Ever got stuck playing a video game for hours without making any progress? I decided to analyze this phenomenon to determine how players get into such situations, why they have trouble getting out of them, and what game designers can do to minimize them.

Note that the suggested mitigations below do not apply to all situations and may compromise the challenge necessary for the game to retain its level of fun when applied incorrectly. Use your judgement and those from others wisely.

Let's start.

Too many combinations

The only strategy that the player can come up with to progress is to attempt a bunch of different things, except there's so many of them or they take so long to execute that the task of doing so is too daunting.

Possible mitigations

  • Make sure the difficulty does not rely too much on trial and error.
  • Teach the player basic strategies throughout the game, either directly or indirectly.
  • Make sure the player can develop an intuition in overcoming the game's challenges as they play the game.
  • Generally try to avoid timing-based solutions without a clear cue.

Similar game states

A player attempts a series of steps to progress. Along the way, they encounter a game state that appears identical to one they encountered previously or that appears to make partial progress, and incorrectly deduce that their previous actions has or had not worked. They may repeat the same steps over and over again because they are not questioning their incorrect belief after their first assessment.

Possible mitigations

  • Add landmarks that can differentiate similar areas.
  • Allow the player to easily see all relevant information in the current game state.
  • Reward players when they are getting towards a good game state, and not otherwise.
  • Generally avoid puzzles that require a long series of steps in a specific sequence to solve.

Missing knowledge

The player is unable to progress because they do not know the information that would unblock them and cannot deduce it. There are a lot of causes of this, but they can be generalized into the following categories:

  • The player never had an opportunity to learn the required knowledge, and does not know it exists.
  • The game design attempted to make the player learn the required knowledge either directly or indirectly, but they didn't or forgot about it.
  • The player incorrectly believes in something that contradicts the required knowledge.
  • The required knowledge is hidden in plain sight, and the player constantly fails to notice it.

Possible mitigations

  • Don't harshly punish players for failure for attempting to gather information.
  • Avoid problems based on cultural knowledge.
  • Assume the player will always attempt to skip all instructions and tutorials, be distracted during them, and frequently take very long breaks at the most inconvenient moments.
  • Repeat similar situations to overcome with small variations between them to ensure players understand the general case correctly.
  • Bring back simple situations to refresh players' memory.
  • Document important information for the player and have them easily accessible by them for reference.
  • Have non-player characters help in secondary tasks that can reveal critical information.
  • Implement an optional hint system.

Too difficult

The player lacks the necessary skills to overcome a specific challenge, and is unable to improve sufficiently to do so in a reasonable amount of time.

Note that the player may believe that they are facing this problem when they are actually facing the missing knowledge issue that would reduce the difficulty threshold significantly.

Possible mitigations

  • Make sure the game's difficulty curve is correctly balanced.
  • Teach the player simple game mechanics and patterns, then combine them.
  • Give many opportunities to the player to practice and hone their skills.
  • When punishing players for failure, bring them to a point where they can .
  • Allow multiple solutions, each focusing on a different skill set, to overcome an obstacle.
  • Implement a variable difficulty system.

Softlock

The game entered a state that prevents achieving the winning state, and the only way out is to restart. This may be intended or unintended by the game designers. In either case, the player may not realize this is happening until exhausting all possibilities.

Possible mitigations

  • Rigorously verify that the player cannot get in an unintended softlock state.
  • Implement user-friendly rollback mechanisms that will minimize repetition.
  • Inform the player whenever they made or attempt to make an irreversible error.
  • Have proper quality assurance processes throughout the entire game's development.