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Kirby and the Curved Difficulty

I’ve been thinking lately about difficulty curves.

Not all games are about creating flow. Games are about creating all kinds of experiences. But for the ones that are about flow, a gradually-increasing difficulty curve is a natural approach. As the player gains more practice and experience with the game’s mechanics, they will find its challenges to be easier. The game must therefore become objectively harder in order to provide the same subjective level of difficulty and keep the player engaged.

This is well-known and sounds simple, but is actually quite complicated and full of traps–some of which are also well-known. The same level of challenge will vary in difficulty to different players, which can be mitigated with easy modes and the ability to skip challenges. Players may put a game down unfinished for any number of reasons and then come back with their skills rusty and find the game isn’t re-approachable due to the elevated difficulty of mid- or late-game challenges, which can be mitigated via always-accessible tutorial/training/practice modes or level selects.

(Note that things get even thornier when you talk about difficulty across installments in a series or genre, given that you want to challenge veterans but still be approachable for newbies. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.)

One of the more insidious traps comes from the fact that there are a lot of elements of difficulty, and thus a lot of ways to make a game harder–and different players will react differently to these different ways, even if the overall level of difficulty increase appears similar.

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Paying for games twice

Like many people my age, I grew up with more time than money and access to relatively few video games, and found the situation reversed when I became a working adult. My scarcity-mindset habits combined with the glut of sales, bundles, and downright free games has resulted in my having a substantial backlog–even after canceling my PlayStation Plus subscription, I own something like six hundred games (depending exactly how you count them) that I have never played. (And over a hundred of those are ones I’ve flagged as ones I really should get around to at some point.)

I stemmed the tide somewhat by telling myself that I’m only allowed to buy a game if I’m confident I’ll play it that week - and then tightened the restriction to that day. But it was hard to hold myself to this. Great games kept going on serious sales! And though I tried not to, I still kept buying games that realistically I was probably never going to play.

But recently I was introduced to an idea that has finally put a stop to this behavior. I’ve now gotten through multiple sales without opening my wallet once, when I know I would previously have caved and bought something. The idea that did it for me was from this article: Everything Must Be Paid for Twice.

The article points out that in most cases, when you buy something you don’t get value out of it right away. You’ve paid the first cost–the monetary one–but the second cost is the effort and time to actually use the thing. Buying a book doesn’t add value until you read it. Buying workout equipment doesn’t add value until you exercise with it. Even buying a decoration doesn’t add value until you hang it up or otherwise display it. Until you pay the second cost, the first cost is sunk - not much better than throwing the money away.

I knew this, but what the article points out next is the piece I was missing: the second cost is usually much higher than the first.

If you’re in a position to buy things you don’t use, it’s probably because your time is, in some sense, worth way more than the amounts of money you’re throwing around. This is especially true if the amount of money you’re throwing around is, say, just a few bucks to get a discounted game that would require eighty hours to play!

Keeping that relationship in mind has gotten me to the point where I can finally ignore game sales. Before, I always used to think, “Oh, but what if I want to play this game later, when it’s back to full price?” Now I recognize that the difference between paying half price for a game and paying full price for it is significantly less than the cost of allocating the time to play that game. It’s a trivial part of the calculation and it should be treated as such. The “savings” from buying a game on sale that I wasn’t otherwise already about to buy aren’t worth it.

Obviously the threshold will be in different places for different people, but for me (especially now that I’m gaming much less than I used to), it’s clearly correct to just delete all those notifications about my wishlisted games going on sale. I’m a little embarrassed how much of a relief it is to just… not worry about that anymore.

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Inscryption and Privacy

I feel like I say this about everything, but to me the most interesting thing about Inscryption is something I haven’t seen anyone else talk about. In this case, it’s the story’s subtle commentary on how games have contributed to the casual erosion of privacy.

I can’t even be sure it’s intentional. The game doesn’t call much attention to it and I’m pretty sure I care about this topic more than most so I could easily be reading too much into it. But there’s still something interesting here whether it was put there consciously or not.

The details I want to discuss come from pretty late in the game, so here’s your spoiler warning. I’m about to go into late-game narrative and mechanical spoilers for Inscryption.

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On whether games “should” have easy modes

I’m always frustrated when I see the difficulty debate framed as “Should every game have an easy mode?” To me, this question makes about as much sense as “Should every building have an accessibility ramp?”

Every house I’ve ever lived in has had at least one step up to the front door, sometimes a few. None of them have had ramps. And that’s fine - the people who went into and out of those houses frequently would not have benefited from a ramp, and the cases where someone did need assistance with the steps were so few and far between that it was just easier and cheaper to deal with them individually. Other houses that are, say, occupied by people who use wheelchairs have a different trade-off. So it makes sense to let each such household decide whether to install a ramp based on who is using the house rather than mandating it. The households for whom it’s a net benefit will do so without being forced, and the households for whom it isn’t would lose value if they were forced to spend money, space, and time on something that doesn’t help them out.

But there are also buildings intended to be used by much broader and more diverse groups of people: apartment buildings, hospitals, town halls, libraries, museums, department stores, and plenty more. These buildings aren’t specifically meant for people who need ramps - but they are meant for a group of people that includes them. It would be bad business for them and bad practice for society if these buildings did not have accessibility ramps.

This is similar to how I feel about things like easy modes (and of course accessibility features and other things that feed into audience size). When I play a niche indie game made by a tiny low-budget team, I might find it personally disappointing if it doesn’t have an easy mode, and that might be enough to mean that the game isn’t for me. But that’s okay. It doesn’t mean the studio made a mistake. It means they are using their limited resources to target a specific audience as best they can, and I just don’t happen to be a part of it.

But when there’s a game that’s aiming for mass appeal (especially AAA games, but really any game with nontrivial marketing) that doesn’t have an easy mode - I again might be personally disappointed and conclude I’m not in the audience for it, but it also starts to seem more like an actual mistake on the part of the studio. Easy modes are one of the cheapest ways you can substantially broaden a game’s potential audience.

“Should every game have an easy mode?” is an impossible question to answer sensibly unless you can unpack that “should” and that “every”. I think the world would be a worse place if we had, say, an actual law that all games must have easy modes. But some games “should” have easy modes in that choosing to add them would be a win for both the game studio and the people who’d like to play the game. There “should” be easy modes in that you’d expect to see most games that want to sell well to have one. Asking whether “every” game “should” have an easy mode is a false dichotomy that just prompts people to yell at each other because some have examples of games that are better off with easy modes and some have examples of games that are better off without them.

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Wordle

I’ve written a few times about the idea that good games are beacons in design space pointing us to an area likely to have many other good potential games nearby and how much I like seeing the exploration and experimentation this creates. My new favorite example is Wordle.

There’s a lot to be said about Wordle (and a lot that has been said), but in this context the really cool thing about it is how simple it is, and the democratizing effect this has on experimenting with it.

Like, sure, once it got popular we saw a proliferation of rip-offs trying to profit from someone else’s design work, which sucks and which we always see when a game gets popular (especially in the mobile space but that’s a separate rant). But because Wordle is so simple, it’s very easy for individuals with some coding skill and zero budget to get involved out of interest and passion. Pretty soon there were solvers and reimplementations as people used Wordle to inspire their own projects. Next the exploration came, starting with jokes like “what if Wordle, but it hates you” or “what if Wordle, but it’s horny” or “what if Wordle, but for prime numbers” or “what if Wordle, but for single letters”. These vary in how actually-playable they are, but I think all of them make the world a better, more interesting, more amusing place.

But what really got my attention was seeing a version that was “what if Wordle, but twice”. This is a genuine evolution of the concept applying the existing mechanics in a new way resulting in a similar but distinct gaming experience that’s equally valid but which appeals to a slightly different audience. That’s awesome and I hope to see more evolution like this.

And the coolest part is how fast this is happening. Like, what happens when a AAA game becomes very popular? A year later, other AAA publishers put out one or two games that superficially copy some of its more prominent design elements. What happens when a tiny, simple, indie game like Wordle becomes very popular? An immediate explosion of innovation. Within weeks individuals are putting out dozens of variations with their own spin. The really promising ones get more attention and the cycle repeats in a positive feedback loop of creative energy.

You love to see it.

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My Top Ten Games of 2021

Based on how much joy they brought me, not on objective greatness.

  1. DC Super Hero Girls: Teen Power
  2. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (this would probably have the number one slot if I had savored it instead of powering through it in a weekend)
  3. Star Trek: Legends
  4. Five Dates (not the sort of thing I enjoy solo but was a good time to play with Allie)
  5. Wide Ocean Big Jacket
  6. What Remains of Edith Finch (this would probably had been higher if I hadn’t gotten most of the payload already from Joseph Anderson’s plot analysis)
  7. Alto’s Adventure
  8. Galaxy Champions TV
  9. Death Come True
  10. Arietta of Spirits

This is based on much less play time this year but still seemed worth posting. A tradition is a tradition.

Also, honorable mentions to games I enjoyed but which are ports or re-releases of games I already played in previous years:

  1. SteamWorld Dig 2
  2. Star Trek: Voyager - Elite Force
  3. Disney Magical World 2: Enchanted Edition
  4. Torchlight II
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Nintendo Switch Year in Review

So, Nintendo has sent out these emails about your “Nintendo Switch year in review”. For the past couple of years, the Switch has been my main place to game, so while this isn’t a complete look at my play history (plus it doesn’t have the final week of 2021 because that hasn’t happened yet) it’s the majority of it. And it casts into pretty sharp relief how much my gaming has dropped off this year.

On Switch in 2020, I played 84 games for a total of 637 hours.

In 2021, I played 46 games for 257 hours.

My most-played game in 2020 was Animal Crossing: New Horizons with a total of 270 hours. That’s more than I played all Switch games this year. But the difference isn’t just because it’s Animal Crossing - subtract those hours and 2020 still has 110 more hours than my overall total for 2021.

In 2021, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was still my second most-played Switch game, but with only 22 hours (most of which were right after the big final update). Third place was Hatsune Miku Logic Paint S with 21 hours - almost as many as Animal Crossing. Even my most-played game didn’t break triple digits - it was DC Super Hero Girls: Teen Power with 54 hours.

(Y’all are sleeping on DC Super Hero Girls: Teen Power, by the way. It was surreal seeing how little coverage this game got in any channels I see and it was a good reminder that gaming culture is not a monolith.)

I’ve mostly accepted and embraced that I game less these days, so I’ve started to cancel the various subscription services I have in that domain. I dropped PlayStation Plus months ago and now I’ve dropped Gamefly (which I’d had continuously for thirteen and a half years). Apple Arcade will probably be next to go and Nintendo Switch Online may not be far behind.

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