Dear Difficulty

March 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Difficulty is entrenched in the DNA of every modern videogame. Back in the days of arcades, where games were sold by the life, difficulty was needed to make money. You made your game difficult in order to drain the pockets of your audience. The less time you provided for their quarter, the better. 

The time of arcades is now past. Cabinets are slowly but surely being sold off to nostalgic collectors or destroyed altogether. Surely then, the need for difficulty no longer exists? The traditional philosophy behind making money is gone – now the more entertainment time you provide the better.
But we still need it, we still crave the satisfaction of tussling with a game, the sense of accomplishment when we walk out the other side victorious. Whether we like it or not – and we almost certainly do – difficulty is going to be with videogames until Mr. Kotick kills them off completely.
There are two kinds of difficulty though, one which only hardens the player’s resolve in times of crisis, and another which has been known to turn the most serene of individuals into emotional wrecks. The latter is often referred to as ‘cheap’ difficulty; the former I see as being ‘dear.’ What exactly is it that divides the two, and how can games do their bit to safeguard the controllers of the world?
It’s your fault
The appeal of video games, not surprisingly, is rooted in control. Like it or not, control of our lives (our real ones that is) is constantly being wrenched away from us. A petty thief, an incompetent co-worker, an immoral politician, all of these individuals can exhort influence on our lives, often completely without our consent. Sure we have influence, we can vote, or work ourselves off our feet day after day, but in the end these are contributing factors rather than deciding ones. 

That’s the difference between the real world and a virtual one. A real world is built upon chaos; a virtual one is built on mathematical rules. If you complete these puzzles correctly and then navigate that series of platforms flawlessly, then without a shadow of a doubt you can save the world, and even rescue your princess/son/cake in the process.
If there’s a point here it’s that failure needs to make sense, and this means making any immanent failure apparent to the player. Projectiles from an unseen foe, invisible traps, all of these things take control of the protagonist’s fate away from the player, and invariably harm the experience. No one likes to die, but its more bearable when you know it’s your fault.
Treat others as you wish to be treated
Nothing feels like a kick in the crotch more than when you manage to get completely decimated by an enemy. This can happen quite a bit in Bayonetta, a game I happen to be particularly fond of. It’s almost criminally easy to get caught by a lightening fast uppercut, and spend upwards of thirty seconds in the air, being batted backwards and forwards with very little regard for your own safety. 

Given a little practice though, the situation will be entirely reversed, and you can spend literally minutes knocking an enemy senseless whilst it struggles to find its way back down to earth. The rules governing both Bayonetta and her opponents are largely identical; so anything that can be done to you can be returned in due course. In other words the bigger the punishment you go through, the sweeter the retribution will be. 
This rule also covers any environmental damage that may occur to your character. If an enemy boss emits a wave attack, this should affect other enemies just as much as it does you. If ledges exist which you can fall down, then your opponents need to face exactly the same risk.
Making this a priority means making a game which feels difficult, but never unfairly difficult; a fact which will go a long way in frustrating your players.

It’s Not a Numbers Game
Spending ages whittling down the health of a single enemy is rarely much fun, especially when it’s not your skill but your patience that’s being tested. Equally, being bombarded with dozens of enemies isn’t fun either. Despite this, increasing enemy numbers and hit points is a primary method used by developers to increase difficulty. 

If players choose to run through a game on a higher difficulty, you can be fairly certain they’ve already beaten the game on a less punishing difficulty. Unless they’re the kind of person who likes to ramp up every game to insane on their first playthrough – a problem easy solved with unlockable difficulty levels – they’re probably looking for something a little different for their second time.
Different enemies, player handicaps, alternate mission objectives, all of these things force the player to engage with the game differently in ways beyond simply being more cautious. If your audience are actually invested enough in your game to dive straight back in then you better serve up something new.
In a Perfect World
Were we to don our utopian hats for a moment and peer into the future, we might look for one devoid of difficulty levels entirely. After all, the thing which separates people who play on different settings is likely not that they wish to be punished more or less, but that they’re that little more accomplished at games, and really want the same level of challenge as everyone else.
It’s not too difficult to imagine how a difficulty-less game might work. It starts every player on a standard difficulty, taking stock of the amount of damage and time they take during each level. At the end, a nifty little script gets run to see if they’re finding the game too easy or too hard; and then silently moves the slider one way or t’other. 

The first Devil May Cry did this, but in a very obtuse way. If you died too much within the first few levels, a screen would pop up asking if you might like to play on ‘Easy’. You never accepted this help though, because you were too proud, instead opting to die dozens of times in your frantic search for ‘coolitude.’
Such a system would be hard to implement without producing a constantly fluctuating difficulty curve, but it’s a topic worth mulling over at any rate. At a point in time where so many get so irate at the ‘dumbing down’ of modern games, putting more effort into modes just for them might be a way to keep an audience engaged that would otherwise leave for greener pastures.
At any rate it’s worth noting my first two suggestions apply whether difficulty levels exist or not.
Difficulty is neither a bad nor a good thing, the deciding factor is always down to the quality of the game. For anyone –let alone a blogger with no design experience – to claim the existence of an easy solution would be naive at best, but that’s not to say that thinking just that little more about such a staple of game design wouldn’t reap dividends.

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