The Scrambled Column: Helping Hand(le)s

The latest edition of the Scrambled Column discusses game difficulty and the importance of not letting the player know just how bad they really are...

For those of you who enjoy a spot of cycling now and again - and let's face it, who doesn't enjoy squeezing into a bit of lycra in their spare time, but back to the cycling - you'll probably have experienced one of those inexplicable days where, for some reason, everything just seems that little bit easier.  A few effortless spins of the pedals and you're gliding along at pedestrian-worrying speeds, and hills are dismissed with a few contemptuous flicks of your gear lever.  And then all of sudden you'll turn a corner, begin pedalling into that wind that has been so helpfully at your back the whole way thus far, and come to a very abrupt halt.

With your sense of invincibility shattered, suddenly everything is an effort.  Your legs, which mere minutes earlier were mighty and tireless pistons, are suddenly as feeble as matchsticks, and rises that barely impeded your progress earlier in the day become vertiginous mountain slopes, with their peaks wreathed in cloud.

As I discussed in an earlier column, maintaining the illusion of the scale and complexity of the world around the player is an important part of creating a compelling game experience.  But in addition, there's another, equally important illusion to maintain: that the player is significantly less crap than they actually are.

Before I get lynched by a crowd of very angry, pyjama-clad Street Fighter fans, amongst others, I should say this isn't to understate the great skill it can take to be very good at some games. What I'm saying is that most of us, if called upon to, say, scythe our way tirelessly through a mall full of zombies, slide a cheeky cross-court shot past Roger Federer, or complete a lap of the Nurburgring in under 10 minutes in real life, would probably struggle. Yet these are all things that, at one time or another in our gaming career, many of us will have managed, amongst other remarkable (and in many cases, downright superhuman) feats.

Games all hold our hand to a greater or lesser extent, not just through tutorials, but also as a constant aid to our entertainment.  The reason for this is simple - if you consider games as wish fulfilment (which I don't think entirely encompasses their appeal, but is certainly responsible for much of it), then nobody wishes to be mostly bad at something.  We want to be there, reliably and tirelessly returning the tennis ball without collapsing in an asthmatic fit, or heroically clashing swords with fifteen skeleton warriors without wetting ourselves in terror.

Crucially though, as gamers we don't want to know about this, because it tends to shatter the illusion somewhat, just as discovering you've been powering along with the wind at your back can make you feel like a somewhat less speedy cyclist.  For instance, I know for a fact that I'm a pretty half-arsed shot in most FPS games, but that doesn't mean the game should ring an alarm bell and point and laugh every time it needs to correct for my lousy aim (especially as I have everyone on XBox Live to do that for me).

But on the other hand, it's not much fun feeling like the game is doing so much for you that your presence is barely required at all, such as in some of the later Burnout titles, which were so generous with how much they'd let you off a collision that you could come away from a head on crash with the barest scrape to your paintwork and the lingering impression that maybe you could complete the entire course simply by holding down the accelerator and letting the collisions do the steering for you.

This balance is a difficult one to find. For starters, the scale of gamer skill encompasses all from the the entirely inept (i.e. me) to the sort of freakishly attuned individuals who take bullet hell shooters in their stride and who probably have circuit boards for hands.  But more important than that, our tolerance for how hard we really want a game to be can vary massively.  Some gamers seem to believe that unless they've clocked up a million restarts and worn their thumbs down to bloody stumps, they haven't really 'experienced' a game, whereas others like myself, whom you might call 'fair weather gamers', don't like the idea of having to restart or replay much of the game at all, and would rather the whole experience passed by with very little in the way of trouble or fuss whatsoever.

The consistent factor is that the gamer always wants to feel like they are hovering on the verge of it all getting that bit too much for them without it often actually doing so. This has been termed the 'Flow State' in some quarters - the state where the difficulty of the game and the player's skills are in perfect equilibrium, such that they are able to progress but not so rapidly that they don't feel like they've worked for it.

One way developers achieve this sensation is by constantly assisting the player, whilst simultaneously using every graphical and audio device they have to suggest the exact opposite.  Consider, for example, gaming weaponry - when it's done right, everything about firing a gun in a game says to the player THIS THING IS SO POWERFUL AND SCARY IT'S GOING TO LEAP OUT OF MY HANDS, RUN OFF AND EAT ALL MY FRIENDS, but behind the scenes the game is actually doing all it can to make sure your bullets actually hit something vaguely enemy-shaped, so the end result for the player, is that they feel like the hero, for managing to simultaneously tame the weapon (ahem) and silence the enemies they encounter.

But give the player too much of a clue about how much help they're being given - for instance with an over-aggressive autoaim system that drags your crosshair halfway across the screen every time you pull the trigger, or with bullets that miraculously change course mid-air, and you undermine that illusion. The player loses the sense of their own empowerment, becomes less involved, and the game is suddenly not as fun as it was.

This is why player assist systems will always exist, but it's crucial they are fine-tuned to cater to a wide range of skills and capabilities.  Essentially, developers should acknowledge that their players are often inept, but the players would rather they didn't point that out for them, thanks.

What's your take on player assistance in games? Evidence of the continuing dumbing-down of gaming or a blessed respite from poorly-tuned difficulty levels and worn out thumbs? Or do you just like getting out in your lycra now and again? Then why not post a comment about it below?

[Derek Littlewood is an experienced videogame designer and producer, and runs Eggbox Interactive.  Please see for more.  Article originally posted on gaming website AllAboutTheGames.]

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