Can games be made too difficult?

Posted by (twitter: @jacklehamster)
January 24th, 2014 7:06 am

Lately, I’ve had a few decisions to make in terms of the difficulty of the games I produced. I made this soccer game, which was apparently insanely difficult. I did spend a lot of time trying to win a match, and felt pretty satisfied when I did. When it came to releasing a test run of that game, it turns not only nobody was able to beat it, but nobody could even get a draw! (ok I think one person managed to win). Still, I struggled before reducing the difficulty, because I felt that players should really try to beat the challenge. On the other hand, one thing to keep in mind is that a level of difficulty that’s too high really drives popularity down, because let’s face it, it’s no fun when you can’t win ;-/ I decided to tone down the difficulty so that winning a match now is as difficult as it was to get a draw, and now it’s still very difficult to win by more than one. (I’ll try to add more levels in practice mode to draw people in.). Okay, I had to cave in. It’s concerning though, have gamers become softer, are easy going games now becoming the standard?

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6 Responses to “Can games be made too difficult?”

  1. sorceress says:

    Winning should mean something. The harder a game is, the prouder you feel when you win it. But the harder a game is, the less people will be capable of winning it.

    If everybody can win it then winning means nothing. But if nobody can win it then nobody can feel proud. It’s like the phenomenon of the Laffer curve, where the optimal yield comes somewhere between these two extremes.

    So with that understanding – yes, a game can be made too difficult 😛

  2. dalbinblue says:

    What you need to remember is that a game is ultimately a form of entertainment, and as a result people will play a game for pleasure. People will want to feel like they are accomplishing something over time and get the flow of endorphins going. This doesn’t mean that you make a game easy and yell you win as loud as possible to the player as often as you (though Peggle does this successfully). You do need to give small rewards and give the player the sense of progression or the player will feel like game is a chore and just walk away.

    There’s a lot of good solutions to this problem, and the much more difficult problem of scaling a game over a wide level of skills for players. Gradually increasing difficulty is a common approach to this. For your soccer game having multiple levels of opponents is a way to get people into the game long enough to want to invest in the very difficult part. Even bit trip runner, which is a very difficult and unforgiving game does add its difficulty over time by introducing more types of obsticles as you progress.

    You can also let a player choose their level of difficulty, many rogue like games do this by letting the player choose the consequence of failure right from the start, usually scaling all the way up to permanent death. This lets the player gamble their skill for a greater reward. I personally enjoy playing the original legend of Zelda with no continues allowed.

    Another methodology is to differentiate between solving a game and completing it. By this I mean you provide a reasonably obtainable goal that will complete the story of the game so at a player gets the satisfaction of winning while at the same time adding additional difficulty by providing other levels, challenges or other additions to the game to add the difficulty some player crave. The Mario games are great at this. Saving the princess is easy, but completing every level and finding all the secrets can be hard. Now this is different from just padding a game with content by dumping in a bunch of items to find that don’t really add a challenge but just waste time (Assassin’s Creed 4 does this way too much).

    The upgrade methodology is also a decent path in this respect; RPGs or anything that levels up a player can do this by slowly removing difficulty if too hard. It sounded like you didn’t care for this approach too much personally, but it’s a good way of at least artificially making someone feeling like they are progressing. A good player won’t need so many improvements to win but eventually everyone will be able to win. If you don’t like handing the player an advantage so they always win, consider taking things away from them. Start the player off powerful, and challenge them to play the game with less and less so that they can hone the skills needed to complete a game without help.

    Finally, you can cut the time the player feels like they are failing and keep the game flowing when a player loses. To very difficult game that excel at this are Super a Meat Boy and Super Hexagon, which I would both recommend. In super meat boy you will fail a lot, but each challenge is only a few seconds long so failing a challenge isn’t a big loss. Super Hexagon is even better in that the time from losing to the time the player is playing again can be a fraction of a second. The game take 60 seconds to complete but it took me a good five or six hours to get good enough to win.

    Ultimately it comes down to the audience you want to embrace, or if you are not making games for profit, the game you want to make. Make game hard, but if you want more people to enjoy you game, find a way to make them feel like they are progressing even when they fail. This will push a player to improve themselves, so that they can complete a difficult game.

  3. Really great discussion here.

    I would add one thing. I think it’s OK to have a game almost unbeatable but not to have it almost unplayable. That is, you need to let the player get somewhere, invest some time, hook the player before difficulty really kicks in. The failures also need to be realistic in size for the common player. If you have to start from the beginning and play through large stretches, watch cut scenes and such over and over you will loose most people. I’ve also found myself in my resent game investing a lot of energy making the loosing experience fun, while the winning has simply progressed the player to the next stage ( if you are interested). This sort of ties back to @dalbinblue, and I think it is an interesting concept that I’ll be exploring more in the future. For me, Super Meat Boy was a bad game that I threw away very quickly, and also The Binding of Isac (which was very unfortunate for I really wanted to play at least the latter one) because they were unplayable.

    So when the player has gotten a bit through the game, adding the real possibility of failing won’t scare players away, rather it will add to the excitement. Since the player feels invested, the player is likely to try again. There’s a caveat here though, if the player fails at the exact same position in exactly the same manner it is no good. So one has to be careful that the difficulty is a general increase and say, in your football example, not that there’s one opponent player that runs too fast and always makes you lose.

    The buy-in in your case could be solved by having a tournament and have the player seeded as the second best team.

    The fun of loosing could be witty newspaper clips drawn at random after a failure.

    That’s just some quick examples.

  4. sorceress says:

    Let’s do some mathematics

    Let D be the difficulty of the game, which is another way of saying “the skill required to beat it”.

    Let W be the number of winners as a fraction of the total number of players. W is clearly a function of D.

    We might expect W to be proportional to the inverse exponential of difficulty. W = EXP(-a*D), where a is a constant to be determined for the population, representing the degree of variation of skill.

    Pride is the feeling an individual has from being in a privileged minority, so it is a function of W.
    Pride(W) is probably a logarithmic function of W, because each time the minority group is halved in size, the feeling of pride increases by a fixed amount. eg, The delta-pride from being 1-in-10 to 1-in-100 is about the same as the delta-pride from being 1-in-100 to 1-in-1000.

    So, Pride(W) = LOG(1/W) = LOG(1/EXP(-a*D)) = a*D

    So the average amount of pride felt by players = W * Pride(W) = a*D*EXP(-a*D)

    This has a local maximum at D=1/a, which is the difficulty needed to give the optimal yield of pride to players.

    Plugging this value into W = EXP(-a*D) gives W = 1/e, or 36.8% of players winning the game.

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