Friday, August 7, 2009

Awww is it too hard for you? (sad face)

(Hes smiling because your about to spend 5 hours dying in his game. His name is 'Splosion man and you can find him on XBLA for ten dollars. Oh hes also hilarious and loves cake, but that's besides the point)

An argument found more and more common these days is how difficult games are today. This argument usually stems from the older generation of gamers addressing the new line of "hardcore" gamers.
Typically it unfolds with us sounding like old cronies talking about the "golden" age in gaming. "Back in my day, we didn't have checkpoints , infinite tries and save points. We had to beat all our games in one go, with the twenty to thirty tries the game allotted us. And it was the greatest time ever time dumping hundreds of hours into one game".

Of course that argument falls through when games are deemed as "artistic" or experience pieces. Then the concept of difficulty is tossed aside because your target audience can't "experience" your game in its entirety. More and more as the argument grows I start to wonder why its completely relevant.
I used to be on the side of the fence that argued that games today are too easy. Giving my little melodramatic speech about the eruption of the casual game. However I think game difficulty hasn't necessarily vanished, its just gotten more annoying. Games haven't necessarily gotten easier, just cheaper in their design philosophy.

(This is Braid, Jonathan Blow's awesome artistic experience. Its a poignant and melancholy take on the hero story. It's not supposed to be fun BTW, you should play it. )

A disturbing trend is the approach to difficulty that developers have followed in the past decade. Lets make an Easy, Normal and a Hard mode. Maybe attach a very easy or very hard/impossible mode just for kicks. The casual players will gravitate towards the "easy" mode, the hardcore to the normal and hard modes and every ones happy, right? Not necessarily, as both experiences are just cosmetically different.
The first gamer will cruise through the experience, unlocking the ending and moving on with their lives. The second one will curse about ten thousand times, break three controllers and swear a vendetta on the developers. However in the end the two gamers experienced the same cut scenes and endings. Why would anyone want to be the second gamer then? Because gamers are stupid, duh.

(Achievements, the reason anyone does anything retarded and stupid in games. For reasons you don't even know. Yes you are just as bad, you people that get Trophies, yes you PS3 people. )

Attaching arbitrary numerical values to a game isn't great game design, its stupid. No one wants to play your game to the point of memorization just to beat it. And no it is not cool when that one dude you made out on the far corner of the screen just shot you, meaning you just lost an hour of your life. That of course referring to not understanding at all why you even failed or lost the game. Too often have I played a first person shooter only to die randomly because some magic "bullet" curved its way into my face.

You as developer cannot create a gaming experience and then completely shift numbers and call it a change in difficulties.
As in you cannot just make player A do X less amount of damage where as the computer controlled enemies do X times more damage to the player. The result is the controller through the TV because people don't want to play that. They don't want to play something that accounts for 99.99% luck and .1% skill. If you do, well then stop reading, you probably have a better lease on life. Go have fun playing Megaman for a hundred hours.

(He looks so happy for someone that's about to die like a thousand times just to beat his game. He is totally awesome though. His game was hard as hell, but he still is awesome.)

However for people that aren't like that. Me, for instance. I rather have an experience tailored towards how I play. What I mean by that is a game that stems from your skill as a player and not how well I as a developer created this for you.
Often times developers will create an experience that is meant to reinforce how awesome of a gamer you are. This is a very common practice and exists in practically every game today. No, I am not saying I want like thirty more of those experiences.

Why can't we have an ounce of realism without tarnishing the overall experience? I don't want to be a super soldier who saves the world at the end. Why can't I just be a guy trying to live in the world and trying to get by? Why must I be engulfed in fake fights and battles just to reinforce my status as a gamer?

What I as a gamer want is just to have a genuinely realistic experience. I want puzzles that are actually mind-bending puzzles. I want a racing game that grants me adrenaline when I'm truly racing against other cars. Of course I want an RPG that provides me with a deep profound experience that rivals a McCarthy novel or a Kubrick film. I don't want to be tricked into believing that I'm accomplishing all these things when I'm truly not.

(Honestly, I talk about Kotor 2 in almost every single argument. This picture is pretty cool though. It has nice symbolism, sort of. Yeah I have to stop using this picture for like everything.)

All joking aside, why do we need these archaic design philosophies? Why can't we differentiate difficulty scaling and offer a drastically radical experience?
Say for instance you are playing an Role Playing Game where you are mitigated to making choices for your character.
Now these choices filter down into your overall game experience and how you play the game ultimately. Why then can't the "easy" mode subject the player to all the "easy" decisions and blot out all the negative choices for them?
That way, they finish the game in more or less in an ignorant fashion. Which would be fine because they opted for a vastly different experience and didn't need to dump hundreds and hundreds of hours into it.

(A casual game like Wii Sports Resort. The most groundbreaking innovation for gaming. By the time I write this I'm sure its sold like 500 gazillion units. Simple, Fun and Awesome. Well, maybe just simple.)

Now for the other gamer, who values something more from the game, you can create that element as well. Giving them the "normal" mode gives you a vastly different tone and atmosphere to the game. Where your choices are more severe and your experience is the result of the deep consequences of your choices in the game world.
As such you spend more time experiencing a more poignant and enlightening experience over the casual gamer. Now of course the two experiences are different, but you offer players a choice instead of spoon feeding them arbitrary number crunches. The end result is similar to the difference from Twilight and Pride and Prejudice. One offers a very condensed literary masterpiece while the other is simply entertaining. Which very much differentiates between the "casual" and "hardcore audience."

(Infamous, the story about you and how evil or how good you want to be. It brings dramatic weight to your decisions and adds a layer of depth to the gaming world. We need more of these in our landscape of games. We need the darker shade of grey on the morality scale.What you thought I was going to make a sarcastic quip?)

Of course this concept is far from perfect or entirely fleshed out. There are also numerous problems with it. However, my point is why does difficulty scaling even need to exist? Why do developers need to account for the casual gamers at all times of the day. You alienate the people that thirst for more in your game. Yes that one guy on the message forum bitched for an hour about how much he hated your game. So what? doesn't mean you need to take out dying for your game.

(This is Bioshock, Kevin Levine's pet project about a underwater Randian dystopia. The game where you can't die at all. So your supposed to be terrified at the madness and hysteria that mankind can erupt into. Yet you can't die, and there is no consequence for failure. Have fun?)

You as a developer have the responsibility to foster and care for your game. If you conveyed what you meant to show then more power to you. You can't make everyone in the world like your game. Just like everything else in this world. So create the experience that shows people fun and awesomeness on a realistic level. Don't subject them to just simple visual explosions all over their face like Peggle and Super Smash Bros. Show them just a realistic expression of your medium.

(Yes Peggle is awesome I know, but its tailor made awesomeness in a cup. As much as I hate railing on Peggle, it is barley even a game. Its addicting and fun, but its 99.99% luck and .1% skill. I also feel bad for not mentioning the myriad number of games that each would have carried valid points. Maybe next time. If you read this far congratulations, you are either totally awesome and care about what I had to say or you just want a cookie. You don't get a cookie.)


    funny you mention video games. i've been bored outta my mind so i got new games for my ds. well not really new but i started to play zelda and now i'm hooked. LOL
    how are you buddy?

  2. Hey what's up Nathan. I haven't talked to you in a while, how have you been? We should hang out at school or get lunch or something. I want to apologize too for not commenting on this earlier, I read your blog a week ago or so, but wanted to write a long, fleshed-out response, but never really got a chance to do that.

    Anyway, I think you have an interesting post. Obviously we are from the same generation of gamers, but I would assume at your job you get the hear the opinions of older gamers who grew up on arcade games like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, ect. I would argue that most of those older games were just as superficially difficult (probably even more so)than today's games.

    Lets take Pac-Man for instance (I have it for XBL arcade so it makes a convenient example). It starts out fairly easy, but once you get into the higher levels it becomes impossibly difficult. Not because the ghosts get smarter or the game forces you to think more creatively; the game just get so fast paced that normal human reflexes can't handle it. In fact since most games back then had little to no artificial intelligence (most enemies had scripted attack patterns) the only way to get through them was to have amazing twitch reflexes, or memorize entire levels. The first way takes luck and exceptional ability, and the second way would take so much trial and error as to make the game not fun anymore.

    But for the idea that games today are just easier in general than games 15-25 years ago, well I'm not entirely sure about that. I would just argue that they take a different way of thinking. There is little to no strategic/tactical thinking or puzzles that require creative thinking. I'm sure you could find some counter-examples because I am not that experienced at old-school gaming, but I think I am right for the most part. Games these days have artificial intelligence, so enemies respond to your actions, you respond to their actions, they respond to that, and so on. Since enemies in older games lack the ability to respond to your actions, the only way to for them to win is for them to come at you so fast and in such great numbers that you are overwhelmed. Modern games just require more thinking, not only that you have anticipate your enemies' actions, but they are also a lot more complex, and have a more complicated system you need to learn before you can excel at the game. I'm not saying that one of these two vastly different game design philosophies is inherently better than the other, they are just different. Granted, the more complex options weren't available to early developers, but it is still a legitimate game design.

    I definitely do think that in general, most modern games (especially poorly made ones), tend to be too easy compared to the well made games, and when you ratchet up the difficulty, they get harder in a cheap way. This happens a lot in movie tie-ins, and is probably just a result of the devs not putting a whole lot of effort into the game.

    I'll give an example: Earth Defense Force 2017. Travis Northup has that game and actually likes it, I can't imagine how. Anyway, I think there are 5 difficulties. It's a terrible, poorly made game on any difficulty. I think on the first 3, enemies die in a few hits and you can just run through the levels shooting at everything that moves without any challenge. The 4th one is hard, just requires you to play smart by picking the right weapons for the level, but still feels cheap. The 5th one, called Inferno, is so ridiculously difficult, it's nearly impossible to beat, even with 2 people. You unload clips into the easiest enemies, and die in 2-3 hits. The only way to survive is to have an extreme amount of luck. That is an example of a very poorly made game for difficulty.

  3. Now let's take Halo 3 (although any one of them works). On Easy, you can pretty much through without any tactics, but on anything higher than that, you have to play tactically. You have to take cover when you take damage , throw well-aimed grenades, switch your weapons for the situation, ect. The best part of it is that as you go up in difficulty, your enemies actually are smarter and better shots, not just have more hit points.

    Of course, the games I have described are only shooters, other genres have differences. One thing that really irks me on any type of game is having to use exploits in enemy design to make the game easier.

    I'll use another example. I'm not sure how familiar you are with Soul Calibur 4, but it's a game I play a lot. On the higher difficulties, the enemies can get really cheap by countering things few humans. They are also programmed to respond to certain moves in certain ways, so some moves they always block or counter, but others they never or rarely do. For example there is this big guy with an axe named Astaroth. He has this one move where he sweeps the ground low with the axe, and then can either follow it up with a second sweep or smashing them vertically with a mid hitting attack. The AI will always crouch and block to block the first attack, and always stays crouching becase they expect the second sweep. So you almost always catch them with the mid hitting vertical, which does massive damage. Almost everyone going through the single player mode uses this strategy, I can see that by checking the leaderboards and seeing that all the top ranked players use Astaroth, despite him being only a mid tier character in multiplayer competitive play. And SC4 is in general a very balanced game in multiplayer and very well made, it just pisses me off things like this are the best way to win instead of having to learn a character's entire moveset and have to use most of it.

    Kind of related to that concept, it also really pisses me off when games give you lots of choices in playstyle, but then gimp all but one of them so much that you pretty much have to play in a certain way. Elder Scrolls: Oblivion is one of the best examples of this. There are some enchantments that make the game lose all challenge such as %100 Reflect Damage, or %100 Chameleon. They both make you invincible, and aren't really hard to acquire the items that give you these enchantments. You could try to play as a straight fighter or thief, but the effectiveness of that pales in comparison to just running though the world completely invisible and never having to fight anyone (and them being unable to fight back when you do engage them). Of course doing it that way takes the fun out of the game, so I feel I have to purposefully limit myself to what I can do in-game in order to keep the challenge, which in a sense also takes the fun out of the game, because I am being constantly reminded of the game's flaw. Fallout 3 had the same problem, using the Chinese Stealth Suit and silenced weapons made it near impossible for the enemy to locate you.

    To move on to another topic, you bring up an interesting idea about making them game have fewer choices when played on easy mode. I'm not sure if this is a good idea, because it means that someone who is playing for the story doesn't get to experience it fully because they are playing on easy mode. Some people aren't that great at games or aren't looking for a big challenge, and it seems unfair to cheat them out of the story.

  4. But I know your idea has been done to a certain extent. Remember Goldeneye and Perfect Dark for the N64? They each had 3 levels of difficulty. But as you went up, you took more damage, but also there were more objectives, and sometimes even new parts of the level were unlocked that weren't available on easy. The Timesplitters games, which borrowed a lot from Goldeneye, also did this. I remember a level from TS 2, where you have to infiltrate a Russian Cold War base. There is some stealth at the beginning, it turns into more of a shooter as you get inside and go down into the bottom levels. But once you get to the basement on easy, you find the time crystal and the level ends. I though the game was cool, and then decided to go back and play it on the hardest difficulty. On that level, after you get to the bottom, there is a massive zombie outbreak, the soldiers bring in a suppression squad armed with flamethrowers, and there is a massive 3 way battle. then you have to work your way back up to the roof to escape, and there is an epic helicopter boss fight on the roof. It pretty mach adds an extra 50% of the level that the easy mode was. I think that was a really cool way to do it, because to get the full experience you had to try the harder difficulties.

    You also mention taking out difficulty scaling all together. I really don't think that is a good idea. Let's go back to Halo. Which difficulty is the "correct" one? Certainly not Legendary, it's too frustrating even for most FPS veterans. But if normal was the only mode, fans would clamor for something more after they had beat that. I think scaling works as long as the default difficulty manages to be reasonably entertaining and not too frustrating. And yes I agree that games like Bio Shock or Battlefield: Bad Company where you can't die are stupid, because it eliminates the need for strategy.

    Some games now automatically adjust the difficulty based on how well you are performing, I think Max Payne was one of the first games to do that. It certainly is a clever idea, and might be the future of difficulty scaling.

    I'm going to have to wrap up this post, because it is late now and it rivals the length of some essays I have written for school. I hope my thoughts are somewhat coherent and you found them interesting. As a final note, Splosion Man in indeed awesome, and I'm glad you find him hilarious. We should hang out and catch up.

  5. I hate commenting on my own blog, but I fully understand your statements kyle. However I disagree that it is indeed deemed cheap to take the story concept to players. You forget that while I am being objective, most people are idiots. Let me rephrase that, most gamers are idiots who don't understand the dramatic weight a game brings to bear. Often times a series that challenges the moral and ethical boundaries of our time is criticized as stupid or a dumb game. In my opinion, these gamers deserve the more watered down experience because they walk away with that Super Smash Brother's joy mentality that they achieved something monumental. For the people that wish to experience a deeper more profound experience, that choice also exists. Difficulty should never rest on just making the game kill you faster, that is an archaic design choice and isn't exactly difficult, its just cheap.