The Need for Challenge

  By Shamus   Jan 26, 2009   140 comments

Invariably, when I bring up the need for low frustration, accessible gameplay, some people leave insulting comments along the lines of “why do you play if there’s no risk? Also: You suck.” Now, I’ve answered this question many times, but I want to cover it more fully here, where it can be discussed and linked to without thread-jacking all the other discussions. This seems to come up a lot, and I want to be able to allude to it without insisting that newcomers watch a movie and read a dozen posts before they get where I’m coming from.

The question of why play if you can’t lose assumes that everyone plays for the same reason. Or at least, that they should. It assumes that the development and proving of raw skill is the central drive of playing videogames. But we all play for different reasons. We use games to fulfill our desire to build, protect, destroy, travel, socialize, dominate, avenge injustice, test ourselves, compete, accomplish goals, find love, laugh at stuff.

The problem with challenge – and the reason this debate gets so heated – is because challenge is often at odds with all of the other motivations for playing a game. If you’re interested in being presented with a serious challenge, then repeated failure is inevitably a part of that process. But failure (in-game death, penalties, setbacks, and so on) stops every other type of player from having fun. They stop seeing new things. They stop having new conversations. The story stops. The sense of accomplishment stops. The spectacle stops. They stop experiencing new dialog, scenery, plot developments, new characters, new jokes, new foes to conquer, and all the other things that might have been entertaining them. All they have left is this single challenge.

The challenge-driven players that send me hate mail – many of which have a lot of their self-esteem wrapped up in their videogaming skill – don’t want to see games nerfed to the point where just anyone can play them. They sneer at casual gamers as if this influx of new players is some sort of plague. The word “retards” is usually conscripted during the voicing of this complaint.

While I can understand why challenge-driven players wouldn’t want to see games stop offering them the challenge they crave, I am constantly amazed by the needless rancor in this debate. Actually, I’m amazed that there’s a debate at all. This is videogames we’re talking about. They create worlds where anything is possible. In the real world, we can’t alter the rules of physics. If you want to be a linebacker… well, if you’re a really big man with lots of talent and you work very hard you have a slim chance of maybe doing that at some point. If you’re a normal-sized woman, or a child, or an old man, then no. You don’t get to do that, ever. But we can make a computer world where this is possible. We can make a world where you pretend to pretend to play football, slay dragons, raid tombs, shoot Nazis and gangsters, etc. But to replace one thing you can’t do (be a physical badass in the real world) with something else you can’t do (be a lightning-quick master of the dual-shock controller) is to miss the point.

Yes, it takes more time to design a game that can entertain everyone from Cliff Blezinski to grandma. But it’s peanuts compared to what we spend on graphics or marketing. To take the infinitely malleable worlds of computer games and force them to remain narrow and rigid is to blur the line between game design and sabotage.

Increase time limits. Give the player more health. More time. More information. More auto-aiming. More checkpoints. Deal more damage. More forgiving platforming.

(The problem of making the game enjoyable in a shared-space multiplayer game where everyone competes with each other is a different issue entirely. Actually, it’s an unsolvable one. When players compete, they don’t usually feel like they’ve won until someone else loses. Can’t help that. But I’m just talking about single player / co-op for right now.)

  • Three difficulty levels is the bare minimum. Five is closer, but the important thing to remember is that the gap in skill between the top and the bottom is massive. Orders of magnitude.
  • Even better than simple difficulty tiers is to give the player the ability to adjust different aspects of the game. Maybe they love the platforming but loathe the combat. Letting them go all-out against the platforming while breezing through the combat lets them experience the game buffet-style, where they can have more of what they like and less of what they don’t.
  • For sequels (that is, for most games) there should be a way to differentiate between players who have never played this game before, players who have never played this series before, and players who have never played a videogame before. The tutorials for “here is how the game works” are all too often mixed in with “here is what is new in this series”. Veterans will find themselves sitting through agonizingly tedious explanations about how to move and aim, fearful of turning off tutorials and missing something crucial about a new gameplay element.
  • If you’re going to have save points or checkpoints, new challenges should always come directly after such a point. A player should never, ever be placed into a learning situation after doing five minutes of things they already know how to do.
  • Always, always, give achievements to the more skilled or determined players. Games are usually pretty good about this, but I’d like to see more achievements for speed runs, no-save runs, and the like.

Topic for discussion: Name one game where the experience was ruined (or perhaps diminished) by things being too easy for you.

A Hundred!2020We've got 140 comments. But one more probably won't hurt.


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  1. Sesoron says:

    Force Unleashed for Wii. I found myself dying a couple times on earlier stages, but I eventually started to just “get it”, coupled with the steady increase of my Force powers. By the time I got to the final boss battle, I felt like the game was deliberately sabotaging the Wiimote/nunchuck-turning quicktime events, which I’d always found easy (if stressful) before. Though, to be fair, the final level did turn out to be stingy enough with the healing items that I died a lot there too. The game had previously taught me that it sometimes hides goodies inside the various cardboard scenery pieces that you can move around, so I wound up tearing the place apart between fights just to heal up, usually without success.

    And no, I won’t say it.

  2. General Karthos says:

    Escape Velocity: Nova….

    I was looking forward greatly to the third game in the series (after the first two were so mind-blowingly incredible) and to the new challenges, only to find that these “new challenges” weren’t even remotely challenging. In fewer six days I blew through all six different storylines, dying a grand total of three times.

    Fortunately, plug-ins work, so I’ve been able to play other games with the same style and interface, even now that the original two games don’t work anymore. (On my intel computer.)

  3. Robyrt says:

    To throw that question on its head:

    Street Fighter HD Remix is a wonderful multiplayer game with a steep learning curve and a culture of cutthroat competition. The designers, writers and artists also put a lot of work into rewarding the casual fan with small background details and character-specific endings. Unfortunately, the programmers made sure the AI opponent is incredibly tough and cheats like mad. Just REACHING the secret final boss, Akuma, is the stuff of legend.

    To please casual players, they added a new “Easy” difficulty that misses the point. The computer is just as tough as on “Medium”, but will sometimes randomly stand there and let you hit them for 5 seconds, then go back to kicking your butt. This lets the pro players execute an intricate, devastating combo and win quickly. If you’re just mashing buttons, you’ll still get slaughtered mercilessly. Way to cater to the wrong audience!

  4. Whenever I beta test a new MMO, I often leave comments in the forum about the difficulty of aggro management or how a certain mob is not appropriate for the level of the game area and is killing too many players.

    Inevitably I will get dozens of responses in the forums from the ‘fanbois’, claiming that I don’t know how to play the game correctly and if these problems were corrected, the game would be too “easy”.

    What these Difficulty Whores always forget is that if an MMO is not accessible to a wide range of players, the game will not maintain the number of subscribers needed to remain viable.

    And if subscriptions drop, the game dies.

    Leaving the DWs (and the rest of us) with no game at all.

    Duh!

    Leslee

  5. Legal Tender says:

    A propos of this topic I would like to mention “Crayon Physics Deluxe”

    I played the demo yesterday and I got a wonderful couple of hours out of it.

    The mechanics of the game are simple and the details are not important I think. Suffice to say that you must connect a ball with a star so as to “collect it”. The more stars you get, the more levels you have access to.

    When I played the first level I was planning my move and got a bit nervous because I could’nt find the counter for the number of balls I had available anywhere. “What if I screw it up?” How many chances have I got to make it?

    You can imagine my delight when I tried my first move, failed and got an instant second try. No limits. Just go and play. Experiment and enjoy.

    Delightful! This exact feeling is the very reason I can’t wait to get a chance to play the latest Prince of Persia game.

    I want to explore I want to get lost in the world the designers created for me without bashing my head against the walls at every corner and every threat to my avatar´s wellbeing.

    On a slightly different note, I like the type of challenge that the Total War series gives the player. I always feel challenged but a mistake will almost never result in defeat. It can haunt you several turns after it happens but you almost always get the feeling that there is a chance to redeem yourself…and this coming from a game much more “complex” than playing with crayons. =)

  6. I, personally, don’t have problems with games being “too easy”. It takes me a LONG time to learn new physical skills (It took me 10+ years of more or less constant practice to learn how to type with great proficiency, and at least three years for me to learn how to shuffle cards). However, I have run into problems with games where the challenges were too *simplistic*.

    Jade Warrior (although it was awesome in other ways) and Mass Effect hit that issue for me–the combats are just doing the same things over and over and over and over. There’s no real strategy to it, and if you screw up and die there’s nothing really “new” to try in order to beat the challenge.

    I actually like games that are a bit baffling right off the bat, but once you’ve figured out a given challenge it’s pretty easy–it’s a mental challenge rather than a physical one. From my experience, things like that put everyone on an even playing field and make a game a lot more enjoyable.

  7. MrValdez says:

    In MMOs that I’ve played, the experience was ruined by the ease of the gameplay. Just grind as much as you can and the game becomes easy. Sure you can be adventurous and try to take down the bigger monsters but the game doesn’t reward you for it (as a matter of fact, most MMO discourages
    you from trying to be ‘hardcore’ by giving you penalties)

    Granted, I understand why the gameplay prioritizes grinding (profit) but after playing ‘hardcore’ single player RPGs and then switching to a relatively easier gameplay, my game experience is ruined.

    But then, WoW seems to be doing well, so this post actually proves your point, as much as I hate to admit it :D

    For seqels

    I hate to be a spelling nazi, but there’s a typo here. :/

  8. Jeremiah says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever pegged a game as too easy. The only time I really think about a game’s difficulty is when it seems particularly punishing. As long as I can move forward at a fairly steady pace (this doesn’t mean never failing or dying) I’m happy. I just want to push the story forward and see where it goes.

    On the other hand, if there’s extra stuff not related to the story that you can do, I expect those to be tougher than the core of the game. So if I want to spend the time to earn those things, I can. Otherwise, I’ll just get on with the game.

    I also really like the idea of multiple difficulty settings for different aspects of the game.

  9. JT says:

    But we all play for different reasons.

    Hear, hear!

  10. Xpovos says:

    Final Fantasy Mystic Quest.

    Though to be completely honest that game had major issues with plot, and other factors too. But the game was simplified to make it more accessible to non-RPGers, Americans, and children.

    It failed.

  11. Heather says:

    Too hard–yes, too frustrating because of the layout, controls, whatever–yes, too hard on the eyes or not intuitive enough–yes, too easy? No unless you count puzzle games and then occasionally the inability to skip early “easy” levels when you lose on a much higher level will stop me from replaying, and games like “GCompris” which are designed FOR children, but otherwise, no.

  12. wererogue says:

    I agree that it’s nice for games to be accessible to people of different skill, but I don’t agree that every game should try and please every player. It’s *not* trivial in time or cost to design and balance a game which offers the same to people who find it hard to those who find it it easy or average, and inevitably something else suffers for it.

    I’d much prefer that developers either made the choice that “our game is for everyone, therefore it will be forgiving” or “our game is for gamers, and will teach the player how to play sufficiently in the early game that they will be able to learn the later game”, instead of either adding on crappy challenges to hard mode or cutting out crucial bits in easy. Figure out what your game is about, and prioritise the parts of the game that support it.

  13. Factoid says:

    Achievements you say? The transformation truly IS complete if you’re already hooked on achievements.

  14. qrter says:

    For me it always comes down to having a ‘manual’ save system. The games I get frustrated with are always the ones with checkpoints and no quicksave.

    This is simply because however well your checkpoints are distributed, there will always be parts of the game that are hard for some people (for whatever reason) that you couldn’t have anticipated (unless you’re Valve and spend a millenium playtesting your game).

    Ideally games would have a checkpoint system with the option to quicksave/quickload.

  15. Baz says:

    I’d like to say Bioshock. It did not ruin the experience for me, but definitely ‘diminished’ as you put it. It was quite hard in a good way for at least half the game, (health and ammo was scarce, and you were still figuring out ways to combat the new foes) but after that it was progressively easier as, with a bit of searching you could find all the ammo and health you needed, and after a point there are no new enemies. So you could basically do anything with ease given your weapons and plasmid powers. It was fun in a way, but it was too easy for me even on ‘hard’ mode. I would have preferred if the health and ammo etc, remained much less abundant.

    Perhaps that’s just because I’m a veteran FPS players, so I’m sure the experience will vary, but that’s how it was for me.

  16. John Lopez says:

    … and now the match you have all been waiting for! In the red corner, weighing in a 110 pounds, 14 years old and amped on Jolt Cola… Difficulty Whore!!!!! *ding ding ding*. And in the blue corner, weighing in a 205 pounds, 40 years old and lethargic from the latest Frito binge… Game Retard!!!! *ding ding ding*

    Ready? Fight!

  17. Pederson says:

    Can’t recall a game where the experience was ruined by being too easy, per se. That said, I remember playing Suikoden IV and finding the combat too simple to fool with; it was boring, both to watch and to play. There was an auto-battle feature that made this skippable, but that’s simply a way of wallpapering over the problem. (Intriguingly, I didn’t really get this impression from FFXII, which had a more complex auto-battling mechanic. Might be lingering affection for the series, though.) I thought this detracted rather significantly from the play experience in Suikoden VI, to the point that I read, a lot while the game piddled along with itself between story bits.

    Complexity is a different thing from difficulty, though, and I enjoy complexity (to an extent) much more than difficulty.

  18. =Dan says:

    Wererogue: I’d much prefer that developers either made the choice that “our game is for everyone, therefore it will be forgiving” or “our game is for gamers, and will teach the player how to play sufficiently in the early game that they will be able to learn the later game”…

    If developers actually programmed legitimate difficulty levels there would be no need to create two separate games. Easy could be the “game for Everyone” and Normal or Hard would be “game is for gamers”. Unfortunately most devs don’t program in such smart difficulty settings…Letting me toggle what is easy or off in the game would make me happy as a gamer.

    =Dan

  19. wererogue says:

    Actually, both BioShock and Oblivion were good examples for me.

    In Oblivion, if you never levelled up, your enemies stayed weak. You could get better items, more skills – but they never would so long as you didn’t sleep.

    In BioShock, you never die. You’re brought back to a nearby cloning thingy, and re-released into the world. In a lot of the game, the enemies respawn too, so if you *really* want some secret or can’t work out a good way through a section, all you have to do is keep going back until you get it right.

    Sin Chronicles (all one episode) had an auto-difficulty which would change which enemies were in a room to be easier if you died there too often, and harder if you’d gotten through a few places beforehand without dying. I used to end up with the enemies getting completely out of hand, and then finding a room where I’d get grenaded into a fine paste several times until the AI decided I was crap enough to give me a break. By that point, I’d worked out how to kill maybe two of three grenade guys before I died, and would be working on the third – when *this* time guy two suddenly had a machine gun and capped me because I was used to the grenade guy.

    All of these games were poorer not simply because they were easy, but because they tried to cater to everyone and the system didn’t work. For me, it’s not about whether the game is easy or hard, it’s about the game being a well-rounded package.

  20. wererogue says:

    Re: =Dan:

    What I’m saying is that in many cases, developing three difficulty settings is making three times the content in terms of levels, or puzzles, or enemies, or AI or whatever. It’s not cost-effective.

    Even if you’re doing “the game for everyone” and “the game for gamers” as difficulty settings, the massive gap in game experience that Shamus mentioned in the OP means that you’re developing significantly more content. That’s fine when you are, for example, Blizzard Entertainment, with more than enough money coming in to allow you to develop the next product for as long as it takes. But when you have to make a game within a deadline, to vague publisher requirements like the majority of the games industry, it’s extra work that isn’t in those requirements, and I’d rather the developer put the time they have into making the gameplay or the story (or both) good.

    It’s worse for indie developers – that time writing a whole new game mode could be time in which you’ve released that game, and the sales are paying for you to actually continue writing games.

    For certain genres it works. Fighting games or brawlers like god of war, where you can scale back the difficulty until it becomes “press A to win” (as well as to not die) or forward until you have to memorise multiple combos per enemy can be acessable to all. If you’re going to spend the amount of time it takes to write a *good* AI for a strategy game, you might as well write a crappy one too.

  21. Greg says:

    I haven’t really had an issue with games being too easy, either. Sure, if I felt like I finished a game without too much difficulty, the replay value may drop tremendously, but not because the game was boring the first pass. A game that I am currently playing is de Blob for Wii. Great game. I’ve only died a couple of times, but not to the point of having to restart a level. There are a list of accomplishments for each level that will keep me coming back for more after my initial pass of the game.

    @ Xpovos: FFMQ? It may have been a simple game, but it ended up being a “gateway” game to the rest of the Final Fantasy series for me, and ultimately other JRPGs. And not too long ago, I found myself playing through it again on my emulator. It only took me two sittings, but it was worth it to bring back some of the memories.

  22. Shamus says:

    wererogue: You’re talking about auto-adjusting difficulty. As luck would have it, I had a post on that not too long ago:

    http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=2071

    The short version: I agree with you, the situation you describe is a mess that will please nobody. The game should not try to figure out how “good” you are. (When I’m with my brothers, we often play by passing the controller around. I imagine that would confuse the hell out of the thing.)

    Players should always be making a conscious choice about how much challenge they can handle.

    I’m not sure why you think offering a broad difficulty spectrum would detract from the rest of the game. (Other than some puzzle or strategy games where it’s pass / fail.) Like I said, it’s peanuts compared to the time it takes to (say) optimize the shadow buffering to avoid slowdowns when moving from indoor to outdoor environments.

    Having “two” sets of games introduces a worse problem. For one thing, “two” difficulty settings isn’t nearly enough. The other is that it creates a very undesirable balkanization of the market. How do you know if this game will suit your tastes? Since the new and casual gamers outnumber the hardcore, you could end up with a situation where developers go after the money (easier games) and leave the hardcore with fewer titles. What if the game you like belongs to the “other” tier? Should a series move “up” as it ages?

  23. Shamus says:

    Actually: I think a better way to state it:

    Non-analog style Pass / Fail games can’t really be “adjusted”. You can either solve a puzzle or you can’t. And making an easier puzzle means making ANOTHER puzzle, which is what I think wererogue was talking about above. I agree that not all games can be scaled up or down.

    But for most combat-based games, you can get a lot of mileage from just slowing down the enemies and making the player’s health bar bigger.

  24. LintMan says:

    I don’t normally ever feel like a game is so easy that it ruins the experience, but I frequently find that games can get too boring. Thinking about it, I’ve realized that this is often just two sides of the same coin:

    A lot of what bores me in games is “grind”. You want to level up, and the quickest way to do it is to repeatedly replay some area you’ve already mastered which offers the best exp/time ratio, over and over again. Same goes for collecting loot. “15 more fights and I can hit level 23!”. “Another 2 dungeon runs and I’ll have enough gold to buy that awesome sword!”

    At that point, nothing is new, you’re not playing for challenge or exploration, it’s just work. Easy work. Sure, you can maybe make it harder or easier work, which you might trade off with the amount of time it takes (ie: fight hard “purples” (or whatever) for more exp per critter instead of easier “oranges” for less exp per critter), but either way, you’re still doing the same thing you’ve likely already mastered over and over and over again. Reaching your goal is assured; the only question is how long you have to spend grinding to reach it.

  25. Zelos says:

    @Shamus

    You can adjust the difficulty of most puzzles with increasingly obvious hints, can’t you? I think the modern adventure games (Sam&Max episodes, Strongbad) offer different levels of hints.

  26. Maddy says:

    I’m not a good gamer, but I am patient. I like a challenge, but I don’t like getting stuck dead in the water as I did with the “Spin Dizzy” level of Pac-Man World 1 years and years ago on the PSOne.

    I’m more likely to give up on something that requires both great speed and dexterity (my weaknesses), with no element of dumb luck to give me hope. If it’s something like figuring out a puzzle, I’ll stick with it a lot longer.

    I don’t mind if something’s easy if it’s really unique and fun to explore. However, even the coolest stuff will get stale and eventually enraging if you do it long enough, especially if it’s time-consuming. I do mind – as others have already mentioned – having to repeat lots of easy stuff every single time in order to get to the part where I get killed. That is not fun at all.

    The thing with challenges is that we may already be dealing with them in other areas of our lives. I have more stamina for tough games when the rest of my life is less complicated. When times get tough, though, I’ll play a game that won’t kick my ass.

  27. Dylan says:

    I’ll be honest. Half the time, when I play a game with a strong story and have difficulty with it, I turn the difficulty down to the lowest level. And if that for some reason isn’t good enough (*shakes fist at Arcanum*), I read a letsplay.

    Because it’s not about the actual game at all for me, it’s about the story. I love games like Myst, where you actually have to go out of your own way to forever screw up and die. Adventure games are pretty awesome.

    On the other hand, those games seem to have evolved, mostly, into FPS with RPG elements. I don’t mind it, but I’m not really very good at FPS, especially with two joysticks rather than keyboard/mouse.

    So I beg developers of all games: Find a way to make your games both easier and harder. I think that’s the best way to make things “more accessible” without alienating your fanbase.

  28. Sydney says:

    Fable: The Lost Chapters. Yahtzee is not at all joking when he says that you eventually get what is basically the Win Spell. I mapped it to all nine of the customizable number buttons, and whenever enemies showed up, I’d just slap at one and the enemy would die.

    Sometimes I would have to slap twice. Bosses might take more.

    I stopped playing a looong time before the end, because the game was reduced to “Walk from place to place, breaking stride only to watch the animation for the Win Spell”.

    Oh, and there was another spell that made you invulnerable to damage. Good job.

  29. DPhantom says:

    @Wererogue:

    I’m going through Bioshock now for the second time, and you’re right about the difficulty hurting the game. Specifically, the Vita-Chamber respawns. I actually tried for a long time to play like they weren’t there, but eventually my cost-benefit brain couldn’t ignore them and I wound up taking on big daddies with my wrench because there was no cost in supplies.

    I’m playing through again right now on hard and using the new option to turn Vita-Chambers off. It’s gotten a lot better. I’m getting to the point where its getting easier supply-wise again, but it feels more like its because I’ve found successful strategies and upgrade combinations. Even then hard still makes you use good tactics in each fight because each enemy is fully capable of killing you.

    Actually, Bioshock might be a good example of allowing a variety of players to choose their difficulty. The three difficulty levels are quite varied to begin with(basic melee only games are quite possible on easy, while hard requires a player to use strategies effective against the types of splicer they are facing or take severe hits to their resources), and the option to turn Vita-Chambers on and off offers a further level of customization.

  30. neriana says:

    Final Fantasy X. I killed the final boss in one hit. The entire game was pretty darn easy for RPG veterans, though, and honestly I was way angrier with the ending than with the boss battle. I still liked the game. Final Fantasy XII, on the other hand, I found so easy that I stopped playing it; the characters weren’t nearly developed enough for me to care about them, and the gameplay wasn’t nearly enough to keep me slogging through it.

    I’m nearly done with Persona 4 now, and I think it has a pretty good balance. Lots of different things to do, you can “power up” people both through grinding and through social links, and while there’s definitely challenge there, I’ve never felt at all frustrated. Probably more importantly, I actually care about the characters and the story.

    As for MMOs, I switched to WoW from Everquest 2 when EQ2 made the game significantly harder a couple years ago. It wasn’t enjoyably challenging, it was dull and frustrating. I checked out EQ2 again recently and they’ve fixed what they messed up and I liked it again, but too late for me I’m afraid — I’m committed to WoW now. Which I do find pretty easy, but frankly if it weren’t so easy raids and dungeons would be WAY more frustrating because players who aren’t great would hold everyone back too much.

  31. Joe says:

    I sometimes wonder if these hardcore gamers also eschew movies and TV, since they’re so easy that even with zero skill you alwyas win.

    That said, the game that was too easy for me was the Myst series. I didn’t actually play it, but my wife played the entire series and seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. I watched her play, and as far as I could tell the game was entirely devoid of failure. To me, it was a middle-ground, somewhere between an actual game and a movie. That’s not necessarily bad per se, but it means that you have to have a really good story, and I never could really get into the story of Myst.

    Later on, playing other games with her, she would always be looking up walkthroughs and cheat codes, and I realized that she was really sort of trying to turn other games into Myst. Not that I really mind, many of the games that we play have a good enough story (for me) that going through them on god mode is actually lots of fun.

    Now, as an example of really good difficulty management, I love the system in Forza Motorsport 2. You get credit for each race based on an overall difficulty score (can’t remember what they call it off the top of my head…) That score is a composite of a number of settings, for instance you can turn on or off traction control, ABS, manual vs. automatic shifting, multiple levels of damage effects, and the handy “optimal path” line that’s green when you should be accelerating and red when you should be braking. For me, this is perfect. I can ramp down the difficulty on things I suck at, but for instance I always drive with it in manual transmission mode because I actually find that easier than automatic. (This is true in real life too. I just hate automatic transmissions) I never had really liked driving games that much until I played that one which, with the right controller, is completely awesome.

  32. Lupi42 says:

    Fallout 3 has been frustratingly easy. The only time’s I’ve died have been due to my taking out dozens of raiders, and not bothering to look at my health bar, which eventually gets low, and the only thing that has ever prevented me from opening a door or hacking a computer has been a little message saying: “Your character has not spent enough skill points for us to allow you to do this thing, because you will succeed”. I’m really enjoying the story, but I keep going and playing a ‘real’ FPS for a while, because I keep getting bored. I’m about halfway to max level, and I just slaughtered a large settlement of heavily armed raiders, making little pretense of stealth and deliberately using my older, crappier weapons, but they never did more than graze me.

  33. K says:

    The only issues I have with easy games are these: If the gameplay element that is easy turns up every three seconds and is not really interesting (ideally coupled with a couple loading screens) I get annoyed. Random Encounters in many Final Fantasy games were like that. After you have passed a certain level/gear-threshold, you would kill anything instantly. But you still had to sit through the “loading battle”, “kill animation”, “loading old stuff” screens. After seeing those animations too often, I got bored. Luckily, in most FF games after about 6 you can deactivate random encounters somehow after a certain point in the game (which is usually before the issue ever happens).

    Final Fantasy X is one of these though. The last couple dungeons were too easy, because my characters were well optimized, and the animations take too long.

    So I don’t have an issue with easy, I have one with tedious. Enemies with way too many hitpoints (but which cannot ever harm you) are also one of these: It just takes ages and is not interesting. I skipped most fights in Devil May Cry 4 (and I did not finish it because it gets incredibly repetitive and boring, see Zero Punctuation).

    I really cannot think of a game that I found too easy. Some were boring. There is really no point in throwing too many encounters at the player. After I have seen them a couple times, I want to see something fresh. Or the game may end, that’s fine. But I hate tediousness.

  34. Telas says:

    But to replace one thing you can’t do (be a physical badass in the real world) with something else you can’t do (be a lightning-quick master of the dual-shock controller) is to miss the point.

    Something like this should be engraved on the monitor bezel of every computer game designer.

    Hell, every game designer, computer or no…

  35. John says:

    I would think that the development+product teams probably spends hours arguing over some of these balancing tweaks to determine what the final balance point should be. Have a matrix of difficulties would save the team hours and anguish…

  36. Mari says:

    I’m with Sydney about Fable but it goes beyond the Win Spell. I challenged myself with that game in a variety of ways and even at that I ended up being bored.

    Sword combat was basically one button spamming, not the most difficult of skills to “master.” Archery was the only real challenge in the game and that was more because the game gave you a bow and arrows then proceeded to lob enemies at you that will not get out of your face long enough for you to shoot them than any inherent skill involved in using your archery.

    And yet, I kept going back and replaying the game. I played it through once without leveling up at all since the level-up system is user-initiated. That presented some degree of challenge later in the game. I played it without ever upgrading weapons. I played it good and I played it bad, I played it as a land-baron and as a pauper. The dizzying variety of “things” to do gave me enough inertia to keep playing it over and over to see what changed when I tried XYZ strategy. It was a fun sandbox except with annoying bits of story stuck in every once in a while.

    For me, the flip-side isn’t enemies that are too tough, though. I think the most frustrating thing I’ve encountered in a game was timed areas that involve a lot of traveling through labyrinthine areas. I have a particularly poor sense of direction so telling me I have to rescue a dozen crew members from the interior sections of a boat designed by drunken sadists in X number of minutes (X-men Legends, I’m looking at YOU) is a cruel challenge that I’m guaranteed not to beat without the help of a navigator sitting next to me telling me where to go or how to get back to the checkpoint. And talk about unfriendly to new players. My kids desperately want to play that game through but every time my husband or I has to run that challenge for them because it’s just impossible for them. It wouldn’t have been difficult to scale that challenge by adding a couple of minutes to the clock in easy/newbie mode. As it is, it’s just a frustrating obstacle that prevents any further game progress if you A) aren’t supremely skilled at the combat system or B) get lost easily.

  37. MintSkittle says:

    Can’t say I’ve ever had my gaming experience ruined by being too easy. I actually prefer the easy setting, so I can enjoy the story/setting/whatever else the game has to offer.

    As for more difficulty settings, GalCiv2 has about nine or ten different difficulties, ranging from Cakewalk to Suicidal.

  38. Cybron says:

    None, really. Maybe Fallout 3, but that had more to do with a lack of variety than anything else.

  39. Pat says:

    Some horror-themed games can become a bit disappointing in the later levels if the enemies go down too quick. Doom 3 was really scary when you are fighting imps with just a shotgun, less so when you are clearing out levels using a rocket-launcher, BFG and a Soul cube.

    On the other hand, I was tense almost all the way through Dead Space, even though some of the last monsters you meet can be killed in one shot (and sometimes take out the monster next to them as well when they die).

    I think it’s partly to do with the monster AI. Most of the monsters in Doom seem to roar and charge (or shoot) even if they are behind you. Whereas the ones in Dead Space creep when you can’t see them, and only roar when you notice them. Both games use the now-standard “spawn a monster behind you while you’re fighting the one in front” strategy, of course, but that’s expected nowadays.

    I can’t speak for Survival Horror games, having never played any, but the regular horror games need a bit of challenge, otherwise you train your mind to ignore the scary noises.

    Edited to add: Of course, you can still enjoy the story and have fun in an easy horror game. All you lose is the feeling of being scared.

  40. Danath says:

    Personally I find achievements hilariously unrewarding for challenge, games should be a legitimate challenge… I just believe selecting the difficulty should make a bigger difference than it currently does. Currently easy tends to be very easy, normal tends to be ok, and HARD tends to be unlockable or ungodly hard (thank you call of duty and your soldiers made of tissue paper), or more often its just not any harder than any other difficulties, such as Dead Space, you die faster.

    So yeah, the player should choose just how hard they want it, and too many publishers are scaling the difficulty TOO far back, and to give people who LIKE the challenge a challenge, they turn the computer into a cheating bastard.

  41. Cat Skyfire says:

    A game ruined by being too easy: Pong. I mean, sheesh, two little lines and a ball that didn’t move that fast? Ffft…

  42. wererogue says:

    “I’m not sure why you think offering a broad difficulty spectrum would detract from the rest of the game. (Other than some puzzle or strategy games where it’s pass / fail.) Like I said, it’s peanuts compared to the time it takes to (say) optimize the shadow buffering to avoid slowdowns when moving from indoor to outdoor environments.”

    I don’t think a broad difficulty spectrum detracts from a game. I think that it’s a non-crucial pleasantry that might not add to the game.

    I *do* think you’re trivialising the amount of work that goes into game balancing a little. Optimising the shadow buffering takes one smart guy a few tries – maybe a week or two. Game balancing can take months, and needs doing again for every discretion in the difficulty levels.

    On the whole, though, I think we’re on the same page.

  43. AlphabetFish says:

    In Sims 2, I have an eight person family (the maximum amount in one house) as well as a business, and I have to manage all the jobs for the adults, as well as all the studies for the kids. However, although I’m trying to make it as hard as I can, the family is really well-established–thus, they’re filthy rich; have strong, fulfilling relationships; have lots of friends; have high-paying jobs they love and are doing spectacularly in school.

    I also have certain crafted items (Snapdragons) and earned items (Trout) that make their needs pretty well non-existent–they’re always full, fit, clean, and comfortable. If this were real life, it would be paradise. As a game, it’s extremely boring.

    I guess my qualm is that in Sims 2, eventually, all the negative aspects of daily life dwindle to nothing, leaving the game effortlessly perfect.

  44. neriana says:

    Oh, Sims 2 ludicrously easy. Especially with snapdragons: I only use those in homework areas when I have lots of kids/teens, and in businesses. You have to set challenges for yourself if you want to play it like a “normal” game, imo. I like it for storytelling and building — and also there’s something addictive about it. But there are actually people who find the game hard, which sort of goes to Shamus’ point.

  45. briatx says:

    At first, I thought Bioshock had too much hand-holding for me (and I can handle a lot hand holding), but I was happy to discover that you can turn off things like the quest arrow.

    I left the vita-chambers on though, because I’m lazy and they keep me from having to save. I actually do manage to pretend they’re not there, and I think I’ve only had to use one in one or two places.

  46. Thad says:

    “We can make a world where you pretend to pretend to play football, slay dragons, raid tombs, shoot Nazis and gangsters, etc.”

    Wow! What game is that?

    ;)

  47. Magnus says:

    Suprised noone has mentioned the original System Shock and its various difficulty sliders, one for combat, one for puzzles, one for cyberspace and i think a mission one also.

    Worked very well, especially as I was crap at combat in that game!

    I always prefer to be able to sit back and consider my next move, which is why I like things like Baldur’s Gate, which allows you to pause in battle and think about how to face your enemies.

    Mind you, I usually find easy or normal to be a good challenge, in whatever I’m playing. I guess the only exceptions are adventure games (e.g. sierra, lucastarts etc.) where there is very limited scope to change difficulty. Thankfully, these days there is Gamefaqs…

  48. karln says:

    Re difficulty levels for puzzles, I believe Silent Hill 2 managed that by providing small variations on its puzzles. Mostly, as I recall, this involved changing the text of clues, as with the three discs in five slots puzzle whose explanatory riddle was much less obscure on easy, and the radio quiz, for example. Possibly more work to implement than just giving the player more hit points, or taking moves away from enemies for instance, but not a crazy amount of work either.

  49. Unary says:

    I don’t play for a challenge. I play to win.

    I work for a challenge; computers get to beat me up ALL DAY LONG. When I come home, and have time to myself, it’s my turn to win.

  50. Kizer says:

    I can’t think of any games that were ruined by being too easy. Many games have had been very easy at he beginning, but as the levels progress, the difficulty ramps accordingly. Super Mario Bros. is the perfect example, in my opinion. But honestly, there is no game that has bothered me by being too easy. Usually, I’m more likely to get frustrated by a game being too difficult.

  51. mneme says:

    Definitely agreed; the thing the difficulty rhinos forget is that not their game is going to be better if more people are playing it (and they have more people to compare their size against), not worse.

    That said, what springs to mind is Leisure Suit Larry 5 — I don’t mind adventure (ie, puzzle) games being winnable without a hint book or a huge amount of time, but still — I and a friend played straight through the game, taking maybe an hour or two, with not a single puzzle that was even challenging. (oddly, Loom, which also was a fully mouse+click adventure game, and was also quite easy, was less of a problem — but I think that was both because the game was somewhat shorter/cheaper and because there were two-three -actually- challenging puzzles in there, just ones you could solve with a bit of thought.

  52. MissusJ says:

    I cannot think of any games that were ruined for us by a low difficulty. Tedium, yes, but that has been addressed already. Probably my pet peeve is in RPGs where you endure a random encounter every few steps. My second one is 3D platforming in general. But then, I can barely drive a car in a straight line in 3D. And I consider myself a gamer.

    No wonder I am so happy with Rock Band, I can sing songs I have never heard before and not bring the band down in that game. (Have not tried Guitar Hero World Tour, though.) You were considering group co-op a different beast, though.

    One game I am trying to play at the moment is Lunar on the DS. It attempts to mix up or make more difficult the traditional RPG gameplay by making you grind for either experience OR loot. There is no money, you get useless loot to sell for money. This is dang annoying and makes the game much longer than it has to be. I think I may even quit it because I have been playing for over 50 hours and am only 1/4 of the way through. I do not mind grinding, but this is ridiculous.

    I like traditional RPGs because I do not have to have even a decent reaction time to play them. I am well known for being killed by the first koopa in Super Mario 1. (step, step, step… die.) Most of my game experience is watching my husband play. He has been playing most of his life, and so can do games on Hard for the most part.

    One odd exception- Kingdom Hearts 1. We want to play these games, we like the idea of the story, but he could not do a 3D platform challenge at the beginning of the story. We decided that if it was going to be that unforgiving about missing jumps we did not need to put ourselves through that kind of frustration.

    What does it say about the industry that even though I love the games I can play very few of them without feeling like an idiot or bringing down the enjoyment of people who can actually play them well? I enjoy watching him play, it is like watching a movie, but with more interaction.

    Edited to add: My husband’s pet peeve is probably football games that make your players stupid or the other team better than they should be just to make the difficulty a bit harder for the player. This is extremely frustrating and makes it hard to suspend disbelief. We just want to play the games (if we do not play them, the computer will make us lose more than our fair share) and get back to the recruiting. Giving the other team one unstoppable drive every half does not make this more enjoyable.

    I could ramble on, but I think this pretty well covers it.

  53. Cthulhu says:

    Super Mario Galaxy was too easy. So was Zelda: Twilight Princess, and for that matter Windwaker. There’s also a lot of new games that feel to easy because they’re too darn short and you don’t feel like you’ve accomplished anything when you finish them. If I finish game by the end of the week I get it, something is wrong. I still play games from ten years ago, but I can’t imagine wanting to play any of my new games ten years hence.

  54. MissusJ says:

    @Cthulhu: hmmmm…. maybe I will try one of those then. I would probably feel proud that I made it to the end at all. :)

  55. Old_Geek says:

    The Final Fantasy games were interesting, because even though there weren’t difficulty levels, there were things you could do to make the final boss easier. In VII, you could spend the time and get the Knights Of the Round Materia. In VIII, get Squall’s best weapon, and use aura for limit breaks. IX, you needed the knight’s, Steiner’s, ultimate weapon. Both Knights of the Round materia and Steiner’s sword took literally hours and hours of gameplay to get, but both made the final boss 2 hit kills.

    Those could be seen as in game ways to reduce difficulty.

  56. Apathy Curve says:

    “The challenge-driven players that send me hate mail – many of which have a lot of their self-esteem wrapped up in their videogaming skill…”

    You just summed up the entire problem right there.

    Almost without exception, people who crave extreme challenge and “realism” in a game lack it in real life. Most are are either very young (under 25) or loafers who can’t or won’t spend years paying their dues in the workplace in order to succeed in business and industry; they use ultra-competitive gaming as a substitute. It’s a common and relatively simplistic form of insecurity complex. It is also an unfortunate and extremely common malady among MMO players, especially people who are attracted to “harcore PvP” games.

    When I happen across such a game, I simply go find something more rewarding to do — like picking lint out of my navel. Between years in the military and years more on the sharp of the stick in the business world, I endure all of the challenge and potential for catastrophic failure I can handle in one life. I don’t need grief when I’m trying to relax for a few minutes with a game.

  57. Gamercow says:

    Two games recently that were diminished by their being easy were Maw and Fable 2. You can’t die in either. I understand it in Maw, because its a puzzle/platformer(an extremely easy one) and the focus is not on the living or dieing aspect, its soliving of the puzzles. But in Fable 2, there’s basically no penalty whatsoever. You lose whatever experience is on the screen, and you MAY get a scar. And the scars don’t matter if you have enough fame. You pop up right where you fell, and you start whacking away again.

    The best game I can think of recently for difficulty is Dead Rising. Most people hated this game’s save system, but I loved it, and wish more games had a “save only at the save point” type of system.

    I agree with the others that Bioshock is much easier with the vita-chambers. Try it on Insane(or whatever the hardest level is) with vitachambers off. Completely different scene.

  58. Wolverine says:

    System Shock 2.
    I would not say difficulty “ruined” the game for me, but first levels were pretty tough (i could not hack the turrets yet, weapons were crap and robots were killing me all the time), but SHODAN herself was laughably easy. I fured out what I was supposed to do almost immediately, then did it and in about 30 secodns, maybe less, it was over. That disappointed me quite a bit.

  59. Burning says:

    Elmo’s Number Adventure. Man, that was lame.

    What?

  60. Daimbert says:

    Generally, there isn’t such a thing as “too easy” for me; with Persona 3, you can loop over and keep your main character’s level AND access to high level Personas (that do combat things for you) and I enjoy it more when I DON’T have to worry about figuring out how to grind levels or win combats. And to prove that Dylan and I pretty much share the same views, I’ve played it and Persona 4 multiple times — all on Easy, to maximize the story.

    But I think that Persona 3 and Persona 4 are prime examples of how to game balance quickly and easily without a lot of work. On Easy level, you take less damage, enemies (I think) exploit weaknesses less often and I think you even do a little more damage. But the enemies have the precise same abilities and WILL hit your weaknesses. And so some of them may still be quite tough and hurt you a lot (in Persona 4, you don’t get the levels — you restart at 1 –but you get the personas … and one boss still killed me). But you also get 10 “continues”, where it restores all your HP and SP in the battle and you get to carry on if the MC dies (that’s about the only really tough thing about that series). Which means that if you get into a long, tough, drawn out fight and it kills you JUST as you were about to kill it, you get to start at full power and slaughter it. Or if you would have killed it but started with too little SP for the really cool skills that would kill it. And so on.

    If you’re STILL finding it too hard, then there’s always the FAQs that will tell you the tricks and the personas you can use to beat it easier.

    This isn’t that hard to implement, leaves room for challenge even on Easy, but allows for those who want a challenge to ramp it up even more.

    As for puzzles, having a method for getting hints on a puzzle is the ideal. As long as one has to deliberately look up each hint, it provides a mechanism for both gamers who aren’t good at puzzles and gamers who ARE good at puzzles but might simply not see the answer for one puzzle to keep the game going without getting frustrated.

    Heck, the last hint could be giving the solution:

    1) You need some water.
    2) Isn’t there something that might give water at the sink?
    3) Isn’t there a faucet on the sink?
    4) Just turn the faucet on already! Sheesh … [grin]

  61. Daimbert says:

    Ah, one thing that highlights the problems with difficulty levels was a hockey game I had on the PS2, ESPN hockey. Nice game, good presentation, and so on. I played it on Easy and since I like to win normally being able to walk in and dominate a sports game doesn’t bother me (my ideal is a game where I win most of the games but it’s often close, but I’ll take a game where I win all the games over a game where I lose most of them). At any rate, at easy it was too easy; I was walking in off face-offs from centre and scoring all the time, and when I wasn’t I was getting easy one-timers. T’was a bit easy, so I went up to the next level … and couldn’t score. At all. Even on well set-up one-timers. Losing games 2 – 1 or 4 – 0 was boring, so I stopped playing the game.

    And it wasn’t just me. My cousin stayed with me for a while and got into the game. He went up to the next level (just one up, and there probably WERE 5 levels). I warned him ,and he ended up agreeing with me but persisted in trying to beat it. I think he ended up being okay, but that was the second lowest difficulty, and he was okay AT BEST.

    Don’t do that if you want game balance; between Easy and Normal it should not be the difference between “Any idiot can do this” and “Yeah, you’ve gotta be really good”.

  62. cardboard says:

    I’d just like to note that the original Soldier of Fortune had a very nice a la carte difficulty system like you seem to pine for. There were 4 or 5 preset difficulty levels but you could also pick Custom and make your own choices about toughness of enemies, number of enemies, enemy respawn, how many weapons you can carry, number of saves, etc. I always liked taking unlimited carrying capacity, and hordes of fairly weak enemies.

  63. Zel says:

    I’d have to say Crayon Physics Deluxe. Imagine a puzzle game that lets you solve every level with the same method. The first time you use it, it’s fun. After 50 levels using the same trick, not so much… more limitations would have been welcome to force out-of-the-box thinking. I still go back and fool around with a level or two, but I feel the potential is wasted.

    Generally speaking, easy difficulty does not ruin a game for me as much as boredom does, but the former can definitely lead to the latter. If you have something else going (story, world, lore, NPCs interactions) then it’s fine if the game is easy. But if the whole experience is the gameplay and only that (most fighting games ?), pushing the “I win” button becomes boring very quickly, which is often what easy mode means. I don’t think I would have enjoyed Trauma Center and the stress associated if it had been easier.

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