I was discussing challenge in games with a friend at work today – specifically, what to do with the player that can’t overcome it.
Interactive Fiction has long battled with the problem of stuckness, and these days it’s rare to see a polished game released without hints, walkthroughs, or such an incredibly linear storyline that pretty much anything you do will work. But could we be doing better? Consoles games increasingly are trying to resolve this problem: is there anything to learn from the experiments being done in the console world?
These days, unstuckness is being heavily invested in. Partly because getting the difficulty curve right is a really difficult problem in a game of any complexity; partly because publishers want to expand the market to cover hard-core gamers and naive newbies; partly because the first response of your audience is, in the age of Twitter, the most important marketing tool you have. And finally, because the last thing a console game publisher wants is for you to take the game back to the shop in its opening release week and trade it in. They make better sales the longer the game stays in your house.
Stuckness in a console game is usually a matter of not being fast or accurate enough to do whatever fiddly button-based task the game is asking you to do. In solving the stuckness problem, most console games offer you – after a few fails – the chance to dial the difficulty down, Hard to Normal, Normal to Easy. The game will then stay on that level as you continue, and in some cases, won’t allow you to go back up again after you’ve got through your difficult patch. It’s like being put down a set in school.
The advantages of a system like this are it’s clear, it works to get you through, and it should prevent you getting stuck again, so the overall amount of stuckness experienced by consumers goes down. There’s a baiting element to it, too: by asking the player to agree to dial down their difficulty you’re asking them to admit that they’re beaten. With a bit of luck, that persuades them to keep playing just to beat the thing. When they do, there’s more achievement and as a nice side effect, they played your game for longer.
It’s a pretty good mechanic, but with two unfortunate side-effects. The first (forgive me) is the impact on the story. If the challenge is part of the narrative, then the replay-but-easier tends to negate that story beat. If Kratos sails through his battle without difficulty then it wasn’t a struggle against a colossus any longer. If Drake takes out a hundred guys without breaking a sweat he has no right to curse, “Not again” when the next hundred appear. The challenge, in an action game, is the story. Remove the challenge by dialling down the intensity of the player at the pad, and the story is no more.
Secondly, there’s a pratical problem: for the poor player who really can’t get past a certain scenario what you’re offering by replay-but-easy is a lose-lose arrangement. Either they play the section again, and are defeated, again; or they play the section again on easy, (and really hope they don’t get defeated again), and when they get through it comes with little or no achievement at all. (In fact, easy modes are often so easy that even the worst players can sleep through them.)
For these players – generally, the ones you’re trying to reach out to in providing the easy-mode-option in the first place – the experience is turned from something thrilling into a chore: a lesser experience with a lesser reward. And we know that’s true, because there’s something in the game design mentality that means when the idea is suggested people think, “but fair enough: after all, they couldn’t do it.”
We should remember: as designers, we are entertainers, and our purpose is to entertain. If our game is too damn hard, that’s our fault. (In software, the old adage about bad workmen and tools has never been true; in games it’s similar: a bad designer blames the player.)
LA Noire (did I mention I’ve been playing LA Noire? Thought so) takes an interesting different path. After failing an action sequence a few times – a car chase or a shoot-out or a fist-fight, though failing one of those would be pretty embarrassing considering how poor the fighting mechanic is – the player is offered the option to skip the sequence entirely. The screen even goes to the lengths of pointing out that skipping will not affect your score or your progress. It’ll have no consequences except you get to move forward with the game.
Classic game design theory states that players will always click yes. Players game and cheat the system at every available opportunity, right? If you give them a consequence-free loop-hole, that will become the game, with the straight and narrow path abandoned as a mere curio.
But in practice, that’s not what happens – or at least, it’s not what happened for me. I didn’t find myself deliberately failing to skip forward, despite really not enjoying the car chases (fussy controls, poor camera when reversing, hard to tell what world objects were solid and which destructible so you’d often try to short-cut through a picket fence only to have your 60mph sports car rebound off it). I didn’t even find myself skipping them after failing. Instead, the sense that, by skipping, I would be missing something over-ruled my desire to move forwards. So I ended up replaying sequences and, eventually besting them. (Except for some, but I don’t remember how many. Which is good too, right?)
What I like about this is that there’s no punishment – the game is totally fair, unbothered even, by what you choose. If you want to care about not playing “properly”, that’s between you and your conscience – and if the problem is the design is badly balanced, that’s an easy call to make. And then, if you do choose to skip, you’re not missing much – you’ve seen the chase (or at least some of it), you know the scenario. You’re not being forced to replay it in a dumbed-down mode; you’re saying “I’m not here for that part, move on, and show me something I’ll like.”
It’s sort-of the linear-game equivalent of a Deus Ex-style multiple-strategy design (as in, sneak around or go in fighting?) And it doesn’t have the same negative effect on the story that replay/easy has: because the sequence was hard, it was a million-to-one-shot; in fact, so much so, you had the stress and tension of the scene because you didn’t overcome it. But the hero of the story did, and the narrative continues unbroken.
(It should be side-noted that this mechanic works in LA Noire because the game-play is quite varied: no car chase is followed by just another car chase. A similar mechanic in Uncharted or KillZone or Gears wouldn’t fare so well, perhaps, since any gunfight you couldn’t handle might only be followed by another gunfight. Still, there are some sequences where I would have appreciated the option to skip through after being run down by a tank for the twentieth time…)
So all this got me thinking about stuckness in IF. What if every puzzle had with it the option to skip the puzzle entirely – to have the character solve the puzzle for you (or reveal, perhaps, that the puzzle is unsolvable at the time because of dependencies). Would players game this and click the solve button every time? Is this different because there’s no “attempt, fail, repeat” cycle? What about in games where there is a replay cycle, like Make It Good or Varicella? Would it be good to allow players, after a few times through, to simply commit high-level actions like “Search the murder scene thoroughly” or “orchestrate the assassination of the Chancellor using the mounted battery”?
Could a puzzle game measure the amount of attempts the player makes on a puzzle – how many times they examine it, or toy with it, or attempt a failed solution? Would players game that by using the “again” command?
Again, design theory tells me that this is the same as having a WIN GAME command, and that it removes all the challenge, and hence the reward, from the game. But in a content-focused medium like text-based Interactive Fiction – and in a game like LA Noire - the reward is the content, and the challenge is simply colour applied to that content. And we’re not talking about the option to auto-solve any puzzle first time. The player has to be deemed to have failed, first.
So it’s like hints, but instead of having hints that say – “don’t read the next one, go play the game some more and when you’re still stuck, because you’ve got no new ideas, then come all the way back through the menu system to this point right here and press the NEXT button, which you could press right now, and you’ll get the next hint, which might even prove no more helpful than this one…” - you have hints that say – “You’ve not tried. Go away and try.” Which is kinda what a teacher does.
To me, it seems like the tricky part here isn’t the concept – I think the concept is a good one. The tricky thing is the metric: how failed is failed? Which is to say, all we’ve done is turn the problem from one of balancing our difficulty well into one of balancing our hints well. But maybe that’s a better problem to have?