The Difficulty with Difficulty

Posted: February 5, 2010 by Twitchdoctor in Exemplary Games, game design, Game Genres
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My friend Justin recently drew my attention to an article by game designer Brice Morrison, “How Megaman 9 Resembles. . .Real Life?” published a little over a year ago at Gamasutra.  (It also appears on Morrison’s own blog, which seems to have been superceded by his current project, The Game Prodigy).

Megaman 9 takes the idea of “retro” very seriously: “Capcom has sought now adult players of the old games by painstakingly emulating every graphical restriction, sound channel limit, and level design choice as it would have occurred on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and the result is an entirely new game that appears as though it belongs in the 1980’s.”  But what really interests Morrison is the way in which gameplay also seems to hark back to a different time.  Morrison describes the game as “unreasonably difficult,” due mainly to a steep learning curve and punishingly restrictive save-game system.  The resultant gameplay experience is one that Morrison suggests is “almost extinct.”

The reason, he suggests, is largely generational.  Modern games “are targeted at the mass market, tuned for a perfect challenge ramp, and sculpted to provide the most entertaining experience possible.”  Megaman requires you to invest large chunks of time with the risk that if you make one false move it will all be for nought; you will have just wasted a big chunk of your valuable personal time with nothing to show for it, and the threat of that loss establishes a tight emotional connection with the game.  Such a game, however, has little chance of appealing to “players of today, who are short on time and have even shorter on [sic] attention spans.”  Game companies today know this, an “[e]motional investment or not, what matters to a for-profit game company is the number of SKUs a title has sold, and most players simply will not survive without more frequent sips of positive feedback and some signs marked “well done”.”

True, there are some elements of a “the kids of today” type of argument here, a strain of curmudgeonality that I myself am prone to from time to time.  On this occasion, however, I’m resisting my inner Mr. Wilson: the kids can play on my lawn for a little while longer.  For example, I don’t buy the idea of short attention spans.  The players of today who apparently have short attention spans are, after all, the same players who will indulge in multi-hour Halo tournaments or Raidfests on WoW.  The idea of being short on time also seems a little odd.  I know a fair few adults who have a reasonable amount of time to game because they treat it as their hobby, and as a leisure activity that in part replaces other kinds of activities (such as watching TV, for example).  Or reading books.  (When I was your age, videogames were called books!).  The “time” element is important for Morrison’s argument, in that he claims that games like Megaman 9 that are parsimonious with their positive feedback require players who have large amounts of time at their disposal (a characteristic of kids, he argues, but not many adults).   Yet, we certainly have no shortage of gamers who aren’t adults and therefore presumably have more discretionary time (in fact, Morrison may well be right here but for a different reason: given the tendency of adults to inflict massively over-scheduled childhoods on their little darlings to help them build a “life resume” it is entirely possible that the “kids of today” are saddled with as little discretionary time as their beleaguered parents).

These reservations notwithstanding Morrison is on to something interesting.  He makes a useful distinction between game-driven feedback and player-driven feedback.  When a game doesn’t give you a nice pat on the back at regular, ego-stroking intervals, the only way you are going to get something out of it is to set your own priorities for enjoyment and criteria for success.  Games that foster this style of gameplay are, he maintains, much more in sync with “the difficulty curve of life” where one is seldom rewarded for incremental success but only for major breakthroughs.  “Learning to create positive feedback and encouragement from yourself and deciding to view every failure as a learning opportunity applies to both Magma Man’s fortress as well as one’s real life career.”

So, let’s think about the intersection of all these forces: cultural change, industry trends, difficulty, and real life.

Whenever a representational form achieves a mass-cultural impact that ubiquity is due chiefly to one thing: factory production.  An inevitable result of this is that the greater proportion of products are going to be massively over-engineered to try and represent everything that people believe to be the elements that make the form successful and appealing.  This is true even of older forms like painting and novels, but we tend to recognize it most clearly with regard to forms like television and film, a glossy slickness that will appear to us as “over-produced.”  The pervasiveness of a particular form will, over time, gradually shape the expectations of a portion of the form’s audience.  The standard version of the form–a novel, TV program, film, game–will start to seem familiar, expected, natural, comforting.  People being people, there will of course be a proportion who will react negatively to the traditional and the expected.  And capitalism being capitalism, some other people will try to carve out a new commercial niche based on a rejection of the standard form (the avant-garde, the indies).  For most people, however, the main currents of the particular form will start to seem like “common sense,” a state of nature.

This is not to say that people want exactly the same thing over and over again.  However, the range of permissible deviation is never very wide.  This is most obvious when it comes to the question of genre.  A RomCom film can include some innovation but can’t stray far from its core elements.  An FPS game has a certain set of expectations that it must fulfill.  Major genre innovations are rare, and even more rare are changes that actually influence the evolution of a genre.  Case in point: Company of Heroes introduction of a territory capture mechanic helped to replace the resource mining mechanic that had been so typical of most RTS games up until that time.  Second case in point: Halo‘s introduction of the health regeneration mechanic as an alternative to the “walk over this large and completely inappropriate first-aid symbol” mechanic.  Each of these was a significant innovation in their respective genres.  Neither, however, amounted to major evolutionary change on the level of learning to walk upright.  Veteran FPS players picked up Halo with few problems, ditto for the RTS crowd and COH.  Stray too far outside the normal parameters of your genre as a designer and players will not buy it–literally and figuratively.  (This, I think, is why for some time now a lot of “innovation” in the game industry has relied not upon significant changes in the mechanics of individual genres, but in combining elements from different genres in products that offer novelty of the whole and a reassuring familiarity of the parts).  Writ large, the same tends to be true of entire representational forms.

Morrison’s argument, therefore, makes a lot of sense when it comes to the evolution of games in general.  Arguably, indeed, the impact of factory production on games and their players may be even more profound than for other representational forms.  Games are played, of course, but they are also, like any other form, consumed.  And if something is to be consumed (and, especially, if the products of a particular form are supposed to consumed in a serial fashion) then they have to be easily digestible.  Genres, therefore, and entire forms develop to the point where they are, in one sense, “easy” to consume.  They may, of course, also be challenging, but this challenge will be–to use a couple of terms beloved of the game industry–“tuned” and “optimized” so that it is accessible and balanced with an immediate pleasurable yield.  What differentiates games from other representational forms, however, is that active participation is built into the form itself: the choices we make and the actions we perform drive the action forward.  Therefore, if a game is “easy” to consume that has implications not just for the cognitive work we perform in interpreting the game but for the decisions we make involving the type and level of commitment and intervention.  The implications of the level of difficulty involved in a game are not simply cognitive, they are behavioral.

None of this is necessarily bad, of course.  The fact that games employ a carefully tuned (well, usually) balance of graduated challenge and reward is one of the things that makes them so engaging, popular, and ultimately influential.  This design approach is also, as James Paul Gee has convincingly demonstrated, an example of the kind of engaging learning strategies that our schools and colleges should employ, but so seldom do.   Problems arise, however, when this is the only form of learning and engagement that is being offered.  What Morrison suggests is that in “real life” (whatever that may be, these days) there are other situations where you can learn something interesting, useful, and where you can expand your capabilities and sense of self.  Very often, however, these situations are not pleasurable.  Sometimes, in fact, they can be downright distressing.

The problem then is the lack of variety involved in our games; a certain sameness not in the level of difficulty so much as the kind of difficulty.  Many games today offer some pretty fearsome challenges, but these challenges occur as part of a carefully adjusted learning curve that ensures that with a moderate degree of persistence your average (whatever that means) game player can surmount the challenge; the player will be rewarded for their persistence along the way and their achievement will usually be acknowledged in some sense.

Given the pervasive presence of games in our culture, the amount of time we spend playing them, and the fact that they offer themselves as a powerful model of learning, challenge, pleasure, and the commingling of all three. . .given all this, what are the implications of the narrow form of difficulty we encounter when we play?


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