Challenge Accepted: The meat of challenges
The most irritating part of playing through Guitar Hero III, for me, were the songs that made it easier to get a Perfect rather than a five-star rating. Since the former relied on you hitting every note while the latter relied on score, there were lower-difficulty songs where the sheer sparsity of notes meant that it was easy to use your star power at the wrong time and wind up without enough points to clear the upper threshold. It made playing a lot more frustrating, because for most of the game the real difficulty was a perfect streak, not getting that star rating.
Back when I discussed difficulty levels, I mentioned that a lot of the stuff used to tweak a game’s difficulty didn’t really alter the fundamental challenge of a game. Sure, you can alter how hard enemies hit and how hard you hit in a lot of games, but that doesn’t necessarily make the game harder. What does make a given game harder or easier than another? That comes down to a series of questions.
What margin of error do you have for your performance? This is the basic one, and it can be affected by the damage you take and deal to some extent. If you die after five hits, than a strategy which involves you taking four hits is perfectly viable, but it won’t fly on harder difficulty settings. But there’s more to margin of error than just how much damage you can take – it’s about how accurate your movements and strategies need to be before you wind up sacrificing any chance of success.
In Final Fantasy XIV, Titan’s Landslide ability pushes people off of his platform. You have about three seconds between when the Landslide graphic appears and when you have to be out of it. Failing to do so means you die. That’s not a lot of margin for error, and it can easily lead to a cascading failure where every player who dies during the fight reduces everyone else’s margin for mistakes. Taking unnecessary damage can be lethal if a healer is slid off the edge, for example. By contrast, other primal fights frequently allow you to get hit or killed without making the situation impossible for other players to recover from; if someone dies on King Moggle Mog, they can be revived quickly and often won’t stop a clear.
Less margin for error means that every mistake has a huge impact on your play and makes the game or fight a lot harder. It also makes you feel much more capable when you clear something difficult, however, since you have to prove you can avoid screwing up.
How reliably can you predict what happens next? I mentioned above that you have time to get out of Landslide, and that’s true. But the fight would be a lot different if it didn’t give you any warning. You have time between the movement and the impact, more than time enough to move out of the area and into safety. It’s made even easier by the fact that Titan always follows a reliable pattern. You can see it coming and you can compensate every time.
More reliable patterns mean that you’re less likely to mess up, because you know what’s coming next. The same is true if you have plenty of time to react – you can take as long as you need to make your next move and you know that nothing’s going to force you forward. Crumbling platforms, timed challenges, and unpredictable bosses make for more challenging fights because you don’t have time to predict and react, relying far more upon your ability to move on the fly than to plan ahead and simply execute.
A perfect song on Guitar Hero III is hard, but doable. If the note layout changed slightly each time, it’d be far more difficult to manage perfection, coming down chiefly to luck. Which brings up…
What role does randomness play? A luck-based mission is the accusatory term for any content in which player input and efforts are entirely reliant on random chance. Lucky Wander Boy, which is an excellent novel that pretty much no one read, has a perfect example. On a given screen of the eponymous video game, an enemy spawns just to your right and will then move either left or right. If he moved left, you died. That was it. Only if he moved right could you actually start making headway in the game.
A boss with a random selection of attack patterns can be dealt with. A boss that is randomly vulnerable to your weapons is a lot harder. Randomness has a place without breaking the game into a purely luck-based strategy, even, because there are many places where a random event can make things harder while still keeping them within the realm of reasonable challenge. It’s just that the game gets more challenging the more random it is, because rather than preparing to deal with one outcome, you have to prepare to deal with any of them. And you have to be able to pick out which of those patterns is coming up next…
How much does failure lose you? Here’s something that I think usually gets missed when assessing overall challenge. We think of challenges in isolation, a pass-fail setup, but there are places where failure stings a lot more than others. If I die in a given section of Half-Life 2, I’m kicked back to an auto-save that happened a few moments ago. Dying in Dragon Age: Inquisition rarely loses me much more than one or two fights. Dying in G-Darius often throws me right back into the battle that I couldn’t clear while fully powered up, and it depletes one of my vanishingly small number of lives.
If a failure sets you back significantly, the game feels a lot harder. Insufficient checkpoints make it harder, too – you don’t have to clear one section, you have to clear half a dozen perfectly so that you don’t go back to the beginning. It’s the irritation with tough songs on rhythm games, as well, since one tricky section can screw you over completely even if you get everything else perfect. It would be bad enough if you could just polish up the part where you were having trouble, but having to start over from the beginning for each mistake makes it extremely slow going.
Unfortunately, many of these things either cannot or simply are not addressed by changes in difficulty levels, which is why those don’t tend to affect a lot. If they affect anything, it’s margin of error, and that’s not always the real killer. Changing enemy attack patterns to be slower and more reliable, adding extra checkpoints, making instant-death attacks easier to dodge… those make a game easier.
Also they usually require designing an entire separate game, but that’s kind of the point.
Next time around, I want to talk about level one hell and how customization leads to difficulty wonkiness. After that, I’d like to talk about what place exploits have in the grand line-up of evaluating difficulty.