It came to me while I was watching players play both Conway's Inferno and Roller Derby Riot Queens, a game that I made in a week over the summer which was kind of a failure itself.
The main idea is that players will be more tolerant of failure when it's entertaining. Kind of obvious when stated like that, but it wasn't something I thought about much before witnessing it. To illustrate, here is a common pattern I observed whenever I watched a new player play Conway's Inferno. Below is the first level from the game.
When confronted with this level and minimal instructions, players would almost always do one of two things. Some players would place a fire on the cells in the center like so:
which of course is the "solution"and results in the player winning the first level and gaining an understanding of the game's mechanics.
The other major thing the players would do is set one of the trees on fire like this:
Which would lead to a big forest fire:
And ultimately the game's minimal failure screen:
But even despite failing, the players who chose the second option would often just laugh and reset the game. My takeaway is that even though they failed, at least they got to burn a forest down, and burning stuff down is at least marginally entertaining.
In contrast, in RDRQ, when the player fails:
The player disappears and a failure screen pops up. Now that's not particularly entertaining, but at least it's better than RDRQ's other failure screen...
Which is the "the level has become unsolvable, but the game doesn't tell you that or limit your moves or anything, so shucks!" screen. Dang, this is basically an embarrassing example of the worst kind of failure a game can present you with. Not only is it not entertaining, it's not obvious at all!
After releasing this thing, I watched players play the same level for ages without realizing there was no hope in the universe of solving it and that they should just hit reset. Needless to say, they weren't too enthused to keep playing after encountering this style of failure.
Now you might ask why I let a game with such an obvious glaring flaw into the light of day. Well the answer is that I didn't really do much play-testing for RDRQ. As I mentioned before, it was made in a week, but what I didn't mention before is that it was made in a work week. So yep, after working on this thing everyday in my spare time after work, I was totally sick of it and wanted to shove it out the door immediately. Also unfortunately, of the play-testers I did have, most had watched me develop the game, so they kinda intuitively knew when they had fubar'd the level. Oh well, at least it was an entertaining failure for me (kinda).
Anyways, one takeaway from these two experiences is that it's usually a good idea to make failure both entertaining and obvious when designing a game, particularly if your game involves a lot of failure. This is something games like Spelunky, Super Meat Boy, and even Angry Birds do a great job with.
My other takeaway is that I basically always always always always need to test my games. Yup.
Thanks for reading!