Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Difficulty (47)


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.


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.



Wandersong and Difficulty

Wandersong can broadly be split into two types of gameplay:

  1. Exploration: Reach a new area, wander around meeting people, and help them with their problems by solving some low-pressure puzzles. This gets you access to the next type:
  2. Dungeon: Progress through a series of more-intense puzzles featuring and building on the dungeon’s particular theme. At the end is a story scene with the area’s climactic encounter. Once you’ve done this, move on to the next chapter and a new area.

This is oversimplified and not every chapter follows it exactly, but that’s the basic structure.


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The Suspense is Skilling Me: Punishment, Learning, and Tension


Long ago, I wrote a post about the different roles of challenge and punishment in skill-based games and how they relate to flow and learning. My argument was that challenge should vary with player skill to maximize opportunities for flow while punishment should be flat-out minimized to prevent disruptions to learning. Doing things like kicking the player back to a distant checkpoint when they die inserts delays and distractions between attempts, making it much harder to learn. But there’s a significant difference between first learning a skill and mastering that skill, and this absolutely affects what kind of punishment is appropriate. I’ll explain, borrowing an example from commenters on that old post.

Imagine you are playing a new racing game. The tutorial teaches acceleration, braking, steering, and drifting, requiring you to perform each operation before advancing to the next. You hold the accelerate button, then the brake button, steer around some turns, and then try the drift but your timing is off and you fail to execute it. In this case, it would be counterproductive for the game to force you to start all the way over and pass the accelerate, brake, and steer tests again before giving you another chance to drift. The game is teaching the skill, not testing it. Failing to execute this skill should result in an immediate opportunity to try again. Additional punishment would just make it harder to learn, which is the exact opposite of the tutorial’s goal. A punishing tutorial is a bad tutorial.

But once you’re out of the tutorial and you start racing, the scenario is different. The game is done teaching new skills and starts testing them. You are no longer learning skills; you are practicing them. Your goals are larger in scope - not just “perform a drift” but “win this three-lap race.” And because the scope of punishment defines the scope of challenge, a challenge of this scope is not possible without real punishment. If losing the race results in just restarting, say, the final lap, the challenge becomes “win this lap” rather than “win this race.” In order to challenge you to perform well consistently enough to win an entire race, loss must cost you the entire race.


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

Many games are tests of skill. Players succeed or fail at the game’s goals based on their physical dexterity and reaction time, general knowledge and reasoning ability, understanding and internalization of the game’s own mechanics - anything a game can test. But much of that skill is applied before the moment of success or failure.

Victory in a chess match may come from physically moving your piece into a position that checkmates your opponent, but that isn’t the hard part. And the hard part of beating Doom isn’t the button press that fires the last shot on the final boss - it’s everything you did to enable that shot. These goals, and indeed most interesting goals in games, actually have multiple stages of challenge that funnel into each other.


Here’s my conception of the phases of challenge. This is a fairly abstract framework, since it’s intended to be generalizable to every skill-based game. To help pin it down a bit, let’s take a closer look at each phase and then discuss how they interrelate. Once that’s done, I’ll go into some implications these ideas have for game design.



Who Frustration is Good For

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy went fairly viral so you may already be well familiar with it. If so, feel free to skip down past both pictures; I’m going to spend the intervening paragraphs explaining what the game is and how it works.

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy

Bennett Foddy is a connoisseur of frustration. His first hit game, QWOP, took the simple act of running and made it nearly impossible by wrapping it in a seemingly-straightforward four-button control scheme with each button dedicated to a thigh or calf muscle. He’s made a few other games along similar lines, but his latest work, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, takes things to a new level.