Friday, November 20, 2009

Difficulty, an Unsolvable Problem

frustration Most simply, difficulty is inversely proportional to the chance of success for a given action. When you try to do something that has a low chance of success and claim that it’s difficult to accomplish that task. But what if that task is rolling eleven thousand consecutive 6s on a 6-sided die?

The primary question regarding difficulty in game design should be whether the difficulty of the game has a positive or negative effect on how fun the game is to play. There is no correct difficulty in a broad sense, only levels of difficulty that enhance or deaden the fun of playing through events in the game. The target audience’s skill-level and familiarity with similar games can also play a significant part in what difficulty is appropriate.

Worthwhile difficulty that leads to fun requires:

  • Agency. The player needs to have a significant say in the outcome and/or set-up of the difficult event.
  • Alignment of Expectations. The scenario must have a difficulty that is in keeping with the story surrounding the event and the mechanics the player has learned and utilized prior. Difficulty is contextual—difficulty is significantly more fun when it is justified by its context.
  • Sufficiency. The event needs to be non-trivial and the goals or advancement conditions need to be physically achievable.

When the player’s role in the proceedings is reduced significantly, the player’s expectations are disappointed, or when goals are unreachable or trivial to accomplish, the difficulty of the game severely impacts the game’s quality.

Games can also be designed in a way such that they are interesting to play multiple times, but never is there true failure. Mouseguard, a tabletop roleplaying game, does not directly penalize players for failing to make high-enough dice rolls. Instead, a low die roll leads to a complication. The game master shunts the players progress through the campaign sideways down a different path instead of sending him sprawling backwards. In this case, difficulty is not about failure, but instead of progress. A difficult game would be one where moving forward towards a positive conclusion has a low chance of occurring, whereas reaching a lukewarm (or worse) ending is highly likely.

Player motivation plays a critical role in judging difficulty, as well. A player who is aiming for easy fun will not want to be confronted by even a well-set-up difficult encounter. A player who likes to be challenged and forced to push his abilities to their limits would quickly grow bored with a game that has a series of appropriately easy encounters.

In MMOs, we encounter an unsolvable difficulty issue. Some players want the game to be easy for them, but difficult for others. Players feel special when they’re doing something not everyone else has done, and they relish this feeling. There is no way to accomplish such a difficulty curve, so MMOs tend towards being absurdly easy as a compromise.

Fully sidestepping the issue of difficulty, there are plenty of gamers in the MMO space who have no interest in chances of success; They are happy meditating and cavorting with their friends (or finding new friends) in a world that offers good prospects for escapism.

MMOs are doomed to have difficulty issues primarily because they intend to appeal to too wide an audience. It’s in the best interest of MMO businessmen to make the game trivial so that anyone can play it for as long as they can remain mesmerized. So we’re stuck with distorted difficulty terrain and interminable arguments that can have no resolution. The only way to dodge the problem is to be less massive—to fit a niche (as I’ve previously pointed out, this will be the future of good MMOs).


Tolthir said...

In MMOs, we encounter an unsolvable difficulty issue. Some players want the game to be easy for them, but difficult for others.

In other words, everyone wants to be above average?

I've often thought that one possible solution would be for MMOs to increase the variety of roles that players could take on. In particular, different roles could involve different skill sets and/or difficulty levels.

For example, compare WoW and EVE. In WoW, everyone plays more or less the same role. I.e., you participate in combat involving timely execution of skills with cooldowns. That role requires basic tactical ability and some reaction speed. Naturally, some players will be better at that than others, and they'll be the "best" WoW players.

EVE, on the other hand, allows a variety of roles. You can be a combat pilot, which requires skills similar to those in WoW. You can be an entrepreneur, which requires strategy and market analysis. Or you can be a miner or hauler, which don't require much skill at all. All of those roles are valued.

In other words, in a game with a variety of roles, players could take on a role that suits their skills and/or desire for difficulty. The key is to make sure that all of the roles are rewarding.

Tim Mitchell said...

MMOs could allow players to voluntarily take on extra difficulty in exchange for bragging rights (achievements) or other rewards, like exclusive content (costumes, secret areas).

Challenges might be a limit on the number of healing potions you can carry, absorbing some damage done to your companions, or fighting monsters above your level.

The trick is finding challenges fun enough that people would accept them willingly, and finding rewards that aren't seen as necessary to succeed in the game.

Drevarius said...

Tolthir and Tim have good points on this.

It is true that the rate of difficulty seen as indirectly proportional to the chance of success; however, difficulty is proportional to the number of conditions that must be satisfied in order to succeed.

WoW for example is seen as easy, even if the grind is long, because victory is often assured by meeting a DPS requirement. Difficulty is increased when you also have to pay attention to where you are standing, when to hold attacks, and so on. When everything has to come together perfectly for a success, it is difficult.

MMOs have become substantially easier because some conditions that made the game hard were also annoying (e.g. Three minute downtimes after fights in EQ, old DAoC).

Difficulty, by nature, is a deterent. Bad for marketing. Solution? Eventually an indie MMO will come out that shows it can be difficult and popular.