Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Difficulty (46)

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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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River City Girls’ Boss Fights Punish the Player for Learning

I’ve started playing River City Girls and I mostly like it, but there are some really strange decisions around boss fights that came close to ruining the game for me.

The fights themselves are basically fine (at least the first two, which are all I’ve seen so far). You go up against a powerful enemy with unique attack patterns. They have a lot of health and they hit very hard, so you need to figure out their pattern and the best way to apply your own tools to get in sustained damage while avoiding nearly all of their attacks. They also change their patterns and become more dangerous twice - once when you’ve depleted a third of their health, and then again when you’ve depleted a second third.

It’s really not feasible to predict their patterns and vulnerabilities in advance - at least, I wasn’t able to. They have their own telegraphs but they can usually whip out attacks very quickly and you just have to learn through experience what their attacks are and what their areas of effect are. In short - I’d expect even very skilled players to die a couple of times in the course of learning each new boss.

If I’m correct, then dying to a boss isn’t necessarily a failure. It’s just part of the learning process. If that’s the case, then it’s bizarre how heavily punished it is.

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Skill Tests are Delivered Experiences

Somewhere around 2007, I remember there being hand-wringing about how video games had started out as tests of skill and were transitioning to delivered experiences.

There had always been some variety in games, but the culturally-dominant games had once been things like Tetris or Asteroids or Space Invaders - games with strict failure states and no actual victory condition. The long-term hook was understanding and developing the skills required to do better and better on repeat attempts, so these games had high score tables. They were analogous to challenges like the high jump or 100-meter dash.

And as technology improved and games became more mainstream, the culturally-dominant games were becoming things like Half-Life and Uncharted - games where failure was a temporary setback and there was a clear victory condition. Here, the hook was the game’s atmosphere and story and characters and the goal of finishing the game, so these games had save files. These were more analogous to literature and cinema.

A lot of people weighed in on whether it was good or bad that games (as an overall culture force) were becoming more and more focused on delivering experiences. Some people were excited about the possibilities while others feared losing their favorite hobby. But in hindsight, the fact that the discussion was framed this way at all makes it clear just how twisted and limited our view had been by the prevalence of skill-test games leading up to that time. Because in hindsight, it’s obvious that games have always been about delivering experiences. “Mastering a skill” is just one small subset of the many, many kinds of experiences a game can deliver.

Back then, people were talking like there were two types of games - skill tests and delivered experiences - and the market was moving from favoring the first to favoring the second. But the truth is that the market was growing, branching out from the small area in experience space that had been staked out by skill tests, developing areas like “interactive storytelling” and “self-expression” and “relaxing escapism” and many, many more. Skill test games are still around, but now they can be seen as the niche they always were, since games themselves have grown beyond them.

The old perception of games as skill tests does still linger, but that’s not actually inherent to what games are - it’s more a consequence of the limits of the technology of the time and the social and economic structure of game arcades. It’s an accident of history that a lot of people my age grew up in a culture that saw games this way, rather than as (say) a vehicle for exploring emotional states or experimenting with identity or creating collaboratively.

The situation is improving as more people grow up with access to a wide and varied gaming landscape, but you still run into people who think that Gone Home is a failure of a game because it’s a bad skill test, when it was never trying to be a skill test in the first place. And things are a lot murkier with games that overlap niches and provide multiple experiences - some people will tell you that the only proper way to enjoy these games is to embrace their skill-test elements, even as other people plainly state they are only interested in the other elements and the skill-test aspects are an outright obstacle to enjoyment. And of course, the truth is that every game is an overlap that provides multiple experiences.

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