Sunday, January 16, 2011

Challenging vs. Frustruating

The title of this blog post might be a little misguiding, because I am not explaining the difference between challenging and frustration. I'm writing this blog post not because I am telling you how to handle this balance act between the two sides of the difficulty spectrum.

I'm writing this blog post because I need your help (yes, you).

As a kid, I really didn't think about what I liked about gameplay. I liked games because I liked the atmosphere, and because I was a kid, the plotlines entertained me. Plus, I liked being in control.

But now, as a game designer, I wish I thought about that. Because I'll be honest. I don't play (mainstream) games anymore (I do however kill time by playing indie games. Go indie games!).

Anyway, here's the problem. I don't know how to make games challenging, as opposed to frustrating. Before we go any further, I want to tell you what I mean when I use these two terms (every time you see me say these two things, just replace the words with these explanations).

Challenging- A generally positive sensation that occurs when skills are tested, pushing one to a higher level of ability. Usually reinforces (makes the player want to play more of the game).

Frustrating- A generally negative sensation that occurs when skill is seemingly uninvolved, making one feel as if the outcome of the game is out of their hands. Usually punishes (makes the player want to stop playing the game).

Yes, those are my interpretations of the words. Not a definition, obviously. I tried my best. Anyway, I know what you're thinking. "If you can come up with two separate definitions, then that means you know what the difference is.

In theory, yes. I know what the on-paper difference between the two terms are. However, in practice, I do not know how to make my games challenging. Essentially, I always get feedback that my games are frustrating. Let me give you an example.

I recently worked as a level designer with Pinpickle on our game Propel. We sent the finished version off to a lot of indie review sites and such. The graphics and music were well-received. The gameplay? The word "frustrating" was probably the most used phrase in every review! To get the best idea of this, it's probably best to play the game. If you don't want to do that, just know this. It involves a lot of brain-twisting gravity switches, split-second decisions and quick reflexes. We thought this was a good idea. I still do, kind of.

Doesn't this take skill? How come this can be described as the "f" word? That's where you come in. How could I make something like this skillful and challenging as opposed to annoying?

So, I need your help. I need your expertise. I'm all ears. I just want to learn.


James said...

An important distinction is that you need to make the player feel as though it's their fault when they die (that makes it challenging rather than frustrating).

One of the important things is that the player must feel as though they have complete control over the character, and this is one area which I think Propel doesn't succeed at. The problem stems from the fact that the player's movement is too smooth; that is, the player doesn't horizontally move fast enough and the acceleration is too low.

This means that by the time you're trying to dodge an obstacle, it's too late to do anything about it because you can't slow the character down fast enough. That's why people call the game frustrating rather than challenging.

Ethan said...

Thanks a lot for the response. So basically with Propel a lot of it has to do with the controls? And the engine? Gotcha.

nickthespy said...

I think satisfaction in gaming comes from cause & effect. Give the player lots of action(s) that have quick, non-arbitrary effects.

For example, FPS games are satisfying because players can run, jump, shoot, reload, switch weapons, etc. All of these actions have a direct effect on the outcome of battle and allow the player to grow, improve, and try various techniques and play styles (given all of the different actions available to them). In that kind of a game, the levels can be very difficult, but the player wants to play because they feel like they can make different decisions and affect the outcome.

In contrast, I was just playing a physics-based flash game that was pretty cool. However, when I told my vehicle to jump, it barely left the ground. The effect of my action was so minimal that pressing the jump button left me with a very dissatisfied feeling.

Along the same lines, consider realism vs fun. Realism is great, but if the realistic effect of an action doesn't feel rewarding, then make it unrealistic until it's fun!

Joe Larson said...

Difficulty in video games is a fun topic. The history of difficulty in videos is also fun. From the arcade games rigged to rob you of your allowance to the blockbuster era when Nintendo decreed that no video game could be beatable in a weekend. Ah, good times.

These days video games have no such constraints. Is it any wonder that AAA games are nothing but linear strolls to the next cut scene? And while those who complain about this turn of events may seem curmudgeon-y, there is a ring of truth to what they say. What's a bigger achievement: "you've played the game for 120 hours" or "you beat the unbeatable level"?

There is a right way and a wrong way to do difficulty in my opinion. And how you can tell if you're doing it the right way is to as "all other factors aside, is a player's time spent playing (ie training) in the game rewarded by them seeing progress?" Imagine a fighting game where you play worse the more hits you take. That's punishing the player and is not fun (IMHO). R-Type is guilty of this. "If you get hit you might as well start over" is a bad thing to say about a game.

On the other hand, a game where a player can't lose is probably doing it wrong too. That's where the AAA titles are failing.

There are ways to do difficult well. Spelunky, Super Meat Boy, or I wanna be the guy all do difficult good.. The trick is not not take players out of the game. Menus are the enemy in this case. Limited continues are also the enemy. Don't let them progress until they improve, but don't take them out of the game when they make a mistake. (I love how spelunky hides their menu in game play. Clever.)

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