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Technical Difficulties- We've never had it better

For quite some time Iíve had some rather unusual thoughts about the structure of gameplay difficulty, and Iím glad that I have some incentive to fully explore and distill these concepts into a cogent argument.

Consider this common scenario from the average gamerís life. Your favorite developer announces a new title at a conference, be it E3, GDC, TGS, or Leipzig. You have never been so excited! You wait for a year or two, keeping up with all of the news and previews, eagerly awaiting your chance to play it. Early reviews say that it is really good, but has some issues with the difficulty curve. You think to yourself ďBah! Iíve been playing games for years, Iím sure it will be fine.Ē

The release date is finally here; you walk into your local game shop and plop down the $50 or $60. You take it home, carefully peal back the cellophane, take a quick sniff and pop the disc into your system. You get everything ready, get yourself a nice coffee, take the phone off the hook, lock your door, turn down the lights, and settle in for a night of relaxation. Controller in hand, you are ready.

Two hours in, and the pacing is fine. You wonder what those reviewers were whining about. You havenít had any trouble. Maybe they just sucked. You get to your first boss fight and you start having some trouble. You get killed. You think itís no big deal; you reload a save and try again. Youíre slaughtered. A little annoyed you rethink your battle plan, go grab a few more healing items and tackle it again. Nope. Bitch-slapped by some psychic alien you start shouting in frustration. Again you try, and again you fail. Ultimately, you give up and head to the forums to rip your favorite devís latest IP a new one.

This happened to me when playing Mass Effect. The first boss fight was brutal. It doesnít matter which one you pick. The first one is always a little hard. Even now, every time I try and get another person to play it, they cruise through the game until they get to the first real boss and they hit a brick wall. Iíve played it enough now, that even on Insanity I can blaze through any mission in about 30 minutes, but it is definitely not alone. I had a similar problem when playing Lost Odyssey, and I remember raging pretty hard towards the end of Psychonauts. Ninja Gaiden got really annoying and made me afraid to play it, and I cannot count the number of times Iíve stepped down the difficulty ladder just to progress at a reasonable pace. And let me be clear- Iíve been playing games since before I could walk or talk. My first game was Dr. Mario on the NES when I was just a few months old. Iím not the most skilled guy out there, but I can pick up most any game and charge right on through without any trouble. It is a special kind of frustrating to have a game that you truly love and want to play but canít because the game is too hard.

While I fully acknowledge that older games were typically harder, my concern lies largely with the creation of a consistent gameplay experience. Many people, myself especially, expect to be immersed when playing a game. We seek strong aesthetics, solid audio design, and a believable story with round characters such that we may be steeped in the world that someone has built for us to experience. Yes games were usually harder in the past, but that doesnít mean they were better, or, if they were it is not without qualification. If you are looking specifically for something challenging, that tests your skills and your reaction time and the degree to which you can control your character to conquer hurdles that have been laid out before you, then you probably love classic games. They excel in providing that kind of experience. What they donít do, what they mostly canít do, is provide that same sort of immersion that modern games have. The stories, the music, the characters, the aperture through which you can view the world in general are all much, much more narrow. The two classes of games cannot be compared. I have set my focus primarily on more modern titles as they are usually structured for immersion. For these games I think that dying, and especially ďlivesĒ, ďstocksĒ, or ďguysĒ should be largely eliminated. I put forth as an example of how that might improve gameplay Retro Studioís first title, Metroid Prime.

Metroid Prime, while still having death, is rarely challenging enough for you to die, and even when you do, it always feels fair. There is a simple directional indicator to tell you where the damage is coming from, and with only a few exceptions, your power scales with what you are expected to kill. Bosses are often huge in size, but you are given every tool needed to properly combat them, and you are never left in the dark. The payoff for gameplay, I think, is huge. You often feel like you are in danger, but you get an amazing high when you fell enemies many times your size, but there is relatively little death to sour the experience.

It is entirely possible that my adventure to Tallon IV was unique, though. Perhaps I am simply really good at it. This does little to mar my main point- difficulty and unfair death is often frustrating, it breaks immersion, and it can piss us off. Why then, do we cling to this trope? If it is not fun, and damages our experiences, why do we need it? I suspect that many will claim that it makes reaching the end more satisfying, and I agree, to an extent, but when the difficulty begins to degrade the overall experience, it is a significant problem. While I can understand the desire for a game that is exceptionally difficult such that the end game is something that only a handful of people are ever able to see, I think that prohibitive challenges are necessarily toxic to gaming as a form of mass media. Movies, books, and music all base their worth on the fact that they become shared pieces of culture. If all games are prohibitively hard, then bringing new gamers into the fold suddenly becomes a monumental undertaking. Gaming, as an art form cannot grow if developers do not have an audience.

An acquaintance of mine criticizes my claim that games are among the deepest media available through an astute analogy. ďI donít think games can ever be considered a form of art because Iíve never been unable to turn the page of a book or watch past a scene in a movie due to a lack of skill.Ē While, I find it childish and personally annoying, it is a fair point; especially when we consider a broader audience. We, as ďhardcoreĒ gamers, lament the ďdumbing downĒ of modern games. We expect more people to join our cultural tradition, but we do not want to adapt to the changing environment in which we live.

Going too far to the other end is just as bad. While I certainly rail against unnecessarily hard games, there are very easy games that deserve just as much ire. I cite as evidence Twilight Princess. A solid game all around that suffered from really awkward difficulty. My main issue with it is the lack of any real sense of danger. In the beginning, you are relatively vulnerable and then you grow in power; that much is standard. The problem, though, is that your enemies do not scale with you. The final battle with Ganon is laughably easy. He does no more damage than some of the very first enemies you encounter. What is supposed to be the epic conclusion to a grand tale comes off instead as a fight like any other. I, personally, never felt like I was at risk of dying. My mother, a more casual player, was very satisfied with the game, however, and shared none of my complaints.

This is a simple problem, and one that, in theory, would be easy to fix. Games like Half-life 2, I think, have a very clever solution- an automatically scaling difficulty curve. When the game realizes the player is struggling, it gives out more health in random boxes. It is a simple adaptation, but it is one that, from experience, is remarkably effective. If, for example, Twilight Princess, detected that I breezed through the game with relatively little trouble, then it could have, in theory, beefed up Ganon a bit and made that bout a lot more exciting.

This may sound obvious, but I advocate a middle-ground in terms of difficulty. I canít find myself joining in with the rest of the ďhardcoreĒ gaming crowd screeching that games as a medium are going down the shitter. I think games have never been better. We liked the games of old because we had never tasted a truly palatable story with relatable characters. If you really get down to it, when thinking about them as being artistically relevant, they blew ass chunks. Maybe Iím broken though. Maybe I am just a gaming-hipster, but I think using difficulty as a measure of a gameís worth, or as a selling point is unfounded. Just because games are easier, doesnít mean they are bad. It means they are accessible. That said, I can definitely relate with people who feel that gaming has become too easy, but it is a much smaller problem than I think most gamers make it out to be.

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About Daniel Starkeyone of us since 2:41 PM on 12.27.2006

Some say he never sleeps and eats only gourmet amaretto cupcakes. Others claim he's a hyperactive optimist. To citizens of the Destructoid empire, though, he's Captain Starkey, Intergalactic Games Journalist.

Disclosure: In my undergrad at the University of Minnesota, I did do PR and event promotion for Microsoft. It does not and has not affected any of the pieces I have written, but it is something that you, as a reader, should know.
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