July's Topic

This month's topic: Difficulty! How do you handle it when the going gets tough?

As far back as I can remember games for me have always been a communal, social experience. I can tell you that my earliest memories involving video games have to do with my older cousin bringing his NES with him during the holidays, or the days of tall-tale telling around a library copy of Cosmic Osmo, or the trading of tips and floppy-based save games for Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, but nowhere, I think, is my dependence on social interaction for game playing as apparent as it is when it comes to difficult challenges in games.

I've admitted before that I generally know my own horizon of gaming skills seems pretty near compared to many people that I know and meet. In some ways this has contributed to my generally broad knowledge of gaming as a whole, as my easy frustrations early in so many games have left me all the more eager to move on to many, many more games.

For most genres, if I have beaten a game, it was in tandem with friends. Even games that I haven't beaten I never would have seen as much as I did if it were not for my family and my friends. My brother and one of my sisters and I spent a few weeks in a "Star competition" in the same save game of Super Mario 64. Soon after that we spent a summer attempting to beat Rayman 2 by sharing a single controller and deciding whose skills best matched which zones. One of my skills at that time turned out to be a decent mastery of the game's underwater mechanics. My sister and brother were better matches for various types of races. We'd trade off general platforming and slides.

In this Age of Achievements its sometimes hard to share games like that. Adding to the fighting about who gets "the next easy part" there it is the added problem of whose profile gets to show off the achievements. It's easy to see how this has almost directly led to a wondrous renaissance in Co-op gaming. [1] My brother and I have beat Halo 3 and Gears of War on every difficulty level at least once. I can't say that I would have even beat the games on the easiest difficulty level solo. I certainly haven't beat Kameo yet.

"I" finally beat the dreaded Meat Circus from Psychonauts, by handing the controller to a cousin for the final acrobatics...

To me, Co-op is an obvious and necessary component for gaming, always has been and probably forever will be. [2] I've never had a problem with looking something up in a walkthrough, it's just like asking some strange acquaintance for a tip. I know there is still a small vein of developers and players that still sit in the "walkthroughs are cheats" camp, even this many years post-internet. I've always thought that a designer should always feel that they aren't quite doing there job when someone needs to resort to a walkthrough. I realize that there is a fine line between "hand holding" and "challenging" and no developer can meet every lowest denominator, but Infocom used to bundle their "Invisi-Clues" with their games. Sometimes I think that developers would still benefit by better in-housing their strategy information dissemination rather than leaving it to outside publishers and random netizens.

Sometimes I miss the era when cheat codes were common and wonder if there may be some better compromise between cheat codes and achievements... There should be a "this is too hard and I'm frustrated and after 50 attempts I think you should just give it to me" rule, I think. At the very least, if there is a story involved how about some simple "let me skip this boss or section and come back it to it"... I might not get the "Boss Beated!" achievement, but I also don't lose track of the story or lose my interest in the dramatic tension and maybe when I do want that achievement or do want to 100% the game I'll go back and actually defeat that boss. I know there are some complaints about "adaptive difficulty", but I've always thought that was a great idea. I wouldn't mind a game getting a bit easier if I hit a rough patch.

At this point I'm sort of against "difficulty ramps" just because experience has taught me that it usually means there will be some point where frustration overcomes forward progress and I quit. [3] I think that there are much more interesting things to do in terms of letting "hardcore" players experiment with complicated dynamics interactions rather than simply monotonically increasing the difficulty of the game's mechanics.

On the other hand, maybe we don't need adaptive difficulty or better difficulty slopes or better information dispersal, because that might mean I play games a little bit less often with friends. At least today, when the going gets tough I start finding friends to give me a hand. I think that some of the best games are those that are shared with others, and sometimes, "Hey could you help me beat the next boss?" is the best pretense to grab a friend and share a game.

[1]Don't believe me? Spend some time browsing Co-optimus and you'll find a veritable smorgasborg of modern co-op games.
[2]Game developers should know The Co-op Bill of Rights by heart, and follow it as best they can.
[3]I love "difficulty slides" where things get easier as the mechanics become second nature or the game provides better and better "firepower". Crackdown is one interesting recent example. (I still used help to take down the last few bosses, however...)