Thursday, July 29, 2010

Difficulty Cont.

Continuing the theme from last update, I'll be going over which genres should and should not employ some sort of difficulty system. In the case of the latter, I'll suggest what alternatives they could use (if most of them don't already).


1. FPS/TPS - Essentially for reasons the blog (and elsewhere) has gone over already: Tactics vary at higher difficulties. Whereas you can charge through most areas on Normal like an action hero, higher difficulties will require more cautiousness, a deep understanding of the level you're on (regarding where enemies and items appear, which is why a previous Normal playthrough is beneficial) and some degree of stealth. In certain types of shooter, ammo conservation is also important for the harder modes, since bosses often require an awful lot of it.

2. Survival Horror - Like mentioned last post, Survival Horror uses a difficulty system to basically save people from having their spooky experience too bogged down with fighting and bosses. Ideally, a low difficulty setting will make the same number of enemies show up but make them far less aggressive, heightening the creepy tension by all the weird monsters stalking around without forcing you to destroy them all to progress. Of course, a good deal of survival horror requires that you don't fight the enemies anyway - Siren and Clock Tower are examples of this sort. Perhaps in those cases, where you're not expected to fight, the difficulty could be raised for additional challenge in getting past them.

3. Stealth - Similar to the above, a modern stealth game usually offers players two ways to progress: to make as much noise as possible and defeat the enemies standing between you and your objective, or to sneak past without a whisper. Ideally, there would be a slider bar of difficulty, with "Stealth" on one end and "Action" on the other. A Stealth-oriented game would increase the enemy force's deadliness (perhaps one-hit kills under almost any circumstance) and drop their attentiveness, making stealth a viable option. Inversely, setting the bar far along the Action side could make stealth very difficult but enemies far more accommodating to dying from gunshot wounds to the face.

4. SRPGs - This only applies to the "chain of story battles" SRPG, like Fire Emblem or Vandal Hearts, instead of the more open and less specific battles of the Nippon Ichi SRPGs like Disgaea. The best way to incorporate a higher difficulty setting in these games isn't (only) artificially raising the stats of enemy combatants, but to insert additional battles throughout the story that are far more difficult than those found in the normal setting. This can be done either as a post-game set of "challenge maps", that might provide backstory or a previously non-player character's viewpoint to some scenes earlier in the plot, or it could be on a completely new playthrough with the extra battles inserted as and when they occur in the story.


1. RPGs - The difficulty in these games are usually self-imposed: You could decide to fight the Ogre at a low level, or simply avoid him for now and come back later. This is a little more applicable in Western RPGs (which tend to be less linear) than JRPGs, though with the latter there is always the option for any player to attack the next boss along the story route as they are, or to spend a few minutes grinding in the current area. RPGs work because players go at their own pace, and fighting a boss under-leveled is much more rewarding for any expert player than to simply let the CPU boost the enemy's stats, as it is a self-imposed challenge. A decent alternate is the New Game+. In this instance, enemies are upgraded (or often not) and the player is allowed to keep some or all of their equipment, levels, cash or anything else they've earned on their first playthrough. This assists with achieving 100% on a game (especially one with branching paths that makes 100% impossible for a single playthrough) and the game can also unlock some difficult side-missions, dungeons and bosses for the second time through. Players are once again advised to go at their own pace.

2. Roguelikes - Roguelikes don't require a difficulty curve, because they're largely random. Of course, it wouldn't do to put the hardest monsters and best equipment on the early levels (unless there was a way of evading the first and enforcing a minimum level limit on the second) but in most situations, a Roguelike's difficulty is defined largely by luck.

3. RTS - This is a purely subjective standpoint (as opposed to the others, which are only mostly subjective) but I believe RTS games work best when they provide players with multiple factions to control. This is pretty much true of any modern RTS of course, but when relating these factions to the game's difficulty is where things might get mildly controversial. Ideally, each campaign has its own difficulty setting - this way, you have a difficulty curve to progress through and each faction's campaign is different enough to warrant a playthrough of each based on originality alone. There are a few problems with this: the "easy" campaign might move too slowly for experts (maybe shortening that campaign and making it more of a "tutorial" of sorts might fix that) or maybe that someone's personal favorite faction might also be the hardest, forcing them to learn the ropes with a group they didn't want to play as. Nonetheless, this is a good way of incorporating a difficulty mode of sorts without forcing the players to play through the same campaign multiple times with a slightly tougher opponent.

4. Platformers - Kind of obvious, this one. A platformer's difficulty is inherent in its level design - to increase the difficulty would be to rebuild the entire game world. The more shooter-based platformers (like Ratchet and Clank) are exceptions though, provided the difficulty is based on the shooting part.

5. Sandboxes - Really, this includes any large, non-linear game (most of which are now known as sandboxes). Generally, you have the story missions - which are of a casual difficulty - and as many harder, optional missions as you'd like to take on. Another reason why difficulty shouldn't apply to sandboxes are their size: After fully exploring some five square miles of real estate for hours of gameplay, why would you want to go through all of that again on a slightly harder setting? Better they follow inFamous' example and have the second playthrough be subtly different based on something like an opposing morality (though that game has a redundant difficulty setting too, if I recall).

6. Sim Games - I'm a proponent of variable difficulty for games like the Sims, or any game where you assume the role of some developer or creator. If you're doing well the game should create challenges for you, but if you're struggling they should hold off on dumping extra trouble on you and offer help instead. Any other type of simulation game (say, flying a plane) should only be as difficult as the real life activity you're simulating, since realism counts.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

New Updates? Trying Not To Be Quitty McQuitterson For A While

Back to making a concentrated effort on this Design blog, for no discernible reason. Good enough, right?

So today I'll talk about difficulty, since Yahtzee Croshaw brought it up on his Extra Punctuation blog thing - this won't be a recurring "rip-off that Yahtzee fellow" thing though, don't worry.

Difficulty is an odd thing for me when relating to games. As regular readers have probably figured out, I pretty much abhor anything that resembles work, including updating a blog more than once a year. So naturally, Easy would be the preferable setting. Yet a game without conflict has no purpose - with no challenge, there is no reason to keep playing. A narrative draws its power from conflict. At least, this is what I've been led to believe from any other media.

Because a video game derives its narrative conflict from the in-game story (i.e. a cutscene depicting a reversal of fortune or the irreversible death of a major character) rather than your own actions (i.e. dying for the twentieth time, because it will reset itself by returning to an earlier save anyway) the difficulty setting does not really provide that necessary narrative feature.

So what about fun? A game has to be somewhat challenging to maintain your interest - if you were to waltz through every stage without a scratch, the enjoyment would be minimal. Well, yes and no. In a lot of situations, that is indeed the case - an action game specifically needs to keep your interest by throwing catastrophe after catastrophe at you.

[ This is where we get the precarious balance of in-game and cutscene ("cinematic") set pieces, wherein a dangerous situation beyond simply "there are a dozen guys shooting at you" or "there is a boss" is presented to the player, and to resolve the situation requires a design choice: you can give the players the capacity to beat the situation with the usual controls (jump, shoot, what have you), go the half "cinematic" route with an annoying Simon Says Quick-Time-Event, or just go fully cinematic and solve it for them in a cutscene. Obviously, the first option would be preferable to the player, but it's difficult to pull off and still keep the whole experience tense and perilous. A good example would be the Uncharted games, where climbing a collapsing bridge or running from an explosion can be easily performed with the game's Tomb Raider-esque acrobatics. Talking of which, Tomb Raider Legend goes pretty much the QTE route, only the buttons you press correspond to in-game controls of Lara - e.g. if the scene requires you to shoot a rope support to lower a bridge you're rushing towards, the QTE will prompt you to press the button that normally corresponds to Lara's guns. So in a manner, the QTEs and in-game controls kind of merge to allow players to quickly react to these split-second decision dangerous scenarios. It's not perfect, of course, but I feel the reign of those annoying QTEs is coming to an end as games find ways of prompting a player's quick response without just flashing buttons at them. ]

It's not always true that a game needs to constantly challenge you to stay fun. A game like Animal Crossing thrives due to its complete lack of challenge. It also has no momentum, save the slow introduction of all the game features that are available. A player is free to create and meet their own targets, or to simply hang out in a danger-free environment. Games that focus on exploration and development, such as sandboxes and building sims, shouldn't require a difficulty curve. I dare say even some games like Oblivion or Fallout were more fun when enemies stayed a low level and just let you explore. It all depends on what elements of a game appeals to you the most.

Some games realize this, and provide difficulty options that reflect this insight. If a game is action-packed, there's no reason not to just stick with the usual "easy, medium, hard" options - once players are experienced enough, they can tackle the next category up. Other games enhance their longevity (something I talked about last time) by making the harder modes not only more challenging, but a substantially different experience. There's two ways in particular where this happens - A) What was a survivable melee is now an impossible-to-survive massacre, and thus requires a different approach (usually stealth, or simply aversion) and B) allowing the player to keep what he's earned in previous playthroughs, and provide even greater challenges to match this advantage (i.e. the "New Game+" trope).

But there are games that take this even further. Take, for instance, survival horror games. The main focus of these games are to frighten you, and thus are more dependent on telling a scary story (that you experience first-person) than the interactive elements that make them games instead of just movies. Subsequently, survival horrors can often focus on puzzles [puzzles are a great way to introduce story elements while giving the player something to do - e.g. figuring out the furniture in a dollhouse based on the haunted house you're in forces the player to learn more about the setting before they can solve the puzzle and continue] (like "The 7th Guest") or action (like "Resident Evil"). In most ("Silent Hill" being a good example), there's a smattering of both. Often, there are two difficulty scales - one for the action and one for the puzzles. A higher action difficulty makes the various monsters harder to kill and more dangerous to you, creating a more rewarding experience for those who want to fight the darkness, whereas a higher puzzle setting makes the puzzles more complex and harder to solve creating an overall more cerebral playthrough. Depending on what kind of game you'd prefer to play, you can choose to make one of those settings easy (pretty much removing that aspect of the game, almost) and the other difficult (to make that the focus). If you're indifferent to either mode, you can focus on one for one playthrough then switch focuses for the second creating two very different experiences. Or you can simply set both to highest and go full "hardcore".

So imagine if you could do that with, say, Sandbox games. A hypothetical GTA-esque Sandbox might have a mix of driving vehicles, shooting enemies and fighting enemies hand-to-hand - each category, though mostly using the same reaction-based gameplay, requires a different type of skill from the gamer. The game could feasibly just give you a relatively easy time with all three categories for the main story, with harder challenges for any of the three categories as optional asides (such as optional street races, gang takedowns or cage fighting tournaments respectively). Or the game could allow you to choose the difficulty of each categorically separately, once it has let you test-run all three modes. Not only will making one category "easy" make those segments of the game less difficult, but it will actually remove some of them and replace them with something else - perhaps a non-interactive cutscene, or a lengthier sequence involving either of the other two categories. If you decide you suck at fighting armed & unarmed both, you can just set the driving to "hard" and the others to "easy" and spend most of the game performing driving-based challenges.

In other examples of a dual-genre format, like the Metal Gear Solid series, you can decide if you hate stealth more than the usual action or vice versa and change the difficulty settings accordingly. Of course, in that sort of game either option would be equally viable, but occasionally one or the other is impossible to avoid. This was the case with the recent Alpha Protocol - forcing players into a combat with the game's final boss with little recourse from any non-combat approach that they had previously focused on.

Other examples, from one of my favorite genres:
Battle Complexity/Difficulty - Not only making monsters stronger, but increasing the complexity behind the strategy required to defeat them - such as a stronger emphasis on elemental classes or weapon types. A "Difficult" setting will be equivalent to a standard MegaTen battle - victory is only assured by being properly prepared. An "Easy" setting, however, might simply auto-fight the battles for you and tell you how you fared, allowing you to focus on something else.
Dungeon Complexity/Difficulty - If you prefer the fighting to the exploring, setting this to "Easy" will simply line up a series of random battles before a boss battle with between-battle prizes that basically consist of "gold", "health potion" and "mana potion", instead of creating a dungeon to explore. A "Difficult" setting will give you various dungeon puzzles to solve (usually involving keys, switches or pushing blocks), maze-like corridors and a more varied treasure haul that might require inventory micromanagement.
Story Complexity/Difficulty - If you're the impatient type who skips cutscenes, setting this to "Easy" will simply weed out any unnecessary character-building cutscene and leave you with the bare essential exposition needed to tell you where to go next. Of course, setting it to "Difficult" will just unleash every minor piece of chitchat between the characters for you to enjoy. Actually, this is more of a gag suggestion.

As games continue to "casualize" and find audiences from absolutely any walk of life, it'll grow more important that video games can be both challenging to the twitch-reaction hardcore crowd as well as approachable to the casuals alike, without dumbing it down so much that it becomes "Baby's First Video Game". The basic "Easy, Medium, Hard" system won't suffice forever.