Okay, this might sound crazy, but stick with me. Following my post about “Death and Starting Over,” I wanted to talk about “Setback Mechanics” as a separate topic, because I think it’s an overlooked part of game design. I think failure on the part of the player is an expected part of gameplay, and most games miss the opportunity to keep the player engaged in the game when this happens.

If you’re reading this, I assume you’ve played a game before. I want you to think about the last time you played a game and encountered the “game over” screen before being forced to repeat twenty minutes or perhaps a half hour or more of gameplay. You’re forced to load a previously saved game and repeat an entire section of the game because you made one or more missteps in the process of natural play.

Being forced to repeat something is never fun. Anywhere. At any time. During any activity. Think about the last time you had to repeat something you said in conversation because someone didn’t hear you. Doesn’t that suck? Why on earth would you force someone to repeat something in a game? It. Isn’t. Fun. EVER.

Take Diablo 2 for example. When your character runs out of hit points, they “die,” and not only lose whatever time it takes to travel back to the location where they died, but they also lose experience points, a measure of personal progress in the game, and they lose gold, which is a measure of treasure acquisition in the game. The penalty for failure devalues core gameplay elements: treasure and experience.

Now, Diablo 2 is a game that models itself around the heroic fiction genre (albeit from the perspective of dark and apocalyptic fantasy) — why not reinforce the core elements of gameplay by drawing further on the genre? The earliest examples of heroic fiction involve the hero traveling to the Underworld and returning, either through trickery or by acts of strength, bravery, or other aspects of heroism.

Consider how powerful the central imagery of Diablo 2 would be if death threw your character into Hell and they were forced to fight their way back to life? Those last few levels of the original game where your character travels directly into Hell and fights their way down would be that much more meaningful. This is the place you’ve seen in your nightmares. Now you have the chance to confront them on your own terms.

I’m issuing a challenge to game designers to invest in the Setback Mechanics of their games, those things that the player must face when they fail in the normal context of the game, instead of simply repeating a section until they succeed. You will make a better game if your Setback Mechanics reinforce your core gameplay elements.