Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Take it Easy on Me - Difficulty in Games

In finishing up Airport Mania, one of the things that was really a struggle was the difficulty. As the designer/producer of the game, I had played it a bizillion times by the time we were ready to go to beta. I used my scores as the starting baseline of what a 'good' score was to be on a level. (if you haven't played it, every level of the game has 4 skill levels that are based on your level score and are shown to you real-time as you are playing)

After putting together my baseline, we went to beta and I started gathering back in the results of how the players did and of course (for those who have done something similar) I found that most people were scoring about 1/2 to 1/3 of what I scored on each level. The highest score on any level was 60% of my score. Unfortunately I'd set the high scores on each level at 75% of my best scores. There was a pretty big gap.

So of course I moved the score needed to 'excel' down...a lot, and I kept tweaking the score goals all through our 6 week beta. In fact, by the time we released I'd dramatically changed all 4 skill levels at least twice on every one of the game's 84 levels. In the end I thought the game was incredibly 'easy,' but then I had played it a bizillion times.

Once we released I started reading player reviews and found that while some people found the game to be easy, some still found it to be impossibly too hard. I was certainly sad that the game couldn't be all things to all people, it only underscored the difficulty in getting the difficulty level in a game right.

While in hindsight I might have liked to add a second difficulty level, I have to say that I think making the game 'easy' was the right way to err. (honestly, based on sales, I'd say we definitely went the right direction for this particular game)

The similarities between movies and games fascinates me. One great advantage that movies have over games is that they control everything. Everyone watching a movie sees the same thing and regardless of whether the audience understands things or not, the movie will end and resolve the plot (unless the movie is just horrible or trying to be artsy).

Movies don't have to worry about whether or not the people in the theater are of different abilities. The people in the audience don't have to fight to save Endor or to save the White City themselves, it's all done for them. Unless they walk out of the theatre, movie goers get the whole experience from start to end.

Most people who play video games don't go all the way through most of the games they play. I can't count the number of people I've talked who start games, proclaiming their adoration of the title, and yet haven't finished the game...nor do they have any plans of doing so. (and of course I'm a member of this club)

Why don't people finish games? Well it's a topic big enough for 2 semesters of coursework, but one of the reasons people don't finish games is the difficulty.

I was talking to a long-time gamer last week who gave up on Mario Galaxy because they just wanted to play and hated the challenge of the boss fights. My own experience with the horrific 30-minute boss fights in Metroid Prime 3 is similar. I often consult guides and gamefaqs to figure out bosses...I have zero interest in figuring it out...I just want to move on to the next piece of the game. Boss fights are often like that lull in a bad movie when you wish they could just get back to the plot.

Like when I see a movie, I want to see the whole game. I like the story and the set and the characters...there's just parts that don't thrill me. If the game was a movie, I'd wait it out, knowing that a bad scene can only last so long. But in a game, I tend to quit, and the game joins the hundreds of others on my shelf that are unfinished despite how good I thought they were. (how many GREAT unfinished games are there on your shelf?)

Of course...at 34 I'm old for a gamer (as I'm often reminded) and I'm not very good at games (though I was VERY close to cracking the Top 10 in the last Mario Kart Wii Tournament).
I also work increasingly in casual games, which are focused on making it easy for players to immediately play. So clearly I'm biased towards easy...

...but I'm also clearly not alone in my desire. A very healthy percentage of players of Half-Life 2 Episodes 1 & 2 are playing Half-Life on easy! Fairly or unfairly I label Half-Life players as a very hard core group. One that eats wild animals for breakfast and calls a 3-inch cut a mere flesh wound. They're the ninja masters of gaming. ...and nearly 20% of them like their games easy. It's like watching an army field general do ballet in front of his troops. (not that there is anything wrong with that!) It's amazing to see the ninja masters of gaming looking for their games to be easier.

With Airport Mania, I made it easy. Part of that comes from my belief that the majority of people who play casual games are looking for relaxation, not metal taxation. Part of it comes from my own experience in thinking that most games, even those made for kids are much more difficult than they should be. (THQ...seriously? what is up with the difficulty of your games...take a note from Travelers Tales...please!)

A lot of players aren't playing games through to the end. They are giving up very early on. Developers who have played the game over and over don't realize just how much harder it is for the average player to do what has become second nature to those who created the game. I think hard difficulty levels for those who are looking for the challenge and apparently have nothing to do all day but play games are great! Just be sure to include the easy difficulty level when you make your game. I want to see how it ends!


Macguffin said...

Hey Russ - another reason I think more practiced gamers don't make it all the way through games is that they lose their intrigue. I don't play WoW any more, amongst many other games, simply because there's a lot of time to put in, and I already know the rough shape and size of everything that is coming down the pipe.

Not that this changes your point - with which I agree. I think it's another part of the reason. I'm much more likely to quickly put down a game that I've mostly groked and is really punishing, as opposed to one that is old hat but has a nice difficulty curve.

BattleChick said...

Just found this blog via gamesetwatch and have to say how much I agree with you. I'm probably considered a hard core gamer but I like to play games on easy mode because that way I can usually finish them. Don't know if it makes any difference that I'm a girl but I have no interest in the whole die, repeat, die, repeat cycle. I just want to progress and have fun doing it. And if I really enjoyed the game I will go back and do it on normal, and if especially passionate, will do it a third time on hard. Basing game difficulty on how quickly a QA tester can play is ridiculous.

Where I work, we spend a lot of time on focus testing and it really pays off. If your target audience can't grasp the game quickly, then you are doing something wrong.

XIX said...

todays gamers refuse to accept any challenge, they must always win. Making games feels a bit like playing monopoly with a spoiled brat where you eventually have to resort to cheating to make sure they win in order to stop the tantrums.

thats not really very healthy

i suspect most of them would be happier watching tv

some obvious points to back this up is the way ultima online turned from an interesting dangerous world into the bland grind machine that players demanded.

Also all the reviews of shiren. Where the moronic gamer press reflects the minds of the moronic gamers.

gamers really need to evolve or go back to watching TV :)

Yeah I know wishful thinking. But I'm not talking about become a super gamer god, just be prepared to accept some loss and risk and learn from it rather than throw an instant tantrum.


Russell Carroll said...

Some great thoughts...I'm feeling bad for being busy last week and missing out on the comments.

Stopping play b/c you don't think there is anything that seems interesting in the future is a very intriguing one to me. I would have to say I quit playing Dewy's Adventure fairly quickly b/c I felt I was through everything interesting in that game (in less than 60 minutes).

I also wonder about how the difficulty levels are set in games. I hate games that simply give me more health on easy...seems to lack imagination and consideration for the player.

In regards to gamers being more able to handle difficulty, I don't know that I agree. I think gamers are a little frightened by games such as Nintendogs as they don't understand it (and honestly I didn't play much of it myself). My thought is that gamers seem to idolize a gamer type and want all gamers to fit into a little category that they are comfortable and familiar with. That to me seems to be shutting doors on what gaming can be. Not quite afraid of the future and trying to live in the past, but certainly trying to keep things niche. :)

XIX said...

There is difficulty and there is challenge, they are not quite the same there should be a certain level of ability to play games. I don't mean that to be snobish. This level is not exceptional high and is similar to the need to be able to read before you can enjoy books. Or understand a language before you can understand what people say in that language. This is not an artificial barrier but an implicit one.

In fact let me put it in terms of books and reading. It is up to you, as the reader, to understand and apply these ideas to the medium of games.


It is expected for a reader to have the ability to read, however they do not have to be a speed reader. It is not expected that the reader has to read at 100 pages a minute or even understand every word perfectly to enjoy a book.

It is expected that the reader brings a sense of imagination and is willing to participate in creating the world with the author. It is not expected that the reader sits there turning pages demanding each page to bring them bigger and better pornographic delights than the last page.

It is expected that upon finishing the book the reader should feel that their reward for doing so is implicit in the act of reading. If anything finishing a good book should bring a sense of remorse that you will not be able to read that book for the first time ever ever again. It is not expected that the reader demands a badge because they beat the book.

It is expected that when a reader likes a book they may read it more than once. Simply for their own enjoyment, every time they do they will increase their understanding of exactly what is contained within that book. Conversly if they do not like the book they may stop reading at anytime.


Not finishing games is OK, people buy books and then don't read them all the time too. Different people like different things and not every game is suited for everyone.

It is also not impossible to make games without challenge and requiring almost no skill to play but still deliver huge rewards. These are called gambling games. They often hide behind complex rules to disguise their basic nature.

I am not very interested in making gambling games.

Macguffin said...

"Stopping play b/c you don't think there is anything that seems interesting in the future is a very intriguing one to me. I would have to say I quit playing Dewy's Adventure fairly quickly b/c I felt I was through everything interesting in that game (in less than 60 minutes)."

I'm not too up on my academic game design stuff, but if you haven't, check out Raph Koster's Theory of Fun book. Just about everything he says in there about how our brains process games rang true to me, and it was a great (and fast) read.

Russell Carroll said...

Thanks for the book suggestion, I'll definitely check it out!

And I think, that like books, there are different types of books for different types of people. Some don't require much work or imagination at all. The same can be said of movies and TV, some require very little of the viewer/reader, others require quite a lot. My concern is gaming seeing itself very narrowly and missing out on there being different ways for different people to enjoy games, and I think ti is easy enough to make games enjoyable by a wider audience without sacrificing the current fans along the way.

Thanks for the thoughts!