At some point in many videogames you either no longer feel threatened or the punishment for death becomes meaningless. In Super Mario Bros. it was when you were able to generate near infinite lives. In Final Fantasy X it’s when you unlock each character’s ultimate weapon, and can finish the last boss in one hit. In Grand Theft Auto, it’s when you turn the game into a sandbox by cheating.
At these points, when the game crosses the threshold of no longer having consequences, a few things tend to happen. Some players use this as a time to feel liberated. They have fun being able to run around, explore, and generally not worry about “running out”. To use an MMO example, this is a level 85 tanking all of Scarlet Monastery for a lowbie friend. It is an exultation of power. By itself though it can become boring very quickly.
This boredom sometimes comes first until the player figures out how to have fun with it. Essentially the game is now a sandbox. This means that players can simply practice, explore, or make up their own challenges. Another way to reach this point is through mastery, as mastery can result in similar situations and feelings as becoming overpowered.
The other side of games becoming too easy is games that become too challenging. In this case, the player may end up simply quiting the game. If they do keep playing, they may or may not increase in skill to get to the next level of mastery to surpass the challenge and continue play. At the same time, there are games that are essentially about punishment (rogue-a-likes) and at that point the game is about player versus designer, where good players begin to be able to predict the designer’s horrible evil plot to kill them.
With all that in mind, what are the positives of punishment in games?
1) It adds risk to gameplay. This means is essential to taking a concept from learning to mastery. Things like complicated wall jumps over spike pits, dangerous enemy combinations or bosses that require use of the player’s different skills are examples of this.
2) It adds value to certain resources. Risk makes safe zones, health kits and super mushrooms things that the player seeks out. Suddenly using a health kit is can be an interesting choice, especially if part of the heal will be wasted if you use it too soon.
3) It makes victory feel more fulfilling. Especially if the game is in a high flow state where the player is meeting the challenges and struggling just enough. The risk of dying or of losing a large combo multiplier versus the risk of not successfully accomplishing a goal is an example of this.
On the other hand, punishment in games can easily be overdone. Probably more easily than many other design choices the game maker decides on. It can make players give up at one extreme and it can make players too cautious and averse to exploration on another.
In one of the Fable games, the game would scar the player if they lost. This can lead to quick game resets, where players would rather lose part of what they have done rather than suffer the punishment of scarring their avatar. Punishment can devalue a player’s actions and choices, making the game less satisfying. This makes it more likely for all players to follow a guide rather than explore the game themselves. For example, in WoW, they player’s punishment of not doing enough damage happens when they do not follow predetermined “correct” gearing and talent choices.
One of the greatest forms of punishment, is shaming. This is why in Fable 2 players would reset their game, and why in WoW certain players will do anything to not be called a noob. I remember in Ridge Racer Evolution on the Playstation, the announcer would insult the player the moment they started doing poorly. At the age of 14 that game left me in tears of rage and shame.
Punishment can be used to control player economies, by creating money sinks (I’m looking at you armor repair cost). Resource depletion is one of the most common forms of punishment. This includes ammo in FPS games, or lives in quarter-cruncher style games. Games where there are a time limit, the punishment is often loss of time. For example in Mario Kart, the Lakitu takes a while to reset the player back on the track.
In games where lives are no longer an issue, the punishment is in the form of lost time, or prevention from continuing. In these cases, light shame punishments (You Lose) may be required to create tension for the player.
With all this in mind, the main thing that makes punishment more of a fun thing as opposed to a negative in games is control. The player must not only be able to prevent the punishment, but they must be able to understand why it is happening.
This is one of the major issues players have in PVP against stealth opponents. They feel that they have no control over the attacks. This is where skill shot based attacks do better than target attacks (the difference between casting a Blizzard spell and a Fireball spell in WoW). The skill shot allows for the player to predict the location of the hidden opponent and hit them. The more control the player has, the better they feel when when they lose. Because then it is something they can fix or improve, rather than the game simply being unfair to them.