Pondering Permadeath: Responding to Game Difficulty


This blog was originally posted on Eric Daily’s personal blog, Epic Helicopter Rescue.

One of the reasons I keep playing Skyrim after hundreds of hours (and the main reason I have started so many different characters) is because of the joy I get from permadeath runs. Permadeath is where you’re given, or you give yourself, just one life to live. If you die once it’s game over. Sometimes this is built into the game while other times players impose the rule upon themselves, which is what I had to do with Skyrim. After many attempts to convince my buddy Derek that self-imposed permadeath in Skyrim was fun, he took a turn and asked me a question: Why is permadeath fun to you? “Because it increases my sense of immersion in the game’s world and I find that feeling of immersion enjoyable,” I replied confidently. His second question was harder to answer: If permadeath was enforced by the game, would it still be as enjoyable?
Good question. After some thought, I found the answer: No.

Well, usually, no. One example is FTL, a space-faring ‘rogue-like’, a genre of games centered around permadeath. As much fun as I had with that game, I found its permadeath mechanic more frustrating than fun. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy FTL, I did. I just didn’t like that there were no retries, no second lives, that death was so…permanent. I spent all this time building up my ship and crew, only to have them be extinguished in a flash mob of Mantids.

But that’s the point of permadeath, isn’t it?

Sure, but playing under the threat of permanent death wasn’t as fulfilling in FTL as it was in Skyrim because I lacked control over my fate. I find permadeath in Skyrim more enjoyable because Skyrim is a totally open-world where, literally, each step and misstep was my own. If I chose to safely hang out in town or venture into the dangerous night, that was my choice. If I was killed deep in a bandit’s hideout or from idly walking off of a cliff, it was my own damn fault. I admit that most of the times I died in FTL were due to my own arrogance or impatience, the same reasons I often died in Skyrim. Yet, many of my deaths inFTL simply due to the fact that the pursuing Rebel fleet forced me to keep jumping to unknown sectors with dangers impossible to avoid or prepare for. In other words, FTL forced my hand. It pushed me off the cliff.

Skyrim, on the other hand, was not designed with permadeath in mind and thus all the premature deaths that came my way were the direct result of my choices. I understood how the world was set up, all the systems and dangers at play, and I could choose whether or not, and how, to engage or avoid them. It’s not just about gaining control over those systems, though, as that would seem to suggest that I should develop an overpowered character that no enemy could kill. You still want there to be a challenge because otherwise those choices are rendered meaningless. I usually loathe power-fantasy games for this very reason. In fact, very few of my Skyrim characters are over level 20 simply because I get too powerful, become bored, and start over. So it’s not about power, it’s not about controlling fate, it’s about controlling risk.

The difference, I concluded, between a fun in-game death and a frustrating one is the difference between victims and volunteers. In my college years, I wrote an ethnography on the straight-edge hardcore scene. Based on my interviews, it was clear that people who ‘claim the edge’, that is they don’t use mind-altering substances like beer or drugs, largely do so because they don’t want to hurt anybody. Odd then, that the straightedge hardcore community’s most cherished ritual, the hardcore music concert, features some of the most aggressive dance moves (read: mosh pits) in the world. They’re proud of their wounds and it bonds them together. Why was violence in one setting bad, but in another perfectly acceptable?

People getting hurt from inebriated dolts are victims while those getting hurt at shows are volunteers. If you were reclining on the grass while at a show for some mellow band and someone kicks you in the face you are going to be upset. You weren’t expecting physical harm in this environment. You’re thus a victim. At a hardcore punk show, however, you know full well that standing near the pit is likely going to end up with a shoe to the face. People volunteer for the risk and thus do not mind, in fact they seem to enjoy, any damage that results. Battle scars and all that. It’s the same thing for self-imposed permadeath. If I chose to keep pushing deeper into that dungeon and ended up dying, it was because I volunteered for that death every step of the way. No mechanic forced me deeper into that dungeon. I could have turned back any time I wanted. With FTL, you’re being prodded along, closer to the mosh pit, and have no chance to turn back. Robbed of the choice at every step, I end up a victim rather than just a greedy, foolish volunteer.

Now, if I may pass the blunt and move on from theory to more practical applications. How does this victims and volunteers paradigm translate into game design principles? I’ll give you an example from my own game development project. While Drift is not a permadeath game, death of the player or destruction of their ship will set them back to the last visited space station—a sufficiently severe penalty. We knew we wanted to have this three dimensional grid of instances where each cell held the chance for an encounter with some player or other danger. For the sake of production scale, we toyed with the idea that this universe was randomly generated; each cell would possess a random chance of encounter a weak or difficult opponent. So, for example, a cargo delivery mission from one station to another could have its difficulty measured by how many cells the player would have to travel through. The more cells, the higher the risk of attack by pirates.

That’s a cool idea, but I realized that without modification it is simply too much like FTL. Players would jump into a space with zero predictive capabilities as to the outcome. There is some fun in that unknown feeling to be sure, but it also could cause great frustration if the players’ most cherished ship ended up destroyed. Instead, we moved to system where the 3D grid of space held pre-authored zones of risk, that is, we tell each cell how risky it is. Ideally, this will be aggregated with real-world  statistics from online player encounters later on to produce an up-to-date heatmap. This means that players can look at the heatmap of the universe and plot a circuitous course through the safest cells, thereby granting them control over the risks they’ll face. If they want to take a shortcut through highly dangerous space and end up being pwned, at least that choice was theirs. There is no encroaching rebel fleet forcing them in a particular direction.

In the end, we decided to use a combination of both systems. There is a particular kind of fun to FTL-style surprises and I wanted to allow for the opportunity of some highly risky exploration of the frontiers of space. So, what we have settled on for now is a central, nebulous grid of ‘Charted Space,’ where the dangers of each sector are public knowledge. This is surrounded by the frontier zones of ‘Uncharted Space,’ where the level of danger in each cell is unknown. You could travel in a single direction for as long as you want and find nothing, or you could happen upon a pirate haven or lucrative shipwreck. This opens up the game for various types of systems and in the end makes the most sense from a gameplay and production standpoint.

If permadeath has taught me anything, it’s that you don’t need to force players to the cliff for the thrill of standing on the edge. The response by so many game developers to counteract enemy difficulty with player power is, I think, a misguided one. While many gamers enjoy being an immortal badass with a huge gun cutting a massive swath through the hordes of enemies, that is getting ridiculously played out. It’s boring and lazy. As anyone who has stood at the edge of a great height can tell you, there’s always that thought of, “What if I jumped?” If you then fall down due to lack of a tutorial on gravity or from some inescapable mechanic, you’re a victim. That’s no fun. If you’re falling with a parachute, the risk of falling is a non-issue, so that isn’t fun either. Voluntarily skirting the edge, however, embodies the fundamental purpose of play, to test the limits. When you’re truly playing the outcome doesn’t determine whether or not you’ve had fun. Gravity will reward your greed and you will die laughing.