Can a game be made too difficult?
Lately, I’ve had a few decisions to make in terms of the difficulty of the games I produced. I made this soccer game, which was apparently insanely difficult. I did spend a lot of time trying to win a match, and felt pretty satisfied when I did. When it came to releasing a test run of that game, it turns not only nobody was able to beat it, but nobody could even get a draw! (ok I think one person managed to win). Still, I struggled before reducing the difficulty, because I felt that players should really try to beat the challenge. On the other hand, one thing to keep in mind is that a level of difficulty that’s too high really drives popularity down, because let’s face it, it’s no fun when you can’t win ;-/ I decided to tone down the difficulty so that winning a match now is as difficult as it was to get a draw, and now it’s still very difficult to win by more than one. (I’ll try to add more levels in practice mode to draw people in.). Okay, I had to cave in. It’s concerning though, have gamers become softer, are easy going games now becoming the standard?
The case of Warcraft 3
Let’s take a closer look at one of my favorite games, Warcraft 3. I used to play Warcraft 3 like mad. I started coming up with the stupidest strategies (like playing only with catapults or just heroes), against actual players. I always loved being challenged, struggling to win, and be stressed about losing. Sometimes, the game almost felt like a chore. It drained all my energy. My co-workers would ask me to join a team game or a 1 on 1 challenge, and I know it’s a just game, I know it’s fun and all, but a part of me would feel like it was almost like work. Still, I loved the game, and never got enough of playing it. Then one day I discovered a variant of Warcraft 3, the notorious… TOWER DEFENSE! I’m not sure if most of you know, but tower defense started as custom Starcraft / Warcraft maps. It was kind of like a tweak on the game, that brought a whole new set of fun experience. Was it fun? Hell yeah! But this was a different type of fun. I didn’t feel tired playing tower defense. It was so relaxing, I sometimes played it before going to bed if I couldn’t sleep. It was Warcraft 3 without the pain. It wasn’t necessarily easier to win, but I felt it was just pure pleasure. One thing was missing though. I didn’t feel I was really challenging myself. I was getting better at something, but I didn’t consider that to really be skills. I don’t mean to bash tower defense, but to me it’s on par with watching television. I just sit back and watch monsters being blown by towers.
Games with upgrades
Another type of games I’d like to talk about is the games with upgrades. Those are popular games and the concept is almost out of a cookie cutter machine. You have some challenge, you try, fail, but each trial provide money to upgrade something, making the challenge a bit easier. This seems like the answer to difficult game, right? At some point, I thought about adding an upgrade system to my soccer game, but later decided against that. I want to let game developers know, upgrade systems is NOT the answer to everything. If I added an upgrade system to the soccer game, it would change the game fundamentally. The issue with games with upgrade, is that they turn the gameplay into a game of patience. Eventually, if you keep trying you’ll probably get further until the end. There’s a sense of progression, not necessarily because you’re getting better at the game, but most likely because the game is getting easier. It’s not really a bad thing, but one thing to keep in mind is that adding an upgrade system will considerably alter the gameplay. Another example is a game I recently produced called Dragonworm. Originally, I was planning an old school shoot-em-up (like R-Type, Gradius, Xenon 2). The artist wanted to add the concept of upgrading, failing and retrying… We made the ship (a flying worm) upgradeable, with lots of weapons and fun goodies. You collect gold as you play, and get to upgrade the ship after you die. At the end, I was pleased with the result and found the upgrade system very compelling. I noticed something though. For me, the game is the most fun when I only had 2 upgrades. If I fully upgrade the ship, it actually becomes a stroll in the park. I also realized that this would be the experience most player would have: A difficult start, progressively becoming easier. I didn’t want players to totally miss out on what I considered the most fun aspect. That’s why I added special challenges, where you try to finish the game with limited upgrades. My philosophy about upgrade type games: by themselves they provide a great sense of fun, but the message conveyed is that you can just buy stuff and make things easier, rather than keep practicing to become skilled and eventually overcome a difficult tasks.
Nowadays, games increasingly have tutorials. A game without instruction is often criticized for confusing the player. Tutorials / in-game instructions make a game easier to approach. They ease the player into the game, making it more user friendly. So tutorials are a no brainer right? Absolutely not! While designing a tutorial seem like the nice polite thing to do, it could, in a lot of cases, ruin immersion. Sometimes, you want players to discover a game. You want them to approach it with a sense of candor, perhaps a bit scared and confused, not knowing whether they’re doing the right thing… Like a child discovering a toy! The second option would be like having some higher power (like a parent or teacher) holding the child’s hand, explaining how the toy is supposed to be played, then watch as the child repeats the action just taught. Kinda alters the experience, doesn’t it?
I realized that deciding the difficulty of a game really comes down to my personal philosophy about life. I think people can struggle through video game and overcome difficulties. I also want players to discover games like they’re exploring a virgin world and not feel like there’s some higher power watching over them. I know I don’t always succeed at following that philosophy, but my goal is to approach it progressively. While the difficulty of games and the lack of assistance might not be great for improving user reviews, I hope to help players adapt and eventually feel the same experience I had when I first discovered video games: struggling, confused, lost, yet marveled.