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A TECHNIQUE OF FRUSTRATION

08 Jun 2009

[This week's article takes a look at frustration as a design tool, how it is used as a gateway to sensations of achievement and fiero, and how "casual" gamers may actually appreciate frustration more than their "hardcore" counterparts.]

Evidence of Conflict

Every story involves a character struggling through a conflict. Importantly, characters never overcome conflict on their first try; this would present a very short story indeed, suggesting that the conflict was never particularly potent and thus hardly worth fighting. Instead, characters must try and fail -- have their efforts frustrated -- multiple times before succeeding. Each failure raises the stakes, further investing the character and the audience in the conflict and increasing the sense of triumph when success is finally achieved. In this way, frustration is the evidence of conflict.

While games often tell the story of a character in conflict, the interactive nature of games also gives rise to a parallel story: the ludic narrative, which is the story of the player in conflict with the challenges presented by the game. Although this story is experienced, rather than observed, many established storytelling techniques can still be applied. Frustration in the ludic narrative immerses the player in conflict, raising the stakes and increasing the sweetness of the eventual payoff.

The Gateway to Fiero

Fiero is the feeling of triumph over adversity, and is one of the most common emotions experienced in video games. To experience fiero, one must first be faced with *adversity. Thereafter, *the intensity of fiero correlates with the intensity of the adversity overcome. The intensity of adversity increases with each successive failure, just as in the classic story structure. Thus, **frustration is the gateway to *fiero*.

While fiero is among the most common emotions in contemporary and past video games, it is certainly not the only one, and as the gaming audience expands and more and different tastes are brought into the community, it has been argued by some that the percentage of players who seek fiero will fall. However, I believe that even casual players seek *fiero*; they just have a different perspective on what it is and why they want it.

Casual Conflict Is Still Conflict

It's well-known that as the audience for video games has grown, a whole subculture of players has emerged that seems -- to us core gamers -- shockingly conflict-averse. They gravitate to casual games like Peggle and Bejeweled, and they've turned out to be a lucrative market. Core game developers have been looking for ways to bridge the gap and get their hands on that sweet, sweet revenue.

It's led to a rise in perceived low- or no-frustration games: Prince of Persia, in which you are always snatched away from death at the last moment by your magic-wielding companion, Elika; Oblivion, in which everything auto-levels with you, preventing you from ever encountering anything too powerful; Fable 2, with its string of pearls that obviates the need for critical exploration of the game world. While these are all quality games, they've received significant criticism from core gamers who are concerned about the "dumbing down" of our favored pastime.

However, even iconic casual games like Peggle and Bejeweled incorporate frustration into their game designs. In fact, both games feature fiero prominently in their experiences, as do Prince of Persia, Oblivion, and Fable 2. How then do we explain conflict-averse casual gamers that are so attracted to these games?

It's important to make a distinction here between *legitimate *and *illegitimate *frustration. Specifically, some challenges add frustration in a fun, fiero-supporting way, and others feel arbitrary or unfair and detract from the game experience. I wrote about this distinction in some detail a few weeks ago in Failure for Fun and Profit, wherein I proposed the three rules for designing failure:

  • Do not break narrative flow
  • Provide a clear way forward
  • Raise the stakes

The risks of designed frustration arise not from its mere presence, but from poorly-designed failure cases which break one or more of these rules.

A lot of "hardcore" games break at least one of these rules. It may be the harsh punishment of death, so common in arcade-style games, which irrevocably shatters narrative flow. It may be games that take such pride in their difficulty that even when there is no clear way forward, they refuse to help the player out, on sheer principle. It may be games that can't raise the stakes because their challenges are altogether too arbitrary.

The difference between "hardcore" and "casual" players is simply the amount of tolerance one has for deviation from the rules of failure. Simply put, casual players aren't willing to put up with our bullshit.

Frustration For Broad Appeal

The break between hardcore and casual isn't over whether or not a game is difficult. It's over whether or not a game is fair.

Frustration, correctly applied, is a tool that appeals to both hardcore and casual players. It provides evidence of conflict, which underpins all stories and is the reason we have an audience in the first place. It creates the gateway to *fiero, a sensation for which there is evidence that players on both sides of the divide actively seek, even though they have different perspectives on what it is and why they want it. It *raises the stakes** and makes the payoff oh-so-sweet, regardless of whether the player's victory is clearing a long chain of blocks or saving the world from evil.

Frustration must be applied with respect to the rules of failure. Done correctly, it creates engaging and rewarding game experiences that feel like they were worth something, rather than a waste of time, and are not relegated to just one corner or another of the industry, but have broad appeal.

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