The Evolution of Video Games and the Diminishing Relevance of Failure

By Thomas Adams

In class, we began discussing failure in video games. The most common version of failure in video games in gameplay failure. Gameplay failure is when the player fails to complete a task that he/she must complete in order to progress in the game. This could be failing to solve a puzzle (e.g. Portal), dying to enemies (Halo), or even losing a match against an opponent (League of Legends).  I will breakdown the evolution of games over time and show how failure in video games became less harsh and more importantly, different.

Thinking back to early video games, we have to look at the arcade genre. Because of the video game infrastructure at the time, these games were meant to be played at an arcade, not in your home. As such, these games were meant to be played for a few (but possible several) minutes at a time to allow for others to have a chance to play as well. Thus, the games had to be developed in such a way that allowed for meaningful gameplay progression, but also had a “hard-capped” end. For example, Donkey Kong allowed players to play the game for as long as they could, while they still had enough lives left. Of course, the game increased in difficulty and most players could never really play too long.

As companies began developing in-house consoles, like the NES, the gameplay paradigm followed. Many games for the NES still had a very “hard-capped” ending. Super Mario Bros., for example, had a similar structure to Donkey Kong. The player could progress as far as he/she wanted until they ran out of lives or beat the game. Having played the game myself, it is very disheartening to see yourself progress really close to the end, and then lose your last life. That’s it. Game Over. Now restart from the beginning.

As technology grew in the 90s, games could become more sophisticated. Developers could begin creating non-linear story lines and program 3 dimensional worlds. Take the Nintendo 64 games for example. Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 both became more forgiving when a player failed. Simply getting hit by an enemy didn’t mean death. Players began having health pools to take more than a few rounds of damage. Players also still had multiple lives. However, these two games in particular still had “Game Over” screens when a player completely died for the last time. (here is one for Banjo-Kazooie). As you can see, these game over screen are very disheartening and showing the player the results of their failures.

Fast forward another 10 years to the 2000s and even today. Technology has allowed us to put more content in games than ever thought imaginable. This new emphasis on content and story-driven games allows developers to be extremely forgiving with gameplay failure. This is mutually beneficial for both players and developers. The players get to continue their game without harsh penalty while also getting to access all the cool content that the developers spent millions of dollars on. It only makes sense, right? Why would a company spend that much resources on game content if the punishment for for gameplay failure was never getting to experience any of it? Nowadays, with huge thanks to advancement of technology, failure is almost irrelevant because of the willingness for developers to be forgiving and the perseverance of players in order to progress in those games.

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