Alternatives to Abject Failure

I am archiving older pieces I have written on other sites, making this the definitive home for all my work. This is one of several I am porting over from my GameDev.Net user journal. Enjoy!

I know I said I wouldn't continue harping on the state of CS instruction (because complaining is so much easier than creating, articulating and implementing solutions to problems), but...

On Monday my professor said, referring to using the standard containers in the Standard C++ Library, "I don't think anyone in computer science should be dependent on someone else's implementation of a data structure," and "In CS we like to do things the hard way!" To which I replied, "...and that's why I changed my major."

In other news, I purchased a refurbished PStwo, God of War, Jade Empire and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory yesterday. So far I've only played Jade Empire, and boy is there a lot of reading! The controls also seem a tad sluggish to me, though I think the real issue is that I haven't grokked the game's rhythm yet. It does set me wondering about RPGs, though, and the fact that you start out dying off pretty easily, which increases player frustration... unless you're a Genre Addict. The discussion for the article is raging quite fiercely, as some object to the comparison of game development to drug dealing. Personally, I find their protestations tiresome, as they yield no knowledge beside personal squeamishness. The underlying mechanism explored seems quite valid, but I guess there will always be people who are more concerned that there's a titty on television than their own use of profanity in front of their kids.

I digress. Wildly.

I am, generally, not a fan of RPGs. I played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for all of 15 or 30 minutes before I returned it (rental). Too much dialog, too much initial choice, too little action for my tastes. I am not a hardcore gamer, and while I keep wishing I could get into some of the experiences I hear such positive things about, I am alienated by conventions that strike me as stupid in the extreme.

And then there are the nitpicks. Like save points and save slots. Jade Empire lets you save anywhere outside of combat, using any of four save slots. While this may sound reasonable, it requires that I constantly remember to save my progress before I go into combat, lest I lose all my advancement since the last automatic save at the start of the level. Worse, loading the last save, I have to sit through cutscenes again (weirdness: dialog can be skipped, wherever it occurs; some purely visual sequences can not). Now, because I have not quite gotten the game's timing, I'm dying at the first big challenge - which is, as far as I can tell so far, three-tiered - which exacerbates my frustration at the other annoyances. Worst of all, it is reminding me that, so far, my experience has not lived up to what I saw in preview videos and so forth.

Those of you who fancy yourselves designers, any remedies? More fundamentally, is failure (in this case, death) truly the best teacher of game mechanisms? I mean, if I'm playing as a "Legendary Warrior" or "Young Warrior of Great Potential," I wouldn't expect a lot of failure; doesn't this harm my suspension of disbelief and increase the visibility of the underlying abstract symbolic representation?

Admittedly, the user can't learn, much less master, the system if every action is deemed a success. There must be failures as part of a testing proceedure, so the question, under refinement, becomes "What alternatives to total or abject failure can we use as motivation/evaluation tools?" Obviously, certain types of games already use multifaceted evaluations, such as a score sheet that tracks, say, the percentage of secrets found or of shots on goal. How can we broaden these approaches and make them less obviously non-diegetic?

I went for the Limited Edition, so this had better be FUN.