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Game Difficulty, Sentiments and Discourse

Do gamers have a "right" to their achievements? On rage, remorse, and the metagame.

As a programmer working for a large developer/publisher, I never truly felt the feedback that came from players of our games. Flamers and Trolls were ignored -- this is the internet after all -- and reviewers were either applauded for recognizing "our" genius, or shrugged off if they "misunderstood our game".

Bugs got to me -- if a glitch was my fault, I felt it, and self-flagellated accordingly. But the game's design...? It's difficulty...? Not my department.

That changed when I went indie. Suddenly I was chief, cook and bottle washer. If there were any problems with the game experience, it was my fault. In particular our first release, Osmos, received its fair share of rage. The game is supposed to be Zen. And it is -- mostly. But the last few levels are actually very difficult if you don't really get the physics. For those interested in the specifics, I've posted at length on the subject on the Hemisphere Games blog. But here I want to address the more general question of difficulty and gamer response.

My question for game designers working on big teams/projects is: do you feel as deep a connection to "your baby" as indies do? (Perhaps those who have worked on both side of the fence can best answer this one.) That is, when gamers or reviewers complain more or less intelligently about the game's difficulty, do you feel... remorse? Do you second guess design decisions? Or does the diffuse, collective nature of a large team dispel that? As in: "I told editorial that was retarded!" ...and call it a day.

For indie developers -- who handle both the design and support of their games -- do you receive many complaints about difficulty from angry gamers? Hate mail? Personal threats...? And if so, how do you address them? Do you just shrug them off?

Finally, a question for the whole community: what's the perception out there on difficulty vs reception? I'm quite convinced that if we had made Osmos easier, it would have received more favorable reviews and a better metacritic score. (Not that I'm complaining, it was very well received overall. But I feel we could have played the metagame more optimally if we had wanted to.) Are others finding this to be the case? Is there a catering in the industry to reviewers and fans to make games overly easy to complete?

I  know this is a complex question, and depends on several factors. There are hardcore games out there like I Wanna Be The Guy, that revel in player masochism; and story-based games need to be easy enough to allow most motivated players to progress the story to completion. But what about the majority of arcade games, or puzzlers? Should games be designed to maximize player success/ego? Do gamers have a "right" to their achievements? Are we taking an unpopular stand (and perhaps working at a disadvantage) when we reserve completion for those who really get our game?

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