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Suppose a player has reached a point where they have absolutely no chance of completing the current level, and must restart it and try again.

Should I notify them that they will gain nothing by continuing the level and needs to restart? If so, how should I tell them that? Would a message box of some sort saying something like "No chance, start again" be good? Or should I let them continue to play and find out themselves?

Note that the levels are not huge, and mostly take about a minute each to complete. So for example, if the user missed the opportunity to level up after 30 seconds or so, should I stop the game and make them restart?

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Please remember that comments are not for extended discussion; I've moved the existing discussion to chat (or alternatively you could use the Game Development Chat; this kind of discussion would be welcome there). \$\endgroup\$ – Josh Dec 3 '15 at 17:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, in addition to the "explanation and context" post notice, please try to post answers that take a position and offer a defense of that position. It's what makes "good subjective" questions like this useful; don't just post a wishy-washy "I think it could go either way" answer without explaining why. \$\endgroup\$ – Josh Dec 3 '15 at 17:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ I might be inclined to call this "bad game design" ... \$\endgroup\$ – ell May 2 '17 at 23:13
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Depends on the game.

In a obstacle course/parkour type game against a time limit it's common to add checkpoints that add to a time limit which is tight enough to that a big mistake will cause failure.

In a puzzle game however like your example then just letting the time run out is a better idea. It's probably also a good idea to let them undo actions that were wrong and let the player find out that they were wrong for themselves. If there is only 1 solution and you warn the player as soon as he makes a mistake then it becomes a not-fun game of trial and error. Rather than the mental challenge you are going for.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Or at least, an optional "casual" mode allowing the undos. Maybe you can't submit those scores to a high scores list or something. Some people don't like crutches in their games, but some people really really do. \$\endgroup\$ – corsiKa Dec 1 '15 at 18:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @corsiKa I find disallowing undo or forcing the player to redo the same steps over and over again as a punishment for making a mistake in a deterministic puzzle game a very bad design. It makes things more time consuming and tedious, not harder or challenging (or fun). Sure, there are some people who'll claim the game is/was better without undo and all I have is anecdotal evidence, but I'm yet to see a purely deterministic puzzle game which would be more enjoyable by not having undo (if the game design allows it of course). \$\endgroup\$ – Maurycy Dec 1 '15 at 20:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ A good example of this is the RedLynx: Trials games, when you fail it has to be recognised by yourself although mainly because you end up dying from falling into a trap. However there are occasions when you may not realise you can't win without restarting from a checkpoint which is half the fun in most occasions when playing with friends: youtube.com/watch?v=ig4KH19I1HY \$\endgroup\$ – Tom 'Blue' Piddock Dec 2 '15 at 12:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree with this... just make sure to detect correctly that the player really has no chance to complete the level. I remember the Solitaire introduced in Windows Vista popped up a message saying "You cannot win this game anymore", but it often just didn't appear, even though you clearly had no chance of winning it anymore - and then I just sat there baffled for a long time, wondering what I oversaw... \$\endgroup\$ – Ray Dec 2 '15 at 19:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Maurycy Oh, I agree, I was just pointing out a few common situations where you could find undo is an issue. By game-breaking I mean that the player is incentivised to always use undo after every move to see if there's a better option, which can cause issues. \$\endgroup\$ – deworde Dec 3 '15 at 11:46
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Kill the player

Death is an easy way to tell the player they have made a big mistake. And you save them the trouble of restarting by restarting for them.

An easy way to retro-fit death into a scenario is to introduce a deadly time-constraint, like water flooding, or walls closing-in. Your imagination is the limit!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Example where this happens: Half-Life 2. If you let Barney or Alyx die on a level where they follow you, you get killed. Or in the coast levels, if you lose the buggy, you also die. \$\endgroup\$ – Kroltan Dec 3 '15 at 0:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kroltan "You get killed" - I don't think so, you just get a message saying that you've lost, and have to load your last save. Your character doesn't actually die. \$\endgroup\$ – user253751 May 28 '16 at 3:35
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A "you have no chance" message can be a pretty jarring break of immersion. If the user is really trying to figure out how to beat the level, his/her mind is deep in their mental model of what is going on. Such a message would be interrupting.

If you do want to do this my advice would be one of:

  • Bring the message up slowly, perhaps as just a warning blip at first, giving them time to choose to pay attention to the message
  • Change the environment in a way which encourages the player to realize they've messed up on their own terms.
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Tell the player, then save them.

A good example how to do this well is the Portal series. Despite the very well thought out puzzle designs where most mistakes can either be fixed or results in immediate death, there are a few situations in the game where the players can trap themselves or screw up the puzzle in a way that it can not be solved.

The developers have anticipated these situations. When they occur, the NPC which supervises the player reprimands them for being careless and then intervenes to remedy the situation (opens a hidden door, respawns a critical piece of equipment, etc). This happens completely in-character, so it is not immersion breaking at all.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Other parts of portal 2 where being saved by the NPC wouldn't fit with the story often have either features built into the world to let players untrap themselves or just good old fashioned deathtraps. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Green Dec 3 '15 at 2:48
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The way the game Osmos solves this, when you've got to the point where the game is unwinnable, is to have a "Doesn't look good..." message appear unintrusively on the screen.

As a player, this is really helpful, as it is entirely possible for the game to look vaguely winnable when on the edge; also it allows the user to choose whether to restart or to continue playing, but clearly suggests that it's time to restart.

The key is that the option to restart should be made "more accessible", but still left up to the player, who may want to test your system's ability to calculate it, Kobyashi-Maru style.

Also, time matters. Osmos is a slow game, and getting to the point where you realise you can't win could be upwards of 5-10 minutes. This pushes the "Can't win" notification from "nice" to "critical".

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Sounds like you have discovered a game- or level- design issue which you might want to address in other ways, such as reconsidering how the game rewards success, or shifting to an alternate game mode where there is a secondary goal when the main goal will no longer be possible. The details depend on the game, of course, the expected players' interests, and what you want to accomplish. But having some early mistake mean there's no point in continuing can be an annoyance for some players, depending on their expectations and how it's presented.

It doesn't have to be a bad thing. For example, if your players are perfectionists and want to practice something over and over till they get it right. Perhaps in many Olympic sports, the point is to have the best performance among experts, so if you stumble at some point, you might as well stop trying for that round, and that's expected. In that case, it may make sense to indicate when winning or proceeding becomes impossible.

Or, if it's a puzzle genre where again the expectation is you'll probably make mistakes as part of learning and need to start over, but part of the game is figuring out what to learn from mistakes, then you may not want to let them know, so they can figure it out. Or you might want to let them know, but in a relevant and interesting way that provides a clue to the mystery they are supposed to figure out.

In games where there is rich gameplay aside from the main goal, you may not want to announce a hopeless condition, because trying to continue play can be interesting in other ways.

In games with more going on outside the current mission context, or where you want to have it be fun even when things go wrong, you might want to detect failure states but instead of announcing it like a failure and suggesting trying over, you could have the gameplay respond or give clues that the player should now be focusing on some secondary or alternative goal. For example, if the main mission were to accomplish something without something happen, and that main goal becomes impossible or failed, you could let them know that (or not) but have the situation change or a new goal become apparent. For example, if you were trying to rescue someone from someplace but that becomes impossible, your next goal might be to not get caught yourself, and might be signaled by a companion or observer character pointing out the situation, or an alarm going off, or several guards showing up.

The above can even apply to a game with one-minute levels, and is a design decision. If you just have them stop and try over, that will have a certain flavor. If you have there be a secondary play mode, that could have another flavor. For example, if you can't win the current level, you might still be able to escape with your life, and/or gain some secondary points or power ups or cause some effects that would carry over to the next try.

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It depends a great deal on what kind of game you're talking about.

If the game is a puzzle, and its rules permit reverting a move without any loss (beyond time), the player should generally expect to detect dead ends and recover from them on their own. Giving them notice that they've entered an unwinnable situation is probably unnecessary unless it's limited to detecting situations which are immediately unwinnable. Games of this type might include "pen and paper" puzzles such as crosswords, sudoku, or mazes, as well as certain other fully reversible puzzles such as Rubik's Cube or sliding-block puzzles.

On the other hand, if moves in a puzzle are not revertible, notifying players that they have entered an unwinnable situation may be appropriate. This is particularly important if the unrecoverability of the situation would not become apparent until much later. Games of that type might include block-pushing puzzles such as Sokoban, as well as many text-based adventure games. (Older text-based adventures often failed to follow this rule; this was a major factor in why they were considered so frustrating!)

Finally, if the game is not intended as a puzzle at all — for instance, if it is actually a first-person shooter — the situation changes entirely. Games of this type will usually end immediately if the player has entered a completely unwinnable situation. For instance, in sections of Half-Life 2 which the player must use a vehicle to complete, the game ends immediately if the vehicle falls into an unrecoverable position. Another option is to automatically take action to restore the game to a winnable state. For instance, if a player has run out of a consumable item that is mandatory to proceed, the game could make more of that item available to the player.

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Others have given good ideas how to add the possible warning button without braking immersion. I'd like to add warning against forcing the restart before some player known resource (turns/time...) is used up. Depending on the style of the puzzle, it is possible that even if player knows s/he can't pass the level, there is some action which they want to try before restarting. For example: if I have 2 moves left and at minimum I would need 5 moves to pass the level, I might realize the futility. However, I still would like to use my final moves to determine what some possible actions will do ("will this weapon break that stuff", "can I reach something"). And then use that knowledge on my later tries.

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Many of the enemies in the Legend of Zelda require specific consumable items to defeat (for example arrows, bombs, or magic), and this goes for dungeon bosses as well. Usually, the player cannot leave a boss chamber until it is defeated. The 2D era games (NES/SNES/Gameboy) offered minimal refills, if any, inside the boss chamber - once you ran out you either needed to die or reset. Ocarina of Time on the N64 and the games that followed it started adding regenerating grass to many of the boss chambers that would contain items needed to defeat the boss.

Even in the same series it can go both ways, neither one was right or wrong.

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