Difficulty is Hard

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Daniel Laeben-Rosen:

I don't know if you're aware of this but, some of us play games to have fun.

I agree. I normally go for normal mode - but occasionally I get to a point where frustration sets and the game isn't fun any more. I then drop down to easy only to find easy to be a cakewalk and unsatisfying. Some level between easy and normal would be good thing sometimes.

Indeed. That's what I like about some games having an Easy and a Very Easy-mode. There Easy will still put of a challenge enough to feel like the game isn't holding your hand. Well, usually. One or two games I've ramped up to the hardest-possible difficulty and still not felt even slightly challenged. Then... I get disappointed.

I'll agree that PoP was punishing, but wasn't that partly the point? You had to learn the levels, because although you could restart a level as many times as you wanted the hour was still ticking away. I personally don't like that game (much prefer for example Flashback), but I see what they were going for. As for "wasting your time", I'm sad to say you're wasting your time regardless of game. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not like you're accomplishing more playing MW2 over PoP1.

The hack n slash genre contains some of the best examples of difficulty in the business.

"Devil May Cry always did it right."

I'll agree with you there. The fact that the increase in difficulty level makes enemies faster and more varied rather than have oodles of HP. Also there's the fact that if you don't feel up to a certain challenge you still keep your red orbs if you die, so you can power up for your next run.

"Megaman fucks it up really bad. Megaman is hard, and unfair about it. It's all PURELY trial and error. And good difficulty will challenge you, but make it more than possible to beat things on your first try."

First of all I'd like to say I beat most of MM9's levels on my first try, so there's that, but it's not all that different from DMC really. In DMC a certain boss can absolutely destroy you with its attacks before you figure out how to dodge them or damage them(the method isn't always entirely obvious). In the MM games you can challenge yourself by picking any level in any order, or you can pick the easiest first and use that boss' weapon to make some other level much easier. Both series have a vein of exploration and imposing restrictions on yourself to see what you can handle.

And if you're talking about block puzzles and the like, 9 times out of 10 any sort of puzzle in a MM-game can be solved by observing it for a few cycles before jumping into them.

Ravek:
0.95^30 = 0.21... ?

To elaborate on this: the probability of making one 95% jump is 0.95. Making that *and* the next one is (0.95)(0.95). Doing that thirty times in a row gives you a probability of (0.95)^30, which is about 0.215, or 21.5%. So yes, your simulation was off a bit, but close enough to get the general idea.

On the actual subject: interesting point that difficulty needs not only to be right, but to be *communicated* correctly in advance, if it's going to match its intended audience.

See, I would say that expert level on l4d is my perfect difficulty. With the right support and a bit of luck, its doable. Its not a cakewalk.

The trouble with NO punishment for death is that there is no feeling of achievement for beating something. if something only has a 5% chance of working, but its ok...I can have 10,000 attempts for free...well. Not fun to me.

It really does depend on the game. I am content that I couldn't finish crysis, I didn't enjoy the entire game enough to care. If however Fallout 3 had been too hard to finish, I would have been pissed. As others have said, having a story that people can't finish is bad. Having a dungeon that only 5% of people can handle is good.

Alot of producers forget the differance between "challanging" and "a**hole" these days.

I was playing assassin's creed Brotherhood, which i am loving by the way, and to get 100% on a mission, you have to go without taking a single hit. This would be easy, if the 30 minute mission didnt end a cutscene and have you attacked by 3 armed men who you cant counter.

The cutscene litterally ended to me having 3 of the toughest guys in the game charging me. Ofcourse, i get baby tapped and fail the full sync. Because of the way the game is set up, you eather have to restart the whole 30 minute mission of walking some people to some place, or say screw it, and retry for full sync at another time.

Thats where the line from, "Difficult" to "a**hole" is crossed.

To be honest, I think that developers should spend SO much more time than they do looking at difficulty. Particularly, I'd love to see difficulty levels that aren't just the standard Easy, Medium, Hard settings.

I want to be able to tweak specific aspects of the game to change the difficulty. So have three bars with three settings. Enemy AI, Enemy Toughness, Player Toughness. The presets (all at 1, all at 2, all at 3) correspond to easy medium and hard, but they let me tweak to my current skill level.

That'd mean that if I'm pretty good, so medium isn't much challenge, I can make myself a little weaker, or the bad guys a litter tougher or smarter. Just one click up, to make me work harder for the win. Alternatively if I'm not that great, I don't have to drop all the way down to Easy to get through. Just make the enemies a little easier to kill, and suddenly I'm having a great time.

You can apply that kinda thing to any game really. They all have difficulty levels these day, so there's no reason why you can't make them tweak-able. That way if I'm awesome at combat, but a dreadful platformer, I could still get the greater margin of error I need to progress through the platforming bits without child-friendly nerf combat.

It all comes together to mean that as you get better at a game, you can gradually increase the difficulty, and when playing with others you can find a balance between skill levels, so the stronger player can still enjoy the game without overwhelming the weaker guys with a true 'hard' experience.

Its a great idea, and I hereby patent it. You all saw it.

Seems like we have a discussion topic like this on the public forums every day, a**hole difficulty versus reasonable difficulty, with many examples of both.

I don't see how Mega Man can be considered unfairly hard. The only obstacles that are sometimes hidden until it's too late are the occasional long spike shafts that show up maybe once per game in Skull Castle. Everything else is right there in front of you, and if you die to it it's your own fault. It's a golden example of reasonable difficulty.

A**hole difficulty tends to occur more from the conservation of checkpoints than any enemy or obstacle. Of course gamers aren't going to be able to figure out how to take down a new enemy the first time they meet if the game is remotely interested in challenging you, but a balanced game will place a save point or check point close by so you can try again shortly after getting your face bashed in the first few times until you know how that enemy/obstacle works and will be ready for them in larger numbers later. To that extent, the lives system is one staple of the old days I don't mind seeing gone forever.

Oh, and Battletoads. Just throwing that out there since no article on difficulty is complete without at least one mention of the pinnacle of unfair difficulty.

Bad games have one level of difficulty that will appeal to that select group of players along the delta for which that difficultly level is challenging.

Good games, you can play them as hard or as easy as you want.

For example, take an RPG. Playing it "hard" would mean going straight through the game with your level 1 sword. Playing it "easy" would be taking time to grind your levels up a little bit. Skilled players are happy because they went through it faster than most people could. Casual player are happy because, even thought they had to grind some and pay more attention to the right gear, they still finished the game.

Take away grinding from and RPG, and it is stuck at one difficulty level, which either works for you, or it doesn't.

I think the best example of making a game difficult by making it unfair are Call of Dutys. They are fricking frutrating on veteran. Another good example is Ninja Gaiden 2. I have Ninja Gaiden( the one that game out on Xbox) and it was awesome. It was damn hard but it was still fair(well the camera was an ass sometimes and some parts were of course unfair). But Ninja Gaiden 2..... I stopped playing it on the volcano level because it got really friking annoying. They were just recycling old bosses and there were two volcano turtles(or wthatever they are called) at the same time. Plus the shiny graphics of that level made my eyes bleed and not ina good way. It had been made easier than the first Ninja Gaiden(you could replenish your health at checkpoints etc.) but they made the game completely unfair imo.

Michael O'Hair:
snip

All very true, this is a pretty sizable subset of gamers. But then this relates to his opening comment about the new PoP being marketed to the wrong audience. Some of the oldest gamers are the ones who put difficulty as their number one determinate of a game's quality, but they are still a small group. Games catering to enjoying near-impossibility should be fewer and far between, and more overtly labeled. Having played neither, I knew soon after hearing of its existence that Demon's Souls was punishingly hard, but I have never heard that about Prince of Persia (maybe I'm just uninformed).

The bottom line, though, is that when those gamers complain about easy games they often forget that they are a dying breed. You can have an enjoyable and challenging experience even if you don't die every single time anything happens. The point isn't to be challenged or entertained, it's to enjoy the game, and getting some momentum and actually completing more than one challenge before dying again (and then not going back several other challenges) is enjoyable and should be enjoyable to anyone, whereas the feeling of "Yay I did it!" gets old after you have to feel it every time you progress at all.

Fearzone:
Bad games have one level of difficulty that will appeal to that select group of players along the delta for which that difficultly level is challenging.

Good games, you can play them as hard or as easy as you want.

For example, take an RPG. Playing it "hard" would mean going straight through the game with your level 1 sword. Playing it "easy" would be taking time to grind your levels up a little bit. Skilled players are happy because they went through it faster than most people could. Casual player are happy because, even thought they had to grind some and pay more attention to the right gear, they still finished the game.

Take away grinding from and RPG, and it is stuck at one difficulty level, which either works for you, or it doesn't.

But the option of grinding can lead to an even worse difficulty problem. Assuming this a classic rpg, compare it to an action rpg. Even if you stay at level one and keep your "wooden sword" and "clothes" equipped, you can still physically dodge all attacks and hit bosses for 1 damage until they die after an hour of whacking. But in a classic rpg, no matter how skilled you are, stats determine whether or not you can progress. There is a minimum level at which some things are possible to accomplish, because you WILL get hit. My example would be FF3 DS, where even though you had probably grinded (ground?) before, and you had done every optional side thing for experience, you had to grind at least 10 more levels before the final boss was even beatable. Or at the very least you had to grind money to buy Shurikens, but that's pretty much the same problem. Grinding lets the developers throw something multiple times your last encounter at you with the game still being technically beatable, but I think its pretty commonly accepted that higher enemy stats do not equal higher difficulty, just more time investment. Usually that's in hitting them, but in this case its in preparation.

BTW I had never thought of grinding like that before, well done.

perhaps we could have more games with a "custom" difficulty.

Have 5 sliders
* Enemy Health
* Weapon Damage
* Ammo drop rate
* Health drop rate
* Enemy count

Adjust to taste. For example: I love expert level on l4d, but if we could just have the odd health kit it would be more fun.

Edsabre:
I agree with you and I'm sure everyone agree's that the reboot of PoP went in the completely wrong direction.

I understand the need to balance difficulty quite a bit. I hate games that use cheap tactics over genuine challenge, but I do applaud games that are really hard while still being fair. In fact, a good fair challenge can give a game alot of bonus points in my eyes. I'm a hack'n'slash lover and I'll give the best examples I can of how to do difficulty.

Terrible and Cheap Difficulty: Ninja Gaiden 2
Fair and Challenging Difficulty: Bayonetta

Developers; take note.

NG2 Really screwed up on master ninja mode. The rest of the difficulties weren't too bad though. On MNM I can't even get off the first stage. I can't imagine who would want to torture themselves with that crap.

Good article though. Some dev's can't make a game challenging without making it bang-your- head-against-the-wall frustrating. I've only really noticed obnoxious/unbalanced difficulty with Japanese games though. I'm looking at you Vanquish Challenge six...The first 3 rounds are piss easy then the last two will inevitably lead to your demise. In the mean time, you just pissed away 10 minutes of your life playing the first three rounds you've already beaten about a bajillion time before. Some Platinum's just aren't worth it. I'm going off on a rant -- I'll stop now.

I would argue that if a game can still be fun despite cocking up the difficulty a bit or inspite of being really easy (games like animal crossing have no difficulty at all after all) but I'll let that go. I do fell that the PoP reboot get too much flak for being too "easy." People moan about instant respawns yet seem to not take note of one of the problems in the second point of your article, Having to redo lots of stuff to get back to a challenge. Instant respawns are a way of avoiding long walks back to where you died in favor of being able to take on the same challenge again. It function similarly to rewinding of time in Sand of time but without a counter arbitrarily saying "nope that's one mistake too many, back to the last save!" Now I'm not saying its perfect it could have been tweaked to vary things up maybe spike the difficulty and keep it fresh since the game bits a bit repetitive. Overall still, I like the rebooted PoP and I'm a bit disappointed to see Ubisoft just toss it in the garbage rather then trying to improve it.

Fearzone:

For example, take an RPG. Playing it "hard" would mean going straight through the game with your level 1 sword. Playing it "easy" would be taking time to grind your levels up a little bit. Skilled players are happy because they went through it faster than most people could. Casual player are happy because, even thought they had to grind some and pay more attention to the right gear, they still finished the game.

Take away grinding from and RPG, and it is stuck at one difficulty level, which either works for you, or it doesn't.

I think Chrono Cross (and to a lesser known extent, Silver) had the right idea where it only gave you levels after beating bosses. Other than that it gave you set of tools to use to beat those bosses. Sure, there were still things you could do to improve your odds, like doing sidequests for better weapons or trapping powerful elements, but I like the idea of putting an obstacle in front of the player and saying "are you clever enough to beat this down? All the tools you need are in your hands. Go." I honestly hope someone does that again and takes it one step further than Chrono Cross.

HentMas:
you just reminded me of why i love "auto save"

autosave and quicksave are two functions which massively makes PC games much more appealing to me then many console games. Quicksave allows the player to control where they want to reload back to. Autosaves are a safety function to protect the player from having to repeat hours of something because they forgot to quicksave.

More choice the better...

ImBigBob:
And this is precisely why Demon's Souls is overrated. I don't want to have to spend 10 minutes trudging through the easy parts only to die again. Yeah, it keeps the tension, but when you die, and when you feel like your death is more luck than skill, why bother to keep playing?

Also, see Super Meat Boy as an example of difficulty done correctly. As well as Kirby's Epic Yarn, which is equally well-designed, but not challenging in the slightest.

I've only played the demo of Super Meat Boy, but those bite-sized challenges are incredible. They're hard enough I don't cakewalk them, but I never feel punished. I've done some levels like fifty times (remember, just in the demo), and it managed to keep me driven to keep going until I got it. And I'm not usually that into replayijng something to get it right (Exception, Guitar Hero and Rock Band, where I can spend hours on a fake instrument getting a track or two right).

I forgot to comment on the article. one of my real pet peeves with games is when they up the "difficulty" by making even individual fights more of a grind than anything. Especially if I already know how to handle the bad guys, don't get hurt doing so, but now it takes twice as long (or more). Lots of enemies can be fun, but if they're only there because you don't have any ideas to make it harder and you're hoping to make it "difficulty by attrition," you're not challenging me. You're torturing me.

Great article, I agree with everything said.
Games with silly difficulty peaks or artificially introduced difficulty (like in Homeworld 2, where the AI pretty much cheats - and many other RTS games when the AI does not use up as much resources as you do, for example) can go to hell.
As for low difficulty, I wouldn't mind that much, but I can see why some players could see it as a waste of time. Which is why, Game 101, Difficulty levels should be available to choose from at the beginning of the game. At least the basic three - Easy / Medium / Hard. Any game without these must either be very well crafted, or is doomed to be shit for a bigger or smaller group of people.

Dude, it is hard!

Lol I tried making an turn based RPG back in the day and the biggest problem was making the enemies just the right difficulty.

Especially when you are a one man team.

Ratchet and Clank 2 has bits that kick your arse, but getting past them is so rewarding.R&C does it perfectly I think

Honestly, I don't care about difficulty. If I beat it, woohoo, I don't, I try again, until I get fed up. Do I switch to easy mode? Sometimes. I'm not hardcore, nor casual. I play games. Plain and simple. I leave the difficulty settings to the crowd that enjoys that sorta thing. Though, in retrospect, I always go up as far as I can after I beat it. Still can't beat Mass effect 1 on anything other than normal -_-

LostAlone:
To be honest, I think that developers should spend SO much more time than they do looking at difficulty. Particularly, I'd love to see difficulty levels that aren't just the standard Easy, Medium, Hard settings.

I want to be able to tweak specific aspects of the game to change the difficulty. So have three bars with three settings. Enemy AI, Enemy Toughness, Player Toughness. The presets (all at 1, all at 2, all at 3) correspond to easy medium and hard, but they let me tweak to my current skill level.

That'd mean that if I'm pretty good, so medium isn't much challenge, I can make myself a little weaker, or the bad guys a litter tougher or smarter. Just one click up, to make me work harder for the win. Alternatively if I'm not that great, I don't have to drop all the way down to Easy to get through. Just make the enemies a little easier to kill, and suddenly I'm having a great time.

You can apply that kinda thing to any game really. They all have difficulty levels these day, so there's no reason why you can't make them tweak-able. That way if I'm awesome at combat, but a dreadful platformer, I could still get the greater margin of error I need to progress through the platforming bits without child-friendly nerf combat.

It all comes together to mean that as you get better at a game, you can gradually increase the difficulty, and when playing with others you can find a balance between skill levels, so the stronger player can still enjoy the game without overwhelming the weaker guys with a true 'hard' experience.

Its a great idea, and I hereby patent it. You all saw it.

I do remember that in Silent Hill 2 you set both the difficulty of the combat and the difficulty of the puzzles independently (Easy, Medium or Hard for each). I thought it was a cool idea and I don't think I've ever seen it before or since.

I just play everything on Normal the first time through, in the belief that this is closest to how the makers of the game intend it to be played.

I do think that having the ability to tweak the various aspects of difficulty as you progress through a game is a good idea, although if the difficulty level in a game is well-designed already(and thus ramps up appropriately with your skill level) it would be a feature I would probably never use, personally.

Hey Shamus, didn't you already write an excellent article about difficulty in games? Especially on how different styles of play appeal to different people... How players who like challenge want a final boss that's hard to beat, and requires them to use all the skills they've learned in the game, while players who like story will loathe this kind of boss, since they'll essentially think 'I beat the boss once... but he beat me fifteen times. I don't feel like this is the proper closing to the story.'

That's too bad, since this is a theme that should span way more than two pages. That's probably why your article feels short.

Also too bad is that you didn't reiterate that point, since that's spot on. Difficulty isn't about easy or hard, it's about what the game should do. A game that focuses on its story should allow you to breeze through its encounters. A game focused on combat should strive to make combat its focus, naturally; so you aren't upset that you can't get to the next part because the tactical complexity of the current encounter is dominating your thoughts.

Maybe the problem isn't so much that devs don't know who to aim their games to, but that the suits force them to aim at too wide. A story based game with pumped up enemies is not hard, it's frustrating (since the encounters weren't designed to be the gameplay centerpiece). And a combat based game with pumped down enemies isn't easy, it's boring (since the large stretches of combat that should provide you with entertainment no longer do so when less tactical thought is required).

I've received several messages along similar lines in response to game difficulty so I am going to try and respond to them all with one post. I tried to multi-quote, but like usual I couldn't get it to work right, so apologies for that. :/

Answering some of the counter points made back gets a bit off subject. When it comes to things like how "well games tell stories, and it's not right for people to be unable to finish the stories", I can't help but disagree with that implicitly. Games are not books, or movies but something entirely differant. One of the things that defines a game is the risk and the chance of losing. Outside of certain action games with a "credits" system attached this risk does not exist since people can continously restart from checkpoints, save game files or whatever else. That's sort of like someone shooting craps and being able to roll the dice until they finally win. In the case of a story-based game (and let's be honest, games like Might and Magic *DID* have storylines, even if they weren't high art) the risk should be not being able to finish the game and see how things end.

It comes down to what I've said about the attitude of current developers, that if someone buys a game, they should see all the content in the game. Indeed a lot of developers seem to increasingly not like developing content that only a small group of people are going to see as well.

There is also truth to the fact that back in the days of "Might And Magic", "Death Lord, "Ultima IV" and similar games there were less gamers. However it is incorrect to assume that these games were played because there weren't other options. Rather those games existed (and similar ones kept being created) because that is what people wanted. Understand that it was a smaller, more elite group. Simply using a computer at that time required a degree of intelligence that just isn't nessicary today due to systems like "Windows". Heck to do telecommunications and call BBS systems was a heck of a lot harder than it is now to just hit an icon for "Internet Explorer" and go web browsing.

The differance is that with computers being dumbed down and the mainstream being brought into gameing, like many other things beforehand gaming has also been dumbed down to increasingly cater to the lowest human denominator. It happened gradually as the requirements to use computers gradually reduced, along with the increasing userbase and the lowering of the quality of users. It was not a sudden jump from the days of the "Commodore 64" to Windows based machines.

The thing is that the casual gamer doesn't want to be challenged, and honestly for those that do, what challenges a casual is not going to be much of a challenge to a somewhat smarter breed of gamer.

On a lot of levels I think one of the cool things about video games is that rather than catering to the lowest human denominator, they are entertaining enough where they could be turned into an avenue for self improvement. Games can inspire people to think deeply enough to eventually be able to beat them, especially if a compelling narrative can be established to make people really want to see the end of a story so to speak.

What's more competition is a good thing on a lot of levels. If you can get people who want to "be the guy" (even though my opinion of that game is very mixed) badly enough, even if they don't get there, they are going to improve themselves by trying.

See, back in the day computer games could actually get someone a degree of respect. If you played a game like "Might And Magic", or "Wizardry" people would assume you were pretty bloody smart, and they were usually right. Simply to get those games to run meant you knew more about computers than 99% of the population (though this did not apply to console games really). Today no variety of gamer gets much in the way of respect in any form because how things have degraded. Truthfully I think that lack of respect is what has opened the door for a lot of the current crusades against videogaming, as misplaced as they might be (but this gets onto another subject).

I guess in the end we are going to have to agree to disagree, but I tend to feel that dumbing down games is a bad idea in general. I also think games being designed with the idea that anyone buying the game should be able to experience it fully is counter productive to the idea of a game.

Investing time has little to do with "talent". I'm an RPG man, so I mostly use games of that genere with an intellectual component as an example. I referance the first "Might And Magic" as an example largely because winning the game ultimatly didn't come down to how much time you put into it. In the end you had to decipher puzzles (some of which were pretty decent, especially for the time) with pieces hidden throughout the entire game. You could put a thousand hours into the game and if you couldn't figure them out, you couldn't win.

I do not consider the occasional "really hard to get" achievement to be the same thing, because it represents one tiny thing in the scope of a game usually, not the abillity to succeed at, or complete a game itself.

In the end now that a market has been hooked, I think rather than degrading games even further, the industry should be taking an increasing "carrot and the stick" approach with the audience when it comes to the games themselves, to get people to try and improve themselves in order to succeed. Actual tests of problem solving abillity should make a return, rather than simplistic physics based puzzles. I think cluebooks and "strategy guides" should go back to being just that: collections of hints and strategies, rather than walkthroughs with exhaustive instructions on how to defeat every aspect of a game.

I say this because I've failed to beat a lot of games over the years. Today it's mostly a result of problems I won't go into, and my abillity to remain focused. However years ago there were a few I couldn't defeat despite putting in a decent amount of time. The thing is that I'm hardly one of life's "winners", but I think I'm actually better for the attempts
and experiences.

Elitism DOES enter into this, don't get me wrong, but I do believe an elite, if defined by the right things, can inspire rather than subjugate so to speak.

Therumancer:
snip

The problem, or one of them, is that if a company gets a reputation for games that very few people can beat, then fewer people are going to buy them. Games are far more expensive than they were, and if I'm going to drop $60 for a game I want it to be something I'll be able to see all the content of. Most people can't afford to pay for very many games that they can only get through half of before becoming irrevocably stuck. To create a culture of elitism isn't really going to help things, either. People start thinking "I can beat this game" means "I am a better person than people who cannot beat this game", and that doesn't make for a good experience. Elitism as most people use it doesn't relate at all to good things, maybe you could use a different term to define it?

That's not to say games that are created for the challenge shouldn't be made, but the way you're arguing seems to be more toward thinking that anyone who doesn't play games for this reason isn't playing for the right reasons. For challenges there are always roguelikes and games that delete your entire file when you die once, but that's not what I'm in a game for. A checkpoint allows me to approach a problem in multiple ways, trying and learning from different strategies until I come up with a successful one. That's learning, too, isn't it?

I think everything should be taken in moderation, a few easy bits, a few hard bits, and a few bits where you lose half an hour of progress for a mistake. It provides the most diverse experience, giving you parts where you need to up your game for hard bits, than relax for the easy bits, than really concentrate hard on the bits that are like doing the trapeze without the safety net of saving every two minutes. This also does away with predictability.

This felt like half an article to me too...

This is why I HATE GTA3 on the PC, widely considered one of the best games of all time.

It's fun driving around this seventies-style landscape with its stereotypical pimps, hookers, afros and queers... but then you have to do a mission, often in two or three parts, that auto-fails if you so much as roll your car by accident. Some enemies can explode your car with a single hit in the later levels, and it's almost pure luck as to whether they do or not. And don't even get me started on the water. (You can fall in, literally be touching a dock that you could easily climb back onto, and still have no way to save yourself from dying.)

And there's NO QUICKSAVE KEY. Every single time you fail you have to reload and go back to your home base and try again. (You'll make the same journey from your home to the people who give you missions at least sixty times. It feels like a damn chore.) And when you're on mission, you end up driving around at about ten miles per hour, desperately avoiding the areas with the shotgun mafia / Columbians, scared to do anything that might cause you to annoy the police.

Presumably that decision was made by a Rockstar suit who has a crippling fear of actually letting the people who play his games have fun.

Don't know why you ragged on the new Prince for difficulty. I died less in Devil May Cry 4, #1 still kicks my ass though. The main problem was that each level was at the same difficulty range. The difficulty curve disappeared, anyone that could make a game similar in format to PoP and make a great difficulty curve would be a genius.

The annoying death animations can get on nerves indeed. Could try punch a designer of Mass Effect 2 now.

Shamus, Ubi DID learn something from 2008's PoP.

They decided that low sales were because the fact that it came without DRM provoked tons of piracy, and then went on to develop the stupidest most offensive DRM in the market: UbiDRM.

It makes you think if it isn't better that publishers don't learn the lessons since it's better than them learning the wrong lessons. After all, the latter is more probable since I can probably count Kotick's, Riccietiello's and Guillemot's total number of brain cells with my two hands.

Here are my suggestions on how to keep (almost) everyone happy:

1. Replace locked content with checklists. In other words you can jump to whichever checkpoint you want, whenever you want, and the game will keep track of the ones you've completed.

2. Unlock the 'Customisation' mode from the start so players can alter the game to how they want to play it (including making it harder).

3. Match official Achievements to certain (usually default) settings as appropriate for simple bragging rights.

4. Allow players to upload to Facebook (or their social networking site of choice) which levels they have completed and under which conditions/customisations (and have a video recording mode if possible) so that they can show off and challenge their friends to do the same or better.

5. Include an optional rewind feature (if the hardware will allow it) in addition to the usual checkpoints. (Also add a fast-forward feature for all cut-scenes...)

6. Do everything you can to keep the game moving and interactive (in other words don't punish your player with non-interactivity and pointless repetition for being crap).

To explain:

1. Replace locked content with checklists.

Locked content is the biggest sign that videogaming hasn't matured as a mainstream medium. Every other medium, such as books and DVDs have all of the content unlocked at the start, and that's the way it should be for games too.

Actually, that's not quite true. DVDs do have locked content in the form of Easter Eggs, that the viewer has to either:

i. Find themselves by laboriously trudging through menus.
ii. Find by looking for the instructions on the internet.

This is meant to be fun, and I'm sure that it is for a certain demographic of people (let's call those people 'idiots' as a shorthand), but for the rest of us it's at best an annoyance, and at worst a reminder that all human beings are selfish, evil, repressed misanthropes who hate existence and want to make it worse for the rest of us.

This isn't a digression, the point I'm making is that modern videogames are ALL Easter Egg in their horrible, sado-masochistic (or should that be sado-machoistic?) attitude to locking out content that their customers have paid for.

It's annoying because the solution is so simple: have the content unlocked from the start (but greyed-out to avoid spoilers) and have a simple checklist system that tells the player if they've completed that particular task, and under which particular conditions (easy, medium, hard, custom, etc).

To those players who would complain that this takes away the sense of achievment we can easily cater for you too: let's have something in the options menu called something like "Lock content until completed in sequential order" and then Bob's your uncle. [As an aside though: wouldn't such a thing just highlight how stupid locking content is in the first place?]

There's a big difference between being frustrated because you can't perform a particular skill (let's call this 'good frustration'), and being stopped from seeing the next story point in a game (let's call this 'bad frustration'). The latter leads to massive annoyance because it's being caused by someone else (the game designer), and the former is much less annoying because it's being caused by you, and you're in control of it.

The only thing that the player should be unlocking is their own skill level: the content should always be available.

2. Unlock the 'Customisation' mode from the start so players can alter the game to how they want to play it (including making it harder).

Not much more to say on this one, but it might be necessary for the makers to state something like "Customised modes have not been fully play-tested for quality" as a disclaimer. Or something.

3. Match official Achievements to certain (usually default) settings as appropriate for simple bragging rights.

In other words, if you have certain things activated/de-activated in the Customisation mode then you can't get the Achievement.

4. Allow players to upload to facebook (or their social networking site of choice) which levels they have completed and under which conditions (and have a video recording mode if possible) so that they can show off and challenge their friends to do the same, or better.

This is to cover people who have made the game harder using the customisation mode, and also want the bragging rights that go along with it. Not sure why I suggested facebook as you could probably do this stuff on Xbox Live or PSN instead, but unfortunately it's impossible to delete a piece of text that you've written it on a computer.

5. Include an optional rewind feature (if the hardware will allow it) as well as the usual checkpoints.

Edge magazine did an interview with the makers of Limbo, and one of them said something like this:

"Never make your player complete the same puzzle twice."

All game designers should have that statement tattooed on their souls.

If you add an instant rewind feature to 90% of the videogames that people have cited as being too annoying in this column, then most of them instantly become engaging and fun.

Some people would say that such a feature would make the game too easy, but it would actually do the opposite. Imagine how good you could get on a game like Ninja Gaiden with a feature like that. You'd more quickly trial-and-error your way through every enemy and combination of enemies (which is essentially what the game is anyway) and you'd be demanding harder enemies as a result. The designers would have to allow you to make the enemies harder and the game deeper and more satisfying: Hello Customisation mode.

6. Do everything you can to keep the game moving and interactive (in other words don't punish your player with non-interactivity and pointless repetition for being crap).

Consider something like a scrolling beat-em-up. The challenge of the game is to reduce your numerous enemies's health to zero before yours does. There's no real reason why you can't still have this game mechanic in place, but without the annoying reloading. Just have it so that you have an energy bar for each small stage of enemies, and if yours goes to zero, then both yours and theirs resets to 100% (resurrecting the ones you've killed) and you have to beat them all over again.

It's the same game mechanic but without the reload (albeit you might need a teleport as part of the reset) and the interactivity is uninterupted. Admittedly there's repetition involved, but if you unlock all the content from the start (see point 1) then the frustration is just about player skill which is what the game is designed to help improve, as all games are really just the training for themselves.

As a final note on all of the above: I think it would sell more games and get higher review scores, and hence get higher bonuses for the people making them. Imagine Ninja Gaiden 2 with all of the above recommendations being followed. It would stop being an annoying trudge through the same loading screen, and instead become an accessible and (what it really is) a fun and deep fighting game. AND it would garner much higher review scores and better sales, AND players would also regulary customise it to make it more hardcore than it already is (albeit still with a crap camera). It wouldn't just belong to the domain of the small-minded people of this world who think that something is only worth doing because other people can't do it (but I get the impression that that particular game was made by someone with that backward attitude, which is a shame).

As any keen student of the perverted arts will tell you: sado-masochism is only enjoyable when it's optional.

*Achievement Unlocked: Read an entire post even though it's more than three paragraphs long. 20g.*

Phishfood:
perhaps we could have more games with a "custom" difficulty.

Have 5 sliders
* Enemy Health
* Weapon Damage
* Ammo drop rate
* Health drop rate
* Enemy count

Adjust to taste. For example: I love expert level on l4d, but if we could just have the odd health kit it would be more fun.

This is actually a great idea. I loved the earlier Battlefield game's approach to bot's difficulty, basically you had three sliders.[1]

Enemy Difficulty
Allied Competence
Ally to Enemy Ratio

And it worked beautifully. I could get to that magical point where I'm being challenged but not frustrated. It was a beautiful feeling. I think other studios should try it, myself.

[1] Pulling this entirely from memory

Again, Prince of Persia (2008) referenced as a broken-because-it's-too-easy title. Go back, play that game again, and every time Elika saves you, slap yourself in the face. This exercise will provide your own punishment for failure, and perhaps then it will click that there is no problem with difficulty in that game.

Mr Young indicates that punishing the player is a bad thing, but it appears that without it a game can seem too easy, regardless of the actual challenge faced. In mechanical gameplay terms, being saved and thrown back on to a ledge after a failed jump or parkour run is no different from dying and having the game plop you back there as a checkpoint. But to some players, it gets in their head as "So I can never die? This is too easy!"

It would be a different story if the game dropped you on the next ledge, so that failing or succeeding the jump or run would yield the same result. It does not. Without the time reversal mechanic, the parkour sections are actually more punishing than in previous PoP titles. They just did a good job at fooling you otherwise.

Casimir_Effect:
I must be the only person who enjoyed the combat in Sands of Time. It was simple to pick up and tricky to master, but otherwise felt nice and fluid.

See, I liked it too. I liked that I could just push one button and do something really cool looking instead of trying to dial in a 6-six step combo and look like a fool when it didn't work. I find Arkham Asylum's combat to be a spiritual successor to SoT in a way.

kouriichi:
Alot of producers forget the differance between "challanging" and "a**hole" these days.

I was playing assassin's creed Brotherhood, which i am loving by the way, and to get 100% on a mission, you have to go without taking a single hit. This would be easy, if the 30 minute mission didnt end a cutscene and have you attacked by 3 armed men who you cant counter.

The cutscene litterally ended to me having 3 of the toughest guys in the game charging me. Ofcourse, i get baby tapped and fail the full sync. Because of the way the game is set up, you eather have to restart the whole 30 minute mission of walking some people to some place, or say screw it, and retry for full sync at another time.

Thats where the line from, "Difficult" to "a**hole" is crossed.

Ninja'd. I'll say, the missions themselves are good for placing checkpoints, but if you flub the 100% sync you need to do the whole frakkin' thing again. This is especially fun during the war machine missions, where the mission is "sneak around this complex with hyper-alert guards without breaking cover, then do a multi-stage platforming run, then pilot this war machine with clumsy controls and destroy the bad guys base." All well and good, but the 100% sync criteria is always "and don't get hit while piloting the clumsy vehicle section and getting shot at by dozens of dudes."

ImBigBob:
And this is precisely why Demon's Souls is overrated. I don't want to have to spend 10 minutes trudging through the easy parts only to die again. Yeah, it keeps the tension, but when you die, and when you feel like your death is more luck than skill, why bother to keep playing?

I don't really get why some people think this. In my opinion Demon Souls requires you to think before you act. Of course you end up getting to Flamelurker and he burns you, again and again. But thats more of a hint to go do something else until you're badass enough to take him out. The game has a lot of good old Diablo's mechanics, but when you die you atleast keep your gear in Demons Souls. Most of the challenges i saw as hard were optional. The main story you could avoid dying in aslong as you were careful.

The single player of Black ops has a lousy difficulty though. I'm talking about playing it on "Veteran". The only thing they've done in alteration to the difficulty is telling the AI to use "the force". They basically fire headshots on you while having their backs towards you. It changes between endless respawncorridors to "clear room then proceed to next" type of gameplay. They rarely use cover, cause their autoaim owns both your brain and skills.

It was the same in Modern Warfare 2, but they really cranked it up to a fucked up level in Black Ops.

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