Early video games were typically single-player games. Players had a limited number of lives, were attempting to achieve the highest score in an endless string of levels of slowly increasing difficulty. Home console games in this era were usually designed around this approach as well. The video games were tests of skill and reflexes, or else of pattern memory.
Later, some video games began to try to tell stories, or require logical thought from the player, and took some of the pressure off of the player. These games usually had definite endings, instead of repeating infinitely the way the classic arcade games had done. These would be games like Infocom’s text adventures and the early graphical adventures by LucasArts and Sierra. These were still very hardcore games, where death was frequent and often unexpected, just like in the more classic skill/reflexes games which were still being made.
But then an interesting thing happened; somebody decided that “deaths” in an adventure game were a bad thing, and more than that, that one should never have to re-start the adventure game from scratch because they’d saved their game at a point where they’d done something which rendered the game non-winnable. This approach was used for most of the later LucasArts adventures, and some of the Sierra adventures.
Now, this next bit is interesting. While adventure games have largely died out from the modern video gaming world (with the exception of the ones now being produced by Telltale Games), the stories they told, the focus on reaching an “end” to a story rather than achieving a high score, and the practice of not aggressively killing off the player have all migrated out from adventure games and are now expected staples of most other game genres.
What’s more, as video gaming has been courting more and more mainstream audiences, it has been changing from tests of skill or brains toward being a more passive entertainment, where danger levels are far lower than they were in the past, and demands on player skill levels are far lower than before. At the same time, though, control complexity has skyrocketed, requiring the players to master a much wider range of gameplay options and far more controls, but requiring far less precision in their application. The health bar is just one example of this; in early games, a single mistake would kill you outright, and if you died three times, your game was over; now, there’s far more of a safety buffer; you can take several hits before dying, and if you die, that’s okay, you’ll respawn somewhere nearby and be able to continue, and you have infinite lives. Recently, it’s even become pretty standard that your health bar even refills if you manage to stop taking damage for a short while.
Now we’re even starting to see games which are more of a creative tool than “games”, per se. This would be titles like The Sims and Minecraft; games which you can play for a short or a long time, but which provide no real game-designated “goals”, and no “end”. The player never has to restart his game, never reaches a “no-win” situation, because there’s no “win”. The player never dies, because the player doesn’t really have a presence in the game. The player very much exists as an entity outside the game, looking in and influencing the game indirectly, from afar.
These games have certainly been around for a very long time, going all the way back to (arguably) Little Computer People, and later, SimCity.. but this type of game is still a vanishingly small minority of the games being produced at the moment, so there aren’t very many games to look at to figure out what keeps people’s interest, and what loses it in this sort of mostly-undirected play. And this is undoubtedly being one of the most difficult things for me to get a handle on, as I’m designing MMORPGT2; there are certainly days when I say “Why would anyone ever want to play this? You don’t actually -do- anything except fiddle around with the rules that the simulated players obey?”