[MUD-Dev] Rules of the game: How Long Till You Die

J C Lawrence claw at under.engr.sgi.com
Tue Jun 30 13:32:57 New Zealand Standard Time 1998


Welcome to the first Rules of the Game. What we're going to do here,
every other week from now until my digital death, is to explore a
different element of basic game design. We're going to pull it apart,
think about it, and figure out all its implications, so that the
texture mapping out there is actually being wrapped around something
fun. What a concept, huh? ;-)

So let's kick it off with a really fun topic: death. One of the first
decisions we need to make is how quickly we bump players off for the
first time. Do we let them play for a while, slowly building up the
pace and challenge, or do we throw them into a world of heart-thumping
danger and get the adrenaline charge pumped up quick? When you strip
away the specifics of the game, you're really doing two things with
that first decision: teaching and motivation.

The Hard Lessons of Life and Death 

Usually the thing you're doing the first time you knock off your
player is teaching them the rules of the game. "Don't jump far enough
and pfft." In the old arcade game Jungle King, you sat on a branch and
watched a vine swing toward you. If you pushed your only button at the
wrong time, you fell with a thump and were finished. A quick and
painful lesson. Of course the other way to teach that same lesson is
to force the player to do a long, dull climb back up the tree. This is
teaching with frustration, and tends to work better when you are
designing games for kids or consultants. (For both groups time is a
coin they don't mind wasting.)

The "Oh Yeah!" School of Hard Knocks

The other thing you're doing when you use the quick death is setting
the challenge.  You're trying to elicit the "Oh yeah? We'll see about
that." response in the player.  Interestingly enough, this works
better with hard core game playing boys, (which, let's face it, most
of the people reading this are), than it does with mass market players
or women in general. Mass market players, people who haven't grown up
playing games, tend to get overwhelmed and discouraged much more
quickly. They also represent the biggest growing segment of people who
might buy your games, so it's better not to piss 'em off.

Women, in general, also react badly to the quick and early death. They
tend to throw up their hands, look at the boy who's trying to show
them how cool this game is, say "This is stupid" and never play the
game again.

The Solutions: Success Time and Infinite Time

If you think about it, a game is like a novel. If you can get people
to read a few pages, you can usually get them sucked in. So how do you
invite people in for that first bit? The games that have been most
successful with women over the years have been games like Tetris and
Centipede, both games that taught for their first couple of minutes
with success and an increasing pace. You can screw up the first four
to six rows of Tetris and still recover, and things go slow enough in
the beginning that you get a chance to figure out what's going
on. It's increasing the pace as the game goes on that provides the
challenge. This is a trick found in the first couple of generations of
games that seems to have disappeared from our current design
vocabulary. It's probably a lesson worth learning again.

The other old trick that is a great solution to the initial success
problem goes back to the pinball days and a game called Black
Knight. It's the concept of infinite regeneration for a few minutes in
the beginning of a game. In Black Knight, the first couple of minutes
every ball that would get drained would pop back up. It prevented the
painful frustration of putting in a quarter and having bad luck suck
your ball in the first bounce. It also helped people get the rhythm of
the game before it "cost" them anything.

Take Away Time

The bottom line is that the best way to hook a large market into your
game is with a little bribe called success. If you make those first
few moments filled with why to live, rather than how to die, you're
much more likely to suck people into your game.

See you in two weeks. 


Unemployed with a Theater Degree from Brandeis back in 1984, Ben
Calica [calica at viewpoint.com] has been making a living in the computer
and gaming business in various incarnations since then, Including:
Founding Editor of New Media Magazine, First Toys Editor for Wired,
one of the few single boys to write for Parents Magazine. Product
Manager for the multimedia authoring system, SuperCard Director of
Production for CyberFlix; (design credits on Lunicus, Creepy Castle,
and conceptual design for Skull Cracker) Product Manger for the
ill-fated modem for the Sega Genesis, the Edge, for AT&T [which, by
the way, we decided stood for All Tiny Testi---maybe I'd better tell
that another time]; Worked for NeXT long enough to get into real good
argument with Steve Jobs; And recently was the guy behind Apple Game

He did a bunch of work on interactive drama (wrote script for MacWorld
CD-ROM game of the year in 1993), before he decided it just didn't
work. Spends a lot of free time now lecturing on multi-player/virtual
world stuff. For a day job he works as Director of Product Development
for ThinkFish, an artistic rendering company that recently merged with
Viewpoint Datalabs. He could show you the secret desktop software he's
working on, but then he'd have to kill you.

J C Lawrence                               Internet: claw at null.net
(Contractor)                               Internet: coder at ibm.net
---------(*)                     Internet: claw at under.engr.sgi.com
...Honourary Member of Clan McFud -- Teamer's Avenging Monolith...

More information about the MUD-Dev mailing list