On Difficulty

Difficulty is a combination of various parameters in a game’s design: How much room for error do you get? How long do you have to demonstrate skillful play in order to succeed? How does the game punish the player for failure? All of these things will add up to the following: How hard is it to achieve a task or beat a game?

Like all choices in the design process, difficulty should lead to a more engaging game. Different games will demand different approaches to difficulty, and what may be appropriate for the arcade shoot ’em up may not apply to the open-world computer game. The proper difficulty level can make the game more challenging—requiring a player to master a greater range of skills in order to keep everything from crashing down—and it can make a game world feel more atmospheric and dangerous.

But as a tool for learning a game, difficulty acts as a corrective mechanism. A well-designed and well-paced difficulty curve tells a player that he has done something wrong, and the act of failure will force a player to experiment with his available options. If a game is too easy, the player will blast his way through the world with little effort, and grow bored with what he has seemingly conquered. If the game is too hard, then you risk the chance that players will feel there is nothing to be learned from defeat, and that will also turn them away from the game. And with it, one of the most difficult tasks for the game designer is coming up with something that will provide entertaining goals for both the new and experienced player. Very often, this means asking the beginner to merely survive and the expert to survive with style.

So, we can close shop on this discussion, right? Well, the last two decades of videogames have thrown a wrench in this. As you’re probably aware, there’s a general perception that games used to be much, much harder, manifested through misnomers such as “Nintendo Hard“. Though generally speaking, those players are correct. Easy games were only a commercial detriment in the world where arcades ruled the medium, because the easy games would be quickly conquered and then cast to the wayside. And with it, console and computer game developers were merely following the trends set by the difficult arcade games.

However, during the mid-nineties, there was a significant shift in the videogame market. The world of the PlayStation marked the first time that the technology in home consoles was comparable to arcade hardware, ushering in the commercial decline of the arcades. And in a world where home gaming reigns supreme, “easy games” means “more people buying more software”. The second leap came from the optical disc, which significantly increased the amount of storage space that home developers had to work with. They could now introduce additional content in place of the extended playtime that would have been normally generated by failure and defeat, and theoretically, the game which took ten tries to beat could now be replaced with a game that was ten times longer. Developers obliged.

As played through today’s popular releases, difficulty has become an antiquated notion. The games are not only being focus-tested towards the “average” player, but even being patched post-release if players complain that certain sections are too difficult.* Lives are being cast aside, health bars are replaced with regenerating health, and checkpoints save progress after every sequence, ensuring players won’t have to complete the hard stuff a second time. More commonly, the skill in today’s videogames is the act of competing against human players or a leaderboard, which can be as “difficult” as competing against the best player in the world. But even in the unforgiving world of online multiplayer, matchmaking systems offer an adaptable difficulty level, providing fair matchups for the weakest players in the community.

And as a result, some crazy lines of thought on the matter of difficulty have begun to emerge. After all, you’ll hear that movies and television don’t “fail” the viewer. Books don’t “fail” the reader. Videogames are the only form of media that prevents players from accessing the content if they have not demonstrated the right to see it. (Even though, of course, a movie or book is still “locking you out of the content” if you didn’t understand it. Games are just more vocal about the matter.) Instead of arguing that there are more clever answers to failure than a fade to black—the world where “losing to the guards” could mean fighting your way out of the dungeon—many players now view any form of punishment as a restrictive, backwards practice. Players are so far removed from what difficult games once were that the entire notion of difficulty has been fundamentally warped. And fittingly enough, it’s been warped in a way that gets more people to buy more software.

If you asked players to name the hardest games in recent memory, you would probably hear of games like Super Meat Boy, the Trials series, Hotline Miami, VVVVVV, and I Wanna Be the Guy. And that would demonstrate how much those players have missed the point. Do you notice what all of these “punishing” games have in common? Gratuitous checkpoint use, exceptionally short levels, and infinite lives. It’s not unlike playing games in an emulator with the help of save-states. And on the other end, games such as the Souls series place most of the challenge in understanding how to approach a dungeon or monster, rather than defeating it. The actual combat is significantly less demanding than that in comparable games, assuring that the players who would have fits with a God Hand or Ninja Gaiden can blast their way through the game.

This is the ruse that has been sold by modern videogames. There are audiences complaining that videogames are too easy, but companies want to keep the games as inclusive as possible, so they give those players the best of both worlds. Much as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is sold to the public as a “hardcore role-playing game”, these games allow weaker players to get the satisfaction of beating a “hard game”—a narrative which can be enhanced with clever marketing*—while remaining open and accessible for everyone. And the games sell into the long-established mythos that “time equals skill”, showcasing the idea that any game can be overcome with enough perseverance and patience. When, of course, the truly difficult games are difficult precisely because they go beyond a level of capability and understanding which many players, even those who have been playing for decades, will never be able to achieve.

What people tend to forget is that the skill in the older Nintendo and arcade games wasn’t about difficult moment-to-moment challenges, but rather, sustained excellence. It was about developing a degree of mastery and then beating the entire obstacle course without screwing up. While the public associates arcade games with “credit-feeding”, enthusiast websites and other circles subscribe to the “one credit” rule, in which you have only “beaten the game” if you did it on a single quarter or credit.* To my knowledge, it has never been publicly endorsed by a single arcade game developer, but the design of the games largely supports it, with games that reset your score upon death, offer additional content to players who don’t continue, and are utterly fair in delivering brutal challenges. And as a goal to getting the most out of a thirty-minute arcade game, it’s a philosophy that works.

So you see, anyone can barrel through an arcade game with a pocket full of quarters. Anyone can barrel through an old Nintendo game if they’re saving their progress through an emulator. But only the skilled and determined will maintain their composure in the face of the impossible machine. So while more than half of the voters on a site like GameFAQs will rate Super Meat Boy as “Unforgiving”,* it is actually a rather easy game because it never demands that the player demonstrate mastery of the cruel domain for more than a minute at a time. And should you fail, you’re not being set back in the slightest. You’ll start right back at the beginning of the bite-sized level and get to bang your head against the wall one more time.

“But that’s not fair! Take the one-credit rule and apply it to the new games. Super Meat Boy would be nearly impossible if the player was held to three lives.” While it would be easy to go with the argument that intent is key—most arcade games were designed to be beaten on a single credit—difficulty also acts as a check on the integrity of the game. After all, what has more integrity: The game where players are expected to run the gauntlet on a single life? Or the game where the developer must provide concessions to prevent players from becoming frustrated by poor design?

If you phase out the checkpoints and free lives, the cheap thrills offered by these games now become massive liabilities that can and will expose these games for what they are. In a game of low difficulty, “frustrating deaths” can be mocked and then marketed to the public, where Limbo crushes the player with deliberately obtuse designs and expects the player to shake it off. But in the game that demands everything from the player, the player demands diligence from the developer. The shoddy design which props many of these “super hard” games now become an avenue for total frustration, and a series of games that no one will ever want to play. Not because they’re too hard, but because their flaws are no longer things that players can ignore.

But maybe you’re not convinced, and you’re not committed to playing a game that “locks away content” behind a crushing difficulty, a game which uses these “poor design practices” to “artificially lengthen” the game. Well, playing through the same level dozens of times demands some degree of discipline, and in a lot of ways, it was easier for yesterday’s videogame players to develop that discipline. In a world where a game cost fifty dollars, in a world where your parents aren’t buying you another game for a month or two, and in a world where free videogames were difficult to come by, you might as well master the ones that you had.

Here’s what I can tell you: The player who wants to make the most out of videogames will have to do it by earning an appreciation for their most intrinsic design qualities. The game that punishes you for failing to learn these lessons will do a much better job in teaching those lessons than the one where any mistake can be handwaved. And as tasks that once seemed impossible become routine, it is inevitable that the active and disciplined player will seek more ambitious challenges as he seeks to regain the danger, tension, and sense of accomplishment that the easier games no longer provide. The natural order of committed play will favor harder games over easier ones.

But some of the biggest moments and memories in your life are going to be the ones where you only had one chance to get it right, to take everything you’ve learned and to put it into application. If you fuck up, it’s going to haunt you forever. Videogames can’t quite offer the same consequence, even if they can occasionally ask us to put our money or pride on the line. The best a game can do is threaten to throw us back at the start, and threaten to take away the progress that we earned in that universe, to offer the most extreme consequence that it can within its own framework. That is how the game raises the stakes and makes every decision that much more important.

Again, not all games will demand this approach to difficulty, and difficulty is not a measure of a game’s quality. But what I can assure you is that the game which forces you to demonstrate competency and mastery of a universe—often to the point where that universe is burned into your brain—is going to lead to a more satisfying and memorable impression than the passive experience that’s as challenging as a cheap television show. If you truly desire to become a better player and further explore the medium—in order to get more out of it—then being able to overcome those impossible odds is a damn good skill to have. And, very often, that means accepting a difficult task when it’s presented to you.