Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Difficulty (35)

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Assist Mode is great; I’d like a Forgive Mode too.

I applaud the intent behind Celeste’s Assist Mode that allows for tweaking aspects of the game and lets players of varying skill level and physical capability enjoy overcoming an appropriate challenge. And I hate to come across as complaining about it. But the fact is that Celeste is a game that I found very frustrating and I wasn’t able to fix that with Assist Mode - because Assist Mode doesn’t let you tune punishment.

Celeste is a precision platformer. You have a set of abilities: running, jumping, wall-jumping, wall-climbing, and an air dash. Some abilities are limited and get refreshed by standing on solid ground. You must use these tools to get through a series of platforming challenges in varied environments with their own varied mechanics, such as platforms that move when you air dash or midair gems that replenish your abilities without you needing to land.

Most challenges in Celeste really have two parts: the puzzle of figuring out how to use your limited abilities and the particular environment to navigate each obstacle course, and then actually executing your solution with precise timing and positioning. To use my own terminology, this is a tactical challenge (figuring out what to do) followed by an action challenge (doing it). They are difficult in different ways and can separately be interesting/dull or hard/easy to individual players.

This is risky, because it means a player has to enjoy and be sufficiently competent at both the tactical and the action challenges in order to enjoy and progress through the game. Someone who likes charting a path through each screen but then lacks the reflexes to actually follow that path is not going to have a good time.

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Climbing the Mountain Because It's... Wait, Where Is It Again?

For me, a lot of Celeste’s difficulty felt unintentional.

First, some background about me: I have a terrible sense of direction. It’s hard for me to build mental maps of areas and to visualize where locations and landmarks are in relation to each other - and thus to figure out how to get from one place to another.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, I was once asked for directions to a building that was literally next door to where we were standing. I pointed in the wrong direction. This is not an atypical example.

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Different Games for Different Brains

I’m starting to think that most of the heated debates that happen around game design choices are due to poorly-understood differences in how our brains are actually wired.

Like, I’ve written before about how some people hate punishment in games and others don’t and how this seems to be related to how we process tension, and how it’s easy to think someone else is a wimp or a masochist for the type of gameplay they like when it actually feels different to them than it does to you. But I realized there are other factors here too - punishment is worse for players who have trouble focusing on things that aren’t novel, which, like… that’s straight-up an ADHD symptom, right? I’ve never been diagnosed with ADHD, but I’ve got a couple of symptoms including that one. Allie has more symptoms, and she’s even more bothered by punishment and repetition in games than I am.

I’ve also talked about how I don’t like games that make you work to find the quality content in exchange for a sense of discovery that rings false for me. But when I saw the following mailbag question in a Shamus Young diecast post, I realized there was something else going on:

Dear Diecast.

The modern Persona games are lauded for their fusion of turn-based combat and social sim gameplay, but I’ve always been bothered by the social sim aspect. It’s less about roleplaying and more about puzzling out the spreadsheet nightmare the designers have conceived so you don’t miss out on story content and have to replay it in new game plus to see it. As such, I always play them with my head in a guide to negate the issue so I can instead focus on enjoying the combat and story.

What’s your thoughts on games that are hard to play properly without using a guide and have you ever found them enjoyable in spite of needing to look things up constantly?

-Victor

My immediate thought was that yeah, I feel the same way about Persona and that this kind of design is stupid in general as just another way to make you work to find the quality content - but I made myself take a step back. It’s not very likely that the designers of several incredibly-popular games are all just making the same obvious mistake over and over and the fans somehow don’t understand the resulting flaws. It’s much more likely that this is another case where players have different but legitimate preferences.

Victor’s question has assumptions baked in - that if you “miss out on story content” you then “have to replay it in new game plus to see it” and that seeing all the story content is the only way to “play properly”. I didn’t notice at first that these were assumptions, because I’m a completionist so to me (and I imagine Victor) they just feel true. Like Victor, I find it hard to enjoy a game if I’m constantly worried that I’ll miss content - particularly story content - particularly if it’s a story I’m enjoying. Like Victor, I often deal with this by using a guide and then lament that the game “requires” a guide.

But like… that seems like something in the area of anxiety or OCD, maybe? I’m not sure exactly what the divide is here, but roughly speaking I suspect some people prefer certainty and control (the completionists) and others prefer exploration and surprise. For the latter group of players, the fact that it’s possible to miss some story content based on your choices is a bonus - it means that you can actually be surprised by what you see, even if you return to play the game again. To me, this is a baffling way of looking at things - but some quick internet research shows plenty of evidence that some people like surprises, some people hate them, and many people in each group do not at all understand the people in the other.

A lot of us have trouble explaining what happens in our own heads, and it’s difficult to realize when something you thought was universal is only true for people with brains like yours. And it’s really hard to see where someone else is coming from if your disagreement stems from one of those things. A lot of the time we’re arguing about things like game design decisions, we’re being much more subjective than we realize, and that leads to heated and unproductive discussions that say more about ourselves than the thing we’re trying to talk about.

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Super Mario Maker 2 showed me why I don’t like 2D Mario

In short: its high strictness and punishment plus its regressive difficulty and locking mechanics behind power-ups make it frustrating to learn to play.

I’ve never really gotten into mainline Mario games, but I was intrigued by Super Mario Maker 2’s story mode, which apparently serves as a sort of extended level design tutorial. It features 120 levels each themed around particular level pieces or combinations thereof, showing you how to use them in play and hopefully providing inspiration for how to use them when creating your own levels. I find tutorial design really interesting, and Mario famously teaches through level design, so I checked it out.

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Muse Dash Trims The Fat

Muse Dash is a rhythm game with a simple control scheme. Aside from menu navigation, the actual rhythm gameplay only requires two buttons.

The player character is on the left side of the screen, running constantly to the right. Threats come from the right side of the screen in one of two lanes - at ground level, or above it. When the threat reaches the player character, the player is supposed to hit a button to “knock back” the threat - one button for threats in the top lane (by default, any button on the left side of the controller will do) and a second button for threats in the bottom lane (right side of the controller). There are various twists and complications laid on top of this - threats that require hitting both buttons at the same time, or holding one or both buttons, or mashing the buttons repeatedly, and so on - but they are all dealt with using just two buttons.

(This is how it works on PC and I assume on Switch as well. Probably on mobile you tap either the left or right side of the screen instead?)

My gut reaction to seeing this was to assume that Muse Dash must be simple and easy, but there’s no actual reason this has to be true. In fact, Muse Dash gets quite difficult in most of the standard ways. Reducing the number of buttons used changes very little. After all, thinking back on all the rhythm games I’ve played it’s rare for the player to be required to press more than two buttons at once. Consider two scenarios:

  1. In Muse Dash, a threat comes in the top lane and then one comes in the bottom lane.
  2. In Hatsune Miku, there’s a prompt for D-Pad Left and then one for Circle.

The actual actions taken by the player here are very similar.

  1. Read the on-screen cues.
  2. Recognize you’ll want to press a button with your left hand and then one with your right hand.
  3. (Miku only) Remember the controller layout and move your thumbs over the correct buttons.
  4. Press with your left thumb and then with your right thumb.

The only real difference here is that Muse Dash doesn’t quiz the player on the controller layout or force them to move their thumbs. Lanes correspond directly to hands - top lane threats mean pressing with your left thumb, bottom lane threats mean pressing with your right thumb.

Personally, I’ve been taking rapid-fire quizzes on the PlayStation controller layout since 2000, so the extra step of remembering which button is where doesn’t trouble me much and I barely notice it. But to someone new to the controller and its apparently-arbitrary arrangement of buttons, this step makes the game far less approachable. They have to memorize the controller before they can be effective at the game. There’s an extra source of difficulty up front, and it isn’t the thing that makes the game interesting. The player has shown up to feel the rhythm and before they can do that they must perform rote memorization.

Now, this might be worth it. Guitar Hero on Easy or Medium is much like Muse Dash in that the player doesn’t have to move their hand and the colored notes correspond directly to fingers. Hard and Expert difficulties use more fret buttons than the player has available fingers, so they have to move their hand. Accessibility aside, I’d argue that the game is better when it forces you to move your hand because the game is about pretending to play the guitar which in real life also requires moving your hand. It’s extra effort and difficulty that isn’t strictly required - the game easily could have been designed to use only four frets - but it’s directly tied to what makes the game interesting, which is the fantasy of being, well, a guitar hero.

But what about Hatsune Miku? Your actions in this game are abstract and not a metaphor for anything specific except music itself. What matters is that they are rhythmic and flow-inducing. So what benefit is gained by adding controller memorization to the challenge?

I’m not ready to conclude that controller memorization adds no value to Miku-like games, but maybe trimming it out as Muse Dash does is just letting the interesting part of the game be the hard part.

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Guitar Hero Misled New Players

Guitar Hero is played with a guitar-shaped controller. The main inputs are the five differently-colored fret buttons and the strum bar. With one hand, the player holds down the fret buttons indicated by the differently-colored on-screen notes (in a simplified approximation of holding down the right strings at the right frets on a real guitar) and with the other hand the player presses the strum bar then when the notes scroll to the right point (in a simplified approximation of strumming the strings on a real guitar).

There are five fret buttons, but if you hold the guitar controller the standard way real guitars are held, your fretting hand wraps around the guitar neck and your thumb is stuck on the back. You’re thus left with only four fingers for the five fret buttons. This is presumably intentional - it forces you to move your hand up and down a little on the neck to press the correct frets, as you’d have to do with a real guitar.

But! This is only true once you get to Hard or Expert level play. On Easy, only the first three fret buttons are ever used. Medium increases it to four, and Hard finally uses all five. This means that the entire time you are playing on Easy or Medium and learning the game, you don’t have to move your fret hand. You are trained that red notes mean pressing your index finger, green ones mean pressing your middle finger, and yellow ones mean pressing your ring finger. (And on Medium, blue notes mean pressing your pinky.)

Then you start playing on Hard. Most songs don’t begin with an orange note, so you play the first several notes the same as you used to, and then an orange note appears. You slide your hand down one fret to press the orange fret button with your pinky. But then when a green note appears, what happens? What you should do is press with your index finger, because you’ve slid your hand one fret down. But you’ve been trained that green means middle finger, so there’s a good chance you’ll press with that instead even though it’s currently over the yellow fret button and you’ll play the wrong note.

For me and for the folks I’ve talked to, by far the hardest part of Hard mode wasn’t the increased density of the note charts or even moving to hit the orange notes. It was unlearning the habits taught by Easy and Medium so that once we had moved to hit the orange notes, we didn’t use the wrong fingers to hit the other notes. It was re-training ourselves to associate note colors not with fingers but with frets so that we could figure out which finger to use based on the fret and the current position of our hand. Once this was done, going up to Expert was comparatively simple.

I remember thinking at the time that while it was obviously correct to keep the note charts sparse for Easy and Medium, all five frets probably should have been used from the beginning. (And I think this is what later games ended up doing? I don’t know - the guitar skills transfer pretty well between games so I haven’t dipped back down to Easy or Medium in a long time.) And I’ve been thinking about this again because I’m on a bit of a rhythm game kick lately and have been seeing how different games treat their difficulty levels.

Guitar Hero’s error (if you consider it an error, as I do) was in treating two kinds of difficulty the same when they were actually very different. The first kind was density of the note chart, which is commonly tied to difficulty levels in rhythm games. This makes sense - a denser note chart requires a higher skill level, so as players get better they need denser charts to maintain flow (which I argue is the point of rhythm games).

While it may seem like the variety of different notes used is another source of difficulty that should scale similarly, I think this is a mistake. Learning the inputs and how they correspond to the game’s cues is most of learning to play the game. Guitar Hero withholding some of the frets from you at the start means it’s training you on an incomplete version of the game. That’s not inherently problematic, but you have to be careful about it or you’ll teach bad habits (like “color = finger” instead of “color = fret” in this case). Much like adding the double-jump in Runner3, adding the orange notes and forcing the player to move their hand doesn’t technically change the meaning of the other color notes, but it does mean that the simplest strategy for dealing with them and thus the one the player has likely internalized is now often incorrect.

The increased challenge of the denser note charts which more closely matched the real song being played and the forced fret-hand movement which more closely matched the hand motions of a real guitarist was good - this added challenge increased flow and immersion. This is a case of what’s hard about the game also being what’s interesting about it.

But challenge that comes from the fact that the game taught the player bad habits isn’t interesting in a game like Guitar Hero. It’s frustrating. You just deal with it until you unlearn the habits and the game can be fun again.

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What's hard about a game should also be what's interesting about it.

This is something that’s foundational enough to my beliefs about game design that I want to publish an article about it that I can point back to, but it’s also simple enough that I’m not sure there’s a full article’s worth to even be said about it.

What’s hard about a game should also be what’s interesting about it.

It’s the reason some reviewers disliked the focus on meter management in Pathologic 2, where the interesting stuff is the mystery and atmosphere.

It’s the reason why it’s frustrating to have your choices overturned by QTEs in Until Dawn, a game that sells itself as a game of decisions and not one of controller memorization.

It’s the common thread behind these house rules for card and board games that seek to eliminate memory- and inexperience-based challenge in order to emphasize interesting strategic-based challenge.

It’s the reason why my proposed changes to Akiba’s Trip combat are “specifically looking to reduce uninteresting difficulty - things that are hard for stupid reasons. This actually allows for increasing difficulty in more interesting ways.”

What’s hard about a game should also be what’s interesting about it.

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Rhythm and Readability: Why Bubsy: Paws on Fire! is the Best Bit.Trip Runner

Rhythm Games are For Flow

Why do people play rhythm games?

I don’t speak for everyone, but based on the comments I could find online, I think a lot of people share my reason: Rhythm games let us lose ourselves in music, and that feels good.

Musicians will tell you: when things are going well, making music puts you in a euphoric state of complete absorption. You are no longer aware of your own self as a separate entity; you’re one with the music. An anonymous composer put it this way:

“You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out of itself.”

This quote was provided by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his TED talk on “flow”. Flow is a popular term in games analysis, but in case you haven’t come across it before, here’s a brief summary: “flow” is a term coined and popularized by Csikszentmihalyi to refer to a particular mental and emotional state of being “in the zone”. It’s a form of focus that allows for continual high-level performance without conscious thought. Researchers studying this state in musicians have described it as “effortless attention.”