Games | The Difficulty of Difficulty

Article by Kat? | September 29, 2008

There was a time when difficulty was the name of the game, the thing that made sure that kept gamers plugging quarters into those arcade machines. The patron saint of coin-ops everywhere blessed gamers with impossible jumps, waves of difficult enemies and a hell of a lot of bullets to dodge.

Naturally, that mentality carried over to the home consoles, and ended up meshing fairly well with the limitations of games at that time. Didn't have enough ROM space for anything more than five stages? No problem. Throw in a few traps that are nearly impossible to avoid, some enemies who pop in at awkward angles, a pattern-based boss, and call it a day. These are what people call the "good old days," when men acted like men, women were generally women, and difficulty was still difficult.

But as Obi-Wan might say, difficulty isn't dead. Not yet, anyway. Games have grown more complex, and difficulty has been dragged along for the ride. But that hasn't stopped developers from resorting to the same time-tested tricks of the trade to arbitrarily pad play time with excess challenge. Games are growing up though, and things like random death traps and cheating A.I. no longer make a game but rather cheapen it by taking the power out of the player's hands.

Just ask Dante.

When Devil May Cry 3 hit the States in 2005, the designers had a dilemma on their hands. They had somehow gotten the notion in their heads that western gamers are far more skilled than Japanese gamers. Apparently convinced that Mountain Dew-powered gamers everywhere would crush DMC3 like an egg, the designers decided to go ahead and make the Japanese "Hard Mode" into the western "Normal Mode." So what did this make Hard Mode? Why, it made it damn near impossible.

But that alone wasn't what made DMC3 frustrating. No, it was the fact that, in the grand tradition of titles like Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins, DMC3 had no checkpoints. So when Dante finally took too many scythes to the head, players were flung all the way back to the beginning of the level. Yeah, even from the middle of boss fights. This had the net effect of ensuring that all but the most talented players had to horde healing and checkpoint items like they were preparing for the Y2K bug, leaving precious few points for things like upgrading weapons and styles. You know, the things that were necessary for killing the enemies.

In the end, there were enough players -- and reviewers on deadline -- afflicted with the frustration of being sent back to the beginning of the stage that Capcom took notice and released the much improved Greatest Hits Edition. Somewhere, a wannabe demon-slayer wiped away the bitter tears that came from trying to defeat Cerberus and smiled.

Then they started playing DOOM 3, and the tears returned anew. Only this time, they were tears of blood.

Players who actually dropped the cash on the rig necessary to run Doom 3 at framerates higher than a slideshow back in 2004 quickly discovered that they really didn't like iD's haphazard attempt to instill "atmosphere." While most people combating the legions of hell would have had the foresight to tape their flashlight to their gun, our hero the space marine did no such thing. War is hell, especially when you're at war in Hell, and Hell is fresh out of duct tape. Which is to say, you could use either the flashlight or the gun, but not both.

And of course, most of the game's demons made sport of leaping out of shadows and scaring the hell out of unsuspecting players, forcing them to juggle frantically between their gun and the light. It's the oldest trick in the book, but hey, it works when the players have to put away their gun just to see. It's a card that Doom 3 joyously plays again and again, because it's really not that hard to stick a few demon in some suitably dark corners and let them do their thing. Eventually fans took matters into their own hands and patched in the duct tape, but that didn't save Doom 3 from the court of public opinion. There's no justice like angry mob justice.

Meanwhile, Resident Evil? was another game that made a habit of springloading monsters into corners and call them "scares." But most players were too busy wrestling with the controls to care. According to apologists, hardly being able to move around was crucial to the game's tension. They were right about that -- but not the way they intended.

While acknowledging that its series' controls weren't the best, Capcom managed to get away with making marginal improvements in the sequels that arrived over the ensuing years. But by the time Resident Evil 4? was ready to hit, the series was precariously close to becoming stale. Knowing this, Capcom finally relented and went back to the drawing board, eventually releasing a title that vaulted Resident Evil back into the top echeleon of the game market by rethinking what creates terror. As it turns out, things like the horrible, gibbering lip-smacky noises of the regenerators and the persistent grind of a chainsaw can instill just as much terror in a player as shoddy controls. Sure, the new over the shoulder view wasn't perfect, but it was perfectly serviceable in light of what had come before. Unfortunately, the improved controls didn't help another area that Resident Evil has traditionally suffered in -- puzzles.

As you fight your way through first the village, then the castle, Resident Evil 4 likes to toss in the occasional, arbritary puzzle. You know, just in case you were tired of shooting zombies and were looking for something out of the 7th Guest. Align the lights just right, the designers tell you. Later on, we'll let you complete a sliding puzzle.

Wait, what? A sliding puzzle? When did Resident Evil 4 become Myst?

Oh yeah. Myst.

Myst is notorious for its bizarre puzzles, but it's not even the biggest offender amongst adventure games. The prize goes to Return of Zork, undisputed king of stupid, unintuitive puzzles. Take, for example, the first five minutes of the game. Players are confronted with a sign and a vulture in a lonely mountain pass. In order to continue forward, you have to figure out a way to get past the vulture.

But that's not the real challenge. No, the real challenge is noticing the tiny, unbelievably fragile bonding plant growing at the base of the sign that the vulture is guarding. Try to cut it, and it will die. Try to pull it up by its roots, and it will still die. You have to dig it up and keep it in your inventory. And if you did go ahead and kill it? Too bad, game over. Except that the game won't tell you that it's game over. It lets you discover that for yourself...ten hours later.

Return to Zork is full of cruel traps like that. Turn off the lights, and you will immediately get eaten by Grues. Hang out in the comedy club for too long and your bonding plant will die, ending any hope of victory. Put the diseased mice into the box with the rats, and the rats will die. This is a shame, because you need them to power a speed boat. And there aren't any more rats to be found once the first batch dies.

You'll also probably have to restart at least once when you give the engraved coin to the ferryman. You have to simply show it to him, or he'll keep it and strand you on the other side of the river forever. Thanks, ferryman! This, of course, is the game that is supposed to be the heir to one of the most intuitive text based adventures ever made. And you thought trying to figure out how to make a mustache for Gabriel Knight was annoying.

But as frustrating as all of the above can be, it all pales in comparison to the cheapest trick of them all -- giving the A.I. in a competitive game an out-and-out unfair advantage.

Discovering that the computer cheats is like finding out that Santa Claus doesn't exist, or that professional wrestling is fake. It makes you feel like the world is rigged against you. (Which of course it is.) But while cheap A.I. makes for a quick fix in a strategy, fighting or sports game, nothing breaks the suspension of disbelief like fighting an opponent who exists outside of the rules of the game.

Strategy games have traditionally been the biggest offenders here, and it's probably hard for them not to be. The problem is that all designers eventually hit the same brick wall -- the average CPU player simply cannot complete with a skilled human. The human will find a way to exploit strategies completely foreign to the A.I., and then it's all over.

Tempting then, is the desire to give the A.I. that extra little boost to allow them to compete. Just give them a sprawling base, unlimited resources, and plenty of high level units and call it a day. The human player, in the meantime, can have a handful of mooks and a command center. If they're lucky. The disparity is even more pronounced in expansion packs, where its generally assumed that the player has already finished the original campaign. If you aren't facing down at least three enemy bases and a bonus legion of hell, then you are probably aren't very far into the campaign.

This design philosphy is damningly apparent in the StarCraft: Brood Wars campaign. After two and a half varied, mostly excellent campaigns, the final Zerg campaign largely drops scripted events and dynamic objectives to say, "Here's two Protoss bases and a Terran base. You get one batch of crystals and a handful of hydralisks. Good luck." Good luck, indeed. Needless to say, it's a bit of a jarring change.

Meanwhile, Command and Conquer goes one step further. Fans of the first game may remember the first GDI mission to pit you against a NOD Obelisk of Light. If you don't know, the Obelisk of Light is a tower that will even reduce mammoth tanks to slag with a couple blasts. They can be taken out relatively easily by a blast from a satelite cannon, but those take a while to charge up. And trying to take it out while being mobbed by NOD forces isn't really the best course of action either.

In the mission in question, the Obelisk of Light is conveniently placed to guard a chokepoint. There are no power plants or construction yards nearby, so it's unclear how it's drawing power. Try to knock it out with a satellite beam, and it will respawn in a hurry.

How does it do that, you ask? It's miles away from the enemy base and its attendant power plants! Yep, it sure is. In a game where you can't build anything more than a few feet from your power plants, the computer can respawn almost any building it sees fit anywhere on the map provided that it has a construction yard. And if you take out that construction yard? It'll just build a new one, even without a Mobile Construction Vehicle handy. The A.I. can even intercept your attack helicopters in mid-air with their orcas. And guess what? You can't. It's not even like Command and Conquer's A.I. becomes any more fair in later games, either. Let's just say that you shouldn't bother building any stealth units in Command and Conquer 3.

But really, letting the computer do things like build construction yards out of nowhere isn't any different than letting the A.I. racers in Mario Kart magically catch up with you. It's just another example of the worst and most pervasive kind of developer cheat of all: rubber-band A.I., master of the impossible comeback. In theory, these comebacks are supposed to make for a more interesting challenge, but what it mostly does is make the game feel crushingly unfair. When the New England Patriots have the programming equivalent of a Game Genie behind their passes, it's hard to feel like you've had a good game, even when you're winning. Like most other cheap tricks meant to increase a game's difficulty, rubber-band A.I. is really just a tacit admission from the designers that they've run out of ideas. We don't know how to stop a good player from winning whenever they want, they say, so we'll give the computer as many unfair advantages as possible to even the playing field.

But it is possible to design compelling A.I. Halo 3?'s excellent Legendary mode proves as much. And even if designers feel compelled to cheat, they can always go the route that Sins of a Solar Empire took and simply make it clear that the difficulty level designated as "Unfair" will indeed give the computer an unfair advantage.

And there are other examples of design done right as well. Ninja Gaiden proved that controls don't have to be shoddy to offer a challenging, but fair, gameplay experience. Mega Man 2 offered levels that challenged players to come up with many ways to clear the obstacles before them, and games like Full Throttle? and Ico showed that puzzles could be both intuitive and interesting.

The common thread between these games is that each one provides a challenging experience in its own right while also making that challenge largely dependent on the players. The feeling that you are in control, and that you are only a step away from clearing a challenge, is the lifeblood of a game. Players might put their controller through a window after losing a close-but-fair fight, but they'll never give up entirely. The urge to conquer the challenge is too strong. But when a player has to deal with shoddy controls, illogical puzzles, rule breaking computers, cheap death traps and poorly placed checkpoints? That's when their interest begins to wane. That's when they either give up and play Super Mario Galaxy instead, or put their fist through the television.

To borrow a line from an old commercial, players don't mind a bit of a challenge, but they wanna be playing with power. Designers, it's up to you to give it to them.