Debating Difficulty

There are two design issues that I have been thinking about lately. One is the question of consequences, which smart guys like Clint Hocking and Randy Smith have lectured and written about. Are we robbing games of meaning (and/or eliminating the sense of wonder they can create) by reducing player choice, amping up positive feedback, and increasing the degree to which we hold the player’s hand? The second is the question of difficulty — how challenging should a game be, and is it “pandering” or “betraying the spirit of the game” to do things like offer a very easy play mode, design more forgiving checkpoints, add a hint system, etc? (Accessibility and difficulty issues are, in fact, a recurring theme on this blog.)

I think it can be easy for some of us to confuse these two issues. A game can incorporate interesting (even gut-wrenching) consequences without being difficult, or it can be extremely difficult without consequence. Let’s use Randy’s example: a new player of Ultima V marches straight into Serpent’s Spine and inevitably gets killed. That’s a consequence. Adding a “hint system” (i.e. an NPC who sternly warns you against the deadly beasts in the Spine) does not eliminate negative consequence; it merely helps you avoid it if you chose to listen. But what if the game’s save system is so unforgiving that the player is unavoidably forced to redo several hours of activity as a result of his poor decision to march into the Spine? Or what if the consequence of dying is a permanent, uncorrectable, and severe loss of avatar potency? That’s an extreme example of “excessive” difficulty. Such difficulty has the ironic effect of causing players to obsessively avoid potentially negative consequences — relying on FAQs to tell them where to go and when, and playing so cautiously as to strip the fun (and meaning) from the game.

How Difficult is Too Difficult?

Some games are ripe for consequence, and some are not. Few would argue that Bejeweled should be a consequence-rich game, while perhaps more (not all) big-budget console games should be. On the other hand, I’m unconvinced that any game should be “very difficult” unless the player wants it to be very difficult. In fact, I’d argue that excess game difficulty is one of the primary reasons that the console industry struggled to broaden beyond young males, pre-DS and pre-Wii. (Other reasons include intimidating interfaces, insufficiently diverse varieties of content, young male-centric marketing, etc.) Unfortunately, many of the console game developers who understand this still tend to underestimate the needs of a substantial percentage of less-skilled, and/or less-confident, and/or more harried potential customers.

What happens in real life when you introduce someone to a new sport, and then crush them mercilessly, match after match after match? Well, some people with a competitive streak (and/or great confidence in themselves) will feel challenged, and will grow from the experience. Others who are less competitive or confident will lose interest in the sport that you have tried so hard to introduce — no matter how long you coaxed them and educated them before you started crushing them. As an industry, we in the console game space are crushing potential new customers all the time. Even many Wii games are not immune to this criticism.

How Important is Designing for Appropriate Difficulty?

To be clear, I’m not arguing that developers should try to make games that are everything to everyone. That’s obviously a recipe for unfocused games (and failure.) I am simply arguing that we should, in general, pay much more attention to game difficulty and accessibility issues. These things have more impact on enjoyment of a game than nearly all other design, art, and engineering issues that we typically obsess over in this industry (“great textures in this game… too bad I can’t get past level two”) and should have top priority in the design process as a result.

Does Embracing a Broader Audience Mean Abandoning the Core?

But what about core gamers? Will they be offended by the existence of design elements that make the game easier for those who need the help? Doesn’t it detract from their sense of accomplishment? I think Halo does a decent job of addressing that concern. I haven’t noticed too much protest about easier difficulty levels from the people playing on “legendary mode” (with difficulty skulls activated.) This is what higher-difficulty achievements are for! Developers can use them — among other things — to create incentives for the hardcore gamer.

Shaking Off the Legacy of the 80s Arcades

Too many of us are still holding onto design philosophies that were born in the days of quarter-gobbling arcade games. Too many developers get most of their design feedback from QA teams made up of hardcore gamers who have played a game way more than most normal people ever will. Making a game “just hard enough” (be that very hard or very easy, depending on the person playing) is one of the primary keys to fun — and, I think, an under-appreciated way to significantly increase sales. It deserves more attention from our industry, even as we search for ways to incorporate meaningful, educational, and remarkable consequences back into our games.

PS. It’s worth emphasizing that a game that is “too easy” is just as bad as a game that is “too hard.” Designing for appropriate difficulty clearly involves thinking about both sides of the coin. The emphasis of this post was on “ease” and “accessibility” simply because I think that’s a more pervasive problem for the console game industry, not because I don’t understand the importance of making a game consistently interesting and challenging.

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