Experienced Points: The Crime of Punishment

By Shamus
on Feb 4, 2011
Filed under:
Column

Today’s column is something I wish I’d covered way back when I did my video on Prince of Persia:


Link (YouTube)

Basically, I should have made the difference between “harder” and “more punishing” more explicit. I don’t know that it would have blunted the resulting controversy, but it would have made the ensuing debate a little less muddled.

If you read the comments on that video, you’ll see a lot of people really object – strongly – to my thoughts on Prince of Persia. Some people get angry at the suggestion that games should be less punishing. I still don’t know if they’re confusing punishment with difficulty, or if they really insist that a game must create artificial setbacks in order to be enjoyable. It will be interesting to see how things play out in the comments.

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  1. PurePareidolia says:

    I wish I could in good conscience recommend anyone play that game. But having finished it myself and experiencing the way it ends, especially after honestly enjoying it for most of it’s length, adoring the illustrative art style and platforming innovations as well as the way the levels changed based on which order you did the minibosses, not to mention having been a big fan of all the games in the series prior including Warrior Within and thinking the final boss fight was actually really fun and novel, I would probably end up just giving them the Sands of Time and letting them deal with limited rewinds.

    That said, despite being a self-described “platforming veteran” who’s played through the SoT trilogy many times I didn’t end up hating the instant revive mechanic from anything more than a narrative viewpoint – “why can’t she just pull me up onto the ledge I just missed etc”. I missed the time travel from the previous games and the combat was awful beyond reason, but I don’t think the “no death” thing was really that different from quicksaving every five seconds.
    I mean – when I play Super Meat Boy I die all the time but it’s only ever a couple of seconds I’m set back – that doesn’t mean the game isn’t exceedingly hard.

  2. Nyctef says:

    I think punishment has a small part to play in making something difficult, in that it removes the ease at which a “W+M1” player can actually get through the game. The more checkpoints it has, the higher probability that a facerolling can make it through. Whether or not that’s a bad thing depends on your point of view.

    It’s like putting a timeout on password failure to prevent brute-forcing.

    (Of course, this all ignores the best games, where the fun is in the journey and beating the challenge is just the icing on the cake ;)

    • bit says:

      *snicker*

      …which applies to everything but Portal, of course, as the cake is a lie.

      *puts face out for slapping*

    • Khizan says:

      The thing is, in most games, the ability of somebody else to faceroll it doesn’t really have an effect on my playing whatsoever. So in those cases, I don’t care if other people just button mash to victory.

      However, I find that I personally prefer save points in many games slightly more than “save anywhere”, because I find myself tending to use the save/load like a crutch to get past particularly difficult spots. Getting past a difficult encounter feels like less of an achievement when it’s so easy to just throw yourself against it until you brute force it down.

      • Heron says:

        Fallout became a lot less challenging when I realized I could quick save, try to pickpocket the guy, and reload if I fail. Same for picking locks, or hacking computers, etc. It really did make me want to play less.

        I kind of wish games with a “quick save” feature would let you check a box that disables everything but autosaves. The idea isn’t to punish failure, but rather to discourage that metagame thinking that breaks immersion.

        • PurePareidolia says:

          Why not just not use quicksaves? rather than having a button to specifically prevent you from using them. Isn’t checking a button that says “I’m not going to quicksave” just a pointless formalizing of something you’re perfectly capable of not doing on your own?

          • Nyctef says:

            Well, you could say the same about “Hardcore Mode”. It’s perfectly possible to simulate and enforce it yourself, but it’s easier (and more fun) if the game does it.

      • Danel says:

        My problem with it is that’s a short hop from “it’s possible to save everywhere” to the designers deciding that since ‘everyone’ saves constantly it’s perfectly acceptable to use surprise unpredictable death.

        • Peter H. Coffin says:

          yus.

          Though that illustrates pretty clearly the difference between “punishing” and “hard”. If you need to make a careful jump to catch a ledge, there’s several possible ways it can be handled:

          1. Failure mean you miss and have to go climb back up on the box or wherever your launch point is.
          2. Failure means you miss, take some minor damage that may make the next challenge more difficult in a minor way, and have to navigate back to your launch point. If you fail enough times in a row, you may want to be healed before trying again.
          3. Failure meant that you miss, take major damage that may make the next challenge fatal, which may mean deciding to run around finding healing before attempting again, and navigating back to your launch point. (This is where most games with autosave park themselves, and games with limited “lives”.)
          4. Failure means you miss and die.

          The fourth one seems like the most punishing, but with a quicksave, it’s essentially no different than #1, with the possible omission of even the “have to walk back” part.

          Compare that to actual “hard”, which corresponds roughly to how difficult it is to successfully make that jump and safely arrive on the ledge. IMHO, there’s a LOT more room to play in that space in an interesting manner. It might be a simple “run and push a button, then push and hold (another) button” that works every time the hold isn’t forgotten. Maybe it needs a run at a particular speed and/or a particular direction to make the launch right. Maybe the hold needs to be timed right in order to “take”. Maybe there’s an element of random in this kind of maneuver, which may or may not get more reliable with higher skill levels, particular classes, or in-game practice.

          • Alexander The 1st says:

            There’s also one last option:

            5.) Failure means you fall into a lower section of the level, and don’t get to try the challenge again until your next playthrough.

            This can be seen in games like Mass Effect [1/2]; if you fail to have enough Paragon/Renegade points, you can still choose another, unoptimised choice, but then the game can lock you out of the paragon option [For example, on Feros, That Exogeni guy who you end up killing if you don’t have Paragon/Renegade – I’ve never played a runthrough where I had enough to save him, but I take that punishment and don’t go “I’m going to try it again”, because I know I failed it.]

            Probably the main issue we have with PoP with no failure option is that there is no way to work around the fact that you may keep on jumping into a pit, without having consequences that matter. “Oh, you failed the challenge? Try again.”

            If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving’s not for you.

    • eri says:

      Games are an interactive experience. If the player wants to put nothing into the game, then they should expect to end up disappointed and unfulfilled. The best games are those which reward you for your investments.

  3. Tse says:

    I’m not a huge fan of platforming, but I love the Sands of Time Trilogy. I like the storytelling, the combat(even in SoT), the pacing, the traps, the story. Prince of Persia just doesn’t have any of the things I love about those games. That’s why I never finished it.
    I’m also not a huge fan of the new prince’s moves. I mean, climbing on the ceiling, jumping at a wall in order to run along it, using magic circles that shoot you like a cannonball… They break the immersion for me by being too unbelievable.

    • Robyrt says:

      That’s what makes The Forgotten Sands so weird: It combines the totally unrealistic platforming moves of the reboot with the atmosphere, traps, combat, etc. of the trilogy. One minute you’re sipping water from a mystical fountain, the next you’re air dashing.

  4. Primogenitor says:

    Now imagine the game without the checkpoints, so that if you die you have to start the entire chapter over from the very beginning. The combat and gameplay mechanics are otherwise identical, it just sets you back more when you fail. If you think about it, this doesn’t make the game any more difficult to beat. It takes the same level of skill to reach the end of the game. The game isn’t hard, it’s just hard to enjoy.

    I would say longer blocks make a game both harder and more punishing. Imagine if each action is a dice roll, and you need above a certain score to succeed. Some players are dice with higher numbers (more skill). Some players are dice with more sides (more variation in their performance). If you require more consecutive passes (longer blocks between checkpoints), then more consistent players will do better than less consistent players for the same average skill level.

    • Sydney says:

      This is my stance, too. The further back a game sends you for failing, the more consistent you need to be in order to get through it. Imagine if you could play Mario “Prince of Persia style” – with failure setting you back to the moment just before you took the fatal jump.

      Even a complete incompetent could make it through just by trying each hard jump over and over for free. This is how many people beat romhacks like Kaizo Mario World: They use savestates like time-rewind sand. Their skill never improves, they just take free retries until they luck out and advance.

      But since you have to do the whole level over when you fail, you need to be consistent. A 60% accuracy rate won’t cut it – you’ll get frustrated and quit long before you make it to the end. Or, preferably, you’ll find yourself motivated to improve, maybe until you have an 80% success rate. Or 90%.

      • Will says:

        Good luck getting through with anything less than a 99.99’% success rate. Even a 95% success rate in a game like Mario will give you a minute chance to ever actually finish the level due to the number of challenges involved.

        • Sydney says:

          You’re getting hung up on the example and missing the point. Stop it.

          • krellen says:

            I have better things to do with my time than push my skill from 60% to 65%, let alone 80%. That’s not “challenge”. That’s “perfecting”.

            • Sydney says:

              Well, yes. Hence the dichotomy between challenge and punishment.

              It’s a difference in playstyle preference is all. In my experience, the heavy-punishment crowd maps onto the “grind freak” in MMO circles – the ones who play to improve their own skills, rather than experience new things or witness an epic story.

              It’s interesting that Shamus is Spoiler Warning-ing Mass Effect 2 and put up this article. I’m in the middle of a Mass Effect 1 playthrough in which I don’t save and don’t spend skill points. If my pewpewpew pistolsniper gets killed, I go back to the last autosave, wherever that happened to be.

              I’m doing this because I’ve already done a no-skill-point run and an autosave-only run. This is next up.

              • Will says:

                The no skill point thing does add challenge though; no skill points makes you weaker, which makes the game harder.

                Difficulty is how hard it is to do task X, punishment is what happens when you fail to do task X correctly. The two are not linked. Take Curse of Monkey Island as an example; many of the tasks in CoMI are actually quite difficult, requiring some very creative lateral thinking, but it is impossible to die in the game, in fact there isn’t any punishment at all; if you fail to solve a puzzle, you just fail to solve the puzzle and can immediately try again.

                If the game killed you every time you got a puzzle solution wrong, it wouldn’t be harder, it would just be more time consuming.

                And a question: What does it matter to you if someone else less skilled than you can beat the game eventually by facemashing the keyboard? Does it detract from your gaming experience if someone eventually finishes the game through sheer luck?

  5. bit says:

    It’s interesting to note that despite capturing the casual’s attention, the idea of heavy punishment is something that Nintendo, both in its mainstream and casual titles, still sticks to; in Mario, for example, even in the Kart, Party etc. games, failing to meet standards caries huge weight; in the standard games you are whisked all the way back to the beginning of the level, and in the Kart games, for example, messing up a jump and getting 12th place might stop you from winning a medal in the cup (thus failing to unlock the next one) and even if you know this, you still have to either finish the whole thing or actively quit and try again from the bloody main menu. Unfortunately, it seems, Nintendo seems to be fixing this by letting players simply skip the difficult parts, thus getting rid of all that learning and completely invalidating any sort of ramp they may be trying to create. Hopefully they’ll fix this soon, though I somewhat doubt it.

    Picking a random game out of my hat that I’ve been playing recently, Bayonetta does this (meaning what’s in the video) really well; if you die during a fight, the game plops you into the training room for a good thirty seconds, allowing you to completely freely review and practice all your various combos and weapon combinations. Afterwards, it swiftly places you into the nearest peaceful environment, (with full health and magic,) which is always within viewing distance of the fight so that you can review the environment and plan your strategy. In addition, exploring the area around the combat grounds will net you ingredients, so that you can concoct items to help you out even more in the fight. Or, of course, you can just completely skip everything and run headlong in again and again with little delay, which is even simpler to do on the easier difficulties. Plus, the challenge for hardcores comes not from beating the fights eventually, but beating them with the highest possible scores; those platinum trophies are damn hard to resist.

    Also, Bayonetta is a perfectly valid piece of art, sexuality and all.
    *hides behind flame shield giggling*

  6. Andy_Panthro says:

    To be honest, if I wanted to get someone interested in gaming, the last thing I would do is show them a console.

    Your local arcade (if you still have one), mobile gaming (Angry Birds etc.) or any number of simple PC games (point and click adventures, flash games and the like) would be a much better choice.

    Myself, I grew up with Sierra adventure games, and they actually got easier with time! The earliest required you to be able to type quickly and precisely (and indeed, knowledge of American English, which is certainly a foreign language to a young child).

    I think my first platformer was probably Alley Cat (PC), and on a console Pitfall (Atari). I never really liked the genre though, until I played Sonic. Despite some rather annoyingly difficult sections, the majority of the game is relatively easy to navigate and since the levels are quick and small, even being put back at the beginning is not too bad. I could never complete a Sonic game, but I always found them fun.

    [edit] Oh, and I have always hated the trend to reboot a series and use the generic name. Now when I say I’ve played “Prince of Persia” and “Alone in the Dark” I have to qualify that by adding the year (1990 and 1992 respectively)

    • eri says:

      You’re definitely right about that. Games with simple and intuitive interfaces (racing wheels, light guns, computer mouse) are excellent for teaching players the conventions of games and various genres, while at the same time not overwhelming them with confusing control schemes. You can learn more or less all you need to know about RPGs, for instance, by playing Penny Arcade Adventures – the game doesn’t at all suffer from its simplistic interface, and stands on its mechanics rather than the difficulty at which players have manipulating them.

      This is why I’m not a big fan of most fighting games; they have complex control schemes that, I feel, take away from what should be mostly about strategy. I realise that not all fighting games have obtuse controls, but they’re relatively non-standard compared to many other games, and unless one is really familiar with how fighting games play, the difficulty doesn’t really come from strategy or reflexes – the controls are an artificial barrier. This is more true in some games than others, of course.

    • psivamp says:

      I gave my father a 360 for Christmas last year. He’s a computer programmer and has a server farm in his room including my last desktop that I built, but he hasn’t had a console since the NES.

      The modern controllers are insane. Analog thumbsticks, analog triggers. And you’re expected to know that right off the bat. Needless to say, he was frustrated.

  7. Robyrt says:

    I totally agree with this video, and in fact I had tested Prince of Persia on my mother, who has difficulty with the TV remote.

    Result: The camera was her undoing. If she misses a fatal jump, Elika will bring you back to a recognizable spot. If she misses a non-fatal jump, or accidentally walks off a ledge (very easy if you are not used to analog sticks), the camera will snap back behind the Prince, 180 degrees away from where you actually want to go. Even if you remember the jump button gets you back up on the ledge, you then have to laboriously recalibrate the camera, which is an entirely different skill (using your right thumb to move an analog stick) from the actual platforming gameplay.

    Prince of Persia was so close to being a non-gamer’s platforming game, but I’d like to see it go even further.

    • eri says:

      To be fair, camera design is really hard work, and it does an excellent job of staging most scenes. The problem is that it still sits in this weird space between full-on “hardcore” game and accessible “anyone can play” sort of title; it keeps things simple and intuitive without punishing players too much for failure, but at the same time also relies on a lot of conventions that are only really known to experienced players. My guess? A case of design-by-committee where someone ruled it had to appeal to both the traditional fans as well as new gamers.

    • dyrnwyn says:

      Anyone, no matter how skilled or experienced can be screwed over by a camera. The things are evil incarnate.

    • Ian says:

      If you want one that’s exceedingly gentle on a console, try Flower for PS3. I had to practically pry my controller out of my mother’s hands. :)

  8. poiumty says:

    I found your video on Prince of Persia to be enlightening and well written, but it only applies to a certain demographic: middle-aged people who are being introduced to gaming for the first times. Even so, some people might want something they really have to work for.

    There’s an interesting difference between punishing and challenging – i’d define punishing as forcing you to be aware and on alert, while challenging is just a matter of repetition and practice until you get it right. Competitive Starcraft 2 is one of the best examples of challenge without punishment, but MMOs are a different breed.

    There’s an underlying discussion here on what the death penalty in MMOs should be, but i’d like the make the point that punishment doesn’t make the game less enjoyable or boring. It just makes it less accessible (meaning people might be put off when they hear about it), which is what MMOs nowadays are drifting toward (accessibility, i mean, not the lack of it).
    An example: there was this MMO once that applied a 4% current level exp loss on death, no matter what the cause was. So kinda like Diablo, except it took years to reach max level so the penalty got incredibly harsh at higher levels. Even so, people didn’t quit or get bored because of this; they took it as a part of the game and learned to adapt to it. This gave the game added depth and, dare i say it, immersion as everything around you took a new level of danger and importance. Following WoW’s example, though, we want even grandma to be able to play our MMO because one more subscriber means more money for us.

    • TSED says:

      EQ has had its death penalty reduced and reduced and reduced for years.

      Originally it was 12% EXP of the level (which was a massive time sink) and could cause level loss. It also left your corpse there, and you had a certain amount of time to get to it before it ‘rotted’ and all of your stuff was gone forever.

      Originally, that time was around 30 minutes. Keep in mind you had to run across a HUGE world.

      This was a really unpopular thing, and they eventually made it so you could only get experience-points-resurrections for the 30 minutes and loot your corpse in ~3 days. Then they upped the res time to 3 hours (I think?). Then they introduced a ‘corpse summon’ spell where necromancers (and eventually shadow knights, though theirs was worse) could summon a corpse if they had consent to drag it and were in the same zone as it.

      So on and so forth. At the point it is now, you can spend some money to buy an item from a vendor which summons ALL your corpses to you instantly if you use it (in this area), and does so in a HEAVY-activity player hub.

      Honestly? It doesn’t make EQ easier. It makes EQ less punishing. I agree with Shamus. Death DOES still mean something (there is STILL exp loss, just heavily mitigated by the ease of acquiring a 96% rez at this point in time, or even occasional and rare 100%ers, or we could talk about the difficulty of getting back to where you were, or …) but it doesn’t cause player-destroying despair.

      My very first character was stumbling around his newbie zone (Field of Bone) and discovered, by complete accident, a level 30-40 dungeon (Kaesora). He found a pit trap, which hurt, and then was basically one shotted by the group of mobs that jumped on top of him. Given what I knew about the game and everything, there was no way to get the corpse back – all my stuff (hours and hours of time invested, because learning your first char back then was ARDUOUS) and blah blah blah. By complete coincidence a group of higher level players (some 50s heading in for one of their number’s epic) happened to be in the area and helped me out. I forget who they were but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the kindness they did to me.

    • daveNYC says:

      It’s not just the death penalty, it’s the entire leveling curve concept that is a bone of contention. You get players who want hittng the level cap to be a rare and glorious affair, and you have others who want to get to the endgame content (the existance of that phrase is a sign of the continued brokeness of MMORPGs) sometime before they start collecting social security.

      I remember one of the second gen MMORPGs (DAOC, maybe?) raised the level cap and modified the experience gain rate for the lower levels. Oh the wailing and gnashing of teeth as the high level characters talked about how they had to walk uphill both ways in the snow just to get ten experience points. It wasn’t that they were upset that it was more difficult for them, it’s that they didn’t want it to be easier for the new guys.

      • LadyTL says:

        I think that last bit is what is really at the heart of all this arguing. The old style gamers don’t want new gamers to “have it too easy.” After all they learned on arcade games or Mario so now everyone should. Anyone who is more interested in the story of the game and doesn’t give a fig about gameplay is considered stupid and lazy. Also I think there is also the bit of a fear that their “skills” will be invalidated at some point.

        • krellen says:

          Ignoring, of course, that those skills are already invalid. “I’m better at entertaining myself than you!” “Uh, congratulations?”

        • Tomulus says:

          I’ve heard the same argument used against players using godmode in single player games. Sometimes we just want to experience the story, the atmosphere or the escapism without any hindrance.

          • wootage says:

            As an old-school gamer, I’d like to point something out. If a game is delivering more challenge and reward at level 1 zillion than at level 1, that game has a design problem. The entire point of a game is that during the time you spend playing it, you’re engaged to the maximum possible extent by the experience. Not just after you’ve spent enough time playing it to have “ground your way up the ladder” enough to be allowed to have fun.

            From that perspective, I’d have to say the virtually all of the MMO and most of the PC game industry has been a massive failure for its entire history. And these are the games that I first learned to play, so there’s nothing self-serving here.

            By contrast, console games have been executing this pretty well and reaping a lot of success out of it as a result. My beef with them is that they do remove complexity and depth so much, and put in so many “crutches”, as to prevent players from learning and growing as much as I had to. So I do see the new generation of players as suffering from a qualitative difference in the games they are offered. Not their fault, but there it is.

  9. Nic says:

    Is it true that everyone can beat Civilization on default difficulty? My interest has never survived much past the development of caravels… about the point when I realize that the AI is both better than me AND not bored out of its skull.

    I came across the Reset Button video long before I’d seen any of your other work. “Now this”, I thought, “this young man is going to make something of himself!” :P

    Edit: Fallen Earth had an interesting death penalty. Dying merely caused you to respawn in town (possibly with an XP deduction?). BUT mounts are persistent in that game, so if you wanted your mount back, you either had to wander back to where you parked, pay a “towing” fee, or craft a new horse!

    • eri says:

      If you have an understanding of the mechanics, then yes, because Civilization is pretty much all about manipulating variables within a set of fixed rules, like a board game. Reflexes and inexperience with input devices just doesn’t matter. Now, whether you’d actually want to beat it is a different story…

  10. burningdragoon says:

    You mentioned Demon’s Souls, hurray!

    *ahem*

    I remember first watching that Reset Button. I thought it was really good, but I was never put off about the “no death” thing. Made me think about it differently.

    So yeah, Demon’s Souls is my favorite game of the past few years, but I didn’t like it so much because it was difficult, though that was part of it. I liked it because you pretty much had to be careful and patient until you know all the danger and how to deal with any threat. Once you know where all the enemies are and their weaknesses, it really stops being that hard. Unlike your Super Mario Bros, reference, where even when you know everything it’s still balls-difficult. Another thing about it is that even though dying “set you back” if you managed to get back to where you were you would get all your experience + all the experience you would get on the way. So.. it’s really dying twice in a row that sets you back. (that’s different!)

    But enough of me Demon’s Souls fanboying, I agree that in MMOs, you don’t want to be ruining the experience for most of the players by having a big penalty for death. In my short(ish) MMO experience (couple years of FFXI), that absolute worst thing ever was playing for several hours to gain 1 level only to die and have the level down sound play. F that noise… never stopped me from playing though, maybe I’m, just a sucker.

    • Zukhramm says:

      I enjoyed Demon’s Souls, and I do think there’s room for more punishing games. I don’t think all punishment for death should go away, but what should go away is the idea that more punishment is equal to more difficulty. The main thing added to Demon’s Souls from the harsh punishment is not challange but the tension of playing with higher stakes.

      • LadyTL says:

        I would say also that the same punishment level doesn’t need to be applied to all games. I wouldn’t want to play Mass Effect or Dragon Age with the same level of punishment that Demon’s Souls dishes out.

    • Robyrt says:

      Another key mitigating factor of Demon’s Souls is that there are ways to lessen the ostensibly huge death penalty. Shortcut doors open before the end boss. You can never lose levels or items. Higher-level characters can exit to the world map on command. Running to collect your corpse gains you XP. Et cetera.

      I know that without the Evacuate spell, I would never have finished the game.

      • Atle says:

        Demon’s Souls! I loved it! My favorite game in the last few years as well.

        But yes, you could loose levels on one of the final boss’es. But again, once you learned what particular mistake would be punished by a level loss, it wasn’t that hard to avoid.

        One good thing about it is that it wasn’t linear. When meeting a though challenge, you could try and try again until you made it through. Or you could go somewhere else, gain more skill, levels and maybe better weapons. And then come back to the now somewhat easier challenge.

        If you were stuck at one spot, and you had to get past that one particular to make progress, then it would be much harder.

  11. eri says:

    This is a topic highly relevant to my interests.

    A game doesn’t need to be difficult to be fun. Fun is a very subjective phenomenon, and different players derive it from different things; some people like to experience the story and cheat their way through, while others go crazy analysing every possible situation in order to achieve the best possible results (speed running, power gaming, etc.). As game designers, the one thing that we should absolutely not do is tell our players what is fun, or try to impose our own ideas of fun on them. It’s acceptable to make certain assumptions about what players find fun depending on the type of game, but to actively direct them into enjoying something that they simply don’t like isn’t going to change their mind, it’s going to frustrate them.

    Thus, building a fun game requires that a game be fun in more ways than just a central mechanic… it needs to have aesthetic appeal (visuals and music), it needs to have good environment design, it needs to have a compelling narrative (or at least a likable setup), it needs to have a variety of features (also important for pacing), and it needs to provide players with options and alternatives so they aren’t forced into doing something they don’t like.

    Difficulty is related to fun in that some players find a game that is more difficult to be more enjoyable; they salivate at the challenge and want nothing more than to overcome it, to test their skills and emerge triumphant. This is perfectly acceptable, and many games which rely on challenge for their effect should also attempt to provide a hard or “insane” mode for those who really want to struggle and optimise their playing.

    At the same time, many players don’t like dying or losing, not even infrequently. While it’s often impossible to remove death or failure from a game due to the mechanics (i.e. a shooter is almost by nature a battle of life and death), and removing all tension from a game’s design is a bad idea, designers should endeavour to provide solutions to appeal to players who don’t want challenge. This isn’t too hard to do: cheat codes, extra weapons and ammo, easy mode, frequent checkpoints… these are things that can all be easily modified in a game’s design in order to provide players with different, but fulfilling experiences.

    The absolute best games, in my mind, aren’t titles which impose many limitations on how players achieve success… they more resemble a set of rules that the player is able to operate within in order to achieve a specific outcome. This applies to pretty much every genre: in a strategy game, no one strategy should be dominant over all others to the point where the use of any other is impossible, and in a platform game, players should be able to reach a goal through their skill and creative use of abilities given, not by adhering to the designer’s beck and call. Obviously, this openness can’t always be ensured, but that makes it no less important to strive for.

    This is why I’m in some ways not a fan of Prince of Persia 2008. It’s a beautiful, well realised game. Difficulty isn’t this game’s problem, nor is the lack of death (though it should probably have been an option players could turn off if they wanted). The real issue at heart is that it takes a genre which is known for providing the player with a set of tools, and forces the player to do exactly what the designers dictate; most often, it’s a less a platform game and more a pattern-matching game. There are few if any situations in the game where players are offered the chance to solve a problem or reach a goal themselves; if they do exactly as the game tells them (via environmental cues), they will win, and if they do not, then they will lose.

    The sad thing is that this doesn’t even make the game bad – it just makes it deceptive and disingenuous to players. I really appreciate some of what Ubisoft tried to do, but there were better ways to do it than transforming what should be an open, creative experience into a series of quick time events.

    • Alexander The 1st says:

      Probably the most easily spotted issue is the quicktime events in battles. While I like the idea that each button does a specific move, when you’re on the ground and about to be assaulted by the enemy and need a quicktime event to recover, the game sets it off and plays the sound before I can see it on screen [It was a video card issue at the time], which means I have a high likelyhood of missing the quicktime event, because the sounds are not indicative of the event [Just one for all of the types], and had to guess.

      If, instead, it had been a quicktime event where any of the options would’ve worked, instead of sometimes a grapple, sometimes a acrobatic, sometimes a slash, and sometimes a block, it would’ve been more fun for me there. If you give me options, let me use any of them, not just make it “use this option here, use this option there.” It was close, but it needed that one last touch to make battle really fun.

      As for difficulty, I’ve always felt it was about the challenge it took to execute something [Notice that in my case above, it would’ve been a timing challenge instead of timing and reflex] with the appropriate tools and time given, rather than the punishment given.

      However, the punishment gives motivation to why you want to solve a problem.

      Consider Sonic 2, Aquatic Ruin Zone. The punishment for not being able to navigate the swings on the upper level without falling is to be forced to take the lower path filled with water [For context, you can drown in water unless you get the air bubbles that show up – no bubble shield yet.]. So the punishment is that you have to move slower and take thought into how you progress. You can no longer just blaze through, because now you have to stop and collect bubbles after the timer reaches a certain urgency. THIS is how punishment should be treated when possible, but with Narrative structures as they are as tightly joined with the level, falling off the Prothean bridge in Mass Effect 1 on Feros does not have a way of letting you take the lower bridge below it, with harder enemies/less items/more internal building to go through to get back up.

      • eri says:

        I don’t have much to say in reply, except that I think that is a brilliant example of level design working to both provide alternate routes to the player, as well as forcing them to deal with consequences beyond mere death. The game doesn’t necessarily become much more difficult when Sonic is underwater, but it changes the mechanics up, and provides incentive to get it right the next time. Sonic 3 also has quite a few levels designed this way, but I don’t think it’s quite as “textbook” as Sonic 2.

        Of course, the budgets of games these days mean that content unseen by the player is considered content wasted… a real shame, especially when smart design can mean alternate routes are actually pretty cheap to produce (copy and paste a hallway from an earlier part of the game, but change the lighting, move some assets… the player is less likely to notice unless the repetition is excessive and obvious).

        • Alexander The 1st says:

          I was actually thinking about it, and I realise another thing that worked, from a reportedly “Game of all time [So they were probably doing something right]”, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

          Namely, the Gerudo Valley – if you fail to avoid eyesight or are attacked in the cells, you get sent back to an [Somewhat convenient in hindsight, but truth be told, one of the few places they could hold you, given your weapons and all] jail cell where you can use the hookshot to get back out, and try again. Right back into the action.

          And again, in the Deku Palace of Majora’s Mask. Failure != death, and narratively speaking, they work.

          While yes, you have to run back to where you were, it is a consistency challenge, and since they are all the same in essence, you can learn how to do it better by approaching the problem differently.

          But, in Nintendo’s fashion, no loading screen to pull you out. And it adds to the narrative if you do a “no jailing” run. Link now becomes that much more awesome.

          Compare:

          “How did you get past our guards? You’re a persistant fellow, you know?”

          “Well, I kept being booted out, but after a few tries, I finally manage to get the patterns of your guards down.”

          Versus:

          “How did you get past our guards? We never once saw you!”

          “I’m just that good.”

          Self invoked challenge that actually has narrative use, rather than for the achivements.

  12. Shamus,

    I always like seeing you return to this topic. The challenge/punishment confusion is still pervasive and I enjoy seeing the level of debate raised.

    It’s such an important topic to me that it’s the reason I started my own gaming blog, and I wrote an essay on this inspired in part by your Prince of Persia video: Test Skills, Not Patience: Challenge, Punishment, and Learning. I know you’re busy, but if you do happen to read this I would be quite interested to hear what you think of it. :)

    The major point that I think is often lost is that the fun of a challenging game comes from learning to overcome those challenges. Not only does punishment break up the learning, it actively inhibits it.

    Where things get complicated is what I’ve heard termed “challenges of succession” – challenges where part of what makes it hard is the scale or duration. But it’s still just punishment when the player is made to redo unrelated challenges.

    Take a boss fight in Mega Man. Giving the boss more health would (at least arguably) increase the challenge, since the player must fight the boss more efficiently. But requiring the player to replay the stage when they fail is just punishment.

    • Sydney says:

      But that severe hypothetical punishment would encourage players to improve their boss-fighting skills, because they couldn’t afford to lose.

      Raising the bar forces the player to improve. Electrifying it motivates the player to improve.

      I’d rather be motivated than forced.

      • Eddie says:

        And I’d rather be jumping than be being electrocuted.

        Raising the bar forces the player to improve, but that’s fine because improving is an enjoyable experience including the times when you don’t make it over. Electrifying the bar motivates the player because the experience is only enjoyable when they’re not failing. The motivation when the bar is raised comes from the fact that surpassing the bar is even more enjoyable than the learning process, in part because it’s the result of a learning process.

        It’s the difference between wanting to succeed and wanting to not fail. If you have to electrify the bar to get the player to jump higher, then they’re probably not that interested in jumping.

      • theNater says:

        I’d also rather be motivated than forced, but electrifying the bar doesn’t motivate me to improve, it motivates me to leave. Raising the bar and then putting something shiny on it is the way to motivate me to improve.

        • Alexander The 1st says:

          Another thing to consider is to not *make* me jump up to that bar to get that something shiny – if I can’t do it yet, don’t make me keep doing it until I give up – give me a challenge I may find reasonable.

          Also makes that something shiny now valuable, since I’m not guaranteed to get it.

          Consider getting the Chaos Emeralds in Sonic 2 – getting Super Sonic the first time is *amazing*. But if you failed at getting the emeralds, the game didn’t actively stop you from finishing the game until you completed them, nor did it make you try the same emerald world until you had gone through all the others first.

      • silver says:

        “But that severe hypothetical punishment would encourage players to improve their boss-fighting skills, because they couldn’t afford to lose.”

        And how are they going to improve their boss-fighting skills if you can’t practice boss-fighting without first repeating a bunch of non-boss-fighting actions?

        We’re essentially comparing:

        * tedium learn learn learn win

        to

        * learn tedium learn tedium learn tedium win

        to an adaptation which would allow you to practice any boss fight you encountered in a training room:

        * tedium learn learn learn tedium win

      • Yar Kramer says:

        This is exactly what Shamus was talking about in the Reset Button video — if you want to throw a basketball into a hoop at the court, you shouldn’t have to start over from your home if you miss too many times.

        Another reason why Sydney is wrong: “starting over from twenty minutes earlier” means you’d learn a lot less about how to beat the boss, because with the time it took back to where you were before, you have no way of knowing where you were standing, a good stance to take to give yourself the right thrust, which angle/direction/amount-of-force etc. On top of that, it’s simply not fun to have to slog through twenty minutes of challenges I’ve already succeeded at, just to reach the one I haven’t.

        For my own personal preference, electrifying the bar motivates me to use some sort of cheating-device so that it’s much lower and not electrified. :)

  13. Piflik says:

    While I agree, that games like Prince of Persia, without major setbacks on failure can bring non-gamers to this hobby, I have to say that at the same time they are less rewarding for experienced players. Sure…there are genres where restarting a level because of some arbitrary failure is nonsensical, like your basketball or music examples, but if you eliminate death from a dangerous situation and/or consequence of dying, you can as well enable Godmode. It simply removes (or drastically lowers) the challenge. And without challenge there is no sense of achievement (aside from Achievements…they aren’t really challenging mostly).

    I’ll give you Prince of Persia…in that exact game, it does kinda work, because of how the game works…the player has still to get each sequence done, although I think these sequences themselves could have been harder then, but consider a different game, like MGS…whenever a guard is alerted, you magically teleport back into hiding and the guard forgets he saw you…or make that whenever you die…it is still too easy…it wouldn’t take any skill at all to make it to the end, just sticktoitiveness…you need some kind of punishment and/or challenge…or at least some other form of incentive for an experienced player to have fun with such a game…maybe some statistics at the end of the level/game that you can compare with other gamers online…like some miniature status symbol…we all know how well these work from Achievements/Trophies and Free2Play games…

    A game that did this well, (methinks…in any case better than PoP) was FFXIII. Whenever you lost a battle, you could retry and the battles still were rewarding, because the battles were more challenging than in earlier FF games. You can easily die in the first couple of battles, which was next to impossible in earlier episodes, unless you wanted to.

  14. Zukhramm says:

    People seem to react to your opinion on Prince of Persia by confusing your praise for lack of punishment with praise for lack of difficulty. The mentioned Super Meat Boy i supposedly more challangeching (haven’t played beyond the second world so I don’t know if it is) but has very little punishment, instantly putting you back to try again.

  15. Moriarty says:

    I think of punishment vs skill based difficulty more as a parts that form the specific kind of gameplay experience that the “hardcore” players want.

    To clarify, let’s compare VVVVVV with an snes nintendo platformer, Super Mario World. In VVVVVV, there is no punishment whatsoever, if you die you instantly respawn in the last room and can try again. Whereas in SMW you have to start at the beginning of the level or the checkpoint in the middle.

    Now, what makes challenging games fun is the feeling of accomplishment after mastering an obstacly that gave you trouble. The punishment for failure is an important part in the experience.
    If you let the player do half the level again after he dies, you don’t need to make the actual challenge as hard. This is how SMW does things, it may be hard to pull of some of the jumps, but you’re never going to run into a situation where you have to perfectly navigate through a six-screen long fall through rooms full of spikes (If you’ve played VVVVV you know EXACTLY which jump I mean). The challanges are built so that you will fail sometimes, but you won’t fail for three hundred times in a row. (At least you shouldn’t. A certain degree of skill is required to enjoy those kind of games)

    That way, most of the players will beat the game eventually, altough some of them may spent hours on a single level until they could run the first half without looking at the screen.

    VVVVVV on the other hand relies solely on huge obstacles, without punishing you for failure. The feelings of accomplishment you’ll get will be even bigger, but not everyone will be able to reach those goals because the level of skill needed is simply to high.

    In short: You won’t feel very proud of your victories of you don’t have to work for them, and if the games tries to make you “work” by having HUGE obstacles, new players are newer going to enjoy the game. Punishing players for failure makes it possible for newer players to feel like they achieved something by letting them work for their victories while still ensuring they’ll eventually succeed.

    • Ian says:

      Veni Vidi Vici. I kinda hate you for reminding me of that. I would probably be seething if I landed at the wrong side of the block on my successful run (WHICH I ALMOST DID).

      Even so, I did manage to get all of the shinies. And nothing else felt even remotely hard after getting that “fun” trinket.

      • Moriarty says:

        heh, yeah I managed to land on the wrong side of that little block the first time i managed to get through the spikes.

        If you look at some youtube let’s plays of that part, pay attention to the reactions of the uploaders after they’ve succeded. I don’t think anyone would feel the same after beating a challenge in Prince of Persia.

  16. Fawkes says:

    Prince of Persia, an interesting experience I got to recently experience via OnLive’s PlayPack Beta. This, I feel, gives me an interesting experience on the game. It’s a game that has pretty harsh timing requirements, timing requirements hampered by OnLive. (Though, make no mistake, OnLive worked damn well under pressure. I’m still amazed.) There were a lot of times when I found myself grateful for the less punishing deaths simply because I was dying to something stupid, especially the heavy amounts of Quicktime events in Combat. OnLive and Quicktime Events do not get along well.

    The most frustrating times were two-fold, the long, slow sequences that when you die makes you restart. They were punishing and the problem really wasn’t one of lack of skill. Take the one Tower, where a large wooden wall turns over and opens itself up for you to slide down. It wasn’t hard, but it didn’t actually give you a lot of warning on what comes next. It required a certain level of Trial an Error and it was slow-going. That make it frustrating versus enjoyable when I finally managed to beat it.

    The other source of frustration was talked about in the first one, Skill. Games these days are complex, beyond complex. Camera issues alone can be the bane of many gamers. It’s just not fun to have to redo everything you’ve done because the camera decided to focus on this fun little bit of wall instead. It becomes less about punishing me for lack of skill and more punishing me because the game messed up.

    Shamus has talked about that before, that you need to know why you died and learn from it. I’d like to know I died because I jumped too soon versus because the Prince decided to not react until finishing this little quirky cute move with the Princess and decided to react to the button I pressed back when he wasn’t over to the side. That isn’t bad skill, that’s the game punishing me for it’s own style. I enjoyed the animations and interactions, but they became very noticeable when they’d pause the whole game and make the prince jump off the wall because it took a key press you made before it started.

    Punish me for what I did wrong, if you must punish, not for your game’s faults. The problem is there’s no way to do that. It’s all or nothing. (Though MMO’s can help by not making you die because of falls or lose anything if you do, Chronicles of Spellborn, looking at you!)

  17. Meredith says:

    I have a pretty low frustration tolerance for failure in games, so I’m probably in the minority here, but I don’t think harsh punishment is true difficulty. It should always be possible to learn from failure/death and improve one’s skill in a particular game. Yes, it might be possible to get through certain games by button mashing or trying a stupid strategy over and over, but it’s not much fun and I doubt many players truly approach games that way.

    Dying should make me want to improve and there should be a true sense of accomplishment for finally passing some difficult obstacle. Punishing me by, for example, making me replay large sections of a level over and over or taking away my xp don’t teach me much and just make it more likely I’m going to rage quit and do something else…something that’s actually fun.

    I’m sure it’s a fine line for game developers and varies depending on genre of game, but basically I feel like failure shouldn’t take away from the fun of the game. Players should never be punished to the point that they actively stop wanting to play, because once that happens no one is learning anything and skills never improve so more people are just missing out on the experience. That’s not to say there should be no set-back at all; it entirely depends on the game. Sometimes getting to try the challenge a million times with no penalty works and sometimes it doesn’t.

  18. thebigJ_A says:

    Now all I can think about when I hear “difficulty in games” is the new not-exactly-a-sequel to Demon’s Souls, called Dark Souls.

    That game was ridiculously hard, but also utterly fair. You would die, a lot. But it would never be cheap, and always be your own fault. You could tell what you did wrong and correct it. And it was so satisfying.

    Plus, it’s coming out on the console I actually own (360) as well as on Playstation, so I don’t have to borrow someone’s PS3 this time!

    Ok, so this comment isn’t really related to this post. I wanted to share my joy (and terror!) with all you lovely people.

  19. Kyte says:

    Recently, I played Assassin’s Creed, AC2 and Arkham Asylum back to back, and the PoP review heavily reminded me of their gameplay style: Thanks to their checkpoint-based nature, I often experimented different ways to pull off a certain event, knowing that failure wouldn’t meant much beyond having to restart that particular scenario again. The challenge level went up as I progressed, but the punishment was constant and relatively low, so I thought “Hm, let’s change strategy…” instead of “Fuck I’m gonna have to redo all this again”. (Which, btw, makes an argument regarding overly long boss fights without checkpoints)
    (Not to say I particularly enjoyed losing any Riddler Trophies I’d found before I crossing a checkpoint or having to watch the unskippable pre-assassination cutscene all over again, but those are details, on the long run)
    (And of course I don’t mean having a checkpoint every 5HP on the 100HP boss, but sometimes, restarting at halfway in makes for a more satisfying experience if you died 1HP from the end or it took you 10min to reach there)

    PD: You might consider saving to be similar, except obsessive quicksaving is an acquired behavior. From the PoV of a gaming newbie, or simply someone without said habit facing a new game, there’s a large chance they hadn’t saved in a long time at the time they died. Kinda like how people lose work after a blackout.

    • Soylent Dave says:

      I think Arkham Asylum is one of the better executed games of the last few years in this regard.

      The controls and gameplay are simple enough to enable pretty much anyone (or ‘anyone conversant with console controls’ which isn’t really the same thing, but I’ll pretend it is for now) to play and enjoy the game.

      The core mechanic enabled someone highly skilled to potentially play through the entire game without being hit (so you could actually *be* Batman if you’re good enough); but a player who isn’t that good (i.e. most of us) can still play and enjoy the game, because cocking up a combo or missing a counter here and there isn’t an automatic ‘lose’.

      And – for the most part – the game managed to have simple & effective controls while still keeping things looking cool and ‘Batman’ onscreen – I didn’t feel like I was just spectating when playing (which happens when games get a bit too quick-timey).

      Arkham Asylum did let itself down with some unfortunate checkpoint placement – particular in unforgiving boss fights (on Hard, at least – they weren’t as unforgiving on easier difficulties, and rightly so).

      And the combat challenge rooms are hilariously difficult.

      …but it got pretty close (it was fun, it was easy to play without making me feel like I wasn’t actually playing, and it was challenging without – usually – punishing me for failure).

  20. BenD says:

    This is where I put in my occasional, fevered plea for MORE RESET BUTTON.

  21. Some Jackass says:

    Truth.

    Though I’m pretty sure the notion of 50% of adults not playing games isnt based that much on the difficulty and more on the million and one controversies and stereotypes surrounding them
    To even come close to 90% market saturation, games need to 1st escape the negetive stigmas that plague it before they worry about appealing to the wider audience.

    Consumer awareness also helps. Some games are just desinged for the experienced. Im sure no beginner is going to pick up “[random FPS] 7: the final battle” and have any expectation to catch on quickly. While there are probably FPSs out there geared more to the uninitiated, providing a hand holding tutorial.

    • silver says:

      “games need to 1st escape the negative stigmas that plague it before they worry about appealing to the wider audience.”

      Well, they can always do this the way cars, tv, rock and roll, role-playing games and such did it… wait for the next controversial thing to replace them as the go-to bogey man parents blame every child failure upon :)

      • Some Jackass says:

        The next controversy after gaming will certainly take most of the spotlight off them, but that’ll do nothing about the negative associations…if anything that’ll be worse because if gaming can snuff out the negative associations while in the full spotlight of controversy, then it could appeal more easily to more people.

        And even when the next big controversy takes hold, it wont suddenly make all the arguments against games moot.

      • daveNYC says:

        RPGs haven’t exactly taken over the mass market yet. ComicCon, not GenCon, gets all the media love.

  22. Volatar says:

    For the record Shamus, I have absolutely agreed with you on this subject from the moment you put out that video. I just never felt like arguing the point in the comments :)

  23. Vekni says:

    ZOMG QQ N00B

    I really liked 2008’s Prince O Persia. It was beautiful, swift, fun. I am the only one I know who did-my gamer friends whined about how you “couldn’t die”, as if an artificial video game death were somehow more threatening than a shorter artificial video game inconvenience. Hey, no real life consequences when playing Metal Gear Solid on the hardest difficulties either!

  24. Caffiene says:

    Thoughts:

    1) Difficulty increases as we progress through a game. Why cant the same be done with punishment? It doesnt have to be a single set value for how punishing a game is – you could vary it depending on the player. In an MMO like TOR you could have specific high punishment areas, for example.

    2) I think singling out challenge-based gamers at the end is perhaps not an entirely accurate portrayal. My personal experience is that story-based gamers have been the instigators of the biggest, most vehement arguments over punishment that Ive seen – for a story-based gamer, improvements that make the game “easy to play” are not always a good thing, because they can often also serve as an immersion breaking reminder that you are playing a game. Death is one of those areas – while low punishment makes for a smooth play experience for things like grouping, it can also encourage behaviour that is silly and immersion breaking when you are trying to enjoy a story – corpse runs, corpse hopping, kamikaze tactics, etc. A strong punishment can direct players to react to the world in a way that fits better with the story and setting.

    3) The examples from Force Unleashed seem a little strange when the article began by referencing TOR. “Starting the level over” and “reaching the end of the game” both become a lot less of a problem with an MMO – often there are multiple areas of the same xp level, so you dont have to repeat an area or chapter, and with end game content that continues even after you reach the level cap “reaching the end” of many MMOs doesnt actually happen.

    • Zukhramm says:

      On the other hand, death itself is a huge immersion breaker. There’s nothing reminding you more that it’s just a game than the reload save screen.

      • Caffiene says:

        Absolutely.

        The problem is basically that, especially in an MMO where you are more in control of your own goals, you are more likely to put yourself in a position where you die if you arent afraid of the punishment.

        eg, corpse hopping in WoW. Because the punishment is low, people will deliberately put themselves in a position to die a dozen times in a short period of time just as a method of travel.

        • Will says:

          Which suggests that a problem exists with the other methods of travel, not with death.

          • Caffiene says:

            I agree that it suggests that a problem exists with the other methods of travel.

            But its not an either/or choice – there can be problems with both the other methods of travel, ‘and’ with the death punishments.

            Remember, its not just that people choose other methods of travel – its that they specifically choose death as the method of travel. When people went looking for an alternative travel method, death was the solution they settled on because it allowed that behaviour – its flaws are why it was chosen.

            Or at least, “flaws” if you wish to see death treated in a story-like manner. For those who arent concerned with death being treated in a story-like manner, the possibility of corpse hopping isnt a flaw or an issue.

  25. wootage says:

    Let’s add to your proposed solution of an “easy mode” for people who need more time to get acclimated to the new environment. I’m not a console gamer, and if I were to try to play PoP, I’d definitely want to start with easy-cheesy mode just to get used to everything.

    But suppose after I got used to it, I found the normal mode too easy? No permadeath? no risks? hmmm. I’m kind of used to those things in most games, and I enjoy the risk – it sharpens my concentration and makes me try harder, resulting in my learning faster.

    So I’d like to see the addition of harder modes as well as an easier one. Say one where the Prince’s magical friend does NOT catch him when he makes a mistake, and therefore he CAN be sent back in gameplay.

    I think this answer rounds things out for everyone, and I can see how it wouldn’t be difficult at all. IMHO, it’d be better than the current “hard modes” you see, which merely increase the enemies/damage/hit points. Imagine in Left 4 Dead 2 if being incapacitated meant the player had to be carried back to a medical station, instead of just being helped up. There’s some hard mode for you, and without changing any enemy statistics at all.

    • Eddie says:

      I think this is a bad idea if you implemented it exactly as you describe it. I think it would be a good idea if you had two types of difficulty sliders, one for challenge and one for punishment (but probably not called that because it sounds a little too…masochistic; I would probably call it “consequence” instead). This way you can cater to more than just people with different skill levels, you can cater to people with different tastes. People with no tolerance for frustration could set it to minimum punishment. People who want failure to mean something could set punishment to maximum.

      Unfortunately I’m not sure if this would be implementable in the example of MMOs like The Old Republic because it might make grouping between people with differnt punishment levels impossible. Although, thinking about it, I guess you could have high-punishment servers and low-punishment servers like you have different servers for PvP and PvE (I’m really not that familiar with MMOs, I’ve only played a few and never for very long and they were all free-to-play ones).

      • wootage says:

        I don’t mind improvement suggestions, but why is that a “bad” idea per se? Going with a different model for difficulty seems like a good idea to me (since I regard jacking up numbers to increase difficulty as a “dumb” solution), and an implementation compatible with Shamus’ “Easy” setting seems like a natural step.

        Your slider idea is interesting but imho too complex for a player to use easily because it creates too many possible variations of the game experience. It seems as if a player would have to either experiment a lot or “get lucky” in order to play the game on the right difficulty level for them.

        I could definitely your implementation as a playtesting tool though, with it you could determine the optimal levels for different tastes and then embody that in the game’s difficulty choices.

        • Eddie says:

          I think it’s bad because it completely locks out players who want more challenge but don’t want the frustration of more punishment; it’s just replacing the current system where the player has no control over the punishment level with a system where the player has no control over the challenge level. I don’t think increasing the numbers is a “dumb” solution, I think just making the punishment harder is a “dumb” solution but clearly it’s a matter of taste. Increasing the punishisment means you have to fail less, whereas increasing the challenge means you have to be able to do more of the relevant skill to succeed. I guess increased punishment means you have to be more consistent, whereas increased challenge means you have to have a higher maximum ability.

          I think maybe “slider” was the wrong word for me to use. What I mean is two kinds of difficulty settings. So you might have “easy”, “medium” and “hard” for challenge and “light”, “medium” and “heavy” for punishment (or however many different levels of variation you want). I think if you explain the difference clearly enough, the player will be able to figure out what’s right for them. Also, it’s important to be able to change the settings while playing the game, so if they do find that they chose wrong, they don’t have to start the game over from the beginning.

          • wootage says:

            Now there we’ll have to agree to disagree. I don’t believe players should have to demonstrate consistency in order to show ability. How many times must one demonstrate a certain level of timing? Can’t I just successfully jump through the spinning razor blades of permadeath once, instead of fifteen times? That to me says the game designers couldn’t come up with better challenges and resorted to “raising the numbers”, just as raising hitpoints and numbers of enemies does. I’d much rather have to do the challenge once, and if I have to do it a harder way, there would be other variables, such as varied terrain instead of a flat run-up, carrying something that changes my run and jump abilities, etc. Change the gameplay, not the numbers.

            I understood your “two different types of difficulty” solution, but having two kinds at all is where I think the problem will set in. Even 3 settings each is 9 different ways to play the same game. There’s only so much effort that people will (or should have to) put in playing with settings instead of playing the game.

            On my solution, I could see the intro to the game asking for answers to each setting pretty easily. “Do you want the game to make the challenges a) (easy in some way with little setback) b) (moderately difficult with some setback) c) (hard to succeed at with a lot of setback) d)(it’s your funereal).

            I agree that difficulty should be changeable at any time too.

            • Alexander The 1st says:

              I prefer my games with one difficulty, for one specific reason:

              Who wants to consider themselves less adept at a game than the developers intended them to start at? I applaud the Spoiler Waring crew for going down to easy on Dragon Age: Origins so that they could just get through the game [And, to be fair, I haven’t played the Dark Roads yet, but I’m almost there.], but I’m fairly certain none of them originally chose that difficulty; they were forced to go down to easy, which they weren’t happy about until the 50th death.

              From a social standpoint, everyone would like to consider themselves at least normal [Yes, even the casual gamers] enough to be able to pick up the game, and not have to go “Oh, hmm…I can’t level up anymore; guess I’m just going to lower my difficulty to enjoy this game.” with their metagaming. The easy difficulty feels like giving up to the challenge, or if you start on it, not even trying the challenges.

              Instead, give me a normal challenge, with varied punishments that fit the challenge. Don’t even ask up front what my difficulty should be, just give me the hardest challenge you can give without turning it up to 11, and give me ways to ignore challenges I cannot beat. If I can’t beat the boss by conventional means, let me solve puzzles to weaken him to where he’s beatable. Or even better – use the puzzles to give the boss a Non-standard Game Over.

              As for consistency, wouldn’t you like to see a magician show off his “disapearing objects” with not just items he has, but also with an item you know hasn’t been tampered with? And then, with a third party, perhaps performing all three tricks at the same time? It’s more impressive than “Well, er, I can do it if the light from this angle is all setup correctly, and if I can take my time, and I have control of the lighting. Oh, and and it has to be this object here.” Reminds me of a joke comic that has Jesus walking on frozen water, in winter, proclaiming to Cavemen that he can walk on water. They want to remove the variables you have control of and see if you can still do it.

              • Shamus says:

                I do play games on easy now and again, but Dragon Age was a special case: I was having trouble because I was under-leveled and was only running with one mage. (I went to the deep roads too early, and mages impact difficulty more than the difficulty setting does.)

                But even with those issues sorted, I remained on easy for my second play-through just because combat was so constant and time-consuming. Hours and hours of the same damn thing. Bumping things back up to normal would have just slowed my progress even more.

                • Alexander The 1st says:

                  Ah. Deep Roads is going to be my last part, I think; is it as bad as the Fade? The only reward that came out of that was venting out my anger by sending Morrigan into Redcliffe’s Fade sequence, and absolutely owning the Desire Demon there with one Mage. No “One million health bars” nonesense.

                  What I found odd is that they went with a much more level playing field than Mass Effect – because you can go to any of the cities in the game, so far I’ve yet to find an encounter that I could level past. There’s no progression, you just get more and more enemies, of the same difficulty relative to you. You can’t do any leveling to get past them, so every fight does take forever. Especially with those Revenants…I was sorely tempted to drop down to easy at Redcliffe, when I found that one Revenant that you don’t summon and can’t avoid, until I realised you can open the gate door and get the soldiers to help you- even then, I was down to very low health with Wynne and a mace.

                  And the reward? A spirit shard…if they want to make a challenge, with punishment that gets really annoying after awhile, the least they could’ve done was give useful rewarding drops from that fight. Which, if they only had one difficulty, they could’ve done. “Oh, you killed the Revenant? Here’s 8 gold pieces, and a sword, shield, and a couple health poltices.”

                  If they did that, the Revenant would’ve been worth it. But instead, he ended up that challenge that even though I did not get sent back too far [Quicksaving after killing the other mob], what made me angry about him is that there was no way around him *except* to drop difficulty.

  26. dyrnwyn says:

    A problem occurs when you use broad concepts like punishment and challenge so selectively. the two things are by no means mutually exclusive. SMB punishes you when you lose a life by starting the level over and when you lose all your lives by starting the game over, so this means each “challenge” (a jump or enemy) is accompanied by the threat of a restart. but isn’t beating the game within the prescribed amount of levels a challenge? A much more difficult one, but that’s not the point. It’s still a challenge not just arbitrary punishment like having to walk 20 minutes after missing a basket. You mention in the video that the learning is interrupted by “non-learning” in the case of the basketball it clearly is true. making five baskets is equally hard whether you take a hike when you miss or not. not because it is unrelated to throwing a ball but because it has no challenge and is inserted arbitrarily. In PoP you get to keep your score between baskets. Imagine if your goal was to reach five baskets and each time you missed it sent you to take a scenic tour but saved your score! Now the only challenge is eventually succeeding on five baskets but it’s still interrupted by the annoying walk which serves no purpose. If the walk is instead a challenge, say jumping over a pit of lava, then the punishment itself is a challenge that you can improve upon, but it is still arbitrary. It is still just as easy to make five baskets as it was before, now there is just a new skill slowing down your progress. By placing the lava jump BEFORE you ever reach the basketball court it suddenly is one challenge. The new challenge is jump over a lava pit and make five baskets in a row. SMB is one big challenge as are most games. So sometime when you refer to punishment you’re really referring to the length of a challenge.

    When a game has a no-death system it isn’t one challenge but a sequence of separate challenges. Meatboy has levels, PoP has pieces of land. SMB just is (it has levels but they are separate sections of a grander challenge). A game that is one cohesive challenge isn’t punishing you unfairly, it is merely a more complex challenge which you may or may not enjoy. The existence of challenge breaking options like cheats or quick-saves logically solves the problem but it occurs on a psychological level as well. Having the option to freely cheat ruins the feeling of the challenge, I’m not saying there’s anything right or logical about that, it’s just true because you’re no longer being challenged you’re imposing you’re own challenge on yourself, which may be rewarding but is inherently different from besting someone else’s challenge. Things like corpse-runs, and walking to missions in GTA, however, are inexcusable and must be destroyed.

    Monster-post is monstrous.

  27. Cineris says:

    I disagree that there’s a difference between “punishment” and “difficulty.”

    Why? Well, try articulating some design rules for building a good videogame. I’ve tried this exercise before, and pretty much every rule I could think of was violated by one or more games that I actually liked.
    For example, you can say, “What you need to do to progress should be clearly articulated to the player,” but there is a pseudo-genre of games that violates this principle as its entire notion of existing (so-called “Sandbox” games).
    Another example, “Don’t take control of the character away from the player” – Broken by many games, most notably horror-genre games like Eternal Darkness or something like L4D.
    How about, “Mastery of the game should depend on [reflex] skill and not on memorization?” Well, there’s plenty of games I can think of where reflex skills don’t make a difference and memorizing game mechanics constitutes the majority of the skill in the game. I’d probably put something like Civilization against AI opponents or turn-based RPGs in this category (there is a tactical element to these games, but most often you have to memorize a massive number of mechanics to even be able to make intelligent tactical decisions).
    Maybe, “Don’t make players grind to be able to play the game successfully.” Well, that’s awfully easy to debunk with most action-RPG style games. Even shooter games these days offer “perks” that give players who have grinded the game longer advantages over other players.

    So how about Shamus’ differentiation between difficulty and punishment? Well, there are plenty of games whose entire appeal is being hard. And not necessarily “difficult” but punishing and unfair. I Wanna Be The Guy is kind of the ideal game to talk about here because it really is the type of game which you would never think in a million years could be fun — This is the type of game where you’re expected to time perfect jumps between spikes that cover every inch of the level while random parts of the level become spontaneously deadly. You can be killed by a piece of fruit that’s in the background, or a star, just as examples. This is also a game where one hit kills you, no health bar, and you start back at the last checkpoint.
    Even though IWBTG is pretty much the platonic ideal “bad game” that Shamus is talking about, it’s got a cult following and is actually pretty fun (at least to watch, I’m not much into platforming games myself). And yes, consistency in controlling your character is also a part of player skill, so trying to break down challenges into arbitrarily smaller bits is fundamentally reducing challenge. (It can also increase frustration because if you’re at a certain point in a game and you don’t pass it immediately, players will often try to brute force if they don’t have to backtrack. If you have to play through a 20 minute segment then you might explore alternative solutions rather than re-attempting something that didn’t work the first time.)

    The fact of the matter is what constitutes good design is very subjective and also dependent on the game’s objectives and audience. Creeping along cautiously where one hit can kill you can be “atmospheric & immersive” or it can be “frustrating & stupid” depending on what type of game you’re playing. Do you expect to die suddenly and randomly in the game, or is it a total break in the expected game experience? (If it’s a break, is it a welcome break with well-communicated rules, or is it a one-off failure of the testers to recognize something that’s inordinately challenging compared to other content?) Are you an experienced game player looking for something challenging, or does your game playing experience span Bejeweled 1-3?

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the general principles that Shamus elaborates in games that are designed for mass audiences — But almost any rule you can think of can be broken if your game finds the right audience and the actual gameplay communicates and follows a consistent design philosophy.

    • Zukhramm says:

      I don’t see how your post in any ways gives an argument for why challange and punishment are not different things. Punishment can raise the challange, but it’s not the same thing as challange, but rather a separate aspect.

      • Cineris says:

        There are some very obvious things that we might be able to classify as purely punitive: For example, shutting off your console if you die, or forcing you to watch a long unskippable cutscene.

        However most things in most games are not intentionally punitive. Take, for example, Portal. In Portal, many of the “levels” require you to complete several jumps in succession to proceed.
        There is for example, one room where you hit a timed switch. You then have to falling through your first portal to build up momentum, switch your portal to launch yourself through the air for a long jump, place your other portal so you can hit a switch to open a door, place another portal so an energy ball can fly through the door it and hit the final switch you need. All of this is done under a ticking clock as each switch is timed. All of these are things you’ve done before in previous “levels”, but this is a room designed to test your ability to figure out and execute all these steps in succession. Failure on any of these steps means death or waiting until the room resets to default state and redoing the whole thing.
        Now, we could say this is “punitive” because it’s forcing me to do 3-5 tasks all in succession. Why not just allow me to make my jump, then if I fail I can hit F5 and retry the jump alone? And then once I pass the jump I can practice placing my portal so the energy ball flies through it, etc. The answer is because the challenge here is supposed to be holistic – Portal has already done an awesome job of preparing you for this type of challenge by giving you an array of similar-but-simpler challenges through which you must have already passed to get to this point. But it’s never given you something that requires you to execute them all in succession under time pressure.
        Most games are not designed as well as Portal, and their difficulty curve can bounce all over the place. But this doesn’t mean that levels (or sections, or whatever nomenclature is appropriate for your game) shouldn’t be viewed as holistic challenges rather than a series of discrete challenges. I can think of plenty of games where the challenge is not “beating the level” but “beating the level with enough life /ammo / other resources left to spare to handle the boss.”
        IWBTG for example, works on a checkpoint system. On the hardest difficulty there could be 10 screens between one checkpoint and another, and 30 jumps/moves you have to execute to get past one screen. It’s brutally hard, Shamus would probably say punitively hard, but the challenge is not any particular jump but in doing everything with enough consistency to make it to the end.

        • Cineris says:

          I’ve been riffing on IWBTG in this thread a lot, but I figure I should also mention a couple of other games that I’ve played that made what I think are normally “bad design decisions” that are still fun for the right audience.

          Most of us can agree that making a mistake and dying in a game, and then starting *all over from the beginning* would be a little ludicrous. But then there are games like Nethack in which permanent character death is arguably one of the strongest reasons for the game’s longevity. A more popular example is Diablo 2 which is pretty forgiving when it comes to death penalties, but then there’s the Hardcore mode that’s surprisingly pretty popular.

          Heck – One of the most fun games I’ve played in the last couple of years was Star Control 2 (The Ur-Quan Masters version). I actually “lost” the game by taking too long to explore the galaxy. This is probably one of the few rules I might be able to articulate for games, “Don’t make the actions of the players have surprise consequences 40hrs down the line.” But the game itself is great fun, and I kind of like that the game runs on a time-limit (I just wish I had been told about it before I spent too long doing sidequests to complete the main quest).

  28. Neil Polenske says:

    You sonuvabitch, you linked to tv tropes! What day is it? How long have I been gone?

  29. Amarsir says:

    My problem with TOR’s “announcement” was that it’s such vague nothingness. “We want a death penalty but not too hard.” Way to go out on a limb, Bioware. To me it screamed “wanting to stay on people’s minds while being far behind schedule”. They didn’t even say what it actually is, just that it would be reasonable. Sheesh.

    Now to your topic, Shamus, it’s a good distinction between difficult and punishing. But for an MMO, I do want death to carry a little personal punishment, because it focuses people on a team. I love pickup groups, but with a light penalty you sometimes get people who play like idiots because “no big deal” if they die – except of course wasting people’s time. That’s the only reason I think a penalty has value, to normalize behavior.

  30. Andy_Panthro says:

    Oh, and I feel I should mention the rather awesome difficulty sliders in the original System Shock.

    There were four settings, Mission, Combat, Cyberspace and Puzzles (I think), which you could change individually to add more or less challenge depending on your ability.

    Not enough games do this!

  31. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I dont know,I mostly agree with you,but I still find I wanna be the guy enjoyable.Maybe its because of the goofy things you encounter from all the various games.It does have lots of substance beneath that kill you to death mechanics.Which is probably why I wanna be the guy is the only game like this that Ive enjoyed.

    • Tomulus says:

      I too enjoyed it for a little while, it had some great challenges, but do you think IWBTG would be more fun to more people if it was optional to have the checkpoints closer together? (like at the beginning of each screen)

      I know that I would have given it more time.

  32. Kdansky says:

    While you point it out, you miss something big: Super Meat Boy is ridiculously hard, but not punishing at all. In most levels, you instantly respawn upon death, and the levels are usually very short.

  33. Ingenu says:

    There’s no difference between punishment and challenge, because there is only a single parameter games can play with : time.
    Since it’s the only factor, both end up as the same thing : the amount of time you lost due to failure.

    Either you are just before the sequence you failed, or longer before, and either you have a long sequence or a short one, but that doesn’t change anything, in the end it’s all about the time you lost because you failed.
    (Or amount of time it will take for you to succeed, maybe that’s the difference you are willing to make, time spent to reach the sequence vs time spent during the sequence before failure, doesn’t change much really, it’s still all about time.)

    As I also have less time to spend on playing games, I prefer games that don’t waste a lot of my time when I fail. ^^

    • Zukhramm says:

      I disagree strongly with the idea that the yare the same thing if the result in amount of time wasted is the same. How that time is very important. A game where you’re watching a long cutscene every time you die is not more challanging. Neither is a game where your character walks slower. That or movement speed is also the same thing as challange.

    • Tomulus says:

      Watch the video again.

  34. rofltehcat says:

    Yeah, I always liked that video. I found it quite inspiring when you made it.

    Now I watchted it again and now I want to replay Prince of Persia.
    I sooo loved that game. Everyone said it was bad, too easy, boring…
    what all of them were missing was the game.
    It is fun to complete one of the runs that consists of a few filler moves and a few really awesome stunts to then stand there on the next platform and see some great scenery. And the next run that looks even more complex. This is rewarding and motivating at the same time. Without the frustration of having to do that run you just finished before also again just because you slipped somewhere on the second or third run.
    The scenery, the atmosphere, the constant taunting between the two characters. This didn’t feel like the other Prince of Persia titles. This felt fresh and new. This wasn’t a prince climbing his way through palaces and ruins with ridiculous architecture that didn’t make any sense at all. Well, it was. But it was in a good way. Instead of it being “there is an oriental palace, go climb through it” and implying that this is some semi-realistic presentation, this game went a completely different path by not even trying to represent a “realistic” palace. It just went to “what would be awesome in a 1001 nights setting?” and completely designed the shit out of it from there. I know it is hard to understand but really, once you play it and think about it, it makes sense and I really appreciated that.
    The story and the taunting between the two characters is just so fun. Much better than in previous titles. And the atmosphere. When in other games the rewards for success was more like “grats, here is your new dagger shard thingy you can now store more sand”, now the game had grass and flowers growing everywhere as the evil taint was banished from the land. Birds returning, the whole setting of the game changing from “evil evil is evil while eviling and needs to be stopped” to “it is just so fun to be alive”.

    It is just such a beautiful and well-designed game. Too bad it wasn’t the success it deserved to be.

  35. Wolfwood says:

    Proper tutorials are needed in games. Thats really all i can think of when it comes to attracting new gamers. (i havent really experienced a really dumb down tutorial to date that a non-gamer can pick up and learn from, they all assume the player knows something about the game) At the same time, tutorials should NEVER be forced on the gamer. They have to be optional for the veterans. At the same time they should also be repeatable! and probably ramp up in difficulty the more you play the tutorial.

    They can keep the punishment/challenge, if they only did a good job at teaching non-gamers how to play to begin with.

    • Alexander The 1st says:

      SMB has a tutorial, it just wasn’t forced as a “tutorial level” and said “Hey, we don’t think you can play this game, so stop for a second while I explain something that you’re just going to ignore on multiple playthroughs anyways”.

      Play FF XIII if you’ve not seen a labourious tutorial, and you’ll see what I mean.

      SMB? The tutorial was the first four levels. Out of…8*4…32? It was 1/8th of the game, and it taught you everything you ever needed. People who experiment in the tutorial can be taken out of it, if they’re bored with it [Hence, Warp Zones].

      You don’t need “tutorial” levels, you just need design that requires you to learn the skill [Say, jumping in the first 2 seconds of SMB], and people won’t care about the fact that they are learning the game.

      Without explicit tutorials, you can increase the challenge of the puzzles because you don’t explicitly state what the rules are, and can change how some of the rules work [i.e. “Hey, now I’m swimming in SMB! I didn’t know you could do that, cool. I think I’ve got this.”]

  36. Zak McKracken says:

    I’m not a fan of punishment in games, but there’s a point: The player (i.e. some players) draw motivation to try harder from the fact that they want to avoid failing. If there’s no consequence from “dying” — why try, if you’ll make it anyway? I don’t say that because I hate if someone succeeds despite lack of ability, I say that because winning a game this way feels waay less rewarding.

    Things of course depend heavily on the type of game you’re playing. In Civ 1 you could “cheat” by saving, attacking someone and reloading if that failed, then try again. In effect that meant a severe boost for your units’ abilities. But not being able to save would have simply wrecked the game. So there needs to be a balance between potential spoiling of the game and griefing players, and if the game does a good job, that means neither of both.
    A developer probably shouldn’t think in terms of “punishment and reward” but rather in terms of annoyance vs misuse: The penalty for failing some task should be exactly as severe as it needs to be to prevent misuse. As long as task in a game is too hard for you, you shouldn’t be able to get past it by just throwing yourself against it millions of times, but that means the game should not leave you alone like that but offer you a way to get ahead anyway “inside” the game (e.g. try a different task first, then gather some experience eleswhere, then return, or just take another route to the goal). And that’s possible without punishment if the game’s done well. No need to make the player watch a five-minute death animation, then restart the entire game, there are much more elegant ways to solve that problem.
    The Escapist article on TOR says: “a manageable death penalty also allows designers to make encounters more callenging”, and I agree. Maybe those that are screaming for more punishment consider themselves on the top of the foodchain and derive their own satisfaction from knowing how much others are suffering? Maybe it’s just elitist attitude? Hard to say. Some like it harder than others, I guess, but wanting to beat a hard game is something else than wanting those who don’t to suffer. I guess that’s another difference that should be clearly stated.

  37. toasty_mow says:

    Shamus, good stuff. The problem is creating a scaling difficult system that doesn’t feel like its just a cheating computer. Dawn of War (the original) Multiplayer is a really good example of bad scaling. “NOrmal” is a cakewalk where I mess around, get to the top tier and unleash a huge army on my enemies. “Hard” is where I have to spam early game dominance and be very aggressive to take map objectives lest I to the enemy. 85% of the time I lost “Hard” games trying my very best using strategies I felt where rather valid.

    Though, in all honesty, the “core” market of gamers are a bunch of douches who really like their games being elite. I admit there are some genres that just are not noob friendly, especially amongst online gamers (how many times have I heard, “ur bad. Unistall noob?” Too many). My favorite game, League of Legends, is probably the most noob unfriendly mainstream video game ever (Besides is Cousin, Heroes of Newerth). I love the game, but it took me about a year cutting my teeth on its prequel, Defense of the Ancients to really get ANYWHERE in the game. Most people don’t have the time and dedication that a High School kid with some money and a lot of free time on the weekends do. Most people can’t say, “I kinda like this game, so I’m gonna spend 3-5 hours a week playing it, memorizing all the little details so I can not get destroyed by 90% of all the players.” Video Game Designers need to learn to fix this problem.

  38. Abnaxis says:

    This is….interesting timing.

    I just finished playing BioShock, and started working through Spoiler Warning Season 3. I *just finished* watching you lampoon the game for the lack of a punishment on death, and now you’re resurrecting your video where you say it’s a good things…

    What does Prince of Persia do right that BioShock does wrong?

    • Nidokoenig says:

      The main problem with Bioshock is that you could half kill a Big Daddy, get killed yourself and then just trek back to where you were and do the other half. In Prince of Persia, if you miss a jump or get killed, you’re back to just before the jump or the guy you’re fighting is back to full health, same as you. You’re not doing something boring or irrelevant before you do the challenge again.

      The main issue is when there’s downtime between you dying and getting back to the type of challenge that killed you. If you play a Metroidvania game, save points are essentially there to mark when a boss is about to appear or that the next part of the dungeon is going to be testing different skills. It’s simply saying that the next five to fifteen minutes are designed as a single experience to become immersed in.

      To me, the whole point of punishment is to raise your baseline skill, similar to Shamus’ example for QTEs: if you can hit the right button 95% of the time, you’ll only see the cut scene a couple of times at most. If you can only hit them 80% of the time, you have to grind away or learn the controller layout. If you can focus your energy to bring your success rate up to 98% for ten seconds and then save, you’re not increasing your skill, you’re just burning adrenaline. It’s more challenging, sure, but you just beat it by getting angry.
      If the length of time you have to keep that burn going is longer, if you have to control and gradually build your adrenaline levels to meet the challenge, then you’re more likely to get into “The Zone” and be utterly focussed and immersed in the game’s mechanics. For me, the point of games is to learn and explore the mechanics, just as much as some people like to explore the world and the story.

      Immersion does not come from bite size chunks. The game over screen breaks immersion, that’s why it’s perfectly reasonable to want to start back at the last safe place so that the game can rebuild the player’s immersion.

    • Shamus says:

      I wouldn’t say one is right or wrong. Remember, I wasn’t suggesting that ALL games should be like Prince of Persia, or that death should never have any consequence. I was praising Ubi for bringing casual-style learning and feedback patterns to a heroic adventure-style game.

      The vita-chamber is a holdout from the System Shock series, which is among my all-time favorite games. As a gameplay mechanic, it wasn’t a horrible idea. The problem with the vita chamber (for me, anyway) was the way it interacted with the plot. As in, “why does Ryan bother sending waves of dudes at you when it’s obvious he can’t kill you?” (It was a bit more complex in System Shock, and an explanation for for Shodan didn’t just shut them off.)

      EDIT: Nidokoenig pointed out above: BioShock doesn’t give your foes a heal, so you can Zerg them to death. I’d totally forgotten about that. Yeah. That’s not to my liking. You could argue that it just makes the game MORE casual, which isn’t a crime, although I think a lot of shooter fans were put off by this. In PoP, you still had to make the jumps, and if you fell you had to do the sequence over again. The way it was done in BioShock, it would be as if the jumps got easier every time you fell.

      • Nidokoenig says:

        Jumps getting easier with each fall gives me a mental image of piling up clone corpses until you can just walk across.

      • Abnaxis says:

        Here is where my ignorance gets to show. I was under the impression that when you failed a maneuver in PoP, it plopped you down right before you screwed up and let you try again. So if have to make eights jumps to finish a level, and screw up jump five, it sets me down where right before I tried jump five.

        Most of us here (including me) seem to agree that the Vita-Chambers in Bioshock went too far, allowing you to Zerg your way through a challenge. I’m not at the point in SW where you discuss the Vita-Chamber as a plot device, but I distinctly remember Mumbles bemoaning the fact that you can muscle your way through the game with nothing but a wrench and still win because death doesn’t set you back at all.

        But I sit and look at it, and try to analyze it, and I really can’t find any difference between this and the rescues you get in PoP. Boss life bars are really just progress measures, the same way you placement within a level is a measure of progress in PoP. The difference between a healed big daddy and a BD with no health recovered is how long you have to spend shooting him until he falls. So what’s the difference*?

        One difference I can see is that the challenges in a platformer are largely more static. You have to stand on point A and jump to point B with timing C and you will get there. That means if you have to slog through a boring, easy, area after flubbing a hard one. That gets boring and discouraging after a while, trudging through all the easy crap you’ve don before to get to the challenge. Perhaps shooters are more acceptable in this regard, because difference in tactics and positioning can make re-traipsing the same content less monotonous. In short something about the nature of shooters versus platformers makes a penalty-free death less acceptable in one versus the other.

        The other, more likely reason I can see for a system to work in one context and not the other is simply one of perspective. You, me, and the majority of people here enjoy shooters generally more than we enjoy platformers. A boring traipse for us is a chance to practice an enjoyable technique for them. Likewise, restarting chipping down a Big Daddy from full health is enjoyable for us, and a time-sink for them. Basically, if our demographic on this page leaned more on the platformer side of gaming and less on the shooter, we would be praising the Vita-Chambers as a game mchanic and booing PoP for letting us Lemming our way through levels.

        *Disclaimer: I’m not trying to say “Haha, you are a hypocrite and need to stfu!” I see somethin of n interesting question here on the behavior and perspective of my fellow gamers, and would like to explore it.

  39. Rayan says:

    The real problem is that to this day the industry (or at least the Japanese part of the industry) haven’t outgrown the arcade era of gaming where the game explicit goal was to make you expend quarters. And that meant you had to go from the beggining if you failed to feed it a bunch of quarters in a row, and that you had to die early and had to die often so that your precious quarters kept rolling in.

    Then personal consoles and personal computers came and developers still thought they had to enforce that idea, except worse. Some console games you’d die 3 times and have to begin the thing all over again when in the arcade you could just put more quarters in, making the game simply an order of magnitude harder. And it was build up this idea that “achievment” was overcoming something you had to try dozens of times and had to invest dozens of minutes for each try. The playing itself wasn’t what was supposed to be satisfying, only the winning, and that is all kinds of wrong.

    Its kind of nice to know that it was in the PCs that this system died out earlier and more definitively.

    And really, it is up to the player to decide how punishingly the game is. If you feel like the game is punishing you too much, save more often, switch auto-save on, map quick-save to mouse 2 or something. If you think that’s cheap, turn auto-save off, only save when you’re going to leave the game, or never save and begin the game again from the beggining when you die. (If the game is sissy and only makes you start from the beggining of the stage you can very well go and make a new game every time you die). At most I’d say let them add a mode for the players without enough self-control to administer their own dosage of self-inflicted punishment. Who am I to judge if they’re masochist but can only like the pain when its adminstered exclusively by third parties? That’s what Iron Man modes are there for.

    The one part I could argue that this hurts is with the save-scumming strategies. But, personally, that’s a problem of game design if you make save-scumming actually useful.

    For instance, I never agreed with the method games use to simulate stealing. In Fallout, you had no idea how likely you were to successfully steal something, if the NPCs found out you were stealing the whole town just outright became hostile and tried to kill you and the reward system for it just begged for you to abuse it.

    This could easily be fixed with levels of “success” and levels of “reaction”. You could successfully steal something, or, say, fail but the target didn’t realise it was you, or just suspects you tried something, making trying to steal the same item again impossible. Also have the game give you the chance of actually stealing that item, so you can wager on it. Finally, if the guy finds out you tried to steal the first time he just gives you a warning and everything becomes much harder to steal, and the second time he raises the price of everything and has his disposition to you drop. And make the game remember your results with any given item, I.E. not generate new random seeds. Top it off with less severe punishments depending on your social skills (“I wasn’t stealing! I’m just brownsing. Geez! Do you want to lose a costumer?”) and you have a good system that doesn’t immediately force you to reload when you fail.

    On combat I find the restriction of not allowing for you to save during one to be good enough (though some games have strange ideas of what constitutes being in a combat). Even if you try some save-scumming to try and get the best possible result in the beggining of combat you’re making a trade-off of investing more time on the combat to have better results.

    Save-scumming for stuff like jumping I think is fine most of the time. In Tomb Raider in particular I remember that most of the time you missed jumps because the damn camera was forcing you to jump blindly into a leap of fate. EVERY SINGLE TIME. Plus, if a jump is too long and the only way to find out is dying it feels like its just the programmers exercising their sadistic bones.

    WALL OF TEXT done. Hope you had fun skipping it.

  40. some random dood says:

    Not totally related, but another annoyance – minigames. In Mass Effect, there was the one that was used almost all the time. Could have got very frustrating if you didn’t like it, but at least there was always an “out” – use omnigel to bypass it *if* you had omnigel to spare, and you were willing to use it – player’s choice! Compare to Mass Effect 2 where there are two minigames during the levels. Both (to me) very frustrating and boring, and I would really appreciate a way to just skip them entirely. Except of course you cannot, as some are needed to progress, and the rest means that you are totally gimped on supplies if you just go “screw this!” and skip them.
    These minigames are just time-wasters – they do not advance the plot, they do not provide any enjoyment (for me, and I think many others), and unless you spend the time to do them then you are likely to cripple your ability to progress later in the game. There is no indication of what the minigames will give you in terms of “reward” for doing them. And frankly there are far too many of them.
    Easily implemented “outs” – provide a menu option that kills them so that they no longer appear except for plot barriers (or even better, allow them, but have a squad-mate do them). Related, say that certain members of your team are able to bypass the items, so if you want to have an easy ride past the minigames, then you need to have x or y or z in your squad. Alternatively, allow the purchase of a tool(s) that allow you to punch straight through the minigame. (If you need to keep puchasing more items, then the minigame should indicate what the likely reward is *before* you spend the item to open it.)
    I suppose the relation to the article is along the lines of “if I am learning how to play a cover based shooter, why the f— am I now doing some stupid time-wasting filler skills that has no relation to the game in hand?”

  41. Axle says:

    For me “punishment” equals “waste of time” in way that makes you experience parts of the that you already did. This is why I never finished any GTA game (Death sets you back a lot. Failing, on many occasions, makes you replay significant parts of the game).

    I also try to avoid games with lousy checkpoint implementation…

    On that note I think Torchlight did it right.
    When you die you choose your punishment:

    – You can loose experience/fame and continue from the spot where you got killed (no waste of time).
    – Loose money and start from the beginning of the floor (small waste of time).
    – Don’t loose anything but you are teleported to the town (huge waste of time).

  42. Deadpool says:

    While I agree that Prince of Persia did a good thing and that punishment is not a requirement for games, I disagree with the implied (and I MAY have inferred wrong here) sentiment that punishment is inherently a BAD thing. When properly done, punishment will add tension to the game, and tension can be a damned good thing.

    See for example a game that gets touted as super hard: Demon’s Souls. Not sure how many people here have played this game, but here’s a secret: It’s not hard. Enemies are slow, die in a few hits (2 or 3, and you can combo), every attack is easily dodge roll’ed and telegraphed a good week in advance. Whole game can be beaten at level 1 and without actually getting hit.

    Problem is, the game is PUNISHING. It punishes your mistakes mercilessly. Enemies ambush you, they set up traps and they can kill you in very few hits as well. Dying is a major set back, sending you back to the beginning of the stage, respawning all enemies and forcing you into a corpse run to gather your souls (effectively a combination of XP and money). Die on the way to your corpse and those souls are done forever. Combine this with an auto save feature, and dying in this game HURTS.

    But look at what this combination does. First off, there are checkpoints you must open up shortcuts within the stage so when you come back (whether because of death or revisiting the stage) you can avoid large parts of the stage (most stages have two or three of them). Result: the game forces exploration out of the player. Of course, the more you explore the more danger you put youself into. The game creates player PARANOIA. You find yourself walking down empty hallways with the shield up, clammy hands clasping the controller, eyes fixed in every moving shadow muttering “it’s too quiet here” to yourself. The game forces the player into the mindset of the character (a lone warrior whose soul is bound to wander a country overtaken by a combination of Cthullu Old Gods and Sauron until he kills them all). it brings a level of immersion and ambience that most games dream of.

    Now sure, the punishment isn’t the ONLY thing that builds this world so well (it truly is a wonderfully designed game), but without it a lot of it would be lost.

    Remember, I’m not saying EVERY game should be this way. I’m saying that sometimes, putting the fear of losing the past three to four hours worth of work (yeah, once you reach level 100+ you’ll be walking around with tens of thousands of souls in your pocket. Not cool dying) CAN actually add quite a bit to the game.

  43. ccesarano says:

    I feel bad for being a filthy skimmer, but there is simply too much to read. So apologies if I repeat myself.

    I think the older players are a mixture of two audiences. You have the newer “Bros of War: Bro Ops” crowd where it’s all about how low your balls hang (because they’re huge, you see). If a game isn’t “hard” (a.k.a. forces you to keep dying) then you aren’t a man, and if you die that often well you suck anyway dawg.

    Then there’s the actual gamer who grew up with Mega Man and Ninja Gaiden, games designed to try and kill you. It’s sort of like 1st Edition D&D, where the idea wasn’t survival, but if the characters survived long enough good for them. Those gamers now feel like a real challenge is something that is hard to beat and requires you to die a lot of times. I had some College friends that actually called me a whimp because I had no desire to SERIOUSLY play I Wanna Be the Guy (if you’re not familiar, it’s a Flash game designed to be an homage and parody of old style games, where hit-detection, physics and level-design all worked against you to keep you from surviving). I played it for five minutes, laughed and then said “Yeah, I’m no masochist”. They looked at it as if I was weak, even though I grew up on the same tough games as they had.

    Modern game design is built around the concept of getting players close to death, but allowing them to survive. It goes against the grain of old game design, which technically started with “how do we eat up this player’s quarters?”.

    Prince of Persia, however, presented a more relaxing sort of immersion for me. I didn’t mind that I couldn’t die and that my only consequence was some poor performance or being unable to unlock an achievement. It’s rare that I can play a game that you can just sit back and enjoy, rather than keeping you on the edge of your seat mashing at the buttons. Sometimes calm and collected is a nice gaming emotion as well.

    Prince of Persia 2008 might honestly have been ahead of its time. Right now we have a gaming audience with rigid concepts of what video games ought to be, and if you’re not dying or returning to checkpoints then it isn’t a challenge, and if it’s not challenging then it’s not fun. It makes a great newbie game simply because it introduces new concepts of what gaming can be, lets people know that it’s more than just guns and blowing crap up. In another time when gaming has a much wider audience with a greater acceptance for variety (gamers of all types seem to have trouble keeping in mind that there’s a palette of tastes out there), Prince of Persia has a chance to be appreciated.

  44. Tesh says:

    Excellent article, Shamus. Thanks for voicing some of the same concerns I’ve had about game design. Incidentally, I wrote about this a while ago here:

    Full Spectrum Challenge

    It still baffles me that some people can’t mentally split “challenge” or “difficulty” from “punishment”. It’s not rocket science. It’s barely English 101.

    • Tesh says:

      Oh, and sorry for the double post; Ajax doesn’t let me edit.

      The whole “arcade games designed to eat your quarters” angle is spot on, I think. Notably, I think that the modern version of this is time wasting death penalties in MMOs, where time literally costs money under a subscription model. That’s one of several reasons why I detest the business model.

  45. […] Points: The Crime of Punishment (and the original Twenty Sided mention of the same, each with their own comment […]

  46. Jan says:

    Small point on the article: Bioware did, before they became RPG-only developers, make MDK2, which was generally regarded as a hard skill-based game, especially the Dreamcast version. I read an interview with one of the Bioware founders, which blamed it on the superhuman reflexes of the main QA-tester…

  47. OEP says:

    I find myself in complete agreement with the sentiment expressed in this article. I am a newcomer to the Prince of Persia series with my prior experience with platforming being limited to combat/platforming/rpg hybrids like Infamous.

    I had been enjoying Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands but have now put it aside. I had just gotten past big room with giant gears and levers and fought past a skeleton horde to face a hallway with giant spiked rolling pins obstructing my path. The challenge was fairly simple, wall run past the first one and roll under the second. But precise timing was required. I messed up and had to use my rewind. But the rewind took me to the point where I died, which of course was when the pins were about to hit. The minute time started again I died again. This happened 5 times over as I used up all my rewinds and it promptly reloaded, not right before that deathtrap, but at the beginning of the giant puzzle room before it. The prospect of redoing that entire room just to get a few more tries at the meatgrinder/rolling pin hall was too much for me. This game is going back on the shelf until I am in a more masochistic mood.

    In summary, whatever lessons the developers learned from PoP, they promptly forgot them for PoP:TFS.

    P.S. lose = opposite of win, or to misplace
    loose = opposite of tight

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  1. By Difficulty and Penalty « Tish Tosh Tesh on Tue Feb 8, 2011 at 7:10 am

    […] Points: The Crime of Punishment (and the original Twenty Sided mention of the same, each with their own comment […]

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