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2013 May

The Mechanics of Forgiving your Players – Part 1

Getting Familiar with Forgiveness

As a game designer, your primary concern will be in planning and executing all the ways in which players will interact with your game system. These interactions may include anything from orchestrating a graceful ballet of fisticuffs with a deranged hippopotamus, or designing a shop interface so your player can purchase a piping hot dragon burger.

Regardless of what interaction you create, right down to basic functionality such as turning the sound on and off, you create opportunities for the player to make mistakes in interacting with your system. Because of this, you should be familiar with the general design principle of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a system’s ability to easily recover from user error. If you were tasked with designing a word processor, forgiveness at a basic level entails luxuries like a backspace button, or an undo command. At a more advanced level, you may design a real-time spell checking feature, or automatic, periodic draft saving. The body of features that relieve or prevent the consequences of user error in your interactive system define your system’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is the safety net a user can rely on to catch and facilitate their mistakes.

Creating forgiveness in a system that is designed to fulfill user intentions perfectly is a delicate art. You must anticipate the mistakes they may make, while not burdening them with needless features or command confirmations. Every misstep must be recoverable in a painless and intuitive way, and irrecoverable actions must be surrounded by intention checks.

In your game, a simple UI forgiveness feature may be a confirmation screen ensuring the player does indeed want to delete Spleen Smoker, their level 70 troll shaman. Your user interface, by and large, will follow the best practices of forgiveness in any other usability system. However, how does the concept of forgiveness affect your actual game mechanics? Thinking about forgiveness in this regard becomes more complex.


Forgiveness in Game Mechanics is not so Straight Forward

Imagine you have designed a character creation menu for a role-playing game, and in addition to a wide variety of stylish mustaches to sport, you have given your player eighteen points to spend among some statistics: strength, intelligence, and dexterity. Your alpha tester wants to create a two-handed-hammer wielding thief, aptly named “Sneak and Smash”.

She intuitively knows big hammers are probably going to require strength to swing around, and she knows dexterity will be important for all the sneaking she is planning on doing, so she puts nine points in strength, nine in dexterity, and accepts that she’s not going to be shooting many sparkles from her eyes.

You do your best through tool tips to explain the importance of each stat to the player on creation, but unfortunately for this particular player, you made a couple of balance decisions that impede her vision. The most powerful two-handed-hammer in your game requires twelve strength, and your ultimate sneak skill, “Sneak in Plain Sight”, requires ten dexterity. Furthermore, you made a mistake yourself, and intelligence is actually the most effective late-game stat by a small but noticeable margin. She finds all of this out after thirty hours of play.

Now she accepts she cannot have both the best hammer and “Sneak and Plain Sight” together, and that she may not have the most powerful character possible, but she is understandably disappointed to find she can have none of these things. These were all goals she originally set out to achieve: be the best hammerer, be the best sneaker, and be the most powerful. If you are an avid RPG fan, you know this is a common problem with many possible solutions.


How Much, and What Type?

What forgiveness will you design for this situation, if any? Will you aim to supply better feedback on character creation about the late-game effects of particular stats, or will you engineer a stat redistribution mechanic as an “undo”. If this were a word processor, and your user had just misspelled a word, equivalents for both (a display for the correct spelling of the word, and a backspace button to fix the error) would be immediately desirable.

In a game design situation, too much early information may ruin the excitement of discovery, and a stat redistribution mechanic that is too easily utilized may trivialize the intended user experience of assigning statistics in the first place. Naturally, you do not want to leave your alpha tester with a disappointing experience, but you also understand that working within the stats she chose accounted for much of her enjoyment up to this point.

Forgiveness is a complicated issue in game design because ultimately, we want our players to make some mistakes. If a player jumps too early and falls down a pit, we don’t necessarily want a readily available undo button, even though the player will clearly perceive this as user error. Much of the art of game design is exploring which mistakes are fun to learn not to make, and which mistakes are going to suck the fun out of your system without extensive forgiveness included.

Which mistakes are you going to forgive your player, and when will you hold the line? Will you give them three lives, or five?

Now that the concept of forgiveness and its challenges in game design have been introduced, part two will explore specific cases under which forgiveness can be helpful or harmful in your design.