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Free to Play: A Call for Games Lacking Challenge
by Adam Miller on 06/06/13 02:14:00 pm   Expert Blogs   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.


It is often the case that a video game is conceived as a means for exploring an idea, fantasy, or story. In other words, the heart of the game is not a mechanic. Thus the developer is tasked with contriving a mechanic, and more specifically, a challenge, to engage the player. I have come to feel that not only does the challenge in many games often feel contrived, it is entirely unnecessary to a satisfying gameplay experience. In many cases, developers would be served by understanding “game” as “interactive media,” rather than as necessitating some sort of challenge.

The highest profile and recent example of tacked-on gameplay hampering player experience is Bioshock Infinite. The FPS is not terribly implemented—it is simply less interesting than the setting of Columbia, and detracts from that place’s atmosphere and the game’s narrative.


For example, it would make more sense for the protagonist, Booker DeWitt to be gradually seduced by Columbia, before ultimately turning against it. After all, in a parallel universe DeWitt himself masterminded the floating city. Allowing the player to engage with the city on more peaceful terms for a prolonged period would generate suspense and draw out the cultural and interpersonal tensions driving the narrative. Even if you disagree with me on that point, there’s no question that many critics have essentially voiced the opinion that they would have preferred to explore Columbia unimpeded by incessant gunplay. If I could go back in time like DeWitt, I would have urged Irrational to spend their development resources enriching NPC interactions and environmental details, rather than refining a frankly unnecessary combat engine. I want to explore the theme park Columbia, not the warzone.


Developers often lose sight of the fact that interactivity in and of itself (that is, without challenge) can provide a compelling game experience. I have found myself increasingly drawn to interactive fiction and visual novels for this reason—I have agency and a place to explore, but am not required to solve a puzzle or kill something at every turn. I actually enjoy interactive fiction in which every choice I make provides a positive (compelling) outcome—where I am not deliberating between right and wrong answers, but exploring a branching story.

There are of course numerous examples of successful games not designed around a challenge. Back in 2006 Tale of Tales released The Endless Forrest, essentially an elaborate chat room in which the players were deer who could communicate only with projected symbols—much like the more recent and successful Journey. For many, Just Dance provided a preferable experience to DDR and other unforgiving rhythm games. And of course who can overlook the popular Sims franchise.

Children’s games provide some of the most amusing examples of tacked-on challenge. It seems every blockbuster children’s cartoon spawns the same abysmal platformer and adventure lite titles. I would much rather be allowed to return to the world of the movie with the opportunity to explore the world at my own pace and have my own interactions with the characters (because there is no actual space in a film, only narrative). What that would look like would still vary from game to game, but I would want to see interactivity organic to the spirit of the story.  

The role playing genre is the worst offender. The player’s “role” is almost entirely restricted to hero, and more specifically killer, because that’s all the game allows the player to do. Pen and paper RPGs are so compelling because players become characters whose role is to tell jokes, or be enfeebled, or contribute any manner of characteristics to the game experience. Contemporary RPGs hint at mechanics beyond combat, but rarely fulfill on the promise of a world enriched by non-combat oriented play. Again, this is largely due to the perceived need to focus player interaction with the game on the completion of challenges, as opposed to allowing players to simply play.  

Fortunately, developers, especially indie devs, seem increasingly willing to experiment with challenge and the lack thereof. There has been a flood of small indie titles, such as Today I Die, which use simple player interactivity to communicate emotion and atmosphere without really providing a challenge. Conversely, the game Cart Life, which communicates to players the hardships of being a poor food cart owner, has an appropriately unforgiving difficulty curve. The game’s almost impossible communicates hardship in a way balanced gameplay never could. While I love a good FPS as much as the next guy, playing as a hopelessly outmanned, disempowered insurgent could prove a powerful experience.

Games designed around providing a challenge, and specifically a balanced challenge, are inherently limited. There are countless activities that could serve as compelling gameplay but that we don’t see simply because they aren’t challenging. Likewise many games feature fun activities, but wall them behind tedious gameplay (you can wear pretty dresses and hats, but you have to earn those garments first).  

I am hungry for games that allow me to explore without tasking me with success. I want to fly into deep space and explore alien worlds and interact with (or merely spectate) the lush fauna and flora. I do not always want to shoot said alien life, or rescue it from natural disasters, or develop its economy, or ward of rival spaceships. I’m not saying games that focus on one of those aforementioned challenges shouldn’t exist. I’m saying that maybe, for once, I could have an experience that fulfills on its core promise without saddling me with contrived challenges. 

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Christian Nutt
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Basically in any post that is even tangentially related, I'll bring this up -- but have you tried Virtue's Last Reward? If you like visual novels you ought to. What's interesting is that the developers clearly (in contrast with its predecessor, 999) made it so that you can literally skip the puzzles if you want. After you solve them they generate a password, which you type into a safe to get key to the door for the room you're trapped in. Of course, you could just go online and get the password. It's deliberate, clearly.

Kevin Clough
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Thanks for that tip. This game is coming free to PS+ this month and I was looking forward to trying it but I don't like getting stuck on puzzles.

Val Reznitskaya
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I believe the safe passwords in VLR are actually randomly generated per player. My friend lost some progress, so I sent him a photo of one of mine, and it didn't work for him. So it looks like the developers want everyone to solve each puzzle at least once. Of course it's easy enough to look up what to do, and you never have to do it a second time.

That said, VLR is a great game and a great example of interactive storytelling. Even though it's ultimately linear (in that you need to see most paths eventually), being able to choose the order in which you get information makes it a very engaging and personal experience.

Rick Gush
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Great point. I've long thought winning is painfully overrated as a gameplay device in our industry, to the point that winning and losing are viewed as essential components by most game designers. Personally, I enjoy goofing off and exploring way more than winning. Winning is too easy and passe. Goofing off is limitless. As the rat says in Wind in the Willows: There's nothing more fun than messing about in boats.

Kevin Reese
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Certainly, it depends on the game.

Dark Souls ? I savor the challenge of the game. Featuring a very difficult but fair skills-based challenge is something to be savored there.

But a game need not be challenging to be enjoyable, as you say. If the Sims 3 required that you increase your friend count by 4 every day or you die, for a fictional example, that take a lot of the fun out, of just messing around and enjoying the game world.

I guess the key is as you say 'contrived challenges'. If the challenges seem like they are they just a stop-gap method of slowing you down from unlocking new content, instead of a integral part of the gameplay (or an obstruction to it), then it is not needed .

Darren Tomlyn
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What you're describing the the first paragraph is the problem we have of perceiving activities as and by a particular object/medium used, rather than the behaviour/things that happen that the activity represents.

As such, we're confusing play (or even work), puzzles, art and competitions with games - even though they're all different, separate activities (or even states) - just because we're using a computer to enable them, and even completely ignoring any consistent use independently of computers we can use to base our understanding and recognition upon. (There is also some inconsistent use outside of computers, too, however, since all of this is a symptom of a much deeper problem with our understanding of (at least the English) language, in general.)

What you say you're looking for, based on your descriptions, would be more consistent with being a certain type of puzzle, (to explore), or just a toy to play with. Calling such things 'games' is just perpetuating the problem.

David Navarro
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Well, since "games" has been largely adopted as the name for all interactive experiences, at least outside academia, I'm afraid that ship has already sailed. It would be easier to remove the "challenge" aspect from the definition of "game" than to try to get people to adopt a different moniker for interactive experiences.

Megan Swaine
profile image're saying that The Sims, or anything digital that is entirely puzzle-based is not a video game?

I would argue that the term "video game" is (and has been for a pretty long time) a blanket term for a very broad variety of interactive entertainment. It's pointless to try to narrow that definition, because (as the writer has aptly pointed out) the interactivity itself can be inherently a challenge, with a goal of exploration. Not everyone would find that challenging or compelling, so not everyone would call that a video game.

But some people would.

Darren Tomlyn
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Only because our understanding of the language IN GENERAL and what it represents is flawed, so what we're perceiving, studying and teaching is inconsistent.

And the inconsistencies involved in this, are SO fundamental, that it HAS to matter - or language itself has no meaning, purpose and reason to exist, (or any existence at all).

I'm not saying that fixing what is being studied and taught will be easy and quick - it may take generations for the solutions to become ingrained and accepted.

Would you accept people defining the words table and chair as the same thing, but ONLY because and when they're made out of wood - even though their use and definition would stay as they are if they're made out of any other material?

What do you think would happen if people start to confuse table and chair with wood itself and vice-versa - because people no longer understood the difference?

The problems we have here, are EVEN WORSE than this. (Far, far worse, because of the nature of what we're getting confused between.)

What we're getting confused between are:

Different things.
Different things that happen.
The different people involved in such things that happen.
The properties such things that happen have.
The properties such things that happen cause.

Do you understand why perceiving any of these individual pieces of information as being represented as and by the same word, when used in the same manner, breaks the basic rules of the language (English grammar).

Something a person DOES, can never be the same thing as something that happens TO this person.

Without such rules governing what information the language is used to represent, that determines how and why it is used, (the basic rules of grammar), nothing we're talking about has any consistent meaning whatsoever - because language no longer exists - and breaking these rules is exactly the problem we have, because we don't fully understand what these rules ARE.

(There's a reason why the 'blog post' (depending on what happens with it) that I'm working on at the minute is called 'On the Functionality and Identity of Language' - because that's where the root cause of all the problems we have with understanding games, happens to lie.)

James Yee
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I would point to Unrest (Toot my own horn with this interview:
e-any-other.html) as a take on the RPG genre just like what you want. Focusing less on combat and being a "Hero" and more on actually living the ROLE.

Megan Swaine
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Love this post. Personally, I'm looking forward to things like "Gone Home" or "The Novelist", and I'm glad it's getting easier and easier to find stuff like that.

Telltale's "The Walking Dead" definitely moved closer to that, as well.

Craudimir Ascorno
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I think this article is less about games without challenges, but the actual challenges of games. Like the Bioshock Infinite example, the problem is not that the game has a challenge, but that the generic first-person shooter didn't seem to fit very well the game ambiance, lore and story. The game seems more fit to a puzzle-solving and exploring game than a first-person shooter, but the market calls for most games to be first-person shooters to be successful.

Speaking about RPGs, it is very common that we get games with bland gameplay not because the developers are too focused on the "challenge" part. It is exactly the opposite, developers are too lousy with the "challenge" part, so they throw the usual "millions of random battles" mechanic in the mix because they think it is what people expect from a RPG. However, I have heard people often saying that what moves them in RPGs is the storytelling part, so many of these games would do better as a visual novel than a RPG.

That said, visual novels are not very popular in the west, but it is an interesting genre, given the gameplay is good. The challenge in these games come from "not traditional" sources. You don't have to fight a million of monsters or zombies, but its appeal comes from making correct choices, reading between the lines of dialogue and even making choices according to your own opinions (like dating sims, for example, choosing to getting closer to the prettiest girl, or the one that behaves more like a woman you would like to date). 999 was mentioned here and I consider it to be a terrible kind of visual novel because choices amount to nothing, better to watch a movie or read a book because it will surely tell a more compelling story than the ludicrous "true ending story" of 999. Even the eroge dating sims that are looked down on by mainstream western press are more compelling as a game.

What developers need to find is a way to make choices important and interesting, not "a random choice will lead to you to that end". You don't need to shoot billions of zombies to make a game a game, but you need to provide an ineresting form of interaction with the game, otherwise you will end with a movie or animation with some annoyance that prevents the watcher from getting to the interesting parts quickly as he or she wished to do.

Sam Derboo
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Not sure I get the example of Today I Die as a game without challenge. The game IS a puzzle, with obstacles to overcome, elements whose functions have to be recognized and applied correctly, a clear progression and a winning condition. If you were to take away these elements - leaving a number of equivalent interactions that bring any number of equivalent changes with them but never go anywhere, or go where they go no matter what you do (except maybe nothing) - then I'd certainly consider it a lesser work, and probably feel like I'd rather watch a self-running animation that cuts away the redundant clickwork.

Much of the whole argument rather seems like a critique at the shoehorning of games into established genres and conventions that determine the modes of challenge, rather than challenge itself - that would actually be something I'd agree with.

EDIT: Oh, Craudimir already adressed some of that. Did I really take 36 minutes to muse over my response?

Mark Venturelli
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"Not only does the challenge in many games often feel contrived, it is entirely unnecessary to a satisfying gameplay experience".

While I do get the point you're trying to make, it is impossible to even have a "gameplay" experience without challenge (that is, conflict), let alone a satisfying one.

I do agree that in most cases people doing interactive entertainment would be better off just removing any artificial "challenge" altogether, but please, PLEASE let's stop calling this stuff "games" or "gameplay" at least here in a developer-focused website!

Alex Covic
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I don't need 'conflict' at all in a (video) game.

I define a game as:

A. World
B. Entities in the world
C. Rules applied on A+ B

... now 'other', more educated, sophisticated people (as in game developers), would add 'goal' or 'conflict' to that. I do not oppose the idea of a challenge. A novel without a conflict is not worth reading (or writing). It lacks the reason to exist.

But interactive media, which include examples like Proteus, like Dear Esther, can (don't have to) provide that to the player?

If the player, does not speak the 'language' of FPS (technically, mechanically, physically) she or he will never be able to experience a game like Bioshock Infinite. BI made a deliberate decision to tell their story in an established, specific, lucrative market.

I could have enjoyed the story of Bioshock Infinite as a 10 page short story or told like "Thirty Flights of Loving" - but it obviously would not have sold 1 million+ copies for $60? Microsoft and other companies have extensive data on how many consumers actually 'finish' (or are able to finish) these games. Many are stuck in the first hours of most games ... and move on, to the next thing.

A game like Cart Life has meaning. Failure is existence. Failure is life. I applaud that game. Bioshock Infinite's last level - not so much. It teaches me nothing.

Dane MacMahon
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I kind of roll my eyes when stuff like Dear Esther is lumped in with Team Fortress 2 as "video games." Seems to me like we need new language to separate the vastly different experiences one can have with a "video game." I bet it would help sales, actually, if people knew right away what kind of experience they would get.

Steven An
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I get the semantic argument, but honestly, it's just not worth fighting it. It is incomplete to define "games" by what the product/work actually is. You need to also to think about the intended audience of the product.

For example, "To the Moon" has very little challenge/gameplay. And yet, it is undeniably aimed at a video game-loving audience, as it uses the language and presentation style of games to tell a very high-quality story. So, I'm quite alright calling "To the Moon" a game, because it would appeal to "gamers."

Darren Tomlyn
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The word we're really looking for, is "competition" - not challenge etc..

Games are a naturally competitive activity - but they're not the only one - competitions (obviously) and even puzzles can be seen to be competitive, (but unlike the others puzzles do not require it to be part of its definition).

Calling every activity that uses the same medium a 'game' is the equivalent of calling every object made out of wood a chair - it's inconsistent with how our language functions, and anyone who does so who should know better, is therefore merely part of the problem and not the solution.

We have a group of words that we use to describe certain activities and behaviour (things that happen, usually in relation to people):

Game, art, puzzle, competition, work and play.

Failing to recognise and understand what these words represent, especially in relation to each other, REGARDLESS OF ANY (OPTIONAL) MEDIUM USED, (e.g. a computer), as is consistent with the basic rules of the language, is the problem we have, that is itself a symptom of deeper problems, because of our lack of recognition and understanding of such rules in the first place.


How we use the language to describe itself, MATTERS - which is the basic, most obvious, symptom we have of not understanding our language fully in the first place.

When people get confused between something they do, and something that happens to them, it should be obvious that there is a very fundamental problem that is causing such symptoms. If you do not understand and recognise that this is happening, that alone should give you some idea of how entrenched such problems are.

Mark Venturelli
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Vocabulary is not "semantics". These things matter, and I'll always defend them. I'll go with my usual response and link my colleague Keith Burgun's article on the subject:

... and my comment in the discussion that sums up my stance pretty well:

"I believe the main problem people have with this kind of thing is that most of the time they are not working on the same level.

There's "vocabulary" and there's "semantics".

When people argue that "oh, I like this other definition of 'game' because it fits all the things we usually call games" - if that definition doesn't help us design games it's not vocabulary, it's semantics.

"Vocabulary", especially in design, means we are building tools. Definitions in this sense have no place on their own. It is useless to discuss the meaning of "game" in a vacuum, much like it is useless to talk about a game mechanic by itself. Both of these things can only be used as tools when taken into the context of a system.

It's not how you define "game". It's what you define 'game' for.

So if you take, for example, the powerful design tool of "meaningful decisions" and say: "Oh, this is not a good tool, because there are no decisions in Guitar Hero and guitar hero is a game". If you do that, you lose a very important tool. If instead of disregarding "meaningful decisions" you take Guitar Hero instead and put it in a different box, you now have a more useful toolbox. Now you know that for things you call "games" you can use "meaningful decisions" as tools. For things called "competitions" you can't. Improvement!

This is just one tiny example of how designers build vocabulary as systems, and how disconnected from the whole discussion it is to state isolated definitions of "game"."

Darren Tomlyn
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But none of that exists in isolation - and its the relationships and frameworks within which everything currently exists, that is the reason for all the problems.

Again - how we use language to describe itself is the main symptom of the problems we have - understanding how to describe what is involved in games etc., is part of a problem that understanding and describing the words game, art, puzzle, competition etc. in RELATION to each other, will help with, once the basic framework they exist within is understood aswell - (the basic rules of English grammar).

TC Weidner
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I was just talking about this topic elsewhere. With the upcoming Oculus Rift I think virtual hikes and virtual exploration for the pure sake of fun are very real possibilities. Walking about in a virtual park with secret waterfalls and paths and so forth could be incredible.

Heck even a game in which you are a virtual Little Red Riding Hood just walking to grandmothers house could be cool, with some haunted forest to find your way through etc. No real winning/losing, just exploration and a object to reach.

Dane MacMahon
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I would say I play games for exploration primarily, more than any other aspect certainly. And yet still if Bioshock had no combat I would find myself pretty bored very quickly. I need that shot in the arm, that motivation.

Without combat not only would exploration become the entire experience, but the reason to explore would be lessened as you would need upgrades or ammo or what-have-you.

Even in a point and click adventure game if the puzzles are too easy I quickly lose interest. In my experience challenge equals reward. Though I will grant you this is a 90's PC gamer perspective.

Ron Dippold
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There are a lot of games that are just better in Easy mode. Not Platinum's, but most of them. At this point I start Normal but if it gets at all stupid and doesn't seem like it's worth the effort back down immediately. Of course as you say it would be better if the game were designed for more fun and less death in the first place.

Nick Fodor
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I find exploration in a beautiful and dangerous setting strikes the perfect balance for my taste. I spent far too much time doing this in Far Cry 2, resisting the linear and arbitrary "challenges" that move the plot along. There's enough randomness that you can never really relax, but that sharpens the sense of being in a real world with weight and consequences. Encounters can usually be avoided, and there's a special kind of adrenaline that flows when you get into trouble you weren't actually looking for. It's a different kind of challenge that involves taking the game's world seriously enough to move in it carefully, and makes combat decisions more interesting.
The combination of Oculus Rift and a scenic, dynamic sandbox spiced with intrinsic danger would be like crack for someone like me, no explicit challenge needed.

Lewis Pulsipher
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Occasionally games are released with some kind of "autopilot" feature that lets people who don't want to be heavily challenged let the game play them through a fight or puzzle. They watch, then begin to participate actively when they wish. This could be incorporated into many video games, but hard core types often object strongly to "making the game too easy". Of course, it's only too easy if you use the autopilot.

In Bioshock Infinite, the player could let the game play through the FPS parts - perhaps at very high speed if the player wanted to get on with exploration.

There's no need to make separate games to accommodate the OPs preference, if autopilot is installed in many games.