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Analysis: Is Hard The New Good?
Analysis: Is Hard The New Good? Exclusive
February 2, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander




[Why are the truly difficult games seeing the most critical acclaim today? Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander thinks she might see a new video gaming trend: Is "hard" the new "good"?]

The Wii's success helped drive something of a sea change in the way developers conceptualize game design. As young children, mothers and grandparents in nursing homes alike all joined Nintendo in spirit, it was suddenly more possible than ever to create games for a mass market.

At the same time, the surge in social networking and the growth of other new platforms with low entry barriers, like the iPhone, also helped bring broader-focused, more accessible gaming experiences to newer and bigger audiences. These new avenues more than revolutionized the term “gamer” -- they made it redundant, as a “gamer” could be anyone.

The timing couldn't have been better, either. The last two years' softening economy made it necessary for anyone with an interest in staying in business to cast a wide net. Alongside this evolving landscape came a subtle shift in design priorities: Developers seemed better off making games that were simple and inviting, rather than challenging or immersive.

This landscape shift also affected the core market. Among the online communities of hardcore fans, a Wii backlash had been simmering for some time, and even many professional reviewers, once optimistic, had begun to be frank about feeling as if the system was not "for them."

But while the Wii has become something of an avatar for the "gaming for everyone" concept, it's far from the only factor. Even core design has been trying to lower its barriers, prizing systems whereby players can set their own challenge level.

The evidence is everywhere, even very recently: Compare Bayonetta, with its simple two-button combo system, to the more complex button patterns of the earlier Devil May Cry games. Witness the streamlining of Mass Effect 2 .

It seems counterintuitive that such evolution would evoke much protest. While it's true that the easiest way to lower a game's barrier to entry is to dumb it down, most of these evolutions and innovations are just smarter design. Why frustrate players unnecessarily?

That's why it's so surprising that all of a sudden, it seems there's a movement -- an insurrection, if you will -- of players who want to be frustrated.

The evidence is subtle but compelling. For one example, look to major consumer website GameSpot’s Game of the Year for 2009: Atlus’ PS3 RPG Demon’s Souls, which received widespread critical acclaim – none of which failed to include a mention of the game’s steep challenge. GameSpot called it "ruthlessly, unforgivingly difficult."

Demon’s Souls was a sleeper hit, an anomaly in the era of accessibility. One would think the deck was stacked against a game that demanded such vicious persistence, such precise attention – and yet a surge of praise from critics and developers alike praised the game for reintroducing the experience of meaningful challenge, of a game that demanded something from its players rather than looked for ways to hand them things.

It wasn’t just Demon’s Souls that recently flipped the proverbial bird to the “gaming for everyone” trend. In many ways, the independent development scene can be viewed on the macro level as a harbinger of trends to come, and over the past year and into 2010, many indies have decided to be brutal to their players.

For example, it’s probably no coincidence that one of the most widely-acclaimed indie games in recent months is Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV, a game both named and designed around the concept of grueling platformer death by spikes (despite, of course, its genre-refreshing gravity-oriented innovations).

A few examples does not a cultural backlash make, but the surprising success of such challenging video games raises an important question: Do players like being frustrated after all?

Many old design concepts, like massive gaps between save points, limited “lives” or arcade-relic intentional brutality, were abandoned for good reason – they were needlessly frustrating. But in adopting piecemeal the design ideal that all frustration is bad, developers may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

So is hard the new "good"? That seems to be the case. More and more, both critical and audience response favors meaningful challenge over too much hand-holding, and learning experiences over games that demand little.

Certainly design wisdom can’t regress toward principles that were abandoned for good reason, but the current environment is beginning to show signs that it mustn’t race heedlessly toward an entirely new paradigm, either.


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Comments


Anthony Charles
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I hope you're right. For a long time I've feared the inevitable consequence of gaming's entry into popular consciousness would be the marginalization of the enthusiast. It's just poor business practice to put a ton of development dollars into a game targeted at a miniscule fraction of the population. Better to make Farmville 2.



I freakin' love Demon's Souls, but while it was critically acclaimed what matters more are sales figures. Anyway, the innovative online elements have as much to do with its renown as its refreshing difficulty. I imagine in a few years the online stuff will have had a much greater impact on game design than the difficulty.

Tom Newman
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Great topic!

Hard is not the new good imo. The main issue is the fact that as the videogame market has grown over the last decade to be a top form of entertainment, developers have been under pressure to make games as accessible as possible, often taking away the challenge that came with games from the 8 and 16 bit era. Games like Demon's Souls take everything modern and embrace it while still retaining the challange games used to regularly provide.

Nick Kinsman
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*shrugs*

I think the statement here is a bit to broad to be worth much. I generally agree with what Tom said, though I have some other reasons to believe there's more to the story ...



The first thing is age - I think most of us, and most critics, are easily in the realm of 20+. The games we grew up with were difficult, and we all learned to either deal with, or embrace that fact. It's natural, for reasons of nostalgia at the very least, to be happy when something comes along that poses a difficulty you can enjoy. But again, I would propose 'difficulty' is too broad because you have different kinds - difficult puzzles, reflex challenges, tactical challenges, etc ... I adored Braid, and found in its unique ways it was a very difficult game - solving my last 3 puzzles in the game each took hours. I wasn't dying doing it, or tearing out hairs in frustration ... no, I was calmly looking at the screen thinking, and frankly loving every moment of it.

For an example that may be more paralleled and touch on another note this article makes, I'd point to Metroid Prime 3. Corruption made amazing leaps and bounds in the control aspect of the Prime series, but it also killed the flow with oversimplification and bad story. There was never a question of what beam you should be using or other kinds of special attacks or maneuvers because every item you obtained was a straight-up upgrade. This, coming right after Echoes (a game that was actually fairly hard in a lot of good ways), was an insane let-down to me as a player.

Heck, if you get a little more modern and look at Dead Rising, it's certainly not a forgiving game in any right. It's not as hard as Demon's Souls, but it's no cake-walk, especially if you want to do well ...



TL;DR / Summary

I enjoy hard games, but I would never expect them to make a huge comeback, and if they did I think it would be a bad thing because you'd have your market spread too thin. My unfortunate truth is that I have to pick and choose my titles for other reasons, most of the time the art style or fluidity of the game, not the difficulty.

Fabio Daniel Ribeiro
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Leigh, I think that there's some exaggeration here.



First, it's obvious that many players (I think most of them hardcore ones) will complain about "non-difficult games" - simply because they're *addicted* on playing extremely difficult games, to the point of culting the best players worldwide etc. That's the culture we created to them with insanely punishing and hard games, and that's not 90's game's fault only - as you say in the article (limited lives, gaps between save points). Any FPS and MMO does exactly the same punishing pressure, just in a different fashion, more subtly; sometimes an even bigger pressure, as other players does the punishing on online massive games (in the place of AI), and your pride will not let you simply accept to be humiliated by other player. Am I saying anything stupid here?



And second, it just shows how blind, dumb and lazy our main industry is. One day people developed some successful games that used punishing systems as difficulty mechanics, and it worked (as it were something new at the time); everybody started copying this formula, pushing to its extreme, and when it became hard to push along, a new direction appeared (casual trend): some new barriers was broken, everybody is following the new way, and now we got a vicious cycle, can you see it? And it's obvious that all the players of the existing trends, now "abandoned", will complain about - and it doesn't mean that anything new is appearing, but simply the same "old" fashon is trying to remain.



As I said, this doesn't make hard the new good, as you state. If the industry was just a little smarter they would never followed a single path and abandoning the existing ones, which would never led you to this statement - simplistic, for me. It seems to be more a reflection of what our industry unfortunately done, throwing away what was stablished because "casual games is the new gold rush". Dumb, simplistic, lazy thinking - something we should expect from game companies that isn't interested in do good games, more than make easy money with more of the same.



My words may seem harsh, but the aren't; I'm simplifying a more complex thought, that fits on an article more than on a comment. But I am sure that anything I said is new, mainly for an expert journo as you are. We all know how sick our industry is, so it's surprising to see an article stating such an obvious issue.

Scott Snyder
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It's not about "Hard is Good", it's about appropriate difficulty for the game, the platform, and the intended market share. The backlash against "mass market" games is coming from those who generally identify themselves, and with, what has been defined as the "hardcore" gamer. Our industry has been driven, to some extent, by this elitist hierarchy for some time - trying to grab the middle of the market to influence the edges and increase market share. Now we see games (like Farmville) that abandon the middle completely, and go right for the mass market. So the elite no longer feel elite, and need to reestablish their importance and dominance.



There will always be room for elite "hardcore" game experiences, along side simpler mass market experiences. To think there is ONE "good" and one guiding principle is to miss the current trends of mobilization, access, and the aging of those who identify as "gamer" and consequently have most of the money to spend. (And think 40+ not 20+).

Gregory Kinneman
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If we've learned anything, it's that gamers want to experience flow; a state that is not too easy and not too difficult. For some, that means a game that brings other people to tears with its difficulty. To others, it means having the game practically beat itself to keep them from falling over their own feet. Games starting allowing variable difficulty so that players could find the right balance.



If more of the population grew up playing games, we could expect the familiarity with the control systems and tropes of certain game mechanics to be quickly understood and well rehearsed. This would lead to games needing to be more difficult in order to appeal to these players. However, at the same time we're seeing people who have never played games before picking up the Wii or DS. These players need very easy-to-learn games that do not frustrate the beginner.



If Demon Souls got a lot of praise, it was from those who are in the business of reviewing games. Naturally these avid gamers give praise to hard games. We can always be assured that quality 'hardcore' games will receive good reviews. The question is if these games are for everyone [hint: no] and if they show a general trend towards tougher games [hint: probably no]. If Demon Souls shows us anything, it's that a game can attempt to appeal purely to the hardcore crowd and still be successful.



So is there a trend towards tougher games in the hardcore market? That's possible. Is there a trend towards tougher games in general? I'd venture to say it's just the opposite.

Fabio Daniel Ribeiro
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Scott, you explained part of what I stated in a less "harsh" way. Again, that's a much more complex subject to talk than simply commenting here. But you're right, that's time to our industry to really grow up, and assume that this stupid "herd behavior" wouldn't led to anything healthy. Any game should be unique specially on what regards to how players will develop through, but the dream of easy money throws it away to favor this dream that many times never comes true.



Leigh, I should add to my previous comment that you should explore more subjects like how the main industry can position themselves - and their games - in a way that the trends do not overlap each other, "respecting" themselves and leaving room for everybody. This happened with hardcore x casual, and will happen tomorrow when the new "big trend" appears.



With gesture input systems becoming standards and mobile devices becoming even better as gaming platforms, in no time this new big trend will show up. and what will we do? Should everybody run together, abandon our exiting "player universe", to after that question if "casual and hardcore is the new good"? No, we should fix it before it happens again. No one truly gains with such a industry behavior. Des it sounds less harsh than before? I said, this leads to a much bigger discussion...

Adam Flutie
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I personally think variable difficulty levels is still the only 'good' and few devs seem to be doing it. We either get too simple, or too hard. I also think that the trend to strip out all the details, aka ME2, is going to come back and bite us. Why not make easier modes just automate a lot of the inventory management, character development, and such instead of removing it altogether? Think of Civ. Tons of detail, if you want to do it, tons of automation if you don't. Plays great for both camps and those in the middle.

Leo Gura
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Just having played Demon's Souls this weekend, I got strong feelings on this one.



I don't care how much you like it, from a design perspective, that game is seriously flawed. There is a difference between challenge and masochism. Challenge has always been a key component of great gameplay, but Demon's Souls is an example of how to do it wrong.



I can see exactly why Altus did what it did though. It's a business move more than a design move. If Demon's Souls wasn't as difficult as it was, you could complete all the levels in a single sitting. This saves HUGE on production, cause the scope of the game is much smaller as a result. And this mimics many classic games of yore, which too, could be completed in mere hours had they not demanded player perfection.



The lesson from Demon's Souls is simple, if you're short on budget, make your game stupidly difficult.

Joe Elliott
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Also because Reviewer != MainStreamGamer and the critical acclaim is attributed from review scores, not actual playtime from real people. Much like comparing music critiques with actual scrobbling data from last.fm.



Reviewers are experienced harcode gamers. They review the game by playing through it in one shot at 40h a week. They are playing alone because it's usually before the release date so there's nobody on the servers. Games like Mass Effect 2, Assassin's Creed II and GTAIV really fit that syle and et perfect scores from them.



The average gamer works or study 40h a week. He plays hard but when he has time. He'd rather play with friends. Criticaly acclaimed games are bought because of reviews and hype, but are left unfinished (GTAIV 30% complete rate? Biggest complain about Mass Effect 2 we read is: I haven't finished the first!"). We analyse their playtime and find out they actually spend more time playing Mario Kart than the critiacally acclaimed title.

Lucas Seibert
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I would say that saying that 'hard is the new good' may be a bit of an overstatement. While I agree that we are seeing a return to difficulty models that are reminiscent of earlier times in gaming due to a number of factors, the increasing size of the casual gaming populace among them, I think the take away here is something more like 'hard can still be good'.



As many of the proponents of difficult games has responded already, there is something inherently pleasurable about overcoming a difficult obstacle (the caveat being that the challenge must be something that can be overcome through skill and practice). I think that this is not the end all, be all of what constitutes good, however, which is illustrated aptly by the warm reception of the very titles you cited as emblematic of the simplification of games.



Furthermore, despite having grown up playing some of these brutally hard games held up as the spiritual ancestors of the modern day 8 and 16 bit experience, I don't find myself with the time to spend building the skills necessary to prosper in these exceptionally difficult games. This doesn't mean they are bereft of merit, it simply means that with my limited time to devote to games they no longer fit my life. I think that Scott had it right, it is about propriety of the difficulty for the audience, and frankly, that difficulty is no longer appropriate for the life I lead.

Bob Stevens
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Demon's Souls isn't that hard after you figure it out and get a couple levels and some gear. It's still punishing, but not hard. The challenge of the game is one of many aspects that combine to make it one of the best gaming experiences of the last year.

John Mawhorter
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It's just that people have realized there are still lots of hardcore gamers out there from whom you can make a decent profit. Difficulty in games isn't that hard to add on even to games that are "dumbed down" if you just include an insane mode or whatever. You seem to take the stance that old-school/hardcore games are needlessly "frustrating". A lot of gamers aren't frustrated, but rather feel challenged and enjoy rising to that challenge. Don't marginalize the hardcore, instead admit that they are still an important part of the audience.

Mike Lopez
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I would have to agree with Greg K and Joe E: Of course super hard core difficulty games get high scores from super hard core industry press! This does not make ultra hard core difficulty a trend.



That said, I think the premise for the article is way flawed because difficulty should never be directly at odds with accessibility and usability; one can make a very accessible and usable game that also has a great deal of challenge (though I think that would be an overly narrow market focus/mistake).



Having design and directed games for much of the past two decades I strongly believe adaptive difficulty systems which can be player set up/down will bring the sweet spot of challenge to the most players and is thus the wave of the future. I have been continually amazed that developers are so slowly moving in that direction but the advantages are obvious for both the player and the developer (easier tuning/balancing while minimizing difficulty spikes and the ability to leverage the difficulty system to impact the pacing of play).



$0.02

Eric Adams
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I am convinced that a good game allows a variable difficulty setting to appeal to the gamut of consumers...and to allow for maximum sales. However, I would really like for devs to reward those players that undertake the hardest difficulty setting. A reward being a unique level, enemy, cut-scene, etc.

Glenn Storm
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There's something to be said for the social aspects of gaming supporting a harder challenge. While we can certainly imagine examples of single player challenge with absolutely no relatedness connection, it's difficult to take the social aspect out of this completely.



Demon's Souls in particular cleverly keeps the single player plugged into a community, but even with VVVVVV, there is a strong internet social pull saying, "Hey, have you played this one yet?". Some game experiences may make it harder to draw the connection to others, but in general, I see challenge for challenge sake being difficult to support interest, while challenge in any social setting takes on a compelling twist for gamers in particular, those who measure progress/success and prize individuality/exploration.



That said, I agree with others that going as far as saying it's the new "good" ignores large segments of our now enormous audience. For some, low challenge with sufficient reward (like a social aspect) is enough.

Patrick Dugan
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Having VVVVV and Bayonetta in the same analysis is why I <3 Leigh.



I think ultimately people want to be held responsible for their own actions, because even though it can be painful, at least then we know our feelings are real. How's that for an Evangelion paraphrase?

Joshua McDonald
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Both in the article and the comments, I think a lot of people miss the point of making games difficult/easy. There seems to be an assumption that difficulty is somehow disconnected from the rest of the experience (i.e., you can just set the difficulty at the end of development).



If the main point of the game is to get players through a story, then easy or dynamic difficulty works great. However, if it's a gameplay-focused game, usually the key source of enjoyment is mastering skills and overcoming challenges. In these cases, if the game isn't difficult then the core part of the experience is lost.



In games like this, dynamic difficulty is BAD. If a gamer finds out that he overcame a great challenge, not because he developed the requisite skills, but because the game cut down the power of the enemies, he has just been robbed of all of the satisfaction he would have gotten.



I think that the reason some of these hard games are successful is because they're more focused on gameplay than story. The difficulty is there because the gameplay must be challenging for the player to dive in and master the mechanics.

Dave Endresak
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Like many things, difficulty is subjective.



However, I would like to refer to the MDA document and point out that challege/difficulty does not make a good game for many people, perhaps the majority of people, because that is not what such people look for in order to have an enjoyable entertainment experience. This does not make their preference any less valid as a measurement of quality gaming.



For example, placing challenge into an RPG is one surefire way to break immersion for many people, including myself. For RPGs, the problem is even more glaring if the challenge is directed to my abilities rather than my character's - the game is supposed to be about roleplaying the character, not roleplaying myself. In fact, this type of approach completely defeats the main element of roleplaying because it removes the freedom to present oneself as one truly sees oneself, or to simply experiment with different identities. If I want to play something that relates to my real life abilities, I'll play a puzzle game or something like that, not an RPG, FPS, etc.



The fact of the matter is that different people have different abilities and real life contextual situations. If Gamasutra or some other company wishes to pay me for the time it takes to complete a "challenging" game so as to write reviews or analyses of it, I'll be more than happy to accept the challenge element. The same is true for QA. Like many people, I find some titles, even major releases, woefully lacking in playtesting and QA, but I'd be more than happy to be paid to do such work and help correct such shortcoming in products so that they are not shipped with such obvious flaws in game play mechanics and/or design. However, if I am paying for the product and spending my time analyzing it without any compensation, then I fully expect the product to allow me to play as I see fit in order to craft an enjoyable experience, and for the product to perform without mechanic and design flaws.



I've seen some replies mention Mass Effect 2. I haven't played it, but I have read reviews that say that the roleplaying elements have been stripped out. I've also read consumer reviews where a player states that they are happy that the stats usage and dialogue intensity have been decreased in favor of more focus on action and combat. Well, if this is true about ME 2, I would say that such people are playing the wrong game and that Bioware made changes that are improper for the IP they wished to create, at least according to their own stated intentions about Mass Effect as an IP. There are plenty of action and combat focused games to play, and there's no need to attempt to make an RPG appeal to such audiences. This doesn't mean that there cannot be good synergy of different elements, but it's not absolutely necessary and it's a difficult act to pull off. It's like trying to combine action and combat with romance in novels or film. It can be done, but it isn't required and isn't necessarily recommended due to the difficulty to successfully balancing the widely disparate forms of storytelling.



I've also seen reference to difficulty levels, but that "feature" is almost always poorly implemented in my experience. Bungie had it right with Halo, but they are definitely an exception. Going through the same exact game with the same encounters but having enemies with "more health, more damage dealing" etc is NOT making the game "more difficult." It only makes the game "more annoying" and "more repetitive." Different difficulties should actually change content to be more difficult (or less, for lower settings). Aside from Bungie, another simple example is Valve's original Half-Life where batteries on Hard difficulty setting gave less power than on the lower settings.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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It seems to me that this article operates on the false premise that accessibility and difficulty are mutually exclusive or the opposite of each other. We can start to examine this premise by first defining the terms. "Difficulty" I would define as the effort and skill required to progress through individual sections of the game. This definition distinguishes difficulty game length and from grinding, where progress is achieved by sheer attrition. I would define "accessibility" as the lack of barriers to play the game and to continue playing the game. By these definitions, a game can be both difficult and accessible. If a game is enough fun to play, you will keep playing even if you keep dying, as long as you can feel that it is possible to progress and fair and this is where balancing the difficulty curve is important, since ramping up the difficulty too quickly can damage the accessibility.



I think there are things that harm accessibility more than difficulty in most modern games: cut-scenes, boring tutorials, too much focus on story, too much expectation that the player cares about the story, any taking away of control from the player, absurd setting, lack of responsiveness in controls, taking too long to get to the meat of the game.



I have not played Demon's Souls but it sounds like it is actually quite an arcade-like game, with little focus on story and more on action. It seems as though it's a game that knows it's a game and is not trying to be cinematic. Can anyone confirm this? If true then to me it could be accessible and difficult. By the way, can it be considered a sleeper hit with its sales?



The article seems to assume that the Wii is accessible due to the games being easy. However, there is no example Wii game. Also, the most popular Wii games tend to have a strong local multiplayer focus, which makes the idea of game difficulty redundant since it depends on your opponent. Mario Kart Wii and New Super Mario Bros Wii are both very accessible games, but to play either to 100% single player completion is hard! I can't compare this to the difficulty of completing Demons' Souls. Has anyone played all of these games to completion who can compare difficulties for us?



I think the decline in difficulty in games is something that starting well before the Wii and the "casual" phenomenon. I can't place my finger on where though. I feel as though at some point, games became less about whether or not you could finish them and more about how long it would take to finish them. These days if you can't get to the end and get all of the content you feel ripped off. Yet I remember replaying the early levels of Sonic games repeatedly and getting great pleasure out of it. I didn't feel that I HAD to complete the game because it was inherently fun to play.



Once saving games became possible, it was always possible to eventually complete a game if you were careful enough with your saves and persistent enough. Then completion became an expectation rather than a special treat. Then difficulty became an obstacle to expected completion! If the game is story-based, then you expect to know how it ends. Do things have to be this way? Can we go back to the days of enjoying games even if we can't beat them? I think there is at least room for this type of game on the market and they can be accessible too.

Alan Youngblood
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I don't think 'hard' 'difficult' or 'punishing' are ever going to be popular outside of a very small group of people. On the other hand, challenging is a goal that all games should strive for. I love what many Nintendo first party titles do: Easy to pick up and play, challenging to master. Take a game like any of the Smash Bros games. You can get in and start playing pretty much right away without even reading the rules or instructions and quickly and without frustration learn to do something good. However, it takes a while to learn each characters moves, when to use them, how to do a charged smash attack (in the newer ones). These things give the skilled player an edge over someone that hasn't learned those things yet.



That all being said I think this is a great article Leigh and a great discussion to be having. I for one get incredibly bored at games that are not challenging, and don't finish them. Why? Well why should I finish them? Can I really brag about something anyone can do? I for one, found myself playing torchlight and being bored on normal difficulty. So I upped the ante. I play it now on hard/hardcore and it's so much more fun. It's a pain when I play many hours and in mere seconds I lose my character forever, but it makes everything more fun. I'm not just buying items, I'm buying the best darn items I can afford because I know that I could get rushed by enemies and have to start all over. I can actually brag about a level 15 character because several died at level 7,8 for me to learn how to survive.

Neville Boudreaux
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Having beaten Mass Effect 2 this weekend, I have to say I was slightly disappointed with the difficulty. I believe I was on the Hardcore setting (whatever is one less than insanity) and I just cake walked through the game. I'll try it on insanity next. I still keep going back to Demon's Souls (even with almost 80 hours invested into it) simply because I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes with beating those stages/bosses.



@Leo:

Stages of a newbie Demon's Souls player:

1. Denial ("This game seems easy so far, why is everyone going nuts over this?")

2. Anger ("WHY DID I JUST DIE AGAIN?! All the enemies are back?! WTF!! This game is retarded!")

3. Acceptance ("Maybe...maybe I deserved to die, I just wasn't fast or smart enough...")

4. Triumph ("Take that you stupid Tower Knight! Not so big now! This is the best game ever!!!")



You are on stage 2, my friend.

Eric Harty
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What is nice about Demon's Souls is that every part of the game is a challenge. In too many other games there is no challenge except for the bosses, which makes the rest of the game a waste of time. Demon's Souls skips over the pointless easy parts, and keeps the challenge consistent throughout.



Consistent challenges are a good thing, Hard sometimes is a good thing.

Andre Gagne
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Remember, Masochism is a type of fun...



Seriously I heard one of my colleagues explain this well. A game should be hard only in the way it's designed to be.



Thus there is no "hard" or "easy" game, there is only how well the game is an implementation of the producer's vision. I'd say the rash of "easy" games we saw is due to targeting a different demographic who, according to the producers/marketers, don't want to be frustrated in the way Demon's souls does.

Anthony Charles
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anyway, I bet most of the people speaking on the subject haven't played the game. as someone stated before, it's really not that difficult. I picked it up expecting to regret the purchase, having realized the game was for a more hardcore bread than myself. That was not the case. I get alot more frustrated and feel cheated more frequently playing CoD than Demon's Souls.

Carl Trett
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It is funny but I think from a marketing perspective they think the polar opposite to this idea that "hard is the new good'. "Easy is great!" seems to be the mantra I see and hear. However from a design standpoint I think the movement in casual and social games has been to use the same mechanics we all know and love and remove the mystery from them. Certainly easy is popular. Instead of rolling dice or even clicking a button to see dice rolling, you simply have the effect of that dice roll presented to you. 'Dumb it down' is rampant everywhere and reviewers and fan-clubs for all their wroth do not an industry make. So even if some groups cry out for ramped difficulty the main stream is chanting the opposite. Our audience is made of consumer zombies who exhibit herd characteristics.



Reviewers are not consumers, and though they effect consumption through their output, it is often smaller geek-groups that latch onto things like gruelingly hard game play.



Anyways, I didn't want to argue on the subject of 'is hard the new good' or 'does hard make for good games?'. Ultimately those are subjective ideas and have no good nor bad nor up nor down. Marketing can change that though if they decide as a whole to push the idea that hard games are better and they begin using that in ad campaigns.

Bart Stewart
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I'm reminded of how difficulty was treated from the original Dark Forces FPS to its Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight sequel.



In the original DF, there was no savegame feature, period. If you didn't make it to the end of the entire level, you had to restart the level. Unsurprisingly, this was dinged by gamers and reviewers as excessively hardcore. (I had to put the game away for a while because the ice level was just too frustrating.)



The sequel's designers did something very clever, though. In Jedi Knight your character was able to acquire Force powers. And the number of "stars" you collected at the end of each level determined how many Force powers you could purchase and the strength of those abilities: more stars = more power.



Where this gets interesting is that the designers implemented a savegame system in Jedi Knight... but you were rewarded with more stars if you made it through a level *without saving your game*.



In other words, the designers of Jedi Knight made the game easier to progress through for those who wanted to experience the story. At the same time, the game offered the same level of challenge as the more hardcore Dark Forces as an optional way to play the game, and provided greater rewards to the players who successfully completed each level in that fashion.



I'm not suggesting all designers should clone this exact system. What I'm suggesting is that the general principle of optional challenge with commensurate rewards is worth understanding and re-using. Good game design is inclusive, not exclusive.

Kevin Reese
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Oh, I sure hope hard is the new good. I think generally games have been getting easier and easier over the years. As an veteran gamer, it is very rare I can find a title that actually challenges me. So I gravitate towards the hard stuff, such as Demon's Souls.



That save system that Bart just mentions sounds great. I love games with that sort of flexibility in their difficulty systems.



If a game isn't challenging -- even if it does everything else right -- it's often just not that engaging to play. I don't hope for a throw-back to the unbelievable difficulty of many 8-bit console games, or the frustratingly obliqueness of old school PC adventure games, but hey, bring on the challenge.



Probably Diablo III will be the game of the decade for me, thanks to Hardcore mode. I wish more games had it. If you take death penalties out of the equation, it makes dying less of penalty, which means you don't have to try to stay alive as hard, which means the game isn't as exciting.



edit-=> Neville -=> I'm in the same boat, re: Mass Effect 2 difficulty. The difficulty doesn't scale too well IMHO. The game is getting easier as I go through it on hardcore, not the other way around. I'm also hoping that insanity will be a challenge. Hardcore hasn't been 'easy' but it hasn't been kicking my butt as much as I hoped. IMHO the game relies too much on cover. In cover=you live, out of cover= you die; there are hardly any factors in between. Also, shields / barriers / armor are too similar, I think. I wish there were more differences between these three things. Not that I want to say anything bad M.E2...it is still an amazing, top-notch game.

Chris Kaminari
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Personally, from a die hard gamer perspective (my perspective lol) I love hard games.

The only reason I state that is because when your playing a game, and you come to a part that you just die on immediately, it makes you sit up, and start paying more attention, to not only your own actions, but discovering new combos, along with other tactics that could help you live.

And after you beat that part, you thank god that you did get through it, and you feel like you accomplished something.

I beat Bayonetta on Infinite Climax, and it was hard...not gonna lie, but it also wasnt THAT hard. In some game cases, yes, harder is better, but sometimes you just come across one of those games that has a very bad element, or clunky as hell mechanics, or you HAFTA defeat the enemy a certain way or you cant kill them. Also, if the game isnt all that great for you, then your not gonna want to play it on a harder difficulty, and in turn, its not the player so much, as it is the games mechanics/elements/controls/overall gameplay.

Chris Kaminari
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Edit: Sorry, my shit ass internet connection just posted my response twice, sorry about that.

Eric Adams
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@Neville, totally agree on Mass Effect 2...playing on Veteran and it is way too easy. I really wish ME2 has a variable (on fly) difficulty setting. Really all games that use health and damage modifiers for difficulty should offer this.

John Gordon
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Nice article!



I think one reason so-called "casual" games have become popular is that many of them are more challenging than the average "hardcore" game. For example New Super Mario Bros Wii is more challenging than Super Mario Galaxy even though the former is considered more "casual". Ninja Gaiden Sigma is supposed to be one of the more difficult games, but the hardest setting on Rockband takes longer to master than the hardest setting on Ninja Gaiden Sigma. Any game with engaging multiplayer is challenging which explains the appeal of Wii Sports.



I think there is a real desire for skill based gameplay among gamers, and the "hardcore" are starting to realize that it's been taken out of a lot of their games. "Casual" games may seem like a back-to-basics approach in a lot of ways, but those classics of 20+ years ago took more skill than the average game of today.

Leo Gura
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@Neville



By your arguments, why not make every game iron-man by default, with no alternative? And while you're at it, why not strap some electrodes to your testicles as well. Sure, it'll burn at first, but then you get to step #3 the burn turns into a pleasant tingling sensation, right?



Look, I love hard games, but when I die in DS, I rarely feel: "Maybe...maybe I deserved to die, I just wasn't fast or smart enough..." Most of the time I stand back in awe, wondering how a human being in this day and age designed such a system. Clumsy and limited sword-fighting aside, there are those stupid one-off moments like when a dragon nukes me without warning, or I step into a lava pit and get insta-killed.



Grant me this, DS would have been far more enjoyable had it featured 5x more levels, reasonably spaced checkpoints, more robust sword mechanics (a la Zelda), and a decent loot/soul management system. And given all that, it could still have been HARD.

M C
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I think such a superficial focus on difficulty really detracts from the reason why DS is such a great game: the intensity of the experience, the heightened senses as a result of the risk-reward balance, the ambiance, and the elegant combat game. My body in DS was precious; in how many other games does that hold true?



People greatly exaggerate the difficulty of Demon's Souls. The game has unlimited continues and you can summon help. If you really get stuck you can grind, though you never have to grind if you are good. Try Battletoads or Ninja Gaiden if you want to see really hard games.





@Leo (I can't resist) You did deserve to die. That dragon roared and you ran right out in the open (don't try to deny it). Also, I'm guessing you don't play WOW at all or you would have learned that standing in fire is BAD :D



Poor design it is not. The consistency of DS is just brilliant.

Leo Gura
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Please, DS is the last game I would call brilliant. For the record, I played WoW plenty, but you never know that lava is insta-kill unless you step in it. And when you see ghosts of other players running around on it, well, how's that for consistency? In WoW this isn't an issue cause there's zero death penalty.



I like playing Halo on Legendary. I like playing iron man mode when it's available. I like Geometry Wars. I like to play shooters on Hard. So don't give me BS about being a casual wimp. Hard is good, but please don't cite DS as a good implementation of it.

Chris Melby
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To hop in on Mass Effect 2's difficulty. I'm playing on Insanity and it feels about right for me. I'm getting killed more often than not, which I like as it keeps me challenged and the times I die are my own fault. The difficulty feels about the same as the PC games I used to play on "normal." At one time I knew that choosing the hardest difficulty would be instant death, but now days I choose it so the game won't be a complete walk in the park.



The first Mass Effect for me was overly easy, but still enjoyable, so I'm glad I didn't need to unlock ME2's hardest difficulty when I started my game.



A quick ramble on casual games. Most of the games I played on the PC back in the eighties and nineties, which are considered casual now days were way more challenging than most of these newer games which are labeled with the CHEESE that is Hardcore -- a term that makes younger gamers happy I guess, just like achievements seem to bring them joy?

Carlos Mijares
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I'm so happy to see people know why Demon's Souls is a brilliant game. :) (Didn't read all comments, just some).



I was going to post about why it's so awesome, but even the point I thought people wouldn't bring up, the one where Demon's Souls should NOT give the player the option to pick a weaker difficulty, has been addressed in some form (thanks, Stephen!). Demon's Souls is responsible enough to ensure every person that commits to the game gets the huge sense of accomplishment from successfully advancing through a level. There is no senseless, cheap difficulty thrown at the player. The game requires careful navigation of the environment, and an attentive approach to every encounter. Fail at that, and the game punishes you instantly. It's methodical. The player needs to pay attention (and it's not "work;" have you ever played a sport WELL, and had fun? You need to be on your game). It is pure gaming bliss.



I can say with confidence that accidentally entering the Tower Knight boss battle for the FIRST time (wasn't expecting a boss there), carrying 10,000 souls, and still managing to beat it right then and there, without dying ONCE on my FIRST TRY, was one of the most enjoyable moments I've ever had playing a game (and the first one in a LONG time, and I keep up with many action games). I was 100% focused on what I was doing, and it took me back to the old days of the arcades where skill and concentration were king (well, old days in the West, anyway...) when I needed to shut the f*ck up, pay attention to the game, and get the most out of my quarter (Well, it ALMOST took me to that place. Nothing can replace the arcade experience, and this game does rely a bit on stat building...).





@ Leo

Out of curiosity. Do you play Japanese shmups? Games from CAVE?



Also, the game was developed by From Software (Armored Core, Otogi). As much as I like Atlus, at least credit/ bitch at the right developer.





Leigh said:

"Certainly design wisdom can’t regress toward principles that were abandoned for good reason..."



Whatever "good" reason you're talking about, it's certainly not one that has made games better. It's not "smarter design," but a design CRUTCH many of us designers have to bear when making a game. It's certainly not my favorite part of the job to think of how the lowest common denominator is going to be able "to solve this puzzle," or "beat these enemies." There is always hard mode, yet...:





I understand the thinking behind making games accessible, but I don't agree with the execution of most. Most action games worry too much about showing all the content created to the player, instead of making players earn the right to see it. Bayonetta, as much as I praise it to high heavens (oh, there is plenty of praise for this game to go around), forced me to play through the Normal difficulty setting before I could replay the game on Hard (where it's infinitely more rewarding, and would've been more so had I played the game in that setting on my first playthrough, like in Batman). In Batman: Arkham Asylum on Hard, while some encounters were challenging enough, the checkpoint system was so ridiculously forgiving, I could just quickly retry small sections half-involved because I knew if I died, I'd just restart very close to my place of death/ failure.



Why play better when the game doesn't make me?

[User Banned]
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Neville Boudreaux
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@Leo



The level gave you a warning about the dragon. Remember the chard pile of corpses? Ever wonder how those got there? Now you know. :) Plus you can see the Dragon approaching from the sky. I'm curious how far you got in the game. Did you beat 1-2? It's one of the tougher levels, but you can always go to any other world and come back to that one. There is no 'right' order to complete the levels in DS. If you can't beat 1-2, try 4-1, 2-1, 3-1, or 5-1. Do whatever you want.



I would agree that I'd like to see more levels, simply because I think the world is very interesting and the atmosphere is great. I wouldn't add checkpoints (the game offers short cuts through a level rather than checkpoints), I wouldn't dare touch the sword mechanics (they are simple yet robust enough to stay interesting), and I don't think you can do a sell/bank mechanic as death would lose much more of its bite. I've lost 300K souls before, it stings, but I got over it and eventually made it out of the stage with many more souls.



Where Master Chief is a one man army unto himself, storming into hordes of enemies and gunning them down as his shields protect him; your character in Demon's Souls is a normal, fragile human like you and me (to an extent).

William Kirkman
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Demon's Souls just did so much right. The environments were well crafted and carefully thought out. The difficulty was just right where it kept me playing but didn't overly frustrate me- it really felt rewarding when you managed to get through a tight spot. The combat was intense and felt realistic; parrying/dodging with proper timing was really rewarding and each weapon felt different and really changed the way you would approach a fight. The bosses were epic and all the enemies were actually deadly instead of being the typical canon-fodder of most action games these days. I liked that every stat point I invested in and what equipment I used felt like it really mattered, it could easily mean the difference between life and death, a fast roll or a slow lumbering.



That said, there was definitely a lot of room for improvement. Player direction is a big one; they should at least tell you where trainers are, how to learn/use spells, what the hell all those status icons actually mean... and do all that without going into the instruction manual. They don't have to hold your hand or anything, but at least give a heads up to the player. I also wish there was a bit more content, I don't think there was enough diversity in the equipment and spells you could get (just look at the hall of fame thing, almost everyone has the same equipment). The last major issue I can think of is with the end falling apart a bit and feeling rushed (don't want to ruin it for anyone by saying more, you'll know what I mean if you get there).



To chime in on the difficulty toggle, I don't agree with it in a game like DS. DS was designed to be what it is; a hard game that punishes those who fail to pay attention, can't adapt, don't learn from trial & error and rewards those who do. Making the game available on easier settings just dilutes the experience and defeats the purpose of the game. I'd argue that the difficulty is one of the core mechanics of the game and changing that changes the game.

Tom Maxwell
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There are a few old school ideas that Demon's Souls uses to great effect. I feel a greater level of engagement when there is a real penalty for dying (in this case, the penalty is basically just the time it takes to fight your way back to the spot you died). I don't find that Demon's Souls to be particularly difficult really - but it does demand a level of awareness, foresight and care in order to not just stumble into a swift death. I don't equate the ease of death as a cheap way to extend gameplay. I'm an avid gamer, but I don't consider myself that hardcore. I am crap at a game like Megaman. Demon's Souls can be played methodically and rewards thoughtful gameplay. I'm really drawn into the game in a way that reminds me of games like Dungeon Master, where there was no pause, and you had to plan ahead, and listen for audio cues. Progression in the game is the meaningful product of the application of your skill and your level of engagement. For me, it's immersive in a way that is rare in games today.



I find that in a lot of games today, I play them just to get through them- to see how the plot plays out. Even though production values are high, and there are great cinematic set pieces, I just don't feel that connected to what's going on. I blew through the campaign for Modern Warfare 2 for instance, and I enjoyed the ride, but that's kind of what it felt like - a ride. Fun but fleeting and transitory (not just because it was short either).

Morten Ottesen
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I think, while "hard" != "good", there are certainly something there. I have come to accept that most

games (excluding notorious titles such as the Ninja Gaiden series, probably Demon's Soul, and of course IWBTG:TM:TG) are too easy for my tastes. But one notion I find disagreeable is that difficulties should be unlocked, unless in obvious cases such as the oldschool D2 difficulty model, where levelwise one leads into the next.

With such a large spread of player skill, why would you as a game designer deny that core of masochistic gamers their joy in your first play through of the game?



A perfect example of both sides comes from Bioware. In Mass Effect 1, there was an achievement for beating the game start to finish on the Hardcore difficulty when, more appropiately, it should be labeled as "Beat the game once, then beat the bla bla". This created an unwanted situation where gamers such as myself, who without doubt could beat the game on Hardcore the first time through (and indeed have done so with a freshly made character, making the first playthrough only neccesary as a learning experience) could not do so. The game developers were working against what part of the playerbase wanted, something they could grant them without negatively impacting the experience of the rest of the playerbase.



Enter Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins. It seems Bioware learned from their earlier blunder, and allowed players to enter the hardest difficulty from the get-go with no previous time-investment in the games. And so I did. I jumped head first into the 2nd hardest setting for both games. And speaking in retrospect, I am sure I could have pulled off the hardest setting from the beginning, if I put my mind to it. There were, so to speak, nothing I learned on my "Hardcore" playthrough that I couldn't have learned on a hypothectical first playthrough on "Insanity". In fact, I think it would have taught me more about the game. Necessity teaches and all that.



So, in short, hard is not the new good, but hard is a must-have beginning feature for games that want to attract a broad spectrum of gamers. Just because we like to play a harder version of the game doesn't mean we want to be forced into waiting for a second playthrough, which might never come.


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