Challenge Accepted: Easy keeps you going
There are some people who are just not going to have fun with a game if it’s not a challenge. That’s a given, and it’s not a bad thing. It’s part of how games work, and it’s an important element to keep in mind. Games cannot be designed to be all easy, all of the time, or the developers would be saying that they didn’t want the money of a sizable chunk of audience members. And that would just be silly. We need to have challenges in games, things that are difficult to overcome, stuff that can’t be cleared in one or two quick moments of play.
But in the long run, it’s going to be the easy stuff that’s more beneficial for any game.
This sounds contradictory. After all, the people playing a game for the long haul, whether it’s single-player or multiplayer, are going to be the people with more practice. These are the people best suited to facing challenges, and more to the point these are the people who most likely want more challenge. How can easy content be more useful to a game on a whole than difficult things?
Chores and challenges
So I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you. The bad news is that from this point forward, you will only be able to access food via your kitchen. The good news is that it has a literal endless supply of food in there, for free, forever. Oh, and there’s also a tiger living there now. That’s the bad news again. So, are you going to keep eating?
The answer is that of course you are, after taking whatever steps are necessary to ensure that you don’t get murdered by a tiger. And if nothing ever changes, you’re going to keep doing so even after you’ve already figured out how to get past the tiger and can do so consistently, even if that means that every meal comes after a ten-minute struggle with a tiger. You have to eat. You don’t have a choice. All that making it more difficult does is, well, make one of your daily tasks more unpleasant. It doesn’t reduce its necessity and it certainly doesn’t make things more engaging.
Any task that you have to repeat over and over is functionally a chore, whether it’s in real life or in a video game. Daily quests in an MMO. Traveling through monster-infested regions of the game. Unlocking doors. Saving your game. Healing. The list goes on. Heck, most games have some form of character advancement baked into them at this point; the real question isn’t whether or not you’ll want to grind up some items but how difficult it’s going to be when you decide to do so.
But adding challenge to these things doesn’t make these chores anything other than, well, chores. The fundamentals are unchanged. Putting a tiger in your kitchen just means that completing the chore is that much more inconvenient. Making tasks that will be repeated time and again in a game just means that you’re going to dislike doing those tasks, because no matter how challenging something is the first time around, it’s just annoying on the twenty-fifth.
The entry point, revisited
From start to finish, a game’s fundamental engine isn’t going to change a whole lot. Yes, new wrinkles will be introduced, new variants put into play, but the end of Super Mario Bros. 3 still has you playing the same basic game as you were during World 1-1. (Barring unexpected shifts, but I talked about that last week.) But having easy stuff in the game, toward the beginning and scattered throughout, is a very useful tool to let you know whether or not you’re even going to like what’s coming around the bend.
WildStar is my latest MMO, and I’m loving it, but the game starts off easy with its telegraph mechanics. This might seem odd, but the point is that the simple stuff in the early levels serves as an important check to see if you’re going to enjoy the much crazier mechanics that come later. You aren’t going to know if you like scurrying for the lone safe spot in the room amidst a field of destruction unless you first get used to the idea of “get out of this.”
Furthermore, having easier stuff helps you warm back up when you’re playing the game again after however long of a break. Oh, sure, I’ve beaten Mega Man X dozens of times, but being able to just romp through the intro stage is an important part of that process. It lets me walk back in without having to be ready for the craziness at the end right from the word go.
Not everyone wants the challenge
I mentioned that there’s a significant portion of people who enjoy games based on the challenge alone, and that’s true. But there’s a larger portion of people who don’t care about that. If I had to guess and throw numbers at a wall, I’d say that about two-thirds of the people playing games regard challenge as a peripheral feature at best and an active impediment to fun at the worst. Make a game too challenging, and those people are either leaving or cheating their way through to get back to the part of the game they find fun.
A third of your players is a significant amount. If you’re making a game to appeal to a lot of people, you can’t ignore those players. But for your average game that’s neither selling itself as face-smashingly hard nor as easy all around, you need to remember that the hardest of the hard stuff is only going to be seen by a fraction of the players. It can’t be the sole focus of your design, because a lot of players will never be interested.
And that’s a good thing. It really is. It means that there can be content in place for players who want nothing more than a nigh-insurmountable challenge and for those who prefer something more leisurely. It’s just that the challenging content is what some players stay for, while the easy content is what everyone comes to the party for – and what some even stay for. People are like that.
Next time around, I want to talk about the fairness of challenge in games and whether or not that discussion is really super-relevant. After that? I’m going to discuss the dreaded fake difficulty and why games still use it, sometimes even to substantial advantage and benefit.