Friday, July 3, 2009

Difficult Games, part 4: A Challenging Future

This is the final post in a series of pieces about difficulty in games. If you are interested, please take a look at the earlier posts in this series:

Difficult Games, part 1: Gaming Tony Kushner

Difficult Games, part 2: A Reflection on Themes

On the Edge of Success

Difficult Games, part 3: The Rise and Fall of Difficulty

As always, the floor is open to your comments, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

When Jorge and I fought the last boss in Resident Evil 5, we must probably died over a dozen times. As the afternoon game way into dusk, our supplies of both ammunition and patience dwindled. We were faced with a choice: We could stop playing the game altogether, declare the game's AI "cheap" or "flawed" and lower the difficulty setting, or we could find a way to meet this challenge. I am happy to report that, armed with nothing but our knives and our wits, we poked that bastard to death.

While it was frustrating, Resident Evil 5's final boss improved our gaming skill in much the same way a complicated plot would foster the growth of our interpretive acumen.

Regardless of how involved and emotionally moving game narratives become, it is crucial to retain this form of skill-based, adversarial difficulty. The earliest games were defined by competitive struggle: Whether it was player vs. player Spacewar!, or player vs. AI tic-tac-toe, video games are rooted in direct challenges. The emergence of video games as medium for storytelling imbues games with the power to challenge the player more actively and directly than any other medium.

Difficulty is crucial to the medium, but so is flexibility. The kind of challenge lionized in one era is readily criticized when a new movement forms. After thinking about the role of difficulty and reading the work of many talented critics, I would like to suggest five ways games can succeed at retaining the value of skill-based challenge in a landscapeincreasingly dominated by the narrative influence:

1. A Fresh Coat of Paint

Traditional skill based difficulty mechanisms like re-tries, resource management, and leveling up, can be integrated with a game's thematic difficulty. Bioshock is a great example of a game that attempts to deal with complex moral issues. While doing so, it retains gameplay tropes that offer a decidedly traditional view of challenges: players take damage from enemies and re-spawn when they fail, power-ups are tied to an experience system, and resources are part of an in-game economy in which dispatching enemies yields income.

Often, these things are simply put in games as arbitrary rules. Bioshock specializes in contextualizing them: vita chambers (re-spawn points), Adam (experience points), and dollars (money/inventory system) all serve a narrative and game play purpose. This lessons the discordance often found between game rules and game plots, since the mechanics and story seem to support each other. In this situation, traditional challenges and new story telling techniques co-exist.

2. Make Difficulty Readable

Nels Anderson has written a fantastic series of articles about game difficulty. This summary does not do it justice, but one of his main points is that games most successfully engage players when they "[Provide] understandable relationships that allow the player agency and decisions with consequence."

This can be accomplished by having a limited number of mechanics while allowing for deep exploration of the gameplay dynamics that they precipitate (like Braid). Alternatively, breaking down the tendency to create single-solution, arbitrarily defined challenges whose difficulty arises from obscuring the challenge itself rather than forcing the player to improve their skills in order to overcome it forces the developer and the player to focus on logical solutions rather than brute force, trial and error techniques. The end result is a player who can see a challenge and focus on a solution with the tools the game provides, rather than guessing about what to do.

3. Player-defined Difficulty

Of course, there are some players out there who still yearn for challenges that require some trial and error. Arbitrary difficulty is not a problem if the player enjoys the challenge, which is why players should be allowed to customize their experience. While the traditional "easy, normal, hard" difficulty option is an effective way of doing this, there are more elegant and less intrusive ways to ensure each player can find the correct amount of challenge.

A player needs to complete relatively few of the time trial, one-hit death, or race challenges in Super Mario Galaxy in order to finish the game. Far Cry 2's thematic strength is just as strong even if players do not track down every last hidden briefcase. However, if players do seek these skill-based challenges, they are free to pursue them without having to alter the functioning of the game by arbitrarily changing the mechanics via a difficulty setting. Players of all inclinations can enjoy the same game while having different experiences.

Achievements and Trophies make this difficulty system even easier to implement, as they allow developers to suggest ways for players to challenge themselves. Pulrangs, a commenter on part 3 of this series, said it best:

"[With Achievements,] The game itself won't be hard to play, and there won't be too much punishment in the game, but getting the extra special biscuit is what will require particular skill."

Take a look at the new Prince of Persia achievements and it becomes clear that anyone bemoaning its lack of difficulty did little to seek out any challenge.

4. Consistency Rules All

In Krystian Majewski's excellent analysis of Braid's puzzles, he exposes certain challenges that contradict creator Jonathan Blow's claim that Braid's puzzles "don't require you to do anything random; they don't require guessing." Krystian makes a convincing case that inconsistent puzzle solutions hurt the overall game, even if they make the game more challenging. Analyzed within Nels' framework, certain parts of Braid suffer from a lack of readability.

Regardless of whether a game's challenge is found in its twitch-button action, pattern memorization, or logic-based puzzles, the rules governing the challenges must be consistent. It is easy to feel cheated when a game seems to be breaking its own rules. While it is a very impressive game, my experience with Far Cry 2 was one rife with inconsistent rules: foliage that was opaque to me never seemed to hinder enemies who somehow saw right through the palm fronds clearly enough to nail me between the eyes from 300 yards away.

At the same time, I was playing Bit.Trip Beat, a game I still have failed to finish due to its punishing difficulty. Bit.Trip Beat is forthright with its challenge: the game throws impossible patterns at the player, but all the rules apply consistently, despite their cruelty.

5. Relax the Definition of "Difficulty"

As I wrote in my last post, many conceptions of challenge are based on a model in which games have one solution that can only be arrived at through a linear test of skill. Simply because games are moving away from the need for precision platforming skills or absurd adventure game logic does not mean they are easier in an absolute sense. If a games' strength lies in actively engaging the audience, challenge can be provided by forcing the player to take a more active role in creating their own experience.

In order for games like The Sims and Noby Noby Boy to function, the player must address extremely complex questions: What should this character look like? What is my goal today? What are the limits on the size and scope of my play? None of these questions must be addressed in traditional games; the player can mindlessly pass them by on their straight path to the single goal. Although it may not be challenging in a platforming sense, being dropped into a blank level in LittleBigPlanet, tasked with creating a working stage is terrifyingly difficult.

The only certainty about the course of difficulty in games is its persistent fluctuation. Design philosophies, demographics, and player taste all interact when forming a zeitgeist, and will continue to change over time. While this may mean games with a "Space Invaders" approach to challenge are becoming niche games, it does not mean games as a whole are somehow getting "dumbed-down." Rather than view it as a de-skilling of gamers, we should look at the evolution of difficulty as the ebb and flow of particular types of challenge.

Video games' biggest strength is their ability to actively engage with their participants. A difficult game can function on a number of levels: whether challenging the player's dexterity, their ability to comprehend a complex narrative, or some combination thereof, the best games foster growth that occurs both during and after a play session. Whether games challenge us to create our own universe or to take on a super-mutant with a knife, embracing their difficulty is a crucial meta-game that we must play in order to understand their power.


  1. Glorious! As usual, you guys seem to have distilled a pretty potent analysis of how perhaps the issue of difficulty can be appropriately handled.

    But one thing I think perhaps deserves mention is the concept of adaptive difficulty. While no conrete examples spring to mind, I am a big fan of this concept within gaming. I feel like there is some stigma attached to the easy-medium-hard settings so often presented in games, whether it be imposed by self or community perception. In some ways, I feel a trifle less than adequate when cowed to a lesser difficulty. Perhaps it is the lack of "killer instinct", but at the same time it would be much better if the game could somehow adjust to you, altering the response and aggression of the AI in relation to your progress/proficiency.

    While the achievement system again provides some level of added (and entirely optional) difficulty, I still feel there is some compulsion to attempt said achievements, if only to "get one's money worth", a comment reserved perhaps for game prices.

  2. RE: Player-defined Difficulty

    I thought The World Ends With You had a really interesting difficulty system. Michael Abbott went into more detail about it, but the gist is this:

    You can dynamically change your character's current level. Lowering it makes the battles more challenging, but also rewards you with more EXP and items. The game can be as easy or as hard as you want it at any time!

  3. Will:

    I appreciate where you're coming from on the adaptive AI issue. Implemented correctly, it would be a great way to gradually improve a player's skill. However, I fear that it might also have a "leveling" effect on skill.

    For example, when I used to play tennis in high school, my best games were always against people that were better than me. Playing a more skilled player forced me to raise the caliber of my game (even if it meant I ultimately lost the match).

    I think this is a tough dynamic to capture and that many games might err on the side of making things too easy (a situation that would stagnate growth), rather than slightly too hard (a situation that would foster growth). Still, I do think that, if executed, this is a great idea.

    With achievements, I think you're tapping into a meta-game: not only does a long achievement list show you are an accomplished player, it also shows you are a savvy customer.


    Thanks for the link about The World Ends With You.

    That sounds like a very elegant system: Not only does it let players define their own difficulty, it also alleviates grinding for those willing to take a risk.

    It's always refreshing to see innovative ideas coming out of a traditional company.

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