Thursday, March 11, 2010

How difficult should video games be?

A while back, Rachel asked a question in our joint review of Assassin's Creed 2 about whether I thought the game was too easy. I answered specifically for AC2, but I think it hints at a broader question about video game difficulty in general. Should developers make games hard to challenge the player, or easy so they're more likely to succeed?

I think that games can be separated into two broad categories: skill games and scenery games. In "skill games", the objective is to develop a set of skills that are then used by the player to overcome increasingly difficult challenges. The fun comes from seeing yourself improve, as evidenced by succeeding at a challenge that once would have been too much for you to handle. Examples of this include Tony Hawk titles, music/rhythm games like Rock Band, and fighting games like Soul Caliber.

On the other hand of the spectrum, you have "scenery games". Now, don't mistake my point here to mean that scenery games don't require skill. It's just that in these games, the FOCUS isn't so much on improving your skill as it is exploring the game world itself. Scenery games might tell a great story. They might have interesting new locales to visit. They might allow the player to explore detailed environments freely. For example, think Assassin's Creed, most RPG's, or Resident Evil 4.

The key difference between these two types of games is: What motivates the player to continue? You don't play Rock Band thinking, "I wonder what happens after I beat this super-difficult song on Expert?" because you already know the answer - NOTHING. They just give you another, more difficult song to play. Your satisfaction must be derived from the accomplishment itself. Conversely, I doubt many people think, "I hope this next mission in Assassin's Creed 2 is CRAZY difficult and I fail a bunch of times. That'd be far more interesting than seeing where the story goes."

And that brings me full circle to the topic of this post. All games should start out pretty easy (even sequels...some people might not have played the original). That gives you a chance to learn the controls and adjust to the game. But from there, skill games should have increasingly ramping difficulty culminating in very difficult challenges, while scenery games should have much milder challenges to prevent the player from getting hopelessly stuck. I think the biggest mistake that developers make (looking at you Grand Theft Auto!) is taking a scenery game and cramming it full of immensely difficult challenges. Consider a game like Resident Evil 4. Some people complained that it was too easy, but is repeated death conducive to enjoying that game? If something scary happens, forcing you to frantically fight for your life, but you succeed, then you stay immersed in the gameworld and remain primed for the next scare. But if the difficulty is dialed up so that every scary event comes complete with multiple failures and do-overs, then the game becomes a tedious grind filled with barriers to progress.

Of course, the best possible situation is variable difficulty that allows new players and veterans to choose the amount of challenge they want to face. Some games do this well, and others not so much. But barring that, I'd rather see a game like Assassin's Creed 2 be a little too easy than too difficult, since with the former I still get to see everything the game has to offer, while the latter is just a recipe for frustration.


  1. I like the way you broke the types of games into different categories. I think racing games (or more specifically simulation racing games like Project Gotham or Forza) are the hardest "skill games". What are the hardest skill games for you Bronco?

    My proudest achievement is beating Battle Toads on the NES. That game was CRAZY difficult. And even though the ending sucked, the pride I felt from finally beating it (after owning it for over 10 years) was well worth it.

  2. Fighting games, no question about it. I just plain suck at fighting games. Watching me flounder impotently about while trying to get all the Achievements in Soul Caliber IV was probably quite amusing for Rachel.

    I tip my hat to you sir, as beating Battletoads is one of the all time great gaming accomplishments!