Climbing The Difficulty Curve

Written by Simon Hill

January 15, 2008 | 08:10

Tags: #column #developer #difficulty #easy #guest #hard #qa #ship #simon

Companies: #outerlight

There has been a growing trend over the last few years to make games that are easy enough for every player to finish them. In many ways this is a positive development which reflects the maturity of the industry and the mainstream nature of the audience who regularly play games. It also reflects publisher desires to create mass market, accessible products which can generate maximum profit for them.

However today I’m posing the question “Have singleplayer games become too easy?”

Early games were far more challenging than they are now and initially this was largely due to the lack of a save option. You had to play the thing all the way through in one sitting, when you ran out of lives you had to start again from the start. Now don’t get me wrong I don’t miss replaying the first three levels of a scrolling shooter twenty times just to progress past that tricky missile but the sense of achievement and immersion is reduced when you complete a game in half hour chunks over a month. Upon completing modern games I rarely feel the same rush of pride that I did from reaching the end of Double Dragon or Ikari Warriors.

"Most games just decrease the difficulty level to the point where failure becomes virtually impossible."

Games later introduced save points at the end of a level or cheat codes to level select, but even with that system in place many older games remained fiendishly difficult. Hours spent fighting your way through Super Ghouls and Ghosts often ended with a fatal splash as you misjudged the final platform jump onto the raft and disappeared into the choppy water. It was hugely frustrating and yet because it was so tough when you finally made it to the end the sense of achievement was massive.

Still the problem remained, if you failed right at the end of a level you’d have to play all the way through it again in order to progress.

The ability to save the game whenever and wherever you liked was a huge step forward for developers. It allowed people to just replay the difficult bit they were stuck on but still it didn’t solve the real problem - that frustratingly hard jump, that boss you can’t slay or that obscure puzzle you can’t solve.

Now to spend a fair bit of hard earned cash on a product offering hours of entertainment and only be able to enjoy the early stages makes the player feel stupid and that they have wasted their money. From the developers point of view it’s also hugely disappointing to realise that most gamers are only seeing the early part of your game and will never reach your cinematic end scene or battle that spectacular final boss.

So, how do you eradicate that brick wall scenario?

"Most games seem to opt for another approach; they just decrease the difficulty level to the point where failure becomes virtually impossible"

Well the answer I’d like to argue for is to design your games better, to avoid challenges which have to be failed multiple times before the player can learn how to succeed - but that's easier said than done. Most games now seem to opt for another approach; they just decrease the difficulty level to the point where failure becomes virtually impossible.

Some possibility of failure is required to make a challenge meaningful because if something is so easy that everyone can do it then where does your sense of achievement come from?
Challenge and learning are essential to a good game and they are the things that keep you coming back for more. Granted, the challenge must be carefully balanced - but surely there has to be some difficulty to overcome, some skill to master before you really get hooked? Players must find a problem, learn to overcome it without becoming frustrated and then apply their solution correctly to obtain a reward.

There’s no doubt this general trend towards clarity and reduced difficulty is a good thing for all except the most hardcore of gamers, but there is a risk now that things have gone too far. Everything has to be signposted, everything has to be to be made explicit to the player in the same way that Hollywood movies will just awkwardly repeat a line of dialogue from earlier in the action to re-enforce the point they want to make. Games now hold your hand through every challenge.

"It’s also hugely disappointing to realise that most gamers are only seeing the early part of your game and will never reach your cinematic end scene"

This can also completely ruin your sense of immersion, when you are cajoled along a route connecting the dots via a series of bright neon signposts your sense of the world and ability to come up with your own solutions to problems is often lost - but that doesn’t need to be the case. The best games allow players to come up with different solutions to problems and encourage you in the right direction while retaining the illusion that you chose the right route through your own skill.

Half Life 2 is a very good example of this (And Deus Ex! –Ed), there are challenges with multiple solutions and although it is essentially a very linear game you don’t feel overly forced down a specific route. Unfortunately, HL2 is a rare gem.

Truthfully, nobody wants a return to the days of gruelling games that had to be completed in a single sitting. Time is at a premium in the modern world, so who can afford to spend that much time playing a game (apart from WoW addicts)? Sin: Episodes tried an interesting approach and tailored the game to react to player performance, ensuring it would take four hours to complete. Difficulty was ramped up and down based on the number of misses, headshots, paces and ammo.

To finish this column off I’ll answer my own question – yes, many single player games nowadays are too easy and the lack of a challenge fails to engage or keep me coming back for more. Hardcore gamers now find their thrills in multiplayer games where the intelligence of other players makes for an ever-changing and enjoyable challenge. Multiplayer games also bring the added satisfaction of knowing the person you just beat was another person - and conversely the frustration of knowing someone is laughing at your corpse after humiliating you but that’s the thing, you can’t have the one without the other.
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