Recently I’ve been playing Demon’s souls, which compared to many games nowadays is actually a very difficult game. Difficult in that you will die lots, and difficult in that you need a fair amount of dexterity to proceed. However I think it’s because of this difficulty level that the game to me is just so bloody good. Unlike most games that challenge creates a satisfaction level from accomplishing quests far higher than other gaming achievements.
Games nowadays spoon feed players with constant hints and directional indicators to try and push the player forward through the quest. Assassins Creed 2 is one game that is so incredibly easy requiring little to no thought in terms of understanding the story, choosing your path or even any gaming dexterity. When a game is as easy as AC2 it becomes boring, it’s only a matter of how many hours a player puts into the game as to if they will complete it. Play the necessary 15 hours or so following the plot indicators and you will finish the game, you don’t need any gaming skills. Of course there’s a whole manner of side quests to extend the life of your game and the obligatory achievement whoring but really it’s a completely linear quest with the entire path laid out in front of you.
Assassins Creed 2 is a good game by current gaming standards, it’s not its fault that games are too easy that players are demanding to be spoon fed in this way. Perhaps it’s the rise in the number of casual gamers (Wii players being the best example) that their time and desires for games isn’t the same as players who grew up on Elite and Manic Miner. Perhaps gamers nowadays want to be entertained in the same way a movie entertains. They want a couple of hours of short action, where the challenge isn’t can I defeat this game, it’s when will I defeat it; show me the next part of the action. They want an interactive movie, the kind of game 15 years ago we ridiculed as a game.
In the early days of gaming, games were designed around one simple premise, get the girl, kill the baddies and save the entire planet. You played the same challenge over and over until you mastered it. The challenge arose by increasing difficulty of the main concept via speed, enemies and so on. Game technology was not advanced enough to represent real life, you had to suspend belief and imagine you’re a space ship pilot. The very best games and the games with the most lifespan were often the games with the most difficulty. The games that you would play again and again were the games you couldn’t master quickly. Satisfaction in games was based on beating a high score.
What can we do to improve difficulty?
Clearly everybody’s gaming ability is different, one players ‘easy’ mode might be another players ‘expert’. The challenge for developers is testing all players in such a way that they are entertained and excited without getting frustrated or bored. One idea that does work is adjusting difficulty as the player plays. Uncharted 2 probably the best game of 2009 adjusted its difficulty by monitoring player ability. If you die repeatedly at the same point it brings a check point further forward. If you’re crushing the game it adds more enemies to a section to test you, at the same time if you’re constantly dieing at a point it removes some. It tries to make sure you don’t get bored & stuck on one section by identifying where you’re struggling and tweaking the game for you. Perhaps this is where games need to explore further. Don’t ask a player to decide do you want to play on Normal or Easy, test them and decide for them. This is how Modern Warfare 2 selected its difficulty level for the player through its training mission. Games need to determine a player’s skill and continually test that skill and adjust the difficulty to keep that satisfaction. The really hard part is knowing at what point a player is getting bored. Going back to Demon’s Souls, I’m enjoying the challenge of playing a section over and over as it tests my gaming dexterity. It hits my personal sweet spot for a good challenge, however I can imagine a less skilled gamer would have given up and got bored hours ago. How can a game identify is a player enjoying this experience?
Player ability and feedback could be tested in several ways.
Through training and introductory levels as already mentioned, but how about through gamer score and achievements based on other titles. If a player has already completed a previous game and has the most difficult achievements from that game, surely you can determine various things about his skills. Taking this further, players could be profiled through XBL and PSN. Overall gamer score and achievements in other games, hours spent playing, game completion even a survey or two could all help build a gaming profile to aid developers in optimally tweaking their game to the player.
I would guess that 90% of games go unfinished by players in terms of the main storyline (I’m not referring to all the ridiculous life extended padding that is in many games). Yet surely these games aren’t going unfinished because they are too hard? Quite the opposite I think these games are left uncompleted because players are getting bored before they’ve got to the end of the quest possibly because they are too long. So that leads me on to another topic to review soon… Are games too long?
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