Game Design

on slay the spire, progression, and making games more loser-friendly

When we think of what makes games fun, we often think about winning.  Conquering a tough level, solving a difficult puzzle, getting to 100% completion or defeating a fearsome boss forms much of our narrative when we talk about why we enjoyed a certain game.

Consequently, it appears that games are often designed for winning.  This is not a surprise, because winning feels great, and it should.  But on the other end of the spectrum, losing usually sucks.

Take League of Legends for example.  Through many games of League, I’ve found one thing to be true: winning feels awesome, and losing feels terrible.  There’s nothing more frustrating than continually being killed and waiting to respawn at the fountain.  Plus, in League, losing snowballs.

Falling behind in lane leads to losing towers, resulting in highly agitated players.  While emotions are running high on a losing team, it’s likely that someone starts lashing out at teammates, griefing, feeding, or going AFK.  This all leads to a really horrible player experience.

Lessons in Losing from Slay the Spire

An interesting problem that game designers should tackle is how to design their games for losing.  Players should not need to win in order to enjoy a game.  There must be games out there where we can learn and have fun without winning.

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To explore this concept, I turned to roguelikes, a subgenre of games that relies on players losing and restarting.  In particular, I’ve been playing the roguelike deck-building card game Slay the Spire, which uses several techniques to keep players coming back, maybe even more so when they don’t win.

In this post, I will discuss three ways game designers can improve the experience for players who are losing, based on my learnings from Slay the Spire.

1. Enable game progression during losses as well as wins, and be fair about it

The most straightforward way to reduce the frustration of losing is to provide a means of progression even when you are losing.  This makes players feel that their time spent playing was not wasted even if they didn’t manage to overcome the final obstacle.

In Slay the Spire, you earn experience points based on your accomplishments and how far you progress in a run, whether or not you win.  Those experience points for each character eventually unlock new cards that can be used in future runs.

What I like about this approach is that it rewards players fairly for losing and for winning, which tells players that their time spent in the game was valued no matter the outcome.  This encourages new players as well as returning players because there’s no pressure to win in order to get the best bang for your buck.

Many games seem to overvalue winning in terms of progression and experience points, which communicates to the player that winning is the most important thing.  Unfortunately, this makes the game way less appealing to play when you’re facing a loss.

In League of Legends, for example, a winning game scores you 20 – 25% more experience points than a losing one.  This is a big deal when you are trying to grind to unlock new characters, and makes the process if you happen to be on a losing streak particularly painful.

On the virtual card game side of things, Hearthstone gives players experience points to level up heroes and unlock class-specific cards, but only to a level cap of 30.  Beyond that, only winning gets you closer to the astronomical 500 or 1000 win tiers that award cosmetic upgrades, or allows you to climb the ranked ladder.  Losing provides no benefit whatsoever, and therefore feels pretty awful.

Since unlocking content as a means of progression is unsustainable, game designers turn to other strategies like cosmetic rewards such as character skins.  It’s interesting to consider alternate approaches for providing meaningful progression rewards (maybe in another post).  In any case, I think games should make players feel good for playing, whether they win or lose, by weighting rewards more based on investment rather than outcome.

By creating fairer progression systems that value players for their time, or for even trying things and failing at them, we can create games that are fun to play even when players are losing.

2. Make players who are going to lose, lose early

One of the worst things in a competitive PVP game like League of Legends is being forced to continue playing even when there is no hope of a win.  If you are queuing solo, it’s more difficult to get a majority team surrender vote when a losing game starts snowballing.  In this case, you’re forced into a frustrating game where you’re required to play until you inevitably lose, and this is not fun.

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To reduce the duration of frustrating gameplay, game designers should consider not only allowing players to opt to end the game, but to embed mechanics that end the game quicker for players who are losing with no hope of redemption.

Slay the Spire does a great job of this due to its use of deck-building in a roguelike structure.  Within each act, which is a series of encounters, you continue to build your deck but your health isn’t automatically reset.  This means that if you have a bad deck, you end up with lower health with each successive battle.  Going into battles with a lower health makes it more likely that you will be defeated and have to start again, with a brand new deck.

A contrasting example is Hearthstone‘s Dungeon Run, which is a single-player deck-building game in which you face off against progressively more difficult bosses.  In this case, your health is reset to maximum before each battle.  So, if you build an average or poor deck that has no chance against the final boss, it’s likely that you’ll make it far, but spend a number of rounds in persistent frustration.

In general, game designers should not be afraid to end the game early when there is no hope of success, reducing the amount of painful gameplay.  Doing this would also encourage players to try again, because they won’t be exhausted by previous tedious, fruitless attempts.

3. Show that winning is within reach; provide some great comeback mechanics

Finally, to ease the drudgery of playing a losing game, game designers should always try to show that winning is within reach.  This does not mean that winning has to actually be attainable, but it should always appear to be.

In Slay the Spire, this is achieved by the sheer number of possibilities that could turn the game’s tide fairly drastically.  From the encounters to relics to potions, there are so many things that could alter the game and improve the run that players are hopeful and enticed to continue onward.

For example, a random potion that you pick up as a reward, from a chest or during an encounter might be the potion that turns a losing game into a winning one.  With 30+ potions, in the player’s mind there’s always a sliver of a chance that the one they get next will be the one they need, even though the odds may very well be against them.  The same goes for relics, of which there are more than 150.

The comeback mechanic is a great way to galvanise losing players.  In Overwatch, many great stories of winning have come out of the losing team reaching overtime and managing to fight their way to victory against all the odds.  And even if overtime does not work out, losing players remain hopeful because there is a possibility of it.

Why is Losing Important and Valid in Playing Games?

As game designers, we should treat losing as a valid way to experience our games, and give players the same level of satisfaction for having played in the first place.  We should be designing for how fun it is to lose as much as how fun it is to win.

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A game that I think nails this is the board game Pandemic.  I remember playing it one night on the hardest difficulty, and losing spectacularly.

The weird part was, we felt that we’d barely lost in the end, even though in reality there was no chance of us winning from almost the very beginning due to our luck with the card draws.  Being able to evoke this feeling of barely losing, that winning was somehow still in reach (even though it wasn’t), is a credit to Pandemic‘s game designers.

Feeling like we got something out of the game, like we’d learned how to strategise better the next time we played, is super important to making a loss feel like a valuable playthrough.  And it made us want to try again.

The idea that winning should feel great and losing should feel bad is outdated.  We need to make losing feel satisfying too, so that players don’t just hate the game and give up, but come back to it with renewed knowledge and determination.

My next post includes more game design analysis of Slay the Spire and takes a look at the other side of the coin, designing for winning.