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50/50 – or – To Fail is to Succeed

March 26, 2012

Dear Reader,

First and foremost, I want to suggest to all of you that you go listen to the most recent Double O Podcast, on which I was graciously invited as a guest!  We discuss a lot of things, some of which are related to the old Couples and WoW series.  I had a great time recording it, and the final product was very enjoyable for me to listen to, since I didn’t really remember what I’d said.  Thank you again, ladies, and I hope that the rest of you dear readers take some time and give it a listen.

Beyond that, though, a quick discussion today about something I think is missing from a lot of modern games.  I mentioned it briefly last week, but as I thought more about it (and happened to read a very important chapter in one of my class texts), I realized just how profound this gaming trend has become.  There is simply not enough failure in video games these days.

Failure, though?  Why would someone want failure?  Let me give you a short illustration, first.  Last night, my buddy, my wife and I decided to try the first boss level of Dungeon Defenders on hard.  We’d played, tried, and failed a few other boards in the past, but we’d had a pretty good run of success, even on hard boards, so we figured what the hell.  It couldn’t be THAT bad.

It was.  Without going into too much detail about the game itself, it’s a DotA style game where you build traps and then fight waves of monsters that are trying to get to your crystal.  The boss boards function the same way, except after all the waves are done, a boss drops down, and then an infinite supply of monsters comes pouring in until the boss is defeated.  The traps are vulnerable and can be destroyed, so you have to keep some maintenance up on them.  The first time we played the board, on normal, my buddy didn’t even realize that monsters were coming in the side doors because it was so easy.  Not so last night.

Last night was, to use a former raid leader of mine – Sargent’s – term, “butt clenching.”  the boss had about 3x as many hit points on hard mode, as did many of the monsters.  As a result, the traps were getting whammied in every direction.  We had to improvise a strategy of dealing with the boss while also maintaining the traps.  On top of that, the boss would go over and beat on traps once in a while, destroying them and creating a weakness in our defenses.  It became clear we would likely become overwhelmed.

Still, we went through the motions.  We did the boss mechanic, beat on the boss, ran and maintained the traps, and repeated.  It was hectic.  It was uncoordinated.  It was unlikely we’d succeed.

It was fun.

And we did succeed.  That’s mostly irrelevant, though, really.  The experience of fun is created by dopamine release in the brain, and studies show (here’s where my class text stuff comes in – neuroscience to freshmen!) that the largest hit of dopamine is when you’re unsure of success, when succeeding or failing is about 50/50.  You get very little dopamine from a sure win, and you get virtually no dopamine from a sure loss.  The closer the success/loss ratio is to 50/50, the more fun you have.

The implications of this are pretty large, if you consider the very idea of grinding.  My buddy pointed out to me that he never considered WoW leveling (his first MMO leveling experience) “grindy” until his third character.  I asked why not, and he replied, “It was fun.  Fun and grindy are opposites.”  Neurochemically, I agree, though of course we’ve broadened the definition of grinding a bit to incorporate any repetitive activity, even one that might be fun.

That’s not really the point, though.  The point is that the easier and easier games become – not just WoW or MMOs, but all games – the easier it is to recover from a failure, the less chance there is to come back from a mistake, the more polarized between success and failure games are, the less fun they become.  Herein lies the problems with WoW’s raiding; one mistake and that’s probably that.  You either almost assuredly succeed from having no mistakes, or you almost assuredly fail from having one.  There’s very little room for improvisation, chaos, uncoordinated but genius play.  There’s no room for 50/50.

Here’s a run-down of my current games and the success/failure mechanic:

Deus Ex – if I get seen, I failed, and I reload.  No real room for 50/50 there (though that’s simply due to my chosen play style, not the game’s design.  Still, if they wanted it to be more 50/50, don’t make “just stealth” such an emphasis).

Civ 5 – I either crush the AI on one difficulty or get crushed by the AI one difficulty higher.  No real 50/50.

WoW – Raiding’s already been discussed; PvP is a little different.  There is room for improvisation and genius play, there are real 50/50 bgs, but to be honest, they’re few and far between unless you’re doing full team v. team rateds.  In regular Bgs, it’s usually a blowout one way or the other.  Still, there is more a chance for 50/50 there than anywhere else.

SW leveling – it’s either a police action or it’s super hard.  Even in the super hard, though, if pulls are handled correctly and there’s no “screw your strategy” surprise adds (yet another mechanic I abhor in the game), it’s pretty easy and straightforward.  We can easily 3 man the heroic 4 missions and dungeons (except Colicoid; to hell with those cannon battles), so really it’s pretty easy.  No real 50/50 there.

Dungeon Defenders – already discussed.

Skyrim – Most battles are super easy or super hard.  Reloading from quick saves makes 50/50 sort of irrelevant.  However, there is the potential for improv and genius play; there are battles that don’t simply overwhelm you but require you to think quickly on your feet, so there’s some 50/50 there.

X-C0m – that’s right, I started a new X-Com game on a harder mode.  It’s extremely unforgiving, meaning that the chance for failure is probably greater than 50/50, but the overall gameplay is very carefully strategic while also being surprisingly chaotic.  There’s a lot of 50/50 in there, but then again, it’s a very old game, which sort of proves my point about more modern games.

Think about your own games.  How much chance for improvisation, for being unsure about success or failure while you’re adapting to chaos do you really see?   How often are you pretty unsure about your win for the entire encounter, as opposed to being pretty sure you’ll win if you don’t screw up then pretty sure you’ll fail after you (or someone else) does?  That polarity isn’t 50/50; it’s 100/0/0/100.

Newer games need more 50/50.  They need to be harder while simultaneously allowing for recovering from mistakes.  They need to encourage on-your-feet thinking and adaptation without making everything super easy.


Stubborn (and enjoying Dungeon Defenders – best $7.50 I spent in a while).

7 Comments leave one →
  1. kaleedity permalink*
    March 26, 2012 1:07 pm

    Roguelikes tend to pack a lot of 50/50 — or really they pack a lot of failure in until you learn them well enough. I have a good bit written about the doom roguelike that I was going to send in to you but I suddenly ended up in bremerton, wa on work travel before I finished it. I’ve gotten to the point in it that I can fully complete doomrl’s ultraviolence difficulty pretty consistently, but I haven’t touched nightmare or many of the challenge modes that come with the game.

    • March 27, 2012 10:33 am

      Yeah, I remember nethack being like that, though often when you thought it was 50/50 it was really that you were already screwed. Still, thinking that it’s 50/50 is enough. No worries about the article; it’ll get here when it gets here. See you in a couple weeks!

  2. March 27, 2012 2:00 am

    I was a bit put-off by your saying that WoW raiding is just about not making mistakes. I suppose it doesn’t come up super-often since typically your goal is to make sure things don’t go wrong, but some of the best moments I’ve had while raiding have been when one person made a pivotal mistake, things started going to shit, but we are able to pull off an improvised strategy to get through it.

    Actually, thinking about it, many bosses seem designed to do just this, I haven’t counted, but many, many bosses include “final phase” mechanics which deliberately send everything to shit for the last 20% — Chogal, Chimaeron, Ultraxion, Rhyolith, etc etc. Though your success is still mainly about how well you handle the bulk of the fight; how much momentum [and healer mana] you have going into that phase, these do tend to allow a lot of room to utilise outside-the-box play to keep just one more person alive for just a few more seconds to get that kill. In other words, to make sure that victory is not ensured until it’s over.

    • March 27, 2012 10:32 am

      Are you doing 10 or 25 man raiding? How serious is your guild’s raiding ethos? My experiences have been from 10 man part-core guilds, so that’s all I can talk about. I can say pretty definitively that throughout BC and Wrath, a vast majority – probably 90%, though I don’t really want to do another boss analysis just yet (however, for future posts, I might) were auto-failures if 1 person went down at the wrong time (at all, usually, but on rare occasions a late-enough death might still be salvageable).

      The burn phases you describe are designed to create chaos while the team does everything in its power to kill the boss. That’s by design. Still, the assumptions there are (a) you’ve entered the final phase with enough people up to kill the boss (in 10 man, usually all of them) and (b) based on average dps and healing, killing off one person at a time will still produce enough dps to finish the final 20%. On bosses not tuned specifically to do this, there’s no average rate of dps or healing loss, so losing a single person usually spells disaster, at least in 10 man.

      I’m not sure what 25 man’s like. I haven’t done 25 man since the beginning of Wrath in Naxx, and I was in a VERY casual guild then, so honestly we frequently still needed almost everyone alive to down bosses. I agree that there’s been a few, rare cases when chaos ensued as you described and we eeked out a victory at the last moment and it was refreshing and fun and gave a massive dopamine hit. Few and rare, though, don’t really seem like a design intent as much as it seems like a lucky coincidence. It’s not that I doubt your experiences; it’s just mine have been quite different.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. March 27, 2012 1:38 pm

    Currently in AoC, my small but budding guild is working on 6man Khitai as well as a couple of Tier1 Raids. The raids, one we have pretty much locked down since we understand it. We still suffer casualties, but Kylikki isnt a hard fought win, even when we need to improvise because we are short on minion killer classes. Yhakmar (big ugly worm) on the other hand is still a huge challenge for us even with the right classes grouped in the right teams. It does provide a serious challenge even with well geared folks. I’ve attended Tier 2 raids with well geared folks, but it’s still about a 40% success rate even with experienced crews that have solid gear. The bosses love to drop aggro tables, one shot folks, cc burn others down. It still prvides me with a lot of adrenelin rushes. I stopped pvp in AoC because for the most part the population is way too low to support serious open world conflict and the mini (BGs) are plain boring.

    • March 28, 2012 4:07 pm

      Adrenaline, though, is quite different from dopamine. Shooters are very good for adrenaline; they can simulate a real life-and-death situation and really get your heart pumping (as can any action-oriented game, but shooters excel). Dopamine, though, comes from learning and rewards, and the experience is far more pleasurable – and healthier. Adrenaline, after all, is a stress hormone that raises your blood pressure, and long-term can damage your blood vessels and heart.

      For a game to really be good at dopamine, it needs to provide you with a fast-paced learning environment. Your AoC bosses could very well be doing that, as they have scripted mechanics that you must learn to adapt to. If someone is one-shotted, if anyone dies, how likely are you to pull the kill off? If it’s about 50/50, then they’re doing it right (;

  4. Gorbag permalink
    March 28, 2012 8:33 pm

    Have you checked out frozen synapse? If you haven’t, it’s worth a look, the gameplay is very old-school in the sense of punishing mistakes without a single mistake being game over.

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