Avoiding Helplessness — The Worst Feeling in Games
The following article is a reproduction, and has been modified for this site. The original article, and many more, can be found at RemptonGames.com
One of the greatest things about video games is the way they can evoke emotion in the player. Whether it’s the anxiousness and apprehension of sneaking down a narrow corridor, keeping an eye out for mutant monsters around every corner or the triumph of finally toppling an overwhelming enemy, games can make players feel a wide range of emotions.
I’ve played games that make me afraid to walk alone in the dark, and games that have literally made me stand up and cheer. A well designed game knows exactly what feeling it is trying to evoke from the player, and is masterful at drawing that emotion out.
Even negative feelings can like fear, anger and sadness have their place in the landscape of games, when used carefully and with purpose. However, of all the feelings that a game can create there are probably none that have led to more unfinished games than the feeling of helplessness.
The Problem of Helplessness
Not every game needs to be an adolescent power fantasy about becoming a hero and saving the world. Games are capable of simulating mundane life, or putting the player in dark and desperate circumstances. No matter what situation the game puts the player in, however, the defining trait of games as a medium is interactivity — the player has control, and is able to make choices.
If the player encounters a situation that makes them feel helpless, this is no longer the case. Helplessness occurs when the player feels like they can’t move forward in the game. This could be because they simply don’t know where to go or what to do next, or because they know what to do, but it seems impossible.
In either of these situations the player can become bored at the lack of progress, frustrated at their inability to continue, and eventually resentful towards the game itself. This often leads them to putting the game down, and never picking it back up again.
Even games that want to create a feeling of fear and suspense, such as survival horror games, don’t want the player to feel helpless while playing. While these games limit the player’s power and put restrictions on them, they still give the player the necessary tools to complete the challenges that are set forth. The goal is not to make the player feel helpless, but rather the opposite — their skills and wit are the only things keeping them alive.
Bugs of the Highest Order
The first way that games create a feeling of helplessness is through bugs. If a game causes the player to get stuck in a wall unable to move, or causes them to die the instant they respawn, or even crashes at a certain point, this can completely prevent the player from making progress in the game.
These bugs are some of the most critical that a game can have, because if they occur they can completely prevent the player from playing the game. They may be impossible to escape, or even if the player can escape (by loading a previous save file, for example) they can cause them to lose progress in the game. Either way, being in this situation never feels good for the player.
Avoiding Softlock scenarios
The previous section may seem obvious — of course you want to fix bugs like that! However, not all bugs that block a player’s progress are so obvious. There are a number of situations where it may seem like the player can continue, but it is actually impossible to make any progress. These situations are known as soft-locks.
Perhaps a game requires you to grab a key early on, which will unlock a door later. If you don’t grab the key at the right time the door becomes unopenable, and without opening the door the player is unable to continue. The player may search for hours on end trying to find the key, but their opportunity has passed. The game has become impossible, but they just don’t know it yet.
These types of situations can often feel even worse than an obvious bug, because it might take a while for the player to realize their situation. As long as the player believes there is a way to continue they will keep trying, even if its impossible, and they will keep trying until they have exhausted every possibility. Then, once all hope is lost, they will simply quit.
These types of situations can be difficult to avoid, because they are usually edge-cases that will happen a small fraction of the time. As a designer you may think it is impossible that any player could miss the obvious, glowing key that the player needs to pick up. However, if the game allows you to continue without collecting it some fraction of players will miss it.
The solution? Block the player’s progress until they have completed all of the necessary requirements to continue, and give them a way of checking what they still need to do. Even if your game is a sweeping open world, a player should not be able to continue a particular questline if they have not met all of the requirements.
Similarly, if there is a requirement that hasn’t been met the game should make it clear that the player has unfinished business. While you don’t have to spell it out for them (“THE KEY! GRAB THE KEY!”), you should at least provide enough information to point them in the right direction (“Find a way to get into the Old Haunted Manor”).
Avoiding Infinite Combos
Another form of helplessness can appear in competitive fighting games — the dreaded infinite combo. In many fighting games a player has a brief moment after being hit where they are unable to respond, and an infinite combo can occur if the opposing player is able to continually deal damage to the player more quickly than they are able to recover.
The problem with infinite combos is that once you are trapped in the combo it can be nearly (or in come cases completely) impossible to escape. This means that your only option is to sit there desperately mashing buttons while your character’s health bar slowly drains to zero.
While I’m sure no fighting game designer wants infinite combos to appear in their games, it is also not possible to test every single possibility. The only way to know that your game contains no possible infinite combos is to test every combination of moves against every character matchup, which would not only be incredibly time consuming but would also mean that you would have to repeat this process any time you make a change to one of the characters.
Because of this, many fighting games put in failsafe features that can make infinite combos much more difficult, if not impossible. While the simplest form of a failsafe is to simply create a combo-limit, which puts a cap on the amount of attacks one character can do in a row, some games have subtler methods.
An example of this is in the Smash Bros series, with the knockback system. In this series the distance a character is knocked back is directly proportional to the amount of damage that they have taken. This means that the longer a combo goes on, the further the player will fly. While this does increase their likelihood of falling off the stage, it also means that they will spend more time in the air, and possibly have more time to escape. It also means that repeating the same move over and over will never result in an infinite combo, because the timing will change as the damage increases.
Allowing Players to Review Information
Another form of helplessness can occur in games when the player simply doesn’t know what to do next. Whether they accidentally skipped a cutscene containing important information, or are picking the game back up after a long break, there are many situations where a player may have missed or forgotten the information necessary to continue.
For this reason, I believe it is very important to give players a method of refreshing themselves on this information. Whether this comes in the form of a quest log that explains the player’s current objectives, or a feature that allows players to re-view cutscenes that they might have missed, allowing players to recover this missing information is absolutely vital.
Similarly, after not playing a game for a while it is likely that the players will need a chance to remember how the game works, and reactivate their muscle-memory. If a player picks up the game after a break and immediately jumps into a difficult battle, chances are that they are going to be unprepared and quickly defeated.
To help with situations like this, it is often helpful to give players a safe way to practice and re-learn their skills. While I’m not a huge fan of traditional tutorials, if your game does contain one a possible solution would be to simply let players go through the tutorial again at any point.
If not, providing a safe area or risk-free level to allow players to practice and explore the controls also works. A great example of this can be found in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice — from any save point the player is able to travel back to the Dilapidated Temple and fight with Hanbei the Undying. This not only allows players to practice their skills, but provides a safe way for players to relearn and remember how to play after taking a break.
Watch your Difficulty Curve
A game’s difficulty curve is one of the most important tools a designer has for controlling the pace of the game. While some games provide a “reverse difficulty curve”, where the game starts out difficult and gradually gets easier over time as the player gets more powerful, most games are designed to get more difficult over time. While a well designed curve can keep a player on their toes and force them to improve their skills (with moments of rest in-between), it is important not to increase too much too quickly.
If the game’s difficulty “spikes” out of nowhere, the player can feel like they have hit a wall. Suppose that a player has been slowly improving their skills, defeating gradually more difficult enemies, when all of a sudden a boss defeats them in a single hit. They try it several times, but each time they die before they even have a chance to learn anything.
While some players will certainly persevere, many players would simply put the game down and move on to something else (especially if the difficulty of your game is not one of its selling points). This is not to say that you shouldn’t put difficult bosses or levels in your game, only that you should be careful how much you increase the difficulty at any given point in time — a challenge should feel hard, but not impossible.
This last category is similar to the previous, but applies to multiplayer play. While there are many forms of bad matchmaking, the type of matchmaking I am referring to here is one that does not take player skill into account. Not all players of your game are going to have the same level or skill or experience, and when a new player is thrown into a match with players who are far better than them it can completely kill their motivation to continue.
Suppose your player has just worked their way through the story mode of a fighting game, and wants to try their luck online. They sign in, and for the first 5 matches they get absolutely destroyed. When players feel like it is impossible for them to win many of them will simply leave the game forever.
While this is already bad, bad matchmaking can even have an effect on future installments of a series. Suppose a person played “Death Arena 3” and had a terrible experience with the online matchmaking. This could lead to them deciding not to even buy “Death Arena 4”, because they now associate the series with a feeling of powerlessness.
The solution? Try to match your players based on skill-level and experience with the game. This is much easier said than done, as matchmaking remains one of the greatest problems of modern games, with even some of the biggest names in gaming having issues with it. Even so, it is a very worthwhile pursuit, particularly for any game that relies heavily on competitive multiplayer.
Putting in the time to perfect your matchmaking system can greatly increase your game’s ability to attract, and particularly retain, new players. When a new player is able to get matched against other new players they may still lose, but the matches should be much closer and they will feel like they have a chance. Players are much more willing to put in the work to improve at a game if victory feels within reach, instead of seeming unobtainable.
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Twitter, Youtube, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week for a look at the design of Vicious Circle, the new game from Rooster Teeth!