On difficulty: strings of challenges

I don’t know if it’s just me, but there’s a special kind of challenge that never fails to irritate me whenever it pops it’s ugly head in whatever game I’m playing. Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often, but with enough frequency that I’ve finally become aware of the reasons why I hate it so much.

What the hell am I talking about? Well, the simplest way I can put it is like this: A string of challenges, where each one is not particularly difficult but if the player were to fail on any of these then he’d have to start all over again from the beginning. Now, that’s basically the premise of any arcade game ever released, but that doesn’t mean I hate arcade games. In fact, quite the contrary.

What gives? How is that possible? Well, it’s because the reasons why I play an arcade game are entirely different from the reasons why I play other games.

Alright, now, before I start enumerating the reasons why I hate this type of challenge in non arcade games so much, let’s try to see the good side:

  1. It makes the game in question last longer without having to actually develop more resources, or in other words: it saves the developers money.
  2. Since each challenge is not particularly difficult, the player will almost always blame herself for loosing.
  3. It makes the game hard without making it look like it’s hard. At least the first few times that is. If you lost a thousand times in a row, chances are, you are going to label this game as “difficult” to say the least.
  4. It tries to emulate the “simple to learn, difficult to master” mantra. Sure, you can learn how to do this one challenge in no time, but you are gonna have to master the hell out of it if you want to succeed at this string of consecutive challenges.
  5. It is a natural escalation of difficulty. You’ve learned how to shoot at tree leafs with your slingshot? Good, now shoot three of them in a row.

(See tangent post about good side number 2, here)

Wow, that’s an impressive list isn’t it? I’m not being sarcastic, I really think that this type of challenge has many good sides. It can be used to great effect and in the right conditions it can become almost as good as new content. And if you remember correctly, this type of mechanic costs almost nothing to the developers, so I’d say that’s a big big plus.

Apart from that, it brings a balance between new mechanics and previously learned mechanics and helps the player master them.

So … yeah, did I say I hate it? That was kind of imprecise. See, what I really, really hate is how some games implement it. I don’t hate the idea in itself. In fact, I’d say that it’s a little more complicated than what I’ve described so far, since what really bugs me is the punishment for not doing every single challenge perfectly before you reach the checkpoint.

As I’ve said, you can make a game with an arcade mentality behind it and develop it as nothing else but a string of small challenges with no checkpoints whatsoever throughout the game. If you do that, I won’t hate your game or anything, because that’s it’s nature, there’s no conflict between what I expect and what the game provides. If I want to play this, then it’s because I want to be challenged in this particular way and don’t mind being frustrated.

If you like loosing progression constantly, then I can safely recommend this game to you, you crazy person.

But punishment where it doesn’t belong is what bugs me. The best example I can think of is AWAY Shuffle Dungeon for the DS. I’ve been playing a lot of it recently and for those that do not know what this game is about, just think of a merge between diablo and a rogue-like: The whole game is just a town and a bunch of dungeons. In town you can save and shop and in the dungeons you’ve got to find the stairs on each floor to reach the bottom of the dungeon, talk to someone and then get them out of the dungeon (going from floor to floor back up to the surface).

[Here I wrote a very specific explanation of how the game works and exactly how much time I’ve actually spent doing absolutely nothing to progress through the game due to the extreme punishment for dying inside a dungeon (13 hours), but I decided to cut it since it didn’t have that much to do with the direction this post was going.]

Basically, AWAY Shuffle Dungeon asks me to go through dungeons at the pace it dictates (since I can’t explore by my own volition due to the shuffles) and practically destroys all of my progress if I happen to die at any point. The problem is, this game has very peculiar collision boxes for attacks, no matter the weapon I use, so it never is a joy in itself to go through a dungeon. It feels more like work than anything else. So, basically, I derive my enjoyment from progressing through the story of the game, getting new content and buying new items to equip my dude. And I don’t gain any of those things by going through the dungeon and dying just before I reach the last floor. Sure, I get to keep the things I found, which helps to soften the frustration but it’s not enough. The only things I gain from killing things and openning chests (the main two activities that reward you inside a dungeon) are usable items like potions and experience. I use the items all the freaking time, trying not to die, so keeping them when you die certainly helps in the next run but you don’t recover the ones you just spent in your failed attemp. You looser.

But what about the experience? HA! Yeah, the experience. All it does is make me do more damage to the enemies. That’s it. I always get hit for the same amount of damage from the same enemies every single time. I always kill every single enemy in just one hit, and let me tell you, due to the shoddy collision boxes, it still is a pain in the ass.

So, taking the example and extrapolating the conclusions I made from it, I can safely say that I absolutely hate games based around character progression that reward me only after I’ve done a huge amount of different challenges in a single run without dying.


One thought on “On difficulty: strings of challenges

  1. Pingback: Respecting the player’s time « Indigo Static

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