19 November, 2009
There’s a lot of discussion about how easy games should be. On one hand, an easy game makes people feel powerful, and allows a wider variety of people to play the game to completion. On the other hand, a harder game challenges the player and can engage them more. So, what is the correct answer?
As usual, one size does not fit all.
A sinner recants his heresy
Jeff Vogel wrote a blog post entitled “Make Your Game Easy. Then Make It Easier.” In the post, he laments is wasted youth where he thought that challenging games were more fun. “People will forgive a game for being too hard. They will never forgive it for being too easy,” he writes that his old philosophy was. But, in this age of “casual” games, he feels the need to recant this heresy and say that he now believes exactly the opposite to be true.
It’s easy to show that this is not a universal truth by an absurd example: assuming you like chess, is it more fun to play against someone who is playing well or someone who is intentionally throwing the game? It’s easier to win against someone who is trying to lose, but it’s less satisfying and therefore generally less fun. I’ll also mention that this was 3DO’s philosophy on how to design good games, and we’ve seen where that lead them.
What does the player want?
There is also a question of what the player wants out of a game. Sometimes you just want to pleasantly pass the time. A game like Solitaire is good for that because you can play it distractedly. A lot of casual games are like this; I didn’t play Plants vs. Zombies (a game Jeff mentions as being “easy”) necessarily to challenge myself, but more to pass the time and have fun. That said, I did play until I got one of the rarer Steam achievements (China Shop, streak of 15 in Vasebreaker, only 6.9% of people completed it) as a challenge because I wanted to do something hard in the game instead of just mindlessly enjoying the gameplay.
On the other hand, a person might go into a game looking for a challenge. If I fire up a game that has white outlined mazes, I’m going to be sorely disappointed if I can just steamroll through the game with sloppy play. I often play old-school games because I want to be challenged, something that seems to be rare in many current mainstream games.
Failure fails to be fun?
I think the issue of “failure” that Jeff touched upon is another, separate issue. He says:
If your game is actually fun, killing the player won’t make it more fun. But nothing sucks all of the fun out of a good game faster than repeated failure.
This misses an important design point: if failure is part of the game, then it’s important that the failure have meaning. Failure needs to be part of the feedback cycle and not just a point of frustration. In action games, like the Ninja Gaiden series Jeff referenced, failure tends to not give very good feedback since most failure is based on reactions. In RPGs, failure is based on something the player has more control over: either better preparation, better strategy, or even just a higher level party. Failure in RPGs tells the player he or she needs to be smarter or more clever. Failure in an action game tells the player they need faster reactions (which may not be possible for some older players).
The possibility of failure is also a necessary element of risk. If you realize that there is no chance for failure, then there is no risk to the game. In many games the element of risk can enhance the game.
The best solution is probably to allow people to set their own difficulty level. If a player wants a serious challenge, they can crank the difficulty up. If they want to pass the time or want to just pay attention to the story, they can bring the difficulty down.
The main problem here is that it may not be clear what the difficulty means in a game. Is Medium intended to provide a bit of challenge? Or is it the default setting allowing someone to faceroll to victory? Does setting the difficulty higher give monsters additional hit points, allow them to cheat the rules, make them better tacticians, or some combination of these?
In an online setting, especially one with competition, setting difficulty may be more difficult if not impossible. Achievers who want to race up the power curve faster will want low difficulty. Giving more rewards with higher difficulty will make players feel “forced” to increase the difficulty in order to get the better rewards. One possibility is to have certain classes be easier or harder to play, but that certainly won’t cause any complaints, right? ;)
No magic spell
Unfortunately, like many design topics, there is no single answer to this question. Some games should be easy to help pass the time; however, these games won’t be able to provide the deeper experience some game players are looking for. You need to take a look at your game, who you want the audience to be and what that audience expects. Making a game easier, especially in a genre like RPG where the audience might expect some difficulty, may not be a good idea.
What do you think? Do you only enjoy easy games? Or do you like a bit of challenge?