May 19, 2008

Difficulty Bandwagon

It’s seems “difficulty” is a hot topic in games these days! A few sites I visit on the interwebs, Gamasutra and The Escapist, have posted articles on difficulty recently so I figured why not chime in on the topic.

Why do games have “difficulty settings” in the first place? Could it simply be blamed on the primordial soup that was the arcades of the 80’s designed to steal every last quarter known to mankind. Maybe it was something else all together like the gaming illuminati, you know the same people that make up TRC’s and killed Gunpei! Honestly, I cannot answer this but I think “difficulty” should be treated as a genre unto itself!!!

In my eyes Challenge vs. Entertainment is the dividing line for difficulty as a genre. The game can be made to punch the player in the face and split their skull or simply take them on a roller coaster ride with lots of ups and downs. Hardcore players seek these challenges yet complain about entertainment games being too easy which is sort of silly because if the game is good then who cares. I really don’t see people coming out of a summer blockbuster griping about the movie not challenging them on some level, they went to be entertained. Well price point makes gamers care but that is an entirely different can of worms, the same for game length, and the dreaded replay-ability argument.

Let’s face it, our audience is changing, getting older, growing broader so to me that is the easiest place to start. Who is the intended audience of the game?

Long ago people made games for people to toil over and were presented as challenges against this thing called the computer! Nowadays people make games for entertainment, exercise, learning, and to challenge not just the computer but each other. The only light at the end of the tunnel for a designer to follow through the darkness of difficulty is the intended audience.

I feel like most games fall down right out of the gate because they forget to ask the question, “Who is going to play this game”? Have you ever played that new kids game that is so not made for kids, I bet you have and I bet the publisher was scratching their head asking why the scores are so low and sales are shit. Well I bet they broke the golden rule and made a kids game for game designers, Ernest Adams should beat them with a Twinkie! Know your audience, play test with them not your designers or QA people that have been playing the same game for months or years on end!

Random tidbits that show my inability to write a cohesive blog post…

Lend a helping hand: (things I have seen work)
So what is a designer to do, well try to hide any sort of assistance so it is there but unobtrusive. I like things like pity health increases, this goes way back the 8-bit days; say you are about to die and a few random health packs fall out of an enemy. The reward should be just enough to keep the fight going but keep you in the danger zone, if you come out alive you have that nail biter but fuck yeah I kicked their ass feeling, sounds like the player will continue playing instead of powering down.

Boost the health just a little after “X” repeated deaths, just a small amount and continue doing it each death thereafter until a max replenish threshold is reached. Boss fights work so much better using this technique instead of making the player do more damage, the boss do less damage, or the boss become less active. The player may never even know this is going on but they are constantly in better shape each time they die.

Good check point and save system, not much to say other than use common sense and do not punish the player. It’s all about workload and how much work you want the player to do time and time again. Checkpoint after major events, cut scenes (yes watching a cut scene is work), stage transitions in long battles or boss fights, and long exploration sequences.

Beat your game on the normal setting not powering anything up and using the standard attacks. The God of War combat team always made it a point to beat the game on normal mode using only the square combo and the required Context Sensitive moves, no evades, no blocking, no magic, no nothing. If you can do this then it is safe to say most people can do it with all the other tools you have given them.

Tune easy mode to be seriously easy, it should be a full on change of thinking not some 15% reduction in the difficulty values. Change the damage the player takes, inflicts, increase gain of all commerce, add more hints and messages, and slow down the moment-to-moment action whenever possible. I called it “Girlfriend mode”, not meant to be derogatory just a fact that my girlfriend could not get past the opening level on normal without dying 20 times but on easy only died 2 times.

Understand the “Threshold of Fun”! Derek and I always had this idea that if you die 5 times in an area or lose 5 matches in any game straight, that is the “Threshold of Fun”, the point where it is no longer fun at all. Sure it’s not science but when someone said something was not fun and we saw they died 8 times well we tuned it so they died 5 times and it was fun all of a sudden… shrug.

Believe it or not companies make games to make money, SURPRISE! So why in the hell do they want to make hard games that limit the audience or worse make the game so hard those who did buy the game cannot finish it. Don’t they want you coming back for the next installment? Most people will argue that great games bring people back regardless of difficulty and I agree with that but finishing a game counts towards the game being great! Beyond the fact that lots of people spent lots of time making a whole game not just part of a game, there is no benefit in not allowing the player to complete the game. Imagine if people went to see Lord of the Rings and it was it was a silent movie in black and white, seems difficult for most people to watch, I wonder if those people would come back for the next two movies. Obviously this all breaks down with competitive games but again that is an entirely different subject.

I hate Dynamic Difficult Adjustment (DDA)!!! If I want to play on easy then it better damn well be easy, not switch invisibly to hard just because I am kicking ass on easy. Conversely if I sign up for ass kicking hard mode then don’t pander to me when I am not getting it, its not going to help me learn anything. People used to get pissed at the “Do you want to switch to Easy Mode” menu in God of War because they felt insulted but it was usual a hardcore player that hated the menu. I think the menu helped a lot more people finish the game even if they are not willing to admit they used it, but when you are having fun alone does it really matter you took at step back, of course not!

WTF is with leveling creatures to always be near my level, yes Puzzle Quest I mean you… I hear Oblivion does this too but I did not play it. If this is going to happen why even have leveling, I never feel powerful because of my level ups since the enemies keep pace. Thank goodness you can turn this off in Puzzle Quest but damn it I was halfway through by the time I saw that option, JERKS!

Well I started off with good intentions and ended up cursing and calling people jerks (Sorry Puzzle Quest makers), it happens.

Thanks for reading!


Final Atomic Buster said...

You can't talk about difficulty and not mention this video:

Nice post anyway! Although you ranted towards the end, I would have liked to see more rants from you ;).

Protagonist said...

Did you work on GoW 1 or 2? For some reason the two seemed worlds apart in their difficulty design.

Also: I've always wondered why the menu didn't offer to step back to normal.. just because I can't beat hard mode doesn't mean I immediately want to switch to girlfriend mode!

Gabriel Kay said...

Very good post. Always enjoy reading your blog.

I'm currently working on a 2D shooter (doesn't everyone start from that cliché? we're having a blast though!) with a group of friends and was just discussing how difficulty should be handled a few days ago. I'm a big fan of story-driven games and therefore want to sort of have control of where the player goes. However I have a firm belief that an open world (sandbox) is what people want (look at GTAIV..), so we're giving you a choice to choose which world of the 7 available you want to do, but leaving the levels (3 in each world basically) to be done in order so the story can unfold.

My point is, I don't want an option to set difficulty because somehow it feels like that's not how I want it to play out. However, you obviously can't just think what you like is going to be what others like, so I'm going to trust that giving a choice of progressively harder worlds (and levels within them) is enough of a "difficulty setting". This obviously requires good design so the difficulty doesn't sway around too much but is in fact linear if the worlds are played in order. However I don't think end bosses should be 100x harder than the rest of the game, so that's an exception to the rule I guess (cough COO phase 1 persephony cough :)).

Anyway, after completing the game you can continue making your character better (minimal RPG elements in the game) in the same world but in "hard mode" worlds. Sort of like Heroic dungeons in World of Warcraft.

The game isn't aimed at beginners anyway, more of a semi-hardcore PC indie gamer crowd thing. So I think this'll work out fine. But thanks for the post, it was nice to read about some other perspectives. Keep rockin.

eric williams said...

Protagonist: I worked on both games and all the variables for tuning the difficulty were the same. We felt they were very close minus the spinning pillars of death in hades from part one.

Gabriel: Good Luck with the shooter, that genre was one of my favorites growing up. I like where you are going with the idea of mixing elements of other genres into the shooter itself. Reminds me of something I found very useful, play games outside of your genre to steal ideas then incorporate them into your genre so it is harder for people to know where they came from yet they are familiar and intuitive.