Creating Safe-to-fail Scenarios

robert 6 years ago 1 7

A challenge that many scenario writers ask about is “how do I prevent the audience from going off-track while making it seem like there is no track?”

This is desirable is because we want the experience to feel authentic and avoid the audience feeling frustrated when the decision they want to make isn’t on the menu.

So how do we address this? How do we create enough freedom of choice while still meeting the exercise objectives? How do we limit the amount of content we need to create to make the exercise feel responsive.

Open-world games like Fallout and GTA have massive landscapes for players to explore but even here if you head too far in any direction you’ll find a mountain you can’t climb or a river you can’t cross or a barricade you can’t go around. When you reach the limits of the open-world the immersion doesn’t collapse – the world rebuffs your decisions and you’re forced to try something else.

Our approach then is to think in terms of feedback loops. Players can go so far in a certain direction but then resistance or negative feedback will cause them to reevaluate their strategy and hence turn around and try a different tack.

Providing feedback

Scenario design includes identifying stakeholders and how they will react to player decisions. As players get closer to the boundary of the exercise, stakeholder reactions get stronger.

Initially of course we should try to nudge the players back onto the path(s) but if subtlety doesn’t work then more direct interventions will be necessary.

There are several options:

  • breaking news and social media communicates disapproval or negative reaction to the choices the player makes
  • explicit data is published directly to the player that contradicts earlier assumptions. This can be from a clandestine source or a known source
  • a “mentor” or superior character makes contact and directly instructs or advises a change of plan.

Deciding the boundaries

When analyzing and presenting future scenarios it is common to first determine two axes of uncertainty. In the case of designing a scenario for a training exercise, these axes determine the primary training objectives.

For example, in the diagram below, the exercise tests the participants’ ability to contain a pandemic by maintaining effective quarantines with public support. The assumption here being that poor public communication of the legal, ethical, emotional and rational basis for quarantines – and the results of their effectiveness – will cause social disharmony with the potential for rioting and even civil war.


AAIABADGAAAAAQAAAAAAAAq_AAAAJDRkMGVjNzk0LTBmZTgtNDBiMC1iNWU3LTY1ZDY0MDdiZTZiMwWith these two axes – quarantine and public communications – we have set the core parameters of the exercise and we can create “world building” content for each quadrant of the diagram that will communicate to players how the world is changing based on their decisions.

Assuming we start at the center with no quarantine and no communications, player decisions will cause the experience to move from the center out to the edges. As it does so, our feedback to players about how the world is changing will reduce in subtlety and increase in volume – as shown in the second diagram.

Effective execution

In theory it ought to be possible to script and automate much of the content publication ahead of time. Especially if the design effectively communicates to players the issues at hand so that they can deduce the scenario axes. This will mean that they recognize the cues being sent them and they determine which direction their decisions are taking them.

Even if live injects are needed to cause an about-face, determining the scenario axes ahead of time helps identify and prepare possible content to have in our armoury.

Creating a safe-to-fail environment means allowing players the scope to explore within broad boundaries and for them to see the impact of their decisions. The impact is communicated by stakeholders who care about the outcomes and have conflicting points of view.

As player decisions take them closer to the edge of the exercise, feedback in the form of news, data and direct communications gets stronger and quicker and informs them of the world they created – perhaps with the objective of having them see their failure and reverse their direction of travel.


This blog post is part of our Serious Games Unconference.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Eduardo Iglesias Lezaun says:

    hey there!

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