Finding the Fun in Failure


*1up noise* Now, for a series of six tinny notes, the
one up carries with it a lot of emotions accomplishment at beating a challenge, getting one step further
away from that looming game over, the list goes on. There’s a LOT of talk about how games can
communicate to us with positive reinforcement, like rewards and incentives, but I’ve looked
and no-one’s talking about the other side of the coin, failure. And I find that weird, because failure states
have such a profound impact on the way we think and more importantly feel about different
games, and don’t you worry, that wasn’t a bait and switch, one ups are a really important
part of that too . Failure states can encourage experimentation, make us scared, allow us
to revel in destruction and so much more. Don’t believe me? Well allow me to explain how we find the fun
in failure. When looking at how a game handles failure,
there are 3 factors you need to consider. Frequency, Flexibility, and Intensity.I tried
to come up with something that starts with F for that last one but I couldn’t sorry. By changing up these three variables, games
can get you to play in a certain way, let’s start with Frequency because it’s the most
straightforward, how often you fail. In Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, one time
nazi killing machine BJ Blaskovitz has been laid low and injured for spoilery reasons,
by the way minor mechanics spoilers for the later parts of the game from here on out,
he was hurt to the point that he spends the entirety of the first level in a wheelchair. The game makes a point of showing how vulnerable
you are by halving your maximum health relative to the previous game and having enemies be
much more aggressive and flanky. Deaths come thick and fast in the first half
of the game and you learn to play cautiously, engaging in hit and run tactics and making
use of your damage absorbing armour to survive. Even then, you still feel vulnerable because
even successful fights will deplete your armour and leave you seconds from death, oh look,
there it is. By making you die over and over again in rapid
succession, you feel weak and disempowered, to the point that I’d argue the game works
too well, it gets really frustrating at times. But this is all so the game can turn everything
around at about the halfway point and massively increase your health to turn you into an unstoppable
killing machine. I only died maybe once or twice after this
happened and it was a total power trip, remembering how much I died before made the last few levels
that much more exhilarating. Of course, having infrequent failure states
doesn’t mean they stop mattering, quite the opposite, they end up really sticking
in your mind. In slower paced more cerebral games like starcraft,
an actual loss is comparatively rare, and happens in only 50% of games, and even then
after ten to twenty minutes of play, though for me the figure is closer to 75%. That means when you are overrun by zerglings,
it feels like a big deal Starcraft, is a game about iterative improvement
of micro tactics macro build orders, and metagame knowledge. So by keeping losses far apart and giving
you space to think about how your strategy failed, each one can represent a clear learning
experience, rather than having them blur together into something that’s much harder to analyse
and learn from. Frequent deaths are great at teaching players
how to behave on a more impulsive, fear based level, but by keeping them far apart, players
have the freedom to use their higher reasoning to learn more actively from their mistakes. But whether they have the freedom to do so
and what effect that has comes down to Flexibility. Flexibility is a measure of of how absolute
your failure system is, for example, in games like I super meat boy or any number of intensely
frustrating platformers, losing is a matter of a single mistake. One wrong move, and you are dead. These games are frustrating because they actively
resist experimentation and trying to think outside the box, you play the game’s way
or not at all. This leads to an experience that’s frustrating,
yes, but also one that’s a visceral whiteknuckle test of all of your skills that feels fantastic
to overcome because you didn’t and couldn’t take the easy way out. On the other hand, platformers with lives
have an intermediary failure state between the absolute one of a game over, and health
systems like mario’s power ups and sonic’s rings add another layer in between as well. In fact, one of the things that both mario
and sonic do really well, is challenging different skill levels of players thanks to their flexible
failure states. New players or just people who aren’t so
good at the game need extra lives to cushion the inevitable mistakes they make, whereas
stuff like powerups will let them get past tricky areas. The key here is that whilst they get more
attempts, the challenges themselves are no less deadly, and that fear of failure is still
implanted. That’s where 1-UPs come in. Extra lives are highly sought after by newer
players because they give them even more chances to not fail for real, and they’re cemented
in the mind of the player with triumphant audio cues like this, this, and the one you
heard at the start of the video. This association with being the antidote to
failure is really important, because it carries over to when you’re much more experienced
and actually don’t need extra lives any more. A lot of the best platformers like sonic mania
here gate extra lives behind finding secret areas or collecting a bunch of coins/rings/whatever. no first time player would ever be able to
do this reliably, but if experienced players don’t die very often, why give out lives
as a reward? Well that’s because the association of lives
as important still matters, letting players feel like they’re being rewarded for mastering
the game, even if they might not actually need the lives for anything more than getting
through those tough optional challenges and experimenting with finding those secrets in
the first place.. Rather than extra lives becoming your keys
to beating the game, the number you’ve managed to bank becomes something of a badge of honor,
showing how little you’ve died. If these games had a binary success:game over
state then they’d alienate new players and have no new challenges to offer masters on
a second playthrough. Furthermore, there’s a final failure factor
to fastidiously foresee forthwith, and friends *coughing* sorry about that. I’m talking about Intensity, namely how intense
of an effect failure has on the gameplay experience. Sundered takes failure in a really interesting
direction, even though it has more in common with your metroidvanias, it takes failure
state inspiration from roguelikes. Dying in sundered has such low intensity that
rather than being something to completely avoid, death is a part of the natural gameplay
loop. Here’s how it works. YOu journey into the twisting ruins of this
big old cave, killing monsters smashing boxes, all that good stuff. As you do so, however, swarms of enemies will
intermittently appear and as is tradition try to murder you. Each one of these swarms is bigger and nastier
than the last, and have more and more of those glowy green things up for grabs. Eventually, you’ll be overwhelmed and sent
back to the hub, which is the only time where you can spend that currency in order to get
stronger before going out again. It forms this awesome cycle of adventure,
improvement and progression that fits really nicely alongside the more traditional metroidvania
design elements and also the pseudo lovecraftian themes. By having failure be a part of the gameplay
loop rather than something that interrupts it, you give players this great sense of seamless
progression and growth, rather than having character death represent a roadblock in the
way of progression. This tactic also sees a lot of use in games
like Ziggurat where every death punts you right to the beginning. Unlocking bonus items and things to do on
subsequent runs really takes away the sting of losing your progress and actually incentivises
you to play again in order to see it. Its tactics like this that actually left me
feeling weirdly optimistic about dying because I’d get to see what cool new thing was up
for grabs. Here I was literally seconds away from beating
the final boss, and I got sniped out of nowhere and died. But instead of smashing my face into the keyboard
in rage, I was instead super interested in trying that new character I just unlocked. In making death quick and part of the regular
flow of gameplay, you can get players to embrace, or even encourage it. But what about if you want players to really
care about dying, well then you’ve got to draw it the hell out. In Roguelikes, death has very little consequence,
and as such, you don’t really care about it, but in games like Hollow knight and less
important games with bad remasters called dark souls from which it draws inspiration,
death is shoved in your face constantly. Firstly, the atmosphere of hollow knight is
so intimately focused on death and darkness that the name of the main town sounds like
a really crappy metal band. Alright in seriousness, about 90% of the enemies
are zombies, everything is falling to bits, you spend a large portion of the game in a
literal dead kingdom, death is everywhere, and for a very good reason. Just as meat boy reminds you failure is constantly
looming over you by punishing even tiny mistakes and having a very narrow threshold between
you and death, hollow knight conveys this through its visuals and theming, why? Because when you do die, hollow knight really
wants you to ruminate on it. Losing in hollow knight is pretty depressing,
you get shunted back to the last bench sans all of your money and with diminished soul
energy capacity. The only way to get that stuff back is to
go all the way back to where you died, kill your spirit and pick it up again. SHould you die before you get back, the money
is gone for good, making your second death even more of a downer. This makes the run back to your spirit super
tense, with your previous death constantly on your mind thanks to the practical and thematic
threat of the environment. And if you’ve done it enough so that the
regular enemies don’t bother you, it gives you even more space to think about the bit
that IS giving you trouble. Then, when you make it back oh look, you’re
right in front of that boss that squished you, ready to give it another go. The corpse run is a genius bit of design that’s
actually been around for years but it is used to fantastic effect here. The run back to your spirit gives you time
to meditate upon your shameful defeat, meaning you’ll be ready when you come to face the
boss again. But why does any of this matter, huh? What if you’re an… 1337 G4M3R… whatever that means and you’re
only focused on winning? Who cares about losing when we’re here to
beat games? Right? Eeeeeh, it doesn’t work like that. Failure is another vector through which games
as an artform can communicate to us and give us an interesting experience. When I was playing Rimworld, I got kind of
frustrated because I wanted to win and played in a very boring efficient manner but I discovered
I really wasn’t having much fun, even when I finally started making some real progress. The times when rimworld was arbitrarily mean
and created huge fires and bandit raids were the most fun, and they when I was losing. That’s when I realised that Rimworld Lassaiez
Faire attitude to failure was trying to communicate something to me. Failure in rimworld is very frequent, with
your little society constantly dealing with crazy animals, starvation, fire and all sorts
of other things, but it’s also very flexible, with a whole wealth of systems in place for
injury, mental state and combat that I wasn’t really engaging with at all. Failure in rimworld is to be expected and
overcome, not avoided. So I switched things up and started experimenting,
I played much more riskily in an attempt to crate cool and interesting stories like taking
live prisoners and trying to convert them even though I was painfully short on food,
and investigating deadly alien hives- that one actually got half of my society killed,
but it did allow one of the survivors to be forever immortalised as the savior medic of
the great insect war and got me some rare space heroin. After I paid attention to how rimworld wanted
me to play and altered my outlook accordingly, I started having way more fun, and I now totally
get the appeal. This is why paying attention to how we lose,
just as much as how we win is important, because without doing so, we’re probably not going
to be experiencing the game as it was meant to be experienced. When you die in a game and feel angry, afraid,
eager to try again, or just like the whole thing was actually pretty funny, hold onto
that experience, hold onto that feeling because chances are it’s intentional and you should
use it to inform your play, whether that’s being more cautious, thinking long and hard
about why you failed or just learning to give less of a fuck, death can teach us a lot. And THAT is why I lose at video games all
the time, see it’s actually deliberate and I’m really better at them than you… Is… is anyone buying that?

About the author

Comments

  1. I have a massive issue with failure in games. I just can't see the fun in it.

    I'm the guy who spent 8 months max levelling and finding a weapon for every dweller in my Fallout Shelter vault before I got 60 Dwellers so I could avoid Deathclaws tearing through my vault like nothing.
    I was ridiculously overpowered for the rest of the game and I had a much better time.

    I find preventing failure, then succeeding because of it, to be much more rewarding.

    Also that game where dying resets you to a hub where you can purchase upgrades, that concept has been around for years, particularly in Upgrade completer Flash Games.
    Every player Burrito Bison or Learn to Fly?
    It's not something that can be credited to a single game.

  2. Hotline Miami is a game that jumped into my head. Usually every level takes a minimum of three lives, with every life going further and further into the level. With every life you'll know more about the level and even grow bolder. It wasn't until later into HTLM that I actually had good combos and actually started slaughtering.

  3. Interesting content, i'll make sure to check other pieces of your work..
    I'm surprised you didn't mention fighting games, as they have a very different approach to losing.
    On a personal note, sunless sea has my favorite failure implementation

  4. Fun in failure? I don't see it.. I really don't. Maybe I'm not understanding something? Am I supposed to die over and over in a game?.. That doesn't seem fun.

  5. I see what you're trying to say about Intensity and I do agree with it, but I also have to say I had the exact opposite experience. (I've played Hollow Knight and loved it, I've never played Sundered or Ziggurat but I've seen gameplays of them and I've played other roguelikes like Nethack and ROTMG.)
    Roguelikes feel like the games with the most intense penalty for death to me, because all your progress and hard work is lost (except in games which have meta-progress) and this feels really depressing to me and discourages me from playing further. Meanwhile in games like Dark Souls and Hollow Knight, death is equally if not more common but the only punishment for it is (possibly) losing your currency, which is easily replenished even if you do lose it. In both kinds of games death is an integral part of the experience, and Souls-likes even focus on death way more, but their penalty for death doesn't feel as punishing to me. I think it's got to do with the fact that I really hate losing my progress and having to do it all over again (with the risk of dying again before I even reach the part I got to last time) and I want to be able to jump right back into the fray. Roguelikes let you jump right back in, but not to the level you actually died in, you have to start from scratch, and that's what I don't like as I said earlier (Sundered doesn't really send you right back to the start though, which is great). Even long runs back to the boss in Soulslikes can irritate me, but if the run back isn't too long I'll just keep throwing myself at the boss with determination, learning from my mistakes and beating it.
    So basically I don't mind high frequency as long as I'm able to re-try what I just failed immediately, and I define intensity as how much of your progress has been lost by dying (and I prefer lower intensity in this regard). Regarding flexibility, too much is clearly not challenging, but I also don't like one-hit-point games like Super Meat Boy. Hollow Knight felt like it got flexibility right for me, letting you recover from small mistakes but still punishing you with death if you make too many in rapid succession before you've had the chance to heal.

  6. I think Cuphead is another unique example of handling death. Every time you die, the game shows you just how close you got to the finish line. And the more you improve and the closer you get, the more you want to try out that boss or Run 'n Gun section just one more time to get it right.

  7. F is for failure, lose all your progress. U is for unable to succeed. N is for invincible, indestructable, endgame bosses who never, no, never bleed!

  8. I ultimately remembered a series of games which stresses u out of urself by a single bullet killing u moments before defeating the last boss and utterly throw u to the "continue" screen, which leads to the bad ending…
    Touhou.

  9. …cerebral, more slower paced games…STARCRAFT! What, 120+ APM's not enough for you? What, only 500+ is enough for "fast paced" lol? 😀

    edit: Was the name of that place in HK "Dartmouth"? It's a (port)town in England. It's hardly death metal album cover.

  10. I am sorry but the death in hollow knight is kind of worthless. Like at the start it's punishing, but midway through the game money almost doesn't matter. The only way money matters is with the new dlc, but even then it's a massive amount of money for those new items.

  11. Ferocity, problem solved. God. Make it sound like writing a script is hard or something… says the guy with no writing talent whatsoever.

  12. I'm not sure if roguelikes being described as low intensity re: failing makes sense for me. I've lost characters in Nethack that I'd been playing for over 10 hours.

  13. have you seen pete complete's ice sheet challenge.
    its a tale about a delightful cannibal living out where the average temperature is about -50 degrees.
    it comes fully equipped with national geographic narration as well.

  14. That's why I always play Mario really carefree, taking tons of unnecessary risks and going for impossible jumps, even if it's not faster. I still love just messing around in SM64 with no real goal.

  15. "Sniped out of nowhere" and the projectile was super easy to see a long time. Also, you're aiming poorly. When dodging like that, you want to have maximal vision towards enemies, so you should not aim at the enemies, and instead at the point which provides maximal vision.

  16. 20XX does similar stuff to Sundered. It is a indie rogue-lite Megaman X influenced game. You can collect unique currencies during your runs which can only be spent in the hub after you die. Other pros of this game: great soundtrack and multiplayer.

  17. 7:10 Ziggurat reallly annoyed me with this, because inevitably the vast majority of unlocks would seem worse than what I had available, and would dilute my pool of perceived good options with stuff that seemed like garbage.

  18. I find "Losing in a better way" an awesome game mechanic that still has a lot of potential.

    Gaining something for failing in a better way gives the game a whole other dimension and makes the whole experiemce more coherent and fun

  19. I watch this and I'm like yeah cool and then I go play siege and get spawn peeked by a doc and throw my hands up and hate my life

  20. There's a reason Tynan Sylvester markets Rimworld as a story generator moreso than a game.

    It's all about the insanity you'll run into in that cruel, savage world.
    You can savescum all you like, and optimize your gameplay with killboxes so that even 100-man tribal raids don't require even lifting a finger to defend against, and reroll your characters until you get perfect colonists so that you have a 3 man colony that can do anything you need really well, right at the get-go.
    But you'll get the best, most exciting, internally-screaming "what the fuck is going on lmao" moments when you loosen your standards on success on the Rimworld.
    At the beginning when I first played it, I spent more time on the wiki than in the game, and probably spent hours generating optimal characters and maps.
    But eventually as I lessened my standards to "not an Ice Sheet" and "probably capable of hauling" is when I started to really have fun on the Rim.
    Praise Randy.

  21. A video about Losing and Fun, and you don't mention Dwarf Fortress???

    Also, how's that "In Roguelikes death has little consequence"??? You create a character, invest in it, have an interesting run, pick some nice loot (which you'll have a hard time finding again), play some hours with him, and then when you are invested in him, he dies. And it's over. And even if you start again, it won't be the same, ever.

    That's the whole point of Roguelikes: to make death matters, to make each character unique. It's like tabletop RPGs: when you lose your character, you feel it. Roguelikes try to emulate that on the computer. That's why you have permadeath and procedurality: they are not the pillars by themselves, they serve a purpose. And that's why you need other pillars (turn-based game, character generation with a complexity of stats, and emergent gameplay through a complexity of systems) to make a game a roguelike. There is no game genre in which death matters as much as in Roguelike games.

    Also, about Starcraft being slow-paced… maybe that's why your loss rate is 75%? Lol. If you play any RTS slow-paced you are surely doomed to lose.

  22. If you haven't yet, check out the sword-punk game Kenshi. Its a really intense really fun Strategy RPG thing like RimWorld.

  23. for the most part losing just wears down my finite amount of patience and makes me feel defeated if repeated too much, can't get into meat boy because of that

  24. This reminds me of X-COM, or rather the second one to the remake. When I first started, I would play as safe as one could manage in that game, barely moving and acting as if my soldiers were some sort of immovable fortress. But, this tactic would constantly get someone killed, which would eventually lead to me only having about four people left. That's when I threw all my safety tactics away and tossed my infantry into the most precarious mission there could be with little care for the outcome; hell, I was gonna lose anyway! Somehow, despite me maneuvering my soldiers in what I thought was the worst way possible, I came out of that mission with a flawless score. I restarted again, tried the same tactics from that risky mission, and I beat the aliens into a pulp. Failure's great: it made me not care, which taught me how the game should be played.

  25. I do see where you're coming from, I think, but I'd argue that there needs to be some leeway in games with their failure mechanics, because sometimes they just aren't fun. I bought the N-Sane trilogy on the Switch as my first experience to the Crash Bandicoot series, and I HATED it. There were constant cheap deaths, like with the bridge level and such. It reached a point where even when I eventually completed the levels I didn't feel rewarded. I just felt exhausted and empty because I knew that the next level would heap countless game overs on me as well. I think some games handle failure well, sure, but there are plenty that are too punishing for their own good.

  26. Dead Cells does it the best for me, because even though you have to start from the beginning when you die I never feel upset, I just take it as an inconvenience and keep going. I don’t know how it does it.

  27. This is a great video, but one thing that stood out as weird was the claim that death is low intensity in roguelikes and doesn't really matter? To me it's the absolute reverse; few games have as severe penalty of death as roguelikes, it's kind of one of the defining features?
    The most frustrating deaths I've experienced have been in e.g. ADOM or ToME after dozens or hundreds of hours of gameplay, undoing everything I've worked for.

  28. The Intensity example you gave reminds me a lot of the old flash games I used to play.
    You get as far as possible with what you have, die, then use that skill-turned-to-money and spend it on upgrades to do better. then you can do better, get more money, repeat until you get to the end, so dying was less punishing the farther you got.

  29. Most people say Sundered is trash, so why is it here…
    Also, you saying "In roguelikes, death has very little consequence" even though one of the most common features in roguelikes is permadeath.

  30. I have a few things to say about fun failures and frustrating failures, the most frustrating failures are serious games, with drawn out deaths, limited tries, long loading times, characters complaining at you failing and you failing for actually complete bullshit reasons. then you have more ballanced ones where failing just means trying again but knowing better, and the fun failures to me are the ones that aren't finale, can be hopped off at any moment, replayed from different angles and have mechanics based around making it goofy, because why make your character die, crying in pain, with depressing music, and seriously dredfull outcome when you can make the failure the goal and try to make your character ragdoll do the most backflips possible and freak out the most pedestrians possible, like, you can do parkour, but if you click on that one bouton, it will make your parkour move fail, let's try to fail the most spectacularly possible.

  31. it'd be interesting for you to go into the failstates of stealthgames.
    As in, you're spotted. When that happens you ha ven't really lost yet, but the experience is sometimes so dreadful that dying on purpose feels better than dealing with the consequences.

    I wonder how that could be fixed

  32. Nothing like dying a dozen times to a boss and then jumping right back into the fight to try again.

    And die again, but that makes the eventual victory oh so sweet.

  33. I think the original Crash Bandicoot made use of failure states to tell a joke. Every one of Crash's deaths were visually comedic and macabre. It made dying (which was often), appealing and funny so it was much easier to digest the frequent deaths. Being fangoriously devoured by a plant. Exploding and leaving his eyes and shoes remaining. Cartoony little jokes. Death was funny.

    But in the PS2 era, especially in Wrath of Cortex, sometimes his deaths were a cheap flash particle effect. A failure to understand what made Crash funny is probably what failed with the PS2 Crash. The humour had nothing to do with death, and deaths were not entertaining nor frequent.

  34. I think the opposite. Roguelikes crush you when you die, Darksouls or Hollow Knight is much more alike to Sundered, with the caveat that you need a checkpoint instead of dying to get stronger. But still it's a game with constant progression, and as such, you know death is at worst a waste of your time. In roguelikes death is the end of a playthrough, and that can be very frustrating.

  35. Do yuo know the game "Realm of the Mad God"? It's very frustrating when you die with almost max everything

  36. I really need to work on the "giving less of a fuck" one. Death is almost a deterrent for me, like once I've failed a few times I feel like playing something else… and often rarely come back until a few months or even years later… if ever.

  37. Glad someone apreciates Sundered not just for its art style. I also believe the death system makes the game quite interesting and unique.

  38. I feel so offended that there was no mention for Dwarf Fortress in this video. You were even starting to get to "losing is fun".

  39. I płay FootballTactics and Glory. Losing matches is an integral part of the game. If you won every game, it would not be fun. In fact, when you start the game on Hard, you expect to lose much more than you win. The other key factors are that 1) No less is ever campaign ending. You can always look forward to the next game 2) Even when losing, players get experience.

  40. Back in Sonic 3, I took pride in having at least 36 extra lives (no deaths) every run. I considered it a failure if I had less than 36, or if I lose rings more than 3 times in a whole run (usually if you lose rings more than 3 times you're not getting 36 extra lives anyway). I never got to a point where I could do a completely perfect run though.

  41. You know what's not fun? You not picking up that one single geo.

    Completely traumatizing, a lot more so than death.

  42. I think the Crusader Kings series is a great example of finding the fun in failure. Having you're 70 year old king frantically trying to cure his impotence before he dies without an heir makes for a fantastic story, even if you lose the game because of it.

  43. Corpse runs in all games I've played are definitely tense, but with smart play, they can make your risk pretty much non-existent. In dark souls you can lure that enemy that you're not sure you can beat to a place you know you can reach reliably. That way you'll never lose anything since you won't die before retrieving it.

  44. I was confused about why he was playing "Desu Desu Desu" in the background like as if they didn't just put anime clips over the top of an actual song.

  45. Run backs are a terrible mechanic in any game. Beat hollow knight, and never once did I appreciate them. I'm really shocked I actually stuck with it, as I died a lot. It's my biggest gripe with games like the souls games as well. poorly placed checkpoints that require tedious run backs when bosses are by design hard to do in one try is meh. You spend most of your time doing nothing but repeating small game loops that aren't entertaining or fun.

  46. Dying should be frequent and have little to no consequences. Hotline Miami does this excellently, you die very often but it's not a big deal cause you just respawn instantly and try again. Games where you're in your flow, then you die and have to sit through a seconds long cutscene are awful, as are games that send you right back to the start of a level, or a previous level and force to tediously re-do stuff you've already done. Games are about progression, advancement and feeling empowered while being challenged, bad design does not do those things.

  47. There are, in my opinion, even more interesting ways to use failure. For instance, the game Arc the Lad 3, due the mission/job based structure of the game, actually allows for failures in non-critical path missions, letting you not only mix up the game a bit, but also see entirely different paths through the story. Heck, one character's recruitment mission, in a game with a very limited number of characters, actually requires a failure to get them, which causes a trade off of a perfect run through the Tactics RPG game that takes dozens of hours. Is the character, who starts at level one, worth it losing your perfect record?

  48. I got this experience in from the breach, in the game the whole save load mechanics that are in all games nowadays are portrayed as time travel and anytime I fail I go back in time to try again and while usually this would mean all my progress is reset (mission and upgrade wise it is)
    I still get coins for doing achievements with the mech which means I can spend them to Get different Mech teams and I get to keep the pilots so I still progressed when I failed; Plus it was always my strategy that made me feel so I know what to look out for and what to do next time go into a fight.

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