The Right Difficulty in video games

What a lot of “hardcore” games feel like for me.

I’ve never been a fan of difficulty in video games. I tend to play in Normal or Easy and not stick to video games that resist me too much.

For the longest time, I thought I was a sore loser, an all-around impatient player (to the point of being bad, no doubt) or just someone who drew too clear a line between games and work to appreciate hardships in a game. I still think all of those things are true to some extent.

But when I played Super Meat Boy, I enjoyed it immensely. I was not repelled by the game’s in-your-face difficulty. I died thousands of times and kept trying for more. I’ve also stuck to Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords through its’ highly evil intro (where most people get the sense that the IA is cheating). And Heroes of Might and Magic II is my favorite in the franchise, even though I think it’s the hardest of the lot.

Super Meat Boy (by deviantArt artist Hillbilly16)

So it could not be as black and white as I thought. Some difficulty feels right, whether the rest feels punishing and I’m going to tell you what, in my opinion, separates the two.

The Definition

The difficulty in a video game is Right (by opposition to Punishing) if most of the time the player loses:

  • They feel like they died through faults of their own.
  • They have a clue as to what must be done to improve and/or overcome the pitfall.

At face value, both conditions seem completely subjective. In the exact same situation, Player A will feel cheated, while Player B will see something they did wrong and get an idea for next time. Of course, no matter the game, there will always be some players who’ll deem it a cakewalk and some who’ll never be able to survive 2 minutes past the tutorial phase. Let’s forget about the extremes and even the individuals for a second, to focus on the majority.

How can game developers make sure most people will feel like it is their fault if they lose? How can they give players clues as how to improve?

The rules

There ARE things that game designers should pay attention to, provided they aim to craft an experience that will not turn off most gamers through unwarranted punishments. Here are some (not all, for sure) of those things in no particular order:

Fine tune the damn controls!

Don’t make your players do that.

Never is frustration greater for the player than when they had the right idea but could not convey it in time to their avatar… because the controls failed them.

Finicky controls and complex commands are only fine if the related actions are not performed under stress.

Err on the side of the player

Say the controls are as fine-tuned as they can possibly get, yet there is still doubt as to what the player really intends to do. For instance, when the player targets with an analog stick, there will be times when it is impossible to determine exactly what the player was aiming for.

Let us say the game computes 48% chance of something sensible, like the next platform on the way to the exit or the enemy right in front of the avatar, and 52% chance of something utterly silly, like a fall to the avatar’s death or the torch just next to the enemy’s head…

The game should err on the sensible side. Chances are, that’s what the player really wanted to do. If not, most players won’t hold it against the game.

Feed back

There might be a perfectly sound chain of consequences between the player’s actions and its avatar’s untimely demise, but that logic is void if it plays in the shadows, behind the player’s back.

There has to be some way for the player to tell what’s happening, especially if what’s happening results in a game over. It doesn’t have to be obtrusive like a blinking red screen or verbose like a detailed numerical account of damages dealt. It can be a tiny icon with a helpful tool-tip when hovered, a color code, a specific animation, anything that will be seen and eventually identified by the player so that they see what leads from A to B to C to Game Over.

Don’t rub it in

Losing sucks.

The game or the player or both had set a goal, a score to break… and it failed. The avatar died, haphazardly crumbling like the mass of polygons or pixels it is, while a voice actor’s throat was slit in the background… The player’s rank has decreased, the Indestructible achievement is forever lost, the section has to be replayed yet again, the player’s friends will make fun of them for days, another match-making session has started and will last at least fifteen minutes and the player feels the bitter taste of failure.

What the game developers look like in my mind when I have to wait for a 2 minute-long death sequence to end before I can try again.

That is enough. There is no need for further punishment beyond what is required structurally. Seriously, there is never any need (or excuse) for horrendously long death sequences, already seen yet unskippable cut-scenes, shortages of checkpoints that induce waste of hours of gameplay or insane death penalties that serve no purpose other than deter players from daring plans.

One of the things that make Super Meat Boy such a gem is the way it rewards the player for dying: if you die a lot, you’re treated with an awesome replay video of all your failed attempts superimposed over your last successful one. It doesn’t make losing fun (it never is), but it quite softens the blow.

Consistency over Realism

Games do not inherently need to be realistic. They are entertainment and, as such, they provide an escape from reality.

If we put aside the so-called “serious games” that can generally be thought of as simulation software, no game is ever truly realistic. Sure, you might find here and there guns and cars that behave frighteningly close to the real thing… but what about the setting? Right.

Does it matter that your elven avatar has magical powers? That the Destroyer of Nations was killed for the 28453145th time today? That you’re surrounded by undead clones hungry for your brains? None of those things are realistic. But they’re fun for millions of players, so who cares?

The one feat this man will never accomplish is move a table or chair.

The problems arise with inconsistency.

It is perfectly fine to wield an incredibly powerful Italian hunk who can hold on to a ledge by two fingers for 2 weeks in a row, fend off a hundred trained and armored soldiers while barely breaking a sweat and fall down 200 feet without a scratch. But why on Earth can he not move furniture around?!?

In the space between what should logically be, in cohesion with the rest of the game universe, an what is actually implemented, lie hurdles that will surely feel unjustified.

Ultimately, every game has to set its own rules. If game designers do not want their players to bang their heads on the wall yelling “WHYYYYY?!?!”, they would do well to actually decide on those rules, write them down and stick to them.

Do not half-tutor

There was a time not so long ago when tutorials were rare. Most games expected the player to read the manual or to figure stuff out on their own. Some hardcore gamers say that age was golden and that games should never take the player by the hand. I am anything bur a hardcore player myself and I love to be eased into a game through a good tutorial.

I could probably write a pamphlet twice as long as this one on what makes a tutorial bad or good… but for now, let’s focus on one terrible thing: half tutorials. By that, I mean tutorials that introduce the player to only part of the mechanics in place in the game (usually the most easy to explain, which tend to be the most obvious and easily figured out on one’s own).

Game designers. Please. Do not ever do that. If you’re going to show the ropes, show all of them. Do not explain parts of what is needed to play and then throw the player to the wolves with the illusion that they are ready to fend for themselves. That will result in blood, tears and betrayal charges vehemently screamed at the innocent screen.

Conclusion

Wow, thank you for coming this far. If you have your own rules to enounce, please respond and tell me about them. Either way, thank you for reading.