Thursday, 30 August 2012

Ahead of the Difficulty Curve - by Tom Dransfield

Difficulty curve is an important feature of games, for some reason we enjoy struggling through the bits that are hard and returning to them once we are better. But is also important that we get better. Gamers love a system of character enhancement in RPGs, but unless this balance is adjusted perfectly we’ll end up either frustrated or bored.

In my experience game designers seem to spend a great amount of time perfectly honing the level development and difficulty curve to make it an appropriate challenge....then they bring out some DLC and decide to throw that all to one side. They’re so desperate to go “Look at what cool stuff you can get!” that they forget that this stuff is often totally game breaking.

It's like bringing this NERF gun and its Super Soaker equivalent out into the street as a kid. 

A good example is when I played fallout 3 collectors edition. Having never played before, I didn’t know where to start and the first mission I did was Operation Anchorage. I had a great time creeping around like a cold war spy taking out several soldiers before finally facing their leader in a one on one showdown. The problem was, for this 3 hours of tricky and interesting gameplay, I was rewarded with both an invisibility suit and the most powerful melee weapon in the game. Putting the two together, I effectively became gray fox from Metal Gear Solid. Awesome! But utterly game ruining.

After I had upped my sneak skill I got to the point where I could walk square up to the strongest group of enemies I could find and kick one of them in the nuts with my electro-sword only to have them go “What! Is somebody there?” until I had chipped away all their health. I got bored after about 2 hours of this and put the game permanently aside never to play the much hailed New Vegas because of the dry boring memories.

Now you may tell me that I could have simply not used the items I had and challenge myself that way, but that’s hardly engaging gameplay. If I’m supposed to be role-playing as a survivor in an apocalyptic and dangerous wasteland I don’t want to think, ahh, a gang of murderous bandits, better not use my mint gear or else it won’t be a challenge. Then it is reduced to a pointless self-challenging experience like a crossword or Sudoku. I will not be forced to play Sudoku.

False Advertising, these puzzles have nothing to do with cool tigers. Shut up, book.

For an example of a game that tries to give you upgrades but ultimately fails, there is Resident Evil 5. The upgrade mechanic in this game is nearly entirely pointless, they give you the chance to upgrade your peashooter guns in such pathetic amounts and so rarely that it barely makes any difference. 

Combine that with the ridiculously tough, ammo draining enemies and the lack of pickups and you’ll quickly find that your most useful tools are the knife and the ‘run away and look for ammo’. It’s quite fortunate that the upgrading in this game is so unsatisfying or else people might be tempted to play it further and discover its other horrible qualities.

Sheva Alomar was reportedly included in Resi 5 to tone down the overall racist overtones in the game.  

One game that I will say gets the upgrading balance absolutely right is the game Bayonetta. A game so torturously hard that it doesn’t allow you to play it on hard until you’ve played through it on normal at least once and picked up some upgrades. The upgrades give you new techniques and moves (a-la Devil May Cry), so that as you become more skilled at controlling it you get more moves to learn and ultimately master. As well as this you get some incredibly tough enemies that will fully slap you around and you will need some of these upgrades to even stand a chance of facing these challenges without thousands of retries.

We seem to want these games to be hard for us, and hate it when we get to the point where they have become easy. There is something so much more satisfying about a game being torturously challenging throughout, I’m not going to claim to be an anthropologist or a behavioural psychologist, so I simply like to think it’s because deep down we hate ourselves.

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