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'Difficulty' in Gaming
by Nate Paolasso on 01/08/13 05:18:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article was originally posted on N4G.

The value of games lies in the gamers sense of accomplishment over challenges. This is the reason why games like Dark Souls, Demon's Souls, Spelunky and Super Meat Boy are so successful. These games do not hold our proverbial hands; gradually, they teach crucial mechanics to the player that are continually presented throughout the game. Then, when the gamer uses these mechanics correctly and effectively, the game rewards the player; not only than with in-game items, but also with a snese of pride. There's no better feeling than defeating Great Grey Wolf Sif after attempting it four or five times, or finally beating a level in Super Meat Boy. 

While some gamers enjoy challenging games more than others, these games do not alienate gamers that want a casual experience because casual experiences don't exist; just different experiences. Maybe the gamer likes side-scrolling platformer experiences over third-person RPG's. So someone might come across a game like Dark Souls and claim it's too difficult. Then they try out a game like Super Meat Boy and absolutely love it, even though it's arguably very difficult. The main difference in challenge between these two games is pacing. Dark Souls presents a much slower trial-error reward system, while Super Meat Boy's is fast and intense. People aren't afraid of a challenge; they crave it. But it has to be the right challenge; everyone has their tastes and they need something that is worthwhile to them. 
Dark Souls
The reasons we, as gamers, play videogames seem to be many and incredibly dependent on the individual. One gamer might say that they play games because they love getting lost in its' world. Another might say they play videogames because they love to save princesses and destroy monsters. But when it comes down to it, gamers take pride in their videogame accomplishments. When the gamer saves that princess, they are proud that they defeated the evil dragon and jumped the river of lava to do so. And when the gamer gets lost in the captivating virtual world, they're getting involved through the activities within that world that reward the player for their time. If all it took to save that princess was a walk through the park, then the gamer wouldn't waste his time saving her. And no matter how beautiful a gaming world might be, if there's nothing to do in that world then the gamer won't stay for very long. 

Gamers need to be engaged when they're playing games. The best kind of videogames present new and exciting challenges over the time spent with them. As we play these games, we take pride in our accomplishments and triumphs. The challenge of videogames is what brings us back to those games over and over. Whether the challenge lies in endurance and patience, or wit and cunning; great videogames are challenging. Those that lack challenge are simply not worth playing.

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Valentine Kozin
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It's an interesting thought, but I wonder at the equation of engagement with challenge. You converge the potential motivations of immersion and, well, let's call that second one 'winning', to the same overarching drive of accomplishing goals. I would be more tempted to see those as very different drives. Immersion is about engagement, I think, but certainly not necessarily about challenge. At least, not the kind of you seem to refer to.

An example of an immersive mechanic - off the bat - would be in Metro: Last Light where, when wearing a gasmask, the player has to occasionally press a button to wipe gunk off his visor. This contributes to the challenge of a gunfight, sure, but the way you engage with it is not in itself challenging - you a press a button and the action is performed. In Skyrim, a lot of people enjoy the immersion of wandering around the world, picking herbs, catching butterflies. Again, there is engagement through interaction with the world, but the core of it is not really challenging and the enjoyment, it seems to me, is not from any sense of accomplishment that you get at the end as much as it is just from being able to get closer to that world and escape into your character.

Valentine Kozin
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It's just the first example that came to mind. The overall purpose of that mechanic, I guess, is to increase tension during moments of pressure, give the player some sense of claustrophobia as experienced by the character and add another layer of decision-making to complicate fights, making you have to judge when you're okay to use a hand to wipe your mask and when you'd rather keep shooting, but with reduced visibility.

When I said it's an 'immersive' mechanic though, I meant 'it's intended to add immersion' - whether it does or not is a tough call, since the game's not out yet. You're right that realistic mechanics don't necessarily give more immersion, but I think it would be fair to say that most of the time they are added because the designer would like them to do so - though obviously there's exceptions to this, e.g. simulations, which are usually realistic but not immersive.

Nathan Mates
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Comments about preferred difficulty in games are subjective opinions, not objective truths. When you say "Those that lack challenge are simply not worth playing.", that statement needs a "to me." Because I don't always agree.

This is a tangential discussion to the occasional comments here saying that all games must have stories. Some people agree, some people disagree. Problem is, those trying to say "all games must be X" rarely stop for a minute to sit down and acknowledge why someone might think otherwise. Doing that research and understanding will make you a more well rounded person. Acknowledging others' opinions as valid -- even if you try and change them -- is common courtesy.

Personally, sometimes when I get home and want a challenge, I'll fire devenv.exe up and attack bugs on my pet projects. Sometimes, when I want to unwind after a busy day fighting bugs in devenv.exe at work, I'd like a game that I can be entertained by without having to jump through the arbitrary hoops that some designer laid out. When I am programming, I am forging new ground that nobody has trodden on before.

Once again, I follow up to a "all games must be X" style comment with a plea for authors here to understand player archetypes. Not everyone is motivated by mastery over a challenge. Some players would prefer to explore than to survive a fight in Dark Souls on the 17th attempt. Those people are not defective players, even if they don't measure up to some hardcore standard. They prefer other things. Be nice to them.

Nate Paolasso
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If I put a 'to me' in front of most of the sentences in this article, it'd be redundant. Of course this is my opinion and not a universal truth, but I understand what you're saying.

Darren Tomlyn
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I'm loathe to post much in the way of replies on this site, atm, until I can finish the re-write of the main post for my own blog, that's needed for all of such said replies to exist in their proper and full context, (well, once I've also re-written the rest of my blog posts to be consistent with the new main post, too).

Because of that, I'm also loathe to go into too much detail at present, either.

But to read a post such a this one, and leave its mistakes as-is, would not be consistent with why I'm working on all of this in the first place...

Your very first sentence:

"The value of games lies in the gamers sense of accomplishment over challenges."

Is the root of the problem, that the rest of the post is built upon. Why?

Because you are perceiving, (and probably defining, whether you realise it or not), competition, as-and-by the goals to be competed for, and not the actual process of competing, (merely TRYING to gain such an outcome/goal, at the expense of, or in spite of, someone/something else), in itself.

Competition, is merely the state of competing - even if its timeless and/or perpetual.

(Games are about such a process, and can also be perpetual.)

But difficulty is about the application of competition - including how competitive such an activity is, but not only that. The nature of difficulty can depend on the type of game - chance/skill based? - real-time or turn/phase based?

But the biggest impact upon the nature of competition and difficulty in games, is whether or not a game primarily involves direct or indirect competition - (e.g. PvP or PvE).

Talking about things such as 'challenge' or 'difficulty' simply tries to limit the nature of competition, (and therefore the behaviour of competing) itself, which is not consistent with what the word game represents.

Games are about the act of competing by behaving in a particular manner, (writing a story/someone doing something for themselves), in a structured (rules-based) environment. The behaviour does not define what competition is, merely how and why it has to exist in such an activity. Challenge and difficulty are merely a condition - an effect - of competition itself, but not something it is defined as and by - (instead it's the other way round).

Viewing competition=challenge limits your understanding of what competitive behaviour in general can be and involve - not just for games, but also probably puzzles and competitions, and work and play in general...