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Be Careful. You Might Suck....Is That A Challenge?

In the 9/27/2008 episode of 1up yours, the crew responds to the topic of video game difficulty and whether or not games need to adhere to the convention of increasing in difficulty to the end. You can listen to the conversation starting at around 1:21:00.


Be Careful. You Might Suck

Before I get into my response to some of the comments from the podcast, I wanted to say that it is important to consider one's own gaming skills before addressing game difficulty of any particular game. When a game is properly (classically) designed with levels that are composed of game ideas that are gradually developed from simple to complex uses of the core mechanics and when the forms of the game communicate their function clearly, the difficulty of such a game is created in large part from the player's ability (or lack thereof) to learn/ utilize the instructive resources the game provides. In other words, it's not the game's fault you aren't paying attention to the clues or using/thinking about the mechanics in the way the game has carefully taught you to. Furthermore, when a game allows the players to adjust the difficulty of the challenges, understanding how difficult the game is is a matter of understanding how the adjustable game elements circumvent the require use of the core mechanics and what effects doing so has on the game experience as a whole. In this way, game difficulty starts in the design but rests on the player.


Video games are functionally just controlled learning environments or electronic teachers. In the same way the best teachers can make learning fun, exciting, and easy, the best designed games can take the frustration and difficulty out of the learning processes. In such cases, all there is left for the player to struggle with to complete a challenge is the execution. In general, the execution of core mechanics needed to complete most of the challenges in most video games is relatively simple. For example, aiming and shooting in most FPSs is pretty simple. Understanding when to shoot, where to aim, when to take cover, and other battle strategies comprise the majority of what the player must learn to be successful.

For another example, the input for the mechanics in Mega Man 9 are very simple reflecting the design of the NES era. Everyone understands that holding the JUMP button down makes Mega Man JUMP the highest. Because the JUMP mechanic is direct, letting go of the JUMP button instantly causes Mega Man to drop while quickly tapping the button makes him hop around. The SHOOT mechanic is even simpler. Hit the SHOOT button and a bullet comes out. Along with the MOVE mechanic the player has all the abilities necessary to progress through the vast majority of the game. From this simple base, the levels are designed to test the player's ability to control space by jummping (vertical) and shooting (horizontal). The best part of such a design is, to get through the majority of challenges, players simply have to use some combination of MOVE, JUMP, and SHOOT. With such a simple set of possible solutions, it's hard to imagine that some gamers have an incredibly difficult time understanding how to overcome the game's challenges.

For these reasons (and for these), I do not believe Mega Man 9 is "really too hard" or "brutal" as John Davison and Shane Bettenhausen describe in the podcast. You would think that these game enthusiasts/writers would be able to breeze through a game like Mega Man 9 considering how similar it is to several other Mega Man games that have been out for many years. If Shane can understands how the calculator class in Final Fantasy Tactics is the most powerful class because of how his abilities evolve across his/her long term development, then surely he should be able to understand and use the tools Capcom made easily available in Mega Man 9 to help players get through the game.

The more I hear games writers talk about how difficult games are, the more I believe that they're not very good at video games. I've written before about how the concept of "skill" can be broken down into 5 categories: dexterity, timing, knowledge, reflex, and adaptation. I don't expect game writers to have the dexterity and timing of a Piano virtuoso (or a Guitar Hero for that matter). I don't expect them to have encyclopedic (or gamefaqs level) knowledge of a game. I don't expect their reflexes to match the Ogre Brothers or any other FPS twitch fire master. And I don't expect them to be able to adapt to dynamically changing situations with the ease of a StarCraft master. These video game writers may not be the best at video games, but I do expect them to be good enough to where their extensive experience with analyzing and playing games allows them to reach the insights necessary to understand the intricacies of what a game really is and how it works including its difficulty.

Personally, I know the insight that I bring to my writing is greatly aided by my diverse skill set. Ignoring my experience in fields outside of gaming for the purposes of this dicussion, pushing myself to develop the skills to become a world class Super Smash Brothers player helpd me understand game difficulty for all games in a number of ways.

  1. No matter what game I play, as long as a game is designed around understanding mechanics and the skillful execution of those mechanics (as opposed to luck or stat building), I haven't found a challenge that's more difficult than fighting against the nation's best. Though my opponents pushed me beyond the limits of my dexterity, reflexs, timing, and adaptation, the game itself didn't become any more difficult. In those touranment matches, we still played by the same rules that I had a deep knowledge of. The amount of individuality each player brings to this dynamic next gen fighter makes every fight different testing and pushing all of the facets of my skills.
  2. All proper challenges becomes easy when fully understood. It's that "ah ha" moment that people reach when learning anything. Once you "get it" it becomes funny to you when you consider how much trouble a challenge gave you.
  3. I've also learned that some of the biggest challenges you'll face in a video game are re-learning something, overcoming your own mental barriers, and understanding how you learn within a learning environement. Learning is work as it is. But having to work to undo that work and still have to work at learning it the right way can be exhausting. It's amazing how people will find all the time in the world to do/learn something the wrong way yet struggle to do it the right way from the beginning.
  4. I've learned that developing a high level of adaptation skill helps keep my ability to quickly learn sharp. The better you get at learning, the easier it is to learn the next thing.

With that said, I think it's important for every games writer or aspiring writer to understand at least one video game as thoroughly as possible and to become as good as possible at one game (preferably a multiplayer game). 


As this blog continues to grow I understand more games more completely than I ever have before. By studying a game,which often requires revisitation, and writing essays, I'm able to understand the inner workings of a game on a much higher intellectual level. Understanding how each element of a game works together to build the whole experience also develops my ability to key in on all the non verbal methods video games use to communicate and teach. In other words, the more you understand a game the wider your critical-eye becomes.

By playing a video game at a high competitive level, I was forced in a way to look at game mechanics and the range of their function in a complete way. By going to that level, you will learn more about video games, yourself as a learner, and yourself as someone who is capable of doing anything. And doing/action is the thing that outraces words by a factor of a thousand.


Is That A Challenge?



For the remainder of this article, I'll be responding to the comments made on the podcast in bullet point format.
  • The "death mechanic" is an old gameplay convention: You get it wrong, you die, you go back, and you try it again: Dying in a video game is a natural/organic conclusion when a game centers around violent actions. In order for a game to be a game, there must be a goal. For this goal, there generally has to be a way to win and lose. Functionally, the "death mechanic" is analogous to many different kinds of losing even when the player doesn't die. 
  • Death in games is designed to make money in arcades: Certainly all game's aren't design to steal our quarters. Even if the "death mechanic" was popularized in this way, arcade machines still aren't even close to slot machines and their ability to steal money.
  • The difficulty of Mega Man 9 just "clicks" for certain people: Perhaps people who want a good challenge that can be significantly curbed by learning how the game works and adjusting the difficulty when necessary. In other words, MM9 is for the type of gamer that seeks a flexible learning environment where the learner is in control. I've noticed that many of the hardcore gamers on the internet and professional games enthusiasts have grown soft. Their complaints about Mega Man 9 and their inability to even beat the first set of bosses are alarming. I thought the hardcore gamer was supposed to have the skills to tackle games like Mega Man. I thought the hardcore gamer wanted their game's to be "hard." The fact that he adjustable difficulty in Mega Man 9 takes off the apparent "hard edge" makes me feel that anyone who is still having problems with the game needs to increase their skills, buckle down, and learn something about the game. That, or buy more E tanks.
  • The primary reason to play a game is not necessarily challenge anymore: This is true to an extent. Besides the challenge that inherently comes from establishing a goal within a game world, a lot of play exists where the player is free to noodle around without deliberately reaching the goal. However, just because gamers can play video games without looking for a challenge, doesn't mean that the challenge should or can be removed from the game. Go ahead, mess around in Super Mario Brothers. Don't try and beat the level. Eventually, the time will run out and if you keep that up, you'll lose all of your lives. There's nothing wrong with playing like this, of course. But I can't say that doing so brings the player closer to understanding Super Mario Brothers beyond the surface level. 

Sometimes I feel that if you don't want to be challenged then you shouldn't play a video game. Goals are an inherent part of games. The mere existence of a goal that can't be reached with idleness means the player must do something to overcome the challenge. Whether the challenge is easy to you or incredibly difficult, it's still a challenge. So when the 1up crew describes not wanting to be challenge, I take it to mean that they don't want to work or learn to overcome an obstacle. In other words, they don't want to change, but they still want the game to appear/react as if they had.


Carrying the attitude of not wanting to learn/engage with a video game develops a gamer that wants fewer consequences in their experience. After all, with fewer consequences there are fewer ways to lose. When there's fewer ways to lose, the gamer grows less worried about failing. When there are less ways to fail, the challenges and goals in the game become simplified and/or the gamer will become satisfied with doing almost nothing. When gamers don't want to learn and would rather just "relax" and "zone out" when playing a game, the lack of engagement practically destroys the players ability to learn. After all, learning is active/interactive, not passive.

This notion that entertainment doesn't (or even shouldn't) engage the mind is ridiculous and probably stems from a world filled with sub par TV shows and other mediocre products of entertainment. It's easy to be "entertained" by a TV set. You turn it on and it seems to do all the rest of the work by itself. Learning is work even when it's fun. As soon as you get used to having fun or being entertained from passive experiences, it becomes easy to delude yourself into thinking that passiveness is just as good as being engaged in an activity. As soon as you prefer to turn your brain off, you've robbed yourself of the chance to develop something wonderful.

My fear with the gamer who gets used to passively playing games or is unwilling to learn is that they'll never reach higher, more complex, and richer game experiences. Garnett Lee described such an experience as a wonderful and delicious "gaming casserole." In other words, in order for the designers to empower the player with the ability understand and master the game world, the player must learn the mechanics and rules step by step. The only way to ensure the player has some level of understanding on a mechanic/concept is to test them. Games create tests by constructing challenges.Without challenge, without being engaged, and without learning the interactivity that sits at the heart of the video games medium is nothing.

We are gamers. We are learners. We seek challenges so we can better understand game worlds, ourselves, and the real world we live in. You might suck today. But with an open mind and a williness to learn, you'll develop the skills and a critical-eye through which the world can be viewed.

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Reader Comments (7)

I think anybody who sets out to critically study games is putting themselves in a dangerous position when it comes to objective judgements on the difficult of games, or the ability of others to successful learn their core mechanics.

You have actively pushed yourself to develop a level of knowledge of game mechanics and dynamics that puts you far above most gamers. The majority of people have never done that, is it fair to suggesting that they should in order to be engaged?

If we are looking to understand games critically then I understand your point. However Garnett Lee and the others at 1Up are ultimately not game critics they are games journalists, and reviewers. Their responsibility is not to the games themselves but to the consumers, the majority of who simply don’t have the time nor inclination (Regardless of what you think of that attitude) to devote to develop a critical understanding of games. They therefore have a responsibility to consider games from the perspective of somebody who might not have spent years developing the skills necessary to critically understand games.

A lack of desire to be critical does not automatically equate to a desire not to be engaged. I have only a little knowledge of the language of film, yet I found The Godfather to be a powerful and engaging experience, and I derive entertainment from other such experiences. However I find Mulholland Drive to be utterly impenetrable. I would have to devote far more time to developing my understanding of the language of film in order to even start to appreciate the work of David Lynch. I have to ask myself, if that is a worthwhile investment, and ultimately my answer is no. I can be engaged and entertained without spending that extra time so I have to incentive to do so.

Learning, though ultimately rewarding, can be difficult and time consuming, even when we are engaged in doing so. It’s a very difficult battle to try and convince somebody with limited time that they need to learn how to play a game in order to be entertained by it.

October 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Keverne

I think that there are some aspects to Mega Man that give it a "brutal" difficulty. The rules may be simple, but it's the level design that makes it hard. It has many "cheap" deaths, in which you can only live if you know what is coming. It also gives you no feedback or forgiveness if you are attacking a challenge the wrong way (like boss battles and level-order). Having to repeat a large chunk of the stage over and over really beats down the spirit. IMO, they should offer multiple paths with different rewards, or have difficulty levels that make minor adjustments to the level design (like additional platforms).

I would like to see Capcom try a Super Mario Bros approach, and make it easier to go from beginning to end, but transparently have more challenges/rewards for the hardcore.

I do agree with you in that passive games may hurt the gaming industry over time. Offering an easy mode can ruin a gaming experience. I played Call of Duty 4 first on easy difficulty because I just wanted to quickly see the story. On easy, all the carefully balanced design elements go out the window. It was a very boring experience that tainted my view of an amazing game. If developers do offer different levels of difficulty, they should explain what kind of experience should be expected from each.

October 6, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdsims

@ Justin Keverne

I never suggested in the article that the average person/gamer should push themselves to develop a critical-eye. And I never implied that you can't be engaged with a game unless you're critiquing it and consciously breaking it down.

It's not a matter of having the time to devote to developing a critical understanding of a game. It's a matter of using the time you have more fully. Anyone who plays an RPG, for example, has time to spare in my opinion. With the amount of static space that runs rampant in JRPGs and similar games, I'm surprised people still try to argue that the average gamer doesn't have a lot of time. The bottom line is, people make time to do the things they want/need.

I didn't say that one had to be/want to be a critic in order to be engaged with a video game. I was simply noting a trend that I've noticed among different types of gamers in different gaming communities.

The moment you ask yourself "what are the controls?" or "what kind of game is this?" you've started the learning process. People learn everyday because learning is natural. I doubt your (or anyone's) enjoyment with a game will go very far if you don't learn the basics controls/objectives/rules of a game.

I don't have to try very hard to convince anyone of these points. The evidence is already here. It's in our (the gaming industry as a whole) buying patterns, gaming purchases, and other areas. We speak through our actions.

Learning and interactivity are inseparable. Don't confuse what I mean by the learning/active gamer with the critical-gamer. They are two different types of people.

October 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKirbyKid


The "cheap deaths" that you describe in Mega Man aren't nearly as cheap as you think.

1) You have the ability to adjust the difficulty by buying the spike shoes, using rush jet, using rush coil, etc.

2) Once you realize that the "cheap" sections have rules and patterns that are consistent, they just becomes one more thing to learn and look out for. How many times are you going to fall on some spikes before you learn to look at the scrolling stage in order to steer Mega Man to a safe section?

3)I looked at the level maps for the first 8 bosses and their stages, and I only found a few questionable areas that could be considered "cheap" death sections. And even in these cases, you don't have to memorize the set up, you just have to remember to be alert/look alive/and keep your eyes peeled. These are strategies that come in handy throughout the whole game.

4) You seem to also be underplaying the effectiveness of a good reflexes and adaptability.

5) There is no memorization necessary for Mega Man. This means you don't have to know what's coming to survive. The first time I played the game, I didn't have any problems on the vast majority of the "cheap" sections.

After the first time I was killed by the block that's actually a hole on Concrete Man's stage, I began looking at the game and the visual cues more carefully. The game teaches you how to look/dissect challenges through examples.

"It also gives you no feedback or forgiveness if you are attacking a challenge the wrong way (like boss battles and level-order)."

What's this wrong way you're talking about. You can beat close to 99% of the game with only MegaMan and his M. Buster. With the levels being so linear, how can you approach it the wrong way? There's only one way.

Just because the bosses have weaknesses, doesn't mean exploiting the weaknesses is the "right" way to beat them. My first play through MM9, I beat all the bosses without using their weaknesses. There's nothing wrong with wanting to/or having to play either way.

If you're getting your spirit beat down for repeating a part of a stage then you need to...

1) take a break
2) take some time off from trying to beat a level and get more comfortable with the game's core mechanics
3) start adjusting the game's difficulty by using power ups from the shop or special powers.

If you don't want to do these things, then there's nothing wrong with acknowledging that you don't have the skills at the moment to beat the level.

Even though the levels in MM9 are super linear, there are multiple paths that can make the game harder or easier. Rush Coil and Rush Jet can create new paths through a section. Furthermore, concrete shot and T.Blow also help with Mega Man's platforming abilities.

The more seriously you take Mega Man (and the less excuses you make for it) the more you'll see that there aren't any tricks you can't handle with ease. Once you start thinking in Mega Man mode, the game takes on a new level of cool.

October 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKirbyKid

My point was that anybody who has clearly invested the time in understanding games to the extent you have is probably ill positioned to judge the difficult curve of a game to those who haven’t invested such time.

You don't feel Mega Man 9 is brutally hard and want people to engage with their games but your somewhat unique position seems liable to make it difficult to assess the difficulty of the game to the average gamer.

When you understand a games mechanics it can be very difficult to appreciate how difficult they are for somebody else to learn.

I also wonder if you underestimate the challenge of execution for the average gamer.

The only way for the average gamer to reach the same level of understanding is by pushing themselves through to a state of mastery, something very time consuming. Of course they could use their time better but your argument that there is a lot of static space in which is time that could be better used doesn’t work for me as it assumes game mechanics are the sole reasons people play such titles. If I am engaged with the narrative or presentation then that is not time wasted for me.

If I don’t have the time or inclination to develop mastery of a game that doesn’t mean I am seeking passive entertainment or don’t want to be engaged. As I described with my references to The Godfather.

If I am in a position where I am writing about games, as a critic or as a journalist, then I should devote some time to developing that mastery. That is the what I felt the initial half of your post covered and what I was referencing in my initial comment.

What I’m saying is you are an above average gamer, who has taken the time to develop a critical understanding of game mechanics, that is going to affect your judgement when it comes to the apparent difficulty of a particular title.

October 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Keverne

@ Justin Keverne

And my point is, I've been doing this with games since I was 5 years old. It's not that my critical-eye skews my perspective on what it's like to be an "average gamer." I remember what it was like being a kid playing Mega Man on the NES and barely having the hand eye coordination to defeat Gemini man. Just like what I've suggested, I remember using rush jet/coil to make platforming sections easier on myself. I speak from experience.

In the initial stages of learning what a video game is and the nature of action reaction pairs, much time is consumed understanding. But I have to assume that anyone who's been playing video games for a number of years has pushed past this stage.

Learning is a process that's made even longer when you're on your own. When you don't have a teacher/class/comrade to interact with, it takes that much longer to get over snags and other learning hurtles.

But with a teacher and a structured environment, people can learn at a much faster rate. This is why I'm giving out free kicks in the pants. Because sometimes, you need a kick to the pants to shake off a learning funk you might be steeped in.

Yeah, I don't think Mega Man 9 is brutally hard or Calculus or gel electrophoresis for that matter. Once you truly learn the inner workings of anything, it becomes that much easier. Developing a working understanding of MM9's mechanics mostly involves paying close attention to what's going on in the game. And that's nothing special.

I know I'm giving a lot of credit to the average gamer. I'm doing this because, like with any kind of education, I don't believe that everyone is just average. With the right teacher, the right environment, and the right tools I believe that everyone can learn to do great things.

I don't underestimate people for this reason and because of how the human mind works. The more I understand the mechanics of the mind, the more I believe in the average person's ability to overcome "difficult" challenges.

The average gamer doesn't need to reach my level of understanding to "see the light." It's not about the ultimate level of understanding. It's about the next level. Everyone starts at different levels. And everyone has at least 1 more level they can aspire to. That's the goal.

Your comment about engaging with the story/presentation elements of a game isn't relevant. When talking about game difficulty, we're strictly taking about the game mechanics or other interactive elements of the game. You said that some gamers don't have the time to learn about a game, and I argued that everyone makes time when they want to.

I didn't say you had to master a game to be engaged with it. It seems that you're confusing a lot of different statements here.

Understanding game difficult as educational design is probably the best way of going about it. After all, it should be clear by now that difficulty is only relative.

October 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKirbyKid

"I've noticed that many of the hardcore gamers on the internet and professional games enthusiasts have grown soft
Carrying the attitude of not wanting to learn/engage with a video game develops a gamer that wants fewer consequences in their experience. After all, with fewer consequences there are fewer ways to lose. When there's fewer ways to lose, the gamer grows less worried about failing. When there are less ways to fail, the challenges and goals in the game become simplified and/or the gamer will become satisfied with doing almost nothing. When gamers don't want to learn and would rather just "relax" and "zone out" when playing a game, the lack of engagement practically destroys the players ability to learn. After all, learning is active/interactive, not passive."

Perhaps this explains why RPGs like Skyrim and Fallout 3 became popular. Gaming got a lot more theatrical/passive with stuff like Assassin Creed, GTA4, COD4 and Uncharted which can also go back to the ps2 days with games like God of War. Also Justin Keverne sounds like he's a reviewer.

January 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohnathan

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