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Do We Really Want Difficult Games?

Despite complaints that modern games are too easy, are protestors overlooking the advantages that more comfortable progress can offer?

Xander Markham, Blogger

March 27, 2010

9 Min Read

I went back to playing Football Manager recently (Worldwide Soccer Manager in the US) and using my favourite team Chelsea, comfortably won the league with five games to spare before bagging the domestic cup as well and losing in the European Cup final on penalties. Chelsea in real life are one of the top teams in football (I'm English, so read football as soccer if you're not), usually strong contenders for any cup they participate in.

In my FM game, I usually win at least two competitions a year, the Premier League very rarely not amongst them. This sounds like bragging but as much as I'd like to now apply for the real Chelsea job on the basis of my in-game success (which someone actually did, albeit at Middlesbrough), these achievements are not exactly rare in the FM world. It's not just with big clubs like Chelsea either: players on the FM forums regularly boast about hauling teams up from the swamplands of the lower leagues to European success in under ten gaming years (although given how much of your life FM can consume, the only thing likely stopping one of the more lunatic players spending a real decade doing such a thing is because they'd probably want to buy the annual updates).

Despite its developers' claims to the contrary, Football Manager can sometimes feel less like a simulacrum of life in the dugout and more like a success simulator. Every day, any one of the millions of FM users achieves feats in-game that would at best occur once every ten or more years in the real footballing world. But I don't think that makes it a bad game and nor do most of its other players, judging by its consistently gargantuan sales figures.

What it does do is raise the question as to whether we play games for the challenge, where the likelihood of success is tiny but through perseverance our small successes make us prouder, or for the experience, where progress is all but guaranteed for even the most 'talent-deficient' player so that everyone can experience some part of the thrill of success (it's political correctness gone mad) and the different scenarios thrown up by the game are what we expect to make it memorable rather than the challenge of overcoming them.

Of course, games do pop up every now and again where challenge is the main catalyst for the play experience, most prominently arcade-style shooters like Ikaruga, games aimed at the truly hardcore* gaming audience such as the highest-level quests in World of Warcraft, or the occasional RPG like Demon's Souls. But those games are not the norm. The creators of New Super Mario Bros Wii said their game would be so difficult as to require an auto-play mode, yet my mostly non-gaming sister and I got through most levels without usually requiring more than two or three attempts.

Difficulty is one of the main points of contention for modern gamers fearing that their hobby is being diluted as to bring in new audiences. Many developers make outlandish claims about the level of challenge in their games, only for players to discover that the final boss' flashy main attack only takes away one of your fourteen hearts of heath despite his having been built up as the Conqueror of Worlds and Prince of Darkness who Slew A Thousand Armies. What? One heart at a time? They'd have surrendered faster if he'd threatened to take over the television stations and put nothing on but Kate Hudson movies (although that's probably excessively sadistic even for gaming). But most of the time, these games are acclaimed anyway, just with the caveat that they weren't as challenging as we hoped for.

I don't think it's particularly controversial to suggest that I don't think most people give much thought to exactly what makes a game work when they go on message boards (or blogs) to voice their opinions. Assessments are generally made on individual segments of play (combat good; overworld and side-jobs bad) without considering how they relate to each other. Sometimes even the bad parts of a game can exacerbate the positives and make for a better overall experience, so losing them makes those good bits feel less special.

For example, the sidejobs in the original No More Heroes were much lamented, but their existence seemed to me to be there more for comedy value and more important as part of the game's themes than as a genuine attempt to make for thrilling play. When Travis finally goes into battle, we experience with him the thrill of combat exacerbated by its contrast to the banality of everyday existence.

When we play games and say that they're fun despite the lack of challenge, could we be missing the fact that it might be the experience of discovering the new landscapes and situations of the game that we're enjoying and would be denied to us were the difficulty to be ramped up?

It's not uncommon for games to be described as frustrating when players have to repeat sections over and over again, yet those same voices will often be back a week later lamenting the fact that they only died once or twice during their entire playthrough of another game. If I were getting all pretentio-wanky, I might suggest that such complaints are more acts of self-affirmation, boasts made safe in the knowledge that they won't ever be put into action. Thankfully, such statements aren't my style at all. *coughs*

As I get older (a bit ridiculous for someone of twenty-four to be saying that, but I've been gaming for about eighteen of those years), I find myself playing games more as an exploratory experience than out of a desire for a genuine challenge. Many people complained about the use of Vita Chambers in BioShock, but not only did they not bother me, I found them a pleasant relief: they were a quick and easy way of getting back to where I was without having to worry about forgetting to save (at least until I turned the game on again the following evening) and keeping the immersion more effectively than checkpointing.

In my first blog post, I stated that developers shouldn't try and pretend that death is a threat in their games, because it isn't one. You can always start again. From my perspective, BioShock was aware of this and simply made an excuse for taking out that game-severing gap. I wasn't a big fan of the game, but Rapture was vivid enough that I wanted to keep exploring. The splicers' ability to send me back to the Vita Chambers was enough that their threat was credible to me, but the developers were clever enough to allow me to seamlessly continue my progress.

More recently, I've been playing Red Steel 2. Despite being somewhat repetitive, I'm thoroughly addicted to it and played for almost six hours yesterday. Far from turning me into a master samurai, my swordsmanship is more akin to a spastic penguin trying to grasp a cake of wet soap in its flailing flippers while running on a treadmill. But the difficulty curve is beautifully judged and there's a tangible sense of progress and achievement in overcoming each progressively tougher set of enemies.

Game director Jason Vandenbergh deserves tremendous credit not only for his excellent facial hair, but also for getting the controls pitched so perfectly between requiring degrees of mastery but also forgiving enough that those 'skills-deficient' lot I mentioned earlier (now firmly encompassing me) can keep learning and steadily move forward. Had the motion controls, which are glorious by the way, been genuine one-to-one movement and required any real swordfighting skills, I probably wouldn't be past the first fight by now (I'm playing on 'Normal' difficulty by the way, so there's another step up for anyone worried that the game sounds too easy).

Constant calls for greater challenges in gaming are not by their nature specious (The Zelda series really could do with being taken up a notch), but designers and gamers alike need to consider how much adherence to such calls will affect other, more subtle pleasures in gaming, such as the excitement of progress and exploration, how uninterrupted stretches of play can significantly deepen immersion, or simply how far the balance should be tipped between gameplay and difficulty.

I suspect that I'm not alone in feeling that in many cases, the threat of danger is enough to maintain suspense during play. We're pretty well assured that protagonists in most films will survive to the end, yet it's the threat that keeps us watching. I think the same can be applied to gameplay, as long as designers are wary of not making that threat too weak as to seem ridiculous.

While there are naturally exceptions, such as where building up strength for a challenge ahead is part of the gameplay (RPGs) or where the gameplay's success is contingent on escalating challenge over repetitive scenarios (arcade shooters), before making that next protest it's worth thinking about whether we're playing simply to be there and do our best, or whether we'd actually quite like to lift that trophy at the end.

* When I say 'hardcore', I mean it in its original eighteen-hours-a-day-of-stats-grinding-and-60%-pizza-sauce-in-bloodstream-content meaning, rather than the modern adoption.

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