Mutant Storm: The Positive Side of Negative Feedback

There is this one arcade shooting game i can’t stop to play: Mutant Storm from british developer duo PomPom. (You could know it from PC or XBOX arcade).

Simple and classic gameplay, very well balanced and nicely presented: in a small arena, a lot of enemies keep respawning and you blow them off until you’ve blown up enough of ‘em or the time runs out or one touched (and instantly killed) you or typically all of it together so fast that you can’t distinguish. controls are easy, intuitive and great: 2 analogue sticks: left controls your movement, right controls where you shoot. and you will shoot by keeping right analgoue stick pressed – hence you will shoot all the time. that alone gurantees that it’s a great game ;)

now about today’s topic: negative feedback.
first, what is positive feedback?

Whenever the player does something in a game, a good game doesn’t only react, but also gives feedback. carefully selected by the game designer from a whole world of possible feedbacks. a basic attitude many designers share today, especially when trying to appear to a casual or simply broad audience, is to give positive feedback. this means basically that the player is rewarded for every good action and nothing that bad happens when playing wrong, badly or simply unlucky. this has some feeling of not scareing the player by punishing him when the player is not able to keep up with the games difficulty.

old games (good and bad ones) did this the way round. negative feedback was all day on the table. remember dying on stage 3 in any arcade shooter and restarting without the super duper powerd up bolt weapon? the enemies were nearly unbeatable and after dying once, you did so again.

and now mutant storm is back with a simple twist on this (i’m sure they haven’t invented it – but they use it clever and thoroughly as one of their game basics): when you don’t kill an enemy (and mutant storm has hordes of them in a tight space) it upgrades to a better one, that is even harder to kill and on top of this better equipped to fight you.

now, isn’t this total bullshit? i mean, i can’t kill all of them at once so there are always some that live long enough to upgrade to a harder level. when im’ at level 64 and the beasties are already hard enough for me, why should the game designer want me to lose faster than i will do anyway?
well i think there is one great point about it: if your game is designed to have “small” steps, being it relative short levels, a lot of continue points or basically quicksave ready – then negative feedback will help you earlier to improve yourself. the game will always have a well fit curve of balance. what happens with a positive feedback game when you are for example in the last quarter and it gets much too hard for you? you will stop playing it, because training there to get better at playing it won’t work very well – it is damn hard.

and what happens if the game has negative feedback? then you will promptly feel if something is too hard for you. you will retry and learn until this one hard spot has been mastered and continue to play. so if i’m unable to cope with a very hard enemy at the end of the game, it’s possibly because all other 10 enemies arround this tough one are to hard for me, too. if the game has negative feedback an mild enemy at the beginning will allready appear to hard for me, but it’s a good chance that all other enemies around the mild one are not to hard for me and i can easily train on the only one that really is hard to handle.

Daniel Renkel

Daniel 'sirleto' Renkel is a true indie game developer (at heart ;) and a part time simulation engineer (space- & aircrafts). He's studied computer science at the university of Darmstadt, Germany and has a background of 8 years as game developer (assistant projectmanager, game designer, associate producer and technical artist). He worked on a whole number of PC and console games including the Aquanox series. Visit for more information about this current android mobile phone games.

9 responses to “Mutant Storm: The Positive Side of Negative Feedback”

  1. Yu-Chung Chen

    Hi Daniel,

    Nice start for all of us :) I find your post title very interesting and I’m sure the idea is, too, but there’s one thing I don’t really understand:

    Basically you are saying that negative feedback reflects the skill level of the player better than positive feedback, right?

    My question is this: Why is the player more likely to retry with negativ feedback?

    I’m not getting your last quarter and enemy 87 example, too. Maybe you can name a specific game with positive feedback where it is too hard to train in the last quarter, but would benefit from negativ feedback (to tell the player to train elsewhere?)

  2. Daniel 'sirleto' Renkel

    answer to your question: if you’ve got an typical game with positive feedback, you will easily overcome all obstacles in the beginning and when it really gets hard in the end, you’re not trained enough. and you won’t train there, because it’s far to hard.

    if you’ve got to train in the beginning, you will most often feel less annoyed by it. think about your own experiences.

    i’ve got no special example on my mind, but i’ve played quite a lot in the last days that work this way. probably a good example is the final fantasy series, but they’ve got a few more problmes with motivating me to really finish the game than only positive or negative feedback :)

    ps: i’ve tryied to reword the enemy 87 example – in fact there is no numbering there anymore – should make it a bit easier =)

  3. Krystian Majewski

    I just thought that it is possible to “train” later in the game. Normally, you can use a password or a savegame to jump forward to a place further in the game and repeadetly try the harder obstacles. However, this leads to the well-known “quicksave creep” where the player would save frequently and reload as soon as he feels he screwed up. The player tries again and again until he finally beats an obstacle – not because of improves skills but only by chance. Negative Feedback with less possibilities to save you progress (like in most aracde titles) forces you to overcome the same obstacle frequently and to aquire skills and stategies that can be relied on.

  4. Yu-Chung Chen

    OK, I see. I would say the learning curve is more important, the feedback only helps to make sure the player acquires a certain skill level before moving on.

    In a way, that can be compared to the items in Zelda games, where the puzzles make sure you get and learn to use it before you can solve a dungeon. Only skills are less tangible than items.

    I’ll have to try and come up with a title where I stucked because I wasn’t trained properly by the game.

    Btw, Ninja Gaiden has negative feedback all the time. If you’re saying that preventing the player from proceeding by making it hard as hell will ensure his skill level for the coming obstacles, then NG absolutely proves your point.

  5. Daniel 'sirleto' Renkel

    oh – don’t get me wrong. i’m not saying that making a game as hard as hell is good – not at all!

    but i see negative feedback as some sort of balancing curve inside a short amount of time, i.e. the typical “level”. you just must overcome the middle hard obstacles in a level before you can see the really hard ones.

    in the games where you will be stopped first time by late and hard events – it will be really hard to overcome them, because you can’t really train basic tactics/strategies there, but must rely on luck.

  6. Krystian Majewski

    A title where I stucked because I wasn’t trained properly by the game: Meal Gear Solid. All the time, I get through the game only by “quick save creep”. Although in this case, I don’t think it’s the fault of too little training. Here, it’s more about inpredictable mechanics.

  7. Yu-Chung Chen

    The more I think about negative feedback the more I have to agree that it’s a much more effective indicator for one’s performance.

    In games when you can “somehow pass through” then it’s not satisfying. Thanks Krystian for mentioning MGS, I forgot I did feel that way too. Games Quarter (I think it was them) put it like this: “you can go through the whole game without learning the proper way to do it”. It struck me: without negative feedback, even success might feel like cheating.

    Even in (real) life, you grow the most when you make a mistake. They are the ones to stick in your mind.

    From there, I have to think of the typical difference between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ (or Chinese, at least) ways of teaching children. Chinese parents tend to overprotect their children and tell them what not to do. In the end, apparently many fail to learn to think for themselves and have a hard time dealing with throwbacks.

    Coming back to games: many long time gamers complain that games today are too easy. Maybe it’s due to the lack of negative feedback in our current trend of ‘mass-compatible’ game design.

  8. Daniel 'sirleto' Renkel

    yeah – i think what you say is definetly the point. to bring it one step ahead: i have the feeling that today positive/negative feedback got mixed up with easy-to-use.

    remember pac-man? most simple controls (two axis, that’s all) but a not very positive gameplay (if a ghost hits you, you’re dead). it is the game most remembered when talking about “casual” success. if i got a game that is “damn’n'hard”, has negative feedback and a complicated control scheme people tend to hate all three.

    remember streetfighter: complicated controls that _are_ easy to use for even a casual beginner (just hit a button and your character will hit the enemy if it is near enough). it has a balanced way with no feedback (if i’m nearly dead i can still make all moves even the strong and complicated ones) and the enemies start simple ai also multiplayer’s that are as casual as the player.

  9. Rafael Van Daele-Hunt

    A note on nomenclature: “positive feedback” and “negative feedback” get used in two different ways.

    1. p.f. == reward. n.f. == punishment. This is how you use it here.

    2. p.f. == “change in state that makes the event that caused the p.f. more likely to occur again”, n.f. = “…less likely…”. Note that it doesn’t matter whether the change in state is pleasant or unpleasant! For example, if dying causes you to lose your supergun, which makes it more likely to die again, that’s positive feedback under this definition (this is the sense meant in the expression “positive feedback loop”). N.f. would be if dying causes you to respawn with more life points.

    The definitions overlap: if you are rewarded for success (destroying an enemy to get a powerup), that’s p.f. in both senses. If you’re punished for success (killing an enemy upgrades it), that’s n.f. in both senses.

    I bring this up partly to suggest that you use “reward” and “punishment” rather than p.f. and n.f. in sense 1 — the former are shorter and clearer — but also because separating these concepts could be helpful to your analysis: what differentiates Mutant Storm’s approach from the classic 80s style is that M.S. is punishing success, which is n.f. in sense 2, whereas 80s games punish failure, which is p.f. in sense 2. It’s really a completely different mechanism, but that isn’t obvious using your terminology.

    N.f. in sense 2 is often good, since it keeps things challenging for everyone — it’s the essence of dynamic difficulty adjustment. For this reason, game designers who try to be “casual friendly” by rewarding success are probably going wrong, since this is a p.f. loop that is game-mechanically equivalent to punishing failure: those who are good at the game will soon have it too easy, and/or those who are not will have it too hard (since they don’t have the bonus items or whatever). I suspect, though, that most casual game designers don’t do this; the rewards they give don’t usually affect the player’s future success — they are often just cute animations, cool sounds, or bonus points. This is neither p.f. nor n.f. in sense 2. I’m going to define some new terms here to keep this distinction clear: “candy” is a gameplay-neutral reward like those just described; a “powerup” is a reward that makes the game easier We could also define a “smackdown” to be gameplay-neutral punishment and a “powerdown” a punishment that makes the game harder (even if that’s only losing a powerup).

    The best combination of psychological friendliness and good gameplay seems to me to be:
    1. give candy for success.
    2. give powerdowns for success or powerups for failure.
    3. don’t give smackdowns unless you’re trying to appeal to machos.

    (2) has to be packaged well to avoid the game feeling “unfair”, though.

    One more thing: according to your “training” argument, punishing success should be better than rewarding failure, since rewarding failure allows bad players to reach later stages, which will be too hard for them. I think this is more a question of whether difficulty increases smoothly or suddenly (assuming it needs to increase at all). After all, the powerups/powerdowns will also be available during the endgame!


Game Design Reviews is a Blog used by a group of game designers from Germany to publish and discuss their thoughts on various games. The blog consists entirely of reviews of games. Each review focuses on the important game design ideas and concepts of that particular game. We also run a second, more informal Blog called Game Design Scrapbook.


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