Pogo – In a time where a few clicks on Google can present you with all the information you need, it’s easy to say that gaming has become easier. Maybe not so much in the difficulty level of the game itself but certainly through the resources around us; challenges are easily toppled. Be it finding that hidden skull on Sandbox in Halo, or the best strategy to beat level 30 in Worms 2, the internet proves that most times someone else has already been there. So I want you to think back to those titles that truly had you stumped, either from childhood or more recently. Has there ever been a game that you just could not complete? A game where failure after failure has resulted in it gathering dust on the shelf?
BIGsheep – Whenever I return to the “old skool” games, those who used to inhabit the NES, I seem to get a lesson in what real difficulty is all about. Only a couple of years ago I bought the original Metroid and I could not get anywhere with it as I just couldn’t figure out what I was doing, where I was going or just how I should get through a string of seemingly cheating enemies. I think ever since the PlayStation era we have been spoiled with tutorials and difficulty levels that have been gradiated to the many as opposed to the few.
This is not the age old matra of “games were better and harder in my day”, as I think hard games for the sake of being hard are pathetic: congratulations, you’ve made a game that no one will enjoy! What we’ve seen since then is an understanding that players are not going to sink their time into your title if you do not at least explain what you are supposed to be doing or at least give them a chance to find out through experimentation.
Pogo – I can see your point, sheep. I feel that as our gaming technology has evolved further (save games, etc), gaming certainly has become easier. I’m a guilty party for doing it, but games in which you can quicksave at anypoint just seem to take the atmosphere away for me. On the other hand, survival horror games seem to have the save point curve pretty much spot on, just evenly spaced enough for them to keep the tension as you begin begging for a checkpoint.
Manuel – Agreed, although being a cynic, I think the process has been one of developers and publishers realising the fact that if people can’t complete the first few levels then it’ll be traded in and they’ll lose money on a potential sale. With that in mind, we’ve seen a gradual slip in the “normal” difficulty of most titles, but that’s no bad thing at all as hardcore gamers can just switch up difficulties; that challenge is always there for people that crave it.
Gears of War is perhaps on the extreme end of this, with the normal difficulty equating roughly to a walk in the park, whilst Ninja Gaiden 2 on the other hand clings dearly to the principle of punishing the player at every possible turn, only rewarding lightning reflexes even on the lowest skill setting. Given we might not see another sequel, that may well have come at the ultimate price. Games are simply too expensive to produce for people to be able to turn off the vast majority of players, and in reality it smacks of a rather conceited attitude when that’s the only option available.
BIGsheep – I nice retro fix I had was with the recent MegaMan 9 release. I was rubbish at it, could hardly complete a level, but I had a blast on it because it was pure. Everything had a pattern and it was up to you to understand and counter that pattern. I don’t mind games that are hard but that you can understand why you die, it’s more the arbitrary death that can occur on games that really vex me as it leaves me just wanting to snap a disc in two and then grind it into a fine paste.
Manuel – I had that last night on inFAMOUS, actually: spawned into a combat zone about six times before I was able to run clear and set myself up for an assault. It is supremely aggravating, and usually a direct result of bad design. Even little visual cues can help, like the subtle colour indicator in Battlefield to show you the rough direction that somebody is shooting from. Things like that allow the player to feel less cheated than they would otherwise, as without it, death can simply be coming from anywhere and you’d never even know the direction. I can remember a lot of annoyance when Call of Duty introduced the ‘killcam’ for that very reason, but in hindsight it contributed heavily to a superbly balanced game.
I’ve not got a problem with any videogame rewarding skill and punishing ineptitude, but the level of feedback absolutely has to be visible enough to make you feel as if you were downed by your own control, and provide enough of a trail for improvement to make you want to carry on. Call of Duty 4 seems to have this nailed to a fine degree.
One area I’m interested in is dynamic difficulty, and I’m surprised we’ve not heard much more about it. I seem to recall Sin: Episodes shipping with a whole load of analysis going on in the background that altered enemies on the fly according to style and player skill, and more recently we’ve had Valve try their hand with the AI director in Left 4 Dead. This seems like a logical way to solve the problem for the most part, but do you think taking the choice out of the players hands is a wise move? Don’t we all like to breeze through a game from time to time?
Pogo – This is interesting as Left 4 Dead’s AI director does seem to be pretty accurate on all of my play-through experiences. I still struggle sometimes with AI in shooters, though. Every developer harps on about the latest ‘improved’ AI. They promise flanking manouvers and squad management from you’re opponents, yet I still seem able to throw grenades in the middle of the group and result in a pretty decent payout.
BIGsheep – I think it all depends on how you breeze through a game. Playing it through under your own steam is one thing but my biggest disappointment with the FAQ culture actually came with the release of Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise. Having been involved heavily with the community during the original game, my most fulfilling experience linked with the game was actually watching the players steadily uncover and work out all the subtleties and easter eggs that we had tucked away. Some of them took literally months to unearth because there was no published guide and yet the community spirit that was created around solving certain mysteries still amazes me to this day. With VP:TIP, however, Prima published a guide the same day as the game shipped and I have to be frank when I say it ruined that game for me. Nothing was hidden, everything was accessible as long as you followed the instruction to the letter it honestly took a lot of the magic away that brought the community together in the first place.
Manuel – Guilty as charged on that one. I looked up the recipe for the dragonache online after I’d reached a point where I could feel my enthusiasm for my garden beginning to wane. On that line of thought though, how did you feel about the card system that allowed players to scan high-level creatures in?
BIGsheep – Not wanting to turn this into an infomercial, but the Piñata Vision system was always meant as a new way for players to be able to trade their favourite piñatas. Rather than sending them through Xbox Live they could just scan them, encode them and email them to a chum.
Pogo – I can see what you mean here sheep, but I’m in the same boat as Manny. I too turned to the internets many voices to find out the deepest secrets of piñata world. I mean, who would have thought tapping an egg on the third bounce would give you a two headed snake!
Manuel – And following on from that, would you rather the players that don’t have the time to invest in unearthing the secrets of VP:TIP not see the high-level content at all that the game offered? The only reason I ask is that traditionally, perhaps 5-10% of players at most would see late-game assets that development teams spend valuable creative time working on, and I’d presume there must be some desire for the majority of players to experience that work?
BIGsheep – That’s the great balance when it comes to designing games as you want most people to see most of your game but it’s also nice to keep something back for those who have gone the extra mile. The secrets I was referring too, mainly the discovery of the mythical Choclodocus piñata, account for less than a one percent of the game’s offerings and so I don’t feel I was asking for too much in wanting to keep something hidden away.
My stance on this is quite off kilter with the rest of my outlook on VP. The rest of the game is so sandbox in nature that I feel that players should do whatever they want to get the most from it, as it is their game after all. So whether it be scanning in countless piñatas or props through Piñata Vision in order to make the perfect garden, or just spelling rude words with paving slabs, it should bend to their whims as much as possible.
Ultimately, however, it all comes down to a personal experience and different players take different things away from games. Everyone has their own play style and it should be ideally accommodated: some wish to steam through a game, rushing from beginning to end; others want to take their time and explore every nook and cranny; whilst another subset may just wish to dabble and just mess around until their interest wanes. The difficulty level can help accommodate this, whether it be through a tiered system that allows players to turn down the heat should the kitchen get too hot, or a more intelligent unseen director pulling the strings. One thing is for sure, however: just because an FAQ is there doesn’t mean you have to look at it.