Editorial: Good For a Challenge, or Just Bad Game DEEEERPSIGN?

HERP A DERP DERP!

Today I’m going to talk to you about the difficulty of games. More specifically I’m going to talk to you about the fairness of difficulty in games, and the point at which we should draw the line between a good challenge and user-friendly game design.

It is not the intention of this editorial to critique and pass judgement on game’s like Devil May Cry 3 or Vagrant Story which make quite legitimate use of difficulty to offer a rewarding challenge, but rather to address games which take a dump on user-friendly game design in order to engender a false sense of difficulty.

None of us should be unfamiliar with excessively difficult games. I would wager that the vast majority of the Lusipurr.com Otaku readership would be intimately familiar with the NES era of gaming; for many of you playing Nintendo’s ugly grey box will have been one of your first formative experiences with gaming, while younger readers have probably at least tried their hand at some NES emulation; the point being readers will be familiar with the difficulty incumbent to poorly designed games. From Contra to Battletoads the NES era was replete with ball-acheingly  difficult games; many of which owed their difficulty to unfair or malicious game design, with a small but significant selection which would require the mongloid intuition of an idiot savant to complete without using cheats. The vast majority of us let this slide however; we were kids after all, and similarly the game industry was in its infancy. Lessons have to be learned before they can be taken on board, and thus the eventual gaming success stories had to stand on the shoulders of the INDUSTRY’S numerous failures.

That was then, and this is now. Circa 2011. We have every right to hold games to a loftier standard given the highly competitive nature of the current gaming climate, so now we must ask ourselves; to what extent are we willing to excuse unfair game design? This question does not lend itself to a straightforward answer.

It must be said that one of my biggest pet peeves are the constraints placed on the gamer’s ability to save their progress. The constraints on the saving of game data were likely necessary at one point, but technology has long since progressed beyond the point where a game’s refusal to allow players to save at will can be justified under most circumstances. Picture if you will any JRPG that you have played this generation which featured save points, now realize that their only functional role in games today is based on the game designer’s hope that at some point you will run into an enemy you cannot defeat and have a chunk of your game progress wiped out by being sent back to the game’s nearest arbitrarily designated save point. Or at least in theory this is how it’s intended to work, though as often as not it is life which intervenes, and RL commitments will at some juncture demand your attention, at which point you can either leave your game on pause for protracted periods of time (not recommended for the power hungry modern leviathans of gaming), or you can elect turn your console off, wiping various amounts of progress for any game arrogant and anachronistic enough to utilize a time greedy save-point design in their game.

DUUUUUURRRRR HERP?

Save points in modern gaming is a pet peeve of mine, yet more offensive by magnitudes is the willfully obtuse placement of save points so as to create an artificial impediment to progression by denying the gamer access to a save point when they need it most. A prime example of this is Final Fantasy III. I have played very little FFIII myself, yet I have heard profligate accounts of the lengthy final dungeon’s only save point being located at its entrance. Even in normal circumstances most would conclude that this is some profoundly mean-spirited arsehole game design, yet add to that the fact that FFIII is often held to be one of the hardest games in the series, and then you just have yourself a bad game.

But of course Final Fantasy III has no monopoly on purposefully belligerent game designs, one recent game which brought me no joy whatsoever was Demon’s Souls. Demon’s Souls was a hard game, and that’s OK. I had heard it was difficult, and I was expecting a game of difficult GAMEPLAY. The gameplay itself is challenging but decidedly fair, the game heightens its difficulty by frequently springing surprises on the player, yet this does not manifest in any unavoidable hazard being dropped into the player’s lap. I have no complaints regarding the gameplay de jour of Demon’s Souls, but rather the sticking point for me was the game design which prevented me from spending any of my souls (EXP) until my progression to some arbitrary point in the game that I never reached. Demon’s Souls is a game which goes out of its way to kill you, and yet its designers were so profoundly bastardly that they deny you character upgrade facilities in your initial starting hub. This is why I put down the game. This is why I’ll not by another. It was supposed to be a sadistic game, sure, but this initial roadblock to my progression was just too much. I can only loose my incredibly hard earned EXP so many times before I feel utterly sick to my stomach, and find myself in a foul mood for some hours. Some people will argue that this design decision adds to the old-school charm of the game, but I contend that it’s bad game design.

So far I have only broached instances which I believe to be relatively clear cut in their awful design, yet one other save system design which I am a trifle uncertain about is the use of a deliberately limiting save system in the survival horror era of the Resident Evil series. One is not able to save their games without first possessing a quantity of ink ribbons for the typewriter (save point), and like all commodities in those games they are a finite resource. This essentially means that gamers are only allowed a finite number of saves, somewhere in the order of between fifteen and twenty-five. This would not be a problem in an ideal world where entire days can be devoted to playing the game and saving at appropriate points, yet once again life is rarely so accommodating as to make way for these demanding fucking games.

I am not able to play Resident Evil games as I would other games, it is not really possible to effectively play the games in order to kill a half hour before having to be somewhere, as your limited amount of progression is probably not worth wasting an ink ribbon. There is a huge disincentive to sit-down and play Resident Evil when one has less than two solid hours (at a minimum) to dedicate towards it, this really makes it vastly more difficult to enjoy the games. Allow me to furnish you with an anecdote: several days ago I was playing Resident Evil (GC) and had progressed a little over my twenty or so minutes of play when Lusipurr told me to hop on Skype. This left me with something of a conundrum; do I go to a save point and waste an ink ribbon on a paltry twenty minutes of playtime, or do I just turn off my console and loose my progress. In the end there was only one choice :(.

HUR HUR DEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRP! 8)

Like I said before however, the Resident Evil save system is a feature That I am slightly ambiguous about. I dislike it wholeheartedly, I always have and I always will, yet how does one rubbish it in a game which is based almost exclusively around the concept of resource management? On the one hand it doesn’t seem unreasonable to treat saving the same as every other resource in the game, on the other hand a lifetime of gaming has taught me that it is never good game design when a particular feature makes you want to play a game less.

Finally, the survival horror genre is apt to demonstrate another area of ambiguity within game design; namely the fairness of enemy and hazard placement. In the majority of game genres one would expect every impediment to gamer progression to be sportingly crafted, if the player is playing the game right then every hazard should be avoidable. Not so the survival horror genre, which requires the implicit threat of the unexpected in order to maintain a frightening atmosphere. When the player is unexpectedly assailed from behind (don’t be gross!) then they receive a shock, when the player wanders through some high grass only to find themselves caught in a bear trap they receive a shock, these occasions are absolutely integral to maintaining the experience, yet each time they feel a little cheap and unpleasant seeing as it wasn’t a deficiency in our technique which led to us taking damage.

To what extent then is it desirable to have the player blindsided by unfair gameplay elements? Too little and you have a game like the superb Resident Evil 4, which categorically failed at being scary. Too much and you are left with a game that you put down in contempt; I was rather enjoying many elements of Alan Wake, yet its occasional random battle mechanic felt cheap, nasty and amateurish. Then of course you have games like Doom 3 which attempted to utilize cheap-scare monster closets to such an extent that they became banal and farcical. When you find yourself starting to enter rooms backwards because of the tangible gameplay advantage it provides, then that is a clear sign that there are far too enemy spawns placed behind you. Ultimately a game which loads up on assailing players with blindsides may well be harrowing, yet it precludes the player ever getting the full measure of enjoyment from the game’s combat system, and all but ensures their low sense of efficacy as gamers when making their way through the game. As for me, I think my sweetspot is somewhere in the vicinity of Silent Hill 2 and 3. Unique events are good, but they are a distraction from core gameplay.

At this point I should like to solicit reckons, as per usual I don’t know quite where to come down on many of these game design elements. Can the challenge of negotiating inconveniently placed save points ever justify the heavy demands it makes on your time and patience? Should resource conservation games compel players to ration their saves also? How frequently is it advisable or desirable to to burden players with unexpected hazards in order to establish and maintain a game’s atmosphere?

NEVER FORGET!

10 comments

  1. The pictures in this article are made of win.

    For my part, I can say I have to agree. I’ve found that the games that challenge are very different from games which frustrate. I immediately think of Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, Deadly Towers, Battletoads, and so on–all games that were nigh-impossible because of the mechanics of the game, not because of any actual challenge.

    Infrequent save points shows an ignorance on the part of a developer that the player might have something approaching a real life. Similarly, bad controls show developer incompetence.

    A good example of intelligent game development is the way that Valve approaches challenge. If something can kill the player, they want the player to know 1) what they did wrong and 2) how it can be avoided in future, so the player will learn to overcome that challenge. Death shouldn’t be dealt out at random, nor should it ever be unavoidable.

  2. Why have save points in the first place? Just let us save anywhere but have to restart a mission or dungeon from the beginning if we stop in the middle. That way, progress in terms of drops or experience isn’t lost, even if “progress” is.

    A challenge is only a “challenge” if it has a solution, one that isn’t gimmicky and can be overcome by strategies, preferably more than one depending on the different skill sets or abilities available to the player. I’m thinking here of one of the old MegaMan games where at the end boss you could only damage Dr. Wiley by using one boss’s special abilities, and it was a dumb one — like the water boss whose ability you never used in the rest of the game. All of a sudden when you switched to this ability, you could kill him with ridiculous ease. That’s not a challenge; it’s a stupid gimmick.

    Games that had challenges that could be bested in various ways (from the NES era) were things like Warmech in the original Final Fantasy or the various bosses from Blaster Master. I recall my uncle and I exchanging theories on beating Blaster Master bosses and testing different methods.

    A game I found with an appropriate level of difficulty was Mass Effect 2, which I recently beat, on the “normal” setting (I have no intention of replaying the game on insane, or even hard. I think I died 2-3 times, usually from stupidity of storming to a new cover location and being overrun by melee enemies like Husks when I was out of ammo because my rock-stupid squad AI was busy twiddling their thumbs somewhere. I never felt like I had to always choose a super-balanced party and ran through the Reaper base with what I felt like were my most awesome supporters, rather than the theoretical “best” party makeup. Sure, I had to gerrymander my strategy a bit on the Human Reaper, but I got it done… because I didn’t play stupidly.

  3. I’m a big proponent of save where you like. Save points are a relic, and I have no time for them.

  4. I’m really not a fan of games that people boast as ‘challenging’ when they are actually either not difficult in the least, or sometimes worse, nearly impossible. On the one side, we have many older games, such as SMB: The Lost Levels and Battletoads, and on the other side we have stupidly easy games like Kingdom Hearts II. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Kingdom Hearts II, and one or two of the bosses put up a bit of a fight, but for the most part the game lacked any sort of real challenge. Proud mode did not remedy the lack of challenge even a little bit. The problem I tend to see is that instead of wanting games that challenge people’s creativity and/or skills, people tend to want to ‘return to the old style of gaming’, where things were impossible and you spent hours and hours crying after yet another Battletoads fiasco. People say that they WANT the impossibility factor, because it’s challenging to them, but then they bitch when games are too difficult. They want games to be challenging, but they don’t want to have to work hard to beat them. Basically it just seems like people want to have a really easy time with games everyone ELSE finds challenging.

    With save points, it’s a toss up for me. Well strewn-out save points in games that do them well give a much needed health and energy/mana/whatever restoration to your party. However, not being able to save anywhere severely limits the playability of the game for anyone who has anything remotely resembling a life. There are always going to be times where you have to set the game down, and if you can’t save, well, screw you, you shouldn’t be doing anything other than gaming anyway!

    With party setups, I personally like to go for party members that I like based on my own nearly arbitrary character standards. I have to like them as a character, first off. If someone’s really good, but I absolutely despise them as a character, they’re out. I like characters to be in some way unusual or different from the normal character style, but I can handle normal characters: after all, most of your party must be made of normal characters in order for you to have one or two ‘strange’ ones. And they have to have potential. They don’t have to be the strongest, but they do have to be able to do SOMETHING. In Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, I liked Ilyana because she was different in slight ways from other mages. She needed high strength growth in order to accommodate her Thunder magic, which had the distinction of being more difficult to wield but have a much higher critical hit chance, and it also happened to be the most effective magic against Dragon Laguz, which you exclusively fight during one of the final fights in the game. The high strength growth also made her a very interesting staff user. Once she was promoted so that she could use staves, her strength was high enough that if she was attacked in melee, she would actually deal a small amount of damage with the staff. If I paired her with another staff user, I could have them heal each other each turn and have her gain experience (and staff weapon skill!) from counterattacking enemies. The advantage I found to doing this was that while hitting enemies with a staff gains weapon skill in staves, it does not reduce the durability of the staff, which is very useful if you don’t want to spend a lot of money. However, I was certainly not going to take the character Meg, who was a General-class character with terrible Strength and HP growths…and okay speed. What’s the point of that speed on a tanking character that can’t tank?

    In short, most of the challenge I get from today’s games I prefer to make myself, if I find the games too easy.

  5. Save points aren’t necessary for HP/MP replenishment, the designer could just implement healing stations.

  6. Wow, finite number of saves? I have never heard of or seen that in a game before. That’s just plain stupid.

  7. Save anywhere, HP/MP regeneration at a fixed rate when out of combat, and plenty of consumables to aid in this process.

    Then, crank the miniboss/boss difficulty up to appropriate levels so that every encounter is taxing, rather than making “the environment” or “the length of the dungeon” its own mechanic. Make me play smarter, not test my ability to hoard resources and block out arbitrarily large blocks of time.

  8. Here’s a good example of an annoying mechanic: the Maloriak fight in Blackwing Descent. As a boss, Maloriak is almost pathetically easy. Nothing he actually does, individually is dangerous. There’s not a lot of movement required, and only in the final 20% of his health, which is an absolute, caution-to-the-wind burn phase.

    The “difficulty” of the encounter happens in two places. First, the second tank (which is me!) has to worry about grabbing periodic spawns of new monsters and pulling them away from the rest of the group and keeping them there until a mechanic weakens them enough to be killed, which is not hard if the second tank is carefully mitigating the incoming damage. The hardest part for me is rounding them up from around the room before they eat the squishy classes.

    The other hard part is the responsibility placed on a single member to interrupt the cast of the spell which summons the new monsters. There are a total of 18 that can be summoned, in waves of 3, but if all of the casts are allowed to happen, a total of 12 can pile up on the second tank at any given time. 9 is survivable with smart play and good gear; 12 is simply impossible. So one out of every 4 casts must be stopped, and the fourth out of every four casts must be let land so that the second tank has 9 on him for only a very short time.

    There is literally no other way to accomplish the encounter. It is punishing to the point that no deviance is allowed; one failure to interrupt the summoning means instant death.

    Which is fine for some of the big, once-or-twice per-encounter attacks, things that any competent person can and should be able to avoid, like not standing in front of the boss’s big attacks or dodging or mitigating large spurts of damage. But for something that is going to happen a total of eight times in the encounter, where one failure literally means a raid wipe, is just being difficult for no good reason. The fight is trivial once this aspect is managed, and as of now, Maloriak is a throw-away boss since we’ve nailed this mechanic down. It makes the fight a gimmick, and there is no savor to the victory, like there is over the next boss, which requires lots of coordination and quick thinking.

  9. I’m with SiliconNooB, why the hell do we need save points in 2011? Let us save anywhere, but scatter health/magic restoration so the game is still challenging.

    Or at the very least, add in a damn quicksave system.

  10. Call me simple, but I have a fond spot for save points. In most games I’ve played (as the rest of you, its mostly JRPGs) reaching a new save point stands out as an accomplishment. “Hey, you just went through a lot of difficult shit, have a rewarding HP/MP replenishment and a chance to put the controller down.” Of course, that’s also when I was a child and had the massive hours available to just play and play and play. Now, I absolutely have to agree with Deimosion: Quicksaves are critical. When Lusipurr bitches that I’ve been playing nothing but Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon, he should know that its because I work a crapton and try to balance that with the gym and social life, so its quicksave is often my savior.

    I also have to agree with Lane said regarding gimmick difficulty, like duration or the need to over-strategize. Dungeons that take an entire day just to get to the end and have a boss rape your face? Not a fun challenge, just a tedious one. An example in the opposite direction would be a classic boss fight we’d all be familiar with, Emerald Weapon. I never got the underwater materia, so fighting this jolly green giant was under a time constraint that I was never able to fulfill. Could I have beaten him eventually? Sure, I killed Ruby. But to do a series of miniquests just so I could have a time limit removed so that I could beat an extra boss? Not difficult, just time-consuming and annoying.

    Difficulty in a game can be frustrating at times, but the inderpstry needs to understand that just plain frustrating us is not the same.

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