In video games, frustration is often viewed as a dirty word. If you’re feeling frustrated—like you’ve hit a wall and can’t find a way over, under, or around—the designers must have made a mistake. That’s not always the case, though. Sometimes, game makers try to make you feel irritated, or even livid.
Last week, Duelyst designer John Treviranus gave a talk on frustration during the “Lost Levels” micro-conference that takes place in the park next to GDC every year. He said his big takeaway from working on Duelyst, which mashes up turn-based tactics and trading card games, is that people sometimes want to be mad, and game designers should take advantage of that. Intrigued by the idea, I decided to ask Treviranus a few questions. Because it’s me, we also talked about Overwatch.
Nathan Grayson: You’ve said your goal with new cards is often to frustrate players. Why is that?
John Treviranus: I think maybe the best way to frame it is that when you’re working with something with collectible content or regular content releases, it’s very easy to fall into a groove, where you’re always doing more of the same. As the designer, you’re always just trying to constantly create more and more of what seems to be working for your community and what seems to be making sense for them. But on Duelyst, we found that one of the most important things is breaking player expectations about what’s gonna happen next. Whatever the next big content release is.
As we’re doing that, as we’re creating this content, we think it’s a pretty big failure on our part if players look at a piece of content we release and say, “Oh, this is a lot like this other thing, and it’s clearly pretty good, and I think I would play with it.” That’s kind of the reaction that we never, ever want. And while people did come to Duelyst to experience the kind of content that they signed up for, that they started playing with, they also want something new. A big part of that is sometimes saying, “Yeah, this content isn’t what you expected, it’s not precisely what you wanted, but here it is.” That creates a wide variety of reactions, basically across the board.
When it comes to intentionally frustrating players or intentionally doing something that we know might be a little bit less positively received in the immediate sense, we see that as an opportunity to engage with players on an emotional level that they might not necessarily experience in day to day life. People come to games for a variety of different reasons. The cool part about working on a card game is that not every card has to be for every player. We have lots of content that a large portion of the community hates. Cards with random effects are a pretty good example of that. People are like, “I hate the randomness because I don’t have control of it.” That sort of typical player response you get from releasing random content.
Grayson: When you are making something that you think will be frustrating, what is your process there? Do you start by saying, “Let’s try to frustrate people,” or is it more of a byproduct, like, “Oh, I bet this new idea is gonna get some people kinda riled up”?
Treviranus: I’d say probably a little column A, a little column B. We have a card that we just spoiled today, that’s whenever you play a spell you draw a random Arcanist minion from the entire game. Any Arcanist minion that we’ve ever produced could just end up in your hand as a result of casting a spell. You look at a card like that and there’s two camps of reaction. There’s like, “Wow, this is totally random. I don’t know what I’m gonna get. How can I build a deck around this? Basically leaving it up to fate. Why even bother?” The other side of it is like, “Oh, I get to play with a Songhai card in my Lyonar deck.” That becomes really interesting.
When we look at cards that we anticipate will frustrate players, we make sure that that piece of content and that card has a lot of interesting depth or interesting synergy with the game. We have that initial reaction of, “I hate this, I hate this. Why is Counterplay making this card?” and then usually what we find over time is that our community comes to love that content that we’ve made.
Some cards are more controversial than others. Some cards are controversial to this day. That’s good. It gives players something to band around, something that they’re collectively a little unhappy with. Sometimes that card falls out of the meta, and then they find the next the next thing they can be collectively a little unhappy with, and making comments on our Reddit and our forums and whatnot. That’s an anchoring point for our community to come together and voice their opinion about content we make.
Grayson: Right. You were saying that one of the things that you consider to be a good byproduct of players being frustrated is that go and they say stuff, and they speak up.
Treviranus: Those kinds of discussions are really important, because they also give us as developers a way to look at our community and be like, “Oh, they really didn’t like this element of randomness for this particular reason. That is one particular aspect of the game that really go them riled up online.” We look at that and then we go, “OK, so what’s the problem? Is it that it’s not deep enough? Is it just that they don’t like randomness?” We can go back and have a meaningful discussion as developers, because our community is voicing concern. Of course, no human being wants to be happy all the time. We’re not these perfect machines that just are constantly joy-seeking at all times.
Grayson: You said that one of your big takeaways from working on this game is, sometimes people really enjoy being mad. Sometimes they just want to lean into it.
Treviranus: A metaphor I like to use is, I’ve been in a relationship for six years, and when you’re in a relationship with someone for a long time you can be frustrated by small things that wouldn’t normally frustrate you in the context of day-to-day life. Sometimes you just want to be grumpy, you want to have your feathers ruffled. When we make content, we sometimes do say, “This one’s gonna ruffle some feathers,” but that’s good, because people do come to Duelyst to experience a wide range of emotions, not just to have their every whim catered to. It’s about finding that balance.
Grayson: Yeah, it’s definitely about finding that balance. If you push too much, players start leaving, and they don’t come back.
Treviranus: Yeah, they definitely don’t. Duelyst has a little bit of built-in frustration, as in any one versus one game. Where you go on a losing streak, and you feel really bad because you suck. You’re like, “Oh, I suck at this game, I’m not gonna play.” That’s the kind of frustration we really actively try to avoid. We actively try to make it that when you play Duelyst you get a good match, a solid match, and you feel like you have a solid chance of winning. That curbs a lot of the sort of dead-end frustration.
I guess you could think about it in two camps. One kind of frustration is just terminal. It’s like, “This game frustrates me. I’m done.” Another kind of frustration is, “I’m invested in this game, and something has happened that has frustrated me. I have this community here that will engage with me in talking about that frustration.” Sometimes those players end up learning a lot about their own mistakes, or learning more about the cohesive design of the game by discussing it with one another.
Grayson: There’s also the whole thing where, if somebody frustrates you in-game, you try to seek vengeance. You want to get them back for pissing you off, sometimes by beating them with their own irritating tactic.
Treviranus: Absolutely. It fires you up. A good example is this card we released in the last expansion called Meltdown. Meltdown randomly deals seven damage to any of your stuff after you use your Bloodborn spell. Seven random damage is a lot of damage to happen randomly. When the card first came out, people felt it was okay. It’s fallen in and out of favor. It’s seen at some point now, at tournament level. One thing we’ve noticed watching streamers play the game, is that their opponent will throw down Meltdown, and then get a good lucky hit with it, or they’ll manipulate the board in such a way that they’ll have an advantageous random effect, and then they’ll be like, “Oh, it was so random. I’m so frustrated.”
Then they go into their deck collection screen and they click three Meltdowns into their deck. Then they go do it to somebody else and experience that same sort of, “Aha, I got you with by big random effect,” kind of thing. We definitely notice that among our players, losing to a particular card can be frustrating, but there’s a sort of equal joy in beating other players with those cards.
Grayson: So for you as a designer, what is your approach to walking that line between providing mechanics that are, on their face, really irritating, and making sure that people don’t get so irritated that they’re just like, “I’m done.” Where’s the line between a game that has irritating mechanics and a game that is just hopelessly irritating to play?
Treviranus: I think one thing is accessibility to the frustrating cards. It’s like you know the logic, once you’ve got Overwatch, you can immediately play as Torbjorn. You have the power to do that at any time you want. A part of that is that any time we make content, we want to make sure that players feel empowered by our game systems to be able to get that content, and then also beat people up with it. That’s the first thing. It doesn’t feel inherently unfair, in the sense that if someone plays a card and that feels like that’s an unachievable thing you can never have. That’s terminal frustration. That’s gonna make you leave the game. On the other hand, if you’re able to get those cards and get that content, you’re in a much better position to even up the score a little bit with your online opponents.
In terms of actually just walking the line and making sure that these sorts of things that might frustrate players don’t overly frustrate them, I’d say it’s a little bit of voodoo magic. In terms of watching our internal play testing with the team, watching players play it. A lot of the people at Counterplay started out as those players. A lot of them have a really good internal barometer for what kind of stuff is really gonna piss them off and really hate it.
Sometimes people on the team come to me with feedback like, “You cannot make this card. This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen. It’s horrible.” I think a lot of designers’ natural reaction to that is gonna be, “OK, cool. I’ve just gotta get rid of it.” Whereas my inclination is more like, “Hah, this card really fired them up.” It’s all a matter of finding the line where that thing’s not like broken or overpowered, or so frustrating that you just hate playing the game because it’s in every deck, or something like that.
Grayson: You also have the eventual reward of overcoming that thing, of figuring out what you can do to best it.
Treviranus: Yeah, absolutely. There was a funny thing where, for a while, the official Overwatch Twitter account made a copy/paste for how to deal with Bastion. They just kept repeating it [at angry players], like, “Have you tried clicking Genji?” That might be a goofy thing, but we always try and make sure that when there is something that is frustrating to you, there is a safety valve in the game that you can look to and say, “Here’s an option.”
There’s a card in our game, Mechazor, it’s like a giant robot you can summon. It’s got a zillion abilities and you can’t target it with spells. It totally wrecks you. But it does die pretty easily to a minion called Crossbones. It’s not a widely-played card, but if you’re a player of the game and you’re in silver, you’re trying to grind up the ranks and you keep getting wrecked by Mechazor, there is a card at low rarity that’s easy to get in the game, that’s just like, “Oh, this is totally an answer to that.”
Empowering players to look at something, whether it be Genji in Overwatch or Crossbones in Duelyst, empowering players to look at the tools that are available to to them, that are within their grasp, and be like, “This is the thing I need to solve that.” Even if it’s false. Even if Crossbones isn’t really the best card in your deck, which most would say it isn’t, at least as a player you can explore a space around aspects of the game that are frustrating to you. That’s really important.
Grayson: I also think overcoming some frustrating outcomes—going from having to really think about avoiding them to just doing it automatically—kinda signifies that you’ve gone from being, say, somebody who plays Overwatch to being an Overwatch player, if you get my meaning. You’ve taken a big step up the ladder.
Treviranus: Right. At some point you will intentionally choose to not stand where Junkrat died [and he dropped a bunch of grenades]. You will choose to not let that happen, and that feels amazing. And it’s so dumb, right, because you feel dumb every time you get killed by it. It’s such a basic thing, too. To even be a competent Overwatch player, you’ve gotta remember to do it. But when it finally clicks in your mind, it turns those 100 frustrating deaths into a moment of, “I got it.”
And that’s a beautiful thing about Overwatch design. Nobody has to tell you. It’s very hard to nail that design, because on the one hand it’s frustrating, but on the other it’s very satisfying. On top of that, it becomes ingrained in you, and before long, you stop deriving satisfaction from it. Hopefully at that point, though, there’s something else you’re finding satisfaction in.
Grayson: That’s another interesting thing about frustration: there’s a gradient to it. When you first encounter something that’s frustrating, it’s infuriating. It’s, you know, a thousand forum posts of people saying, “This game is dead to me.” But over time, assuming the tools are there, you can learn and acclimate until, eventually, that thing is a non-factor. You go from a ton of frustration to a little frustration to none at all.
Treviranus: Yeah, and we try to do that in Duelyst a lot. There’s a card in the game that you get really early on called Shadow Watcher. Whenever something dies, it gets +1/+1. We have new players coming in pretty regularly, and they hate this card. They say it’s the most overpowered thing ever, it’s unbeatable, it’s terrible. Then two weeks in, no one is talking about it. That’s good. We want that. We want to give players a challenge at every tier. And by the time you achieve mastery, we hope that other players are the challenge. You’re not struggling with the game anymore. You’re struggling against other people’s tactics.
Good game design does everything possible to get players to that level. Overwatch does an incredible job of that, and I like to think Duelyst does it pretty decently as well. It’s the hardest thing ever, though: creating challenges that irk you a little bit, but you can overcome them, and there’s this nice ladder.