Hey, everybody very often we get questions like why doesn’t anybody make difficult games anymore And the short answer to that is very simple. It’s because people believe that difficult games don’t sell. But this is false. Punishing games don’t sell. So today, we’re going to talk about what distinguishes a game which is deliciously difficult from one which is just controller crushingly punishing. But first, let’s tackle the “why doesn’t anybody make difficult games anymore?” question in a little more depth. For this, we really have to look at the history of the industry. When the video game industry began, it was centered around the coin Op experience This meant that most of the games were intentionally very difficult, to get you to keep pumping quarters into the arcade. Many of the people who designed these arcade games then transferred over into the growing console industry, bringing their super challenging design philosophy with them. And, counter to all current industry wisdom, this design philosophy worked reasonably well for the initial console audience. After all, the expectation was that the average player was 8 to 14 years old, male, and wouldn’t be getting new games regularly. So, they would have to make the games they had really last. They’d be happy if there was a very high ceiling on skill, so that they could continuously be rewarded for getting better at the game they had, and could play that game which really only had about 5 hours of content for 40 hours or more. But then, as the years passed, production costs began to skyrocket, and, in order to cover those production costs, developers started having to reach for the widest audience possible. At the same time, some of the generation who began playing nes games when they were 12 were now able to start buying their own games so replayability became less of an issue. Developers saw how many studios collapsed for making punishing games, so the new motto for these studios became “everybody wins.” We transitioned from Everquest to World of Warcraft, from Ghosts and Goblins to Maximo, and some really great games came out of this. We really had to step it up on usability, on properly crafted learning curves, and on evening out difficulty spikes. But, we lost a little something too. There was something that games like Super C or Castlevania had that we are poorer for simply dismissing as an industry. But today, at last, with the ability to find alternate, cheaper avenues to distribute through, like Steam or Kongregate, we’re starting to experiment with difficulty again. So, let’s talk about what makes the difference between a game being punishing and it being something you love spending time trying to master. First, and most importantly, is the consistency of rules. If you’re playing a game where getting hit doesn’t usually knock you back, and then an enemy, without warning, hits you, and you fall back into a pit after a grueling play session, that is a ragequit moment. Dark Souls is a glorious example of a game obeying its own rules. From Software had a covenant with their players. Every character that ever appears, follows all of the rules of the game. So, every NPC, every monster that showed up in what normally would be a set-piece moment, was killable. If you could see a monster from some crazy ledge you managed to get yourself to, you could shoot it till it was dead. There were no arbitrary “we don’t want you to do that” invisible walls or invulnerable monsters. If you could find the solution, you could do it. Of course, you don’t have to go this far, but the harder your game is, the less you can mysteriously change your rules on the fly. Which is part and parcel with the second important part of enjoyable difficulty: giving the player enough tools to work with. For something to be enjoyably difficult, rather than punishing, it has to allow the player an outlet to approach problems in new ways. When you fail to beat a challenge, you have to be able to say to yourself, “I need to slide here,” or, “What if I were to wall jump?” rather than simply relying on memorization, a la Battletoads. Which leads us nicely into talking about telegraphing. The player needs to have the ability to make informed choices about the game, even if they’re split second ones. An uninformed choice isn’t actually a choice at all, and this means that everything has to hint at its consequences in some small way. Many of you may remember games where 90% of the pits would kill you if you jumped into them, but the other 10% had secret rooms or important items in them. This is not only an inconsistency of the rules, but a failure to telegraph. This is punishing rather than difficult, because there’s no choice, no player skill involved. Those of you who played the recent, and otherwise great, Fire Emblem Awakening on classic mode probably encountered moments when, without any specifics of where they’d show up, enemy units would appear behind your lines and get a turn to move before you could do anything, often permanently killing off some of your characters. That is punishing, not difficult, because you couldn’t play around it. There was no real choice you could make. You just had to restart the level and rely on your now memorized foreknowledge of where enemies were going to appear. Which, of course, brings us to iteration time. In simplest terms, to make a game not punishing, lower its iteration time. Given how much you–or, at least, I–died in Super Meat Boy, by all rights, it should have seemed punishing. But, they very intelligently did everything they could to allow you as a player to jump right back in the second you died and try something new. The levels are so short that you’re never more than 10 seconds from the challenge you failed at, and the respawn time isn’t arbitrarily clogged with some interstitial screen asking you, “Do you want to continue? It’s back into the action right away to try to solve the puzzle again And that’s where Fire Emblem, in my previous example, fails. Often, the arbitrary, unstoppable deaths occur right in the middle of a 20-minute long battle that you’re otherwise winning. Which means the player now has ten minutes of doing something they already succeeded at, something that’s no longer engaging to them, just to get another crack at the problem they want to solve. Next, there’s usability. As we’ve said before, Complexity does not equal difficulty. The more your players are able to understand and instantly utilize the tools you’ve given them, the wider variety of problems you can present them with, and the larger range of interesting answers they can come up with. Just because you’re making a game that’s meant to be mastered, doesn’t mean it should be hard to get into. I mean, think of Ikaruga. How simple are those mechanics? How readily understandable? And yet, they gave the player the tools they needed to face a plethora of challenges in an incredibly difficult game. This is as true for platformers as it is for shmups or strategy games. The wall slide in Super Meat Boy is something that is immediately understandable for the player, and so is something that the player can work with, something that the designer can rely on the player to problem-solve with, because they feel comfortable using it. Just remember, a big part of that comfort is in controls. When we talk usability, we often talk about user interface or tutorials, but an awesome move that you understand but can’t execute consistently might as well not even be in the game. Those of you who have played Warframe will know what I mean when I simply say, “sliding Spin slash.” It’s awesome, I’d love to use it, but really, “shift, control, W, E?” Lastly, don’t ignore difficulty curve. Just because a game is difficult, it doesn’t mean that its difficulty can just fluctuate wildly all over the place, have huge spikes, or be unreasonably difficult up front. As a designer, you’re not trying to defeat your player. You want them to overcome the challenge you’re setting before them. Your goal as a designer is to get your player so invested, so engaged, that they want to beat this game, even though it’s difficult. You don’t want to simply set something before them that causes them to walk away because they hit a challenge which is too tough, too early. That’s just punishing. It is very easy to make a punishing game. It is quite challenging, though, to get your player through a difficult one. So, to sum up, this industry doesn’t have to give up on difficult games. Things like Meat Boy and Dark Souls prove that. But, if I had to give one piece of final advice, I’d just say this: as a designer, when the player fails, you want them to always feel as though they could have done better. You want them to have that “aha!” moment, where they realize some small thing they could do differently, and be hungry to try again. If instead, they feel like the game made them fail, then you have failed as a designer. If your rules are inconsistent, if your player isn’t presented with choices they can work with or a game that’s usable enough, or if you demand that the player wade through minutes of content they already mastered just to get another chance at the thing they failed at, you have created a game which is punishing, not difficult. And punishing games will never succeed. I’ll see you in Anor Londo.