My thoughts on difficulty in games
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I wanted to write a few words about difficulty in games.
First, the word "difficulty" doesn't really apply to the kinds of things I want to make: strategy games. Or at least, it shouldn't. Any good multiplayer online strategy game will have a matchmaking system, which does the very best it can at providing a "equal skill" opponent for you, which you might call a "balanced difficulty". I advocate for the exact same in single player games, as I've written about before, and as I've implemented in Auro.
But the conversation now is surrounding single player non-strategy-games, games like Sekiro, or last year, Celeste. In games like these, the word "difficulty" makes more sense: how difficult is it to make progress and/or complete the game? It's a loose metric, but we could probably say that stuff like Sekiro or Bloodborne is, generally speaking, more difficult to make progress in than Kirby's Epic Yarn or Final Fantasy XV.
Designer and NYU professor Naomi Clark had this to say, which I think is a good position on the topic.
Is the experience of completely completing, seeing “all of” and “beating” a game better or more meaningful than giving up on it? Look I have been playing games for four decades and making them for two but I’m still not arrogant enough to think there is an answer to that question
As to the piece she is linking to, I think its main claims about there being no "one true difficulty" are true, but kind of beside the point of the conversation. Yes, we are talking about one narrow kind of skill (the narrowness itself being one of my strongest critiques of these kinds of games). But that doesn't mean it isn't "real" or that someone can't really feel excluded by it.
I feel like her second tweet there is a good position to have on this topic, but I also think there's a bit more that can be explored.
Naomi's point, I think, is something like "hey, if I get 75% through a game and give up, is that any less meaningful than getting 100% through?", and I think it's really hard to answer that. But what if you can only get 30% through? 15%? At some point, I do think it's reasonable to say that you are likely having a less meaningful interaction with this thing.
Videogames (at least, these kinds of videogames) are consumable cultural artifacts, and I also think it's valid, to some extent, to say that part of that consumption ritual is beating the game, seeing the ending. Beating a game makes you feel like you can go online and engage with communities without being afraid of spoilers. It confers a feeling that you know what you're talking about with the game; that there isn't some 3rd-act-switcharoo you haven't yet reached that's going to totally undermine your point.
I know that for me, as someone who really does not like most games that fall into this category, I often feel half-weird about even saying that I played the game. I often abandon these games after playing for only 30 minutes or so, and I definitely feel like I'm culturally "on the outside" of the thing.
Videogames culture should not be such that people feel like they have to reach some bar in order to gain the "legitimacy" of being able to talk about the thing, or feeling ownership or connection to the thing. Nonetheless, I think that we also have to recognize that that's how it is right now. So while we live in that world, I do think it's good for developers to do things like provide easy modes (also, finding better names for that is good), cheat modes, and other options which make the full experience of games more accessible to as many people as possible.
It's easy for me to kind of look down on the whole "gamer cred" thing, as someone who has already locked in tons of that gamer cred for myself when I was younger. The fact is that for many people, videogames are an important cultural phenomenon, and just as people build their identities around music that they like, people build their identities around games that they play. And like it or not, people feel like "posers" or "fake gamers" if they aren't beating those games.
The most unfortunate aspect to that is that many gamers want it that way.
There is value in "exclusivity". It is something special when you do something, or can access something, that you know not many others can do. I think the question is really, when is exclusivity worth the cost of exclusion?
I'm a dude, and I can speak from experience that growing up as a dude, there's kinds of games that, for a whole slew of reasons, I am pressured to play (or not play). Because of this, I got very good at fighting games, first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, platformers, etc. Essentially, a lot of games with difficult, fast, precise execution requirements.
A lot of videogames are pretty similar to one another, and so you kind of build up a general basic skill-base that transfers over quite a bit from game to game. People who didn't spend their whole lives playing first person shooters are going to have a much harder time coming into a new first person shooter than I would. Just the idea of controlling the view with the mouse, or using WASD to move, is something that not everyone is totally used to.
There are many people who just have never had the time to get good at videogames, because they have to work two jobs, or they have a sick relative, or a dozen other reasons. Many people are disabled in various ways which also makes it more difficult for them to make similar kinds of progress.
We have a bit of a cultural problem right now, if you haven't noticed, of gamers being territorial about women and other kinds of people becoming more visible in games. I think that hard games sort of help facilitate this.
These are not competitive games, and yet we found a way to make them competitive, by making them hard. Some are the "winners" who have the chops/time/physical-and-neurological ability to sit there practicing the inputs until they get them just right. And others who want to be involved in the new cool videogame that everyone is talking about and dares to step into this territory, is basically punished and branded a loser in some sense.
I want to say there's a place for everything, and I do want to be understanding about people who love these kinds of single player hard videogames. It is certainly true that most videogames already take my advice. Most videogames have less difficult modes, and/or cheat codes, and other innovative features to make themselves more accessible (I recommend this series on advice on that). So in a sense, I am kind of beating up on a pretty small minority in terms of the kinds of games that get made.
But at the same time, I think that these kinds of hard games share some philosophical DNA, not just with online competitive games, but also with some of the worst parts of gaming. I want games to be more inclusive, and these things are sort of in direct opposition to that.
I guess one thing is... I really don't buy the argument that something is lost because the game has accessibility options. If you want your macho ass-kicker cred, just say "I beat it on Hard." I get it—I used to do that shit back in the day myself. To the degree that a game is "signaling something" by not having an accessibility mode, that "something" isn't good.
So, to go back to Naomi's tweet: I agree, it's hard to say what "really playing a game" is. Part of this might be because it comes down to what an individual player wants. That's why games, especially games like these, should have more options to allow players with different needs and abilities to engage with them.
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This article was originally posted on my blog.