There was an article I found some time ago, and greatly enjoyed at the time. Slaughtering Sacred Cows (Amen!) over at Virtual Cultures. I read the article, and the comments, walking away with interesting ideas about ways to express death and failure. However, like most subjects of thought, it was eventually relegated to the "important but not fully understood" section at the back of my mind, where the node has been building information and thesis.
When I was largely dealing with only single player games, I hadn't really had a chance to see the "sacred cow" of failure put under truest duress. But after some time logged in World of Warcraft, Tabula Rasa, EVE and WAR, it rather makes itself the elephant in the room. When all is said and done, the professional games industry does not, at any point, allow there to be true failure in games.
Before we go any further let me explain what I mean by true failure. First off, death is not failure, and failure is not death. Death is an end, a finite state, a point at which some character ceases to play a role, it can be a bad thing, but it can also be a good thing. Failure, true failure, is an action with lasting negative consequences for both yourself and, in one way or another, the world around you. In a system of true failure, not defeating the boss would mean that the world really is destroyed, or the uncouth host they promised really does set about ravaging the world. As you may have noticed, any number of popular MMOs are dead as way of insulating the world from failure.
Right now the vast majority of supposed "failure states" in games are built around a single guiding principle, "make the gamer physically uncomfortable". Save/loads, level replays, unskippable cut scenes, corpse reclaiming and debuffs are all designed to make you sink in more time, many of them also provide a sudden break in the action just as the player is probably at the height of an adrenaline high. Note, I'm not saying these things are bad, just that they aren't failure, they are punishment. They tell people we think they did something bad, and that they should learn not to do it again.
So what would be a failure state? The destruction of a world, the permanent death of a storyline character they have grown close to, all the apple pies they were baking going bad, there really isn't a limit to the variety and types of failure states. What they do have in common though is that they cannot be undone and have at least the opportunity to effect the game the player is playing as they move forward.
I'm sure some of you laughed at the idea of a game trying to make you physically uncomfortable, since it's probably something that games never will be able to do. Why then do we try and make that the baseline for dealing with a player's failures? Part of it has to do with content, as the internet expands and the reach of gifted amateurs increases, the value of content is dropping like a stone towards nothing. As we become more and more used to having amateur and semi-pro level content available for free at the touch of a button, the amount a player is willing to pay for sub-phenomenal content decreases to match.
While prices of games may be going up, the cost of content generation is increasing far in advance. Where someone once may have payed $20 for 8-bit graphics, limited synth chips and short disposable stories, they now pay $70 for fully rendered high definition 3d, surround sound stereo music with full voice over, at least decent writing and 30 hours of game play. The cost of creation being an exponential increase, hundred thousands to tens of millions, while the price difference to the end user is only 350%. Worst of all, the time needed to create a set amount of content has vacillated only a little, meaning that the human costs of content generation have remained basically the same, if not slightly increasing.
All of this works together to create a sort of underlying fear that people won't actually see or appreciate your content. A certain amount of driving force is created to make certain all components of your game can be viewed by even the worst players, and that even the best players be forced onto a certain set of rails from which anything more than minor deviation is caustically punished.
On the other hand, it's commonly cited that as a form of entertainment the players themselves don't want to fail. To which I call bullshit. Maybe they aren't the world's largest segment of gamers, but apparently there are more than a few out there who seem to be fed up with the lack. And let's be honest here, how are we to know if they aren't a commercially viable group when the only thing even hinting at that is "common wisdom", or was it only in my dreams that Wing Commander was a financially successful title.
Perhaps user generated content, in the Second Life or Saga of Ryzom sense, will be our great savior from these ails, but somehow I doubt it. I would put my money more on the creation of user colonized spaces, where the game's own item set and crafting capacity allows the users to create their own lands. EVE comes close in this regard, but certainly isn't a purist ideal, perhaps Neveron would be a closer example with almost purely player owned landmass.
I'm not saying that the industry must change now, but rather I'm wondering why the industry is so happy hiding it's head in the sand. The Sims is actually commonly maligned for being a casual game, yet in further examination it's one of the few to have actual failure, and by extension actual success, built into the core of the game. Spore is continuing that tradition, though right now it's a little mired in the brick-a-brack of DRM issues, and also seems to be financially successful. Is it possible that in our headlong rush to define the importance of a game as whether or not the game contains enough bad asses, we may well have missed something both artistically and financially important?