Debating Difficulty

There are two design issues that I have been thinking about lately. One is the question of consequences, which smart guys like Clint Hocking and Randy Smith have lectured and written about. Are we robbing games of meaning (and/or eliminating the sense of wonder they can create) by reducing player choice, amping up positive feedback, and increasing the degree to which we hold the player’s hand? The second is the question of difficulty — how challenging should a game be, and is it “pandering” or “betraying the spirit of the game” to do things like offer a very easy play mode, design more forgiving checkpoints, add a hint system, etc? (Accessibility and difficulty issues are, in fact, a recurring theme on this blog.)

I think it can be easy for some of us to confuse these two issues. A game can incorporate interesting (even gut-wrenching) consequences without being difficult, or it can be extremely difficult without consequence. Let’s use Randy’s example: a new player of Ultima V marches straight into Serpent’s Spine and inevitably gets killed. That’s a consequence. Adding a “hint system” (i.e. an NPC who sternly warns you against the deadly beasts in the Spine) does not eliminate negative consequence; it merely helps you avoid it if you chose to listen. But what if the game’s save system is so unforgiving that the player is unavoidably forced to redo several hours of activity as a result of his poor decision to march into the Spine? Or what if the consequence of dying is a permanent, uncorrectable, and severe loss of avatar potency? That’s an extreme example of “excessive” difficulty. Such difficulty has the ironic effect of causing players to obsessively avoid potentially negative consequences — relying on FAQs to tell them where to go and when, and playing so cautiously as to strip the fun (and meaning) from the game.

How Difficult is Too Difficult?

Some games are ripe for consequence, and some are not. Few would argue that Bejeweled should be a consequence-rich game, while perhaps more (not all) big-budget console games should be. On the other hand, I’m unconvinced that any game should be “very difficult” unless the player wants it to be very difficult. In fact, I’d argue that excess game difficulty is one of the primary reasons that the console industry struggled to broaden beyond young males, pre-DS and pre-Wii. (Other reasons include intimidating interfaces, insufficiently diverse varieties of content, young male-centric marketing, etc.) Unfortunately, many of the console game developers who understand this still tend to underestimate the needs of a substantial percentage of less-skilled, and/or less-confident, and/or more harried potential customers.

What happens in real life when you introduce someone to a new sport, and then crush them mercilessly, match after match after match? Well, some people with a competitive streak (and/or great confidence in themselves) will feel challenged, and will grow from the experience. Others who are less competitive or confident will lose interest in the sport that you have tried so hard to introduce — no matter how long you coaxed them and educated them before you started crushing them. As an industry, we in the console game space are crushing potential new customers all the time. Even many Wii games are not immune to this criticism.

How Important is Designing for Appropriate Difficulty?

To be clear, I’m not arguing that developers should try to make games that are everything to everyone. That’s obviously a recipe for unfocused games (and failure.) I am simply arguing that we should, in general, pay much more attention to game difficulty and accessibility issues. These things have more impact on enjoyment of a game than nearly all other design, art, and engineering issues that we typically obsess over in this industry (“great textures in this game… too bad I can’t get past level two”) and should have top priority in the design process as a result.

Does Embracing a Broader Audience Mean Abandoning the Core?

But what about core gamers? Will they be offended by the existence of design elements that make the game easier for those who need the help? Doesn’t it detract from their sense of accomplishment? I think Halo does a decent job of addressing that concern. I haven’t noticed too much protest about easier difficulty levels from the people playing on “legendary mode” (with difficulty skulls activated.) This is what higher-difficulty achievements are for! Developers can use them — among other things — to create incentives for the hardcore gamer.

Shaking Off the Legacy of the 80s Arcades

Too many of us are still holding onto design philosophies that were born in the days of quarter-gobbling arcade games. Too many developers get most of their design feedback from QA teams made up of hardcore gamers who have played a game way more than most normal people ever will. Making a game “just hard enough” (be that very hard or very easy, depending on the person playing) is one of the primary keys to fun — and, I think, an under-appreciated way to significantly increase sales. It deserves more attention from our industry, even as we search for ways to incorporate meaningful, educational, and remarkable consequences back into our games.

PS. It’s worth emphasizing that a game that is “too easy” is just as bad as a game that is “too hard.” Designing for appropriate difficulty clearly involves thinking about both sides of the coin. The emphasis of this post was on “ease” and “accessibility” simply because I think that’s a more pervasive problem for the console game industry, not because I don’t understand the importance of making a game consistently interesting and challenging.

16 responses to “Debating Difficulty

  1. Awesome post. Do you think quality and genre play a role in accessibility too? My sister will sit and watch someone play Halo, but would never play it herself no matter how easy it was because there’s a certain intrinsic difficulty (and tension) in first-person shooters that she can’t get comfortable with. On the other hand, she will play the crap out of games like Donkey Kong Country (SNES), Aladdin (Genesis), or any Mario game, and she will get better at playing those games than me, even though there is only one difficulty level. IMHO, these games are the Pixar movies of our industry because they are accessible and highly entertaining to the casual audience without leaving out the hardcore.

    Donkey Kong Country is an example of a traditionally hardcore game genre (action platformer) that was made accessible and fun for casual players, but it works the other way too. Uno (XLBA) is clearly a casual game, but does such a great job with presentation and quality that hardcore gamers have no trouble finding value and enjoyment in it.

  2. > Do you think quality and genre play a role in accessibility too?

    Quality, yes, though I’m not sure how useful it is to think of it in that regard (i.e. would you ever want to make a low-quality game?) :-)

    I actually try to avoid looking at this from a genre perspective. Yes, there are some people who are simply uninterested in certain genres, and it probably doesn’t make sense to bend over backwards to make them interested. My wife doesn’t like horror films, and it’s unlikely she ever will. But that sort of thinking can be a crutch for game developers who dismiss whole groups of potential customers as “not interested in this kind of game.” If you make a game highly accessible to someone who has never played a game of that type before, you’ve covered your bases — you’ll get the people who are more open-minded, as opposed to worrying about the people who aren’t. There are plenty of the former category who are being neglected today.

  3. Call of Duty 4 has an intro sequence that evaluates your skills at playing FPSes and then recommends a difficulty level for you. Other games have done reactive difficulty — I’m sure, for example, that the Half-Life 2 episodes were spawning first aid packs in response to how well or poorly my combat was going.

    An important thing to remember is that difficulty is expressed across time played, rather than being a static measure. I went to a fascinating talk at the Austin Game Conference last year by a guy from an interactivity think tank. They did a lot of focus tests to evaluate all kinds of issues, but one thing they learned was that players responded best when, having mastered a new weapon, enemy, or other form of gameplay, the game then allowed them an ample period of time in which to display that mastery before introducing the next new challenge or level of difficulty. So once you’ve learned how to use the chaingun, I should give you a few minutes of chaingun-fodder enemies so you can display your new mastery and revel in it. Only then should I start stepping you up to the next plateau.

    Conversely, they found that games where the difficulty slope was a constant, always staying right in step with the player’s growing abilities, were great at keeping gamers playing in the moment. But once the session was ended, the player was much less likely to pick up that game again because of the perception that it was a lot of work. So perfectly matched difficulty is great at making you feel “in the zone” but can actually inhibit you wanting to play again later on.

    So: difficulty should increase as the game goes on, to avoid becoming boring. It should not increase steadily, because that discourages subsequent play due to a feeling of it being hard work. It should instead hit plateaus at which new mastery can be displayed.

  4. > Call of Duty 4 has an intro sequence that evaluates your skills
    > at playing FPSes and then recommends a difficulty level for you.

    Yes, that was great!

    > Other games have done reactive difficulty

    Also a great thing when implemented correctly. Many games lack this feature entirely, or implement it poorly, or rely on it excessively and miss problems that snag inexperienced gamers whose problems extend beyond, for example, having sufficient health.

    > I went to a fascinating talk at the Austin Game Conference last year
    > by a guy from an interactivity think tank. They did a lot of focus
    > tests to evaluate all kinds of issues, but one thing they learned
    > was that players responded best when, having mastered a new weapon,
    > enemy, or other form of gameplay, the game then allowed them an ample
    > period of time in which to display that mastery before introducing
    > the next new challenge or level of difficulty… Conversely, they
    > found that games where the difficulty slope was a constant, always
    > staying right in step with the player’s growing abilities, were
    > great at keeping gamers playing in the moment. But once the session
    > was ended, the player was much less likely to pick up that game again
    > because of the perception that it was a lot of work.

    Makes sense, and yes, sounds like a fascinating talk! I’m sorry I missed it. Thank you for mentioning it.

  5. I’ve long been a fan of the approach of having multiple difficulty levels at once in the same place, using things like optional badges, multiple levels of success and so on. The most obvious example being racing games that allow you to pass a race with 1st, 2nd or 3rd.

    Medals, optional missing objectives, secrets, collectibles, level (and game) completion percentages – all of these allow you to have more than one level of difficulty on the same map at the same time, which can substantially reduce QA time and other design problems that come from a situation where you need to run the same content more than once during testing.

    The nice thing about doing it that way instead of dynamically adjusting difficulty is that it allows the player to decide how difficult they want the game, in real time in a highly contextualized way. If the one section is too frustrating, then they can ignore the side missions and just get things done. If another is going really well, they can reach for the gold.

  6. FarCry was noted for it’s sudden over-the-top difficulty ramp up on the last 2 levels. Many have noted many were unable to finish.

    Crimson Skies was an absolute BLAST! Blowing bits of blimps off, expose a weak spot, then exploit it!

    Apparently, this was too challenging for some and Crimson Skies 2 saw a hideous change where they removed that feature. The difficulty suddenly dropped as the big battle blimp became just an easy target to unload on. :-(

    If they felt this is necesary, I would have liked to have seen a “Difficulty” setting AND a “Technical Challenge” setting where those of us that like the air strategy of attacking a blimp was the primary fun.

    CS2 was a crushing disapointment and I gave up after the first couple of levels.

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