Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Good vs. Bad Difficulty

The other day I came upon a forum thread asking what the difference was between "good" and "bad" difficulty. You know, a game that makes you feel challenged and fulfilled as opposed to frustrated and cheated. At first I thought it was a bit of a silly question. Isn't it obvious what makes for good difficulty? The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that the things coming to mind were specific examples, not defining factors. It's easy to look at a single situation and say "that jump is just unfair" or "I hate this time limit". It's something else to examine why those situations feel "bad". The line between good and bad difficulty can actually be very thin, sometimes night imperceptible. So I thought I would spend some time today talking about difficulty as I see it.

Before I go anywhere with this though, I want to outline what exactly difficulty is, reason being there's more to it than you likely realize. At the most basic level, difficulty is a measure of how challenging something is. However this means more than "I'm playing on easy mode" or "that boss was really hard". Video games are in fact comprised of countless interwoven challenges of varying types, sizes and inter connectivity. For example one challenge would be beating the current level. Another challenge would be defeating the boss at the end of said level. This challenge is interconnected with beating the level, but it also it's own isolated task. This could be further broken down into the moment to moment challenges of dodging attacks, hitting the weak point, etc. These are all challenges, and each one has it's own difficulty. Dodging an attack may be easy, but defeating the boss can still be hard. Similarly a level can be relatively easy even if each of it's elements are somewhat easy. Therein lies the crux.

On that note I want to talk a little bit about death, or more specifically failure states. What happens when you fail a challenge. When you are jumping from platform to platform, there are a variety of things that can happen if you fail to make one of those jumps. You could fall to your death, you could take fall damage, you could have to make your way back up and retry the jump, you could magically be teleported back up to the previous platform, etc. These are all failure states of various levels of punishment/inconvenience. However they don't interact with difficulty the way you might think. No matter what happens when you fail to make that jump, the difficulty of making said jump won't get any harder next time around (barring any shenanigans with powerups and such). Where difficulty does come in to play however is in regards to how many challenges must be completed in sequence. If you fall to your death and have to repeat the entire level, that's clearly more difficult than if you only have to retry that single jump. The more challenges you have to complete in a row the more likely you are to mess up one of them. The reason I bring all this up is partly because I think it's interesting. It's also partly to dispel the concept that a game's difficulty is directly tied to death. Just because a game like Kirby's Epic Yarn has no death doesn't mean there aren't challenges or failure states. Not having played it I can't comment on the actual difficulty of the game, so I'm just going to move on.

Now that we know what exactly difficulty is, let's take a look at what determines the severity of the challenge. This can essentially be broken down into 2 parts. Firstly, how much skill does it take to complete the given task? This encompasses both the physical requirements (reflexes, timing, coordination, etc) as well as mental requirements (critical thinking, memory, lateral thinking, etc). Beyond that, we have the window of time in which we have to complete said challenge. If you have to jump over an obstacle that shoots flames, it's going to be a lot easier if it shoots said flames every 10 seconds than if it shot every 2 seconds. The actual difficulty of jumping over the obstacle is no harder in the second instance, but having a smaller window of opportunity does make it more difficult on the whole. Now, beyond these two things there is one more element that I think is very important, but I don't see mentioned very often. That is, how your challenges interact. Dodging away from a boss' attacks might be easy. Dodging falling debris might be easy. Doing them both at the same time could be hard. This is where balancing difficulty can be very hard. I consider it integral that challenges work together to be more than the sum of their parts, but not to the point of it being frustrating.

So what exactly determines good difficulty from bad? Well, the idea is obviously to provide the player with a challenge that is going to... well, challenge them, without frustrating them. This essentially comes down to providing them with a difficult task, while also giving them all of the tools and information required to conquer it. It also means that failure shouldn't be overly punished, because that is a large contributor to the aforementioned frustration factor. Failure needs a consequence, but the most fun games often seem to be the ones that allow the player to get right back into the action. People hate redoing challenges they have already completed. The problem is that so much of this is subjective to the player. Different people are going to have different levels of skill, experience, different thought patterns, etc. One player may get a puzzle more quickly than another. However something like a jump where you can't see the landing point from where you jump is a straight up no-no. This is an example of a challenge wherein you don't have all the required information to complete it. This is also why weak points, switches and everything else tends to be giant and glowy. As trite as it is, people are dumb. Or at least, a game designer has to assume they are. Compared to the one who designed the game, every player in existence is dumb. They don't have the intimate knowledge the designer does, and so certain things have to be made obvious. An enemy's attack pattern may be more challenging and realistic if it's unpredictable, but that's probably also going to be less fun. The player probably isn't going to get any joy out of failure.

If it seems I'm rambling, that's for two reasons. One, I probably am, that's just what I do. Two, there just really doesn't seem to be a good answer to the initial question. The easy answer is that "good difficulty" has to be hard but fair. The player has to work for it to feel fulfilled, but they shouldn't get frustrated. It's incredibly hard to hone in on the sweet spot when the potential user base is so large and diverse. There are plenty examples of "don't do this" and best practices, but the rules are going to vary by game. So long as the challenges feel fair the player probably isn't going to feel cheated. What it takes to achieve that, I guess I would say I have no real idea.

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