[Gamasutra editor-at-large Simon Parkin explores how difficulty in games has been scaled in recent years, comparing the likes of Dead Space 2 and Deathsmiles to classic '80s titles Defender and Pac-Man.]
At the October 1980 Amusement and Music Operators Association Trade Show in Chicago, the pinball machine manufacturer Williams unveiled Defender to delegates. The shoot ‘em up represented the company’s attempt to re-enter the video game business from which it had departed years earlier.
In contrast to Space Invaders’ neat mechanical rows of shuffling aliens, Defender’s attackers arrived in a squall of chaos. Its designer, Eugene Jarvis, wanted to make what he later dubbed a ‘sperm game’, an experience that would appeal to thrill-seeking males, offering the player a rush of excitement derived through bedlam and difficulty.
The game’s showing was a disaster. Delegates at the show wrestled with its over-fussy control system, many claiming that the twitch gameplay was too challenging.
Players walked away from the machine, repelled by its complexity and Jarvis, who had only finished coding the game hours before the show opened, walked away from the show disheartened.
His game, it seemed, was too hard.
But in the weeks and months that followed the show, Jarvis’ dismay proved misplaced. Rather than being turned off by the difficulty of the game, a section of arcade players flocked to conquer the game as a mark of prestige.
Soon after its release Defender was taking around 150 million quarters per week across the U.S. But its significance was greater than simply re-establishing Williams’ place at the gaming table.
Through its success in part derived from its difficulty, the game opened the door to a new business model and, through that, a new way of design, one that promoted a seemingly insurmountable challenge to players.
At the same October 1980 show, Japanese publisher Namco also revealed its latest product, Pac-Man. While Jarvis was working hard to appeal to highly competitive male gamers with his shoot ‘em up, Japanese designer Toru Iwatani wanted to create a game that would appeal to female players, broadening the demographic of people who played video games in arcades.
As with Defender, the lukewarm response to Pac-Man from show delegates was in direct contrast to that of the gaming public. Pac-Man immediately attracted huge numbers of female players to the arcade, and the introduction of an entirely new demographic to the industry saw vast numbers of amusement arcades spring up across the US.
Pac-Man and Defender, both seminal titles in the development of the medium, represented a fork in the road for game design: one approach attempting to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, the other focusing upon core experts, offering a challenge that was intentionally overwhelming to newcomers.
For years, these two streams of design co-existed. Jarvis’ subsequent release, Robotron 2084, ramped the challenge even higher for skilled gamers, while Nintendo led the way in creating games that could be enjoyed by young children and experienced players alike.
However, in the past decade video games that promote a tall challenge have fallen from fashion, designers instead favoring the path of least resistance to audiences that, according to perceived wisdom, no longer have time or patience for difficult games.
The LucasArts adventure titles, which offered fiendish, obfuscated puzzles wrapped in a welcoming narrative declined towards the end of the 1990s.
Doublefine Games’ recent PSN and XBLA release, Stacking, in many ways a 3D re-imagining of the point and click adventure game’s form, features puzzles that, to a 90's LucasArts audience lack bite and complexity. And even if a player does become stumped with a puzzle, no less than three clues can be accessed to provide pointers, a design borrowed from the Professor Layton series.
Meanwhile, Street Fighter IV was specifically marketed by Capcom as a return to the simpler times of Street Fighter II (a claim arguably overstated at the time), an admission from the company that, in Street Fighter III: Third Strike's exclusive challenge, a large slice of the audience had been lost.
Likewise, the creep of the term ‘casual’ into inelegant difficulty selection options at the start of innumerable first person shooters lowers the point of entry for those who want to spray their way to a game’s conclusion with minimum resistance from the AI.
For Japanese shoot ‘em up publisher Cave, a developer whose identity is wrapped up in the difficulty of its ‘bullet hell’ arcade games, the trend away from experiences that demand expertise has been a challenge not only to its designers, but also to its business model. But it’s a challenge for which the company has, in its most recent Xbox 360 release Deathsmiles, found an elegant solution.
Each of the game’s eight stages can be completed at one of three difficulty 'ranks', chosen by the player just before undertaking a new level. Those players who simply want to blast through to the game's conclusion can do so by simply selecting the lowest 'rank' before each stage.
But lowering the difficulty also reduces the number of points on offer in a stage, ensuring that those players who want to master the leaderboards can only do so by upping the challenge.
As the difficulty can be adjusted on the fly between each stage, an interesting metagame emerges, as a player must decide whether it's better to earn fewer points over more levels, or more points over challenging stages at the risk of ending their game prematurely.
The scaling of difficulty doesn't merely increase the speed of enemy bullets. Rather Cave has gone to the effort of designing entire attack patterns that are unique to each of the difficulty ranks, an investment that adds texture and interest to the game as you slide between difficulties. It's elegant, smart and broadens the pool of players who are able to get involved with the game, without compromising the challenge for Cave's core audience.
What’s surprising is how few of gaming’s heavyweight blockbusters have managed to find equally elegant ways of scaling difficulty for players. While Deathsmiles benefits from a score attack focus, meaning its designers can penalise players who lower the difficulty in a meaningful way, few so-called triple A titles go to as much effort across difficulties.
Call of Duty: Black Ops and Dead Space 2 are two recent releases that fall back on a simple difficulty selection screen at the start of the experience, players having to blind guess a challenge suitable to their ability, while enduring the nagging feeling thereafter that perhaps they are not playing the game the way its designers intended.
Meanwhile, the only incentive many games offer for playing at the most challenging difficulty is via achievement points, an arguably cheap way to sidestep the need for meaningful difficulty design.
It is, almost without exception, preferable to design a game in such a way that beginners can find enjoyment on the low hanging branches, while those with ability to climb to the top of the tree are free to do so, and reap the rewards for their efforts.
The challenge laid down by the merging of Defender and Pac-Man's lineages in recent years is to discard the use of difficulty selection menus at the start of your game. Take the road less traveled and design your game in such a way that both beginners and experts can find pleasure and challenge in your experience without having to manually adjust difficulty themselves.
It may be a more difficult design route, but it's a challenge with a rich reward for those who can overcome it.