Here is an hour and seven minutes of two guys talking about stuff. You’re welcome.
Hosts: Paul, Shamus. Episode edited by Issac.
00:00 Remembering Birthdays
Thank you, gigantic amoral corporation, for telling other people to wish me happy birthday. I’m so glad you’re here, since there’s no way individuals could possibly maintain their relationships without you constantly barking directions at them.
04:43 Mailbag: Artificial Difficulty
Like I said on the show, I’m really curious what different people mean when they say “Artificial Difficulty”.
In discussions about a game’s difficulty, the concept of “artificial difficulty” often pops up. This form of difficulty is usually considered a flaw in a game, or at least inferior to the good old farm-fresh difficulty. However, the distinction between what tends to be called “artificial difficulty” and “difficulty” seems to be rather, well, artificial to me. I have the feeling that these terms create more confusion than they bring clarity. What are your thoughts of term “artificial difficulty”? Is there a meaningful difference with ordinary difficulty, or is this not even the right question to ask?
I have some thoughts on this myself. At the risk of stealing your thunder, I will discuss my thoughts below. This has turned out to be rather long. I apologize (and warn you?) in advance.
To me, the problem seems to be that the concept of “difficulty” in (video) games simply has too many dimensions to be able to be properly described in terms of “more difficult” or “less difficult”. If I would decompose the term, then I think that the following aspects are important (I will try to avoid relying on the term “difficulty” itself here to prevent circularity, though that will lead to awkward phrasing at times):
– “task difficulty”. This is the inherent challenge that arises from dealing with the immediate techniques the game expects you learn and master. For example, dodging attacks, hitting enemies, learning weakpoints, memorizing spawn locations, learning unit capabilities, choosing the right equipment, etc.
For a game designer, this would be close to the “core mechanics” of a game, and therefore usually gets (and deserves) the most attention.
– “punishment”. This is the penalty the player receives for failing to deal with the challenges the game poses. Punishment can take many forms, from getting hit, getting countered after missing an enemy, losing health, losing score, losing offensive power, getting a game over, getting a “bad end” (ironically, these can at times be a reward), “do it again” or other wastes of time, etc.
The severity of the punishment depends not only on the context in the game itself (not all “game over”s are equal, can I restart from this screen, this stage, or do I have to start over and lose everything?), but on the social context surrounding the game: do I have to insert another coin? Will the forums join in my frustration about that one boss or will they yell “git gud”?
The severity of punishment is very easy to tweak, and is often one of the main differences in “difficulty levels” offered in various games. Yet, herein lies the danger. Punishment is difficult to tweak, and small changes can have a large impact on the game experience. I’m especially fascinated by using punishment to effectively encourage improvement in the game tasks. The recently popular genre of roguelites tries to achieve this by giving extrinsic rewards to soften the punishment. That said, a score system with a post-level grade works surprisingly well if the game takes it seriously.
The best example I can think of is in Azure Striker – Gunvolt , where reaching the end of a stage is made almost trivial due to the powerful healing abilities of the player character (the game presents it as auto-dodging at the expense of a bit of energy; the latter can be instantly recharged at the press of a button). However, a good score can only be obtained by raising and maintaining a high combo counter (obtained by defeating enemies skillfully, defeating multiple enemies simultaneously in particular gets a large combo score), which resets to 0 on taking a hit (or auto-dodging it). A harsh punishment, but one that encourages precise and flawless play (i.e. efficiently dispatching opponents without getting hit, while dashing through the stage like a lightning bolt), while keeping the game accessible for players who are not interested in playing the game that way. Of course, few games dare to encourage players by punishment alone. The game also acknowledges precise play directly by adding a vocal track to the background music once the combo score is above 1000, together with some flashy graphics.
Anyway, I find that a surprising number of complaints about artificial difficulty can be rephrased as complaints about too harsh or “unfair” punishment. Especially punishment in terms of time is often condemned (rightfully, IMO. People tend to disapprove of others wasting their time, even when playing video games. Yes, I’m aware of the irony here. What can I say? Your website tends to attract people fond of long analyses). I suppose another factor is that it is at times hard to tell in advance how punishing a game (or a particular section of a game) is, while it is much easier to see whether a game has high “task difficulty”.
(I have more thoughts that I can write down, but this mail is already far too long. I could write an entire article about the difficulty and punishment systems in Azure Striker – Gunvolt (or other games made by Inti Creates), but if you’ve read this far I feel I’ve already kept you too long.)
Thank you for at least skimming this long mail.
With kind regards,
23:15 My Adventure With Xbox Game Pass
I don’t know. Today’s graphics are nice, but sometimes I really miss the good old days.
31:05 Mailbag: Trolling Video Games
I recently discovered a Let’s Play of Mass Effect called The Saddest Party On The Citadel, where the players got every side-kick killed so that they could have – as the title suggests – the saddest party in the Citadel DLC. Seeing as you play lots of games multiple times each in order to review/analyse them, have you ever tried to spice up your n?? playthrough by essentially trolling a game like this? For example, in Skyrim, I once pickpocketed everyone and stole everything in Riverwood, leading to my character maxing out the associated skills before the game had even properly begun.
38:48 Why the Sound of a Gun Had to be Nerfed
This video is a year old, so some of you have probably seen it. I didn’t discover it until this week, and I thought it was fascinating.
45:32 Mailbag: Blizzard
I was wondering if you have any thoughts on the ongoing Blizzard fiasco? Do you think good and healthy videogame company management is truly possible or is it inherent due to the unstable nature of game development and human dysfunction?
If you haven’t been following it, this article is a decent starting point: Everything that’s happened since the Activision Blizzard lawsuit went public.
Bear in mind that the article is now 12 days old, so it’s not as comprehensive as it was when it was published. But you have to start somewhere.
Also: I promised to embed this video. I love this skit:
Batman: Arkham Origins
A breakdown of how this game faltered when the franchise was given to a different studio.
Quakecon 2012 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
Silver Sable Sucks
This version of Silver Sable is poorly designed, horribly written, and placed in the game for all the wrong reasons.
The Disappointment Engine
No Man's Sky is a game seemingly engineered to create a cycle of anticipation and disappointment.
A horrible, railroading, stupid, contrived, and painfully ill-conceived roleplaying campaign. All in good fun.