How To Make Losing Fun

The human drive to win is such a strong force in gaming that it can replace the need for challenging game play. Idle games or clicker games are an obvious example, as they require the player to do little more than tap the screen. Unlike more traditional games that offer challenges, these games keep their players happy by being impossible to lose. But is there a way to keep players happy without getting rid of challenging gameplay? Ben Clark, the creator of Kingdom Catastrophes, thinks there is.

“You don’t have to design a game you can’t lose, but you do have to make losing funny. And if the game is multiplayer, make it co-op so players are laughing with each other instead of at each other. You can also gamify losing itself by turning the various ways players can lose into collectables. For example, in a narrative game, you can tell the players that they’ve unlocked ‘death while sleeping’ and ‘death while screaming’, and then they won’t mind that they chose the wrong designated driver.”

Writing comedy is obviously difficult enough without having to write multiple punchlines to the same setup. I ask Ben how this can be achieved in gaming where player interactions change outcomes.

“To a certain extent you can lean on other qualities and don’t have to rely entirely on comedy. I always tell myself that every outcome must be entertaining, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be funny. Some choices in my game lead players to become librarians. In one of these stories the player tries to overcome the strict overbearing stereotype librarians have, by being relaxed and waiving fines, but in doing so they get walked all over, books get damaged or stolen and the library is too loud to study in. This story is a commentary on the way conditions can lead to stereotypes, which is more of an interesting subject than a funny one—but I hope it is just as enjoyable to read as the story about the librarian who changes the non-fiction aisle to non-friction and pours oil between the shelves.”
Ben uses comedy to soften the blow of losing and to ensure that the journey is its own reward. This is refreshing in an industry that is increasingly turning to psychology to develop games that are addictive rather than inherently fun or challenging. A few decades ago, no one would have believed that games that offer no challenge could offer any reward, but it is clear from the vast number of successful clicker games and the introduction of pay-to-win structures in many games that unlosable games are a profitable business. Like any art form, games hold a mirror up to reality. We can only hope that they continue to reflect a desire to think, laugh and be creative—rather than a desire to win at any cost.