Challenge Accepted: That’s not a challenge
I probably don’t need to tell you about fake difficulty; we all know what that is by now. It’s one of those concepts that’s been held over in design for years now, a crutch that games use both unintentionally and intentionally. Forcing you to sneak past rows of enemies you could dispatch in moments is an intentional use of it, a game that just isn’t coded very well and winds up with difficult controls that hamper your experience has sort of stumbled onto it. You might think this article was meant to be about that.
While we all know about the telltale markers of fake difficulty, we don’t talk much about the elements of challenge that don’t actually qualify as challenge. These aren’t relentlessly cheap, but they’re also not really something that’s hard to do so much as they’re bulking out actual challenges with filler. If difficulty is meat and fake difficulty is something vile substituted for meat (tofu, maybe, since I don’t like tofu), these are water. You can inject a bunch into anything and fill out the size, but the actual content remains about the same.
Big numbers are not a challenge
This isn’t, strictly speaking, an indictment of how much RPGs love throwing big numbers around. Yes, sometimes it’s really pointless; I think World of Warcraft is probably the worst culprit in terms of overinflation with far too many meaningless zeroes added over the years, but that in and of itself isn’t much more than a style decision that deserves further discussion in its own article. No, this is more about the simple nature of making the numbers bigger so that something simple suddenly becomes more challenging by virtue of how slowly it dies.
Heck, achievements basically thrive on this. Do something ten times. Do it a hundred times. Do it a thousand times.
This isn’t a challenge unless the thousandth repetition is somehow harder to accomplish than the first time. You can say that it’s a challenge to clear a difficult fight that many times, but if you did it the once, you proved you can do it again unless it’s mostly a matter of luck. Similarly, chewing through ten times as many hit points doesn’t make the fight harder, just longer. Making raids bigger doesn’t make them harder, just more populous. Requiring more feels like it’s a challenge, but it’s really just padding things out without any actual substance, asking you to either do more damage over time or be bored for a while.
“Ah, but what if a difficult fight is a matter of luck and randomness? Then clearing it a bunch is an accomplishment!” Yeah, about that…
Random is not a challenge
Roll a six-sided die. Write down the number you got. Then, roll the die again until you get that number again. Congratulations, you won!
What’s that? You didn’t do anything, you just kept waiting for a random number to show up twice? Exactly.
Randomness can lead to challenge, definitely. If you don’t know exactly how a boss is going to shoot at you, you have to develop the skills to move based on circumstances. But the challenge isn’t in the randomness itself, it’s in the changing circumstances and how you react. Something purely random takes no skill in adjusting to challenges or altering your strategy, it just requires you to either be lucky or unlucky. Either you win or you don’t. The new sword drops or it doesn’t, the boss uses a screen-clearing attack or doesn’t, the attack succeeds or fails and you either win or lose based on that.
You can argue that a touch of randomness does add to tension, because it adds an element of risk. But that risk is outside of your control. Given enough repetition, the odds can line up in your favor. Winning the lottery doesn’t involve overcoming challenge, just doing the same thing over and over. And speaking of that sort of repetition…
Time is not a challenge
The people who speak up in defense of things like random drops tend to purport that doing something over and over is somehow a challenge. You’re spending time, and that makes for a challenge. And on some level, that makes sense; the whole reason you play a video game is for it to take up some time. Complaining about how much time it takes to play a game is like complaining about how much stuff is in a given meal.
But we’re not talking about the meal, we’re talking about the padding. And it is ever so possible to use time as padding, and not just when it comes to randomness. Even when you remove games like FarmVille where time is the major element of the gameplay and can be bought off.
Any online games that feature a daily quest mechanic or something similar is tapping into the idea, but it can’t hold a candle to things like EverQuest‘s designed downtime where you sat around and waited hopelessly for a boat to finally arrive. Not that it’s unique to online games; Pokémon loves making you hunt for hours to grab just the right sort of little pocket monster to pit against other pocket monsters. And plenty of games, online and off, ask you to perform the same task over and over to slowly raise something, grinding levels or whatever through constant repetition.
Randomness and time often wind up shaking hands, since nothing keeps you playing like the idea that this roll of the dice might finally get that drop you’ve been looking for. But it’s not an actual challenge; it just involves you doing the same thing over and over, just eating through your time, fighting the same bosses and visiting the same areas in the hopes of luck.
You can even stretch that out further by adding more people, which is worth noting because…
Players are not a challenge
One of the crazy things about World of Warcraft‘s original PvP system was that your opponent wasn’t really the other faction. Sure, you had to fight the other faction, but in order to get a higher ranking what you really needed was to have more points than anyone else on your own faction. Your real opponents were your supposed allies.
A lot of online functionality and online games seem to use players as something of a challenge, which misses the point. You can argue in favor of what it takes to successfully organize raid-style content, but you can’t argue that there’s something kind of messed up when your biggest criteria for meeting these people is finding a bunch of friends who are at roughly the same skill level as you. You’re approaching other people in a digital playground like a recruiter for professional sports. And once you get everyone together, you’re actively working to do better than one another and be the only one who gets anything. the systems don’t encourage decency, they encourage selfishness.
Facebook games are even more mercenary about this: you need more friends who play the game to get more stuff, regardless of what you’re actually doing. It’s like a particularly ill-devised pyramid scheme. The idea is that the other people you’re dealing with are content, and while there’s space for open PvP like that, trying to leverage your customers to be content for other customers isn’t exactly creating a rich vein of challenging stuff to do.
None of these things qualify as fake difficulty, exactly; they’re not a result of the game cheating or being inherently underhanded. No, they’re just ways to pad out the length, to make the game look more challenging and lengthy and substantive than it actually is.
Next time around, I want to look at how challenge is sold to the player partly based upon game genre and what expectations tie into that. After that, I’d like to take a look at the virtues of ease (yes, I’m just now getting there).