Tuesday, April 1, 2014

What ever happened to challenge?

Somewhere along the line, games stopped being games and started being either movies or skinner box reward simulators. The games today that aren't like that are generally virtual worlds where interaction is the game and whatever game is behind it is secondary. Even the games that are really interesting -- stuff like Gunpoint or The Stanley Parable or whatever... those games aren't really games where you have a win or lose condition. Losing in Antichamber or Stanley is impossible and losing in Gunpoint or Long Live the Queen is just a test in optimization: rewinding time back a bit to see what you can do differently.

I shouldn't really be so harsh. I would never dare to say that Gunpoint isn't a game or something like that. If you say it's a game, then I'll probably agree unless there's basically no interaction at all. Stanley's a game. Mass Effect is a game even if you take out the combat, though it becomes a somewhat shallow visual novel.

My real point though is that there's no difficulty in getting to the end. The emotional reward you feel at the end of Mass Effect is ultimately fake. You didn't do anything except invest some time and make some trivial decisions that didn't really matter. Millions of other people did the same thing and got similar rewards. Doing most dungeons in most MMORPGs are the same. You spent some time and got some loot, gained some levels, whatever. A monkey could do it. If it's too hard, the people that are dumber than monkeys complain and the challenge gets nerfed.

Challenge is so rare and nebulous that we'll even accept fake challenge like Dark Souls. It isn't hard. It isn't even sort of hard. Rogue Legacy is a harder game than Dark Souls. The difference is that Dark Souls creates unfair situations where you're almost certainly going to die, while Rogue Legacy tries very hard to be as fair as possible. Both are roughly the same type of game; you have guaranteed progression in both games. You will eventually get to the end if you keep trucking. You'll probably die a proportionately similar amount of times in both games (both Dark Souls games are much longer than Rogue Legacy). Yet we embrace Dark Souls as a hard game because it's dickish about how it kills you.

So... why aren't we making really hard games anymore? Let's explain what I mean by hard. A hard game needs to be:

  • Not random, or the challenge isn't derived primarily from randomness (most roguelikes)
  • Not allow for level-up progression which makes the game trivial (Dark Souls, most RPGs)
  • Have some kind of significant death penalty, forcing the player to lose progression or try over 
  • Challenge can't be derived from other players (a good thing, but outside the realm of this discussion)
  • Memorization should not be the key element of player skill, though it can be one element of many (again, Dark Souls)
The first thing means that player skill should be the driving factor in victory. No Binding of Isaac where you reroll continuously until you get a map you like. How far a player gets should be a function of his skill. Randomness can exist in some form; I like challenges where memorization is emphasized less than adaptation, but fixed challenges are fine as long as they're not trivial even when memorized.

The second thing should really be obvious. I really like Fortune Summoners for this reason because it caps your level-ups, although you can honestly level and gear up enough that the game is basically one step away from trivial at any given point. Devil May Cry (any game in the series) is a probably better example since you can't trivialize the "hard" or DMD settings regardless of how leveled you are (they basically expect you to be maxed out going in). Grinding should never, ever be the key element of skill. You shouldn't be able to farm slabs and souls in order to get so powerful that the game is easy.

Death penalty is mainly important to remove fluke outcomes. Once you've passed a challenge, it shouldn't be because you just got lucky. You should be able to demonstrate beating it again, and that probably means that when you fail at some other challenge, you should be forced to do stuff you've already beaten again. It's mainly a failsafe to ensure that the skill tests are genuine and not just a product of the laws of chance. Boss fights are tricky, and it's where games like DMC kind of fall short. You only have to beat a boss once in a lot of games, unless that game makes you start from the beginning when you die. That's probably not so ideal for something truly hard.

PvP really requires no explanation. It's obviously a great thing, but it's not really a factor in really hard games.

Memorization is a huge problem. I would guess that probably 99% of the challenges in Dark Souls can be solved with memorization. Most don't require any really special execution aside from the basic skills involved in playing. Virtually all of the challenges that can't be solved with memorization aren't affected by the death penalty (meaning, you only have to succeed once and you don't have to do them again). Why is memorization such a big deal? It's a skill too, but I think most people agree that memorization isn't something that contributes to a really challenging game. This actually hurts some games that are pretty hard like the original Ninja Gaiden, but the difference is that even with memorization, those parts are still hard. That's why fixed games like DMC can still make the cut; even though you know what enemies are coming, you still have to beat them and it's not easy.

Games with the above qualities force players to flex their gaming muscles. You can't just expect to win. The best of these games feature easier difficulty settings where players can beat the game and get the normal sense of accomplishment, but then turn it up to 11 for the harder settings. When you've beaten a DMC game on DMD, you can say you've done something very few have done.

I miss that sort of design. I really don't like the design of games where the "hard" settings are an afterthought to the cakewalk easy normal settings, and the game clearly wasn't balanced with hard in mind. Why can't there be more honest, challenging games that don't just offer cheap BS challenges like ramped up enemy health and damage? Anyone can put the enemy damage at 200%; not everyone can create challenging puzzles with their game engine.

I think more than anything else it's that game designers are leaning more towards delivering more content than delivering richer content. It's sort of unfortunate.

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