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You Don't "Always Lose" in Tetris: The Real Nature of Single-Player Competition
by Keith Burgun on 12/17/13 05:18:00 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.


This article was originally posted last week on my site at

It's often claimed that arguing about definitions is a waste of time, but words are also tools that we use to organize and understand reality. This means that sometimes, if we want to make progress in a certain area, it's useful to clarify a term that was previously a bit fuzzy.

I think that we have a lot to gain as game designers by clarifying the words "win" and "lose".  Let's look at some top definitions for the word "lose".

"be deprived of or cease to have or retain (something)"

"To fail to win; fail in"

There is a significant connection between the two major usages of this word.  I lost my car keys and I lost the game have two different meanings, but the commonality between them is that in both situations, there was some potential thing that was taken away.

In games, losing can only be an outcome of a contest - a thing which you had some potential for winning.  If you never had any potential for winning, then there is nothing to be "lost".  A contest must state, "you must achieve goal X by Y date/time, or else you lose".  There can be no do-overs, undos, or quicksaves in a contest - all of these will destroy the test in contest.

To clarify further, a goal must be clear, and not only must winning and losing be possible, but both outcomes should be reasonably likely.  If I were to play chess against a grandmaster player, that would not be a contest because the skill gap is simply too large.  Some astronomically small chance for me to win is not enough to make something a contest, by a useful definition of the word.

Non-competitive interactive entertainment

We tend to use the terms "win" and "lose" in strange ways sometimes.  Recently in a conversation with Ernest Adams he said something along the lines of "the computer's job in a game is to put up a good fight and then lose".  While he later explained that he's not really talking about "competitive games", I find this usage of the term "lose" very interesting and worth talking about.

Discussing all of interactive entertainment (let's call them apps), we can divide that huge space up into competitive and non-competitive games.  Examples of non-competitive apps would be things that you "play with" such as Minecraft or Garry's Mod (which I call "toys"), things that you solve/complete, like puzzle apps (Portal, Professor Layton) or story-based apps (Mass Effect, The Last of Us) - or any combination, such as the modern Zelda titles, which arguably use all of these non-competitive elements.

In these apps, there is no way you can "lose".  Many tend to make the critical error of assuming that "dying" equals "losing", but in apps like those above, it isn't.  Dying in these systems is much more akin to "thinking you found the right jigsaw puzzle piece for this spot, and then realizing it was the wrong piece".  It is not set inside of a contest - there is an unlimited amount of time and do-overs for you to achieve the goal.  It's only a matter of solving, or even simply doing.

Secret of Monkey Island is not competitive, so you don't need permanent consequences. In fact, an undo feature is a plus in a puzzle-app like this one

"You Always Lose In Tetris!"

Obvious examples of competitive apps are those that are multiplayer, such as Chess, baseball, or League of Legends.  In these systems, we all implicitly know what losing and winning means.  Single-player competitive apps are more rare, but Rogue-likes and abstracts such as Candy Crush Saga or Critter Crunch roughly qualify.

This is because Candy Crush's "stages" each have a specific goal, which can be achieved or not-achieved.  There is a limited set of resources (usually, number of turns), and the player has to work within those limitations to try and win.

People often say that you "always lose" in Tetris.  First of all, there can never be an "always lose" situation.  If you really do "always" lose, then there's no possibility for winning, and therefore there can be no "losing".  What have you lost?  Tetris, at least the most common versions of it, fails to have a goal.  We can - and often do - prescribe a goal to it, such as "get more than 100,000 points" or "beat Ted's high score", but we can and do prescribe goals to a rubber ball, too - that doesn't mean that we can "win at rubber ball".  Rubber ball isn't a contest, and neither is Tetris, because neither includes its own goal.  This is in contrast to Candy Crush or chess, both of which have their own goals as part of what those systems are.

Simply "getting a high score" is unqualified to be a goal in a contest, because they are not achievable on their own.  At what point have you gotten a "high" score?  There needs to be some predetermined threshold, otherwise it's impossible to say whether you failed or succeeded.

"The goal is survival" is also similarly unacceptable, because ultimately you're going to stop surviving, and how do I judge whether the length of time that you survived warranted a win or a loss?  Again, we need a threshold.

So I don't consider score to be "the goal" of Rogue-likes.Then there's completion - reaching the "end of the game".  Probably there as a vestigial element from D&D or other "role-playing games", there is actually an end to Dungeon Crawl, Nethack, and even my own 100 Rogues (wherein I can tell you first-hand that the ending is there "because other Rogue-likes had an ending").  This does technically count as a goal, except for the fact that a tiny percentage of players ever come close to completing them.  So only for players who have played hundreds of matches do Rogue-likes become a reasonable contest - and what's funny is, there are players who get so good that they have almost no chance of losing anymore.  There is just a small slice of players for whom "completion" becomes a reasonable contest.

Take a game that I like a lot - 868-HACK by Michael Brough.  It's a really interesting, innovative single-player competitive game that many would call a Rogue-like (I wouldn't; I think it's just an original single-player competitive game, not much more Rogue-like than Tetris or Klondike Solitaire).  It also suffers from the same problem I'm talking about right now.  When I play a game, I really have no way of knowing whether I've won or lost.  The game ends, and I get some number, and I'm kind of like "Ok..."  What does that number mean?

17 Points... is that... good? That's up to you, I suppose.

Why does it matter so much?

Rogue-likes, Tetris, 868-Hack and many other applications are, at their core "decision-making contests".  There is at least a suggestion of a goal, and the mechanisms are arranged in such a way as to make decision-making interesting.

However, due to the lack of a clear goal in any of them, I'm not getting a crucial part of the equation - the win/loss condition.  The win/loss condition matters a lot, because it is the most important feedback for the series of decisions you made during the game.  Decisions in a game are actually only hard / interesting to the extent that they relate to achieving the goal.  If the goal itself is unclear, then it's impossible to really know when you've made better or worse decisions during a game.

The cost, and my advice

The underlying issue is that most of us have difficulty understanding the real nature of single-player competitive games.  We often still think of them as some kind of fantasy simulation, and that holds us back from creating better systems.  There are people who think that Rogue-like games are "punishing" because (essentially) all games end in death.  That's not punishing, any more than the timer running out in a football game is "punishing".  We are very used to playing story-based / completion-based puzzle/fantasy-simuation single-player apps, that I've met serious game designers even who think that the prospect of Rogue-likes is ridiculous, saying things like "it's not reasonable to lose all your progress!"  In reality, they should be thinking of it as "losing your progress" no more than you're losing your progress when a match of bowling ends.

I think we're really undercutting our designs by having unclear or bad goals.  I've played a lot of games that would be great competitive games but for the fact that they lack a clear, reasonable goal.  What this does, in my opinion, is it causes a good amount of tension in the player's brain.  Not the good kind of tension, where the player is deciding between two difficult and interesting choices.  Instead, the player is forced to choose "what am I even trying to do?"  Ultimately, when we present a system with unclear goals to a player, we're actually giving them work - specifically, design work that they have to do.  They make some design call, like "ok, I'll go for beating... 100,000 points, that's my goal", and all the while they have to pursue that, while at the same time wondering if their design call was a good one.  Maybe they'll gain the first 80,000 points really quickly and start to doubt their original goal mid-game, and then have to re-tweak it halfway through.  It's messy and annoying.  Players should be able to focus on playing a really great game.  It's our job as designers to provide them with that.

This is distinct from people who create toys, because toys don't have a suggested goal.  Rogue-likes, for example suggest that there is some survival/killing-monsters/reaching an end point goal, but no clear goal exists.  Compare this to Garry's Mod, or Legos, neither of which suggest a goal at all.

So what I advocate, for anyone making a competitive single-player thing, is something like dynamic difficulty adjustment, except it happens "between matches". Every time the player plays a match, this match will result in either a win or a loss, depending on whether he reaches, say, 100 points.  Abandoning the game results in a loss.  If the player wins, he gains some meta-game experience points.  Eventually, if he wins enough, he "levels up", and now the system becomes more difficult (note: I recommend not scaling up the amount of points required if possible and instead turning other knobs.  The reason for this is that you don't want to penalize better players by having to play longer matches).  If the player loses a bunch of games, he de-levels and the next match he plays becomes less difficult.  I'm working on a system like this for my 4X-style strategy game, EMPIRE.

Or you can do what my upcoming tactics game, AURO, does.  It's partially inspired by things like golf and bowling - here's how it works.  In our Match Mode, you play online against a random opponent of similar skill (like in many online games).  Once the opponent is found, the game generates a random seed for map generation, monster/item placement, etc.  Then both players play that same seed, and compare scores.  They repeat this until one player has won two rounds, and then a winner is declared.

What's nice about this is that we can generate a super-wide set of completely weird and random situations - maybe one level is FILLED with the giant Yetis who will kill you in one shot, or maybe one level is all bouncy slimes that bounce you all over the place.  We don't have to worry so much about balance because even if the player is presented with something way too hard, or way too easy, the question is, who, of the two of you, can score better with what you're given?

The world of single-player competitive games is full of exciting possibilities, but only when we start to understand the medium a little better.  What we've been doing is failing to draw a clear line between competitive apps and non-competitive ones consistently.  We do it when it comes to multiplayer competitive games, but when it comes to single player, we get confused.  When we figure this out, an entire category of games will be dramatically improved.  Single-player competitive games have the potential to be evergreen - games that you can play for years and years, whereas other kinds of single-player games are generally consumed.  This potential for longevity is huge, and the "Dev Hours : Quality Player Hours" (as Dan C put it) ratio is really excellent, so I hope we have a lot of developers working on these problems.

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Darren Tomlyn
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Hi. I promised myself a short while ago to not bother replying here until I'd finished what I'm working on, (On The Functionality And Identity of Language), but I just can't help myself :p

The biggest and most fundamental problem people have with the understanding of games and their design/creation and application, is recognising what they are (and must be) in relation to everything else - their greater context, or the 'bigger picture' everything must be recognised and understood within.

Unfortunately, the nature of this problem runs pretty much as deep, and is as fundamental, as it's possible to get - it ultimately ends with human perception of the universe around us, and how this informs our recognition and understanding of everything within it, ourselves and each other, (that also then leads to, and involves our interaction with it), but it's semiotics, and then communication and language that matter here, based upon and within such a perception.

Because the problems we have are so fundamental, especially in understanding the relationships between the elements previously mentioned, understanding not just how everything is related to everything else, but how best to describe such things as and by such a relationship is also a problem.

And because the problems we have are so fundamental, and have existed for this long, (so far), the effects of such problems become far greater, the more abstract what we perceive, recognise, understand, then label, teach and describe, happens to be.

And games, puzzles (and competitionS) all represent information of something that has that extra degree of abstraction, making our understanding of them that much harder, because they need to be recognised, understood and described as and by what they're abstracted from.

And so language matters most, here, because it alone can help us understand teach and describe such relationships and abstract ideas and information, based on its very functionality and identity - which isn't currently fully recognised and understood.

And so it shouldn't be surprising that every discussion of what games are and how and why they function ALWAYS demonstrates symptoms of such problems - and the OP is no exception.


So, what can we do about it - considering I haven't finished what I'm working on yet, so the bigger picture doesn't yet exist in a full and consistent manner?

Well, considering what my blog already contains, even if it is now out-of-date, it shouldn't be too hard to explain what matters...

What you're ultimately trying to talk about, is the basic difference and relationship between direct and indirect competition. The use of the word competitive in trying to describe such a difference is inconsistent with this, and is therefore problematic.

The root of the problem we have, is that the act of competing itself isn't being fully recognised and understood - let alone how it's related to the definition and application of games and puzzles etc., though especially when indirect - and therefore something isn't recognised as being 'competitive' (doesn't have the property of competing) if it isn't direct.

As you can imagine, this is a MASSIVE problem if people cannot recognise and understand the presence and role of indirect competition - since it's inherent to life itself. Of course, though, its also important for games, puzzles and competitionS, (only the activity we label as a competition can truly be plural), since they can all possess and use such a thing - (exclusively in the case of puzzles).

One of the other major problems with recognising and understanding the behaviour of competing, is that people perceive it as and by its effects - the act of winning or losing in itself, even though the word compete only describes the behaviour of TRYING to gain such an outcome - which is why competition can be PERPETUAL - (again, see: life - competing to survive.)

This further causes problems for their understanding of games, because games are about the process of competing, rather than winning or losing, and so can also be perpetual. However, game, puzzle and competition(s) ultimately describe the behaviour involved by which people compete in such activities, and so the behaviour of competing, in and by itself, only ever describes compete, its application of competition, (and the property of competitive), rather than a game, puzzle or A competition in itself.

Gerry Abella
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Very interesting post, and a great response!

Andrzej Marczewski
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@darren Have you actually got an answer for this yet. You raise the question all the time, but never seem to answer it. Recognising the problem as you see it is great, but we are all waiting for the solution I feel.

Darren Tomlyn
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I know, I know - but I am working on it, I promise - it's just that overturning millennia worth of human perception and understanding of language (and possibly communication) is not something I'm taking lightly, and am therefore doing my best to write it up properly, which is taking a while - (I told Neil that it'd probably take a year or so when I spoke to him last march/april, so...).

TBH, the real reason it's taking so long, is precisely because just dealing with the basic problems in isolation, will still need a decade or two of further work to understand how everything we're dealing with here (games etc.) needs to be recognised, understood and based upon the foundations I'm re-laying - so I'm trying to give some ideas as to such relationships and functionality while I'm at it. (It's still going to need another post just for the basic rules of English grammar to really tie the two together, though, even after this.)

In short - this stuff is HARD! :p

But the more people who have some idea as to the nature of the problems we have, the shorter time it will take, (and the easier it will be), to fully understand how everything is related to everything else. Of course, when people like Raph Koster turn around and deny their very existence, (based on a conversation I had with him on his website, recently), even that might still take some doing... (Didn't you reply to that aswell?)

Lewis Pulsipher
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Much of the discussion of game design theory hinges on semantics. Unfortunately, trying to define “win” and “lose” is hopeless simply because of differing perceptions of game players.

For example, let’s take one of the most competitive games in existence, the boardgame Diplomacy. Draws are quite common in Diplomacy. For decades players have argued about whether it’s better to be part of a draw or to finish in second place. The “second placers” say that they have done second-best. They see this as better than being part of a draw. The “draw-ers” (I am one) say that when you draw you have a partial victory and you have not lost, while when you finish second you have lost, and consequently a draw, even a seven player draw, is better than second-place.

You can find the occasional person who will say that second-place is better than (say) a four way draw but not as good as a three way draw, but fundamentally these views are diametrically opposed, irreconcilable. Yet when you come down to it this is an argument about what constitutes winning or losing.

To address the OP more directly, can you lose a game when you can keep trying to beat it over and over until sheer persistence wins out? Can you lose a game where inevitably, sooner or later, you will fail? But what about arcade Pac-Man? It took something like 10 years for someone to play the game so well that they went through all 255 levels (then the game crashed). Does that mean everybody before that lost the game? One could look at some rogue-likes the same way, if you play long enough and persistently enough you might get good enough to actually beat the game but virtually everyone is going to lose consistently - IF you can lose a single player game at all.

The problem is that a great many single player games are essentially puzzles, whether you call them competitive or not, and puzzles are another of those categories related to games where people have very different views.

For example I despise formal puzzles. If I know there is a specific solution and I don’t find it fairly quickly than I feel like an idiot. If I do find the solution then I’ve only done what I should have done and I feel no sense of accomplishment. I like related-to-the-real-world problem-solving but not abstract set-solution-finding. Consequently, I don’t do formal puzzles because they’re a lose-lose situation for me. Other people take a diametrically opposed view where failing (not finding a solution quickly) is encouragement to find a different way to succeed, and when they do succeed they’re happy about it.

Winning or losing for most people involves the ego. If the ego is not involved in winning and losing it doesn’t really matter. In the end, “games” are fundamentally divided into those where there is human opposition, or a strong semblance of human opposition, and those where there is no human opposition. When there’s human opposition, when you lose you know you’ve lost. When there is no human opposition most people don’t think they’ve lost, especially if no one else knows what has happened. They may quit rather than persist, and some people when they quit will take that as a loss while others will not. There is no way to define this mechanically because it’s so wrapped up with what humans are.

In arcade games when you (almost inevitably) failed you lost your quarter. Some people would take that as a loss, others would take it as the cost of entertainment. When you don’t lose your quarter, and there is no human who defeated you, can you lose a game?

Fortunately, I don’t think that the question of winning and losing is fundamental to the nature of game design. We have lots of games that don’t even have victory conditions (e.g. most tabletop RPGs). And there are games where many people play for objectives other than winning.

And what about this anomaly? One of my students told me his brother played games to help other people win! My brother plays to make sure I lose! Sort that out.