Monday, June 29, 2009

Game Design: Level of Difficulty

One of my favorite online video feeds is the Angry Video Game Nerd and Zero Punctution. The former goes the nostalgic route and looks at early games to point out and mock all their flaws. Of which there are many. Zero Punctuation criticizes newer games on some of the same fronts.
Some of the complaints are about the difficulty of the game. Old games are Harder in that they're more unforgiving, the programming is buggier, and poor design decisions were made. (Such as the "trial and error" method). I was just reading an article outlining how the Zelda games have gotten "easier". It got me thinking about level of difficulty in games.

This I think is one of the more important factors of designing the difficulty of a game. I mentioned in an earlier blog post, that there are certain preferences and styles of game players. Some that are obsessed with their skills, some looking just to relax and some to play socially.

Audiences of mainstream games are changing. Some gamers are getting older and some are younger. I think what is happening is that games are trying to be more accepting to a wider range of markets thus increasing the distribution of said game.

Too Easy?
Some have complained that today's games are "too easy". There are lots of in-game aides that almost hold your hand through the whole thing. Really, you only have yourself to blame. This is because no one read the instruction manuals that came with the game. You know the one that tells you the basic controls and what not. Those are now IN the game. Which I guess is helpful if you bought the game used and it didn't come with the original instruction manual. I like those. I read 'em.

I had a classmate that thought games were too "forgiving" in that if you fail at something usually you can easily pick up where you left off without back tracking too much. In older games that's not the case. You would have to start at the very beginning if you lost completely.

Tutorial/training levels, extra lives, and a more "fair" damage equation have helped make games more playable but at the same time less challenging for some gamers.

Or Too Hard?
Now for ME, I find newer games HARDER. There may be several factors to that too. One, like most female gamers I fell off the gaming wagon in high school, limited only to Pokemon and a few games on the N64. I got back into gaming in college when I got my own systems. So, I've missed some gems. When I was younger still we didn't have the popular systems so I'm not very good at the old games either. The games I did play were exploratory, easy paced, and thought provoking (games like MYST, Oregon Trail, Carmen Sandiego, and such). No time limits, fast reflexes or depth perception.

There are a lot of potential gamers like ME. Many of which are female. This may be a gender preference (again I have research to back this up) but games that are "intense" or fast-paced and require reflexes tend to fail females. Growing up, we are encouraged to take it easy whereas boys are encouraged to be more active. (Granted that's sort of changing due to obesity.) Point is, that timed games, pressure added, memorizing controls does not come as easily to many gamers.

General Difficulty
Now there are some things that are difficult for ANY human being interacting with a computer program. Precision is one thing. Humans are prone to error and estimation more than a computer. This was one of the failures of older game programming. Some games required exact commands or landing to recognize and accept a move. Such as jumping onto a platform.

Logic is something expected from games. The answer should be deducted from the information a player receives in the game. This however, is not a failure of the program but of the designer so it's human error. Illogical puzzles can make for a challenge but it is not the type of challenge that a player wants. It's not fun. Fun is recognizing patterns and successfully applying deduction skills.

As a game designer, if designing a puzzle based game, you have to make sure the puzzles make "sense" and can be solved with deduction. Some methods of trial and error are okay. Trial and Error is good if the player is not completely punished for it and the player can "learn" from their error.

Lastly, ratios. In an rpg, you "level" your character giving them more powerful statistics. The ratio between your character and an enemy character should stack so that the odds are in favor of the player without shorthanding the enemies. (I hope that makes sense). In other words, if the player character has 10 health and the enemy has 20 health, then either the player has to have some slight advantage to make the fight fair...not easy, but fair and doable. Granted the player may learn that, "Okay, that monster was pretty tough to beat, I better buff up my character's stats."

Special Difficulties
These range based on a player's age and background. Such as using certain "lingo" within the game. Someone who has played many rpg games is familiar with "stats" and what they do. Not so with a new player.

Remembering which buttons to push. This becomes a problem for newer and older gamers.

Readablility. I know this may sound strange, but okay I have a 13" TV screen and it's not plasma or LCD or anything. Images and words are not super crisp. I actually need my glasses if I'm to do reading from a distance. (I'm near sighted). However, many older gamers have this problem too. And when I say older gamers, yeah...I mean your grandparents. Sometimes it's the lack of contrast between the words and the background.

Speaking of contrast, sometimes distinguishing background from foreground becomes a pain. Zero punctuation often complains about the brown tones in most games.

3D vs 2D is another one that I still have trouble with. Clearly my in-game depth perception needs help. Aiming and accuracy falls under this too. This can be determined by the program's ability to accomedate for human error. But my aim sucks. Always has in games. I remember to this day that Super Mario Brothers gave me the business at that hole you have to jump over. The first one. I think it's because I was laughing so hard because I fell so often. I would literally forget it was there and just walk off. It was pretty funny.

It seems to me, difficulty is in the eye (and hand) of the beholder. It's true that games can feel like they're coddling but remember, that's because this game was not JUST for you. It was meant for a wider-audience.

Which is why unlike the author of this article, I actually like the newer Zelda games and their lack of letting me be lost. To me there is nothing more frustrating that being lost, in real life and in a game. It's just scarier in real life. I've tried to play the original Zelda, but because I was more familiar with the "new generation" of gaming I didn't like it. There was no direction. That's because now, there IS an order to do things in and I applied that to the old game thinking "if I don't do things in the right order...I'm screwed!" (Because one thing I know about older games is that they're very unforgiving.) Then again, I was challenged enough by that added third dimension to the game. There's now more aiming in those games and distances and I can still get lost despite the maps. BUT I am able to back track easier and find my way out. I have played most of the other Zelda games, but the newer ones remain my favorites.

And that's mostly thanks to Epona. :3

So remember, there are some things that make it difficult for any human being and somethings that make it difficult just for "certain" people. These are things to take into consideration when designing and building your game.

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