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Frustration in Games

I recently made and developed a game that frustrated players in some sort of way. But that was the point, I designed the game to frustrate players. You don’t have to be surprised, all games do not have to be a pleasant and uplifting experience. Some games are created for the sole purpose of letting the player fail repeatedly, and in the process get frustrated. And some of these games really work; even with frustrating events the game could have excellent game design and achieve commercial success.

One of the games that stand out in my memory is a mission from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, called “Demolition Man”. The player has to control a tiny remote controlled helicopter and guide it across a building, planting sticky bombs in designated areas. But the problem was that this was timed, so you had to be really quick about it.  The mission was so tough, that I spent hours strategizing and re-doing this one mission, but my 12 year old fingers just didn’t have the agility to press the correct keys at the correct time. That part was insanely frustrating to me, because I just didn’t have the physically ability in me to do that. My friend, who was playing the game separately at the same time, got his elder brother to do it for him. This made me think about how important your motor skills are and how long it takes for them to develop completely, but I digress. I later found out that “Demolition Man” was one of the toughest missions on Vice City and many people had complained about the difficulty on forums & discussion boards. Rockstar had in fact meant it to be tough, and have players spend time on it and not work around it by using cheat codes. They wanted players to suffer.

There is in fact a whole genre of such games that are intended for players to tear their hair out over. There are a bunch of gamers on Youtube and Twitch who make a living playing and reacting to games like this, because it’s actually pretty funny to watch.  Check out this video of a gamer going through I Wanna Be The Boshy, which is a spin-off of  I Wanna Be The Guy.

Some of the key attributes on games like this are death counters (it’s about showing how badly you suck at this) and misleading or innocent level design with untold consequences. I played this game, and it broke me in so many ways and caused me a great amount of stress. But I played it for quite a while before I actually rage quit. These games are intentionally designed to frustrate and get the best of a player, because some players like the sheer dopamine rush of winning at something that made you deserve it, or others can’t achieve.  Flappy bird came with a score for a reason, it doesn’t have a narrative. This is evidenced by the statement of one such game designer himself, Eugene Jarvis, who created old arcade titles Defender and Robotron. In an interview with Eurogamer he mentioned that he felt the most proud when he would visit arcades and inspect the coin-op cabinets of his games to see that it’s been kicked or punched. Watch the first minute or so of this video and watch how he passionately talks about hurting people to get the goods out of them.

 

It’s ok for designers to make levels that players could suck at. But there’s an art of doing that too. You can’t just create a bad game and expect players to keep playing it. There is goodness in bad. As a designer, you want to create experiences with the power to hold the interest of the player, no matter how many times they fail. The player should feel the need to find success in the game, and must strive to achieve it, and in this way bring up the playing time of the game, which in turn puts food in the belly of the game creators. Just like how sadness is a tool in sad movies, frustration is also a tool in good games, and a good designer knows how to use it wisely.

Vasant Menon