Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Effort!

I went back and played Timesplitters: Future Perfect a few days back. If you haven't played this XBox (not 360 compatible) game, maybe you should: the writing is excellent and the animation is astounding even held against today's games.

But if you play it, play it on "easy". The game is haaaarrrrd. Thumbsticks still don't mix well with FPS games...

Anyway, this got me thinking about difficulty in games. One of my complaints about many games is that they're too easy. Especially RPGs, which are built specifically so that any idiot can reach the ending.

Some RPGs offer "extra challenges", like Final Fantasy's "Ultimate Weapons" - optional super-hard bosses. Some games also offer multiple endings depending on the course you take, which is kinda-sorta related to difficulty. Some games also allow you to choose a difficulty.

Personally, I think all three of those methods are mostly dodging the question. Some, like the multiple ending one, are actively more irritating than simply making the game hard. I don't like having to restart a forty hour game to get "the better ending", and I doubt anyone else does, either. "New Game+" mode can alleviate this irritation, though. Mmmm, New Game+.

When I think about difficulty, I can't help but think of Ye Olde Days, when games were hard and hardware was erratic. Things were paced differently back then. Adventure games featured hours of wandering around places you'd already been, searching for whatever the next key was. GameFaqs didn't exist. That level of patience seems extraordinary today. The idea that I would ever willingly wander around for hours in the same places seems unbelievable.

Similarly, in games like Future Perfect, they're not really hard hard. They're just hard enough that you can't beat them without dying a few times. But I find this to be irritating.

Did I get spoiled? Did I get old? Did culture change?

What's your favorite difficulty level? What kinds of opinions do you have on the subject?

14 comments:

Corvus said...

Last month's Round Table was on difficulty and there were a lot of very insightful submissions.

Craig Perko said...

I'll take a look, thanks.

Craig Perko said...

Arr, I want more meat! Those are mostly no more interesting than my own post. :|

Ellipsis said...

I'm a fan of Devil May Cry games and Ninja Gaiden, and beat them on their hardest difficulties. This lead me to believe that I like games to be as hard as possible, but then I realized that in many other games, when faced with a challenge that took several attempts to overcome, I became very frustrated, even though I was willing to die 30 times against the same boss in one of the two games mentioned above.

So I think there's a huge disparity in the way games present difficulty. For one thing, the way a game presents itself sets a certain expectation for its difficulty: Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry try from the moment you put in the game to convince you that they're "hardcore," whereas a game with a different aesthetic and learning curve might lull you into a false sense of security and then BAM! Impossible boss fight.

Another thing is that challenges have to seem "fair," though what qualifies as fair varies from game to game. The key is that overcoming a challenge should feel like it depends on you learning a new skill or coming up with a clever solution. When you feel like your victory or defeat is largely random or depends on something that you don't think should matter, then the challenge is simply frustrating.

Well that got to be a long comment, but that's my 3.25 cents on difficulty.

Craig Perko said...

Those are pretty much my own thoughts on the matter, but there's something else for me. I don't really know what it is, maybe it's just some kind of contextual clue.

When I die in a game like Gears of War or similar, I get very irritated, because I have to do the same exact things again. Even if I only lost ten seconds of gameplay (and ten seconds of loading), I still get irritated.

I don't like dying in a checkpoint-based game... for some reason, I don't mind dying when I have control over saves and loads, so long as I haven't been an idiot and forgotten to save recently.

Something about how fine-grained I can chop the challenges up... I don't know exactly.

Patrick said...

I think you'd find Braid addresses this issue perfectly.

Craig Perko said...

No, it just dodges the issue. Just because you can't die doesn't mean the game isn't hard.

Olick said...

Lesee then.

Firstoff, I think most games today DO coddle, to a degree. I think that game designers shoot for a game that someone can pass through smoothly, but gives challenge. Except the challenge is generally calibrated for someone below experienced gamers levels of skill. A good number of the old games that are hard are also unfairly hard, rather than actually creating a deep complicated challenge, instead you just have a 4 frame window to execute the jump, and if you fail you have to restart 20 minutes of work.

Devil May Cry: I rented the fourth game, played it on hard, and was satisfied on the bosses, losing a few times until I could conquer them. This pattern continued for me until halfway through the game.

I think there's a difference between losing and being frustrated. You really enjoy DMC and Ninja Gaiden, and when you lose you can probably understand how you lost, and how you need to improve to win. But if you're playing an unfamiliar game, and lose because of that unfamiliarity, it gets frustrating more quickly. I'm sure there are a lot of other factors too, like if the pacing of a game matches the down time. Or how much progress you are losing... If I'm playing a japanese shooter I can play the first level 25 times before feeling like I should stop. But if I die in an RPG I usually quit for the day (this does not apply to mmorpgs). Not to mention simply liking a game more makes you want to work at it more.

Braid: Braid does not sidestep difficulty, even if it sidesteps straightforward losing or dying. Its a puzzle game, and struggling on the puzzles is expected. The low repetition rate on the puzzles also prevents you from learning a basic pattern, so most puzzles must be approached from a fresh angle, which creates difficulty AND interest.

Ellipsis said...

I think it's also worth noting that not every game necessarily needs to be hard. That is, the challenge factor has a different level of importance in different games. In Devil May Cry, the challenge is one of the most important aspects of the game, but in other games it's much less important.

Consider Guitar Hero/Rock Band. Certainly, a lot of people jack up the difficulty to expert and try to show off their skills on the craziest of songs, but everyone who plays GH for the first time played on easy and did a simple song - the goal wasn't, at least immediately, to challenge you, but make you feel like you were playing the guitar, and it was very easy to pick up (even my mom played it).

Alternatively, consider any sandbox game, or even an open-environment game like Oblivion. After a certain point, once I'd gotten the hang of my character, playing Oblivion wasn't very challenging (once you get to a decent level it's shockingly easy to make a broken-as-hell character), but I kept playing because I liked exploring the world and discovering things.

So for many games the question is how to make the proper kinds of challenges, but that's only if you think that challenge is an important part of your game.

Craig Perko said...

Self-set challenges are also an interesting topic: if I decide my city in SimCity needs to be traffic-free, that's a very difficult goal...

Anonymous said...

Braid is wicked hard in that if you don't happen to discover certain dynamic, you have hit an absolute brick wall. No way around it, no learning curve.

Went back and played through that Timesplitters. The big thing about old FPS's is the lack of recharging health. Probably the biggest innovation that Halo brought to the genre. In old games, there is constant tension in any combat because you can be nickel-and-dimed to death over time. New FPS games are more about burst damage taken per second or essentially, density of mistakes.

Craig Perko said...

Anon: Another thing I found difficult about Future Perfect was the "protect" challenges, because they're always long-ranged affairs and I'm no good with thumbsticks...

But the "nickel and dime" effect was a big thing. I'm not entirely sure it's a bad design decision: it has a lot of uses, including increasing tension and, to a large extent, allowing quicksaves without breaking the game.

"Health packs" have always been immersion-breaking for me, which is why new games (such as Halo), with their "I just regenerate" mechanic, make more sense. However, they do completely change the flavor of the game...

Textual Harassment said...

I think the growing frustration with losing comes from failing the same types of challenges so many times before. Take jumping over a bottomless pit. The first time you played Mario Bros. it was an interesting challenge. But over the years you get tired of falling in holes, until you get annoyed just at the thought of having to jump over bottomless pits.

As for health packs, I like the method where you get your health filled up at checkpoints, with nothing in between. Scrounging for health generally detracts from the game.

Craig Perko said...

Overall, I think I agree.

Of course, some games are built around the idea of scrounging for health, so it's not that it's ALWAYS bad. It's just bad in any game that's not supposed to be teeth-clenchingly tension-filled.