Wednesday, February 22, 2012

#9: Difficulty in Games

There is one thing that my gamer friends complain about over and over again. Since I now have a bit of a lull in regards to things I want to talk about, I might as well address it this week. Are games too easy nowadays? The answer is not nearly as simple as you probably think. A game's difficulty is affected by several different, overlapping factors. Furthermore, easier games and harder games each have their own benefits and drawbacks that must be considered. I will attempt to touch on all of these topics, but this will not be comprehensive by any means.

First off, it is important to discuss the factors that affect how difficult a game is. One of the biggest of these factors is the experience level of the player. If you own a gaming console/PC and play it often, I want you to either look at your controller/keyboard for a moment or visualize it in your head. You know everything about that controller, do you not? That controller feels comfortable in your hands and you know the layout of it. What gamers often forget is that for those who either do not play games or do so very rarely, that controller is much more complex than we realize. Take a PS3 controller for example (because it is the one I use): There are four buttons on either side of the controller for various inputs. Another four button on the top, two on each side. There are 3 buttons in the middle for out-of-game inputs like pausing or turning off the system. Lastly, there are 2 analog sticks towards the bottom, with buttons built into them as well. This adds up to a grand total of 19 possible inputs. To the unfamiliar, that is both a staggering and intimidating number. We take this for granted because we grew up with them, but those who want to join in and play games have to not only learn the layout, but then learn what each button does and then re-learn them when they play another game. Again, we can do this because we have been conditioned to expect certain control schemes with certain genres/types of games. The shoot button is almost always R1. The Jump button is almost always X. New players are devoid of this conditioning and have to figure it out, giving them a harder time than gaming veterans.

This is where adjustable difficulty comes into play. One of the major reasons games include adjustable difficulty is because they cannot be sure of the level of experience the player will have. Inexperienced players or those who do not want much of a challenge are encouraged to play on easier difficulties in order to get the best experience for them. On the other hand, the experienced and the challenge-lovers within the target demographic are encouraged to play higher level difficulties. This feature is intended to insure that the player can get the most out of a game, no matter what level of experience. That being said, some games do not always get this right by either making varying levels too easy or too hard (which is more a QA issue, so I will not discuss it) or they do get the difficulty balance right but get the implementation of difficulty wrong. Something that I have seen a lot of games do is lock the difficulty choice in at the start of the game after the player chooses it. This is a stupid move and there is no reason for that. If a player initially chooses to play a game on Hard mode, and then realizes several hours in that he/she may have gone in way over his/her head, why should he/she be punished for this? Why should the player have to choose between sucking it up and trying to proceed, quitting the game, or starting a brand new playthrough on another difficulty, losing hours of progress? The answer is that there is no reason for that. If a game is going to have adjustable difficulty, then it better allow the player to change it at any time throughout the game.

One of the last factors of difficulty in games, and I believe one of the most noticeable ones, is the player reward versus player punishment ratio. What do I mean by that? Well, in old games, if the player died or otherwise lost, it would be customary to set them back a considerable distance and force them to redo a good several minutes or so of progression in the game. No other skill-based activity does this and this is a considerable barrier of entry. For example, if someone were to want practice swinging a baseball bat, they can swing over and over, with only a little time between each swing to give the ball back to the pitcher (or to reload the machine in a batting cage). If it were a video game, the batter would be teleported out of the area and be forced to walk all the way back, relocating the baseball bat before getting another shot at swinging. This would hinder the ability to practice and improve. It sounds ridiculous, but gamers do it all the time. For new players, it can be discouraging be forced to redo entire sections just to get another shot at trying to get past the part that gave them trouble. A lot of modern games have done away with this principle by throwing in more checkpoints and more mechanics that help the player get back into the action faster. This creates an illusion that games are easier than they were in the past, but it may actually be the case that we just notice difficulty less because it does not cost us as much time to go back and redo one part of a section as it does to redo an entire section.

Now that I have discussed the factors that contribute to difficulty, it is now important to consider the pros and cons of both games being easy and games being hard to discern why games might tone down the difficulty. There are significant benefits to games being easy. One of the most obvious benefits is that an easier game has a greater potential to appeal to a broader audience. Think about it: A game that 60% of the population is able to play through is obviously much more likely to sell than a game that only 20% of the population is able to play through. This also appeals to those guys who are playing games for the first time. This is NOT a bad thing. When game developers reign these people in with easier games, then we are able to transition them into playing more difficult games, help them learn the controls, and eventually bring them up so that they can play and enjoy games as much as average gamers do. “Gateway games” are important if we want the medium to grow, mature, and expand. Another benefit in having lower difficulty in games is narrative cohesion. Games are much more than the series of “beeps”, “boops”, and pixels that they were 20 years ago. In modern times, games have grown to be full-fledged narrative mediums like books and movies. Most games have some sort of story or campaign that they want the player to go through and serves as more than just a reason to go out and blow things up. If a game becomes too difficult, then the player will take several times to go through a section. This breaks narrative flow and the player may forget details in the story or even stop bothering with the story if a game becomes too tough. Books and movies do not have this barrier. It takes no effort to turn a page in a book or stay in place to watch a movie. It takes effort and active engagement on the audiences part in order for the story to play out. This is a good thing because the player will engage more the world and the characters and empathize with them, but bad because a high difficulty will immediately shut people out of enjoying the story. Difficulty can be played with to help immersion or to hit home the themes or morals of the game, but it can never be so hard that the consumers are turned off by it.

On the other hand, there are advantages to games being difficult. The prime advantage of a hard game is that there is appeal to seeing a challenge, facing it, and then overcoming it. There are tons of thrill-lovers out there that embrace challenge and derive pleasure from success after repeated failure. Appealing to this audience can be just as rewarding as appealing to the mass market. While these people do not outnumber the masses, they are far more loyal. They will often stick with a developer if they continue to produce quality products (or even if the do not. Am I right Sonic Team?). Furthermore, a difficult game brings a feeling of excitement and tension with it. Think about it. Would you not agree that a fight where you ended with low health, few bullets left, and you got by with the skin of your teeth much more exciting than one where you launched a mini-nuke at the enemy and killed 80% of them in one shot? Players love the feeling of overcoming obstacles and figuring out the best way of proceeding through meticulous planning and strategy. This is part of why gamers decry the notion of games being “dumbed down” for the broader audience.

Difficulty is the kind of thing that takes a lot of effort to fine tune property. And sadly, even if a developer does, people are not going to be happy about. It is also something that developers cannot turn to any precedent in order to figure out. Difficulty has to be analyzed and determined on a case by case basis: A never-ending juggling act that is constant in flux. The next time you play a game that you find too easy or hard, do not immediately accuse the developer. Instead, think about why you find it too easy/hard and try to figure out what the developers intentions were. The answer you arrive at might surprise or even impress you.

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