Last year, Jaffe Alex from Riot Games gave a talk at GDC[1, 2] about what he calls “cursed problems” in game design. He defines these as:
An unsolvable design problem, rooted in a conflict between core player promises.
These player promises can be either implicit or explicit. An example he gives is of a large-scale competitive game like “Overwatch”. Players expect a large, active community of players of varying skill levels, but also want to be able to hone their skills indefinitely and delve deeper and deeper into the finer parts of the mechanics. As Jaffe puts it:
When a competitive game comes out, it’s a wide open field of play, experimentation, and learning. Over time, players start to get better. What’s more, the ones who aren’t getting better are more likely to drop out. By the time a game is mature, only killers remain. And it becomes very daunting for new players to enter. If you’re lucky, there remain enough weak players to support matchmaking. But these players are often driven away, and even then, weak players are all too aware of the shadow they’re living in, thanks to streamers and smurf accounts.
I absolutely recommend watching the whole talk if you’re interested in this sort of stuff, but there’s a specific type of “cursed problem” that I want to talk about in this article, and that is games rewarding the player only when they fail.
Like their SFW counterparts, adult games come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Each one of them has to figure out how to present their content to the player. For a visual novel, this is often fairly straight-forward: the adult content is completely interwoven in the story that the player is working through and can be shown through the on-screen avatars or CG inserts. Other games however, may have to get a little more creative.
Ever since the dawn of gaming, many games have used enemies and fighting mechanics to create conflict and give the player something to do. Mario’s platforms are littered with Goomba’s to stomp on, and Link’s dungeon exploring is interrupted by hordes of enemies. Violence of some degree has always been prevalent in games, and it’s no surprise that many adult games choose to go the same route. Both regular and sexual violence are featured prominently in many adult games. Especially in platformers, there seem to be two common trends:
- Have the enemies’ motivation be to have sex with the playable character.
- Have them succeed upon the player failing a task (such as getting defeated or falling into a trap).
And, barring any moral objections that a player might have, that is a totally fine premise! So how does this relate to cursed problems? The issues arise when the following two player promises are made for any one game:
- The player can hone their skills and get better at the game, progressing and getting rewarded as they do well.
- The player gets rewarded with exclusive sexual content upon their failure.
These two promises tell the player two very different things, and gives them two contradictory goals: To get good at the game and progress, but also to mess up occasionally so as not to miss out on anything. This offence becomes especially egregious when failing a task results in both a reward in the form of sexual content, and a punishment, like making the player lose a life, reducing their score, or undoing some of the progress that they’ve made.
Now that isn’t to say that all games that reward the player for losing suffer from bad design; hell, you can design entire games around it! But it does need to be done well and considered carefully. Jaffe has a lot of theories and information on how you can tackle such problems, but what’s clear is that at least one of the core player promises has to give, at least a little bit.
The first promise is pretty hard to riff on. If there are no skills to improve on or progress to be made, we’re likely looking at something like a sandbox kind of game. At that point it becomes quite hard to define what “failure” really means and there’s not likely to be any kind of conflict. This means that the resolution likely needs to come from modifying the second player promise. Let’s take a look at what that might look like:
The player gets rewarded with exclusive sexual content upon their success.
I’m guessing this is probably the first change that popped into your mind. Rather than rewarding failure, reward success! It intuitively makes sense and sounds straight-forward enough, but implementing this can be a bit daunting. As it was, the enemies provided both an obstacle to overcome and a subject for sexual content. It’s comparatively easy to think of punishing scenarios like rapey land squids, guild members abusing their authority, or hypnotizing monsters. These naturally present a setting and a subject, whereas “success sex” can require a bit more creativity.
It’s not impossible however! Maybe after clearing a dungeon the character tauntingly masturbates just outside the evil plant’s viney reach. Or perhaps after killing 50 of the same type of enemy the character laments how things could have easily gone awry, and the player is presented with a piece of “what if” art.
Sex can also be used as a mechanic rather than a reward. Attacks could charge by jerking off or squeezing their chest, or the character could use sex itself as an attack, taking on a more dominant role instead.
And a third solution might be to change the subject from the enemies to something else entirely. The main character might want to engage in celebratory sex with their partner after a successful dungeon rush for instance, or perhaps they need to recharge or learn a new move by using the Dildo of Agility™ found in this stage.
While these are three very different approaches to reaching the same goal, both serve to reinforce the design philosophy that a player can get better at the game and get rewarded for it.
The player gets rewarded with exclusive sexual content upon the playable character’s failure.
In this scenario we are keeping the concept or our playable character failing resulting in a reward for the player, but we switch our perspective a bit. Here we create a clear separation between the player’s goals and the character’s goals.
There are many directions one could take this in, but the most important part is to only punish the character that the player controls, and never the player themselves. That means no loss of lives, no score reduction, and no involuntary progress resets.
I specify “involuntary” here because just like we separated the player’s goals from the character’s, we can separate their progress as well. In some cases a reset might be desirable; for example to see how the character would react upon losing to a certain enemy without wanting to commit to the consequences of that action. The player might want to return to an earlier state of affairs, in which case, the player has still gained something in being rewarded with a nice CG/cutscene/what-have-you, even though the character is no worse or better off than they were before.
Less abstract rewards are also possible now; intentionally losing to an enemy might make the character sad, but regain some health or gain an item for example.
What I personally like about this approach is that it very much exists on a spectrum. You can make the character failing an alternate, intentional way of playing, or you can go all in and make it the goal of the game, rewarding the player with better tools or more effective enemies the more they make their character fail. At this end of the spectrum, your game is likely a torture or ryona-type game. At this point it doesn’t really make sense to use the term “failure” anymore however, as making the character lose is now a win condition.
One important word of warning on this solution though, is that communication is key. As players we’ve been trained to avoid or defeat anything that moves. Even though years of adult games have shown us that there are exceptions to this rule, “losing on purpose” remains counter-intuitive, and it is important to make clear to the player what is expected of them.