When Difficult Is Fun – Challenging vs. Punishing Games – Extra Credits


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.

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Comments

  1. This something I wish Pixonic would really understand with War Robots. It just goes from bad to worse for players. Such as very poor matchmaking, basic glitches not fixed, endless new robots and weapons. Blown out upgrade times and the list goes on. It is really frustrating and it is a very punishing game for so many players so it is a FAIL. Pay to win pure and simple.

  2. That's the problem with most game development companies unlike Nintendo they can't just make an enjoyable game anymore it has to be razor edge competitive stupid difficult CPUs and impossible obstacles to sell, isn't that right Call of Duty, Assassins Creed Overwatch

  3. Anyone here ever tried beating Larae’s Lieutenant on level 18 in the division with the JTF Sergeant and 2 other players, lvl 16 and 17? It’s so fucking hard I rage quit and thought about complaining in the Xbox Store.

  4. Sans breaks all the rules… Toby Fox has demonstrated that difficulty is just… broken. Not only was Sans punishing, he was at times, insulting. I found this hilarious.

  5. Having rewatched this episode and now being an avid Warframe player. I really need to experience this “sliding spin dash” myself XD

  6. So theres two games that ive played the handle to FE problem differently.

    The first is steam world heist where enemies spawn and move but never shoot on the first turn they spawn

    The second is mario+rabbids in which enemies do spawn and attack with giving you a chance to kill them but you see where they are about to spawn and can move to a more favorable position before the do spawn

    I know this video is super old and almost no one will see this but it’s interesting to see different approaches to the same situation

  7. Interesting you mentioned Dark Souls and running through content just to get to the challenge again. Dark Souls did exactly that: it was punishing you so much on some boss fights, that you had to run through the same content you beat many times before, where the likelyhood of dying was still high. That gave it the feeling of the most grindy non-MMO RPG I've ever played.

    I played DS2 and DS3, and especially on DS2 I felt like the game was just made for those who somehow already magically mastered it. 2nd and 3rd playthrough on DS3 didn't even feel "difficult" anymore, the thing that stuck out most for me was the grind aspect and the mechanical feel to it. Overall I had fun with the game, but I would never play it again.

    Not to mention that there were plenty of situations where I was left wondering "how the fuck did I die?" Because let's face it, DS programmers were lazy as fuck, couldn't be bothered to figure out a way to optimize animations and feedback and telegraphs.

    The reason DS series was so popular was because of the hardcore fans' insistence that it was all skill based and their incessant "git gud". DS had some great boss fights and great moments and some utterly stupid and badly designed ones. The only reason a lot of people stuck through it was so that they can get bragging rights about how they finished dark souls and were total badass gamers. Ugh… please.

  8. Some places in dark souls are complete bull…

    The archers that can 1 shot you as both fire at the same time
    Crystal cave as there is only 1 bonfire and you have to go through a field of crystal golems and get invisible bridges
    Manus of the abyss you only have 2seconds to do any thing and if you heal you have to wait for the next cycle of attacks which could be the one that like you instantly or the weakest one that leaves you barely hanging on

  9. Skyrim glitch on PS3 for ultimate edition: Finds septimus signus'es outpost, which is a glacier, entgers, falls through floor and gets trapped well there goes 1 entire hour of progress, along with the main game's story, and dawnguard, and that elder scroll wall mount i got in heartfire.

  10. I think a game that does this really well is hollow knight. It's extremely difficult at some parts but almost every boss or challenge is fair and you rarely feel cheated or have rng screw you over.

  11. Nice video! One question: so raid bosses in mmorpgs are punishing? Cause when u fail in the last phase you have to do the rest again? But lots of people love raids… help me out

  12. "giving the player enough tools to work with" which is why Dark Souls 3 was the worst of the trilogy and 2 the best.

  13. Watching this in 2019, I can appreciate that jab at warframe, some of those melee stance combos are kinda bs. But they eventually become usable once you’ve made several better weapons and no longer have a need for it. Or is that just me.

  14. This guy can literally only think about 1 thing at any given time lmao. Even the most dimwitted can accidentally manage 2 things at once vs a normal persons leisurely 3+

  15. Some of these old games that had punishing death areas that seemed unfair at the time were designed that way back in the 1980's to sell Strategy Guides, which was a big market back then. Take Kings Quest, who really finished the game without the guide book or calling a tip line.

  16. Portal is a pretty good action puzzle game. I like how some of the later levels seem like you’re actually breaking the rules. It wasn’t a long game, but it was challenging and fun. It did however at times take you back to your last start point several minutes in, but then usually it wouldn’t take as long to get back where you were as you’d already figured that part of the puzzle out.

  17. As a fellow warframe player I must say that only certain weapons need that combo, if you wish to use something fun then how about the Arca plasmor

  18. Dark Souls is not consistent. What are you talking about? I have never seen a game with more variance or that's more unreliable.

  19. Well thats pretty much the Topic i need since im creating an difficult Game. Player has many tools, has an Savepoint nearby, but im not entirely sure how I can hype him enough to try everything to beat the extremly difficult Bosses. One friend playtested it so far and was more like "meh". He´s not playing that kind of genre so much, and my target group are experienced Jrpg players, so maybe thats one Problem, but I watched him and figured that he might need some easier enemys for the start. Since the many options are pretty overwhelming at the beginning if your starting Enemys twohit you.

    Well its still deep in development. But it actually is pretty important to get engagement and Punishment right. On the other Hand complete meaningless Deaths ruins games for me too. So I guess having an nearby Savepoint you can always access, but you need to do the whole Battle again is an reasonable midway.

  20. first i want to say, celeste is my favorite game of 2018, i love it (better than GOW or RDR2, imo) im on the 4th level of celeste and i do feel it is punishing, that is its major flaw. the execution part of the game is too rigid.

    what i mean is, i have my satisfying aha moments on how to progress (the thinking part), but executing on them, is an entirely different story. imagine a from software game where you die on every new enemy, thats what the sections of celeste feel like sometimes. it could be the ps4 pad i play on wasnt designed for such precision. also, matilda's hit box is so big, it really shows sometimes. there are spots where reacting is impossible, you have to predict exactly when to time your jump or dash. how do you do that? repetition. i can honestly say it feels like the game is designed around killing me, rather than rewarding retries. if some of the holes were widened a bit, if controlling matilda was a bit more lax, i think i could focus on the parts of the game i could enjoy more. theres this fluidity in game play in spiderman ps4, celeste is the polar opposite. i die for jumping to far, then die again for not jumping far enough, dying for being too high or too low are just pixels apart. the game would feel more fun with less of these moments. theres a major separation between wanting matilda to get from point a to point b, and actually being able to do it, more than any other game. most games, once you've recognized the right decision, thats a major part of the battle, celeste's battle comes in executing on the correct decisions. again, it could just be my controller

    cant believe i found this video while playing celeste and feeling this way, thank you and <3

  21. I love the PS3 controller and the XBox 360 controller more than anything else. I love those designs, it just feels right for my hands. I’m disappointed in the design coming up for the new PS5 controller. To meet the design just does not look comfortable to hold.

  22. thats my biggest complaint with many games. i play ark and its the most punishing game i know. not difficult but punishing. the skill required is pretty low actually but so many times things will happen out of your control and you will lose hours days weeks or even months of real life progress. disconnects, cheap enemies, cheap areas and cheap ass bosses. but theres not much skill just knowledge and grind and learning what not to do by trial and error. and when you do error expect to have hours days weeks or even months of real life in game work crushed due to many bugs and or cheapness of play.

    matter of fact half the "skill" of the game is learning what bugs can happen and how to avoid them or what cheap ass enemy does what and how to counter it. theres jellyfish in the sea that can keep tames stunned till there dead. and about 15 different water tames you could use but 1 is ammune to jellyfish. so everybody uses that because its the only viable sea creature.

    wanna use a crock too bad jellyfish will kill it, shark nope mosasaur nope sorry. and you might think well why not avoid them? theres blinding glare in ark good luck seeing them in the day. so any player who knows the game at all uses 1 sea creature.. completely limiting player choice.

    or like how bout RE2 no way out ghost survivor. your shoved in a cramped space fighting zombies and you have a shitty pistol and your biggest enemies are extremely limited space, slow ass characters and a camera that works fine 98% of the time… except in cramped spaces 😀 many times you are forced to just take a bight with no real other option and the only way to win is by memorizing when and where fuel tanks will drop and shooting them to take out huge hords. and it seemes timed for just when you need it.

    lotta skill in that loll its just an illusion of difficulty to make you feel like your doing good. its like skyrims power fantasy on easy mode with dark souls painted on to it but they save you before anything gets actually hard lol provided you payed attention the last 3 times you died.

    speaking of which dark souls isnt even hard. but its difficulty is done so well most people want to push on as they learn real skills. practice is rewarding.

    but i say its not hard cause if you were a complete noob i could sit behind you and tell you where to go and what you should do next like a guide and youd finish and say that was eassssy. cause knowing is half the battle. your second playthrough is 10x easier cause you know where to get certain items. but hey they get a pass on it because the games still fun.

  23. call of duty match ends, you lose and someone says “terrible effort, that one hurt our reputation”

  24. Is anyone seeing this? At 4:58, the red dots seem to float above the screen, like the effect on the 3DS. Accidental optical illusion??

  25. Umm, did EC just say that Mario Bros. was a punishing game and that punishing games don't sell???

    Umm, highest grossing video game franchise ever!!!???

  26. Hollow knight, and Just shapes and beats is another challenging game because you don’t really die in the game ( except steel soul mode in Hollow knight and that one cutscene in Just shapes and beats ).

  27. Sliding Spin Slash is easy on console. Left analog stick press, left analog stick forward, left trigger press. It’s easy

  28. Record of Lodoss War
    would've been a great (sega dc) example game for this vid. can be finished within 12h but then it wasn't fun. can also be played over 100h without finishing, like, slaying your ancient dragon soulmate, clearing all the prisons and so on. and omg that dragon takes a damn fight like i never saw it again… best run: 45min on a 100h+ savegame… 3.5h fight on a 70h savegame….
    and jfc that game had a hp-bar that ended on 9999 but you could have 100000! simply having to calculate your own hp to know how many u got just added fun to the game!

  29. You know, since you mentioned complexity and learning curve, how the hell would Dwarf Fortress place on that scale?

  30. Ah, the old point-and-click adventure games like King's Quest. They did everything wrong as far as "punishing" goes, which is an all too kind word for it.

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