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Examining Subjective Difficulty: How Plumbers Can Fight Demons
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Examining Subjective Difficulty: How Plumbers Can Fight Demons


January 4, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next
 

The Main Example: Super Mario in 3D

The Mario franchise has been going strong since the NES era. When the series transitioned to 3D with 1996's Super Mario 64, the game design changed profoundly. Before, every level was completely linear in its approach and mechanics; with the move to 3D, nonlinearity was introduced in the form of open levels.

The Super Mario Galaxy series and Demon's Souls are two sides of the same coin.

Obviously, that statement needs to be clarified. Both games give the player access to all of the core abilities of the character from the start of the game. In Mario, the plumber's abilities are movement-based (running, jumping) and his spin attack.

In Demon's Souls, the abilities and mechanics revolve around combat: attack, defense, managing stamina, and counterattacks. (It's worth noting that the player will unlock power-ups in the Super Mario Galaxy games, but these are usually confined to specific levels or gameplay scenarios.)

Now, the deviating point between the two series -- and why Mario is a better example of Subjective Difficulty than Demon's Souls -- has to do with the level design. In Demon's Souls, the player has access to all the available mechanics from the start and from the first stage is tested on all of them. In Mario Galaxy, the player has all the available mechanics and is not tested on all of them, but can use them if necessary.

Referring back to the concept of Darwinian Difficulty, the player is introduced from the very beginning of the game to all (or at least most) of the mechanics and is then tasked with using them effectively. Here is the difficulty chart from the previous article, as a point of reference:


In both types of games, the player has all of the gameplay tools from the outset. In a game with Darwinian Difficulty, the player is asked to use them all; in a game with Subjective Difficulty, the player may or may not use them at any time during the game and still play effectively. The difference between the two allows different skill levels to experience the same content, but handle it in different ways based on their expertise.

The first level in Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a perfect example of level design built around Subjective Difficulty. About halfway through the level, Mario has to use ascending and descending platforms to climb up a hill. Expert players can use a combination of Mario's triple jump and wall jump to get up the hill in a fraction of the time a novice might take.

There's another example near the end of the level. The player is tasked with maneuvering over bottomless pits by traversing moving platforms. A novice player can get through this entire area using nothing but Mario's basic jumping ability, and be tested with this design. However, an expert player can simply bypass the entire area by performing a long jump across the pits.

Both the novice and expert player have the same challenge, but handle it differently based on their skill levels. Unless the novice player has read the manual or played Super Mario Galaxy, at that point they probably have no idea how to perform a long jump, and that's perfectly fine. The first mention and test of using the long jump ability comes later on, at the same time Mario gets the cloud power-up. The in-game introduction to each of Mario's abilities is signified by a signpost showing the player how to perform the mechanic, followed by a simple test.

The following graph shows the difficulty curve of a subjective game:


For the sake of the article, this chart only represents the normal content of the game; we'll touch on post-game content further on. As you can see, for the novice player, the game's difficulty curve follows the normal progression -- a steady progress higher across the chart with a few dips here and there. Meanwhile, an expert player starts out lower on the curve and makes a continual progression.

Now, you may be asking, "If the expert player is taking a harder course, shouldn't the curve be higher than for the novice?" The reason it isn't goes back to the concept of Subjective Difficulty. Even though the expert player is doing something harder, their skill level at the game makes it easier for them. For example, if we ask someone who has never lifted weights to lift 40 pounds, and a professional weightlifter to lift 60 pounds, the novice is going to struggle due to their inexperience. However, the weightlifter, used to lifting much heavier loads, wouldn't even sweat.

As the game progresses there should come a point where the difficulty curves converge indicating two things:

1. The novice player has reached the same skill level as the expert player.

2. The game is now challenging both groups with the same content.

At the end of the regular content in Super Mario Galaxy, players are expected to fully understand Mario's move set, and are tested on it all in one final stage. The same philosophy of designing the levels is still used, but now the game is more akin to Demon's Souls, expecting the player to make use of all of Mario's abilities to win.

Novice players who do manage to beat Super Mario Galaxy will find that the game has changed for them. Now that they understand all of the different abilities Mario has, they can now use them anywhere in the game. It's similar to how in an RPG, a higher level player can return to a once difficult spot and utterly demolish it -- but what's leveled up is the player, not the character.


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