I think that the height of game design lies in the designers ability to give the player the freedom to choose how he approaches the game, and nevertheless the player still gets a specific and intended experience.
There’s a moment of perfect game design in Diablo (by Blizzard North), and it is has to do with the Butcher.
When you first start playing Diablo, you’re almost guaranteed to get the Butcher Quest. It’s your first quest and it’s your first boss battle.
The Butcher’s room is unique. And when the players first encounter it they can immediately tell that there’s something special and foreboding about this room. The room is on the second floor (very early in the game) and its isolation, design, and bloody, gory props are completely different than anything the players encountered so far.
They’re almost guaranteed to make the connection between this room and the Butcher Quest. They know what they will encounter behind the door to this gut strewn place.
Already this is pretty good game design. But this is where the design of this boss battle becomes ingenious:
At this point, there is no possible way that players can beat the Butcher.
It’s not even close. In that first encounter the players will die in 1-3 hits, no contest. They’re just not anywhere close to being strong enough.
There’s a few exceptions, but most modern designers would probably consider this a bad decision. “You’re presenting the players with an encounter that is too high level for them. Why not place the Butcher deeper in the dungeons for sake of balance or whatever?”
Because it’s not about holding the player’s hand. It’s not about forcing the players to do what you think is best. It’s about letting the players explore and create their own experience.
The point is, the players will lose against the Butcher and they will know that they have to get stronger.
“You must go deeper into the dungeon. And as you descend, the thought of the Butcher will burn in the back of your mind. Mua ha ha ha haaaa!”
They will return, and they will be defeated.
It doesn’t matter how many times the players go back. It can be different for different players, but most likely the first couple returns will result in failure. And by letting the players fail, the developer has created something meaningful for the players.
The Butcher becomes a lingering menace in the players mind. It becomes a long term goal that keeps them engaged and interested in playing beyond the vague goal of “beating the game”.
The Butcher becomes a legend in the players’ mind not because some NPC said, “B’ware the Butchah m’lord!” or because the Butcher is bigger than the player characters.
The Butcher becomes a legend because the players have to struggle with him personally over a “long” period of time. It has meaning for players.
Finally, the players will defeat the Butcher. And it will feel like a real success. It will be something they’ve had to work towards. It’s something that’s been on their mind for a long time.
It feels like a genuine victory.
And all because the designers let the players fail. And then let them keep playing despite that failure. And then let them freely return when they think they’re ready.