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Reset Button: Most Innovative Game of 2008

By Shamus
on Monday Dec 29, 2008
Filed under:


Here is the video project I’ve been working on. Part documentary, part op-ed, it tries to make the case that the game nobody is talking about is the most innovative game of 2008. This game is a gateway drug. And we need more of those.

Navel-gazing follows:

I’m not thrilled with how it turned out. I’m not crazy about the titles & credits, there are clicks and pops in a couple of spots because Windows Movie Maker sucks, I had to cut most of my crude and feeble attempts at humor to meet the 10-minute YouTube limit, and my diction was sloppy in a couple of places. And while I’m at it, “Reset Button” probably isn’t the most catchy or original thing to call it, but you gotta call it something. I thought I should call it something retro and old-timey. Maybe “Penny Arcade”? I should Google and see if anyone is using that.

Ah well. I’ve wanted to get this out of my system for a while now. I imagine it will stand or fall based on the ideas it contains, not on my various technical deficiencies.

Now that I’ve sufficiently lowered your expectations, here is the fruit of my labors:

Link (YouTube)

1,000 geek points to whoever can identify the music in the end credits. And I’m serious about the question I ask towards the end: Do you need a game to punish you for failure in order to enjoy victory? (I’m not just talking about blocking progress until you overcome the challenge, but taking away existing progress when you fail.) Does making the punishment more punitive make winning more fun?

Share and enjoy.

Comments (218)

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  1. Shamus says:

    Addendum: This is my favorite comment thread. Reading through the various comments has given me enough topics to make ten videos. Now if only I didn’t need to sleep…

  2. LintMan says:

    Your video is spot-on, Shamus. I’ve come to loathe the whole “Do It Again, Stupid” thing, as you’ve termed it. I’ve played through so many punishing, unforgiving games over the years that forced you to replay entire, long, levels if you fail, that I’m absolutely allergic to that gameplay style now – it has negative fun for me if I have to repeatedly reattempt the same actions in a game.

    The typical gamer response to this is “u suk learn to play n00b”. Yeah, maybe with hours of non-fun practice, I’d get better at those games, but why should I bother? I have limited time to play games and I’d much rather spend it having fun rather than frustration. I’m a staunch advocate for the availability of cheat codes for the same reason.

    I scrupulously avoid platformers for this reason, but I got one of the PoP games as a box-in with a video card a long while back and gave it a shot. 15 minutes later, I uninstalled it and haven’t given the series a second thought since. Perhaps I might like this latest PoP, though.

  3. Shamus says:

    Simplex: Thanks for the heads up! Fixed.

  4. Simplex says:

    No problem, glad I could help :)

    Another nitpick – I think that the video of Prince of Persia playthrough has an incorrect aspect ration – depending on your point of view it is either stretched horizontally or squashed vertically. Perhaps I am wrong, but this is the feeling I got when I watched it.

    I hope videos such as this one will follow. Perhaps we are witnessing the birth of a new Yahtzee (I refer to popularity, not style :) ).

  5. kat says:

    Thanks for posting this. It’s interesting you should, because despite having been exposed to computer and console gaming all my life, living with two avid gamers, and being generally a geeky kind of gal… I don’t play. I remember enjoying Mario as a kid, but attempts to get me playing Doom or Halo or Battlefield or any number of Xbox games have failed miserably (though in the case of Doom, the whole thing was probably a wash starting from me asking where the “negotiate” button was.) My reflexes are crap, and despite people assuring me that all I need is practice, I never could figure out why I was putting in all that work for something that was supposed to be fun.

    And thus I was stuck with puzzle games, Civilization IV, and stuff which was (as my husband tactfully put it) a bit below my age group.

    Playing with a friend’s WII this summer was the first hint I had that this wasn’t something inbuilt. I was still pretty crappy at it, mind you, but I *enjoyed* myself. It felt like something natural, not some obscure set of rules I was forcing myself to learn for reasons I was already forgetting.

    And this video is causing me to re-evaluate even more. It’s true I always found the learning curve on games frustrating, doubly so since there was usually an impatient male hanging over my shoulder going “Nonono, it’s very simple! Let me just show you!” But I just assumed that… well, that this was how it was. I may need to check Prince of Persia out and see how I do with it.

  6. UtopiaV1 says:

    Huh, as a long time gamer I’ve never really thought of difficulty like that before. Kudos on the video Shamus, I think you did a great job despite the fact that Windows Movie Maker isn’t the perfect bit of kit (I should know, I’ve made a couple of sub-standard videos before and have had massive problems with audio sync, video formatting etc). But now you mention it, I have purposely avoided games with a ridiculous difficulty or learning curve (Ninja Gaiden, Final Fantasy series, most MMORPG’s). They seem to expect you to be a veteran of that series or at least devote hours and hours of real-life time to get the hang of the controls, game play, even the plot, time which I sadly do not have.

    However, I’ve always been a bit of a whizz at strategy games, and it seems to be the only genre where players are not constantly punished and treated like idiots if you make a mistake. There are a few exceptions (I remember Red Alert 1 being very punishing if you were unfamiliar with C&C style RTS, or should I say Dark Reign-style seeing as though that came first?), but for the most part, modern day RTS’s are very accommodating to new players, offering infinite saves, varying difficulty levels, and even let you go so far as to modify AI style to provide an adequate challenge to your particular strategy (C&C3, while not the perfect RTS, did have quite a few AI customisation options). One feature which is nearly always present, and the main reason why this genre is so accommodating, is the ability to build more units if your current ones die (except for Ground Control, Sudden Strike etc) with little penalty.

    This then raises a question – Why is it that this genre still remains a hardcore gamers refuge, and a place where no new gamers dare venture? There have been many attempts to bring this particular game to mainstream gamer audiences (eg, Advance Wars, Red Alert 3 with its TV ads, Pikmin etc), but my non-hardcore gaming friends still leave this type of game well alone, simply referring to it as ‘really geeky’, and then turn back to Halo 3. I understand it’s difficult to get any console gamers to play an RTS for obvious reasons (so few RTS’s on consoles), and that unless you’re a tech-nerd you are unlikely to have a PC that can run the latest RTS’s at full spec, but when you really examine it, RTS games are the ultimate exercise in trial and error and learning. For example, you assault a fort with knights, you lose all your men to burning tar, so you try again with siege engines to break down the wall, or maybe archers to whittle down the defenders. You learn not to attack the gate with foot soldiers until the defenses are down, the dead men are forgotten about, the only punishment is a fraction of your army dead and a bit of money used to buy more soldiers. You’re not forced to start the whole battle again (unless you feel guilty about ordering the men to their deaths :P), and the game continues, whilst still providing a challenge that tests your imagination as well as your cunning.

    Anyway, rant over, it just all seems to bizarre to me, why new gamers can’t see just how enjoyable and easy-to-get-into RTS’s are. If it’s not your idea fun because it’s actually quite dark and macabre with all the killing and warmongering, then that’s fine, it’s obviously not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but if the complaint is that it’s too difficult, then point to a mouse and the tutorial level, because this is an under-appreciated genre that deserves an attempt by gamers of all levels of experience and skill.

  7. Robyrt says:

    @UtopiaV1: An RTS can be an organic experience with a gentle learning curve, if you play through the single-player tutorial. Online, it becomes an extremely stressful experience where you are forced to think about several things at once, move the mouse quickly and accurately, and remember the form and function of dozens of different tiny objects as soon as you see them. Plus, there’s a big slippery slope where the first mistake can cost you the game, but you don’t realize it until 30 minutes later your opponent has an overwhelming financial advantage. By the time you get to Supreme Commander and you’re setting up supply lines for your cargo planes, most people just don’t have the time to get past that initial barrier.

  8. refugee says:

    The only two games I have spent any time on have been Myst and Riven. I believe that your idea of non-punitive learning is a big part of why. When you made a mistake, you failed at the task, not at the game, and lost nothing but the time the attempt took. (I’m thinking of the little counting wind-up toy in Riven — I spent a couple of hours playing with that. If I had been penalized even by being set back on the doorstep of the schoolroom, I’d’ve given up after about two attempts.)

    Beautiful scenery and engaging puzzles helped a lot, but if dying every two minutes was a necessary part of the learning curve, I would have washed my hands of Myst before solving even a single puzzle.


    Of course, for PoP I have to get a console, or maybe just start spending a lot of time over at my nephew’s house…

  9. David W says:

    Wow, this is the first time that I really see what Youtube is for, besides copyright infringement. Mixing together the video examples and metaphors with the argument just works better as a video than screenshots interspersed with an essay. I think the best example of this was your description of the controller progression, where it was obvious visually how much simpler an arcade or NES was than a PS3 controller.

    Of course, your standard post probably takes 10-30 minutes, while the video probably takes that long just to write the rough draft, let alone produce, so I can happily accept my free ice cream without complaining that it’s not baked Alaska. Still, I encourage you to do this again sometime.

    On topic – I totally agree! Due to growing up without consoles, I’ve been in a similar boat to Kat above. Strategy games are fun, but only with the Wii do I start to see the attraction of the other genres as well. Jade Empire is an excellent example for me – I really enjoyed watching my roommate play, seeing the awesome story as it progressed. So, one day when his homework load was particularly heavy and I knew I wouldn’t get more story until he finished, I thought I’d give it a try on my own, and the fun evaporated. I had so much more trouble making the game give me the story than he did, that his fun story pinata seemed more like safecracking with a stick. I gave up, and just resigned myself to following his progress. This is the main reason Bioware has gotten so little of my money for their great stories – I can only enjoy them when I have a friend along to take care of the pesky ‘gameplay’ part.

    Of course, an additional hurdle is going to be letting newcomers know which games are good starter games – most of our current review systems have the exact same problem of being aimed at current gamers rather than newcomers. Probably the only effective approach is the ‘hand them the controller’ approach you advocate; this has the handicap of requiring designers to figure out how to please both audiences at once, however.

    I’d be interested in seeing a list or two of people’s takes on good newbie games for various genres on modern hardware.

  10. I don’t normally write in my Journal about stuff other people write in their blogs, but in this case I found it important enough to spread the word around.
    It’s nice too see that Prince Of Persia is doing by default what I prefer to do with all games. And on Twenty Sided is a video review on punishment in games. (snippet from EmSai Journal)
    See Punishment in Games article for the rest of the article.

  11. LexIcon says:

    A note of possible interest: the new game in production, Heavy Rain: the Origami Killer had an interactive demo released to a few gaming magazines.

    In their reviews, it was pointed out the the player character could die during the demo, and the game would take that into account and continue the story, having you play a different person related to the plot!

    Imagine a game like that, where the story doesn’t stop dead when you do.

  12. Taellosse says:

    @ UtopiaV1: I think there’s a sense among many, both gamers and non, that RTS games are complicated. The typical set-up involves having to manage some sort of resource-gathering process, while building a base that consists of defenses and places to produce various units, and at the same time managing a growing army of diverse units and sending them to attack one or more enemy bases and/or meet various other objectives with them. That’s a lot to keep track of, and some people just aren’t good at multi-tasking–and that’s absolutely vital to being any good at an RTS. In that sense, no amount of practice on tutorials is going to allow someone who lacks that ability to become good at the genre–if a person’s mind works in such a way that they can really only pay attention to one thing at a time, and needing to keep track of 3 or more things at once causes them to do badly at all of them, then an RTS is going to be an exercise in frustration no matter how much time is spent on training levels.

    I know I, for one, am only moderately good at that genre, and can’t compete at all well against someone who is truly skilled at such games. I’ve been playing them since the early versions of C&C, Dune, and Warcraft, but I’ve never been able to compete well against a skilled human opponent. These days, I mostly just play the ones that Blizzard puts out, because they write an engaging single-player storyline, and I never take the games online at all.

  13. Angie says:

    I agree with you, absolutely. I’ve been gaming since the eighties and I never got into the skill-and-action games (which I and some of the folks I hung out with, including quite a few designers, called “twitch games”) because even then, they were too hard. I was around when the video arcade was brand new and I didn’t have enough money to feed quarter after quarter after quarter into a machine only to watch my character or space ship or whatever die over and over and over. I didn’t want to have to spend ten bucks in change just to get good enough to make it up a level or two. So after a while I went back to pinball games, and occasionally watched someone playing the video games.

    When the twitch games hit the PC, I avoided them there too. True, once I’d bought a game, money was no longer an object in the learning curve. But I still wasn’t interested in spending hours dying over and over and over while I got good enough to have any fun. Yuck.

    I’ve never owned a cartridge gaming system, since most of what they carried seemed to be the kinds of games I don’t care for. Although I find the Wii interesting and if it weren’t so expensive I’d love to get one. I’m not sure about paying $$$ for a game system I might end up not liking, though. :/

    Your comment about the negative reaction to Prince of Persia from the old-timers is significant, though. Part of the problem is, as you said, that games are created largely to appeal to the old-timer, hard-core gamers, who’ve been doing it for ages. They want ever more difficult challenges, ever harder puzzles, ever more complicated maneuvers. Which is fine, for them. But that’s not the sort of game which attracts a newcomer, especially a newcomer who’s not twelve and jacked up on Mountain Dew. [wry smile]

    It reminds me of when Chris Crawford was working on his Battle of the Bulge game, back in the late eighties. The working title was Patton Kicks Butt (which I think would’ve sold much better than “Patton Vs. Rommel,” which was the title the publisher insisted on) and Chris’s whole purpose was to create a wargame that beginners could enjoy. The whole thing was simplified and streamlined, with symbols which made sense to a newcomer rather than being traditional and familiar to people who’d been wargaming on paper for forty years. There were fewer details (you didn’t have to calculate how much weight your tank was carrying and how long since it’d been maintained before determining how many gallons of fuel it’d take to get you across X number of miles of Y type of terrain, for example) and the whole point was to encourage new players to dip their toes into the genre and have fun.

    Of course when it came out, the old-timer grognards screamed bloody murder about how much it sucked, how it was boring, how it was way too easy and impossible to enjoy. Enough of the newbies had friends who were oldtimers and steered them away from the game that it didn’t sell well, and no other entry-level wargames were ever published, that I’ve heard of. And within a few years, the computer wargame genre had shrunk to some tiny fraction of a percentage, with all the old-timers flailing around wondering why their hobby was dying. [eyeroll]

    My idea of a borderline, almost-too-difficult combat game is the Morrowind/Oblivion series. That’s the only game with real-time combat that I’ve been able to get into. I’ve tried several real-time strategy games, and a number of RPGs with real-time combat (which seems to be all that’s available these days) and was never able to stick with any of them for more than an hour or three. They’re too difficult to get into, even though I have no pride at all when it comes to turning down the difficulty level, if that’s possible. I don’t want to work that hard when I’m playing. If that means I suck, then fine; any developer or publisher who thinks so can do without my money. And I’m not the only one in that group.

    You’ve almost got me to want to try Prince of Persia. :) I don’t know, it’s still a platformer, and I’m awful at those. [cough] But we’ll see.


  14. Anaphyis says:

    I havn’t read every comment but I guess they were pretty conclusive. However, there is still one thing I want to emphasize and you pointed out several times before:

    Punitive trial and error gameplay does not only drive away new players.

    I’m currently sick of any type of gaming in general for a number of reasons with punitive gameplay being a major one. I might still have the time as university student but I don’t have the patience anymore because a game has to be one of two things to be enjoyable for me: A test of skill or an interactive story. There were times when I got both in one game, no I get neither.

    You know this paddle with a ball on a string attached to it? You could play that without controls rivaling a space shuttle. Of course you could learn new imaginative tricks and how to use your hands more efficiently. However, these were not necessary to hit the ball with the paddle. After some time, when simply hitting the peddle was not challenging anymore you could add self imposed challenges. Hitting n times in a row, hitting n times in a row under a time limit and so on.
    Now, gaming feels like entering a yoga class and your first instruction is “take your head and stick it up your ass.” So there is lots of trial and error gameplay with endless repetition of segments you already cleared for good just to take that small hurdle somewhere close to the end of the level. And god help you if the designers decide to throw something luck-based or something equally completely out of your hands (*cough* escortmission *cough*) in your path because all the accumulation of skill you did before will be degraded to wasted time and effort.

    And I will not even open that can of worms “Interactive Story.” Fallout 3 and bandwagon jumper Storm of Zehir proved that at least for me, CRPG’s are something of the past, like Space Shooters and Adventures.

  15. Face says:

    When I watched the clip the first game I thought of was the Madden 08 my wife bought me. I tried to sit down and play practice mode and realized that “practice mode” did not mean “tutorial”. The game was made such that you were basically expected to be a veteran of the Madden series in order to understand what the heck is going on.

    I love that my wife wasted $60 on a game I really can’t play.

  16. Matt says:

    This is why I come to this site. Very nicely done video, thank you.

  17. Vendrin says:

    I don’t understand all the hate for Mirror’s Edge tbh. I thought it was a far superior game then PoP.

  18. Nathaniel says:

    DIAS gameplay commits the cardinal sin of an entertainment product: it’s boring. This is one of the main reasons I rarely finish a game: I don’t have the patience to redo a section I know how to do, to get to the bit I don’t. The third or fourth time I have to walk all the way back to the spot I died, I get bored and give up. I play games to be entertained, not to be bored and frustrated. Having to re-do the bit that I failed at is punishment enough.

    Strategy games are different, and can’t really take advantage of this. They have to make you replay the whole level, because you could have messed up early on, but not realized it until much later. Taking back your last move in chess can prevent careless stupidities, but probably won’t change the winner.

  19. Rustybadger says:

    Oh I’m an idiot. Serial is here. Stupid copy/paste didn’t take the second time!

  20. Ariel says:

    i’m somewhat conflicted on this issue, due to the fact i’m not sure that i want gaming to be more accessible. i realize that makes me sound like a total elitist ass, and i guess there’s really no way around that, but i can’t help but think that if more ‘newcomers and oldtimers’ find their way into gaming, the market is going to respond accordingly, with a flood casual games for casual gamers. serious, plot-driven, adult-oriented games are already pushed to the fringe of the gaming community, i’d prefer not to see the selection further diluted by the desires of a new community of dabblers just looking to kick back with another distraction. hell, we already see enough of that with mumorpuger’s – and frankly, i think we can all live without being subjected to single-player games that cater to the fans of ‘world of warcraft’.

  21. It says something about how much time I spend in Adobe Audition and Premiere that I just want to sit down with you, mic you properly, polish the audio, and then tighten your transitions, but I digress.

    The big deal as I see it re the punitive failure issue is this: I want to ask the designer “Do you want me to experience your game?” If they do, they make it easy for me to do so. I can enjoy the experience of the narrative, of the experience itself, and they help me along. If it was good the first time, sure, I can go back and try again with a bit more challenge —

    But by and large, modern designers do NOT want me to experience their game. They want to make it as hard as possible for me to experience and explore their game, because … well, as far as I can tell, like the folks who actively embrace things like calling themselves hardcore and referring to folks like me as carebears, they seem to only get an erection from bragging rights. ONLY from bragging rights. So their entire designs center around creating them, generating opportunities for them, and counting them.

    That would seem to me to be a bad idea. Sales numbers would suggest that I’m right.

  22. andy k says:

    Hey shamus, that was teh awesome. Well done.

    Now I will have to go and buy a console and prince of persia :)

    For the record, since I am predominately a ‘Will’ – as in building sand castles to see how awesome I can make my sand castle – I am not a huge fan of punishments based on failing some objective. In fact this is a sure way to turn me back to a game that doesn’t this, and for me there are too many games to play to waste time being frustrated because I don’t have the natural talent or the time to practice the specific skills required for some ‘challenge’ that the designers are probably using to string out the time of play.

    Interesting issue though; I suggest you may have opened a can of worms…

  23. Alleyoop says:

    Great commentary, Shamus. Ye speaketh to me, the dolt who cannot or won’t manage most combat or action games because I know I’m set up to fail from the beginning. I actually bought PoP, a game I’d never go for, *because* the gameplay was supposedly easier (and also for the absence of DRM!). I’ve tried to get out of a canyon for about a half hour and gave up, however! I think I can do it; I shall try again, because I can quickly. It’s not so harsh that I don’t feel that urge to beat it (or myself), I’ve done so in other games. But making the play accessible to people like me has gained Ubisoft a sale they normally wouldn’t have.

    The Sims2 games are a great example, IMO, of what you’re saying. If you can suffer the load times (the first challenge, ha) you’ll find that the learning curve is quite steep but steady – in fact, just choosing save points are kind of a challenge: do I save now so I don’t lose progress, or do I wait and see how badly I’m going to mess this up so I can reload from my last save point and try again?

    Oh dear, I have just burnt this sim to a crisp because I didn’t place a smoke detector and planting a barbeque in the livingroom isn’t wise, I shan’t do that in the future.

    Crud, that sim is a goner since I had them use a reward object without the proper aspiration level…and ghosts can scare low-motived sims to death. I have learned.

    Maids and gardeners will relieve my sims of possessions if I don’t have enough in the bank to pay them. Repo men will do the same if I neglect the bills. Good to know.

    Sims can unexpectedly have twins or become impregnated by aliens (sometimes with twins) when they’re unexpectedly abducted while stargazing. Huh!

    Sims don’t climb, so I will need to utilize stairs. Noted. Eight sims need more than one toilet. Noted in pen!

    Apparently, sims cannot get out of a pool unless a ladder is provided. Protip: ghosts of drowned sims leave puddles everywhere when they haunt. All other family members will mourn this sim and do little else you need them to do, like clean up puddles, until they’re done wailing. Puddles create weeds and kill the environment score. The Headmaster hates mess so the tour score tanked, the hot dogs were burnt so the food score tanked, and he hated my sims so the schmooze score tanked, and thus he refused the simkids entry to private school, which gave my Knowledge simparent a nervous breakdown, so he cannot now get a promotion at work the next day since he won’t acquire the needed skill, because he’s in such a bad mood…

    Of course the Sims2 is a totally different game genre, but one part of its appeal is that while the learning curve is steep, it is also incremental and mostly intuitive. There are opportunities after playing a while that make you feel like a fricken genius for remembering or exploiting gameplay aspects to ace formerly failure-prone situations and stop pointlessly debilitating or killing your sims – who don’t help much with their dopey AI and seemingly programmed death wishery.

    Success is assured after sticking with it for a short time, in other words, and the successes are large and small and various and plentiful. I’ve played it for years and there are still gameplay aspects I haven’t tackled – they’re like that canyon I’m stuck in with PoP: I’ll learn my way out one of these days, to beat the game challenge but also to reap that fricken genius feeling reward, which is ultimately why I play any game.

  24. Rustybadger says:

    Oh fer pity’s sake! My html-fu is weak today.

    This is the serial key for Avid Free. Now I am going to sleep, which I obviously should have done about 6 hours ago!

  25. Feb says:

    Wow, that’s a lot of comments. I skimmed ’em, I swear, so there shouldn’t be too much repetition here. Except to echo those who congratulate Shamus on putting together a good video, with interesting ideas presented clearly.

    I have been straddling the line between ‘casual’ and ‘gamer’ for about 20 years now. I have a 360 and a Wii hooked up, a PS2 under the cabinet, and a Sega Genesis and N64 in boxes. Someday I’ll have quite the media room. But the phenomenon Shamus describes is exactly why so many games have gone unfinished.

    For example, I got stuck on a boss battle in Kingdom Hearts 2, and haven’t been back to the game. I was into the story, the characters, the setting, the mechanics of the game… I even sort of liked the Gummi Ship I built. But after a good ten or twelve attempts at this same stupid battle in Halloween Town, I realized that two things had happened:

    1) It stopped being fun. The game had stopped being a challenge, and turned into a chore. Now, it joined all the other tasks on my “to-do” list, many of which were likely to be less time-consuming and tedious.

    2) It felt as though my failure was beyond my control. As far as I could tell, I was going back into the scenario time and time again, but there was nothing about my gameplay that I could change or fix. There was nothing more I could learn from replaying the battle. No piece of ground on which to stand to get a good shot or avoid the enemy; no tactic I could use that I hadn’t already tried; no discernable secret of the enemy’s weakness; no special trick, secret lever, or hidden power-up.

    I, the player, had become disconnected from the fundamental process of playing the game, win or lose, in order to learn how to better play the game. To me, that’s what kills computer games. In fact, it might be the thing that separates good games (of any kind) from bad ones.

    Losing (or, to be technical and allow for one-player games, not-winning) is a fair price to pay for being unschooled, unskilled, or inept — but only if there is some value to be derived from the act of losing. Something you can take away from the experience that might help you lose less, and play better, in the future, if you care to apply what you’ve learned.

    And I believe this disconnect is the same thing Shamus is talking about, because it keeps new people from becoming gamers. As he says, I’m a grownup now and I have stuff to do. And on those rare weekends or vacations when I truly do have a spare few hours, I don’t want to spend them banging my head against a wall.

  26. Mark says:

    Excellent video! I really enjoyed this. I’ve been watching some video game related documentaries lately, but they mostly focus on the people playing the games. I like the way your video focuses on the details of actual gaming and disecting what it is that makes it fun or not fun.

    I just ordered a PS3 and some games, but it looks like the system will get here before the games, so I might just go out and buy Prince of Persia based on what I’ve seen in this video… so thanks!

  27. Deltaway says:

    Let me be the first to congratulate you on your slashdot.org appearance!

    *Ahem* Congratulations! Now prime your servers for the flood.

  28. Michael says:

    When it comes to difficulty levels, a game I worked on last year had 5… Very Easy, Easy, Normal, Hard, Very Hard. With Bronze, Silver, or Gold trophies for completing each, depending on how well you did! :)

  29. Noumenon says:

    When I watched the clip the first game I thought of was the Madden 08 my wife bought me. I tried to sit down and play practice mode and realized that “practice mode” did not mean “tutorial”. The game was made such that you were basically expected to be a veteran of the Madden series in order to understand what the heck is going on.

    My friend has this for the PS3 and you’ve got it all wrong — it’s really an exemplar of learning tools for the new gamer. First, there’s the Virtual Trainer, which breaks the game down to the very, very basics. Just you and two blockers, and it tells you which dodge button to use. This matches Shamus’ conception perfectly because instead of losing yards when you fail, and then having to punt and endure a whole drive to get the ball back, you reset immediately when you get tackled to try again. But there’s learning satisfaction too as you have to get through 8 out of 10 tries to get to the next level of the Trainer.

    Second, there is a practice mode (don’t know what it’s called) where you can actually run the same play over, and over, and over. Instant reset. With instant replay, no less. You can try, fail, see why you failed, try something different. This is especially important for a game like football where every play is different. You have to run the same play multiple times before you see that sometimes, you are losing it because a blocker breaks free, and sometimes it is because you used the stiff arm instead of the back pedal.

    This game could have been an even better example of what Shamus is talking about, because football is a game where without knowing the plays and knowing how to read a field, you can be just totally “I push the forward stick” and not learn at all.

  30. Dix says:

    So wait, you were going to do lots of these… and then couldn’t because of other draws on your time?

    Remind me of what those draws on your time were, because clearly they need to be eliminated or handled by your loyal, loving minions.


    Now I run off to add the new PofP to my want list, having never played a PofP before, solely so I can try to get my wife to play it.

  31. Dan says:

    Takes a long time to make his point. I think it should have been a 5 minute video. Also seems to ignore the existence of casual games and talks as if ALL games have the punitive restart problem when it really applies to specific types of games.

  32. Mavis says:

    That was good, well done and a valid point. My experience of dating non gamers is pretty much that – simply overwhelming and to much going on.

    What about Braid however for a similar design philosiphy? Since that actually use the idea of rewinding time (and thus getting another go wihtout a break) as core game play? The look is more cartoony but the theme is still adult (and a simplified look is going to make it easier for a non gamer to handle what is going on).

  33. godhammer says:

    very nice video article. well thought out and presented. I thought that Shadow of the Colossus had a really great punitive system. You only died if you really screwed up (e.g. fell from too far a height or got stepped on), but your health would slowly recharge otherwise…so there’s a slight penalty which involves waiting but not repetition. And at the same time, you’re very aware of the possibility of character death which heightens your psychological investment in the game.

  34. hikari says:

    OK, now I want to go and buy a copy of Prince of Persia. A game when I can completely suck and yet still complete the damn thing eventually is very appealing.

  35. […] I learned of a fascinating video put together by Shamus Young called Reset Button: Most Innovative Game of 2008. […]

  36. Zaxares says:

    Cool video, Shamus. I have to say that you don’t sound ANYTHING like how I expected you’d sound like based on your picture though. ;)

    But as to the question of excessive punishment for failure in games… I think it actually depends on the type of game, and more importantly, what is it about the game’s experience that players will take away as a reward. In games like Full Throttle and Planescape: Torment, where it was impossible (or in the case of PS:T, nearly impossible) to die, the reward came from watching the story unfold, interacting with interesting and unique characters, and trying all kinds of weird shit just to see what happens. Overcoming a difficult game was not the primary challenge, and thus it was perfectly acceptable to have little to no punishment for doing something wrong.

    It’s a different story for games like Soul-Caliber, Raiden or even Guitar Hero. Here, the enjoyment from the game comes from overcoming a difficult challenge. If there was no penalty for failure, people could probably learn far too quickly and plow their way through their game in an afternoon. Try justifying a $50 game for a few hours of fun to your average consumer! Excessive difficulty, in this case, is needed to provide the gamer with a sense of value for their purchase.

    All in all though, I agree that a mixture of the two, and variable difficulty settings in games, is needed to appeal to a wide variety of gamers. (And cheat codes. It’s not a SIN to use cheat codes in a single-player game! Developers, TAKE NOTE!) As you’ve pointed out, most game developers focus too much on trying to sell to their core audience of veteran gamers, and thus miss out on attracting new gamers to the fold. Games need to be simple to learn, yet hard to master. (If your game is not going to be a casual one to complete in the course of an afternoon.)

    I do sometimes feel nostalgic for the good old days of the NES though, when one didn’t even need to read the instruction manual and just figure out how to play the game by mashing on the few buttons available to you. *sigh*

  37. tanst says:

    The video raises a good point, but I think the whole ‘punishment for failure’ issue is very dependent on the genre of the game. In platformers like PoP, where there usually is only one way to go through a level, it’s a good mechanic, but thats only because the game is totally linear.
    If every time you start a level you have to run up the wall EXACTLY here, jump into THAT ledge, then climb exactly THAT rope etc.. it will naturally be frustrating to redo it all for the Nth time because you slipped somewhere 10 minutes later. There, plopping you back into the world just before that missed jump is the right thing to do.

    In more open games however, I think it really is a good idea to set you back a bit after failing. In GTA for example, there are so many different ways to do most missions. If you tried one of the harder ways first (run in, no armor, guns blazing) and failed, should the game just respawn you a little way back, with the same poorly prepared state? Then you’d just rush right back in, instead of maybe thinking, “maybe I need to try another way to do this”. Really, failing a mission and driving back to it in GTA never felt like punishment to me, because I’d always use that time to prepare myself better, think up of different ways to win, (and run over pedestrians…).

    Prey was an FPS with the you-cant-die system, and I noticed that after playing for a bit, I was actually playing much worse than I usually do in other shooters. The reason was, dying didn’t feel like failing anymore, since I’d be back 10 seconds later to the same spot, so why bother dodging and strafing?
    By comparison, the quicksave/load system in almost all other shooters does pretty much the same thing for time saving, but it does feel like you failed every time you use it, and the most important thing – you don’t HAVE to use it if you don’t want to.

    And think about survival horror games like Silent Hill. A major part of the scare factor is the scarcity of save points. If you didn’t know that you’d have to fight your way through half of that hospital AGAIN each time you died, the game would lose much of its scariness, and you’d play much more recklessly than the designers intended.

  38. DaveMc says:

    Re: the name of the video (or, I hope, the video *series*): How about continuing the “Stolen” theme, a la Stolen Pixels? Something like Stolen Frames, or Stolen Bitstreams, something like that? The video seems analogous to Stolen Pixels, except that rather than “stealing” screen shots, you’re “stealing” gameplay video. I’m assuming you’ve already thought about this kind of name, so I’m really just voting for it.

  39. Icipher says:

    Excellent video. For all casual gamers feeling the same, I can also recommend Metal Gear Solid 4 in the easiest difficulty setting. You’ll get an awesome and complex (if a bit over-the-top) story, great cinematic cutscenes and still rewarding shooter gameplay. The great thing about MGS4 is that the gameplay is complex and makes use of all 400-something controller buttons, yet the basic gameplay in lower difficulty settings is quite easy to handle.

  40. Matt says:

    And this is why games such as the Unreal series are fantastic for newcomers.. when you die, who cares? In a single match you die 20, 30 times to start with.. this is what makes it FUN! Coupled with nice ragdoll physics, the death sequence becomes a part of the game, and people learn to enjoy it.

    I recently introduced my sister to UT04 (she’s 16 and has never played a FPS game in her life) and within seconds she was playing it and enjoying the fact that she was dying.

    But still.. I agree with all your points, bar the one where you say that being put ‘back to life’ moments before you died is ‘innovative’ – it isn’t. Innovative means new, ahead of the times, different. Having a checkpoint moments before a hard section isn’t innovative… hell even Deadspace has those!

    Final point: introducing potential gamers to the scene is a great idea, I’m just not sure that letting them ‘die’ and get back playing again without /any/ type of punishment is a good idea, certainly not ‘innovative’.

    Entertaining review no less – keep ’em coming!

  41. DM T. says:

    I really enjoyed the video and I agree with it 100%
    Is the next video going to criticize “Save Stations VS. Save button” ?

    (I just hate games with Save Stations instead of just pressing save and quitting)

  42. Yontan says:

    I enjoyed that, a lovely way to finish 2008. have to say, I’m a PC gamer and I find playing any consoles a chore, although I have to some extent grown up on friends consoles I don’t have the skill level to walk into a new console game and play amazing.

    Have you tried normal non-video podcasting? I think you’d suit it better (what with there being more time to talk) and as much as i enjoyed the images and video clips, I would have rather heard your cut-out paragraphs and jokes. I know there’d be a market for the ramblings of Shamus Young audio style.

  43. Name says:

    A game with training wheels. Really, you think we need more of those? I can only hope nobody will ever listen to you.

  44. somebody says:

    So if I completely suck at the game while still being able to finish it, where exactly is the challenge? You don’t (or you shouldn’t) play games just to run around and look at things, you’re supposed to deal with some challenges. In this case, you’re supposed to not die.

    “Do you need a game to punish you for failure in order to enjoy victory?”
    Of course. Why would I want to play a game that’s not challenging?
    Otherwise it’s just too much “hey, you can either play through the whole thing and prove you’re awesome or you can run to the finish line which is right over there”.

  45. Shamus says:

    Somebody: Like I said, you DO have to overcome challenges. You can’t get through the game if you suck. By the end, you will have learned to play. The difference is that you will not have spent hours and hours being punished.

    Now the question is: How much punishment do you need? If you could re-design PoP, what would you change to make it more to your liking?

  46. Niklas says:

    Shamus, you’ve just got slashdotted.

    Oh, and concerning your question i really don’t think games have to be punitive to be fun. I mostly play strategy games and RPGs (Which I sadly have a hard time to relate to actual roleplaying most of the time) for the immersion and story more than the actual challenge to overcome them.

  47. Hawk says:

    Sold. You’ve hit on the main reason I’ve never really warmed to most platform games: the failure penalty is too high.

    At the moment, I’m playing a lot of shooters (and shooter-like games), and just finished Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter and have started CoD4 (I know, I’m behind the times, but hey: used games are cheap!). I’m liking CoD4 much better, and I realized while playing yesterday that a big part of it was due to the much more frequent “checkpoints” in the game. When I die, I have to back up a bit, but not a significant amount, and I’m certainly not having to start an entire mission over.

    Perhaps one of the adjustable difficulty settings of a game like a FPS (that I believe would be very difficult to design for a no-penalty learning curve, since death is still sort of a penalty) should be how often you can set save points — say every 10 seconds or so in “casual” mode (need to stay away from the terms “noob” or “novice” or “beginner” to attract novices, even if they are) all the way up to no save points at all in “hardcore” mode.

    An alternative might be to steal from PnP games, and perhaps impose some sort of temporary penalty for failure instead of backing the player up some distance. You can immediately restart, but have a penalty on aiming or hitting that lasts for a minute, for example — so you can play on, or sit and wait for a minute, if you prefer. There is still a small “learning” penalty, but it is a different one than taking away your progress in the game — you keep that, but it gets a bit harder to progress for a short period.

    It can’t be too severe, though — the level loss penalty in D&D for death/raise is widely regarded as too severe, as the player loses all of that advancement he worked so hard to gain. Which is why, for video games which can track time, I’d favor a time-based performance penalty.

  48. Joshua says:

    As far as the discussion of save points, or being able to go right back to the sequence, save points are not enough. I’ve played games where the sequence is right after the save point(or within a couple of minutes), but the frustration is still there because you’re doing the same thing over and over again. My most recent experience with this was playing Metroid:Fusion on the GBA and fighting Nightmare after a save point.

    One important question to ask is: If you got through a difficult sequence of the game, do you feel satisfaction of overcoming a challenge or just RELIEF?

    If the game challenged me to become a better player, and afterwards my skills allow me to take similar situations with ease, then I feel pretty cool. If it was just a matter of being 100% on with hitting every button at the right moment and hoping to get very lucky so that every little thing goes your way, then that’s NOT fun, and tends to result in just quitting the game and going on to the next one.

  49. retrogaming says:

    Interesting video, the basketball analogy was rather clever. I have the feeling though, that you would love Prince of Persia even if there was some standard “punishment”, like being sent back to the last save point. Given your enthusiastic closing comments, that just seems to be a reason among many why you love it and why others surely would too.

    What matters most for non-hardcore gamers is the first contact I think, I’m not sure the punishment is systematically what deters them to get into a game. But if it doesn’t quickly spark interest when they have the controller in hands, you’ll have a hard time convincing them they’re playing a masterpiece.

    Also, I’m quite sure Prince of Persia isn’t the first game featuring this gentle try-again type of gameplay formula. Didn’t Nintendo do the same in Wind Waker? I don’t remember it too well but I remember playing a game where you were helped that way and it did feel a bit too easy. This ability to restart next to the place you failed is also influenced by a modern side of gaming: emulators; it’s pretty much like using save states.

  50. Linda says:

    You should try “Oblivion” (2006). It’s not only doesn’t have mandatory punishment setbacks, but it also has the ability to access an ‘internal’ console to optionally skip or go around obstacles that you don’t enjoy (like gold farming…etc).
    But then it becomes a different genre than the action-adventure type game that prince of persia seems to be and becomes more of a RPG — where ‘immersion’ is the goal and punishments would be counterproductive to that goal.

  51. Eric Londaits says:

    It’s kind of tragic/funny that you consider that some people are put off by cutesy Mario/Link and would rather play macho Lara Croft and Solid Snake…

    … they’re all comic book characters… either cutesy or macho fantasy… and many people are put off by comic book style, no matter what flavor.

    There’s very little in the way of actual adult characters in more adult scenarios… even in games such as Call of Duty, in which situations and characters are much more realistic, poorly written stereotypical dialogues break the mood (the russian part of COD1 was particularly pathetic… russians were pictured as “comrade-this / comrade-that” idiots).

    The only game I can think of which had very good dialogues, great plot, and adult situations and characters (and by “adult” I don’t mean nudity or profanity) was “Gabriel Knights – Sins of the fathers”, which was a PC Graphic Adventured published by Sierra On Line. There might be others, but still is an example worth learning from, in exploring new kinds of games and characters.

  52. Ehlvee says:

    Really enjoyed the vid — nicely written and performed, sequences well chosen. As an essay it was well written and points were well defended. Re: the game itself, I’ll almost certainly have a go based on this. The only other PoP I’ve played was the very first one, and it remains near the top of my all-time fave games. Thanks for your work!

  53. umanoid says:

    some thoughtful and interesting observations…Its very cool that you did this in a podcast style format as well.

    I am casual/avid gamer…I’m 48 years old and got my start playing much like Shamus at arcades.I have always sucked at games.lol.I also love them.I have ALL of the current gen systems And play(attempt to) all of the latest and greatest hits.I also ALWAYS play on easy with a walk through close at hand.I’m interested in the game play and mechanics and what makes a fun experience…I want to get through the game… Being punished and sucking up more time then necessary is not fun.I have quit many hardcore and difficult games after a few levels just out of anger and frustration …i just have better things to do with my time then be frustrated.I don’t need to be all hardcore to enjoy myself.
    i agree with Shamus about POP being very easy to jump on board and the re spawning system being a better option than the traditional ones of being sent back to the last save point.Ubisoft thinks so as well since they have been quoted wondering why no one has talked about their inovations on this.
    I haven’t finished any of the past three POP games due to that very reason…I would get frustrated after several levels and quit. This one i’m actually in the middle of the final Boss battle stage and of course i have now hit my frustration level.lol. Ubisoft decided to throw all of the gentle and easy levels of the entire game out the window just to punish you for making it to the end.
    I spent the past week enjoying myself jumping from wall to wall and climbing surfaces…looking at the beautiful designs and collecting as many light seeds as i could find.This was the part of the game i enjoyed the most..forget the annoying puzzles and the repetitive boss battles.forget the HORRIBLE acting and dialogue.Just climb and search and figure out how to get those pretty lights.gentle,fun and easy.Of course you had to get through the former to do the latter but that was the price.
    The problems i am now having with the end of the game is that they threw everything they set up through out the entire game out the window…The platform/plate sequence to get to the boss is far too long and complicated and you do get punished for having the reflex of a spazzzzz. The final boss fight with Ahriman (which is where i stopped playing) is suddenly in some weird perspective and view that you’ve never seen before in the game and is also unnecessarily punitive. i was already angry and frustrated from the plate sequence (the flying yellow plates f@ck me up EVERY time) but the dark vision and LONG tough wall run sequences weren’t necessary after two previous grueling sections. Its like they let you play on a toughness level of 4 and then cranked it up to 11 just for the end of the game. I know its the BIG BOSS battle but come on. This end sequence UNDID all the innovative and thoughtfull approach to the game mechanics for me.I am determined to eventually finish (so close yet so far) but will take a break and come back to it when i know i have a few more hours to burn.lol

  54. Ryan P says:

    Ummm… PofP, but Lego Star Wars had already given us the non-punishing ability to respawn and keep going.

  55. JB says:

    The whole “punitive” thing is why I’ve kind of stopped playing Star Wars: The Force Unleashed on my XBox. I can’t get past the first big boss, and every time I die after a ten-minute battle, I have to start it all over. It’s tedious! I wish I could just die and respawn indefinitely until I kill the giant robot thing.

  56. cosurgi says:

    You missed one point: PROCEDURAL CONTENT GENERATION.

    Let me explain. Games serve only one purpose – to give as much fun as possible. We all agree that playing through the same game content multiple times is boring (not fun). Please notice that there are two possible solution to this:

    1. When player dies – move back in time few seconds just before the death. (in some games that’s an obsessive saving-loading sequence, which makes playing unfun, in Prince of Persia this is automatic).

    2. When player dies – make sure that the game content (in new game) is totally different.

    Solution 1. is the simplest one, so no wonder that everyone does it, but also it makes gam unattractive to play again, after it is finished (even without dying).

    Solution 2 makes game always attractive to play, because even after it’s finished, a new play will be totally different. Placed in different time, with different randomly generated quests and different.. everything. It’s crazy difficult to make such a game.

    Currently only roguelikes provide Solution 2. The “text” game interface makes it possible to do so, because it simplifies a lot level generation, removes a LOT of 3D graphics work, etc. It’s a LOT because to have 3D graphics one would have to draw thousands of 3D tiles, and write extremely difficult level generation algorithms. And this is the sole reason why roguelikes have such a great following among those who tasted it. You live once, but each life is different. My pick is adom, and I tell you – no other game can give me the same fun and excitement because I live just once. Adrenaline gets high when I’m in tight situation and could die. It makes the experience a lot more real, and I like it.

    Have a look here – it’s a long read about that topic, but if you made such a long documentary addressing Solution 1, the perhaps reading through 6 pages about Solution 2 will be interesting for you: http://roguelikedeveloper.blogspot.com/2008/01/death-of-level-designer-procedural.html

  57. Anon says:

    excellent video. excellent questions. it made me think about what masochistic entity exists inside myself that desires games being insanely hard… i still don’t fully know. thanks for this!

  58. Shamus says:

    cosurgi: I wrote a 2-part essay on proceedural content generation a while back:


  59. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Ive just came up with some thoughts:

    How about scaling difficulty?But not like in oblivion,no way!First,it should be something that you can turn on and off whenever you want.It could work something like this:
    Numerous checkpoints scattered through the level,and some optimal time for reaching each one connected with each difficulty.If you reach the chekpoint faster,difficulty goes up,if you reach it slower,it goes down.Standing still and backtracking shouldnt count,and fighting should.Dying oftenly would also reduce difficulty.

    Also,difficulty should first of all effect enemy AI,then its equipment and quantity.I wonder why we still dont have a good,competent AI,at least in shooters,when FEAR showed us 3 years ago that it can be done.Its not like Im asking for a flawless pathfinding algorithm that doesnt consume every drop of available memory.

  60. Alexis says:

    Nice video, it reminded me a little of a Katherine Heigl (Channel Flip) review which is a very good thing. It would have impacted me more if it was shorter. A good way to accomplish that would be to leverage the visuals more, eg you didn’t have to list all the controller buttons or describe the PoP death penalty when it was being shown right there. You could leave spoken pauses when you need people to pay attention to the video. I got the sense you wrote a script with everything in it, then added visuals.

    I don’t really care about the titles, credits, clicks, pops and what have you. They were unnoticeable. The diction was acceptable for a non Englishman. Pretty dang good overall.

    Essentially PoP has a fine checkpoint granularity. This is important but phased challenges really break the idea that checkpoint granularity can solve all problems. Either they’re front loaded, in which case the encounter is initially discouraging then too easy; or back loaded, which makes learning the later phases tedious. Checkpointing between phases removes resourcing decisions and the often hectic challenge of a smooth phase switch, while a big uncheckpointed phased fight or platform sequence can form a frustrating brick wall in an otherwise flowing game.

    Blizz have overcome this to some extent with Malygos and Sartharion. There’s a daily quest where you can learn some of the skills needed for Malygos phase 4. Sartharion has difficulty levels which add abilities to the fight, so you can master most of the fight before trying ‘insane mode’. Conversely if you’re training on hard mode, you can always knock it down a little and get a kill before finishing for the night.

    These are not perfect fights by any means, but they’re steps in the right direction. Corpseruns are supposed to be <1m next patch, which is another step. I’m still waiting for the Mass Rez spell though.

    Wasting my time with corpseruns at all is undesirable, but perhaps necessary for their business model, I can accept some waste just like I can watch some adverts on TV – passive waste. Active boring waste is worse but endurable to a limited extent. Active luck-dependant waste (win a coinflip and you can try boss phase 2 again) is unbearable. Active, skill based replay can pay for itself in accomplishment. Active irrelevant sections (ie rail shooter parts of Gears2) are frustrating – especially when anomalously hard.

    To sum up – PoP’s death penalty does not immunise it from the need for consistent difficulty. Encounter design and mitigating actions can make a relatively harsh penalty (5-15m between attempts) more acceptable. Providing access to late phase training and levelling the complexity not just the numbers are two ways to accomplish this.

  61. HardCorey says:

    Nice analysis

  62. JonE says:

    As for the question of punitive punishment making winning more fun .. the first thing that comes to my mind is the popularity of golf .. part of the joy i believe that so many find in golf involves the avoidance of traps and the minor punitive punishment involved there. There’s also something to scoring something on a scale that translates universally to rank how well someone has accomplished the tasks and avoided the traps and obstacles. Unfortunately with gaming systems what you find is that their ranking or scoring system becomes tied to a specific scenario or game .. this would be like having a completely different scoring system for every course you might play – there’s no way for people to gauge how good they really are at any task and see progress over time .. just a “pass/fail” if you make it to the end or not.

  63. Adam says:

    I think this works for *some* potential gamers, but part of the Wii’s strength is that it’s most successful games are modeled on real-world games people already know how to play: tennis, bowling, etc.

    My parents love wii tennis. I know other people’s parents who love wii fit. I can’t name any of them who own the latest Zelda or Mario, because those are the sorts of games they’re “not good at”.

    Time sink or not, I think these sorts of gamers will consider the falling / reset scenario as punitive if the difficulty of the task is too great. Consequently, games of this ilk always wind up being too easy.

    FableII is another example. Sure, I can get up and continue fighting if I die, but I so rarely die anyway. If the fights were more difficult, the success bar is too high and I don’t feel like I’m learning from my mistakes.

    Platformers are more difficult to add difficulty bars to since the environment is the challenge rather than how much health your guy has, or the enemy has, etc. Aside from hiring double or triple the level designers, it’s hard to imagine how that can happen.

    Zelda & Mario does work good across age brackets though. I’ve seen younger kids pick it up, and they’ll certainly never get through the main questline, but there’s enough fun just running around and exploring that the value is there, while other players can opt to complete the actual storyline.

    I agree with you in part, but I think the 50% over 30 years factor is that a lot of us are 30 now. When we’re 90, we’ll see more saturation. My parents still can’t handle call waiting. Maybe the hardcore weenies are partially right, I dunno.

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