Difficulty in Games

With the recent appearance of the trailer for Dark Souls I started thinking to myself about... well, many things; for one I came a bit in my pants and I needed to think of a way to solve that issue, but having played Demon’s Souls I was familiar with the kind of difficulty this game most likely will contain. This made me think that it was time to write a blog post for the benefit of my GB-Achievements and anyone who happens to have a gratuitous amount of time to waste. I will mostly be discussing difficulty in games; the importance of a challenge, the positive effects of punishing games and what kinds of difficulty work. Also, let me preface; I am not writing this because I want to swing my giant e-peen across your face. I’m just going to be discussing the various benefits of a challenge in games. No flaming kkthxbye.

For this whole article to have any point the importance of a challenge in games needs to be established, so I’ll start there. First of all I would like to remind people that the importance of a challenge is a universal concept. It is present regardless of what activity you’re pursuing. For example; you’re playing soccer (or football if that’s your thing), you have the ball and you start rushing for the goal. You steel yourself for some heavy resistance, but guess what? The other team has asthma, downs and a healthy dose of arthritis and has no chance in hell of catching you. With the amount of resistance you’re getting of course you score. Now tell me, the end result is the same; you scored! YAY YOU! However, was there really any fulfillment in that? No one can deny that you scored that goal and it may look damn impressive for an outsider, but whatever happened to personal fulfillment? The ironic thing is that if you apply this analogy to games you will see that the only thing that’s left once you remove the challenge is your e-peen. To once again appease the people who think I’m an elitist douche, I would like to clarify that challenge is relative to skill. If you yourself happen to have the same mix of asthma, downs and arthritis this would of course be a challenge for you, and the personal fulfillment is once again present.

In my continuing struggle to make sure my points are valid I feel the need to express another reason for the importance of challenges. A video game unifies the visual arts such as film and audible artistic expressions such as music with interactivity. That makes interactivity the big difference between these artistic mediums. Which effects that has for games and why that can make it a much more expressive artistic medium is something I won’t discuss here. My point is that the interactivity needs to contribute something to the formula for there to be any reason for me to sit through 6 hours of car chases, explosions and antagonistic helicopters when I could do the same in one and a half hours with a movie and skip the trudge through a boring interactive component. I am aware that an interactive component can be engaging on its own without a challenge. RPGs and games like little big planet are good examples of this. However, not every game can be this creative and engaging, and that is where the exhilaration of getting through something truly challenging comes in. Have you ever overcome something that took you maybe even several hours and pushed you to your limits? It’s a wonderful feeling. Personal fulfillment is a magnificent thing. Some people don’t value games to the point where they would care if they completed something, but if you were one of those people you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.

Having established the importance of difficulty I now wish to talk about some different kinds of difficulties and how to do it “right”. To be honest it quite simply isn’t enough to just be “difficult”. We have situations that are simply challenging where you would have to really put out the best possible performance you can to pull through and then we have situations where you need to put out a less stellar performance to pull through but arbitrary random factors keep getting in the way. For example; you need to jump over several pitfalls to get to the end of a challenge. The pitfalls are huge and you barely pull through every time, but as long as you are consistent in your performance there isn’t going to be a huge issue. If you happen to fall it will be your own fault. You get to the other side and you are introduced to a new challenge. A sign above the entrance says in threatening, burning letters “Welcome to Trial and Error”. As you get in you’re relieved to see that it’s pretty much the same challenge, just with slightly smaller pitfalls. You clear the first one without a problem, same with the second one, but just as you’re assured that the whole thing will be a breeze 50 cent jumps out from behind a corner holding a rocket launcher yelling incoherently about a skull and some bitch and promptly wipes you from the face of the earth. You respawn at the beginning, slightly baffled, but you decide to try again. As you prepare to jump the first pitfall you hear a sound that most definitely wasn’t there the last time around and a huge spinning blade suddenly splits you in half. A few hours and hundreds of tries later you find yourself introducing your controller to your TV (Spoilers: THIS IS NOT THE “RIGHT” WAY). 

Being a bit of a masochist when it comes to games I have quite a few games I could use for my purpose here, but I will use Ninja Gaiden 2 and Demon’s Souls. I have nothing but love for Ninja Gaiden’s gameplay personally, but it does have some faults; one of those being how they ramp up the difficulty at the later stages. I started out at a low level and worked myself up to the second highest difficulty. I waited a couple of days and then decided to try it out. I loaded up the game, pumped and ready to go. Having forgotten exactly how the game started I wasn’t prepared for what was coming and exactly 6 seconds later I found poor Ryu lying in a pool of his own blood. It turns out that in the jump up to the next difficulty the good natured tutorial ninjas had decided to equip themselves with some exploding throwing knives. The next time I loaded up the game I was prepared and hyped. My strategy had evolved into blocking constantly whenever I wasn’t attacking. A very basic tactic, but one I had never bothered with before because it just slowed down the game. Having cleared these enemies I kept going and cleared my way to the point where they wanted to introduce ranged units as well. Turns out that they had decided to go for some higher tech as well. This time they had replaced their old fashioned bows with rocket launchers. And let me tell you, constant rockets flying at me didn’t go too well with my strategy for blocking whenever I wasn’t on the offensive, seeing as I would have to stand still for this. Now, for anyone who has bothered with clearing this probably has a good solution as to how you fix this problem, but the simplest solution was to start spamming one attack that made sure I was never in the same place for more than a second; the flying swallow, for those of you who have played the game. This killed the fun of the game for me. Of course they threw a lot of other enemies at me later in the game, but this was always the most basic combo I met. And as such I quit halfway through the game. I would say that this is a very difficult game, but it falls into the trial and error category which makes it so that I spend gratuitous amounts of time banging my head against it before making it through, but it leaves me with no personal fulfillment because it was simply a coincidence that I got through when I did. 

Demon’s Souls was an extremely pleasant surprise for me. I bought the game after hearing how difficult it was and I wanted to see how long it would take my thick head to crack through Demon’s Souls wall. Its archaic systems, third person combat and heavy stat building was a wet dream to me. For anyone who tried their hand at this, died in the start and got so heavily starved on souls that they simply didn’t get anywhere or heard a story of the same thing from a friend and therefore shied away from the game… I really don’t want to pull this out, but you (or your friend) were playing it wrong. At first sight it looks and plays like a slightly awkward third person action game and all your previous experience with such games imply that you should rush in headlong and decimate the hordes of enemies the game throws at you, and if you should happen to die there will always be a checkpoint there to save you. You may not be conscious of this, but that is how the games you have previously played have psychologically engineered you to react to games of the same type. 

How does Demon’s Souls punish you for dying? It takes away all your money and experience combined and says you can’t have it back unless you work yourself back to the point you were at when you lost it. It combines the presence of absolutely no checkpoints with absolute persistency. Meaning; the potions you used during that boss fight? They’re still gone. You broke your sword during the fight? Well, get some new souls by using your backup weapon and fix it! In other words; you REALLY don’t want to die. I don’t think I’m reading too much into it when I say that these systems are there to psychologically engineer you into a player who can successfully play through the game. Those systems are there to motivate you to avoid death by planning things out, not overextending and methodically observe the things you meet before you risk fighting them straight up. These things of course make it so that it’s not something every player will enjoy. I won’t tell you that you are wrong if you didn’t like demon’s souls because you didn’t have the patience to deal with these mechanics. I only hope you’ll consider why they’re there and that it has some very positive and fully intended effects for the player base. 

Personally I rarely died in demon’s souls because I took these lessons to heart. I died a couple of times on Flamelurker and the final boss both killed me three times and deleveled me three times when I killed him (I built a retardedly bad character that really wasn’t suited for fighting some bosses), but except for that I pretty much never died. Well, I died that one time when I got infected with the plague and didn’t have enough souls to buy an antidote… How should I have known those rats would give me something that dangerous? Anyways; I wouldn’t say that this makes the game easy or me awesome. I’m actually quite mediocre at games. I would rather say that it’s a testament to how well designed the difficulty of Demon’s Souls is. It was one of the hardest games I’ve ever played, but thanks to the fact that there are almost no random factors you can pretty much avoid dying as long as you’re careful and plan out your moves.

For anyone who actually bothered to read this whole thing and didn’t go “TLDR” or “What a self absorbed elitist douche” and moved on; thanks for reading and feel free to comment/message or whatever if you disagree or have anything to add. I love me some discussions.
21 Comments
21 Comments
Posted by Kallim

With the recent appearance of the trailer for Dark Souls I started thinking to myself about... well, many things; for one I came a bit in my pants and I needed to think of a way to solve that issue, but having played Demon’s Souls I was familiar with the kind of difficulty this game most likely will contain. This made me think that it was time to write a blog post for the benefit of my GB-Achievements and anyone who happens to have a gratuitous amount of time to waste. I will mostly be discussing difficulty in games; the importance of a challenge, the positive effects of punishing games and what kinds of difficulty work. Also, let me preface; I am not writing this because I want to swing my giant e-peen across your face. I’m just going to be discussing the various benefits of a challenge in games. No flaming kkthxbye.

For this whole article to have any point the importance of a challenge in games needs to be established, so I’ll start there. First of all I would like to remind people that the importance of a challenge is a universal concept. It is present regardless of what activity you’re pursuing. For example; you’re playing soccer (or football if that’s your thing), you have the ball and you start rushing for the goal. You steel yourself for some heavy resistance, but guess what? The other team has asthma, downs and a healthy dose of arthritis and has no chance in hell of catching you. With the amount of resistance you’re getting of course you score. Now tell me, the end result is the same; you scored! YAY YOU! However, was there really any fulfillment in that? No one can deny that you scored that goal and it may look damn impressive for an outsider, but whatever happened to personal fulfillment? The ironic thing is that if you apply this analogy to games you will see that the only thing that’s left once you remove the challenge is your e-peen. To once again appease the people who think I’m an elitist douche, I would like to clarify that challenge is relative to skill. If you yourself happen to have the same mix of asthma, downs and arthritis this would of course be a challenge for you, and the personal fulfillment is once again present.

In my continuing struggle to make sure my points are valid I feel the need to express another reason for the importance of challenges. A video game unifies the visual arts such as film and audible artistic expressions such as music with interactivity. That makes interactivity the big difference between these artistic mediums. Which effects that has for games and why that can make it a much more expressive artistic medium is something I won’t discuss here. My point is that the interactivity needs to contribute something to the formula for there to be any reason for me to sit through 6 hours of car chases, explosions and antagonistic helicopters when I could do the same in one and a half hours with a movie and skip the trudge through a boring interactive component. I am aware that an interactive component can be engaging on its own without a challenge. RPGs and games like little big planet are good examples of this. However, not every game can be this creative and engaging, and that is where the exhilaration of getting through something truly challenging comes in. Have you ever overcome something that took you maybe even several hours and pushed you to your limits? It’s a wonderful feeling. Personal fulfillment is a magnificent thing. Some people don’t value games to the point where they would care if they completed something, but if you were one of those people you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.

Having established the importance of difficulty I now wish to talk about some different kinds of difficulties and how to do it “right”. To be honest it quite simply isn’t enough to just be “difficult”. We have situations that are simply challenging where you would have to really put out the best possible performance you can to pull through and then we have situations where you need to put out a less stellar performance to pull through but arbitrary random factors keep getting in the way. For example; you need to jump over several pitfalls to get to the end of a challenge. The pitfalls are huge and you barely pull through every time, but as long as you are consistent in your performance there isn’t going to be a huge issue. If you happen to fall it will be your own fault. You get to the other side and you are introduced to a new challenge. A sign above the entrance says in threatening, burning letters “Welcome to Trial and Error”. As you get in you’re relieved to see that it’s pretty much the same challenge, just with slightly smaller pitfalls. You clear the first one without a problem, same with the second one, but just as you’re assured that the whole thing will be a breeze 50 cent jumps out from behind a corner holding a rocket launcher yelling incoherently about a skull and some bitch and promptly wipes you from the face of the earth. You respawn at the beginning, slightly baffled, but you decide to try again. As you prepare to jump the first pitfall you hear a sound that most definitely wasn’t there the last time around and a huge spinning blade suddenly splits you in half. A few hours and hundreds of tries later you find yourself introducing your controller to your TV (Spoilers: THIS IS NOT THE “RIGHT” WAY). 

Being a bit of a masochist when it comes to games I have quite a few games I could use for my purpose here, but I will use Ninja Gaiden 2 and Demon’s Souls. I have nothing but love for Ninja Gaiden’s gameplay personally, but it does have some faults; one of those being how they ramp up the difficulty at the later stages. I started out at a low level and worked myself up to the second highest difficulty. I waited a couple of days and then decided to try it out. I loaded up the game, pumped and ready to go. Having forgotten exactly how the game started I wasn’t prepared for what was coming and exactly 6 seconds later I found poor Ryu lying in a pool of his own blood. It turns out that in the jump up to the next difficulty the good natured tutorial ninjas had decided to equip themselves with some exploding throwing knives. The next time I loaded up the game I was prepared and hyped. My strategy had evolved into blocking constantly whenever I wasn’t attacking. A very basic tactic, but one I had never bothered with before because it just slowed down the game. Having cleared these enemies I kept going and cleared my way to the point where they wanted to introduce ranged units as well. Turns out that they had decided to go for some higher tech as well. This time they had replaced their old fashioned bows with rocket launchers. And let me tell you, constant rockets flying at me didn’t go too well with my strategy for blocking whenever I wasn’t on the offensive, seeing as I would have to stand still for this. Now, for anyone who has bothered with clearing this probably has a good solution as to how you fix this problem, but the simplest solution was to start spamming one attack that made sure I was never in the same place for more than a second; the flying swallow, for those of you who have played the game. This killed the fun of the game for me. Of course they threw a lot of other enemies at me later in the game, but this was always the most basic combo I met. And as such I quit halfway through the game. I would say that this is a very difficult game, but it falls into the trial and error category which makes it so that I spend gratuitous amounts of time banging my head against it before making it through, but it leaves me with no personal fulfillment because it was simply a coincidence that I got through when I did. 

Demon’s Souls was an extremely pleasant surprise for me. I bought the game after hearing how difficult it was and I wanted to see how long it would take my thick head to crack through Demon’s Souls wall. Its archaic systems, third person combat and heavy stat building was a wet dream to me. For anyone who tried their hand at this, died in the start and got so heavily starved on souls that they simply didn’t get anywhere or heard a story of the same thing from a friend and therefore shied away from the game… I really don’t want to pull this out, but you (or your friend) were playing it wrong. At first sight it looks and plays like a slightly awkward third person action game and all your previous experience with such games imply that you should rush in headlong and decimate the hordes of enemies the game throws at you, and if you should happen to die there will always be a checkpoint there to save you. You may not be conscious of this, but that is how the games you have previously played have psychologically engineered you to react to games of the same type. 

How does Demon’s Souls punish you for dying? It takes away all your money and experience combined and says you can’t have it back unless you work yourself back to the point you were at when you lost it. It combines the presence of absolutely no checkpoints with absolute persistency. Meaning; the potions you used during that boss fight? They’re still gone. You broke your sword during the fight? Well, get some new souls by using your backup weapon and fix it! In other words; you REALLY don’t want to die. I don’t think I’m reading too much into it when I say that these systems are there to psychologically engineer you into a player who can successfully play through the game. Those systems are there to motivate you to avoid death by planning things out, not overextending and methodically observe the things you meet before you risk fighting them straight up. These things of course make it so that it’s not something every player will enjoy. I won’t tell you that you are wrong if you didn’t like demon’s souls because you didn’t have the patience to deal with these mechanics. I only hope you’ll consider why they’re there and that it has some very positive and fully intended effects for the player base. 

Personally I rarely died in demon’s souls because I took these lessons to heart. I died a couple of times on Flamelurker and the final boss both killed me three times and deleveled me three times when I killed him (I built a retardedly bad character that really wasn’t suited for fighting some bosses), but except for that I pretty much never died. Well, I died that one time when I got infected with the plague and didn’t have enough souls to buy an antidote… How should I have known those rats would give me something that dangerous? Anyways; I wouldn’t say that this makes the game easy or me awesome. I’m actually quite mediocre at games. I would rather say that it’s a testament to how well designed the difficulty of Demon’s Souls is. It was one of the hardest games I’ve ever played, but thanks to the fact that there are almost no random factors you can pretty much avoid dying as long as you’re careful and plan out your moves.

For anyone who actually bothered to read this whole thing and didn’t go “TLDR” or “What a self absorbed elitist douche” and moved on; thanks for reading and feel free to comment/message or whatever if you disagree or have anything to add. I love me some discussions.
Posted by iGaboru

Wow. Very passionately written, I agree wholeheartedly with mostly everything you've said about challenge, difficulty, and how different people tackle with it. I played and analysed Demon's Souls in a very similar way.

Posted by Grissefar

It's fun that some games want to challenge the player and it's a shame that Ryan and Jeff are quick to dismiss such games. I would like more games to adopt that challenging aspect and it would be fun to see more regular AAA titles add fourth difficulties. It would give me more bang for the buck and make them heck fun.
 
I didn't much care for the way Ninja Gaiden kicked up the difficulty. It basically forced you to abuse Ultimate Techniques for the i-frames over and over every fight. That was no fun so I didn't bother.

Posted by iam3green

i hate difficult games. the hardest game that i tried was call of duty 4. the thing was that they did cheap things with the game. the game was cheap because the soldiers kept throwing grenades after grenades and they knew when to fire. they had perfect aiming for that. after that game it was the last game that i tried on the hardest difficulty. i played black ops on hardened it was alright. it had some moments where i got frustrated with the game. 
 
another thing why i hate difficult games is because of how many times i die. i just want to play the game with some challenge just not to easy.

Posted by kalmis

Good read mate
 
How could the end boss in Demon's Souls kill you three times? That was the easiest boss in the game.

Posted by Kallim
@kalmis: I'm talking about the false king, not the wierd sludge king under the nexus. And if you're talking about that boss, then, well... It had a lot to do with the kind of character I built. I had bad equipment, wasn't too high level and was a dexterity based physical character with a shield. A very strange build that did shit damage. So when I had to get up close I found out that he had 2-3 spells that one shotted me. I also didn't know you could interrupt his AoE spell cast by hitting him, because I had never fought a caster before. So the try when I found that was the one where I killed him.
Posted by Kallim
@iGaboru: Thanks. It's good that people enjoyed it. Some construction workers outside my home took down my internet cable, and once I didn't have any online games to take up my time on sunday this was the result. 
Posted by mordukai
@iam3green said:
" i hate difficult games. the hardest game that i tried was call of duty 4. the thing was that they did cheap things with the game. the game was cheap because the soldiers kept throwing grenades after grenades and they knew when to fire. they had perfect aiming for that. after that game it was the last game that i tried on the hardest difficulty. i played black ops on hardened it was alright. it had some moments where i got frustrated with the game.   another thing why i hate difficult games is because of how many times i die. i just want to play the game with some challenge just not to easy. "
HA HA. CoD is not difficult just cheap. Sadly developer think that challenging means ramping the stats of enemies higher while making them spam their given powers. It saves up on coming up with a truly challenging AI that will make the player play smart and not have him play a 'War of attrition" with the game. That's why I ove Demon's Souls so much. It has one difficulty level, period. 
Posted by Azteck

Really great read. However, I have to disagree with you on one point. You consider yourself mediocre at games, but holy shit dude you finished half of Mentor? That's crazy. I'm having issues with warrior. But anyway, the enemies in Ninja Gaiden get a little cheaper the further you get, like the grab attack the Nagas do, I still consider the game fun, as I completed it the first time in one sitting, but when they ramp up the difficulty it just feels a little too frustrating for me. 
 
I really wish I could play Demon's Souls, it looks like a ton of fun and I'm kind of a masochist when it comes to games, however I don't own a PS3 and I put my hopes up for Dark's Souls (I know, cheap shot) to be as excellent as Demon's Souls was, or is.

Posted by Kallim

@Azteck: Hehe, thanks. If Dark Souls is anything like Demon's Souls you really have something to look forward to. Personally I didnt actually buy my ps3 until maybe 7 months ago. I finally decided that it was worth it with GoW, MGS and Demon's Souls on the system (but I bought it 90% because of Demon's Souls xD). 

Posted by ImmortalSaiyan

Have you played Ninja Gaiden Black? That game does challenge perfectly. Unlike it's sequal their is no trail and error parts, thwn you die it's your own fault. On top of that with each new difficulty the game adds new emenys and better AI overall. Most games half ass their hard mode by just uping the health of the baddies and lowering yours.
Posted by amir90

I love games like Ninja Gaiden, more like that please.

Edited by Kallim
@ImmortalSaiyan: I actually haven't played that game, so I really can't make a statement on any of that, but if it is what you say I will have to check it out. Ninja Gaiden 2 had a good combat system overall, but the cheap enemy combos they threw at you just made me lose my drive to play. I'll check Black out though
Edited by Krixok

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Posted by JTB123

Very good read and I couldn't agree more. 
 
You need to play Ninja Gaiden Black if you haven't already, that game serves as a masterclass for proper difficulty structure.

Posted by Claude

I'm in it for the experience. A tough challenge turns me off unless I win in the end of my experience.

Posted by Kallim

@Claude: That's fair xD To each his own.

Posted by Guided_By_Tigers

Games like Ninja Gaiden and Demon Souls are throwbacks in terms of difficulty....modern games are ridiculously easy compared to some of the games released in the 80's and 90's.....I usually start games on hard difficulty and its still not nearly as difficult as classic games like Battletoads.

Posted by Guided_By_Tigers
@Claude said:

I'm in it for the experience. A tough challenge turns me off unless I win in the end of my experience.

What about games that are endless?
Posted by Kallim

@Unknown_Pleasures: Well, that's fair I guess, but I think you misunderstood my point if you bring that up. My biggest point was how just saying that something is difficult isn't enough. There are many different ways to do difficulty. I portrayed the types of difficulty in Ninja Gaiden and Demons Souls as very different in my article so I dont know if you're trying to agree with me or what here... Demons Souls gives you all the tools to handle what's in your way and simply teaches you to be very cautious. It's very unforgiving rather than difficult. Ninja Gaiden on the other hand simply throws roadblocks at you until you buckle. It's lazy on the developer's part and a very frustrating way to implement challenge in my opinion. After all that is all this is; my opinion.

About the old games like Battletoads tho... I find that the difficulty in a lot of old games is due to a mix of simply having restrictive gameplay which made the games hard in itself and the aftereffects of the arcade days. Arcade games were designed to be difficult so that they could actually make money by forcing you to constantly pour more money in. This simply became the culture around games during that time and as games became longer experiences which you pay for in one go it's natural that the difficulty is toned down to a certain level. You may feel that it's too easy for your tastes, as do I, but I think it was the logical next step for games and I think there are games out there that still scratch my itch in terms of difficulty

Posted by Claude

@Unknown_Pleasures said:

@Claude said:

I'm in it for the experience. A tough challenge turns me off unless I win in the end of my experience.

What about games that are endless?

I play a lot of sports games and in some way, they're endless. But I'm pretty good at sports games, so I usually do well. I'm not really sure what else qualifies as an endless game or if I've even played one.