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On winning, losing, and trying something new
by John Sutherland on 09/05/13 11:44:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I've been working on a mobile game. It's casual, it's got broad appeal, it's supposed to be for everybody. It's about kittens, for god's sake. Talk about unthreatening. It's practically made of YouTube gold.

In the process of designing the game, I made a decision to make losing just as fun as winning, or at least to try to. But that got me thinking, is it still possible to make winning fun in a game like this?  Because if winning wasn't fun any more, it would kind of ruin everything.

So, here's the practical situation. The game is called Knittin' Kittens, and it's based on the surreal idea that kittens have an extra long claw in each of their front paws, and it springs out when we're not looking and they're near a ball of yarn. You know, like Wolverine, but without all the anger and slashing. Instead, they knit sweaters.

Well, it would explain a lot about their reaction to yarn.

The game design calls for you to prevent them from doing this cute thing. If they knit a whole sweater, you "lose" that level. Which is awesome.

But making losing awesome comes with some questions, foremost of which is: Have I taken the fun out of winning?

I hope not. I think this can still work. Here's why.

The satisfaction of winning involves overcoming a challenge. Nobody wants the big red Easy Button in a game. Pressing X to solve everything is the most boring gameplay dynamic in the world.

So if you have a game where you can't continue until you succeed at the level you're on, that's a challenge, and it's satisfying to overcome it. Even Angry Birds does this. Is part of the challenge being prevented from continuing until you succeed?

In most games, yes. But I would argue that these two things are not intrinsically tied together. They can be detached, where you still have a challenge that is satisfying to overcome, but after you've faced it (whether or not you win), you are still free to continue and explore the next level. Or you can play the same level again, and try for a different result. Your choice.

You do have to play through a level before you can unlock the next one. You cannot, for example, just start with level 7. The experience you gain in each level is still important, and prepares you for the increased complexity and challenge you find in the next level. It's the result of each level that matters less.

Let's take this out of theory, and I'll walk through exactly what I mean in this particular game.

Knittin' Kittens has 14 levels, each representing a room in a house. The first level takes place in the laundry room, and has three kittens and one ball of yarn. You have four distractions available to you, always including the favorite distraction of each individual kitten involved in the level. So dark laundry is most attractive to the white-haired cat (you know this is true!), white laundry is most attractive to the black-haired cat, and the Persian cat loves the warm mixed laundry, fresh from the dryer. She's a sucker for heat, and doesn't give a damn about color.

If you manage to distract the kittens for the allotted time, you get a specially themed medal that goes with that room. If you don't, you get a sweater. A delightfully ugly, lopsided sweater. Either way, you've had a satisfying challenge, and you can choose to repeat it. But also, either way, you've had an experience that will prepare you for the increased number of kittens, balls of yarn, and distractions that come in the next level.

This also opens up a "shoot the moon" option, where you deliberately lose all the levels just to collect all the sweaters. And you can always go back and win.

I believe this is a method of scoring that is both challenging and inclusive, and can be fun for a huge variety of gamer types.

It's not that you'll never be challenged; it's just that you'll never be stuck. I think that's what a game for everybody should look like.

Of course, we'll see how the experiment actually works in practice. You can see more details of the game at I'd love to know what you think.

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Jonathan Jennings
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Nice viewpoint John I would actually be the first to admit that in batman Arkham asylum as well as Resident evil 4 I lost during boss fights just to see what the failing result would be because they were so entertaining. In arkham asyum if you lose to a boss they make a biting one liner or you watch as they relish putting an end to the batman in their own unique way . In resident evil 4 the death scenes themselves were quite entertaining themselves.

....While not as cuddly as a kitten I think they are examples of how to make losing fun and entertaining in its own right though I know I would personally love a collection of ugly fail sweaters myself lol .

Kyle McBain
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I think Jane Mcgonigal wites about this in her book Reality is Broken. Take Tetris for examle... you play to lose. It's a little different from Knitten Kittens because you don't get anything for losing. It is the gameplay in of itself that makes you coming back for more.

In Jonathan's example, the fail scenarios are more closely related to your game, but they are not tangible things you actually acquire. It is cinematic and after expereincing it a couple times you want to get back to winning.

So your example I would say is unique, but acquring a sweater will not allow for the player to progress. Unless the game is not worth progressing in I dout people will get hung up on it.

John Sutherland
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Thanks for your thoughts on this, both of you. Kyle, I'm sorry if I wasn't clear, you DO get to progress, even if you lose. That's the radical thing I'm attempting: detaching winning from progression.

My point is, the primary satisfaction of the challenge happens during gameplay. The question of whether to progress happens AFTER the level is done. What if that decision were entirely up to the player? You'd still have the challenge in the gameplay. You'd still have the option of playing the level until you beat it. You don't really need the game to punish you. You can self-select.

I think there is a difference between being challenged and being stuck and frustrated. People want a challenge; they don't want to be stuck.

Kyle McBain
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I understand now. I wish I could play it as to give you some honest feedback. That is interesting.

I personally like games that piss me off. First off it signifies that I care about the world that I am experiencing and secondly it is providing challenge. So when I finally conquer that challenge I feel good about myself and am excited about moving forth in the game.

The only way to obtain this feeling in your game I feel would be through self discipline. Something a lot of the more casual gamers lack. Part of me feels like you are taking the game out of the game. Technically your creation still fits the definition but it to me would definitely feel like less of a game... not sure if this is good or bad. One assumption I would have about that is you will not have sustained play. Allowing for these kittens to knit me a sweater is far more visual. I am not really playing anything and then the next level starts... Either way I am sure it would amuse me for some time at least. Doubt I would play it more than a couple times before I moved on to something else though.