Extra Credits: When Difficult Is Fun

This week, we discuss how to make a game challenging, yet still enjoyable.

Episode video is on YouTube

Show Notes:

Be sure to check out the Extra Credits Store.

Would you like James to come speak at your school or organization?

For info, contact us at: kate@extra-credits.net

Apologies for any inconvenience, a better approach to new episodes will be live as soon as possible.

Recent Comments:

  • Its not exactly the case that punishing games will not succeed. There's one game that is exactly successful because it is punishing. That game is "I Wanna Be The Guy". Every second of that game is an exercise in frustration that goes way beyond just being difficult. Yet it works. Now it is a free indie game so the terms for success for that genre of game is a bit odd to pin down but a lot of my friends and me played that game for hours. I still feel this is a discussion point.

    That's not quite correct. From what I know, each individual one of IWBTG's challenges is something that most basic platformer-players could figure out to a reasonable extent. Each one gives clear reason for your failure (ie, you landed on the spike). It's the challenge of rote memorization and trained reflexes that makes games like that and Super Meat Boy interesting.

    An example of a game that, say, doesn't identify your failure, is Uplink. It's a hacking game - if you leave logs of your IP address' access on another computer, then you don't fail right away. Instead, about a couple of minutes gameplay later, the company's security team arrives at work, discovers the hack, and then finds you through the access logs. All that happens on your screen is this:

    You have been discovered attempting unauthorized access of a protected system. As per your agent agreement, the agency has now disavowed you and any knowledge of your actions.

    Of course, that screen could come up any number of ways. It gives a certain appeal of authenticity, but to most players it might put them off for being difficult, rather than just challenging.
    For instance, the only way to learn from that is to look up a guide online.

  • Its not exactly the case that punishing games will not succeed. There's one game that is exactly successful because it is punishing. That game is "I Wanna Be The Guy". Every second of that game is an exercise in frustration that goes way beyond just being difficult.

    Frustration?

    I recall the... Oddities... Being amusing until such a time they got old (And some are highly predictable - Of course some of the apples fall upwards in a game in the masocore genre), at which point they became boring.

    Boredom more than frustration was my main emotional memory of that game...

  • I haven't read all the posts but just wanted to address that punishment can positively influence gameplay. For instance prince of persia (2008). It had a very short iteration time and only made you go back a few seconds. As a result there was no need to play carefully or plan. Even though some of the execution was difficult the game as a whole was very easy. It negatively impacted my enjoyment of the game. Its the only game i can remember feeling was boringly easy while still having over 100 deaths.

    Dark souls is the other end of the spectrum. Its only hard because people try and play it like an action game. Its not one. As long as you move slowly and carefully you should be able to get through whole game with less than 10 deaths even if you don't have great reflexes.. I really only found the final boss battle to be a real test of skill and it was just a parry timing skill test. Of course i still died many many times my first time through because i hadn't learned to play patiently enough. The game does everything it can to try and tell you "hey, you should really slow down and keep your eyes open" by making you have to do a lot of backtracking and lose all your souls if you die (yeah you can reclaim souls but still). This clues you in that you should play much more cautiously. That is the value of straight up punishment.

    Also should mention that if you died to reinforcements late in a fire emblem match then you did not in fact master the previous content of the level. The levels are puzzles. Just because you find a solution that solves 80% of the puzzle doesn't mean the pieces you placed are correct. Its likely you needed an entirely different formation to protect from possible ambushes. I am also not a fan of perma death either nor am i a fan of when FE games have no place to grind in allowing you into some unwinnable situations that you unintentionally created 10 levels earlier by leveling the wrong people. Also the critting aspect as a whole adds in a random chance that really shouldn't exist in a strategy game. I mean yeah you can always play it safe and assume the enemy attack will crit and yours won't but then why have it there in the first place.

    On a tenuously related note i would like to hear extra credits discuss whether or not and if so how much game developers should count on people using the internet to look up solutions. There's really no such thing as a puzzle so difficult you can't get past it anymore because you can just go and look up the answer. Should game designers take more effort to include heavy random generation in puzzles to avoid them having one set solution or design puzzles for the few good people writing the guides or for the people (id like to think a minority but i guess i really dont know) who just won't look it up ever even after getting stuck?

  • Couple of things to toss in here related to recent gaming experiences, related to the topic:

    - Random number generator mechanics can be fun, but you need to be aware just how much of your core gameplay is reliant on them. They can be fun, but they can also be needlessly frustrating. XCOM 2012 is a fine example of a game that probably has a little too much RNG in the core gameplay, giving the feeling that your control over events is maybe a tad loose, especially on Impossible, where a single bad dice roll can result in the untimely death of a veteran trooper, even if you did everything "right."

    - Brutal difficulty doesn't have to be un-fun. I finished Hotline Miami and have almost "finished" Rogue Legacy (closing in on having everything at the manor maxed out.) Both games can and often are horribly, horribly difficult, but the pacing and gameplay mechanics makes dying fun, not frustrating. Every time you die in Rogue Legacy, it's because you didn't think quickly enough or react fast enough. Every time you die in Hotline Miami, it's because you didn't react fast enough or maybe should've taken a different route.

    You don't feel like you're being penalized unfairly for losing, but you're still being penalized. I guess that's the key - you shouldn't reward failure, but you also shouldn't penalize failure too harshly, either.

  • Reviving the topic because I can.

    Thing about difficult games for me is that they always get me angry. This has dissipated over the years, but when a game gets too hard, I tend to be turned off. True, I do want a challegen, but... well, a challenge I can complete.

    I guess that came to a head when I played Super Meat Boy, where I could SEE how to do it, and the challenge was about me mastering the controls well enough to see it to the end! I didn't bother playing through some of the extra content, since I was satisfied in just beating the game, and it got REALLY insane after that, but I guess that's the kind of difficult I want to go for: where I can SEE how I beat the game/level, and the challenge is working up the skill to pull it off.

    ...Another thing about Super Meat Boy that ties into the video here is that it doesn't punish you that harshly; when you die, you IMMEDIATELY respawn at the beginning, so there's no time for you to get upset over it. You just try and try again to your heart's content! In contrast to, say, difficult levels in Mario games, where you have to sit through that cutsie-poo "lose a life" music, get kicked out the stage, have to re-enter it, and go back a certain checkpoint to try and beat it there.

    Really, little things like that can build up getting on people's nerves, and by making the death/respawn system easier, you make a less frustrating game while not making it any less difficult.

    You know what I like? How Dan defends making games difficult from the transfer to arcade machines to home consoles. It flies in the face of stuff people like Yahtzee keep harping on about. But then again, things have changed since those days. Not only have the demographics changed, but so have the types of games you can play, and how much time and money you can invest in them.

    Again, this reminds me of Arin's Sequelitis videos, specifically his first one, where he goes to great lengths to describe how everything in Castlevania was well thought-out, how EVERYTHING had a purpose, and the game was designed around the limitations. It's actually quite brilliant in retrospect.

    There's also the matter of "Cheap Difficulty": and it ties into Dan explaining how everything in the game follows a set of rules. You can't just throw a curve-ball at a player and expect them to keep going along without making them angry. You ALSO can't set up a situation where the solution is not obvious in the slightest, and they have to make a "leap of faith" in order to figure it out.

    Oh yeah, Battletoads... It's a game everyone has nostalgia for, even though the game is so ridiculously unfair at times. but yeah, the more you can think "okay, what did I do wrong here?" the better the game is, IMO.

    Oh yeah, I HATE games that have hidden passages like that! Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends has some of those, but a lot of the hidden areas are merely covered, and not necessarily a death-trap. I ALSO love games that show when a pit will lead to your death, but having subtle hints such as a foul smell, or ghastly ghouls or something coming out of it.

    I haven't played Fire Emblem: Awakening on classic... or did I? I forget... But that, that happens a lot of the time in a LOT of Fire Emblem games, and it gets REALLY aggravating!

    Heck yeah, Danny mentions Super Meat Boy, like I did! Meat Boy for life!!! Also, a picture from Arin's Sequelitis, ANOTHER thing I mentioned! Great minds think alike, I suppose!

    Gosh, I don't know why I stopped watching these videos, it's fun talking about game design like this! In fact, this might be my new favorite episode!

Join The Discussion: