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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.