Challenge Accepted: Forever running
When you play Peggle, there is a finite puzzle to solve in each level. No additional pegs will crop up to assail your dwindling supply of balls, you will not rush ahead to the next level with the same number of balls you began play with, there are no carryover elements from one stage to the next. You clear the puzzle as it’s presented to you and that’s enough.
When you play Lumines, this isn’t the case. The game starts, and it keeps going until you screw up. That’s the long and short of it. The challenge will just continue for as long as you play. And while both games are fundamentally puzzle games, one of them is a game wherein each level should be played to completion, while the other is an ongoing process. And there are some interesting differences between a challenge that just runs forever and one that exists in a contained space.
A game with endless challenge does not, in fact, mean that the game simply gets perpetually more challenging over time; it simply means that there’s no actual stopping point, that the game just keeps going on as long as you keep playing. There can be a victory or failure state – in games like Civilization, there are win and loss conditions – but neither one means that your game is fundamentally over so much as that session is over. Failing is usually the only way to actually end the game, and even that just ends a particular session; you can always start up again.
Some online games live or die on the basis of being endless. Unreal Tournament. League of Legends. EVE Online. These games have frameworks that could work as part of a single-player experience, but the point is that even then there’s no real victory. There’s just the end of a given session, and then you start up again.
By contrast, Final Fantasy XIV has structured combat and encounters. You could, with a great deal of work, turn the whole thing into a game wherein you start at the beginning and then eventually win. There are elements of repeatability, there’s content you want to (and have to) go through over and over, but the core of the game lies in discrete elements of content. Run this dungeon. Do this quest. Kill these targets.
EVE Online runs on something new happening. Players are the great randomizer, and you never know what they’re going to do next. Someone is going out to mine things. Another player is taking on pirates. A third player is hunting you, specifically. There are no structured encounters, nothing happening but what you make.
That ties into an important element of a game that’s really providing you with an endless challenge as well as its biggest weakness. An endless game has to have something to randomize what you’re dealing with, because otherwise there is no challenge. If every single game of Minecraft was played with the same map, it’d be boring – you’d look up the best attack plan online and work toward that, with all of the resources clearly labeled and easy to find. No real stress or challenge to it.
If it hasn’t been mentioned before, though, randomness is random. You can be doing fine in Tetris and then get a solid string of blocks that more or less force you to leave some holes in your layout. Or you can get nothing but straight-line blocks for an hour, because it’s totally random. Neither one is technically a challenge, since the latter is handing you everything you want and the former is just kicking you while you’re down and you can’t do anything about it.
In a game without scripted challenges, of course, the game has to be designed differently. Instead of providing players with a specific set of hurdles to overcome, the game has to be set up in such a way that challenges will naturally arise. The Sims 4 isn’t about figuring out how to overcome a specific challenge, it’s about figuring out what you want to accomplish and then getting there despite the natural roadblocks that are a natural result of the game, like your Sim’s natural desire to have fun and eat and sleep on occasion.
It also means that experiences between players are going to be wildly different depending on circumstance. I think of Civilization as a fun game to relax with, because I play on low difficulty levels and mostly enjoy breaking the technology tree and conquering large stretches of land, so my cities are sporting enormous death robots tromping through the world while everyone else is still struggling to figure out gunpowder. There are a lot of players who view it as a challenging game of resource management, which is also accurate, because it’s being played at a very different level from what I enjoy.
Plus, the stories of these games tend to be much more random and personalized. You can still get moments of high drama and stunning victories or defeats, but there’s no way to engineer or predict them. EVE Online players have made plenty of stories over the years, but the majority of players in the game have just watched them unfold from a distance rather than being an active participant. Your average roguelike is filled with last-minute escapes, but there’s no assurance that you won’t then drip on a root and be eaten by a wolf before your ultimate victory.
Endless games, ultimately, derive themselves almost completely from systems. The up side is that the game can then be tweaked and improved almost entirely on the strength of these systems, and new tools for dealing with those systems have a substantial impact. The down side is that when there are nothing but systems, once you know how to deal with those systems you’ve largely gotten the game down unless there’s a high degree of randomness.
Thus, both styles of game provide a different sort of rush. You never really beat a game like Tetris or Terraria, you just clear a certain set of challenges and continue onward to see what the next random collection of obstacles is. There’s never the high of victory. But you’ve always got more challenges awaiting in the toybox, so to speak.
Next time around, I want to take a closer look at Super Mario Bros. from a challenge perspective. After that, I intend to talk about personal responsibility in challenges and how it affects player perceptions.