I play EVE Online, and that was the advice I got when I asked more experienced players how to get better at player-vs-player combat. Regular failure is simply part of the game, so much so that one of the tutorial missions for players in their first week is a suicide mission where success requires flying your spaceship kamikaze-like into a pirate base to destroy it. The point is to teach new players that their characters will die in the game, and that it’s not the end of the world. You will wake up safe in your clone vat in your home space station, poorer only the ship you lost and any implants you had plugged in to your active clone at the time.
In her TED talk “Gaming can make a better world,” Jane McGonigal shows us a photo of a gamer on the verge of an epic win. I would like to show you another video, this one of a team of EVE players on the verge of an epic failure. Most of the video just shows off the various things you can do in EVE, but pay attention to the segment between 2:20 and 2:50.
At 2:21, we see a fleet operation in progress, a group of players out looking for a fight with another fleet. The sarcastic remarks let us know these players have been out for a while, maybe a couple of hours, without any action. Then, they find it.
That expanding sphere is a trap that will keep them from running away or maneuvering. Smart bombs start taking out their fleet and they have little chance of even surviving, much less fighting back. That laughter you hear? The “WOW!”? That’s the sound of epic failure in EVE. These players are seeing their entire fleet wiped out and having a great time.
In his post on failure in GOBLIN, Peter Barker points out the importance of agency in games. Where is the agency in that EVE epic failure? Once the ambush was sprung, those players had no chance. So why wasn’t anyone whinging about how unfair it was? Because their agency had been expressed in a hundred ways before they got there: They chose when to go out looking for a fight, they chose the route to take, they chose their fleet composition, they chose (unwisely) not to have a scout check out the area right before they warped to it.
That and one more thing. This is EVE. If you undock your spaceship, you can be attacked and killed at any time. The game designers make that clear at the very beginning. Players who come in from World of Warcraft and other similar games have to adjust to a world where there is often no way to win, and that you will learn to feel the thrill of victory just to have escaped alive from a clever trap. Believe it or not, it gets to be a lot of fun.
Terri Cullen asked, “How can we create a culture of failure?”
And Darren Purcell asked, “How do I get them to fail?”
I think this is the answer. Setting very clear player expectations before a game begins is essential. Showing them that failure is okay, that they’ll just wake up in their clone vat back in home station, is part of that, I think. Finally, they just have to go out and die a hundred times. By then, they’ll be teaching others.