Late Game vs. Early Game Risk

Link Eyes

Late game dancing will go a lot further on the leaderboards than boogieing right out of the gates. Dancing at the end of the level, however, does not come quite as carefree as when you are two steps out of the starting block.

As I suggested in my last article there are more things to learn from Bit Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien. Last time I touched on my path of varying engagement with the game, which ended in some heavy lifting for attempts at high scores. This time I want to speak more of a lesson to be learned in that high score grinding end game.

I’ve talked about risk before but today I want to address a different aspect of risk: how the balance of risk shifts over the course of a level.

Escalating Stakes

I touched on the point-scoring last time, but didn’t address the key component to this article. That is, as you progress through the level, you pick up items that multiply all of your scores for the rest of the level. There are four in each level and they give you a score multiplier of 2, 3, 4 and 5 as you gather them.

This means that when you are dodging obstacles or dancing and the beginning of the level you are getting 1,000 and 2,000 points, but by the end of the level you are getting 5,000 and 10,000, respectively. Thus, late game dancing will go a lot further on the leaderboards than boogieing right out of the gates.

Dancing at the end of the level, however, does not come quite as carefree as when you are two steps out of the starting block. Every step you take brings you further from the beginning and thus adds to how much of a setback comes with a death.

Building the Strategy

The stage is set. We understand the escalation of the risks and the rewards. Now it is time to consider what we can do to deal with this.

First, it was important to decide if I wanted to go for a “perfect run” (by which I mean dancing the theoretical maximum amount given the spacing in the level) or if I was fine with sub-perfect runs that would take much less time and could scratch the surface of the leaderboards. If I was aiming to be the best, there wouldn’t be much to consider. I would be dancing constantly and probably dying quite often. That 2,000 at the beginning is equivalent to the 10,000s at the end of the level as missing any dance would take away from that perfect score.

If I was aiming to be the best, there wouldn’t be much to consider. I would be dancing constantly and probably dying quite often. That 2,000 at the beginning is equivalent to the 10,000s at the end of the level as missing any dance would take away from that perfect score.

But that isn’t really what I was interested in. So with that notion put aside let us start building a strategy.

Translatable Skills – Front Loading vs. Back Loading

It’s important to analyze how much the skills I build by practicing the beginning of a level translate to the later tasks. If the skills are very translatable, front loading is an appropriate strategy. In this case I try to master the beginning, making sure I find a rhythm with the dances and dodging and use that as a catalyst to attack the second part of the level.

If the skills are very translatable, front loading is an appropriate strategy.

If skills are not easily transferred to the latter portion of the level, then it makes more sense to try to back load. For example, if there is a unique pattern that is consistently killing me in the latter portion of the level, it makes sense to hold up on intensely grinding the beginning of the level so that I can get used to the segment that is giving me the most trouble. I grab the checkpoint (which I normally skip for bonus points) just to get comfortable with the latter portion of the level.

This kind of consideration is often relevant for me when I’m practicing for presentations. It is natural to start at the beginning when practicing, and I often don’t have enough time to run through the entire thing, so I end up practicing the beginning much more than the end. This is also somewhat self-reinforcing since I get more comfortable with the beginning and have the positive feedback of doing better.

This could turn out well if the introduction is a comprehensive representation of the presentation to follow. Practicing the intro is then solidifying the overarching concepts of the presentation and the rest will cascade from this. But other times, this could be fatal as I never really get to practice the body of the presentation and end up unprepared to add depth to the conversation. Having a weak closing can be very costly as the end is what the audience sees last and it tends to heavily influence their reaction.

There is far more to question about translatable skills, but that will find its own post one day, so I’m going to move on.

Don’t Get Burned Out

When pushing for high scores, I died a lot trying to fit dances where they don’t belong. It’s important not to burn yourself out going for early points so much so that you just don’t feel like working on points later in the level.

I remember one level where there were three very tight places where I could pull off a dance or two. I got so into trying to perfect that early sequence (which point wise was probably only worth a little over 1 dance at the end of the level) that by the time I had done it right a couple times I was going straight into “play it safe” mode where I wasn’t taking chances later in the level.

…by the time I had done it right a couple times I was going straight into “play it safe” mode where I wasn’t taking chances later in the level.

I had a somewhat relatable experience in college. I loved learning and pushing myself in an academic setting at Emory. I may have pushed a little too hard in my early years though, and ultimately was a little burned out for some of the higher reward tasks later in my university years.

For example, I couldn’t get myself to put the required time into my undergraduate honors work and it was much harder for me to push myself to care about the networking and job hunting aspects expected of a business school student. Both of these are more value-added tasks than some of the grades I worked to death to get early on in college.

Memorializing Score or Experience?

Everything I’ve said assumes that the score is the metric of consideration. It’s important to take these lessons with a grain of salt and remember my last topic: finding the right play experience for you. For example, maybe nothing would give you more pleasure than fitting three dances in one tight spot and then completing the level. If that is so, then screw the leaderboard and bask in your moment of success.

Escalating Conclusion!

I touched on some small examples outside of the gaming realm, but if you think about it, this escalation is quite omnipresent in life. For example, our path through academia starts with very little consequence. Our grades and decisions start to matter a little bit more every year as we climb closer to various goals and transition points.

Often the end of each stage of academia leads to the culmination of past choices and perhaps some stressful decisions that will direct our futures. We pursue different schooling or jobs. Progression in the workplace too is all about taking on more responsibility and reaping the benefits that align with this additional responsibility.

Let me know what you guys think in the comments below. Do you consider this escalation when formulating a strategy for success? Do either of the above sub-concepts strike a particular chord with you? And can you think of any games which particularly resonated with this message?

Thanks for stopping by! Game on and learn on!


6 thoughts on “Late Game vs. Early Game Risk

  1. Andrew Bell (@lightlead)

    Hey Dyl, thought provoking piece. I might be wrong but you know, I don’t think I’ve considered a lot of this stuff when formulating my approach… though I guess my approach to most games is admittedly pretty bloody minded. MUST PRACTICE 100% OF THE LEVEL etc.

    In kind of a masochistic way I think I might find the moment of failure MOMENTS away from the finish line of an absurd level kind of hilariously pleasurable in a bit of a complicated way, I wonder if that would still be the case if I took the escalated risk into account more?

    I wonder if there is a good way to encourage the player to recognise this concept other than severely punishing them. I mean the things that come to mind where I was a lot more aware of, and took A BIT more heed of the escalating risk were probably Persona3 and Dark Souls. Both games really punished hubris even in what felt like the more mundane moments in the game, and that had a real effect on my thinking.

    Do you think that a well put together death mechanic (for example one that makes death AT THE WORST TIME hilarious, or perhaps integrates it into the internal logic of the game world, but doesn’t make it trivial) distracts the player from thinking about risk factors in a strategic way?

    Oh and I can completely relate to the trying REALLY HARD at the start of education and then slowly losing steam thing heheh.

      1. connorbros Post author

        Hey! Thanks for the comment. I saw in the stats that someone google searched “turn based living” and I was wondering who that might be 😛

        Those are two great examples of very punishing experiences (damn you Persona 4 bath house with your random battles that just wiped my team out completely!). At a very macro level, I think it looks a little obvious. The more punishing the setback the more the player tends to be cognizant of it. Like, you care about losing a boss battle a lot more in FF3 or some of the older RPGs that don’t have a save right there, compared to when a nice little checkpoint sits right in front of the boss.

        That being said I think there are a lot of ways to play around with this “punishment” on a more micro level which can vastly effect perceived risk vs. actual risk and tap into different expectations of different players. Pokemon for example just has the town reset with money loss. To some this could be a big deal, where others could think this is minimal. Different games may play around with how long it takes to restart back up which could matter a lot to the impatient gamer. In Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded I remember getting annoyed in the debugging sequences because when you die it starts you right back up again, but you get a score element stripped from you. To some this may have been fine, but to me it was just a pain because I really just wanted to get the top scores so that I wouldn’t have to redo them later… so it generally meant that I would restart my game which would take a while.

        Anyways, I think that in the design space, a designer should probably consider how much ACTUAL risk they want (perhaps using different mechanics to cater to different players) and then decide how much perceived risk they want. I may not be easy (or even doable) to create this schism, but I think if a game can pull off having lower risk but higher perceived risk it may help cater to both the people that are complaining about how games have become too easy “these days” while not ostracizing those that aren’t prioritizing “challenge” as a core aesthetic in their gaming experience. And I think that rate of escalation (often relating to the learning curve) is another component to consider in the spectrum.

        Then again, I’m not in game design at all so I’m probably the wrong person to ask… I just like learning life lessons 😉


      2. connorbros Post author

        You have both said plenty about the topic in general, so I don’t want to add mountains, but another option is to openly give the player the choice of how much risk they want. This has been employed well recently in Etrian Odyssey IV and Fire Emblem (and I think Kid Icarus, though I’ve not experimented with it extensively) with their ‘casual modes’, which were not so much about changing the ‘difficulty’ of the game, as they were about mitigating punishments for failure. Because it is openly communicated, hopefully the player chooses the experience they prefer and is not caught unnecessarily by surprise when they are punished harshly (or conversely disappointed with a lack of harshness). This of course trusts the player to figure out what their preferred experience is and not resent a game simply for having the option, but I think net-net this works out in the implementations I’ve seen.

        This discussion kind of comes full circle back to Bit.Trip’s Runner 2 if you consider that the game has multiple levels of harshness implicit in the game depending on the goals you set yourself (do you hit checkpoints or not; which difficulty do you play on; how ‘perfect’ is ‘perfect’). This might be more elegant in its invisibility to the player, but I think sometimes this backfires in that the player is less likely to correctly identify the experience they want out of the game, and more likely to see that the game wants them to get higher scores, so it must mean the ‘right’ way to play is do everything in the hardest, harshest way possible (when in fact there is no intended ‘right’ way, simply different ways to get different types of enjoyment).

        In this respect, I think (historically) of implicit built in choices of ‘playing with more or less risk’ as a step up from having a single level of risk in a game, and transparent choice of risk level as an advancement upon that. However, really they all have upsides and downsides, fans and critics, and are more tools for the designer to choose between.


  2. Andrew Bell (@lightlead)

    Hmm yes I think I would like to see more really visible risk management in games. Can you think of any games where you make really open wagers, which aren’t gambling mini-games?

    I could imagine the persona 3 tower of endless killing things being interesting if every floor it asks me something to the effect of “how much of what you have earned do you want to risk to increase your chances of earning even more?” as I go further and further without a checkpoint maybe…

    1. connorbros Post author

      There are definitely a couple RPGs that are alluding me at the moment that I think are good examples of this, I’ll get back to you on that 😛 But one example is KH Re:Coded. That game has something like 4 levers of playing with difficulty and rewards that you can change at any time. Like, you can put your max life at 1/3 and get 11x the normal amount of items… and other things like that.



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