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Playing Fair

Green Hill Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)

Image via Wikipedia

One of the important lessons a child learns is how to play fair. At some point or another, most of us learn the value in honest play. It isn’t a terribly hard lesson to learn. We can all remember a time when we experienced something unfair and how frustrating it felt. Once we recognize that this fact is true not just for us but for everyone, the next step is to gain a greater sense of accomplishment from a fair victory. Anyone can “win” if the game is rigged, but what satisfaction is there in that? You have not demonstrated superior skill or strategy. You haven’t bested anyone. The victory isn’t truly yours.

Most of us have learned these lessons by the time we reach adulthood. But they are typically learned in the context of playing an even game against others. For game designers, this isn’t enough. We need to learn that this applies to games we create. It’s not sufficient to craft a balanced playing field in a multi-player game. We also must create fair game play experiences for a single player.

What do I mean when I talk about fair play in the context of a single player video game? Players should, in principle, be able to overcome a challenge the first time they encounter it. This doesn’t mean that a player ought to succeed in any game play scenario regardless of their character’s state when they begin it, or that players shouldn’t be allowed to fail in general. It means that the player should have the character abilities and the knowledge to complete a challenge successfully when they first encounter it, even if they lack the skill or the in-game resources. Put simply, the player shouldn’t have to fail in order to learn how to succeed.

Many games rely on “gotcha” level design to create challenge. By this I mean levels designed in with obstacles placed in the player’s direct route such that by the time the player observes the obstacle they will be unable to react to it. While it certainly creates difficulty for the player, I argue that it doesn’t create a satisfying challenge. Like the unfair games of childhood, when you lose, you don’t feel that you have failed to overcome the challenge. Instead, you feel that the game has stopped you maliciously. And when you do overcome the challenge, there is no sense of satisfaction, because the challenge was false: the skill needed to overcome the challenge was knowing it was already there.

Examples of this kind of challenge can be found in the Sonic the Hedgehog games. The core mechanics of these games are running and jumping. The player runs through colorful levels, alternately being guided by shaped tracks and bounced around by stationary springs, all at a great rate of speed. At times enemies or spikes, either of which can strip the player of the rings he’s collected or kill him dead in his tracks, are placed such that the player, following the natural trajectory of the level, will collide with them. The player had no way of knowing that the obstacle would present itself until they had already been struck by it.

The Sonic games have many fair challenges as well, enemies that present themselves in the player’s trajectory while there is still time to avoid or attack them. These sections of the games are more satisfying to overcome and less frustrating to fail at, as the player can recognize that it was their own error and not a trick of the level that bested them. As a result, they can grow as a player. Overcoming a fair challenge that you’ve had difficulty with is a lot of fun, and as game designers, we generally want our players to be having fun.

I’ve given one example of a game with both fair and unfair challenges in it. Please share some challenges you’ve seen in games that were unfair, as well as those that struck you as being very challenging, but also well tuned for fairness.

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