Diecast #353: Remembering Blizzard

By Shamus Posted Monday Aug 23, 2021

Filed under: Diecast 125 comments

Here is an hour and seven minutes of two guys talking about stuff. You’re welcome.



Hosts: Paul, Shamus. Episode edited by Issac.
Diecast353


Link (YouTube)

Show notes:

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”.

Dear Diecast,

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,

Marvin

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

Hey Shamus,

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.

Provisional Username

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.


Link (YouTube)

45:32 Mailbag: Blizzard

Dear Diecast

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?

Love, Donkey.

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:


Link (YouTube)

 


From The Archives:
 

125 thoughts on “Diecast #353: Remembering Blizzard

  1. MerryWeathers says:

    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?

    A very interesting question, I would have used to say smaller developers or studios that are basically tight-knight groups would fare signifcantly better than the large-scale companies in having a more functional dynamic and management but I’ve learned that isn’t really true like how indie publisher Nicalis was exposed to have the same kind of mismanagement as “the big three” whereas some subsiduaries of EA like the Vancouver division (who develop the company’s sport videogames) and even Bethesda Game Studios were said to satisfied and content employees.

    So now I would say that I kind of agree with what Paul said about how the mismanagement isn’t just a result of companies being run by people who don’t know shit about actually making games but also by the people who get attracted to work there in the first place but I would take it a step further by bringing up that isn’t just the hired extreme doormats but also the combination of straight up assholes, bullies, outright perverts and deviants (according to the reports in the Blizzard and Ubisoft cases, a lot of the accused are actually veteran programmers or designers who’ve worked in the company for a long time or even since it’s inception so it isn’t just lazy top executives who don’t play video games that are at fault) that work there that ends up contributing to the completely dysfunctional and chaotic enviroments of those companies.

    I would also disagree with Shamus about Valve being an example of a videogame company having competent management, apparently Gabe Newell’s decision to give the employees a huge amount of freedom to basically do whatever they wanted and develop their own games ironically ended up stifling any creative productions for years and the company was pretty much kept afloat solely by the flowing Steam money.
    There are even rumors of office politics going on behind the scenes with there even being a faction of developers who wanted to maintain the status quo and stop other people from actively developing projects so they wouldn’t have to do anything (while still getting paid) and it was an uphill battle against them to even get Artifact and Alyx made.

    1. Joshua says:

      Looking at the list of games that Valve released in the last 10 years, and it’s basically DOTA 2, Artifact, and Alyx. That’s not exactly a healthy and thriving culture.

      I have the usual bitterness about HL3. I know there’s the joke about Valve not being able to count to 3, but AFAIK Portal and L4D are complete enough stories. They don’t end on the obvious downbeat cliffhanger that HL did. Also, I’ll admit I’m not the most in the know, but those other two games didn’t seem to have the same amount of Valve chastising “We ARE working on the game, You just need to be patient!” that Valve had for the fans.

    2. Lino says:

      To be fair, should we even call Valve a gaming company anymore? The vast majority of their revenue comes from ecommerce (i.e. Steam). Gaming’s been their side hustle for well over a decade now.

      1. MerryWeathers says:

        Artifact and Alyx have come out and they’re currently developing the next Half-Life entry titled “Citadel” so they’re still very much game developers and always have been a gaming company.

        1. Echo Tango says:

          I feel like those are exceptions, and might signal that the hats, crates, and trading cards aren’t making as much money now that the novelty has worn off. I’m sure they still make enough money that they won’t get rid of them. :|

    3. Shamus says:

      “I would also disagree with Shamus about Valve being an example of a videogame company having competent management,”

      Competent doesn’t mean perfect. Sure, Valve makes all kinds of mistakes. Business is hard. But there’s a difference between “We tried to do something difficult and failed” versus “We failed at the most rudimentary tasks due to almost complete ignorance and lack of domain knowledge.”

      I see Valve’s management style as an interesting experiment. Gabe evidently wanted to avoid the problem of tyrannical execs at the top trying to micro-manage the creative decisions of the artists. I think it was a worthy experiment, even if it didn’t pan out. This is an ongoing concern for every company driven by creativity: How do we keep our talented creative people working on cool stuff that will make us money? If we exert too much control, it kills their creativity. But as Gabe’s experiment shows, if you have too little then they won’t make anything at all.

      (Disclosure: If you’d given me my own dev studio in 1998 and told to me to do what I wanted, I imagine I would have made a lot of the same mistakes that Gabe did.)

      “There are even rumors of office politics going on behind the scenes with there even being a faction of developers who wanted to maintain the status quo and stop other people from actively developing projects so they wouldn’t have to do anything (while still getting paid) and it was an uphill battle against them to even get Artifact and Alyx made.”

      I think every company made of people is going to have politics. This particular problem – where the laissez-faire approach to project management results in incentives to do nothing – is interesting. I agree that it doesn’t seem to be working, but that doesn’t mean that Gabe is a dolt who doesn’t know what he’s doing. (I do wonder what management is thinking these days. Is Gabe happy with how things are going? Is he trying to change course but can’t due to inertia? Is he being hyper-conservative and making very small changes that aren’t large enough to move the needle?)

      Gabe could do some sort of drastic paradigm shift to try and get everyone back to work. If that results in a big mess that causes problems, then people will fault him for “chasing after profits” instead of sticking with something that was “working”.

      TLDR: I don’t see the failings of Valve and the failings of Activision / EA as similar at all.

      1. Bubble181 says:

        While I haven’t listened to the podcast, so this exact point may have already been made….Valve’s and EA’s failures are complementary.
        One is a company run by managers who know nothing about video games. There’s plenty of managing managers around who are convinced the same management style can be used to create yoghurt, video games, carpets, or cruise ship travel itineraries. Shockingly, this can create a company that’s big and seems to be making money, but it’ll hurt the sector in the long run.
        The other is a company run by artists and designers who know the sector and the work they’re doing, but know nothing about (people) management. This doesn’t mean they’ll automatically be horrible at it – EA has made good games too, after all – but it does mean they’ll often make “rookie” or “obvious” mistakes, they’ll try wrong solutions to common problems, they won’t be aware of modern advances and takes on old problems, etc.
        While I’m definitely NOT saying all managers are good, management itself (in many different varieties – people management, team management, resource management, project management, etc) are skills one can be talented at, and tasks one can use science and experience to get better at and do well at.

        In an Ideal World you’ll get either a genius who is somehow awesome at several things, or the stereotypical couple of creators where one is the wild inventor type and one is the convincing sales critter or the great manager accountant like one…In a less perfect world, you’ll often see great ideas crash because no-one around had an ounce of business sense, or get gobbled up by HugeCorp and get lost in the big corporate office world.

        A good company has a healthy mix of several types of people at every level of the pyramid. You need people who’ve come up through the ranks, and people who are brought in fresh; you need creatives and steady conservative types, you need men and women, you need recent young graduates and old geezers who still remember why you don’t do X because it was tried and failed horribly, etc.

        1. Rho says:

          Yet, while Steam isn’t perfect, it’s clearly delivering a lot of value. The side product just took over because, well, it was wildly successful, and continues to be. Despite some quirks and false starts, it’s clear there’s a lot of solid development there. Maybe management really is bad, or maybe they’ve just refocused on doing other things well.

          1. Asdasd says:

            To add another perspective.. I play Dota 2, The Only Game That Valve Make Anymore TM. They manage it pretty well – when I look at how the other big companies are doing in the PC space, I’m very glad it isn’t being run by EA, or ActiBlizzard. You do sometimes feel that famous inertia when they’re slow to respond to issues, but after 8 years and 5,000 hours it’s still one of the best games I’ve ever played, and one of the least sleazily-run games as a service I can think of. So it’s been a pretty good decade for me.

    4. evilmrhenry says:

      (Haven’t listened yet.)

      My feeling on video game management is that there’s people who specifically want to work on Video Games, and are willing to crawl through mud to get that opportunity. This gives an opening to people who want to exploit that first group, no matter what form that takes. The prestige around Blizzard is going to make that effect even more potent.

      There’s also a certain lack of professionalism in play, where the goal is focused on creating An Art instead of treating the job like a job. That’s how you get “well, nobody ordered people to crunch for three months”, but is also how you end up with cubicle beer crawls and Rock Star Developers acting like rock stars.

      I guess this can be avoided by treating a video game company like a company first, but I don’t know how to reliably do that. Activision-Blizzard getting clobbered by California might sober them up in a way where change is possible, but that’s not a scalable solution, and that only pressures them into staying away from actually illegal actions. Unionization would be good, but it only really helps keep management from acting up, and much of this is employee/employee. Ultimately, this has to directly impact the company’s bottom line, and video game buyers simply don’t care.

      So, this has to be an industry-wide movement to make this kind of thing unacceptable. Multiple news sites and prominent streamers boycotting Blizzard as a response is a *really* good start. Gamers as a whole aren’t great at boycotts, but damaging the publicity around Blizzard games just before the Diablo 2 remaster releases is the sort of thing that could affect sales charts, which is something that might actually matter.

  2. MerryWeathers says:

    “What does Bobby Kotick even do?”

    Wasn’t he found on Jeffrey Epstein’s black book? Take from that what you will.

    1. Steve C says:

      Bobby Kotick’s value is in the loophole with stocks and the law.
      He makes announcements of things that will affect the stock price. Buybacks, splits etc. That sort of thing. The particulars on the announcements would make them illegal if Activision actually carried them out. This is due to the timing, personal actions, etc. However they never actually happen. They are just announcements, not actions. The lines are never crossed. Therefore it is not illegal.

      Kotick and everyone associated with it gets nice and rich. There’s no reason to rock the boat. Therefore Kotick gets job security.

  3. tmtvl says:

    Happy 50th, Shamus. Live long and prosper.

  4. Philadelphus says:

    Your description of Obi-Wan bringing back tons of looted equipment is eerily spot-on to how the Comic Irregulars made Qui-Gon in Darths and Droids.

    Also, you brought up car companies failing at the Dawn of the Automobile, but weren’t there a whole bunch of companies that did just that? It’s easy to look at the breakout successes/survivors like Ford and conclude it was impossible to lose, but apparently it wasn’t that easy. (Maybe Henry Ford was the Gabe Newell of the early automobile industry…)

    1. John says:

      Shamus’ description of Obi-Wan is exactly the description I would apply to the protagonist whenever I play Knights of the Old Republic 2. The game showers the player with constant random equipment drops. Sometimes the equipment is surprisingly good, but the randomness ensures that before too long most of it is going to be worse than stuff you’ve already got. Nevertheless, the game encourages the player to hoover up all this garbage because it can be broken down and used for parts in the crafting system. Thus the protagonist spends most of time sorting through his inventory at a crafting bench rather than, y’know, traveling the stars and doing great deeds such as (a) saving the galaxy or (b) killing the last of those pesky Jedi.

    2. Moridin says:

      As I recall, the guy who made DM of the Rings (whatever happened to him) made a couple similar jokes as well.

  5. MerryWeathers says:

    Trolling Video Games

    Whenever a game ever gave me the opportunity to kill literally every NPC and character, I would plan out a playthrough to efficiently kill them all without too much grinding and obstacles.
    I also did a “genocide pacifist” run in New Vegas where I would try to kill everyone without directly attacking or hurting them myself. Alpha Protocol was also really fun if you played Thorton as an arrogant wise-cracking asshole.

    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.

    Ah, the Citadel DLC. People will always shit on Mass Effect 3’s ending but the Citadel DLC was a genuinely great send-off to the various characters we all knew and loved throughout the trilogy. Somehow I keep remembering it as the “Star Wars Holiday Special done right”.

    1. Sleeping Dragon says:

      Quality of the DLC aside (I think it’s good) that was the entire point after one of the big things people complained about was the lack of closure with all the characters. That’s after 2 is by many considered the high point of the trilogy based on companions alone (because we all know the main story has… issues) and after you spend 3 mostly resolving companions’ personal or racial arcs.

      But yeah, let’s add “character closure” to the list of things available as extras for the main game, along with “Reapers’ origin”, “the last living Prothean” and “the events that connect the second game to the third”.

  6. Lino says:

    In case you don’t make a post tomorrow – Happy Early Birthday, Shamus! Here’s to at least 150 more years of complaining about video games!!!

    And I agree, I really really hate the way Facebook ruined Birthday wishes from friends and acquaintances. Wishing someone a “Happy Birthday” has been boiled down to nothing more than a programmed response. Which is why I’ve removed my birth date from Facebook. And it’s really funny, because I suddenly went from more than 20 friends wishing me a “Happy Birthday” to one. And it really does feel special, because I know it’s because they genuinely remembered, and not because the Almighty Blue Overlord told them.

    As for why gaming companies are headed by people with no domain experience, I think both of you brought up some very good points. I think it also has to do with the sheer amount of money involved in the industry nowadays. After they get to a certain size, it’s natural for top management to be divorced from what actually makes a company successful. I’m reminded of this 2-minute Steve Jobs interview bit. It’s hard not to draw a few parallels…

    1. IlumminaryAspartame says:

      I did the same (removed my birth date from facebook because I felt the same way as you and Shamus).

      On that note, happy (belated) birthday Shamus!

  7. tmtvl says:

    Artificial difficulty has its place. The cheating AI in strategery games, for example. Making a really strong, sophisticated AI is difficult, running it may take a ton of resources, and it’ll be prone to bugs.
    In Dark Souls the enemies become tougher in NG+[234567]? which makes sure you don’t become far OP as you complete successive runs. Although I do like that in DS2 extra enemies pop up as well.

    1. Marvin says:

      I wouldn’t even consider the strengthening of strategy game AI’s getting all sorts of bonuses and resources from outside of the system that you use as artificial difficulty. Yes, the AI certainly has resources that I’m never going to get. But the AI lacks the strategical prowess of a skilled human player (if not, then the AI wouldn’t have any reason to get more resources), and so the game is all about overcoming the lack of resources with clever resourcefulness.

      I guess there is sometimes a bit of conflation of “easy changeable difficulty” and “artificial difficulty”. Increasing the resources of the opponent seems like an easy way to adjust difficulty. Some people may think this is “cheap”, but I don’t think this is bad at all. (also, not necessarily as easy as it seems. Yes, maybe you can tune your difficulty with the adjustment of a simple slider. But which position is the right one, then? This requires a lot of balancing and testing, and the more options you have, the more careful you need to be with the adjustment)

      That said, perhaps the term is more or less equivalent with “easy changeable difficulty” for some.

      1. Rho says:

        Well, maybe. Keep in mind that doing this removes possibly-interesting options or choices from the game space. If the AI gets lots of free resources, then it becomes less useful or even impossible to attack their resource base. If the AI ignores other game systems, those systems may be devalued by serious players even if they’re interesting or fun. Or players might see cool, fun AI units or weapons or armor sets or whatever a d be disappointed that they can’t use the toys.

        This doesn’t mean that designers should never use it, but that it is a tool to use carefully.

        1. Marvin says:

          Fair enough. I do think that since a certain amount of (possibly fake) asymmetry is necessary for most strategy games, you might as well openly take in player ability. There is also plenty of room for variation. Maybe there is still a meaningful relation between e.g. territory and production capacity of the AI, but just governed by a different (often simpler) system that makes the AI more powerful. But yes, there is still value in giving the player potential access to all fun stuff they see the AI doing, perhaps requiring more effort than the effort with which the AI can get it.

  8. Chris says:

    People sending you a happy birthday message because facebook told them to might seem disingenuous, it is better than nothing. It seems to me a lot of people prefer a message over you forgetting it, even if it is because facebook told them to. Not a lot of people are like Shamus where they prefer 5 heartfelt happy birthdays over 20 facebook messages. Even the birthdays i remember by heart I sometimes forget it at the day itself. Then you have that awkward moment at night where you debate whether you should still call or not.

    The story of the stronger gun sound reminds me of a story I heard about SUVs. The SUVs seemed to crash more often, especially toppling over. Engineers were confused, because SUVs were as stable as other cars that did not topple over as much. Sure, they were higher, but also wider and heavier. What happened was that people driving SUVs felt more safe in a massive hunk of steel, and therefore drove faster and took turns faster, making them fall over.

    Seeing blizzard fall apart is both sad and satisfying. They made some of my favorite games, but they also made so many mistakes it is unreal. Seeing them finally get punished for that feels good. You can’t milk brand loyalty forever. I am happy those people at the top who thought they could do no wrong found out they can fail. Not just with the whole Cosby suite thing, but also in making games. They always thought WoW was perfect and anyone complaining was just stupid, but now they are overtaken by FF14 and scrambling to put something out.
    From what I heard of blizzard, they hired a bunch of doormats. People who grew up with their games, and wanted to work there, were easy targets for HR. They paid them less than the competition, squeezed more hours out of them, and they had to get a house in the bay area. New hires would often just live together with other new hires in order to get together enough money for rent. In the end, the best part about working there was that having blizzard on your resume got you a good job somewhere else. Meanwhile, the old guard, during the times of WoW plenty, got insane payouts for work on WoW.

    As for valve, valve isnt a dreamjob, if anonymous (and a few non-anonymous) sources say. There is no official hierarchy, but there is an unofficial one which you had to play to get higher up. And unlike a traditional setup, you cannot say that out loud because people would be like “what do you mean, there is no seniority here”. Also there is a bonus system, which caused people to steal work from eachother and got people paranoid of sharing their work internally.
    Speaking of which, id software was also lead by a coder (Carmack) and he was infamous for having a whip hand. People like Romero who wanted to work less hours were seen as uninterested in their work. Carmack wanted to keep his team small and as such everyone there basically had to put in 80 hours per week to make it work. They also used a bonus system to make people work more, which caused friction as people would steal other people their work.

    I think Bobby Kotick has a non-controlling stack of stocks because he is the CEO. They usually pay people out in stocks, or give them a stack when they start, to make them invested in the company. The thought is, that a CEO that has interest in the company (with stocks) wants to grow the company since that makes his stock more valuable. As for why he is still around, he still ends up making a profit at the end of the year. He also is a businessman, someone the stockholders can understand.

    1. John says:

      While Blizzard may have some staff in the Bay area–I couldn’t say–Blizzard’s headquarters is in Irvine, which is in southern California rather than the Bay. No part of southern California is what I would call cheap, but Irvine is not quite San Jose or San Francisco.

    2. Echo Tango says:

      Birthdays and Facebook are a bit weird. I don’t send a message to everyone who pops up, and I know many of my friends / aquaintances on FB also don’t, because I don’t get more than a handful out of the hundred or so people I have on FB. Since FB puts in a bland boilerplate message, I always try to vary it up a little bit, with knowledge of the person I’m messaging, so they know I actually care. (Or maybe they don’t even notice. :)

    3. Moridin says:

      The story of the stronger gun sound reminds me of a story I heard about SUVs. The SUVs seemed to crash more often, especially toppling over. Engineers were confused, because SUVs were as stable as other cars that did not topple over as much. Sure, they were higher, but also wider and heavier. What happened was that people driving SUVs felt more safe in a massive hunk of steel, and therefore drove faster and took turns faster, making them fall over.

      I remember hearing something similar about seatbelts, and I’m not sure it’s the same phenomenon. Wearing a seatbelt makes you less likely to die or be seriously injured in a crash, but because people feel safer when they wear a seatbelt, they’re more willing to take risks when driving, leading to more crashes overall.

      The difference is that you actually ARE safer if you drive a SUV or wear a seatbelt (given the same driving behaviour) so it’s not just an illusion.

  9. tmtvl says:

    Considering Paul’s remark about the Wolfenstein gun, a large player base and a long running time may keep the phenomenon going. People who use the gun with the better sound get more kills so the player base thinks the gun is better.
    Because they think the gun is better they may be more skittish when facing players using it so those players have fewer deaths. And thus the vicious cycle turns perpetually.

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      Right, if there is no force pushing it the other way, the balanced mechanics will offer no incentive to balance the perception. Good point.

  10. Chad+Miller says:

    re: trolling games; I can actually name a game that caused something like this en masse. Final Fantasy XV’s player character is betrothed before the game even starts, and they only get together after the game ends and both characters are dead

    There’s also a party member who likes to snap pictures constantly, along with a photo album feature where you can save your favorite pictures. Eventually you get to take one photo into the final section of the game, which the protagonist will show to his wife in the ending cutscene. Which for many people turns into a brainstorming session to see what wildly inappropriate moment-killing picture to bring. Things like:

    * an awkward photo of your male teammates (or maybe just one of them, to imply this Noctis carries a flame for that specific one)
    * Another woman. Cindy being a particularly popular choice
    * One of many pictures of food. Maybe turn it into more Cup Noodle product placement
    * A chocobo from behind

    For me personally, the first thing that came to mind was when I found out that Fable II had the potion that lets you change sexes, to which I immediately decided to roll up a female character, marry a lesbian, then see how she reacted after I drank it (the answer turns out that it’s surprisingly easy to maintain a happy yet sexless marriage)

    1. Syal says:

      Trolling is also half the fun of Scribblenauts: it’s really easy to solve the puzzles, the trick is to solve them without actually fixing the problem. “Oh, this guy needs a vehicle to pick up his date? Here, have a unicycle! Oh, he needs a suit? Clown suit! Oh, he needs a present? Every woman loves a good Rainbow Trout!”

      1. Fred Starks says:

        Yeah, making situations as weird and awkward as possible in Scribblenauts was the best given the native difficulty. I think you could solve most of the first game by just constantly invoking Death itself.

      2. Chad+Miller says:

        Ha! Reminds me of this Brain Age TAS

        1. Syal says:

          There’s also the Ultima game where you can solve a Whodunnit by killing all of them and looting their corpses.

  11. Chad+Miller says:

    re: Game Pass for PC – I was shocked to hear that Halo’s not on there. I technically have Game Pass Ultimate, but I’ve only really used it on my Xbox so I was curious enough to install Game Pass on my PC. I started this as soon as I got to that part of the podcast section.

    The podcast is over. It’s still trying to install and failing. The step it’s stuck on is called “Making things awesome…”

    1. Sleeping Dragon says:

      Yeah, I actually wanted to do the cheap “trial” of gamepass on PC when they added Outer Worlds to it but couldn’t get it to work for the life of me, furthest I got was figuring out it had something to do with the Windows store being unable to retain my login for some reason. I wouldn’t be surprised if it worked now and, looking at the library, it actually looks like a pretty good value for money… but I have a massive backlog to which I keep adding and the moment has passed.

    2. Geebs says:

      The exact same thing happened to me two years ago. Say what you like about the XBox app team, at least they’re consistent.

  12. Chad+Miller says:

    re: the Wolfenstein gun thing, I’ve heard a similar story about Heroes of the Storm – that game features two teams, red vs. blue. But the interesting thing is that your team is always blue and the enemy team is always red. Reportedly this is because they found that red teams played more aggressively in recorded games and they didn’t want that to be a factor in matchmaking.

    1. Rho says:

      There are a number of intriguing studies about the ways colors, especially Red, affect mood. Oddly, this seems to apply to those wearing the color as much or even more than those seeing it.

  13. Steve C says:

    I view ‘artificial difficulty’ as similar to Shamus’ last point with some differences. Not ‘Do It Again Stupid’ but close. Mostly what Paul said, but not quite. Tediousness isn’t the same thing. Much what he stated is artificial time sink and game length rather than difficulty. Inventory limits is a different kind of bad.

    Examples of artificial difficulty would be:
    -A platform jumper with invisible platforms. = Artificial difficulty
    -A racing game with no map and blind corners. = Artificial difficulty
    -A literal pixel hunt in an adventure game. = Artificial difficulty
    -A non-sense logic puzzle. = Artificial difficulty
    -Any game with extremely squishy controls. = Artificial difficulty
    -A completely new game mechanic late in the game with no previous reference with an egregious fail state. = Artificial difficulty

    I can think of quite a few specific examples. Battletoads is the perfect artificial difficulty because it hits multiple points above. There is a blind race in late game that is unlike everything before it. It’s got squishy controls with a new mechanic. The game before that is mainly a brawler. Most of Battletoads is different than what it is most infamous for.

    The infamous cat hair mustache puzzle in Gabriel Knight is another example. This example is artificial difficulty yet does not fall into Shamus’ third point @10min. This puzzle uses such pie-in-the-sky logic that it counts as artificial. If the game went out of its way to explain the moon logic (like an NPC wearing a cat as a beard) then it is fine and not artificial. Monkey Island and other Lucasfilm games of that era avoid the artificial-ness of their artificial puzzles this way. It’s not artificial when it is the punchline of a joke.

    The most recent example I encountered was the final boss of ‘Hand of Fate’. There’s a quicktime-like response unlike anything previous. You have to get it right on the first try within 1 second or it is a hard game over. IE Restart your ~5 hr game from scratch. Oh and the buttons you have to press? It’s arbitrary if it matches your controller because it is a PC game and every controller is different. The equivalent of playing Final Fantasy getting to the final boss and failing to solve a Sudoku puzzle out of nowhere, thereby dooming the world and a game over. It doesn’t matter if the Sudoku is easy or hard. The issue is it’s completely out of left field.

    Artificial difficulty can be story based too. Mass Effect is artificially difficult because you can’t throw Miranda out the airlock. There’s no reason you can’t. It is a reasonable way to overcome the challenge she presents. Especially if you throw her out the airlock on a friendly planet. Lots of ‘friendly’ npcs are like that– Only there as an artificial challenge to overcome because you aren’t given the proper tools to solve the problem. Games like Baldur’s Gate do *not* fall into this because you can remove (or kill) party members you don’t like.

    Artificial difficulty is a bad thing 99% of the time. The 1% exceptions are games that make the artificial-ness a core feature. (Which can still be controversial.) QWOP is the quintessential example. I would be a game without it. Same with Surgeon Simulator and many other VR games. Every game where if you get drunk and the controls go to crap qualifies too. The early Resident Evil games are another more controversial example if it works or not. Regardless if someone likes it or not, it is *deliberately* artificial how difficult the controls are.

    I don’t think some of the examples Shamus used qualify. Like the extra pause in a hammer blow. That’s simply timing and (possibly bad) gameplay. If the game 1)never gave you a chance to learn it before, and it was a 1-hit KO meaning 2)you could not practice it, then it becomes artificial difficulty.

    Artificial difficulty means to give the player a challenge, then deliberately and/or arbitrarily denying them the tools and/or knowledge to overcome it. The developer could have made the platforms visible. The only reason why they are invisible is wanting to create artificial difficulty.

    1. Syal says:

      I see Steve has posted on the topic, so I’ll attach my post here.

      My take on artificial difficulty: to make difficulty “artificial”, it has to be doing one of three things.

      1) ignoring game mechanics. Invulnerable enemies, Die-in-one-hit challenges, cutscene ambushes, messing with party sizes in party games. You have a tool to deal with this problem (attack power, hp, eyesight, moar doods), but the game arbitrarily turns it off to create this danger.

      2) requiring player information the game hasn’t provided. Bosses with crippling status effects when you can’t predict them or blanket protect yourself; bosses that require specific non-standard builds (lots of bonus bosses are artificial).

      3) introducing new game mechanics. Escort quests, gimmick bosses, sudden time limits, that rhythm game boss from Drakengard.

      I don’t think stuff like autoleveling or rubber band difficulty counts as artificial difficulty; that’s not about difficulty so much as promising a different genre of game.

      Stuff like not having fast travel isn’t difficulty, that’s just padding.

      Punishment doesn’t affect the artificiality of a challenge, but it will affect how many people complain about it.

    2. John says:

      I’m pretty sure that what most people mean when they say “artificial difficulty” is really “difficulty I don’t like”. You can try to systematize it if you want, but it largely boils down to anything perceived as unfair, tedious, inconvenient, or otherwise unpleasant. In that light, I’m not sure that artificial difficulty is especially useful as a term of art.

    3. Henson says:

      Mass Effect is artificially difficult…because it doesn’t let you shove Miranda out the airlock? How would shoving her out an airlock make the game less difficult? This doesn’t make any sense.

      Also, I’ll contest your Battletoads example. That game changing things up every level was a feature, not a bug. Part of what made that game great is that every level was a fresh, new challenge, and you had to learn a different set of rules for each one (not unlike encountering new enemy types with new types of attacks/movement patterns).

      1. Steve C says:

        Miranda is problem that many players do not wish to deal with. She is thought of as an antagonist by many. Players are forced to deal with it via completely artificial means despite already having the tools do so. You are the captain of a ship who makes choices involving the crew. A solider who shoots a lot of people in the head. Either of these are tools to deal with a tag-along you don’t want.

        I’ve never played Mass Effect. I still know what kind of game it is and read Shamus’ retrospective. Part of the gameplay (and yes, difficulty) is talking to your crew and solving their problems. Even I have seen the memes of what a bitch Miranda is. There’s no in-game reason to put up with it. This is artificial difficulty.

        You aren’t allowed to use tools to solve a challenge. That’s the key. The game is artificially denying you the ability to solve a problem. That’s what is makes it artificial. The fact it is an obstacle to overcome is what makes it part of the difficulty.

        Now, if instead you believe a game like say Telltale’s Walking Dead has zero difficulty, and that the concept makes no sense in that context, then that might explain your objection about Mass Effect. I firmly believe that Walking Dead *does* have difficulty (and it’s not the reaction timer). It also has plenty of artificial difficulty. Much of that artificial difficulty falls into both the good and bad types. However if you still think that makes no sense and cannot possibly apply… then we have fundamental differences on the meaning and will not be able to agree on any form of categorization.

        1. Henson says:

          Yeah, I think this application stretches the meaning of ‘difficulty’ beyond recognizability. The whole point of ‘difficulty’ is that it is a barrier to a goal; for games, that goal is often ‘beating the game’, but can also be other things, like ‘getting to 100% completion’ or ‘keeping everyone alive’. The point is that the game is structured with these goals in mind.

          But your definition sets difficulty as applying beyond the boundaries of the game itself. Mass Effect is ‘difficult’ because I happen to not like Miranda, and playing the game challenges my personal willingness to continue. This is a conflation of ‘this is difficult’ with ‘I don’t like this’, and so is not a useful application of the term.

          1. Steve C says:

            No. It is not ‘difficult’ because someone happens to not like Miranda. That ignores half of what I wrote. I went out of my way to explain that the value judgement of good vs bad does not matter. That it is NOT a shorthand for ‘I don’t like this’. That many games rely on artificial difficulty in order to even be games at all.

            It is that you as a player are presented something arbitrarily difficult to overcome and cannot do anything about. (And again I’ll stress that ‘arbitrary’ means ‘arbitrary,’ not ‘hard,’ nor necessarily ‘unwanted.’)

            You are never going to get the fine control necessary to be good at Surgeon Simulator. Or kill that boss during invincibility segments it has, just cuz. It is losing in the cutscene that you would have otherwise won. It is losing an argument with an NPC because you cannot call them out on their obvious bullshit. It is not being able to put one foot in front of the other in QWOP. THAT is what I mean.

            You took exception with Miranda. It’s not that she’s an unlikable bitch. It is that the player can’t do anything you reasonably should be able to do about that fact.

            1. Henson says:

              I went out of my way to explain that the value judgement of good vs bad does not matter.

              You took exception with Miranda. It’s not that she’s an unlikable bitch. It is that the player can’t do anything you reasonably should be able to do about that fact.

              Miranda being ‘unlikable’ is a value judgement.

              If I happen to like Miranda, then where’s the difficulty in dealing with her?

              1. Steve C says:

                If you happen to like an NPC, then there is no difficulty by being prevented in shooting them in the head.

                The problem with the end game boss’s invincibility phase is not that it is an invincibility phase. It is that you are hostile and cannot do the reasonable action of damaging them. A likeable NPC that you cannot remove is artificial. But it is not a difficulty. Therefore it is not an artificial difficulty. If the boss instead becomes invincible because you’ve won, that’s not the same thing as when you were actively fighting. Even if he’s still technically alive. Why? Because your goal is no longer being frustrated. It is still just as artificial. There’s no difficulty anymore though.

                However there is no reasonable way a game developer could fail to realize this. Therefore it is a deliberate choice to deny the player to do something reasonable. Hence artificial. It is mandatory it also be in the way of an action the player wants to take. Making it a difficulty.

                Being prevented from doing something you do not want to do, is not relevant to this discussion.

                1. Echo Tango says:

                  The whole discussion from the show’s question, and most of the people in this thread, are using the word ‘difficulty’ to mean challenges to overcome within the regular meaning of the game. In a book, film, or other media where the primary interaction is to continue consuming the media or to stop out of frustration (or disgust, etc) then using ‘difficult’ like this would make sense, but games’ primary interaction is to do skill- or knowledge-based challenges. If a player shuts off the game because the characters are garbage or the story sucks, those are already adequate descriptions, rather than try to use the word ‘difficult’ in this way.

                  1. Steve C says:

                    Ok that’s reasonable. But where’s the line?

                    I’m not shutting off the game because the characters are garbage or the story sucks. (Hell, that’s the default. I expect it.) Those might be fine or even good. I’m shutting it off because I cannot accept a game play mechanic or the absence of a game play mechanic.

                    For example KOTOR. I thought the narrative was fine. I thought the story it was telling was fine. I thought the characters were the best part. I hated multiple characters in it. Hating them was the best part! All fine and appropriate. Good even! The game would have been worse off *for me* by excluding the characters I hated. Part of hating them was what made them good characters with good writting. (The audience should hate your antagonists! If they don’t, you are doing something wrong.)

                    The part I objected to in KOTOR as arbitrary bullshit is that I was explicitly allowed to be evil, while being arbitrarily denied to act on it. It is a narrative choice make those characters antagonists, but it is a gameplay and mechanical choice to make those antagonists immune to the player until the appointed time. It is an invincibility phase that lasts hours instead of seconds. It is literally that in KOTOR. You get the choice to kill almost any member of your party at the end. It is not a cutscene either, but with regular game mechanics.

                    I didn’t almost stop playing KOTOR because I didn’t like the narrative/characters. Those were the parts I liked the most! It was the gameplay choices I had in response to it that I did not find acceptable. Note that the exact same studio had gameplay that allowed these choices in Baldur’s Gate. So it was not like it was impossible. Hell it was the default up until KOTOR.

                    Furthermore it would not have broken KOTOR’s narrative nor plot nor characters if the player could have killed the entire crew at practically any time. Many were optional characters anyway. The narrative factors that in. Others aren’t important. Others would simply end up cutting out portions of the game and make for a different replay. Yet other characters could have become force ghosts to provide key information and taunt you. So making them immune to player damage until the appointed time was a game play choice, not a narrative one. (BTW: If you do a lot of save scumming it pulls the curtain up. It is surprising how little any of the party characters affect any of the narrative in that game.)

                    The reason I used story as an example of artificial difficulty is when you have antagonists when you cannot do anything about their antagonism. I see no appreciable difference between KOTOR and an invincible boss ignoring your bullets as he taunts you. It’s no surprise to the developer that the player wants to do something about it and just has to tolerate it.

                  2. Steve C says:

                    BTW “Difficulty” in the context I’m using is synonymous with “obstacle”. Not ‘difficult’ like a book with unpleasant subject matter. That other meaning was not the reason I singled out Walking Dead.

                    I have not been referring to the disgust/frustration meaning of ‘difficult’ anywhere in this discussion. Only the frustration/annoyance side of gameplay. Where the developer — not their story, not their characters, not their narrative, but specifically the developer — is has made gameplay, level design etc arbitrarily difficult in some way.

                    Also note it does include the ‘trolling’ aspect Shamus mentioned in the mailbag right after. If you are prevented from ‘trolling’ the game by selling SMGs, then that’s another form of arbitrary difficulty. It is for the express purpose of increasing the difficulty. Because you’d be wealthier and more powerful. While the game is preventing you from doing exactly that in an arbitrary manner. Even though it might make the game better and more enjoyable by making the SMGs disappear.

                2. Henson says:

                  Being prevented from doing something you do not want to do, is not relevant to this discussion.

                  Of course it’s relevant. The point I was demonstrating was that your ‘difficulty’ example was entirely dependent upon having a negative value judgement towards Miranda. Without that judgement, that ‘dislike’, there is no ‘difficulty’, as you put it. Hence, your example is conflating ‘difficulty’ with ‘I dislike this’.

                  You can even take your qualifier of ‘you’re prevented from doing something you want to do’ and extend it to the same essential basis: “I dislike Miranda, therefore I dislike that I’m prevented from doing something about her.”

                  And maybe the player should be be able to do something about her! There’s a whole long discussion to be had about how a story unfolds, whether characters are properly introduced, if the relation to the player works as intended, etc. I know there are plenty of games, Mass Effect 2 included, that have frustrated me with not allowing me to do things that seemed logical in the situation, or that I just really, really wanted to.

                  But none of that has anything to do with game difficulty.

                  1. Steve C says:

                    You want to romance character X. It is incredibly difficult to do so because of reasons Y and Z. That is game difficulty. It might even be the entire point of the game.

                    Lets say there is a dating sim where you can romance any character. Except one. That might be an arbitrary decision. Or it might be because that character is your dad. Being unable to romance your dad would not be problem for most people because most don’t want to. It’s not relevant because you don’t want to do it. But it is relevant if it is your childhood friend. The character the game has set up to be a love interest. Then just arbitrarily doesn’t let you.

                    My example was about aversion. It can just as easily be the opposite. It was only negative because Mass Effect is a major part of this blog.

                    1. Daimbert says:

                      Ooh, dating sim example!

                      Lets say there is a dating sim where you can romance any character. Except one.

                      This kinda falls back to my definition, though, that looks at the intent of the restriction. For something to be artificial difficulty or a time or money sink, it pretty much has to be the case that the intention is to do those things despite how it fits into the gameplay or story or the game overall. So for this case, excluding someone from being romanceable because it isn’t an appropriate relationship (which might get them in trouble with censors and the like) isn’t that sort of artificial thing because they have a good reason for doing it. Excluding a character because they need someone in a role that can help the main character out without being seen at all as conflicting with the other characters in terms of wanting to romance the main character — the sister in “Sunrider Academy” is an example of this — is also fine because that’s the role the character is in. Having one character be set up as a romance option to have that be scuttled later would work if that’s key to the story. Heck, even excluding someone because there’s just too many options to flesh out properly works. So for it to be that sort of case, it would really have to be the case that is simply arbitrary, but arbitrary in the sense that they want you to think of them as an option but just don’t want you to get it for the sake of giving you someone that you want to see as an option but can never get, but without building that into the story.

                      For dating sims, that’s pretty hard to do without just making a REALLY bad dating sim. There are other cases but I think I want to flesh those out in my specific reply to you. But here I wanted to highlight the idea of reasons and intent that I really do think makes a difference here, but that a player might not see, or might not see right away.

                  2. Steve C says:

                    A reasonable player’s desires matter in a discussion about arbitrary difficulty. If you are prevented from doing something you don’t want to do, who cares? If instead the game deliberately incites a desire, then it is big problem when it is frustrated.

                    A great example is Paul playing Star Citizen. That game went out of its way to make Paul want to do things he otherwise would never have even considered. Like light switches. You don’t have any desire to turn the lights on and off. Then the game puts in light switches and now you want to flick them. No light switches– no problem. Light switches that don’t work– problem.

                    Star Citizen is very likely the most arbitrarily difficult game in existence.
                    (And hopefully no game will ever take that title away from it.)

                    1. Henson says:

                      Game Problem != Game Difficulty

            2. Daimbert says:

              You took exception with Miranda. It’s not that she’s an unlikable bitch. It is that the player can’t do anything you reasonably should be able to do about that fact.

              But … why should the player reasonably be able to or want to do something about that fact?

              Miranda’s being a bitch doesn’t impede the player in any way. She doesn’t screw up your plans. She doesn’t take actions on her own — outside of the normal combat AI issues — and unilaterally that go against your interests. You don’t have to talk to her outside of specific cutscenes if you don’t want to. You don’t have to romance her. You don’t have to take her with you to missions. So I don’t see how she’s an actual problem. She’s an unlikeable companion, perhaps — although I liked her — but that’s not a problem that needs to be solved. And like the other Bioware unlikeable characters — Kreia from KOTOR2, Bastilla from KOTOR, and Morrigan from DAO — the game gives a good — if sometimes frustrating — reason why you can’t just ditch them or get rid of her: she’s the link to Cerberus and if you flushed her out the airlock you’d run into problems with the only people left who can help you do what you need to do (plus she IS capable in combat).

              For her to be artificial difficulty, she’d have to be introducing something that increases the difficulty or at least makes the player do things they don’t want to do as a response to her. And that never happens. So she isn’t actually a problem for the player at all, which then means she doesn’t count by your own definition. Thus, even to you she’s just a character that you really don’t like.

              1. Steve C says:

                She doesn’t screw up your plans.

                Ah but she could of.
                The fact that she is a toothless tiger ultimately does not matter. The player has no way of knowing while playing. Would a first time player be surprised if Miranda did something that screwed up the player’s plans at a key moment? Regardless if she does or not, it is reasonable to not want to take that chance. It is reasonable to kick out an asshole when the game is just as much about team building and solving social issues as anything else.

                KOTOR and Bastilla is a good example. I almost quit the game due to the arbitrary difficulty of dealing with her. I only did not because looked up a guide on how to permanently kill her. In it I learned I just had to bear with it for another chapter and she would leave on her own. That was the only reason I continued playing the game. 100% chance I would have quit otherwise. Plus later I would get a chance to permanently kill her. Later when that chance happened, Bastilla’s personality had changed. Removing the reason why I wanted to kill her. In both cases it was incredibly dissatisfying.

                Telltale’s Walking Dead is a clearer example. There’s a similar NPC to Miranda/Bastilla in that too. One that I wanted to ditch. Not because she was a liability now, but I could see that she could easily become one later. Which ended up happening. Then afterwards, I was forced to allow her to leave. That’s two cases of artificial difficulty. First preventing me from kicking her out before she did something unacceptable. Then another by forcing me to kick her out after. There were three options artificially not on table- 1)preemptive action 2)forgiveness (which she demanded) or 3)retribution. I fully expected her to reappear in the game and be a problem later. She doesn’t. I didn’t know that though. It was still an artificial difficulty in that I could not solve a future problem there and then. The fact that it was never going to be a problem was inconsequential of it being an artificial difficulty. In fact it made it worse. It made it impossible to resolve for ultimately no payoff.

                Miranda could have been no different. The fact that it worked out in the end is neither here nor there. You are a captain that is being artificially stopped from captaining. (Note that by focusing so much on one npc in a single game we are getting lost in the weeds here.)

                How about a different story example. An npc wants you to collect a herb so they can sell it for 5 gold coins so they can afford food. That is an arbitrary difficulty when you have an inventory full of herbs, food and 500k spare gold.

                1. Echo Tango says:

                  Ah but she could have.
                  The root of this phrase is a modification of “I have done X.” or “She has done Y.” by adding a “could” to make it indefinite.

                  1. Steve C says:

                    It is a Canadianism. It is awkward and looks wrong for the same reason I find “Where are you at?” so awkward and jarring. Similarly I’m going to continue using it knowing it is wrong because everyone else I speak to does the same.

                    1. Echo Tango says:

                      But ‘where are you at’ is charming and inoffensive; Have/of is a gross violation of The English Language! :D

                    2. Steve C says:

                      Depends on the listener. ‘Where are you at?’ is worse than nails on a chalkboard to me. If I was an evil dictator, saying it would be near the top of the list of reasons why someone was whipped.

                    3. Echo Tango says:

                      I’d thought this was a uniquely American thing – I don’t think I’ve ever heard it from a Canadian. Must be all you hosers from the wrong parts of Canada! :P

                    4. Daimbert says:

                      To chime in here, I don’t use it either and was always taught that it was horribly wrong. Then again, it might be regional as well.

                  2. John says:

                    In its contracted form, “could have” becomes “could’ve” which in turn sounds a lot like “could of”. I would have (would’ve) thought that anyone I heard saying “could of” was actually saying “could’ve”, but apparently I was wrong.

                2. Daimbert says:

                  Would a first time player be surprised if Miranda did something that screwed up the player’s plans at a key moment?

                  I would have, because she was dedicated to Cerberus’ cause and Cerberus needed you to complete the mission. So if that happened, it would have been because at some point those would have come apart and that would have been an interesting narrative twist that would have followed from the actual set up. In fact, it’s a bit odd when later Miranda is on your side in not giving the base to Cerberus given that and so didn’t oppose you there. As I replied to Shamus, I would have been more likely to think that Jack would do that and so would have been willing to put her off, but the game does a pretty good job of presenting it — at least if you don’t think too hard — that these people are going to be important to stopping the Collectors and so even if you WANTED to get rid of them that would probably cause you serious problems later on, so getting rid of them because you don’t like them is something that an idiot would do — in-universe — and I don’t really think it’s a problem for games to not let you be an idiot [grin].

                  KOTOR and Bastilla is a good example. I almost quit the game due to the arbitrary difficulty of dealing with her. I only did not because looked up a guide on how to permanently kill her.

                  But to link to your comment on social issues, part of those sorts of social issues and team building is dealing with people that you need and yet you don’t care for that much. In both the Miranda and Bastilla cases, you NEEDED them and so couldn’t simply get rid of them, and in Bastilla’s case her softening because you break through her shell is an important part of her character development. But that’s development you don’t get if she’s a nice character from the start.

                  Returning to artificial difficulty, though, it sounds like you’re using that to talk about anything that makes it hard for you to get through the game, and unlikeable characters make it really hard for you to get through the game. While I feel your pain — my big example is Kreia for KOTOR 2 that none of my characters in that game would be able to stand — I don’t think that definition fits very well into most of the actual discussions of artificial difficulty, making it a bad example.

                  How about a different story example. An npc wants you to collect a herb so they can sell it for 5 gold coins so they can afford food. That is an arbitrary difficulty when you have an inventory full of herbs, food and 500k spare gold.

                  Well, as per my own definition that wouldn’t fit because the purpose of it isn’t to make things harder for you, but instead it’s merely a badly designed quest that doesn’t take into account a likely state of the world at that point. It’s a mistake, not an intentional design decision.

                  I think the best example of artificial difficulty that we’d both agree with is Shamus example of the Plot-Driven Door from Neverwinter Nights 2. That isn’t merely not taking the states into account, but is deliberately making you do things the hard way.

              2. Shamus says:

                “Miranda’s being a bitch doesn’t impede the player in any way. She doesn’t screw up your plans. ”

                Hmmm.

                I’d argue that she does. If you go to the trouble of doing loyalty missions for both Jack and Miranda, then Miranda will childishly initiate a hostile standoff and force you to choose between the two.

                I don’t know. This is a tricky subject because the game makes you do a lot of stuff you don’t want to do, and while Miranda doesn’t physically force you to do those things, she’s sort of the designer’s way of saying “But thou must”.

                I don’t know if I’d call it difficulty like Steve C would, but I do see her as a hindrance that you inexplicably can’t get rid of.

                1. Steve C says:

                  Would you call it arbitrary bullshit?

                2. Daimbert says:

                  I’d argue that she does. If you go to the trouble of doing loyalty missions for both Jack and Miranda, then Miranda will childishly initiate a hostile standoff and force you to choose between the two.

                  We’ve disagreed on how to interpret this scene before, methinks. Note that the standoff happens in Miranda’s office, so it’s Jack picking a fight and Miranda simply not being willing to take that from Jack (and my Shepard there wouldn’t have taken that from Jack either). Also, you can go back to Miranda afterwards and tell her that she’s supposed to be the grownup, which she agrees with and which resolves the issues. Add to that that for me, if there was anyone that I would kick off the ship because they were or were likely to screw things up, it would have been Jack, and that scene could work just as well or not better to justify JACK being the problem, not Miranda.

                  Also, do you feel the same way about the Tali/Legion conflict? Because it’s a similar situation and could lose you the loyalty of one of those characters, and it would then be easy to say that they cause you issues as well.

                  And it isn’t really inexplicable why you can’t get rid off TIM’s right-hand person who is your main contact with the group that you’re working with. You can’t tell her to get off because TIM will tell you to let her back on or you get no help, and TIM would react fairly badly to you just killing her off. If things are inexplicable here, it’s because it’s inexplicable for you to care about Cerberus at all, but that’s not really Miranda’s fault.

                  The thing is, I don’t see this as artificial bullshit or whatever. I see it as an advance in narrative and character dynamics, where you introduce characters with conflicts and then play out what might happen because of them, something that games rarely did in the past. I think it’s still primitive, but that’s what it’s aimed at. And in terms of problems, it’s not really any worse than what happens if you don’t upgrade the ship or don’t choose the right people for the various missions in the suicide mission, and so it’s about the consequences of your actions and choices, which is actually more cool than bullshit or a problem.

                  1. Steve C says:

                    I see it as an advance in narrative and character dynamics, where you introduce characters with conflicts and then play out what might happen because of them, something that games rarely did in the past. I think it’s still primitive, but that’s what it’s aimed at. And in terms of problems, it’s not really any worse than what happens if you don’t upgrade the ship or don’t choose the right people for the various missions in the suicide mission, and so it’s about the consequences of your actions and choices, which is actually more cool than bullshit or a problem.

                    I see it as the reverse. Because yes, everything you wrote is true… In isolation. If the player character did not exist.

                    Soon as the player character exists it changes the dynamic and the reasonable responses/outcomes. If the player was a 5yr old kid with no social power or personal strength then it should play out exactly as you say (and ultimately does in game.) However the player character isn’t a 5yr old kid. The player character is the captain. One with legitimate power over their lives. One that routinely shoots people he does not like in the head. One that might be the galaxy’s most notorious renegade. One that is ultimately going to send them on a suicide mission even if he’s a paragon.

                    That changes things. “Shut up or I shoot you both,” should be an option. Even if it is a terrible option, it should still be an option. And they should shut up. And you should be able to carry it out if they don’t, even if it is a terrible option. At minimum, deliberately getting a character killed like this is something that should exist in the game. The game and narrative already has been coded for the possibility of that character’s death. So the question becomes, why didn’t the developers allow the player to do that?

                    The player character is supposed to be special, well respected, feared, whatever. The developer goes out of their way to tell that to the player at every turn. Then the developer has every NPC take actions that contradict it. “You are awesome. We respect you. You make great decisions.” (Now we are going to question your decisions. Disrespect you. And make it clear we are more awesome.) That disconnect is both arbitrary and infuriating.

                    It’s as simple as a player thinking, “This isn’t a fun interaction between NPC1 & NPC2. I don’t want to deal with this. I can make it fun and never have to deal with it again via a true renegade option.” Why? Why is this sort of stuff never in these kinds of games? Having the option only improves the game even for the players who never choose it. The lack of this kind of gameplay is the reason why I stay out of this genre of game. You as a player want a consequence of a decision. It is arbitrary for the developer to allow one type of NPC death but not another instigated by player choice and action.

                    BTW I’m not sure I can agree with the ‘games rarely did the past’ part. It largely depends.

                    1. Daimbert says:

                      Soon as the player character exists it changes the dynamic and the reasonable responses/outcomes. If the player was a 5yr old kid with no social power or personal strength then it should play out exactly as you say (and ultimately does in game.) However the player character isn’t a 5yr old kid. The player character is the captain. One with legitimate power over their lives. One that routinely shoots people he does not like in the head. One that might be the galaxy’s most notorious renegade. One that is ultimately going to send them on a suicide mission even if he’s a paragon.

                      I agree with this, but this also runs into an inherent limitation of games in general, as they give the player options for how to deal with things but can’t actually give all possible options. So they have to cut them off somewhere, and so some things that players will want to do it can’t allow for various reasons. That they left out an option that a player sees and would really want isn’t a problem. Referring back to the Plot-Driven Door, in that case it wasn’t just “Look, we didn’t code in some specific solutions that you could think of and might want to do” but that they left out most reasonable options in order to make the player do a LOT of irrelevant side questing, and once the player does that the problem immediately resolves itself, but not due to any of the actions of the player. Making them find a way to find the demon or prove it wasn’t there would be reasonable, but doing that just to get the guards happy enough to let them in wasn’t. So that’s a prime example of both artificial difficulty and artificial bullshit. But I don’t think that applies in this case:

                      That changes things. “Shut up or I shoot you both,” should be an option. Even if it is a terrible option, it should still be an option. And they should shut up. And you should be able to carry it out if they don’t, even if it is a terrible option. At minimum, deliberately getting a character killed like this is something that should exist in the game. The game and narrative already has been coded for the possibility of that character’s death. So the question becomes, why didn’t the developers allow the player to do that?

                      So, yes, they could have made it so that Shepard could threaten them with death if they didn’t stop fighting. But the consequence of that scene in-game is that you choose one or the other and the one you don’t choose loses their loyalty to you, and so is more likely to die in the suicide mission. Taking this tack, sure, Miranda would likely have backed down (Jack might not have, given her character). But if both survived, then both would have lost loyalty for you. Mechanically, that’s not that much of a difference. And on the flip side, the game could also have made it so that Shepard talked both of them down and made them respect each other more. They didn’t do that either. So why is that option not there? It doesn’t matter that much and they can’t do everything. (They DID add an option to go back to Miranda and call her out for letting Jack get to her, which maintains both her and Jack’s loyalty).

                      As for being able to get someone killed deliberately, in some sense that would be cool in some places, although not in the suicide mission because a Shepard that did that would be an idiot and if I was writing the story I’d be tempted to make doing something like that a Game Over, as that’s the reasonable consequence of doing something like that (sending someone with at least SOME technical skill is likely to let them get through at the cost of their own lives, but sending someone without it will just get them killed and they won’t be able to get through, but YOU need them to get through). You seem to want the player to be able to do it, in this example, as a shallow “I hate you!” type of thing, but that sort of thing is usually a much bigger narrative element that they didn’t want to deal with. So, again, there are good reasons for them to not want to bother, especially since they can’t provide every possible option.

                      So I agree that these sorts of ideas are interesting, but wouldn’t want to criticize a game developer for introducing a character that might annoy some players and not giving a way to kill them off or kick them out. (As an aside, Dragon Age lets you do that for more characters, but not ones that are critical to the story).

                      “You are awesome. We respect you. You make great decisions.” (Now we are going to question your decisions. Disrespect you. And make it clear we are more awesome.) That disconnect is both arbitrary and infuriating.

                      Miranda is a very bad example of this, though, as she’s merely someone who has different ideas than you do — like most of your team — and in general toes the line, but has a mutual animosity with Jack. A better example would be Reaver from Fable 2, who is there to be awesome and someone who does things — like potentially killstealing the final boss — to make themselves be awesome at the expense of the player. And you can’t kill them or get rid of them despite there being no reason for you to keep them alive (as Shamus noted when he talked about it, the villain needs Reaver, but no one has given a reason why YOU care). Theresa counts as well, as she does entirely what she wants and keeps screwing you around, but you can’t respond to it at all. TIM from ME2 also counts for telling you exactly what to do and where do go while seemingly trying to get you killed and you can’t even call them out on it. THESE would be cases of what you mean, where the entire narrative seems to suggest that you should be killing them or ditching them and the game drags you back without giving you a good reason.

                      I find Kreia from Sith Lords as annoying as at least some people find Miranda (and maybe more so), and yet while I hate the character I don’t consider it artificial bullshit or difficulty because the game flat-out said why I couldn’t just kill her: we had a bond and that meant we shared pain and if I killed her or let her get killed it might kill me, and I DEFINITELY didn’t want this hanging over my head for the rest of my life. Miranda’s reasons aren’t as strong, but if you accept that you need to work with Cerberus kicking her off or killing her isn’t going to work, and again since games can’t allow for everything I’m okay with games just not letting me try to do things that would be incredibly stupid and that for realism they’d need to play out with a “Game Over” to be consistent.

                      It’s as simple as a player thinking, “This isn’t a fun interaction between NPC1 & NPC2. I don’t want to deal with this. I can make it fun and never have to deal with it again via a true renegade option.”

                      Except in the game once that scene ends you never DO have to deal with it again, and the option you suggested is one where you likely WOULD have to deal with it. All that happens there is that you have to choose between them — the one that you think is the most reasonable — and you lose the loyalty of the other one, which is totally reasonable. This increases the chances that that one will die in the suicide mission. So from my perspective, this really works as an option, as it takes an existing and deliberate conflict and forces you to choose sides, with actual consequences but ones that aren’t gamebreaking.

                      (You can also retain the loyalty of both with the right Renegade or Paragon levels, and can go back to Miranda later and convince her that she needs to be better at the cost of a potential romance).

                      You as a player want a consequence of a decision. It is arbitrary for the developer to allow one type of NPC death but not another instigated by player choice and action.

                      It does seem to me that you want more “Every option should be there, no matter how stupid or how badly it screws up the plot”. While I’d like more options and consequences, I am willing to accept getting more of them without getting all of them. Again, Dragon Age does it pretty well even if it doesn’t let you do it at any time.

                  2. Shamus says:

                    Jack is the Holocaust survivor, and Miranda is the Nazi SS agent that denies the Nazis did anything wrong, even when I took her on the goddamn mission and showed her.

                    If Jack is being unreasonable, (a BIG if) it’s STILL the fault of Cerberus because they traumatized her to the point where she can barely function as an adult. And then Cerberus decided to bring this war crime victim with them on a mission. And then STILL refused to admit they did anything wrong.

                    Jack has every right in the world to slaughter her way through Cerberus, starting with Miranda, so I’m having trouble seeing how she’s in the wrong for asking for the smallest, most basic concession: “Admit what you did was wrong if you want me to work for you”.

                    You see it as an advance of narrative and character dynamics, but that doesn’t work for me because it’s advancing an incoherent situation that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Cerberus shouldn’t want Jack on this mission, Jack shouldn’t want to go, and you shouldn’t have to accept the deal OR take Jack with you, and Miranda has no justification for not admitting that maybe torturing kids is wrong.

                    As has been stated elsewhere in this thread, this disaster of nonsense isn’t wholly Miranda’s fault, but it arises when we’re interacting with her. Why can’t I say X? Why can’t I suggest Y? Why can’t I demand Z? Why does my dialog wheel keep making me say stupid shit I vehemently disagree with? This frames her an an antagonistic force that you inexplicably can’t do anything about.

                    What we end up with is this weird blurring effect between in-character and out-of-character concerns. I get mad at Miranda because of the things the game designer is doing to shield her from my questions, objections, and (eventually) wrath.

                    1. Steve C says:

                      Yes yes! This is what I’m trying to explain and (I think) I’m failing at. This is the part I consider arbitrary difficulty in story. That disconnect. It is instigated by narrative and characters, but it is not a problem with the narrative or characters.

                      It’s a game play issue. Because the player is prevented from interacting with the narrative as it has been presented.

                    2. Daimbert says:

                      Jack has every right in the world to slaughter her way through Cerberus, starting with Miranda, so I’m having trouble seeing how she’s in the wrong for asking for the smallest, most basic concession: “Admit what you did was wrong if you want me to work for you”.

                      Jack works for you, not Cerberus. There was no reason for her to deliberately go to Miranda and call her out on that, as opposed to getting YOU to do it. Moreover, the only evidence that Miranda said that it wasn’t wrong was Jack’s own statement that “She won’t even admit that what Cerberus did to me was wrong!” and Jack … is not a reliable witness. Miranda’s only defense there is to repeat the line that it wasn’t Cerberus who actually did it (the “rogue cell” idea) and then to fire an insult back at Jack, which is totally in character for Miranda as she doesn’t want to take crap from anyone. I’m not arguing against taking Jack’s side in this, and the scene is set up pretty well to let you do that and make a real choice, especially since you can go back to Miranda after and call her out on her attitude after siding with Jack. (And, as it turns out, from reading around it looks like you can take a neutral option and settle it right then and there with both of them if you have enough Renegade or Paragon points).

                      So I don’t see it as being reasonable to say that Miranda screws up your plans there. Whether right or wrong, Jack provokes a confrontation and Miranda won’t take Jack’s crap. The most you can say is that Miranda should be more capable of putting the mission first than Jack is, and you can indeed tell Miranda that and end up with no actual consequences from the confrontation. And if you side with Jack all it would mean is that Miranda’s actions there might just get her killed, which few players who see her as an obstacle will mind all that much.

                      You see it as an advance of narrative and character dynamics, but that doesn’t work for me because it’s advancing an incoherent situation that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

                      I see it as an advance because it’s being done, but don’t think it was necessarily done properly. So it’s credit for trying, at least, even if it was a bit awkward.

                      As has been stated elsewhere in this thread, this disaster of nonsense isn’t wholly Miranda’s fault, but it arises when we’re interacting with her.

                      I think that was by me [grin]. But yeah, the issue is with Cerberus and all the issues and contrivances there, not Miranda per se. That’s why I don’t mind that scene because, yes, Jack and Miranda should probably never be allowed on the same ship with each other — although I tended to bring both along all the time because my character didn’t trust either of them and liked the idea of making Miranda uncomfortable — but given that they WERE on the ship, the confrontation between them is one that probably would happen at some point, like Tali and Legion.

                      As has been stated elsewhere in this thread, this disaster of nonsense isn’t wholly Miranda’s fault, but it arises when we’re interacting with her. Why can’t I say X? Why can’t I suggest Y? Why can’t I demand Z? Why does my dialog wheel keep making me say stupid shit I vehemently disagree with? This frames her an an antagonistic force that you inexplicably can’t do anything about.

                      I don’t disagree, but this conflict is an odd one to raise for that because this is the one case where you CAN actually say some of the things you wanted to say, some locked behind the Paragade system and one where you can go back and do it afterwards and get Miranda to act reasonably in response to that.

            3. John says:

              Difficulty is gameplay-related, and whatever problem Miranda represents definitely isn’t. If she’s a problem, then she’s a narrative problem. You aren’t upset that the game has made Miranda into an unreasonably or arbitrarily difficult task or challenge. You’re upset that the game doesn’t include a scripted event in which, one way or another, you can force Miranda out of the party. Contemporary big-budget, RPG-ish games like Mass Effect don’t want you to get rid of party members because it would interfere with the narrative. The player can’t kick Character A out of the party in Act I because Character A has to be present for Event B in Act II. Consequently, they do not implement systems that would allow you to get rid of party members. You are certainly free to dislike that kind of thing. I’m not thrilled with it myself. But, again, difficulty has absolutely nothing to do with it. It’s a narrative design issue.

              1. Steve C says:

                John, please do not ascribe personal motivations to me like that. I haven’t played the game. It is literally impossible for me to be personally upset at a fictional character in a game I’ve never played. (In fact the reason why is because I cannot stand the narrative choices in big budget contemporary games. It is a narrative design issue I do not accept. However it is completely beside the point of ‘arbitrary difficulty.’)

                John, do you believe Telltale’s Walking Dead has no ‘difficulty’. If so, I can understand that and why. I still disagree. But it gets to the root to it and we can agree to disagree.

                And AGAIN I want to repeat that an artificial difficulty is neither inherently good nor inherently bad.

                1. Steve C says:

                  How about this: Artificial bullshit is always bad. Artificial difficulty often includes artificial bullshit but not always. Artificial difficulty includes things like QWOP. While artificial bullshit does not. Artificial bullshit focus more the value judgement side and personal preferences.

                2. John says:

                  Ah, for “you” read “the player”, which I took to be the sense that you had used the word in an earlier comment. I am aware you haven’t played the game. I apologize for the confusion.

                  I haven’t played Telltale’s Walking Dead and am only dimly familiar with it. To the extent that the game is just talking and narrative choices, I would say, no, it cannot be difficult. But I think it also contains some mini-games and puzzles in which case maybe it can.

                  I don’t have any particular issues with your claim that artificial difficulty, as you define it, is occasionally a good thing. I agree with you about QWOP, though I’d call it deliberately difficult rather than artificially difficult. I just think that you’ve applied the term difficulty too broadly and to too many things that are better and more usefully described in other ways.

                  1. Steve C says:

                    That’s a shame. The more I think about this issue, the more I think Walking Dead is a perfect example for this discussion. Each individual situation and how it differs from each other situation in the same game would give the full range of what I mean and why. I believe it would help with the categorization to narrow things down in a way that makes consistent sense.

                    Walking Dead does not have mini-games or puzzles (at least I can remember). What it does have is plenty of different flavors of arbitrariness at various points and implementations. Which I could then point to as arbitrary narrative *decisions* (like getting a battery for a stupid reason in a stupid way), which I would *not* classify as an arbitrary difficulty. VS the arbitrary gameplay difficulty of making a decision earlier rather than later (see other comment), then removing all narrative impact of that decision. VS the lone arbitrary player fast-reaction sequence in the game (grabbing a gun) which also has no narrative impact. Plus it has more than a little arbitrary bullshit too.

                    In the Walking Dead’s case some of that arbitrariness worked to make for a better game, some did not. Personally I checked out of playing it after a certain point due to the arbitrary bullshit. But I continued watching it on Spoiler Warning because I was invested in the narrative. IE I thought the story was fine. I thought my involvement as a player was not.

                    I can see calling QWOP deliberately difficult. Though there are a few issues with that. First is almost every aspect of a game is deliberate, excluding bugs. Second is that Dark Souls and getting a high score in a Batman level are both deliberately difficult, but not arbitrarily so. And finally I would not put those 3 games into the same category. QWOP is its own beast.

                    1. John says:

                      First is almost every aspect of a game is deliberate, excluding bugs.

                      That is certainly true, but I prefer deliberate to artificial or arbitrary in cases like QWOP because artificial and arbitrary carry negative connotations that deliberate does not. Or at least I think it doesn’t.

                      In any case, I think that the key point here is, as you suggested earlier, that context matters. QWOP’s movement mechanics are difficult to master, but that’s the entire point of the game. (Or else the humorous results from failing to master them are the entire point of the game. Fortunately, that doesn’t affect the point I’m trying to make.) If another game, a game that was nominally about something else, nevertheless had QWOP’s movement mechanics, then I’d have no trouble calling that artificial difficulty. Speaking in generalities about hypothetical games like this is awkward, but my sense of things is that people say that a gameplay mechanic or system stands out as arbitrary or as “artificial difficulty” when that system or mechanic is difficult to master, awkward to deal with, or even just time-consuming to no good purpose and it prevents or distracts them from engaging in whatever it is that they think the game is or should be about.

              2. Syal says:

                Difficulty is gameplay-related

                I agree. Miranda has no gameplay downsides; I don’t think there’s any quest where you have to take her instead of another companion. Since there’s no gameplay detriment, she isn’t a difficulty, she’s an annoyance.

                Same with any plot-related betrayal; plot events aren’t difficulty, they’re plot. But a lot of them will mark a change in gameplay; take away a strong character and make you fight a man down, switch weapons, whatever.

                For an infamous example of both artifical difficulty and artificial annoyance: Mr. Bunny is artificial difficulty, “RAAAZ-PUUTIN” is artificial annoyance.

              3. Shamus says:

                Keep in mind that I ASKED people to share their view on difficulty, specifically because I had the sense that a lot of people were coming at this from different angles. So arguing with him in such emphatic terms feels… weird.

                Shamus: Okay everyone. Please tell me your favorite flavor of ice cream.

                Steve C: Strawberry-banana-mint swirl.

                John: Wrong. That’s not a real flavor so it can’t be your favorite!

                You’re free to disagree with Steve C all you like by offering your own explanation for difficulty, but arguing with him about his definition is sort of missing the point of the discussion.

                1. John says:

                  Whatever I actually did, that is not what meant to do. I sincerely hope that I do not sound like that.

                  1. Henson says:

                    I think you were just fine, John. The only snag was the unfortunate confusion around the third-person ‘you’, which could easily be misinterpreted as second-person.

      2. tmtvl says:

        Mass Effect 2 is a hard game not in the “you need good reflexes and insight” way, but in the “this game will test your strength of character and will to live” kind of way. Its story is abysmally terrible, and the characters really don’t help. Miranda being the prime example of this.
        If you could just not take her into your party a la Baldur’s Gate, it’d be much easier to make your way through the game without giving up because your willpower gives out.

    4. Daimbert says:

      Much what he stated is artificial time sink and game length rather than difficulty.

      I think that time sinks and artificial difficulty aren’t the same thing, like you, but that they are related. A time sink or even a money sink in a game is something that exists for the sole or at least primary reason to get the player to spend more time or more money doing those sorts of things. I think that artificial difficulty are mechanisms that exist solely or primarily to make the game more difficult, without tying in to the rest of the game. So I wouldn’t see the “cheating” on the behalf of the AI in TBS games artificial difficulty because that’s just them trying to make REGULAR difficulty to make a game worth playing, not trying to inflate the difficulty for its own sake. And I wouldn’t consider the Battletoads example artificial difficulty because, at worst, it was an attempt to do something new that they didn’t implement properly, not an attempt to make things more difficult simply to say that it’s more difficult.

      So at the very least artificial difficulty would be difficulty that doesn’t seem to be necessary to make a reasonably challenging game and so seems to be there only to be able to claim that it’s difficult. If it’s there primarily for any other reason, then it isn’t artificial difficulty. Yes, this might make it hard to come up with examples, but this is not something that I’ve complained about much when playing games either.

    5. Grimwear says:

      In terms of say Total Warhammer higher difficulties essentially make you stop interacting with the game first and instead interact with the changes implemented by designers to make it “hard”. So I consider it artificial difficulty. For example killing a giant army a faction has only to have them completely replace it in 1 turn where player mechanics (and previous difficulties) would only let you get that same army over 6 or more turns. Or the fact that your units end up worse than the ai units to make it “harder” which is just making it so that those units become pointless. Legendoftotalwar had a good video where he had 2 identical units face off against one another and lost because the devs tweaked unit values to make the ai units stronger. The devs hide and change values behind the scenes to make it a more “difficult experience”. This is where you want your ai to actually be smarter and perform more complex maneuvers but that is actually hard to do.

      I personally consider just artificially inflating health pools to be artificial difficulty since it doesn’t change the way you interact with the game on average. You’re still performing the exact combos in the exact same way, just more of them for a longer period of time. But then you hit semantics of what’s the proper amount of health to have. Is it normal difficulty? Easy? And for each person it may be different. I may play a game and have no problem with health values being increased but I still consider that difficulty artificial.

      Dark Souls is generally fine since the health increases are supposed to scale with your continued leveling until it maxes out at NG+7. Dark Souls 2 however I consider artificial difficulty since they just throw in extra enemies in groups which can’t be staggered and also have units which literally appear out of nowhere behind you. O and DS2 has ai controlled “human” enemies that are supposed to act like humans which is fine but they gave them like 7x the amount of health a real human player could get so killing them takes ages whereas real human fights are over in 3-5 hits. In fact Darks Souls 2 is artificial difficulty the game. People got so good at Dark Souls 1 that they ran past every enemy except for the bosses. And you got invincibility frames as soon as you passed through fog walls. DS2 has more doors closed by levers, enemies placed directly in front of fog walls, and also doesn’t give you i-frames going through said fog walls immediately. They literally made that game to stop people from running through it and spoilers it didn’t work.

      1. Daimbert says:

        In terms of say Total Warhammer higher difficulties essentially make you stop interacting with the game first and instead interact with the changes implemented by designers to make it “hard”. So I consider it artificial difficulty.

        I didn’t think that was artificial difficulty when I talked about it above because it was just adding difficulty, but reading this I think I’m wrong. If it forces you to change how you approach the game and moves you away from the actual gameplay to a way of playing that is of no use except to overcome that difficulty, then yeah, that would count. And so as noted elsewhere it would be better to simply make the AI play more efficiently than to do that.

  14. Echo Tango says:

    Re: Selling individual guns in Deus Ex: Human Revolution
    I actually found a place to do this about half-way through the game, not because I wanted to break the game, but because (if I remember correctly) the game wouldn’t let you change difficulty mid-game, and I’d been going on ‘normal’ or maybe ‘hard’ instead of ‘easy’, and the mid-game had turned into a slog. So after that I’d been looking for systems to exploit, such as finding out that the very last cell of cangy-bar energy always refills automatically (the others only refill if they haven’t been depleted), and keeping myself chronically low on energy and then scarfing candy bars right before I need to give someone a cybernetic wedgie.

    1. Addie says:

      I think the ‘only the last energy bar refills’ is actually the biggest problem with DX:HR, even more so than the terrible bosses. It turns a go-slow sneaker into a go-really-slow-and-keep-pausing sneaker, makes all the powers that take more than one bar extremely situational if not worthless, and makes increasing the number of bars pointless, since you need to refill them manually anyway and there’s not much difference between having eg. six bars ready to go, and pressing the refill button half a dozen times instead.

      Now, if all your bars normally filled, but really quite slowly after the first one, and eating a candy caused you to have an increased rate for a while, but still not so much that having additional bars would be good too, then that would be more interesting.

      1. Syal says:

        I think Dishonored had a better version of the Deus Ex battery thing; your last used power’s cost would slowly recharge, so you could use one and wait for it to regenerate to full, or use a few in a row, losing the mana from all but the last.

        1. beleester says:

          Dishonored regenerated a fixed amount, the difference was that you used the regenerating part *first* instead of last, so using a small power like Blink would only use the regenerating part. If you used a big power like Time Stop, or multiple powers in a row, you’d use up more than you could regenerate.

  15. Joshua says:

    I try to make a point to wish my friends and families a Happy Birthday a day or so ahead so they don’t just think I was putting forth the same effort as hitting a Like button. I also tend to see the same people wishing me Happy Birthday on Facebook are 90% casual acquaintances, so it doesn’t give me a lot of warm fuzzies.

  16. King Marth says:

    “Players are hardly ever wrong about how they feel, but they’re usually wrong about why that is.” A mantra to live by in all situations.

    Important follow-up: This is why arguing about the stated reasons for a person’s dislike of X will get you nowhere. It doesn’t matter if you solve every problem someone claims they have about a game, because none of those were the reason.
    You might get somewhere if you spend a couple hundred thousand words breaking down every aspect, but who would do that?

    1. Lino says:

      I can imagine a person crazy enough to do it, but who would be insane enough to read it?!?!

      1. Daimbert says:

        The same people who read Shamus’ retrospectives [grin]?

    2. Mark says:

      I think this is a great point. One of my favorite games, the Paradox 4x game Stellaris, is sometimes accused of “artificial difficulty” because higher difficulties typically resort to giving the AI mathematical bonuses such as a percentage increase in monthly income. Players think they want more “competent AI,” but the developers have occasionally pushed back on this.

      One thing the devs pointed out was that it would be relatively easy to make the AI brutally effective in war by programming them to execute hit and run strikes on player infrastructure and exploiting the human preference (encouraged by game mechanics) to specialize their development. The problem with this, of course, is that this would be incredibly frustrating since the player could never actually out play the AI when it comes to hit-and-run maneuvers.

      1. Moridin says:

        The problem is that people don’t make the distinction between an AI that is acts realistically, or like a human player would in the AI’s shoes; and making an AI that is effective at defeating the player. When players complain about the AI being bad, they’re typically referring to the former. For instance, I’ve been playing quite a lot of Hearts of Iron 4, and if there’s a non-trivial defensive position (i.e. a river crossing, a line of fortifications or some other feature that grants bonuses to the defending force, as opposed to a simple chokepoint one or two provinces wide) the AI has a tendency to just keep attacking until they run out of equipment or manpower, at which point you can easily wipe the floor with them. This is the sort of thing players complain about when they say that the AI is bad, and that can be fixed without making an AI that will always opt for highly optimized or cheeky strategies.

  17. Mark says:

    What I usually think of when people talk about “artificial difficulty” are things like the AI boosts that you see in Civilization games. In the Civ games if you play on higher difficulties, the AI will get artificial boosts to things like production speed, faster growth rates, less unhappiness, lower costs, etc. It is a sort of “just make the numbers bigger” type of difficulty. You see things like this in many 4x games.

    In a similar vein (and at the extreme on the lazy scale), many Bethesda games have a “difficulty slider” that should be more properly termed the “bullet sponge slider” because the only thing it does is modify damage dealt and received.

    The idea is that the difficulties should be made more challenging by making the AI more competent rather than “artificially stronger.” The challenge, of course, is that programming more competent AI is actually really hard and players typically underestimate the challenge. It is especially difficult to do when the game first ships because in many cases, players develop strategies that the developers probably intended only in the most general sense, but did not fully understand at the time, if they ever do.

    The new iterations of difficulty in Age of Empires II are likely what people are hoping to get. In the AOEII remakes, some of the difficulties are ported over and work as the used to with the “make the numbers bigger” approach. New difficulties implement more “true difficulty.” Over the many years the game has been out, players have found that only a fairly limited number of opening plays are ideal and developers have found that those actions can be readily automated to create competent AI players.

    1. Dotec says:

      You also want the AI on Easy to still be clever enough without pantsing the player. Tying enemy behavior to difficulty potentially makes very interesting fights on higher difficulties, but if you’re chopping off all those branches of the decision-making tree as the difficulty lowers, then I foresee a lot of critical user reviews complaining about bad AI when they set the game to “coast” mode.

      HP levels are the easiest thing to adjust while still ensuring a “complete” experience, but are obviously inelegant. I find I’m fine with it if higher difficulty increases my fragility but leaves the enemies mostly untouched – because shooting a mook with a double-barreled shotgun 3 times is ridiculous, y’all.

      1. beleester says:

        In Galactic Civilizations, the AI was restricted on lower difficulties, but it would point out those restrictions to the player – “I see you’re gathering an invasion fleet on my borders. I’ll be nice and ignore that, but if my generals were set to “Intelligent” I’d be gearing up for war right now!”

        (Apparently this was so that reviewers who were trying to rush through on an easy difficulty wouldn’t think the AI was stupid.)

      2. Mark says:

        I find I’m fine with it if higher difficulty increases my fragility but leaves the enemies mostly untouched – because shooting a mook with a double-barreled shotgun 3 times is ridiculous, y’all.

        I have exactly the same feeling. I modded Skyrim and Fallout 4 difficulty to do exactly this. It worked really well for Fallout because the game is focused on guns. It made Fallout actually way more interesting and intense. Skyrim needed other mods since it made melee combat almost impossible, but I managed to put together a much more rewarding combat system.

        You also want the AI on Easy to still be clever enough without pantsing the player.

        This is actually a great point. Someone else on here pointed out that players often think they know what they want, but actually don’t realize why what they wish for may not really have the desired result. I think most players are thinking myopically about hard difficulties and just want the AI to be infinitely competent.

  18. SidheKnight says:

    Happy Birthday Shamus!

  19. Fizban says:

    The definition of artificial difficulty can be found in the name: it’s any difficulty which doesn’t feel natural. What difficulty feels natural is a combination of the game’s presentation and mechanics up to that point, and the player’s conscious and unconscious assumptions about what the mechanics should be based on other games they have played.

  20. Syal says:

    Not sure where to put this one, so I’ll put it here.

    Trails in the Sky/of Cold Steel has fifteen status effects, about… ten of which will fully incapacitate a character if they land. You can reasonably block four at a time, and enemies past the halfway point always know one or two. So that leaves 60% of the really nasty ones unguardable, meaning your first time in a bossfight you’re likely to get hammered by mean, mean statii. And then if you lose, you equip the proper guards and do the fight again with one mean attack shut down.

    This strikes me as a very artificial kind of difficulty; the fight is hard because you don’t know what an unknown enemy can do. But, it also seems like a good thing? I managed to muddle through most of those fights first try, meaning they were the good kind of hard.

    I dunno. I mostly just wanted to bring up Trails’ wonky difficulty. It’s one of the defining features of the series.

  21. Dreadjaws says:

    My definition of “Artificial Difficulty” has pretty much always been “Difficulty that relies on the game ignoring or contradicting its own established rules”. Sort of like when GTA games ask you to kill a certain guy but they make him invincible until a certain point, or when they ask you to race someone but no matter what car either of you have your opponent will always be ahead of you until a certain point. Fighting games having the AI being able to perform moves without the delays the humans are forced to have may also count, depending on who you ask.

    There’s the issue of game mechanics that affect the outside-state of the game too, which people tend to associate with fake difficulty, like the Resident Evil limited amount of saves or certain games that continue going when you’re not playing so when you come back a bunch of stuff happened that you couldn’t have prevented, but I don’t think the problem here is one of difficulty itself. This is something that’s harder to define. I don’t know how I would call it.

    1. Asdasd says:

      I’m of the same mind on this.

      Basically, there are many contracts that a game makes with a player. Some of them are overt, as in, stated or printed rules, or information the game imparts directly. Others are implicit and assumed, the most fundamental of which is, I guess, “it is possible to complete this game”.

      Difficulty which respects these contracts, however challenging, is considered fair, natural, organic. Difficulty that breaks these contracts (which remember, might be assumptions on the player’s part) is considered unfair, fake, artificial. Rubberbanding or teleporting in racing games is considered artificial because the AI opponents are not respecting the rules of the game. Blue shells are (in the minds of many) bullshit, but they’re a fairer kind of bullshit, because how they work is made explicit and part of the difficulty of being in the lead is that blue shells will target you.

      Another example I read about recently was Pools of Darnkess. Just before the final fight, an arbitrary plot point disables the party’s ability to use magic. This is an interesting example because it can be sliced many ways.

      Magic is a fundamental part of D&D combat. To bar use of it is to dispense with a legitimate and important percent of slowly accumulated player power. Now the game does tell you this has happened, but without giving any chance for the player to adjust – if they can’t win on the first try (something that’s very unlikely without knowing in advance), they’re at the mercy of whether they have a save file from which they can recover the situation, which, given that certain class compositions render the fight effectively impossible, may be right back at the start of the game, or even the entire series!

      On the other hand, you could view this is an extreme case of encounter design in any game, where poor balancing leaves some builds dramatically less effective than others. In which case the developer is still very much at fault, but this is perhaps not artificial difficulty per se. Regardless, players seem widely to be in agreement that this is an example of the developers overstepping their bounds. In other instances, it’s going to be a lot more subjective.

      1. Gautsu says:

        Magic is disabled in the challenge dungeon, but not before the final battle main game in PoD

        1. Asdasd says:

          Go read the article I linked. It is.

  22. Bo says:

    I tend to define artificial difficulty as a game testing a skill or personality trait that I’m not there to demonstrate. Imagine if chess made you beat your opponent at a trivia question every time you tried to capture, otherwise their piece would capture yours instead. It’s still fair, but you aren’t there to demonstrate trivia knowledge. Or imagine if chess forced you to wait 20 minutes between moves, even if you knew what you wanted to do. You aren’t there to demonstrate patience, so that will feel arbitrary and artificial.

    To give a better example, think of Marauder Shields from the end of Mass Effect 3. Most people weren’t playing that game to demonstrate mastery of a finicky, punishing free aim test. So taking away all our powers and abilities, and taking away the possibility of getting around Marauder Shields creatively, made it an artificially difficult challenge.

    1. Chad+Miller says:

      Imagine if chess made you beat your opponent at a trivia question every time you tried to capture, otherwise their piece would capture yours instead.

      Funnily enough, this is pretty close to an example of why I never use the “artificial/fake difficulty” term at all: Consider chess boxing. If there were a poster child for adding “irrelevant” mechanics to a game, I would think interspersing a chess match with literally punching your opponent would be it, and yet that’s an actual game people play and enjoy.

      It’s questionable whether we need a term for “difficulty that tests something I don’t like testing,” but if it does then I think a term like “artificial difficulty” shouldn’t be it because that’s just a value judgement dressed in more objective-sounding language.

      1. Bo says:

        The thing is, chess boxing advertises itself accurately. If you went to a normal chess tournament and they sprung chess boxing on you after ten minutes, that would be BS.

        The artificial difficulty people claim that this bait and switch is what video games are doing: Advertising a test of strategic thinking (or whatever), but springing a patience test or a dexterity challenge on us after we’ve paid.

        1. Chad+Miller says:

          But see, there’s the rub: this is an explanation of why the unexpected mechanic may be bad, but it doesn’t explain why it’s fake or artificial. If I accept your distinction as presented, then this means that if I want an “artificial” mechanic to become “real” or “authentic” or whatever, I can do that by changing the instruction manual, advertisement, or tutorials without changing or even explicitly explaining any of the mechanics!

          I do think you’re describing a real problem, I just don’t think “artificial difficulty” is at all a way to describe it. And I’m not picking on your definition in particular; in fact it’s one of the more coherent out of the usual half-dozen definitions I’ve seen, if one is even present.

          1. Bo says:

            The organic difficulty is what comes naturally from the core gameplay. The artificial difficulty comes from the additives like quick-time events or mobile-game energy mechanics.

            1. Chad+Miller says:

              But if chess boxing can make both a chess game and a boxing match part of its “core gameplay”, then doesn’t that suggest that the very concept of “core gameplay” is rather arbitrary? Wouldn’t that mean that any charge of “fake difficulty” could be countered by just noting that the people who play a given game like that game? This would seem to debase “artificial difficulty” to “difficulty caused by mechanics I don’t like.”

              1. Philadelphus says:

                Take it one step further: to a chess champion the boxing portion of chess boxing is artificial difficulty, while to a boxer, the chess part is the artificial difficulty. Two equally core parts of the game that two different camps will each label artificial difficulty.

  23. Damiac says:

    I mean… tv tropes defined the term pretty clearly.
    https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FakeDifficulty

    But, in my own words, fake difficulty generally means it’s not possible to overcome by playing the game better. It could be an element of chance, for example, in Goldeneye for N64, you could only unlock the cheat from the facility mission if Dr. Doak spawned in the right location, which was a 50/50 shot. So no matter how perfectly you played, this random element outside your control can make you fail anyway.

    Another example is not following their own rules. For example, rubber banding in mario kart. Beating all the computers in a race doesn’t come down to racing the best. No matter how well you drive in the first 2/3 of the race, it doesn’t really matter, all that matters is what goes on in the last couple turns of the last lap.

    Essentially, it’s when playing the game “right” isn’t enough, you have to also have things out of your control go your way.

    It is a bit subjective, admittedly, but it’s pretty rigidly defined. Railroading is not Fake Difficulty. That’s railroading. The plot of many games would be different if you could kill the obvious bad guy at the beginning, but that’s not the point of the game. Miranda from ME is not an example.

  24. Dragmire says:

    A couple examples of what I’ve heard referred to as artificial difficulty:

    Bullet sponges/enemy over tankiness – enemy is not difficult to attack and defend against but their hp and/or defense makes taking them down unnecessarily time and resource consuming (Shamus’ initial experience with Borderlands 3 fit this description)

    Rubberbanding in racing games – No matter how well you play, 2nd place is right behind you. AI racers will be faster than their vehicle should be able to move in order to keep up.

    Instant failure/death due to poor programming – stealth sections where you fail if seen but since enemy vision is borked, success and failure are random. Also enemies with hit-scan weapons that can see and kill you in less than a second.

    pixel/frame perfect precision – to jump this gap, you have to time your jump when the last pixel of your foot is on the last pixel of the platform

    Trial and error gameplay – figure out this random button combo before you drown, there are no clues. Bonus points if the combo randomizes between tries.

    Never heard the term artificial difficulty refer to genres like rhythm and puzzle games.

  25. Robert Davidoff says:

    Shamus,

    You talked a bit about “you don’t find this situation of a company being run by suits, for suits without knowing how the industry actually functions when it functions anywhere else,” and it’s interesting because a lot of that accusation has been leveled at Boeing and other aerospace companies in recent decades. I think it was a Grumman employee who said they knew they were in trouble when the new executives hung up pictures of landscapes and modern instead of pictures of airplanes–it meant they weren’t engineers and they didn’t really care about aerospace.

    Just an interesting connection I was thinking over regarding the financialization of a lot of industries.

  26. evilmrhenry says:

    In regards to Solitaire, I’d suggest PySol (Fan Club Edition) for your Solitaire needs. It’s a bit jank, in the way that a lot of open source software is, but it contains every solitaire variant you’ve heard of, and hundreds you haven’t.

  27. Clareo Nex says:

    Difficult games require attention to complete successfully, take a long time to master, and approaching the challenges require a lot of preparation from the player. Artificial difficulty is the game designer messing with you. They require attention because the designer put in sudden random gotchas. They take a long time to master because there’s a bunch of padding preventing you from spending time mastering them. They require preparation because there’s busywork. The game is “difficult” because the designer is a little kid knocking the controller out of your hand. Yeah okay it’s hard to play like that, but…

    Game designers use fake difficulty because it’s more reliable, cheaper, and (ironically) less challenging. If you attempt real difficulty you can screw up by making it way too difficult, and by overlooking exploits that make it way too easy. Fake difficulty is hard to screw up.
    Problem: fake difficulty rarely involves any genuine skill, so it’s easy to cheat.

    I can’t imagine liking a pixel hunt game, but many find them engaging. Making the pixels better-camouflaged or having fewer of them is real difficulty. Drawing a more detailed, higher-resolution image makes the pixels relatively smaller: also real difficulty. The game fuzzing out the image for 20 seconds every so often makes it take longer to find the pixels, just like genuine difficulty, but is entirely fake.

    If the game is about memorizing challenges, then the game designer can pull you away from the memorization. “Out of continues! Game over!” It’s not harder to memorize. There no more to memorize here. It takes longer because you’re not allowed to spend time memorizing. Like difficulty, but not difficult. Playing the game means a lot of pointless busywork – not-playing, basically.

    If the game is about choosing the right strategy for the right enemy, the game can add a bunch of trial and error. Rub everything on everything. Imagine there’s an aggressive attack (charge), a defensive attack (edge forward, shield up) and, say, flanking. Only there’s no way to tell which attack is good for which enemy. If you guess correctly, you win. If you don’t, you don’t. It takes a long time to master the game, but not because there’s any skill involved.

    You can’t cheat at basketball by having someone tell you how to throw a 3-pointer. You still have to practice. You can’t cheat at chess by having someone just tell you what all the good openings are. Even if you remember them, that’s real chess skill. You can most certainly cheat at Battletoad’s turbo tunnel, relative to the designer’s intent, by using that map in nintendo power. If we modded my imaginary pixel hunt game to not offer screen-fuzzing, it’s not like you’re going to miss out on some terrible secret required to find lategame pixels. In the three-attack game, someone can just hand you a list of enemies and attacks, and the game is now over.

    Dragon Quest 1 takes a long time to play, just like a hard game, but you have what, half a dozen tasks? Would take about half an hour, except you have to level your dude, which is so easy a robot can do it. If you hand a new chess player the endgame of a grandmaster-level match, they will lose remarkably reliably, even from seriously dominant positions. If you hand a new player an endgame save of DQ1, they will be able to beat the game essentially as soon as they’ve learned the controls, because winning a DQ battle is this: [attack; or use the spell they’re weak to, then attack].

    Dark Souls fakes difficulty by padding. “I need to worry about my weapons, my armour, when to upgrade, my build, what spells to use, conserving estus…” Yeah, no. What you need to know: dodge timings. Know that and nothing else matters. It’s not Kirby over here, but if you know the trick it’s not exactly IWBTG. Win the game with your fist if that’s your jam. DS tends to have some exploity mechanics you can use and skip a lot of the dodge timings too, which again can only be found by luck or trial-and-error.

    P.S. There’s also wrong-game artificial difficulty. Stealth sections in your DOOM-style shooter. Say you’re playing a contemplative puzzle game like Baba Is You when all of a sudden it becomes a bullet-hell shooter. It’s not that these are bad games, but the mechanics are in the wrong place. (Though the developer likely spent no time on them, so they’re also bad versions of those games.) Similarly, if you’re reading a fluffy sword-and-sorcery epic, it shouldn’t suddenly turn into a psychological horror. That’s not what you bought it for.

  28. Dennis says:

    Regarding Solitaire’s ads:

    I got hooked on the Windows 10 solitaire for a while (did my daily challenges, etc.). This was pre-gamepass, and I wasn’t going to pay $5/month or whatever to play without ads.

    The most striking thing is that, with the exception of some OutBrain / Taboola chumbucket garbage (listicles, “disaster strikes the set of NCIS”), almost all the ads seem designed to take advantage of senior citizens. Obvious Medicare scams, reverse mortgages, “Doctors / political boogiemen don’t want you to know this one simple trick”, etc. I see a lot of similar ads whenever I accidentally open Edge and it loads up the MSN frontpage. I’m really surprised people aren’t talking about how Microsoft is printing money from selling ads made to fleece seniors.

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