Extra Credits on Difficulty

I know you’ve talked about Extra Cretits in the past, but what do you think of this video?

I think it’s funny how they assume that the average player of the 80s on the NES was young and male. I’m going off Sean Malstrom’s depiction of the market back then, but in a lot of the commercials and TV spots from back then regarding the NES, there were both boys and girls. It was typically shown as a children’s product, but I think a lot of adults played the NES too. I mean, we had Robin Williams name his daughter Zelda, and Steve Wozniak top the high score charts for Tetris.

That and I wonder why they mentioned male considering they’re trying to push the games inclusivity thing, given the market actually was gender diverse back then. It also seems to imply that games were challenging in the way they were back then because the audience was male, and a male audience would be the one to enjoy challenging games, which is subtly sexist on their part. Maybe it’s to lay down a basis that things used to be all male, and therefore bad, and now they’re more female and therefore good? Sorry, nitpicking a small detail that stood out to me.

Coin op meant they were difficult, but also short to complete the whole thing and it didn’t take much time to get back to where you were struggling. Pokken tournament recently failed in this, allowing you to play for like an hour if you’re as good as a games journalist at the game, guaranteeing it couldn’t raise a large profit relative to the time people played the game. The games had to succeed profit-wise whether players won or lost, being simple enough that anyone could play them, hard enough that few could beat them, and deep enough that those who could would come back to try again or that players who couldn’t win had another tactic they could try.

The first console games were similar to arcade machines in that they couldn’t save. The average NES game can be beaten in a couple hours from beginning to end, to compare to a youtube longplay. However the punishment of getting a game over in console games was lessened, because when you got a game over, you didn’t need to start the entire game over, just resume from the beginning of the world usually. Games later in the NES’s life got save features or password functions, like legend of zelda or metroid, and became much longer games as a result.

Games shifted from the difficult model of arcades because players could afford to sit down in front of them for extended periods of time without fear of losing their money. Notice that computer games of the time didn’t follow the arcade model of difficulty from the get-go because they evolved in this environment to start with. Players could be expected to learn more complicated control schemes through more involved tutorials, and put up with more boring long cutscenes and not cost the arcade profit for their time. Not to mention that arcadey type of game wasn’t what most people aspired to create, so the developers shifted, a lot of people wanted to push a more narrative/immersive experience that wasn’t possible in the arcade.

The biggest trouble here is, they don’t clearly define up front what the actual difference between, “punishing” and “difficult” is. Something I learned early on was that there’s a difference between a game simply being hard, and being “challenging.” We’ve all played I Want to Be the Guy by now, Kaizo Mario, or Super Meat Boy, so it’s pretty obvious that these games are hard, though not the most enjoyable of games. The conclusion I came to is, they don’t have a lot of depth, a lot of range for expression, because of the way their difficulty is constructed. They force players through a funnel.

It’s not just about consistency of rules, obviously if you change the rules there’s trouble, but it’s about giving the player a chance to find out what the rules are and experiment with them. The most annoying examples of inconsistency I can think of are in Witcher 2 and Limbo. In Limbo, there’s one section that is a spike trap where you need to avoid stepping on the wrong section of ground or be killed by spikes. They raise one section of the ground as an obvious tell, so instinct for most players is to avoid it, but surprise, the areas around it are what’s actually trapped and you need to step on the raised ground to stay safe. Then immediately after that, they have a small raised section of ground, so considering you JUST learned to step on the raised part, you do and surprise, it’s actually a button, and you get stabbed by spikes. This is a dick move.

Witcher 2, fucking everything is inconsistent. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the combat system. Sometimes I slash with a pirouette that deals damage quickly for 3 hits, sometimes I get a long slow attack that has crap for range for no real reason. Sometimes I slash quickly in a combo, sometimes the enemy blocks attacks, sometimes they don’t, sometimes I can dodge away after hitting their block, sometimes not, sometimes they can block EVEN WHILE THEY’RE ATTACKING. I have no fucking clue with that game.

I don’t think they chose the best example for consistency with dark souls. They probably should have pointed out one ofthe parts of dark souls that people think is inconsistent but actually isn’t? Though if people think it is, then it might as well be inconsistent maybe.

They mention giving the players different tools, this lines up directly with depth as I mentioned above.

No, I don’t remember games where 90% of the pits would kill me, and a few would have hidden bonuses with no sort of telegraphing. That stuff was usually telegraphed in some way, even in older games.

I think they really chose the wrong terms with punishing versus difficult. Challenging versus Frustrating would be a better dichotomy.

Lowering iteration time also lowers challenge by testing consistency less. If there is a checkpoint immediately after something, players don’t need to be consistent at it, they just need to beat it once (maybe this is why checkpoints come after bosses, we’re not expected to be consistent at them)

The Warframe example I find funny considering I used to wavedash everywhere in Warframe with shift > control > W and repeat, or do a jump at the end for the dragon kick move.

Difficulty spikes can be memorable moments, like the anor londo archers, or like undyne in undertale genocide. They tell you that shit just got real and you gotta learn to deal. Though I’ll generally agree that it’s true that ramping up the difficulty too soon will drive players away because they haven’t gotten good enough yet to overcome that, even though difficulty is ostensibly what players are chasing after.

And I’m running out of stuff to say, and I’m practically being a contrarian at this point, so I’ll move onto the next one.

And this video?

Technically correct. A lot of people in the souls community called this “organic difficulty.” The idea is essentially you can self impose a challenge to make the game harder in a way that’s not very difficult or arbitrary, or you can choose nonarbitrary ways of making the game easier. I haven’t really come to a consensus on what I think about this yet, because I have a few different factors motivating me here.

On the one hand, I believe the player should attempt to break the game and the game should resist being broken, or at minimum that the means of breaking it should be inefficient, slow, etc. Players should do all in their power to win by any means necessary and the game should work to thwart their efforts.

On the other, I recognize the value of a self-imposed challenge, or a mod, and the value it can add to a game. Self imposed challenges can avoid centralization of the metagame and bring out aspects of the game that normally wouldn’t be stressed.

On the other, such a thing is outside the original constructs of the game. Should we judge a game based on a rules construct that isn’t even a part of the game? I know there’s a certain, “Oh, that’s bullshit” feeling to someone telling you that you only didn’t have fun or experience challenge because you played the game wrong.

Is it really an aspect of good design to allow the player to set the difficulty through imposed challenges rather than explicit pre-game modes? Players have a natural motivation to seek the strongest weapons, positive feedback is essentially anything that makes the game easier. Why should they be expected to forsake more powerful weapons to tailor their own experience in a game that is ostensibly about growing stronger numerically to meet numerically harder challenges? (because RPG).

And in this video, they encourage the viewer to play dark souls 2 in the least fun way possible, even selling it as intended. The spell limits in the later souls games were put into place because using mana, with mana regeneration, was too broken and allowed one to cheese all the bosses slowly but surely.

That and the statement about James Portnow, a game designer ostensibly, or game design consultant, “Now many people play Dark Souls for the difficulty, but James likes the Lore and the World.” Welp. What a shocker!

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