Difficulty and Gaming

February 25, 2009

There’s a trend in gaming I’m sure everyone’s aware of. Games that are made today are for the most part easier than they were long ago. They also take much more time to play through, but I’ll save that for another day. I have a number of friends divided on this issue, and I have to admit I don’t feel I stand firmly on one side of the fence.

Most video games are conceptual descendants of early arcade games, which had more to do with carnival games than say, basketball or Monopoly. It was not like a board game where you purchased it, then that was the end of the monetary stream. Arcade cabinets are expensive, even today. You had to plunk in a quarter and play it, and you better not play it for too long, because you’re not the only one with quarters. A game back then had to do two things to succeed. They had to be fun, and they had to keep players coming back to put their quarters in. To run a profitable game, you had to run a game to beat the player, so that they would have to put in a quarter for another play, or they would stand down and someone else could walk up with their quarter.

Home video games started off borrowing a lot from arcade games. I don’t feel this was uncreative. This was the context of the time, and the only electronic game framework people knew. It was a big part of the draw of home gaming, too. It was like having an arcade in your house at an affordable price. You had your limited lives, your high scores, your high scores, and your difficulty.

Time passed, other concepts became absorbed into games, and we arrived in today’s market. High scores for the most part are a thing of the past, because focus has shifted from beating a score to beating a game. “Lives” are often missing, because many games let you retry an area if you die an unlimited number of times, and even if you run out, a Game Over usually involves retrying the level or reloading a saved game instead of replaying the entire game from the beginning again.

Now we get to the main point. A game no longer has to be difficult in order to ensure its profitability. It doesn’t have to defeat the player frequently in order to survive. Developers could feel free to make games that kill the main character less often, or even games where the main character cannot be killed at all and the game is literally impossible to lose. In other words, making a game difficult has gone from a matter of survival to a matter of entertainment. Is it fun to play a game that you have to struggle with?

Honestly, it’s a matter of personal preference. Everyone is an individual with different tastes. The discussion is over, everyone gets what they want, we can all go home now.

Well, no. It’s more complicated than that, and this wouldn’t be much of a design blog if my very first article ended like that, would it?

A game needs some degree of difficulty, and every single designer has to make this choice at some point. In fact, every designer has to make this choice at every single step where the player has to overcome an obstacle, whether they’re aware of it or not. There’s going to be a degree of difficult in anything the player does. If it’s the sort of game where the player’s avatar has to jump over a pit, there are all kinds of difficulty decisions to make. Is this a large pit? A small pit? Is it a deep pit that will instantly kill the player character if they fall into it? Maybe it’s a pit they can just jump back out of if they fall. Or they’ll have to climb back out with the help of other platforms. Maybe there will be enemies in there. Or a single boss-level enemy. Maybe the pit is actually a shortcut and allows the player to skip a harder section of the level.

Every design decision carries some degree of difficulty and challenge, and the trick is figuring out how much to apply and at what points. You need to find your target audience and find out what they’re willing to deal with as well as what drives them. Maybe they’re someone who just plays to explore and wants to see the story advance. Maybe they’re someone who grew up in a time when games were not only difficult, but the difficulty was a bullet point on the back of the box.

That’s enough about difficulty for now. I’ll likely touch on the subject again soon.

10 Games This Post Made Me Think Of:
Lego Star Wars
Battletoads
Pac-Man
Tetris
God Hand
Mega Man 9
King’s Quest V
Grim Fandango
Full Throttle
Nethack

Welcome to Pol’s Voice

February 24, 2009

I’m transferring my few posts from my old blog over to here.  This is where I’ll be posting my thoughts on game design as well as games I’ve designed myself.