The Point Is to Be Challenged – Part 3

continued from Part 2

Having and Eating Cake That Is a Lie

Denby, unlike Pulsipher, actually seems to like games and the people who play them. He argues that it’s not an either-or choice between accessibility and challenge. Admitting that there are many games he’s rubbish at, he asks if it’s so unreasonable to expect developers make a “Denby mode” available. While he’s cruising through on a fail-proof difficulty level, I can still have the brutal and demanding experience that I (occasionally) love.

It’s nice to think that gamers of all skills and tastes can unite over games of all stripes, but I have seen precious little evidence that this is the case. Denby uses Bioshock as an example of a game that went out of its way to be friendly to less skilled or less patient gamers. It allowed for instant respawning after death (thanks to the Vita-Chambers that littered each level), and was a breeze to finish on the easiest difficulty setting. Failure was hard to come by, and it wasn’t punished. Yet hardcore gamers still had fun with it on higher difficult levels.

Or did they? I enjoyed Bioshock immensely when I first played it, but “does it have legs?” Not really. I have played Bioshock one and a half times. Compare that to its predecessor, System Shock 2, which I played at least five times and still consider the more interesting game, if woefully unpolished compared to Bioshock. While admitting the truth in Yahtzee’s characterization of SS2′s difficulty as ranging from “hard to murderous”, the game also featured more interesting decisions for the player to make. There were a number of workable approaches to how you could tackle the game, but what you couldn’t do was take advantage of all of them. So you could be a heavily-armed soldier, blasting his way through enemies and obstacles, but then you couldn’t use psionic powers (which were especially useful in places where ammo became scarce). Conversely, you could pour a lot of character development points (cybermodules) into technical skills like hacking and research, which could ease your passage through the game and reduce the combat required.

No matter how you built your character, you made painful trade-offs. If you tried to avoid making any trade-offs, you ended up with a hopelessly mediocrity that would begin having serious trouble in the midgame. However, it also made the game slightly different every time I played it. Furthermore, it was inherently challenging to play through the game with one of these characters, because some things were always easier while some things were suddenly more difficult. My marine could smash and blast his way through hordes of the Many, but he couldn’t break security barriers or hack the item dispensers. My naval technician could make the ship his ally by turning the security system into a friend, and he could break into any weapons locker or vending machine, but he had a tough time with some of the heavy-duty enemies. The two experiences were so different as to be practically different games. Another example of this kind of game would be Deus Ex.

The complexity and challenge inherent to System Shock 2 was stripped out of Bioshock, making the game friendlier to a Denby-style player but ultimately shallower. Your character could do anything and everything in Bioshock, making him effectively invincible. This makes the experience identical every time I play. Furthermore, higher difficult levels do not offer anything interesting. There is no way of making the game more interesting than the breezy experience Denby is having on the easiest setting, because that’s how the game was designed. Higher difficulty levels simply make the enemies more difficult: they absorb more shots  and hit harder, but the solution is hardly a stimulating challenge. You just shoot them more. The difference between easy and hard, then, is “kill them” vs. “kill them a lot.”

It’s easier for developers to create interesting challenges while they are designing the game, and much harder to bring it in ex post facto through difficulty options. Furthermore, there’s a point at which challenges inherent to a design cannot be mitigated by difficulty levels without breaking the game.

Ultimately, I cannot grant the premise that a game should be designed with the goal of being enjoyable or completeable for every potential player, and that seems to be the logical extreme where both Denby and Pulsipher converge. You can’t please everyone, and gaming is never going to disprove that truism. It would be disastrous to try.

    • Lewis Pulsipher
    • October 11th, 2009 7:49pm

    Well, “RobZacny,” you’ve done a better job than most of twisting what I wrote in Gamasutra to your own purposes, though it’s not an uncommon occurrence. Pundits love to set up a straw man and knock it down. Telling your readers what I would say, or what I would judge, may make you feel good, but has nothing to do with me or with reality, only with your imagination.

    (This reminds me of a story. Decades ago, an academic at a World Science Fiction convention delivered a talk about Harlan Ellison’s fiction, about what Ellison was feeling and thinking as he wrote. As it happened, Harlan himself was in the back of the room, and at the end he got up and told the academic he had no idea what he was talking about. (From what I’ve heard about Ellison, he was probably much more forceful than that.) I’m not Harlan, of course, but what you’ve written shows similarly little idea about what I feel and think.)

    The oddest thing, compared to so many skewed interpretations of the article, is that I *don’t* think games should be made easier or more passive. In fact I said “what the heck?” when I first heard of games that automatically save, and that aim your gun for you (that really threw me), and other such alterations to make play easier. I advocate providing an *alternative to “dumbing down” games*. Those who love challenging games should DEMAND an autopilot/demo play feature in future games so that they won’t be “dumbed down” to the point that they won’t enjoy playing even on the hardest difficulty setting. If “autopilot/demo play” does not become common, then we’ll see games continue to be “dumbed down” to give them broader appeal, and the hard-core players will suffer for it. With “autopilot” the hard core can continue to enjoy their challenging games. Otherwise those exceptionally hard games will be very uncommon.

    What makes games games, is not challenge or accomplishment, it’s entertainment. Different people are entertained in different ways. Some like the provided-by-designer and implemented-by-computer challenges; some like the challenges of playing against other people, a very different situation. Some like to “see what happens”. And so forth. Yet some people seem to think that video games are “intended” to be only what they enjoy (e.g., challenging interactive puzzles that we call video games), and think they can judge how hard is OK, and how hard is punishment, and how hard is not hard enough. And they think there’s something wrong with anyone who disagrees with them. It’s an extraordinarily self-centered point of view, and one doomed to fail.

    To discuss at length how hard is good enough is mostly a waste of time. An individual consumer has no influence on “how hard” a game is. The manufacturers will judge how hard games should be, and that will be based largely on the size of market they aim for. That’s why games have been getting easier for at least two decades, as the size and breadth of the market grew.

    Your only hope is something like autopilot/demo play, so that the gameplay itself is not dumbed down. Thanks to the power of the modern computer, in video games we can now do both: provide a highly challenging game, yet let people who may not want to take on heavy challenges still play the game. What a great situation! Let the computer play the game when necessary so that players can get past the parts they find too challenging (parts that will vary from player to player: some like puzzles, some hate them, some like “twitch”, some just can’t twitch fast enough (or don’t want to bother)).

  1. @Lewis Pulsipher

    I can have no idea what you think or feel, but I have a good idea of what you wrote in, “Are Games Too Much Like Work?” If I got the impression that you are excessively interested in revenue and audience, perhaps it was because of things like this:

    Video games won’t be as widely accepted as film unless we find ways to allow participation by those who don’t want to be challenged by their entertainment, and who don’t want to have to work to be entertained.

    Far more people watch movies than play video games. Roughly speaking, a movie that grosses $200 million domestically is seen by more than 20 million Americans, and many more people in other countries, in a month or two, far outreaching the audience of the most successful video games. That doesn’t count how many will watch the DVD or see it on television.

    How can video games approach this kind of audience?

    And those who aren’t ‘real gamers’ will enjoy ‘all the pleasure of a video game without the bother of having to play it.’

    Those who like to do will still be able to play the game that way; those who like to watch will also be able to play. And the sales of video games will increase as the market broadens. Someday, then, some best-selling video games might match the best-selling movies in audience size.

    You made audience share and revenue a central point in your argument in favor of solving the problem of challenge, except that I remain unconvinced that you have actually identified a problem. I do not grant that “games are not as widely accepted as film” is a problem, and I am unmoved by the thought that revenue and audience size will soar once we remedy challenge.

    In your above comment, however, you are making a very different argument than you made in Gamasutra.

    I advocate providing an *alternative to “dumbing down” games*. Those who love challenging games should DEMAND an autopilot/demo play feature in future games so that they won’t be “dumbed down” to the point that they won’t enjoy playing even on the hardest difficulty setting. If “autopilot/demo play” does not become common, then we’ll see games continue to be “dumbed down” to give them broader appeal, and the hard-core players will suffer for it. With “autopilot” the hard core can continue to enjoy their challenging games. Otherwise those exceptionally hard games will be very uncommon.

    I have my doubts that this is actually a solution to the problem of “dumbing down” for an ever-decreasing common denominator, but it’s an idea I’m interested in discussing.

    However, you betrayed no concern for hardcore gamers or their love of hardcore games in the Gamasutra piece. In fact, you seemed to use them as straw-men quite a bit.

    Hardcore gamer complaints that the game Spore is “too easy”, or that World of Warcraft is “for noobs”, are typical.

    MMOs like World of Warcraft have made playing much easier, much less challenging, in order to appeal to a larger group of players. “Old-timers” complain, but you can’t argue with the financial benefits to the publisher and studio.

    Hardcore gamers love WoW as much as more casual players, in my experience. They complain about it, yes, but they are like grognards, no? When they stop complaining, they are most likely dead. This is doubly-true in the MMO space.

    Oh, and once again you are using the “financial benefits” argument to deflect an objection that you have not even bothered to articulate.

    So we remove work from games, we remove “failure” from games. The hardcore will be disgusted at such wimpiness, but we’ve been working toward this in video games for decades, why not finish what we started? After all, they’re games, not tests of manhood (or womanhood).

    Face it, in the great scheme of things it doesn’t matter whether you took only four hours to “beat the game”. It doesn’t matter whether you have 10,000 “achievement” points (as if those “achievements” amount to anything in real-life terms!).

    It doesn’t matter that you’re a “bad-ass gamer”.

    As you have represented them in your article, hardcore gamers are exceedingly juvenile, play hard games out of a misguided effort to compensate for insecurity, and are unaware that getting achievement points does not, in fact, make one a better person.

    If I reached the conclusion that you disliked the hardcore and what they value in their gaming, you gave me plenty of reasons to do so.

    As for the points you made in your response…

    It may be pointless to argue how hard is good enough, as you suggest, but that’s not really what I’m interested in. I’m interested in what separates the challenging game whose challenges people enjoy from the hard game that just ends up enraging most of the people who play it.

    For instance, one game I’m very interested in right now is Demon’s Souls, which I’ve heard from numerous sources is both hellishly difficult and very enjoyable. Why is this game able to punish gamers so brutally, to take away what they have spent a play-session accomplishing, and still make gamers like it so much? I think it’s worth looking at such cases, just to see what works as a challenge as opposed to what slips into becoming an annoyance.

    Returning to auto-pilot mode, I see two problems. The first is moral hazard: designers would lose some incentive to provide appropriate challenges, because they would know that auto-pilot would be available to compensate for their sins. Gamers who love the challenge of a game might find themselves dealing with some fairly asinine demands, because a design team in crunch might decide, “To hell with it, it’s not like we’re forcing them to beat this boss.”

    Second, a game’s rewards are still being made independent of gameplay. Since developers are now approaching the project with an eye toward an audience that might not actually want to play the game, they have to make sure there are plenty of rewards for the people who just want to watch the story and occasionally participate in some action.

    I don’t know how you feel about JRPG’s (I’m not really a fan), but one thing that’s always bothered me is the sense that scenes between the characters and the intermittent cutscenes are the source of the genre’s appeal. The rest is just filler that gamers have to wade through in order to watch the next scene or read the next chapter, so to speak. The game might as well be playing itself for all the influence I have over events. As long as I just keep selecting menu options, I will complete the quest. My fear is that an autopilot would encourage this kind of design.

    Rob

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