Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thoughts on Winning: Losing

When I think about the design of a new game one of the first questions I ask is ‘How do I win?’  While there are many games that do not force an ending, there is still an end condition. Otherwise how would players stop. So, what I’m really getting at is ‘How does the game end?’ Yes, this mechanical concept is interesting, but to what end? Yes, this theme is engrossing, but where do I stop? A good deal of time can be spent answering these questions, but it is often overlooked, and for good reason.

The end of the game is for a majority of games the shortest section of gameplay. Players spend nearly all of their time focused on gameplay, their turns, and the decision points within the game. No wonder that the gameplay is where a designer will spend most of their time. But the way that a game ends affects a player's perspective on the entire game, and that is what I will focus on.

One cannot help talking about ‘Winning’ without talking about ‘Losing.’  Losing is the common experience had by all who play. In any one game at least 50% or more of the players will lose. According to Matt Leacock, in a properly designed cooperative game all of the players will lose 70% of the time. With the chances of losing so high we must ask why players keep coming back to the same games, when most of the time they will lose those games. If the goal of the game is to win, then players should stop playing after frequent losses, yet they do not.  Instead, they keep coming back for more punishment, implying that winning doesn't matter.

Generally when you lose something, it’s bundled with talk of failure.  I don’t equate losing in a board game with failure.  In other spheres of life where winners and losers are produced, the judgment of failure is a consequence.  But after a game, what I hear people talking about are the mistakes that were made during a game. Not a rush to judgment on the players, even though there is an abundance of ’I told you so.’

The argument can be made that with board games the stakes are lower so these judgments are not warranted, but I don’t believe that’s the reason. Because, even if it for a short period of time, when you are playing a game, locked into that system, devoting your attention to playing, those win conditions no longer become trivial, they become very real with some high stakes.

While players are emotionally invested in the games they play, they are very tolerant to losing.  But win, or most likely lose, what keeps players involved is the gameplay, not the ultimate ending.  So when I begin a game design I need to shift my focus and ask ‘How do I lose?’ And, what I really mean by that is “How do I keep players engaged while losing?’ Next time I'll look at how games manage to accomplish this.

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