The Difficulty Curve: How Hard Is Too Hard?
We all love a good challenge. At least, most of us. Well, it depends what you define as a gamer. Obviously, we’re not referring to the anyone who counts Dogz on the Nintendo DS among the badass gaming challenges of all time, no matter how fond we all may be of Labrador puppies.
You often hear more mature gamers waxing lyrical about how “games were much more difficult back in my day”. This is often true, but it’s often true because the early pioneers of this young medium actually didn’t have a clue how to build a decent difficulty curve into a videogame. The real question is, how hard is too hard?
Difficulty is one subject, but it comes in different flavours. Let’s take a quick look different kinds of difficulty in games.
We all love a good boss fights but can they be taken too far? A great example would be Ninja Gaiden Black for the original Xbox where the boss fights were some of the biggest nerd rage inducing time sinks in history videogames. Very satisfying to win, but man, why they hard.
Ludicrously illogical puzzles
Sure, one or two of the problems presented in Monkey Island may have been a little tenuous but some games take things too far and again, it comes down to bad design. Discworld was a great example and while the fantasy books are excellent, the puzzles in this game lacked any concept of coherence and were as impossible as they were ridiculous.
Getting lost in bad level design
A sandbox-like environment might be selling point for many games, but some kind of direction is needed. Turok for the N64 was a great example and while it was fun owning dinosaurs with guns, many people just gave up after getting completely lost in endless jungle, unable to find trigger the next part of the storyline
A recent game with a masterfully implemented difficulty curve is Super Meat Boy. It starts off pretty simple, and my God, do things get hard-core. This game was made by a pair of talented devs who had their roots firmly placed in old school classics such as Mega Man and Castlevania. Both these titles hold a special place in the heart of gamers the world over, especially the completionists who battled through the high-skill levels.
Some games though are difficult for the wrong reasons. One great example is the little-known Zelda CD-I: Wand of Gamelon produced by Phillips for the CD-I. This 2-D illustrated action adventure game had us stuck on levels for many hours at a time not because of some finger dexterity challenge, but because it was impossible to see where to go on the appallingly drawn landscapes.
Other titles such as Fortress of Fear on the Gameboy or Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins on the NES played through normally up until the point where they had a platform challenge so ludicrously difficult, it was impossible. Get past that section and things get back to normal. It’s just crappy level design
Super Meat Boy not only struck a perfect balance but it was a good example of how possible to make games difficult and incorporate a mature sense of game development to avoid things being ridiculous.
These days, we all seem to have a lot less time to play with. It’s good to have a game challenge but the last thing we want is to have 50% of our sessions sunk by an overly difficult problem when we could be enjoying great gameplay mechanics or storyline elsewhere.
Sure, we can hit up Google and check the answer to something, but this is pretty damaging to the old nerd pride. Striking the balance between being spoon fed gaming experiences and having a decent challenge is a tricky one and will depend on the genre and also the gamer. We can only help hope that as this medium continues to evolve, so too does our understanding of how to strike the right balance. It certainly seems like we’re going the right direction.