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The Aesthetic of Indifference
by E McNeill on 05/26/14 05:01:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

Games have to strike a tricky balance.
On the one hand, you don’t want a game to be cruel to the player. If a game is too opaque or too difficult, it’s usually no fun to interact with it. Most games are playtested hundreds of times to avoid these issues, smoothing out the points where players get stuck and adding subtle hints to guide them towards victory. The level of difficulty is just right, all the time.
On the other hand, if a game tries too hard to cater to the player, it can feel patronizing. Once you get enough subtle hints, it starts to feel like the game is just feeding you the answers. Immersion starts to break down. When you notice that every hallway is blocked except for the one that leads to your objective, or that all the bad guys seem to find better equipment at the exact same rate that you do, or that every invincible-looking boss has a special weakness (carefully designed to allow you to discover it), you start to realize subconsciously that the game world only exists to shuttle you through it at an enjoyable speed. The game wants you to feel like you’re special, but you know that you’re not. You’re just going through the motions. 
If you want to read more about this, here’s a great article, and Bennett Foddy’s talk about the value of pain in games is always a good time.
As players become more savvy, that patronizing design starts to become a problem, and the recent success of roguelikes and ultra-difficult “masocore” games may be a reaction against it. Spelunky, for instance, features a challenge that’s so difficult it was thought to be impossible (until it was completed on a live stream in front of thousands of fans). Corrypt is a good example from the puzzle genre; after establishing some simple, well-worn puzzle mechanics, it gives the player the ability to completely warp (and potentially break) the game world, allowing the player to get stuck or make mistakes that most puzzle games would never allow. Another example comes from my favorite game, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind; if you wandered into the wrong part of the map, it often meant certain death, because that’s just how the world is. (Morrowind’s sequel Oblivion, in contrast, was noted for how obviously its world scaled to match the power of the player, and how this robbed the player of an honest sense of accomplishment.)
When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory famously answered “Because it’s there”. Game designers could learn from that. FTL doesn’t give a shit if you think its “normal” mode is impossible, or if it occasionally kicks you when you’re down. It doesn’t try to guide the player towards a pleasant victory. It just sits there, a mountain in the distance, waiting to be conquered. And because it’s so difficult, because you really aren’t sure if you’re capable of beating it, winning becomes a genuine, real-world accomplishment rather than just another hollow gaming “achievement”.
With all that said, I think it’s a mistake to actually stop caring about the player’s experience. These great games are designed to be difficult enough to provide honest, genuine challenge, and an aesthetic of indifference toward the player is one way that they telegraph that intention, but they were ultimately built with great care, and their designers wanted players to have a positive experience. When a game starts to feel truly overwhelming or directionless, most players will just drop out. 
Again, it’s a tricky balance.
I’m sure there are lots of possible ways to handle this issue, but I’m particularly inspired by the game flOw. It’s based on the psychological theory of flow, which (criminally oversimplified) advocates pushing players to the limits of their ability, but not beyond. Thus, flOw was originally built as an experiment in Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (DDA). Most games pursue DDA directly, by scaling the strength of enemies and the like, but flOw implemented DDA by simply allowing the player to move freely between the easier and harder parts of the game. That is, just by allowing the player a free choice of difficulty, the game found a sweet spot between unfairness and patronizing design.
That’s the strategy I plan to employ in designing Darknet. I can generate a wide selection of levels over a wide range of difficulty, with appropriate rewards at every level, and allow the player to choose among them freely. I’ll also try to track the player’s skill based on their victories and defeats so far, to give players a sense of where they stand. The game world doesn’t try to push the player towards victory, but the player never has to feel overwhelmed.
This solution is so simple that I feel like it must be wrong, like I must be missing something. But Darknet’s design is all about finding the simplest workable solutions, and so far, I think that this structure can strike that tricky balance that the game needs. The game’s world doesn’t twist itself to fit the player’s skill level, nor does it feel unfair or unclear. Instead, Darknet is indifferent. It just exists, a mountain in the distance, waiting to be conquered.

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Michael Joseph
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A lot of words just to say you support the status quo.

There is nothing tricky about making a decision about who your game is for and building for that audience.

If you decide the audience is "everyone we can possibly get" then just admit it. If your audience is just for hardcore RL fans. Cool.

The only thing that's tricky is your response because you seem conflicted about where your allegiances lie.

E McNeill
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I don't really get where you're coming from. I'm voicing support for an aesthetic that's on the rise, but it's hardly "status quo", and most of my examples are not roguelikes. I also don't see it as a simple matter of targeting broadly or narrowly. My argument is more about the hidden costs of a certain style of design.

Michael Joseph
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Yes. I skimmed your post and thought you were implementing a typical DDA strategy. I'm personally not a fan of those types of "try to make everyone happy" solutions. It's not done anywhere else in the art world. Actually, we do see some pen and paper RPGs evolve to have simpler rules to allow "faster, more streamlined, more exciting" play with each revision of the core rulebook. This often happens as a result of trying to compete with simpler systems that have grown more popular.

DDA strategies I think are great for teaching gameplay, but at some point the game should focus on being the game it needs to be rather than something different for every player.

Adam O'Donoghue
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I think a better term would be 'player curation' rather than 'player indifference'. Indifference implies a tone of apathy, and could be misinterpreted as the developer not caring about the player experience as articulated.

The advantage of a highly curated game design is that designers can ensures that the majority of players have a similar game experience, as it is likely that the 'average player' of the game is representative of the total player population, assuming the population is normally distributed. Consequently, there will always be players on the tail ends who find the game too easy/hard, arcady/serious, short/long; but attempting to address their minority concerns would detract from the majority player experience.

The disadvantage of highly curated game experiences is that they have limited life-spans per player, and over the entire player base. Because players are having similar experiences the potential for discussing player experiences with other players is limited and can be detrimental. (e.g. Person A: Did you kill the dragon yet? Person B: There's a dragon!?). This also makes the game more like an 'event', players who get in early have an unspoiled and intended experience, but people who wait get a spoiled and unintended experience and are less likely to actually purchase or play the game, because they can just search the internet and get the general idea of it from media, forums, wikis, and you-tube.

Consequently, games that allow for players to curated their own game experience via randomness, procedural generation, open world, branching choices, player created content, etc; have extended life-spans as people can discuss their play experiences with other people and thus the player-base is constantly learning about new ways to play. The trade-off is that the designer forfeits the capability of defining the 'average player' of the game, and thus designing the game content becomes more difficult, as oversights in design can have extreme consequences that detract from the majority player experience (glitches, exploits, etc).

I would class the flOw example as moderately curated. The game has specifically designed levels with a difficulty scaled relative to the 'average player', but players can curate what puzzles they complete in what order, thus they they can discuss why they chose particular levels in what order with other players (strategy talk).

Mike Naulls
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I like the points you made about DDA, and I also agree that game designers at all levels should strive to craft a more difficult experience for the player, if at least a more naturally challenging environment; rather than one long scripted event of a game. However when in regards to the difficulty of the game determining the level of satisfaction a player receives from conquering it I would have to partially disagree. I do agree that a challenge is necessary for the player, but I think it is more important to take a look at what that challenge, whether easy or hard, highlights to the player.

That challenge highlights the Punishment of the game more than any other factor. Simply put if the game play is terrible the player knows this before they fail, that failure only punctuates the the already bad experience and on the same token if the gameplay is excellent the player knows that it is entirely their fault they failed and cannot blame the design for it. However the punishment you put on your player for failing is what truly drives the tension in a game. That tension is, in my opinion, the most important tool in a designerís box to completely submerge their players in immersion.

Take for example the Fire Emblem series. It isnít that the turn-based strategy is so deep, or the narrative so captivating on its own that makes it one of the most instantly recognizable RPGs of all time, it is the simple fact that when your characters die, they die permanently. This makes every decision in that RNG turn based system so very crucial, it makes every interaction with characters you like more memorable, because they simply may not be here next battle. Not because the game had a scripted event that forced them die dramatically, but because it was the player's decision that got them killed.

You could also take a real world approach and compare the playing experience to a sport as he did in Bennett Foddyís talk about the value of pain in games. What makes the sportsman so zealous to win is that he cannot replay the game until he does. If he fails that is it, the game or event is over. The tension a sportsman feels isnít from the potential loses he may receive, it is because of what that loss means. It is a chance he will never get back, an opportunity he may never receive again, to be victorious. Even if he is the best athlete on the field or the team is the best in the league and the win should have been "easy", if they fail they will never get a chance to try that particular game over again.

Now that is only a couple of examples in a field of study that has a shockingly low amount research done on it, but I believe Iíve made my point. Overall I completely agree with you on supporting the redesign of how games treat their players, but I believe it would be far more beneficial to look at what aspect of our respective games is the difficulty highlighting.

Overall I enjoyed your article, thank you for your thoughts on the matter.

RJ McManus
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I think there are a lot of players who are tired of wish fulfillment, playing the hero with all the agency, for whom a dynamic world would be engaging enough on its own merits. This is why I've never found Ubisoft open world games particularly compelling, for example, and why Morrowind is still quite special to me. For all its connotations, "indifference" isn't such a bad word for it.