Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Difficulty (35)

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Lessons Learned Watching Allie Play Dragon Age

Allie doesn’t play many action games. Her PS4 is mostly for Rock Band 4, though she also enjoyed Until Dawn. She’s now trying Dragon Age: Inquisition after hearing a lot of good things about its characters. Watching her play has been instructive. Here are some of the lessons I’ve taken away just from her first hour.

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TY for the memories

I mentioned how I’m frustrated when games don’t treat rewards as rewards. There’s a more subtle and complex example of this in TY the Tasmanian Tiger 2.

Ty’s central gimmick is his collection of ‘rangs (boomerangs) with varying effects. Some of them affect environmental objects, such as fire ‘rangs that can melt ice or ice ‘rangs that can put out fires.

In TY 2, the Bush Rescue HQ is a safe zone where you can experiment with your abilities, similar to Peach’s castle in Super Mario 64. It’s dotted with minor platforming challenges that reward small amounts of in-game currency. But some of them require ‘rangs you don’t start with.

Tucked away on a particular rooftop is a broken-down generator. It’s a little hard to find and a little hard to get to. A mobile platform carrying some currency hovers in midair nearby - but too far away to jump to. It’s obviously a tutorial for the electric Zappyrang that can start up machinery - you’re supposed to wonder how to turn on the generator, remember it when you get the Zappyrang, come back and use it to get the currency, and then be all set for generators you encounter later in the game. The currency itself barely matters - it’s a small amount, just there to make sure you have a reason to remember the generator.

So when I got the Zappyrang, I excitedly went back to HQ to turn on that rooftop generator. And sure enough, the nearby platform came closer… and then moved away again. It went back and forth and even at its closest, I wasn’t sure it was quite close enough to jump to. I tried over and over and kept missing. Each attempt was separated by taking several seconds to climb back up to the rooftop (longer if I didn’t turn back in time and fell off the hill the building was on and had to get back up that first) and then waiting for the platform to come closer.

I didn’t even care about the damn currency - I could easily get more in less time. It was the principle. It was the fact that I’d gotten the Zappyrang and remembered to come back and find the generator. It was the fact that the setup implied that was supposed to be the hard part. I’d earned the reward, and collecting it was supposed to be easy.

But I never pulled it off. I eventually gave up and moved on. I still don’t know whether I was supposed to be able to make that jump or if there was something else I was supposed to do.

So to me, that moment failed in three ways, each of which increased my frustration.

First, by teasing a reward that was then withheld. As a Zappyrang tutorial, collecting the reward should have been dead simple: activating the generator should have moved the platform very close by and left it there so that it was easy to jump to.

Second, by being overly punishing. The platform could easily not have been positioned such that jumping for it meant going off a cliff if you missed and didn’t turn around in time. There was no reason for each attempt to take so long to get back to - this wasn’t part of some kind of endurance or mastery challenge.

Third, by providing unclear feedback. A ledge that you can almost jump to is actually the exact example I used to illustrate why challenge profiles should be clear - I had no way to tell whether I was supposed to be able to make the jump or not. It seemed unreasonably hard, but I saw no indication that there was anything else I was supposed to do to get onto that moving platform. If there was in fact another step, that should have been made clear; otherwise the jump should not have been borderline-impossible.

By itself, this was not enough to make me stop playing. But it absolutely decreased my confidence that I could trust the game’s designers to provide a quality experience. And when I ran into other issues later on, I considered whether they were worth dealing with and found that I was unwilling to give the game the benefit of the doubt. I put it down and haven’t looked back.

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It’s not “difficulty”; it’s “focus”

Much of the confusion in the difficulty debate is because we often talk about difficulty when what we really care about is focus.

Take Pathologic 2. It’s a game about trying to survive and solve mysteries in a plague-ridden town. It’s got a strong narrative and prominent survival mechanics. The reviews I’ve seen lament how much the latter gets in the way of the former. From Brendan Caldwell’s review:

There are a bunch of meters: stamina, hunger, thirst, health, exhaustion, immunity. . . . On paper, you should be exploring the town, figuring things out, piecing this unearthly story together. But most of your time is spent trading bits of old brain and rusty scissors for a tin of food just to keep a meter down. It takes over everything, an unwelcome distraction from the intrigue of murder cases and bizarre architecture of the town’s stranger buildings.

After receiving a lot of feedback to this effect, developer Ice-Pick Lodge is adding a “difficulty slider”. Their announcement post is worth reading in its entirety, but the takeaway is “[W]e’d rather give people a tweaked experience than none at all.”

That’s great, and I applaud Ice-Pick for responding in this way. But I also find myself wondering - is this really about difficulty? Here’s another quote from Brendan Caldwell’s review:

If the intent here is to follow a Soulsian “hard is good” philosophy and apply it to the survival genre, this is misplaced. Souls games are about reaction, movement, and practice. You can’t practice finding a piece of bread. If the intent is only to keep the player feeling oppressed, strapped for time, exhausted, hungry and weary, well, that doesn’t mean I won’t also resent having to spend so much time doing the most boring species of meter-management in what could have been a captivating mystery.

Caldwell doesn’t mind that the game is hard or even that it’s dark - he minds that he has to devote so much time and attention to the least interesting parts of it. The bits that aren’t this game’s unique selling point, the bits that have been done many times in many games.

Ice-Pick haven’t said exactly what their new slider will do, but in practice for players like Caldwell it won’t really be a difficulty slider so much as a mechanical focus slider. Turning down a game’s ‘difficulty’ rarely means that characters now speak in Basic English and complex moral decisions get replaced with clear-cut black and white choices. What it does mean is that the survival mechanics (or in most games, combat systems) are less demanding and you can pay them less attention.

The difficulty debate (and certainly any response of the “you cheated not only the game, but yourself” variety) often misses that there are multiple different reasons to play most games. In addition to skill levels, physical capabilities, and amounts of free time, people differ in their interests. When someone is drawn to a game’s world, art, characters, story, etc., and finds that mechanical systems are getting in the way of what they came for, it’s natural to want to adjust the game’s focus to reduce those obstacles. Because of the misleading way these settings are often labeled, that means they are “playing on Easy.” But they aren’t here for the combat, or for the survival mechanics, or whatever. Mastering it is of no interest to them and is not worth their time. Like Peter Gibbons, it’s not that they’re lazy; it’s that they just don’t care about this particular source of difficulty. They’re trying to focus on what actually appeals to them and what actually creates value for them.

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Arnold reminded me why I dislike punishment: I need novelty.

A bit ago I speculated on why different people feel differently about punishment in games, and I have a new theory thanks to Arnold’s levels in Bubsy: Paws on Fire!

The short version is that different people have different thresholds for maintaining interest in repetitive content. The long version follows.

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Easy Mode: You Gotta Want It

So, one of the positions in the whole Sekiro/Soulsborne/difficulty/easy-mode debate is what I would sum up as “easy mode should be there for the players who need it.” A couple of examples:

  • Jarrod Johnston explains why he’s no longer anti-Easy, mentioning that previously he “never thought that someone might not have the ability to improve, and it took a while for [him] to understand that getting through a tough game can be more than just a matter of time and commitment.”

  • Mark Brown explains his complicated view on questions like “Should Dark Souls have an Easy Mode?”, making a few statements like, “I’m in favor of giving people more ways to play if they need them…” but emphasizing the importance of making sure players know what the intended experience is. He also describes Celeste’s Assist Mode by saying, “This isn’t an easy mode that I might switch down to if the game’s kicking my butt. It’s an assist mode that’s just there for those who really feel they need it.”

On the surface, I’m in agreement with these folks - we all want easy modes or similar accommodations in games. We’re on the same side of the overall debate. But I’d sum up my position slightly differently, as “easy mode should be there for the players who want it.” It’s only one word of difference, but I think it’s an important one.

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Easy Modes and Backward Reasoning

I think my ironically-favorite part of the discourse around difficulty and easy modes in Sekiro and Soulsborne games is that anti-easy folks make both of these claims:

  1. Adding an easy mode to a Soulsborne game would ruin the intended experience of overcoming challenge through persistence and learning.
  2. Soulsborne games already have an easy mode since you can summon a friend.

I don’t know if I’ve heard any individual person say both these things together - the kettle logic might be a little too obvious if you’re actually saying “Easy mode would be bad, and anyway they already have it and that’s good!” But I also don’t think I’ve seen anyone really address the contradiction here.

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The Spreadsheet Moment

So, a failure mode with buffs is when they present obligatory inscrutable math problems. Buffs aren’t the only thing that does that - this is an example of a more general failure mode in games. Jay Wilson, game director for Diablo III, calls it the “spreadsheet moment”:

There is a point I call the ‘spreadsheet moment’ where the variables have become so complicated that the average player can’t make a decision about their character or an item in their head. They require a spreadsheet, not for perfect optimization, but just to get an idea of what they’re doing. I’ve been known to map out abilities for a game I love in a spreadsheet for optimization. As a designer I want that level of depth in a game I make, but there is a point where you dump so much math on a player that they’re no longer capable of just making a decision and running with it because it’s what they like. When that point occurs we all portal back to town and alt-tab to the internet so someone who is better at math can make the decision for us.

Gamers are smart. They can feel when the math has gotten so complex they can’t process it in their heads, and the reaction is to assume that there ‘must’ be a clear correct singular decision. We desire that correct decision because humans like to apply order to things that seem chaotic. When we’re that sure of a singular right way to do something, no one wants to be the dummy who did it the “wrong” way. Unfortunately when players enter this mindset they’re no longer making the choice they want to make, for the sake of fun, but rather the choice they feel they have to make for the sake of being right.

I would argue there’s more going on here than just the complexity of the math - as I mentioned, Valkyria Chronicles grades and rewards you based on your efficiency, making it increasingly painful to make “wrong” decisions in combat - you’ll have fewer resources for the next mission making it even more important to avoid “wrong” decisions in a self-reinforcing cycle. But in a game like Borderlands an enemy drops the same loot whether you kill it in five seconds or six, so it’s less important to pick the absolute best gun. So even though the math on which guns are better is arguably more complex than the math on whether you should buff your soldiers, I’m much more comfortable eyeballing the guns and proceeding based mainly on feel.

And the clarity of the math matters a lot too. Explicit numbers with obvious meanings can still interact to create the “spreadsheet moment,” but if the numbers or their meaning is obscured, things get worse. As Shamus Young put it:

A good system is clear and understandable right away, but will reveal interesting trade-offs once you get to know it. (Diablo 2)

A boring system is straightforward and there is always a single, optimal answer. (Most BioWare games, at least until they abandoned gear-hoarding altogether.)

A bad system is one where you have no idea what decision you’re making and you have to do a bunch of homework and run a spreadsheet before you can know which hat you should wear.

A horrible system is one where you have to read the wiki just to know what options you should be researching. A system where you have over twenty attributes and most of them are synonyms. A system where you can read the wiki, a forum thread, and a leveling guide, and still not really have any idea what you’re doing because nobody agrees on how the stats work, which ones might be bugged, or if all of their calculations were made obsolete by the latest patch.

It’s easy to miss this amongst the other complaints, but there’s another key factor here as well - “interesting trade-offs” are part of a “good system” in Shamus’s nomenclature. He said this as part of a discussion of stats in World of Warcraft, where he argued that complex stats were particularly obnoxious because they generally boiled down to a simple trade-off of “efficiency versus survivability”. In his view (which I agree with), “you should never have more complexity than depth” and should present “decisions [which] are easy to understand but difficult to make” instead of ones where you have to do a bunch of research or math to find the unambiguous but uninteresting correct answer.

Extra Credits refers to the difference in these kinds of decisions as “calculations” (which are fundamentally math problems to optimize specific variables like DPS with options that can be cleanly quantified and ranked) and “incomparables” (which are more qualitative trade-offs like between a stealth or or combat build with no objective best option). With incomparables, players must make an actual choice based on personal preference and play-style - but we run into problems when games “mask calculations as incomparables”. Trying to make a calculation more interesting by making it more complex doesn’t stop there from being an objectively correct option - it just makes it harder to tell which one it is.

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The Designer is Dead: Five Reasons to Go Beyond Intended Experiences

Games are designed to create particular mental and emotional states in their players. The Dark Souls games use difficulty to “give players a sense of accomplishment by overcoming tremendous odds”, Dead Rising’s replay-enforcing time limit and oddball weapon options encourage humorous experimentation, Far Cry 2’s unreliable weapons force players to improvise in chaotic battles, and so on. We call this the game’s “intended experience.”

Good games are those which successfully guide their players to worthwhile experiences, so the designer’s intent is key to a game’s quality. This leads some of us to conclude that designer intent should be elevated above player freedom - that players should be prevented from altering a game’s experience lest they ruin it for themselves.

“Decisions like [Dark Souls’s difficulty level, Dead Rising’s time limit, and Far Cry 2’s jamming weapons] might be controversial, but if they’re an integral part of the experience that the developer is trying to create, then the player shouldn’t feel like they’re entitled to be able to mess with this stuff through options, modes, and toggles. Because that would screw with the developer’s intentions and could end up ruining the game in the long run.”
—Mark Brown, What Makes Celeste’s Assist Mode Special | Game Maker’s Toolkit (at 22 seconds) (to be fair, the rest of the video adds a lot of nuance to this position)

I strongly disagree with this. To me, the designer’s intent is the starting point and not the finish line. If we cling to it and discourage players from exploring any further, we rob it of most of its value. Here’s why.