Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Difficulty (51)

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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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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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Hard Mode Mockery

Just once I’d like to see a game use patronizing labels for its difficulty levels, but flip the script from the usual. Instead of positioning easy mode as being for children (“Can I play, Daddy?") it would position it as being for adults with other things to do. Correspondingly, hard mode would be called “Too much free time.”

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Peak gliding

Here’s something that used to be common in 3D platformers that I don’t miss: having to carefully time a second press of the jump button at the peak of your jump to maximize your glide and get enough distance to cross gaps.

This is another example of “What’s hard about a game should also be what’s interesting about it." I enjoy exploring these games' spaces and finding the paths through them. I don’t enjoy carefully parsing sometimes-misleading jump animations and executing glides with incredibly strict timing requirements just to get around. I definitely don’t enjoy barely missing those jumps, because it usually means falling and having to redo some amount of uninteresting platforming just to get back to where I was and try again. And sometimes it means losing lives and if I fail enough I get ejected from the level completely, so that punishment gets in the way of exploration.

On top of that, it can cause challenge profile confusion. If you try one of these jumps several times and just barely fail each time, what lesson are you supposed to take from this? Should you assume that the timing window is really strict and you just aren’t quite timing it well enough? Or should you assume that the jump you’re attempting isn’t actually possible and you need to go elsewhere? How are you supposed to “git gud” if the game isn’t clear in its feedback on what you’re doing wrong?

I much prefer the design of letting the player just hold the jump button to activate the glide at the optimal time. This also ties in well with the popular mechanic of holding the jump button for longer/higher jumps, since you don’t have to force the player to release the jump button before the jump’s peak to enable them to hit it again. It does arguably lower the skill ceiling of controlling the character, but for me it’s a good trade-off because it lets you focus the game’s difficulty on the things that make it interesting by making the level design richer without increasing ambiguity and frustration.

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Save the Princess, or Save Your Soul

I wrote some weeks back that revisiting Super Mario 64 with a guide was allowing me to work around the parts of it I found the most frustrating and I thought that this time I might actually persist long enough to beat Bowser. Well, I did do that, and I felt proud of myself for doing it, and then horrified at how proud I felt.

Let me back up.

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Mario 64's punishment gets in the way of its exploration

I’m revisiting Super Mario 64 as part of Super Mario 3D All-Stars and it really strikes me how much the game’s strictness and punishment get in the way of what makes it great, and in particular the way it treats learning challenges as though they were mastery challenges.

To me, Mario 64 is a colorful toybox that invites exploration. It’s at its best when imparting a real sense of discovery, presenting the player with a series of shiny toys and allowing the player to experiment and discover new ways to play with them. And it’s at its worst when it’s slapping the toys out of your hand because you are playing with them wrong.

As I wrote in my review, as you progress it’s increasingly “the case that a single mistake kills Mario, which ejects you from the level completely and requires you to carefully make your way back to where you were before you can experiment any further.” (And unlike the Virtual Console on the Wii U, in 3D All-Stars there are no save states available to guard against this - one way in which this release is actually a step back.) I find myself much less interested in, say, scouring levels for all eight red coins if I’m likely to die while looking for number six and then have to collect the first five all over again. That kind of thing is what got me to put the game down when I played it before. I like the exploration by itself, and I can handle a tough skill challenge, but when the skill challenge interrupts the exploration - when I can’t experiment or practice because I keep getting kicked out of the level - that’s when I just get frustrated.

So I’m trying something different this time: I’m using a guide. Not for every star, but for any where I die at least twice trying to figure it out. That means that for stars where the fun exploration is unhindered by punishment, that experience can remain intact. And stars that are just difficult without requiring exploration are also fine. But for stars where there’s a punishing skill challenge interfering with the exploration, I just skip the exploration part and take it as a skill challenge.

If it were up to me, I’d turn off the punishment instead of the exploration for those mixed cases. I’m pretty confident I’d enjoy this game more if Mario couldn’t die. But I’ll take what I can get, and this might be enough that I’ll actually defeat Bowser this time.

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Actually Learning to Play: Why There Should Be Easy and Hard Modes for Game UI

Why don’t games have hard and easy modes for the UI? Different players have different needs, and one-size-fits-all solutions shrink a game’s audience.

In a blog post titled The Importance of the New Player’s Experience, Josh Bycer catalogs several types of “new” players for a given game:

  1. Players who are new to this specific game, but familiar with other similar games or the conventions of the genre.
  2. Players who are new to this game’s genre and conventions, but familiar with gaming in general.
  3. Players who are completely new to gaming.
  4. Players who have played this specific game, but have put it down for an extended period and are returning - especially if it is a live-service game which may have changed considerably in the meantime.

All of these players need some amount of guidance (or at least reminders) to understand how to play the game, but the amount and nature of guidance needed varies considerably between them. One might expect games to thus present a few different levels of optional guidance to cater to each group, but it’s typical for games to design their tutorials and onboarding for only the first group, providing little help for the “new” players of other kinds.

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Cross-Phase Challenge

CrossCode’s aggressive combination of genres also results in a particularly brutal challenge profile.

I previously wrote an article defining four “phases of challenge” - in short, preparation is getting ready to deal with challenges (research, practice, grinding), strategy is defining a framework for handling challenges (making plans, choosing loadouts), tactics is making choices in response to specific situations (game state awareness, choosing what to do in the moment), and action is communicating the choice back into the game (hitting the right buttons at the right time).

Different players have different tolerance and interest levels for the different phases, which has implications for a game’s potential audience. Having high tactics challenge, for example, limits a game’s audience to people who enjoy that kind of challenge. Having high tactics challenge and high strategy challenge limits the audience to people who enjoy both, which is a smaller group.

CrossCode has high challenge in all four phases. Here’s the breakdown as I see it for the game’s main loops of exploration, combat, and puzzles:

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CrossCode's Assist Mode

I claimed that CrossCode’s skill tests can block off its story. It is worth noting that the developers did try to prevent this. Like Celeste, CrossCode has an Assist Mode. As the developers explained:

“We have created CrossCode with a certain idea in mind, as a certain experience, defined by us. However, if players do not enjoy this experience, the Assist Mode gives them the option to adjust the experience for them for whatever reason. We are not here to judge anyones skills or feelings and if someone wants a different experience, that is absolutely fine for us. We are not dictating a certain experience although we’d love everyone to play the game as we designed it. But love means that at some point to let go as well. And who are we to forbid players to enjoy certain parts just because they dislike (or can’t complete) other parts?”

I applaud this sentiment (as should not be surprising to anyone who’s read my posts) and want to encourage every game that blocks content with skill challenges to include Assist Modes. And frankly the one in CrossCode helps a lot and is the reason I’m still playing the game at all. I don’t want to come across as attacking it at all - but it’s clear that it was added after the fact and I’m confused by a few things about it.

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This is the difficulty select screen for...

This is the difficulty select screen for SteamWorld Heist on PS4. Higher difficulties increase punishment (mission failure penalty) and challenge/strictness (enemy numbers, damage, and health) which is par for the course. However, they also provide an experience bonus.

I find this sort of thing super frustrating and a clear indication that the game doesn’t understand what difficulty settings are for. They’re for letting players opt in to an experience appropriate to their capabilities and interest. By having higher difficulties be more punishing but award more experience, SteamWorld Heist conflates this with a risk/reward trade-off that really should be handled separately. It’s now less clear what difficulty level to pick - a player wishing to reduce the amount of time and effort required by combat may now have to grind through more encounters, while a highly skilled player may find the higher difficulties actually easier.

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