GDD 018 : Deep Thoughts About Death In Games

By August 12, 2014 Podcast No Comments
Game Design Dojo Podcast Episode

Brian and Ike talk about death in video games where the character dies or vehicle explodes at the end of the game loop. They discuss what death brings to a video game and why it may be important to include it your game. So, get ready for some great insight!

Today’s Developer Diary

Brian is extremely excited to announce his own Twitch TV channel! Here is the link to check it out: Fenix Fire Twitch TV and if you haven’t caught wind of it yet, now would definitely be a good time. It’s become a tool in the indie game dev by using it to broadcast the making of your game while making the game. It’s a pretty awesome way to connect with fans!

Brian’s mind is blown by just experimenting with it. He says the good thing about Twitch is just how raw it is and that production value is considered a bad thing. People who watch want to be a fly on the wall and want to see what makes the game tick, what makes the designer tick and all the decisions that are being made. There’s no post production and really no pre-production. It’s just a matter of hitting play and performing.

Ike is heading to downtown Denver to teach some young budding high school kids how to make video games. He’s really looking forward to it. While he’s away, we plan on having some guest hosts on the podcast so stay tuned for that!

Death in Video Games

Death doesn’t have to be a morbid topic, in the case of death in video games it’s a really interesting topic. Death in a video game is the ultimate point of feedback in your feedback loop. You have to have a carrot and a stick to get the full range of emotions out of a player. But as a player, it feels awful when you die. So why have death in your game?

Well, if you take death out:

  • It remove conflict or friction in the game
  • The mastery element gets thrown out the window
  • There’s no desire for the player to learn a new skill

Rewind the Clock Back to the Arcade

The one good thing about mobile games is they have heart again and some skill going on all of a sudden which is great to see. Reminds us of where video games began….in the arcade.

The entire coin-op industry throughout the 80’s were all about mastery. Atarti made a bunch of coin-op games about mastery like: Pong, Pac Man, Missile Command, Pitfall, Space Invaders, etc. All these games were hard and they were quick. It was a bite sized game. In order for it to be a game, you had to die and that was part of the business plan to throw in more quarters and play again.

Before internet and Twitch TV, you would go to the arcade and just watch someone play since it was a skill based game and be amazed by his abilities. Not only did you have to know the game, but you had to know your specific arcade since all the machines were different.

Mastery is a huge part of all of this that started the video game craze. It’s a feeling that males as opposed to females really strive for which is why it became a male dominated sport.

It was high technology and at the same time brutally difficult. All of this stuff was really hard core and that’s where video games were born from. It’s important to acknowledge that.

Death in Video Games – The Discussion

Brian and Ike go through many different scenarios and ideas of what death can bring to a game as well as some good insight into this interesting and important topic.

The dreaded loading screen:

  • Mostly found in Console and PC games
  • After you died, the game had to re-load and that was a penalty in and of itself
  • Death was painful not because you had to put another quarter in but you had to wait

An example of a game without death was the game Planescape: Torment  where you’re this immortal character and you didn’t “die” you would re-load in your spawn point. The whole game was built on the concept that you don’t die and there was no loading.

 The need for conflict:

  •  In a game, there almost needs to be a back and forth
  • Like the old saying goes, “Distance makes the heart grow fonder.”
  • People need some conflict  – not only to appreciate the good portions but also to learn and to grow
  • Very similar to relationships

Death has been the go to as an instrument by a game designer, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time tested, but not the only solution.

Death in games today:

  •  In the free-to-play model, death gives the game designer a monetization point
  • Somewhat like the original arcades where you had to drop a quarter in when you died, that all of a sudden is a real tactic today
  • A direct correlation between the free-to-play and the arcade games
  • Expect the arcade games didn’t have the internet and couldn’t save progress
  • If used properly, free-to-play mobile games can be fair to both sides
  • People now don’t want to pay for anything which is totally different from the arcade market

In multi-player games death is a great tool to give finality to the game, as opposed to just a point system. When death is involved it makes the game finalized with a declared winner – the one that didn’t die.

The concept of Permadeath:

  • When playing a game, you’re advancing on and something’s killed you and there’s no way to resurrect you – you’ve lost everything
  • In Dungeons & Dragons, permadeath was part of the rule set and because of that everyone would be glued to the situation
  • To see what you’ve invested all go away was catastrophic

In the free-to-play market you see permadeath all over the place and it makes the player respect death and play to that. On top of that, they have to pay if they want to keep their character alive.

The direct relation between time and emotion:

  • If your character dies and you’ve invested 2 weeks in him or her, you will be upset because of the time that you invested – you might not be emotionally upset
  • RULE – You’re not emotionally invested unless in addition to all that, you customize the character in some way
  • When you create a character, you’re giving life to something – a reflection of you, an alter ego – and you wind up loving this character
  • MODIFIER to the RULE – how much social sharing have you done with that customized character that you’re invested in

Players can become so attached to their characters in the game that they actually experience the 5 stages of loss. The last stage being acceptance. And in this case acceptance would be deciding to play the game again and to re-build and re-make new characters.

Video games are very magical because you can have a new beginning and a clean slate.

With death, the player has to feel like there’s a decision they made that caused the death. Otherwise, the death is just maddening.

The Theory of Trial and Error Gameplay:

  • You’re put in a difficult situation, you try something, you fail, you restart and stay in that loop until you discover the one or two ways to pass that area – in a nutshell
  • This is gameplay is mostly in adventure games and in Dungeon & Dragons
  • The Swiss army knife of actions
  • Not a very favorable game design method when dealing with death
  • If the player doesn’t know what to do, then they’ll just turn the game off

The use of trial and error might be more effective when the player is not dying but trying to solve a door puzzle to see what levers and switches open each door, for example.

Is Death in games necessary?

  • Without death, will there be enough conflict or friction?
  • Are there other ways to put in friction?
  • The Next Gen Shooter games at E3 have hit points and to re-heal yourself you just need to get out of that situation – kinda makes someone feel g0d-like
  • There’s a delicate balance
  • Have a hard time with games that allow you to survive regardless
  • Clash of Clans example
  • Building a real life snow fort example


Death in video games is a topic that we’ll talk about many times. It’s something that finishes the game loop and it’s a powerful thing in a video game. If done right, it can draw a lot of emotion out of the player. But if done wrong, it can derive a lot of anger out of the player and have them leave the game and never play again. It’s a double edged sword.

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Listen now to Game Design Dojo Episode #018



About Deanna McRae