steroid has behavioural effects on men and women that are substantially the same. Although men secrete about fifty times as much testosterone as women, women are substantially more sensitive to the hormone with the net result that similar behavioural effects can be detected among people of either gender. What's more, these effects can be found in essentially all the vertebrate species – fish, amphibians, lizards, mammals and birds.

Testosterone is an “action hormone”, that prompts quick responses and resolute persistence, not to mention stubbornness. Studies by various researchers, including John Archer, Andrew and Rogers, and James McBride Dabbs, have shown that animals and people who are high in testosterone can sustain a narrow focus for longer, and are thus persistent at the tasks they pursue. Conversely, low-testosterone people have been shown to be generally more friendly, more intellectual and more compassionate than their high-testosterone counterparts. As a result, low-testosterone people tend to do better in school, have higher paid (and higher status) jobs, have closer relationships with their families, and sustain happier marriages.

Another significant effect of testosterone is developmental: the higher dosages of testosterone result in greater brain volume in men but at the cost of a smaller corpus callosum, an area of the brain which co-ordinates information between the two hemispheres. (Note, however, that a larger brain does not make one smarter – despite what the Saturday morning cartoons might suggest). Researchers have observed that, typically, the female brain is far better at thinking in terms of networks (social or otherwise), although it should be noted that there is a great deal of variation among individuals. This change in brain development is a genuine gender distinction, and results from the effects of the higher levels of testosterone on developing boys.

A convenient way of summarising the effects of testosterone on behaviour is to suggest that high testosterone is correlated with dominance behaviours. This can mean many different things, including assertion, vanity, aggression, charisma, and high sex drive, but note that these behaviours can happen in people irrespective of their testosterone levels. It is not that testosterone causes dominance behaviour, just that it encourages it. High levels of testosterone are correlated with both roguish behaviour and heroism – Dabbs describes many examples of heroic behaviour among people with above-average testosterone, including fire-fighters and soldiers who acted to save the lives of others without any thought for their own safety.

In the context of play, testosterone has an effect in any competitive situation. Just before a tennis match, a professional player's testosterone will increase – and it will surge if they win a tournament. If they lose, their testosterone will fall. These changes in testosterone level are not restricted to physical sports, either – the testosterone levels of chess players also fall when they lose a game. Whenever an individual is emotionally invested in an outcome – when their pride is at stake, if you will, a drop in testosterone is likely in defeat or failure, and a spike in victory.

A recent study lead by David Geary at the University of Missouri in Columbia explored testosterone in the context of videogame play, specifically multiplayer Unreal Tournament 2004. Fourteen groups of three male players (who had not met each other before) were matched against each other after having practices together for about six hours. To add an incentive to win, the teams that were victorious earned a reward of $45, three times what the losers were paid for their participation.

The study found an unexpected effect: while winning players did experience a testosterone spike when they were victorious (and especially among players who had most contributed to the win), when the teams played against each other the highest scoring player tended to produce less testosterone than their defeated team mates. Similar results were found in a study by John Wagner of competitive domino players on the island of Dominica. When playing with people in their own village, winners testosterone levels fell and stayed low, whereas loser's testosterone fell then rebounded. Only when playing against people from other villages did testosterone reliable rise.

Testosterone can thus be seen as a driving force towards winning – rising in preparation for a challenge, and falling in defeat. But in a friendly contest between colleagues, the stakes are lower and testosterone has a significantly reduced role. One can assume that all forms of non-competitive play are less affected by testosterone, and indeed studies of pathological gamblers did not find a correlation with testosterone levels.

The results of the BrainHex survey, which is currently going on at, reveals an interesting split in the play patterns of male and female players that may also relate to testosterone. Six of the seven play styles in this model have roughly the same distribution among men and women, and appear in the same order. Only one play style is significantly different by gender: Conqueror. This adversarial, victory-focussed style of play is the most popular among male players surveyed so far, being the highest rated in over a quarter of male respondents. But among female players in the survey, it ranks fourth (after Mastermind, Seeker and Achiever) with just one in eight female players preferring this play style above all others. (See the full numbers in the piece on BrainHex Class and Gender).

There is a significant gender skew in the respondents to the survey thus for, with just 11% female people in the sample: if a projection is made of how the audience would be comprised if it were made up of an equal number of male and female players, Conqueror would be third in the list, corresponding to one in five people. Seeker would be above it with just a few percent more respondents, and Mastermind at the top, corresponding to about one in four people. Exploration and problem-solving could well be more popular than striving for victory, although regardless of this all three play styles together still only represent two thirds of the players in the audience as a whole.

There are at least two distinct ways of looking at this data. Firstly, one could look at the industry's predilection for first person shooters and other competitive action games – all of which embody testosterone's focus on acting-over-thinking, and a persistent drive towards eventual victory – as more than adequately servicing the needs of testosterone in the audience for games. This naturally involves more male than female players (and it would be interesting to see if the female players who test as Conqueror in BrainHex would have above-average testosterone levels).

Alternatively, you could look at the popularity of Mastermind and Seeker among both men and women and accuse the industry of biasing its output heavily towards testosterone-style play, irrespective of the commercial reality of the marketplace. It is presumably no coincidence that the vast majority of people who work in the videogames industry are male, and thus far only Nintendo among the major platform holders has been able to push beyond thinking primarily in terms of Conqueror as the supreme element in videogame play.

There is a major unanswered question here. Is the market inundated with action games because testosterone-driven play is more addictive and satisfying than other kinds of play (and thus this is the most reliable audience to court) or is the prevalence of the 3D shooter merely the evidence that the industry has allowed itself to be biased towards making the games it wants to play, rather than exploring what the audience might want to play, as I have frequently accused?

The phenomenal success of games such as The Sims, Nintendogs, Brain Training and Wii Fit (all of which have sold more than twice as many units as the most successful first person shooter) suggests the latter, but it must be noted that among male respondents in the BrainHex survey 51% have Conqueror as either their first or their second highest ranked class, and even among female respondents 32% have Conqueror as the first or second highest. (Note that Mastermind appears as one of the top two classes for 40% of male and 50% of female, and Seeker appears as one of the top two classes for 34% of male and 45% of female respondents in the current sample).

What is happening in the videogames industry at the moment, principally via the work of Nintendo and casual games developers such as PopCap and Big Fish, is the realisation that there are other audiences out there just waiting to be tapped. What's more, these wider audiences for games can be reached via games that are a lot less expensive to develop than Halo 3 or Call of Duty 4, which cost around $30 million to develop and courted an audience of around 10 million players. Animal Crossing – which is proving to be a very popular franchise among the Mastermind players in the survey – sold as many units on less than a tenth of the development budget.

There will always be a thriving market for violent action games that demand quick thinking, swift reflexes and cut-throat tactics – undoubtedly teenage boys, adult men and some small percentage of women will continue to play and enjoy these kinds of games. But it's time for the industry to recognise that these games are not the most successful genres in production, and in fact that most of the games that go into the FPS marketplace fail miserably. Halo and Call of Duty, the flagship franchises for testosterone play, soak up the vast majority of the audience for 3D shooters accounting for roughly 50% of the sales of FPS games. In the last three years, the next highest selling FPS that wasn't in either franchise sold less than a third as many copies, while at least 2 in 3 first person shooters released over the same period failed to make back their development costs.

Does it really make sense for most developers to be making games to compete against vast numbers of better funded, better marketed 3D shooters with vanishing hope of commercial success? Or is this just testosterone dictating that the fight against incredible odds is a challenge that must be accepted? If games developers and publishers are wrapped up in some bizarre dominance struggle centred around shooting games it would mean that testosterone isn't just responsible for one of the more popular forms of play, it's also partly responsible for blocking the creation of videogames for a wider audience.

Player Model from Tomb Raider: Underworld

Tomb raider underworld My friends from the IEEE Player Satisfaction Task Force, Georgios Yannakakis and Alessandro Canossa, along with Anders Drachen (who presumably led this research project), have just published a fantastic paper entitled Player Modeling using Self-Organization in Tomb Raider: Underworld. What they've done is studied data concerning player deaths, completion times, and help-on-demand usage in Crystal Dynaimcs' Tomb Raider: Underworld and then used a cluster analysis technique (like the one we used for DGD1, but significantly more advanced) to identify play styles among players who completed the game.

Here's an extract:

Cluster number 1 corresponds to players that die very few times; their death is caused mainly by the environment and they complete TRU very fast. These players’ HOD requests vary from low to average and they are labeled as Veterans as they are the most well performing group of players despite the high number of environment-related deaths. Likewise, cluster number 2 corresponds to players that die quite often mainly due to falling; it takes them quite a long time to complete the game; and they do not appear to ask for puzzle hints or answers. Players of this cluster are labeled as Solvers, because they are adept at solving the puzzles of TRU. Their long completion times, low number of deaths by enemies or environment effects indicate a slow-moving, careful style of play with the number one cause of death being falling (jumping).

Players of cluster number 3, form the largest group and are labeled as Pacifists as they die primarily from active opponents. The total number of their deaths varies a lot but their completion times are below average and their help requests are minimal indicating a certain amount of skill at
playing the game. Finally, the group of players corresponding to cluster number 4, namely the Runners, is characterized by players that die quite often and mainly by opponents and the environment. These players are very fast in completing the game (similar to the Veterans), while having a varying number of help requests which cover the majority of the H value range.

In other words, their results show four distinct play styles: Veterans, Solvers, Pacifists and Runners. I can't help but notice parallels with the BrainHex classes, which I'll discuss below.

I have one major complaint to make, however: the data that was modelled consisted of the 1,365 players who completed the game. This is just 5.4% of the 25,240 players who attempted it during November 2008, when the study gathered its data. It's already quite well established that the majority of players don't finish the videogames they attempt, so in a sense what is going on is a breakdown of the most dedicated gamer hobbyists, with a lot of useful data about the wider audience blanched out. However, they plan follow up work using more fo the vast data Eidos (the publisher) was able to afford them so I shall look forward to seeing further results.

This paper represents a major step forward in play satisfaction modelling - finally we have a play style model derived from a single major commercial videogame. I believe we will see more and more of this kind of modelling in the years to come, and each such model will contribute greatly to our understanding of play.

Alessandro has already chided me about treating these results as being anything other than endemic to this specific game, but nonetheless I cannot resist suggesting how these results might map onto BrainHex:

  • Veterans as Conquerors: Although more data would be needed to confirm this, I believe the Veterans high degree of competence speaks highly of this group being fiero-motivated, highly game literate players i.e. gamer hobbyist Conquerors.
  • Solvers as Masterminds: The description of the Solver is a perfect fit to the fiero-from-puzzle play style of the Mastermind (players who enjoy flexing the mental muscles of their problem-solving orbito-frontal cortex).  
  • Pacifists as Seekers: The largest group in the sample was the Pacifists, and their behaviour sounds very much like the exploration and navigation focussed Seeker - which not coincidentally appears to be a highly popular play style, much more common than Conqueror from the basis of the pre-release studies. 
  • Runners as Daredevils: The implied focus on speed makes me wonder if the Runner cluster corresponds with the Daredevil, who are thrill-seekers and tend to complete games at high speed.

In a sense Drachens, Canossa and Yannakakis are working bottom-up on the problem I have been working top-down on - eventually we will meet in the middle and shall know far more about how and why people play games.

BrainHex: How Do You Play Videogames?

BrainHex International Hobo is proud to announce the launch of its new audience model and player survey, BrainHex. This model is the culmination of several years of work, examining data from previous surveys and comparing case studies to the latest neurobiological research.

You can take the BrainHex test yourself and learn about how your brain responds to videogames, while helping us further our research into how and why people play games.

You can also go straight to the BrainHex site and learn about the different classes in this new player satisfaction model.

Many thanks to everyone who participated in the alpha and beta testing of the model, and to everyone who takes the test and contributes to this new study.

Please feel free to pass the test link on to anyone who might be interested! Thank you!

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!