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May 19, 2022
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User Research: Game for fun: negative emotion compensation mechanism

by Yongcheng Liu on 09/29/21 10:29:00 am

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.


Have you ever felt lost, angry, or desperate in a game? Whether it's because the game failed due to the death of the character, or we cannot get the desired items because of determined "fate", we will always experience a variety of frustration in game, more or less leading to negative emotions.

The example of failing due to the death of the character can be seen in games such as in Dark Souls, Sekiro that made countless people feel rage in game. When players play along the same road without successful archives over and over again, when the remind "YOU DIED" appears on the screen again and again, how many people can withstand and suppress the inner desperation of the game?

But even though the game is so unfriendly to us, letting our character die again and again, why do we still wear a mask of pain while we willingly continue to play? How do these games control our negative emotions, so that we can still be motivated to continue to play it? In addition to the high quality of the game itself, the negative emotion compensation mechanism designed by many games is what keeps us motivated to keep playing.

It is normal and inevitable for players to have slight negative emotions during the process of playing a game. However, if players' negative emotions are allowed to accumulate and eventually explode, it is likely to cause players to abandon playing and affect the reputation of the game. Such a double-lose situation is what any game needs to avoid, so it needs a certain compensation mechanism to "control" and "grasp" the players' emotions to a certain extent when they have negative emotions, or even before they show up.

Let's take a look at a few good examples of games to see how they avoid or slow down the generation of such emotions through certain compensation mechanisms.

Generally speaking, players do not immediately feel desperate when they encounter a setback or a hard situation, but they will experience a series of complex emotions such as sadness, loss, self-doubt emotions. For the average player, one or two failures may produce only minor negative emotions such as sadness and loss. Sometimes, under the effect of such negative emotions, they may become more focused, marking the current game internally as challenging and giving themselves psychological comfort and rewards after a successful challenge. This level of negativity can be quickly eliminated and can motivate players to fight. This gives the game designers a lot of room for error, designing compensation mechanisms in the game to alleviate the negative emotions that players are building up.


Failure is instead rewarded with relief from negative emotions

In many games, character death means game failure. The player has to face the reality of his failure, and start over from the checkpoint and lose what he has gained since then. character death becomes an absolute no-no, something that many players try to avoid. No damage pass/one life pass has become the achievement sought by many hardcore players.

However, in Zanki Zero: Last Beginning, the death of the game character is an essential part of the game and is an important way to get a boost. The clones operated by players in the game can be reborn for numerous times even if they die, and each time when reborn they will be enhanced to another level according to the cause of the last body’s death. This mechanism is known as the ???? (death clockwork) system, meaning each death is to live better the next time, and each resurrection is a new evolution. If you feel hungry too fast, then starve to death once; if you feel that the weight is not enough, then let the backpack carry fully until the character dies once; if you want to be invulnerable to all kinds of poison, then try out all kinds of poison once.

There is also a Roguelike game "Meta Knight" which also has a death bonus. In the game, when the character dies, the system will give the performance data of this game and give a certain amount of failure bonus according to the performance. The better the performance in this game, the more rewards you will get. In this way, although the game failure makes the player feel regretful, the generous reward can make the player's lost emotion get relieved quickly and may even turn into an expectation. At the same time, the exhilaration of players receiving the rewards to enhance their characters also dilutes the negative emotions to a certain extent.

Through the failure reward mechanism, players are given more rewards rather than punishments when characters die and the game fails, allowing players' emotions to go more positive rather than negative.

Dynamic difficulty adjustment makes it difficult to build up negative emotions

However, for many games, characters do not have that much room to grow; for the average players, their own strength will not improve quickly. Therefore, most of the games will let players choose the right difficulty at the beginning so that players can play more smoothly. But even after the choice of difficulty is made, the difficulty of the game is still there in real terms. If the original hesitant players are aggrieved to manually reduce the difficulty after a failure (some games even need to reopen the game), it is even more negative for the player's emotions.

However, some games have excellent dynamic difficulty adjustment mechanisms that can dynamically adjust the difficulty according to the player's actions. For example, the Biohazard since the 4th of its series has been used since the dynamic difficulty system. The system will count the number of deaths, the hit rate of different weapons, the success rate of dodge. Many of the player's actions in the game will affect the game's hidden dynamic score, even if you choose the same difficulty, dynamic score increases or decreases will still make the game's dynamic difficulty up or down a level.

                             dynamic difficulty changing points in Biohazard 3

At the same high difficulty, the player dies many times because the difficulty is too high, and cannot pass the game, the monster damage to the player will become lower. At the same time, the damage caused by the player will also be improved. Originally players need seven or eight shots to kill a monster, but now it’s just only need five or six shots to kill the same monster. The dynamic difficulty system enables players to enter a state of mind flow, neither because it is too difficult and too desperate to give up the game, nor because it is too easy and too boring to abandon it, so that players are more enjoyable to pass without knowing it, both challenging and exhilarating.

The Total War series, which also has a hidden detection system, is slightly more rigid when it comes to dynamic difficulty adjustments. In Total War: Three Kingdoms, the system will judge players based on their battle results and the form of the battle. If the player's strength is too crushing, with epic victories on the field, or too weak with repeat failure, the system will suggest that the player raise or lower the difficulty of the game. But because of the use of the explicit form of advice, although it is timely compensation, the effect is always a bit worse.

Difficulty suggestions in Total war: Three kingdoms

Use randomness to make negative emotions easy to accept

In addition to the above two compensation mechanisms, many games are also studying the psychology of players. Since the generation of negative emotions is inevitable, then let players take the initiative to accept it, so that players can convince themselves, rather than just blame the game.

The most common and easy for players to self-compassion is the pseudo-random mechanism. Randomness can be an important component of many games, but if true randomness is used, there is a high probability that dozens of times the player will not get the random result they want. In this way, according to the principle of self-interest attribution bias in psychology, players will blame the external environment, such as the design and planning of the game, for their poor luck and thus have strong negative emotions towards it.

Thus, there is a pseudo-random mechanic that can make players feel lucky while not losing randomness. The guaranteed design in Hearthstone is a kind of pseudo-random. For players, on average, opening a pack of good cards is still only a small probability, but the pseudo-random mechanism that within 40 packs (including 40) must have legendary, within 20 packs must-have epic, and the probability will increase with the number of consecutive packs opened without THE rare card, ensuring that players can experience the feeling of luck after a period of time in the game. Players can have a stable expectation of the future, and it is easier to accept the negative emotions that arise from being unlucky in the early stages.


Similarly, Roguelike games make extensive use of random elements, both to achieve rich game content, but also to a certain extent to give players an excuse - "this time it's just bad luck". As mentioned above, in games like Meta Knight, or Dead Cells, Hades, good luck allows players to pick up powerful and suitable blessings, weapons earlier and faster, greatly improving the game experience. And when bad luck strikes, players may pick up bad or uncoordinated stuff. Randomness goes a long way in deflecting any doubts players may have about their own strength after a failure, attributing it to luck, allowing players to accept the negativity more quickly, pray for good luck afterward, and then move on to start a new game. 



For most players, games are the player's initiative to accept the rules given to play. In the process of a game, no one likes to be sad all the time, happiness and joy are more important. If a game allows players to produce a serious negative emotion, it is somewhat away from the original intention of the players playing the game. Seeing so many games trying to take care of players' emotions, I also hope that you can find games that you like and that can bring you joy and pleasure.

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