Preparation, Strategy, Tactics, and Action: Phases of Challenge

This is EXTRA CONTENT. Read the main article first.

This one goes back a ways. In August of 2017, Joseph Anderson posted a review/analysis of Prey in which he describes its combat as different from what players generally expect from first-person-shooters. He breaks it down into three stages:

  1. Planning and Tactics
  2. Character Building and Stats
  3. Then Execution

He argues that most players will automatically assume the third stage is the most important because it’s an FPS. However, if you play it this way, you will have a bad time because fighting is actually “all about bringing the right tool for the job, as long as you know how to use it.

I thought this was a really interesting idea and I was hoping he’d go more into depth with it, but he mostly just dug into what you have to do to be effective in combat in Prey, which is fair enough for a video about Prey. For me, though, the seed was planted and I found myself thinking about how I would characterize stages like these and how I feel about them.

I started seeing examples everywhere. Q.U.B.E. 2’s slightly inconsistent physics meant feedback wasn’t clear about which stage it applied to (did you get unlucky with the action or do you have the wrong plan). Senran Kagura Peach Beach Splash adds some in-game preparation and loadout complexity by having you level up and equip skill cards which you can then use during battle - but then makes it impossible to have a corresponding plan by randomly rotating between which of your equipped cards are usable at any moment. I Am Setsuna’s fluxation system adds some potentially very interesting strategic depth by letting you customize your characters' abilities - but makes the process random and grindy, locking the juicy loadout experimentation behind tedious in-game preparation.

To be able to speak clearly about why these things bothered me, I needed vocabulary and a generalizable framework. Hence, this post.

There are a few related ideas that I considered including, but ultimately cut out. One was the claim that in-game preparation is perhaps the most risky weak point for uninteresting challenge. For other phases, if the challenge is uninteresting you can often just skip past it or make random choices and get to the good stuff (for example, if you don’t feel like carefully comparing all the different guns that drop in Borderlands, you can generally just pick one with big numbers and get back to shooting). But by its very nature, in-game prep often has to be powered through even if it’s not interesting. This is especially true if the game is inflexible about it and low-level runs or sequence breaks are impossible. This is what causes grind in games - when there’s something uninteresting you have to do and no other way to proceed.

I think this is a really interesting and valuable idea, but its core is only tangentially related here and deserves a full treatment rather than just being mentioned in a distracting aside, so I left it out. But for some more on this view of grind, see Brett Makedonski’s “Whittle, don’t grind” and Josh Bycer’s “How Grinding Undermines Design and How to Reduce It”.

Similarly, I originally was going to go into the idea that what’s hard about a game should be what’s interesting about it. That was the context in which the World of Warcraft raids originally were framed, with the idea being that Blizzard had reduced uninteresting raid prep to focus on the interesting raids themselves. And the mention of Stephen’s Sausage Roll was going to be about how frustratingly common it is in puzzle games to know what to do but have trouble actually doing it, because what’s interesting about puzzle games is tactics (and sometimes strategy) rather than action. (I could swear I read somewhere that Valve felt that the original Portal suffered from this and made several deliberate changes to Portal 2 to prevent it, but I was unable to track that down when researching this post.)

But I realized this was a confusion of a few different ideas. It is true that what’s hard about a game should be what’s interesting about it, but that’s independent of the idea of phases of challenge. The actual problems in my examples were interactions between people liking different challenge profiles and profiles that change or are different from expected, so I pulled the threads apart and followed those up separately.

There were also a few other thoughts that seemed related but that I didn’t end up developing enough to do anything with because they also felt like tangents. One is the way in-game preparation is anti-competitive in multiplayer games. Another is the claim (which I haven’t fully thought through and don’t necessarily stand behind) that progressive and regressive difficulty is based on how later phases feed back into earlier ones. Finally, I’ve never liked when games with procedural equipment generation (such as Diablo) have things like increased experience gain or increased money drops as some of the possible bonuses, and I think it probably has to do with the way they confuse challenge levels - what should be a strategic loadout decision now has a direct effect on in-game preparation instead.

That’s it for this blog post. Hope you enjoyed!