Good vs. Bad Difficulty

Difficulty is a tricky design aspect to broach because, like humor, it can be entirely subjective: There are players that are on a whole different skill level to the masses most games are targeted towards (the dreaded "casuals") who derive their enjoyment by performing gaming feats others simply are not capable of, especially online. Others simply like being challenged to the point where it becomes this adamant, borderline-masochistic drive to defeat the undefeatable. But plenty more still get easily frustrated with their inability to handle the challenge set out before them, to have so much of the game's content (that they paid for) to be forever closed off due to their lack of finesse.
 
Generally, though, I believe games like Donkey Kong Country Returns (which I recently completed, sort of the impetus for this blog) and Super Meat Boy more or less find the right balance between making the game difficult for difficulty's sake while throwing their players enough of a bone to keep them coming back. I believe this has to do with the balance of fun, "good" difficulty vs. dissatisfying, controller-throwing "bad" difficulty. 
 
So how to distinguish between the two? It seems like a balance as tricky as many of the other balance issues that designers and testers will spend many weeks of their development cycle tweaking and correcting. Here's my personal thoughts, based on the games I hated or abandoned for their difficulty and the ones I kept coming back to in spite of it.
 

GOOD

Surprises - Sometimes a game is difficult because it's almost next-to-impossible to predict what happens next. However, if these sequences are static the player will learn from them and factor the new information into their next attempt. So while a hidden blade trap might randomly kill you, and frustrate you for a few seconds because of how cheap it seemed, nothing will beat the satisfaction of coming back around and handily dodging it with the hard-earned wisdom, nor will anything beat the admiration of anyone watching you play the game (provided they had arrived just after the previous embarrassment). At least until you fall into a concealed pit immediately after the blade trap.
 
The Impossible Becoming Possible - Another neat device is to present what appears to be an unbeatable obstacle and then allowing the player to figure out what makes it tick after a (hopefully short, but it's impossible for designers to predict this) amount of trial-and-error. That they are then able to pass it using a simple learned trick or a memorized sequence of actions provides no end of triumphant joy. This assumes that, of course, the impossible really is possible and the solution isn't so nebulous that a quick trip to GameFAQs is warranted.
 
Timely Reprieves - The biggest difficulty balance issue is the meting out of checkpoints, (auto-)save opportunities and/or extra lives, depending on the game's genre. Obviously, too many makes the game too easy and too few make it too hard. Ideally, a difficult game should reward the passing of a tricky series of events with a reaffirming "hey, don't worry, you won't have to do THAT again."
 

BAD

Repetition - Building on the reprieve aspect, having too few points to mark your progress and start over in a spot further along than you were originally means having to repeat a lot of the game. After a player has "solved" the timing on a series of jumps, the correct method to systematically break down and defeat a boss or the order in which to build units, gather resources and build up tech trees or what have you, it's boring for them to have to do it all over. Most of the elation came from the realization that you had beaten something that had caused you so much trouble, so the duplication thereof becomes a series of diminishing returns. It also doesn't help to have to constantly repeat an earlier part of a level to get to the part you're currently trying to figure out, as nothing beats the frustration of almost getting the method down pat than having to trek all the way back over to where the action is, possibly messing up on tiny errors because your mind is still on the present predicament.
 
Length - This is more or less the companion piece of the above item, with regards to checkpoint allocation and the like. The longer you force the player to go without a reprieve, the easier mistakes will come and the more frustrating a level becomes when a player is still dying trying to get to the point where they died the last time. When you need to make four or five jumps to reach the end of a level or a checkpoint, it becomes a rhythm to get it right, a few seconds of sublime perfection before moving onto the next series of obstacles and all their tricks to figure out. It doesn't matter if those jumps are near impossible to land, because you'll eventually nail it with such a small amount before the next save. Stretching that out into a much longer sequence just causes frustration, because the player will more likely than not just keep making unforced errors.  
 
Glitches - Obviously, a game can be made a lot harder to beat with the appearance of glitches, running the gamut to minor, amusing glitches (like RDR's cougarmen) that could increase the difficulty to the major game-breaking annoyances which makes further progress unattainable. Though hardly the intention of the designers, they are very much at fault if their game is literally impossible.

AMBIGUOUS

Sheer Assholery - This item basically represents every time the game gypped you on one aspect or another, usually things you've taken for granted up until now. Sometimes depriving the player can make for a fascinating new challenge, as you're suddenly faced with a new challenge to deal with alongside everything else. Making the screen pitch black except for a small spotlight around the character, for instance, brings something new rather than detracting from what might've been an otherwise unremarkable level. But then there are times when the game simply won't adhere to the rules it itself established earlier in the game, suddenly removing opportunities to regain health or imposing a time limit or a great many other highly objectionable features. It largely depends on the temperament of the player, but will invariably elicit an "Oh, you assholes" response, either with a chuckle or an AVGN-esque controller-smashing freak-out.
 
 
Wow, this whole blog post makes me seem butthurt about getting my ass kicked by the aforementioned two games. Definitely not the case. For all you know. Though I should play some of these notoriously difficult games simply to gather more data and clarify these differences. If we can expunge bad difficulty from gaming forever that would be a major coup, maybe losing quick time events and unskippable cutscenes along with it.
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Posted by Mento

Difficulty is a tricky design aspect to broach because, like humor, it can be entirely subjective: There are players that are on a whole different skill level to the masses most games are targeted towards (the dreaded "casuals") who derive their enjoyment by performing gaming feats others simply are not capable of, especially online. Others simply like being challenged to the point where it becomes this adamant, borderline-masochistic drive to defeat the undefeatable. But plenty more still get easily frustrated with their inability to handle the challenge set out before them, to have so much of the game's content (that they paid for) to be forever closed off due to their lack of finesse.
 
Generally, though, I believe games like Donkey Kong Country Returns (which I recently completed, sort of the impetus for this blog) and Super Meat Boy more or less find the right balance between making the game difficult for difficulty's sake while throwing their players enough of a bone to keep them coming back. I believe this has to do with the balance of fun, "good" difficulty vs. dissatisfying, controller-throwing "bad" difficulty. 
 
So how to distinguish between the two? It seems like a balance as tricky as many of the other balance issues that designers and testers will spend many weeks of their development cycle tweaking and correcting. Here's my personal thoughts, based on the games I hated or abandoned for their difficulty and the ones I kept coming back to in spite of it.
 

GOOD

Surprises - Sometimes a game is difficult because it's almost next-to-impossible to predict what happens next. However, if these sequences are static the player will learn from them and factor the new information into their next attempt. So while a hidden blade trap might randomly kill you, and frustrate you for a few seconds because of how cheap it seemed, nothing will beat the satisfaction of coming back around and handily dodging it with the hard-earned wisdom, nor will anything beat the admiration of anyone watching you play the game (provided they had arrived just after the previous embarrassment). At least until you fall into a concealed pit immediately after the blade trap.
 
The Impossible Becoming Possible - Another neat device is to present what appears to be an unbeatable obstacle and then allowing the player to figure out what makes it tick after a (hopefully short, but it's impossible for designers to predict this) amount of trial-and-error. That they are then able to pass it using a simple learned trick or a memorized sequence of actions provides no end of triumphant joy. This assumes that, of course, the impossible really is possible and the solution isn't so nebulous that a quick trip to GameFAQs is warranted.
 
Timely Reprieves - The biggest difficulty balance issue is the meting out of checkpoints, (auto-)save opportunities and/or extra lives, depending on the game's genre. Obviously, too many makes the game too easy and too few make it too hard. Ideally, a difficult game should reward the passing of a tricky series of events with a reaffirming "hey, don't worry, you won't have to do THAT again."
 

BAD

Repetition - Building on the reprieve aspect, having too few points to mark your progress and start over in a spot further along than you were originally means having to repeat a lot of the game. After a player has "solved" the timing on a series of jumps, the correct method to systematically break down and defeat a boss or the order in which to build units, gather resources and build up tech trees or what have you, it's boring for them to have to do it all over. Most of the elation came from the realization that you had beaten something that had caused you so much trouble, so the duplication thereof becomes a series of diminishing returns. It also doesn't help to have to constantly repeat an earlier part of a level to get to the part you're currently trying to figure out, as nothing beats the frustration of almost getting the method down pat than having to trek all the way back over to where the action is, possibly messing up on tiny errors because your mind is still on the present predicament.
 
Length - This is more or less the companion piece of the above item, with regards to checkpoint allocation and the like. The longer you force the player to go without a reprieve, the easier mistakes will come and the more frustrating a level becomes when a player is still dying trying to get to the point where they died the last time. When you need to make four or five jumps to reach the end of a level or a checkpoint, it becomes a rhythm to get it right, a few seconds of sublime perfection before moving onto the next series of obstacles and all their tricks to figure out. It doesn't matter if those jumps are near impossible to land, because you'll eventually nail it with such a small amount before the next save. Stretching that out into a much longer sequence just causes frustration, because the player will more likely than not just keep making unforced errors.  
 
Glitches - Obviously, a game can be made a lot harder to beat with the appearance of glitches, running the gamut to minor, amusing glitches (like RDR's cougarmen) that could increase the difficulty to the major game-breaking annoyances which makes further progress unattainable. Though hardly the intention of the designers, they are very much at fault if their game is literally impossible.

AMBIGUOUS

Sheer Assholery - This item basically represents every time the game gypped you on one aspect or another, usually things you've taken for granted up until now. Sometimes depriving the player can make for a fascinating new challenge, as you're suddenly faced with a new challenge to deal with alongside everything else. Making the screen pitch black except for a small spotlight around the character, for instance, brings something new rather than detracting from what might've been an otherwise unremarkable level. But then there are times when the game simply won't adhere to the rules it itself established earlier in the game, suddenly removing opportunities to regain health or imposing a time limit or a great many other highly objectionable features. It largely depends on the temperament of the player, but will invariably elicit an "Oh, you assholes" response, either with a chuckle or an AVGN-esque controller-smashing freak-out.
 
 
Wow, this whole blog post makes me seem butthurt about getting my ass kicked by the aforementioned two games. Definitely not the case. For all you know. Though I should play some of these notoriously difficult games simply to gather more data and clarify these differences. If we can expunge bad difficulty from gaming forever that would be a major coup, maybe losing quick time events and unskippable cutscenes along with it.
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Posted by ArbitraryWater

For the most part, I have to say these are pretty solid distinctions between what is genuinely challenging and what is either cheap or masochistic. However, I would say that Super Meat Boy's inane difficulty is actually kind of negated by the fact that it doesn't punish the player at all for failure. Success in that game isn't so much learning the subtleties of how to get better as it is banging your head against a wall until you break through. After not playing that game for a few days, I came back and found that I was terrible at it. Because of the way that game is made, the skill retention is remarkably low. That might just be me though.
 
Inversely, I find some of the more masochistic "Old School" RPGs (deliberately so or otherwise) to be the opposite of fun because of how initially punishing they are, even though later on they get somewhat more manageable. Stuff like The Dark Spire and the Etrian Odyssey series, for as much as they would hypothetically appeal to me, actually scare me off by making the difficulty revolve around grinding and backtracking (i.e. constant repetition). While I certainly think that the later battles of both games reward being genuinely strategic, the earlier ones are far more likely to be lost based on a fluke critical hit or something. I want to feel like I'm being rewarded for skill, but also progressing at a reasonable pace. It's a conundrum that has scared me away from quite a few potential blog candidates, though perhaps not as much as some old games being super opaque about what I have to do or where I have to go.

Posted by Mento
@ArbitraryWater:  Hey, thanks for replying.

Yeah, I didn't even really cover CRPGs (or their Japanese equivalents), even though half the games I play fall into that category. It's another issue of balance between having the player figure out intelligently how to beat a tough boss (good) or forcing them to grind like hell to squash said boss like a bug (bad). Take something like Baldur's Gate, where you could theoretically tactics your way through any difficult fight with a particularly versatile group of fighters/mages/thieves and then directly relate it to something like Diablo (or most JRPGs, admittedly) where it's usually just a matter of your numbers needing to be higher than their numbers. There are RPGs that factor in a reflex/skill requirement (such as Mass Effect 2's necessity for third-person shooter ability or Shadow Hearts' timing-based Judgment Ring), but as Dave Snider often points out, such requirements usually detract from the core strategic gameplay of RPGs.
 
Generally speaking though, grinding should be an option the player opts for to make things easier for themselves, not the solution they need to take. Unless it's an NIS game, because they've got their own weird deal going on.

Man, I hope the skill retention thing for Super Meat Boy isn't too bad. I'm coming back to it after a few weeks of other things to take another crack at the Light World Boss.
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Posted by Jensonb

Finally, someone else who understands that not everybody plays games looking for a near-impossible challenge to conquer. This is a really well thought-out Post, and I think you've hit the nail on the head with a lot of the aspects of difficulty which are frustrating.