Making Losing Fun

A game of Monopoly

This weekend, I won a game of Monopoly against my wife and her sister.  For me, this was somewhat significant, as it may be the first time I’ve ever won a full game of Monopolyever.  Of course, that’s partially because getting through a full game usually takes much more time than I have to play (my record is around ten hours and still no winner), but even so, I have lost at Monopoly a spectacular number of times throughout my life.

Given my penchant for losing, it may come as a surprise that Monopoly was one of my favorite games as a child.  Every time we’d visit my cousins, I would either vote to play Metroid on their Nintendo, or to get creamed again at Monopoly.  Years later, after reading the rules, I learned that my older cousin had been cheating all that time (I had never bothered to question the fact that she built three hotels on Boardwalk every time).  Nevertheless, there was something about the game that appealed to me, even when I was being cheated out of every last cent.

In fact, as I look back at my favorite games, the ones that influenced me the most, I was terrible at most of them.  My favorite Nintendo game, Metroid, was particularly brutal for a five-year-old.  I was lucky if I could make it to the first vertical shaft, and often I wouldn’t make it out of the first room alive.  Neither my cousin, nor I, were able to beat the game as kids, though she got much closer than I ever did.  Still, it was probably our number one activity when my sister and I would come to visit.

Why was a game that I lost at every time so much fun?

Videogame design has changed a lot over the last twenty years.  Most original NES games are considered fairly difficult compared to modern titles.  There were no tutorials, no in-game instructions, no difficulty settings.  You were simply thrown into the game to either sink or swim.  This is not to say that this style of game design is necessarily better than today’s.  On the contrary, I believe that for the most part, game design has improved considerably.  While there are certainly many big-budget games that seem to put no thought at all into design, the truly great game designers have learned a lot since the 8-bit days.  So what exactly should we learn from these old games?

One could argue that the appeal of these NES games is simply nostalgia.  I would be lying if I said that nostalgia didn’t have anything to do with it.  I still have a soft spot in my heart for Fester’s Quest, which is perhaps one of the worst designed games ever.  Playing it now makes me cringe, just a little bit.  It’s like listening to that song you thought was so brilliant in high school, but now makes you embarrassed that you actually bought the CD (seriously, Creed?  What was I thinking…).  Metroid, on the other hand, has stood the test of time.  I still love that game, even though I didn’t beat it until I was 27.

Let’s look again at the example of Monopoly.  Something hooked me on that game from an early age.  It certainly wasn’t the overall balance of the rules, since I was playing the cheater version until I was almost ten.  Since we rarely finished the game (except when my sister and I both hit the triple-hotel Boardwalk death trap), it had nothing to do with the game’s resolution.  It wasn’t my keen interest in the real estate market, either.  Having narrowed down the gameplay elements thus, I think that the thing that I most enjoyed was the sense of achievement that I got from improving my properties.  Even if I was losing terribly and only owned one set of properties on the whole board, I could build.  It was also a goal that I could achieve early on, even when our games were cut short.  There was something very satisfying about watching the rent climb as I improved my properties.  Even if the rest of the board was a minefield of potential financial ruin, I could build my own little red and green community in a quiet corner of the board.  This achievement was made all the sweeter when a rival would land on my space and my investment would pay off.  Even if (or more often when) things ended badly for me in the long run, those small victories made me eager to play again.

Finding the Morph Ball in Metroid

Similarly, Metroid gives the player some fairly significant achievements early on.  The Maru Mari, more commonly known as the Morph Ball, is located just to the left of the player’s starting position.  This is perhaps the game’s most signature item.  The ability it grants to roll up into a ball and fit through small openings is the basis of most of the exploration puzzles in the game.  Even as a five-year-old, I was at least able to get this first item and have a lot of fun with it.  Though my lack of aiming and dodging skills would certainly be my undoing in the next few rooms, I felt a certain sense of accomplishment.  Metroid was fun.

Of course, there was a lot more to Metroid that made it addictive than just the little rolly ball item.  There were tunnels to explore, new aliens to encounter and much more.  For me, playing Metroid, much like playing Monopoly, was a very social activity.  It was something my cousins and I did together and as kids, an invaluable source of social capital.  Maybe some day I will write a post about all the things that made Metroid such a great game, but for now, I’ll simply say that there was something about getting the Morph Ball that made me eager to start the game over again each time I died.

Many modern videogames suffer from chronic easiness.  In their attempts to avoid driving away players with excessive difficulty, designers end up creating long, boring movies that require occasional button pressing in order to advance the action.  On the other hand, some designers have caught on to the idea of making losing fun.  Probably the best example of this is Dwarf Fortress, which has made “Losing is Fun” its motto.  Since there is no “win” condition, losing is inevitable.  Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that impending doom is always right around the corner, small achievements still make the game exciting.  Of course, with Dwarf Fortress, I considered the first time I was able to figure out how to make my dwarves do anything a fairly substantial achievement.

Since I’m mostly making educational games for elementary students right now, I probably won’t be making any games where losing is a common occurrence.  Still, I would like to make a game that I could watch people fail at again and again, and each time be more excited to play it some more.

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