Thursday, 14 July 2011

Fight To The Finish: Do we really want difficult games?

I went back to playing Football Manager recently (Worldwide Soccer Manager in the US) and using my favourite team Chelsea, comfortably won the league with five games to spare before bagging the domestic and European cups as well. Chelsea in real life are one of the top teams in football - read football as soccer if you're not British - and usually strong contenders for any cup they participate in. In my FM game, I regularly win at least two or three competitions a year, the Premier League very rarely not amongst them. If the real Chelsea replicated this haul, they would probably be considered the best team in the world, with few challengers to that claim. This sounds like bragging, but as much as I'd like to now apply for the real Chelsea job on the basis of my in-game success (which someone did, albeit at Middlesbrough), these achievements are not exactly rare in the FM world. 

It's not just with big clubs like Chelsea either: players on the FM forums regularly boast about hauling teams up from the swamplands of the lower leagues to European success in under ten gaming years. Despite its developers' claims to the contrary, Football Manager can sometimes feel less like a simulacrum of life in the dugout and more like a success simulator. Every day, any one of the millions of FM users achieves feats in-game that would at best occur once every ten or more years in the real footballing world. But I don't think that makes it a bad game and nor do most of its other players, judging by its consistently gargantuan sales figures. What it does do is raise the question as to whether we play games for the challenge, where the likelihood of success is tiny but through perseverance our small successes make us prouder, or for the experience, where progress is all but guaranteed for even the most 'talent-deficient' player so that everyone can experience some part of the thrill of success and the different scenarios thrown up by the game are what we expect to make it memorable, rather than the challenge of overcoming them.  
Of course, games do pop up every now and again where challenge is the main catalyst for the play experience, most prominently arcade-style shooters like Ikaruga, games aimed at the truly hardcore* gaming audience such as the highest-level quests in World of Warcraft, or the occasional RPG like Demon's Souls and its upcoming sequel. But those games are not the norm. Nintendo said of New Super Mario Bros Wii that it would be so difficult as to require an auto-play mode, yet my mostly non-gaming sister and I got through most levels without usually requiring more than two or three attempts. And that's including all the times we threw each other down pits, or 'accidentally' used Yoshi to spit the other in the direction of a Hammer Bros.

(* When I say 'hardcore', I mean it in its proper eighteen-hours-a-day-of-stats-grinding-and-60%-pizza-sauce-in-bloodstream-content meaning)

Difficulty is one of the main points of contention for modern gamers fearing that their hobby is being diluted as to bring in new audiences. Many developers make outlandish claims about the level of challenge in their games, only for players to discover that the final boss' flashy main attack only takes away one of your fourteen hearts of heath despite his having been built up as the Conqueror of Worlds and Prince of Darkness who Slew A Thousand Armies. What? One heart at a time? They'd have surrendered faster if he'd threatened to take over the television stations and put nothing on but Kate Hudson movies - although that's probably excessively sadistic even for an evil overlord. But most of the time, these games are acclaimed anyway, just with the caveat that they weren't as challenging as we hoped for.

I don't think it's particularly controversial to suggest that I don't think most people give much thought to exactly what makes a game work when they go on message boards - or blogs - to voice their opinions. Assessments are often made on individual segments of play (combat good; overworld and side-jobs bad) without considering how they relate to each other. Sometimes even the bad parts of a game can exacerbate the positives and make for a better overall experience, so losing them makes those good bits feel less special. Incidentally, I loved every part of the original No More Heroes and consider the side-jobs to be there more for comedy value and more important as part of the game's themes than as a genuine attempt to make for thrilling play. 

When we play games and say that they're fun despite the lack of challenge, could we be missing the fact that it might be the experience of discovering the new landscapes and situations of the game that we're enjoying and would be denied to us were the difficulty to be ramped up? It's not uncommon for games to be described as frustrating when players have to repeat sections over and over again, yet it's no less common to hear people lamenting the fact that they only died once or twice during a entire playthrough of a new game. If I were getting all pretentious, I might suggest that such complaints are more acts of self-affirmation, boasts made safe in the knowledge that they won't ever be put into action. Thankfully, such statements aren't my style at all. *coughs*

As I get older - a bit ridiculous for someone of twenty-four to be saying that, but I've been gaming for about eighteen of those years - I find myself playing games more as an exploratory experience than out of a desire for a genuine challenge. Many people complained about the use of Vita Chambers in BioShock and its sequel (which I played through recently) but not only did they not bother me, I found them a pleasant relief: they were a quick and easy way of getting back to where I was without having to worry about forgetting to save, at least until I turned the game on again the following evening, and keeping the immersion more effectively than checkpointing. 

I'm of the opinion that developers shouldn't try and pretend that death is a threat in their games, because it isn't one: you can always reload a save and start again. From my perspective, the BioShock games were aware of this and the Vita chambers functioned as an excuse for taking out that game-severing gap. I wasn't as big a fan of the games as many people, but Rapture was vivid enough that I wanted to keep exploring. The splicers' ability to send me back to the Vita Chambers was enough that their threat felt credible, yet the developers were clever enough to allow me to seamlessly continue my progress.

More recently, I've been playing through the Wii game Red Steel 2 again. Far from turning me into a master samurai, my swordsmanship is more akin to a spastic penguin trying to grasp a cake of wet soap in its flailing flippers whilst running on a treadmill. But the difficulty curve is smooth and there's a tangible sense of progress in overcoming each progressively tougher set of enemies. Game director Jason Vandenbergh deserves tremendous credit not only for his excellent facial hair, but also for getting the controls pitched so perfectly between requiring a degree of mastery, whilst remaining forgiving enough that those 'skills-deficient' lot I mentioned earlier - now firmly encompassing me - are able to steadily move forward. Had the motion controls, which are glorious by the way, been genuine one-to-one movement and required any real swordfighting skills, I probably wouldn't be past the first fight by now. I'm playing on 'Normal' difficulty by the way, so there's another step up for anyone worried that the game sounds too easy.

Constant calls for greater challenges in gaming are not by their nature specious - the Zelda series really could do with being taken up a notch - but designers and gamers alike need to consider how much adherence to such calls will affect some of gaming's more subtle pleasures, such as the excitement of progress and exploration; how uninterrupted stretches of play can deepen immersion; or how far the balance should be tipped between gameplay and difficulty. 

I suspect that I'm not alone in feeling that in many cases, the threat of danger is enough to maintain suspense during play. We're well assured that protagonists in most films will survive to the end, yet it's the threat that keeps us watching. I think the same can be applied to gameplay, as long as designers are wary of not making that threat too weak as to seem ridiculous. While there are of course exceptions - such as where building up strength for a challenge ahead is part of the fun (RPGs) or where the gameplay's success is contingent on escalating challenge over repetitive scenarios (arcade shooters) - it's worth thinking about whether we're playing simply to be there and do our best, or whether we'd actually quite like to lift that trophy at the end.



rubthemtogether said...

Nice post Xander. Although "read football as soccer if you're not English", or, you know, Scottish or British or whatever. I'm loving the blog though, keep up the good work

Xander Markham said...

Thanks for the comment, rubthemtogether - I've made your suggested correction to appease my Scots/Welsh brothers!

rubthemtogether said...

High-fives across the border