Thoughts on Game Length and Difficulty

Matt Barton's picture

I was browsing Rampant Games today and came across a great editorial called Games – Too Big, Too Hard?, which was itself a response to an article by John Davison of Gamepro. The idea is that while gamers will always say that they want bigger and harder games, what they do is quite different. In short, once you start observing their habits rather than just asking them about it, you find that gamers tend to play games for 4-5 hours before giving up. Most of us buy games, play them for awhile, then stick them on the shelf without completing them.

What's the lesson here? It would seem to be that designers need to cut way back on the length of games and reduce their difficulty levels. We should be able to, in essence, skim through a game in 4-5 hours. This fact correlates well with the increasing maturity of most gamers--it's not just you. Most gamers these days are in their thirties or even forties. That means most gamers have full time jobs, families, etc., and not 16 hours a day to dedicate to gaming. I'd also point you to an an article by Soren Johnson in Gamasutra back in April that explored different models of game difficulty.

Okay, so here's my take on this. I find that there are some games that I'm happy to dedicate hundreds of hours to playing, and others that quickly get old or end up feeling more like work than play. I have seldom felt that a game was too complex. The difficulty usually comes from some kind of time limit or some such that requires me to move or think faster than I'm comfortable with. I've been really struggling to complete Ocarina of Time for this reason. I have a hard time dealing with the thumbstick, and it has caused me to die and repeat parts more times than I'd like to admit. After awhile, that stops being challenging and just becomes frustrating. Frustration = bad.

Another problem is repetition. As a rhetorician, I know that repetition can sometimes make a message more powerful, but the key is that it's very pointed repetition. You either repeat a very short message three times (as in, "There will be no new taxes! No new taxes! No new taxes!") Or repeat only part of something, as in "When you look at porn on your computer, God is watching! When you pass by that homeless person without helping him, God is watching!" etc.

Now there are some things about games that really irritate me regarding difficulty and repetition. The worst is what these articles refer to as "punitive" measures; that is, punishing me for failure. So the thumbstick slips, I fall into a hole, and I have to repeat the whole first part of a level again. Perhaps there was a time when that would have been acceptable, but now it just makes me angry. The level of my anger is proportional to how much of the level I'm forced to repeat, or how much trouble I have to go through to get my hearts back or whatever. The anger is also compounded if I'm not even sure I'm supposed to be there in the first place. Combined, all of this leads to a point where I quit playing the game out of disgust.

My basic point is that I play a game purely for enjoyment, never to feel rotten about myself. Being punished, naturally, makes me feel bad. I shouldn't be playing a game and feel that I'm just not good enough or that I just suck. I get that enough in the real world! Why would I want to replicate that feeling in a virtual world, where I should feel like a god?

Now, the obvious dilemma here is that if the game is too easy, it'll feel condescending or just dull. But I think there is another way to deal with this than just tweaking difficulty settings.

One is simply rewarding performance rather than penalizing failure. We've talked about this before, but it's a very simple concept. Just make it so that if you do something special (or within tighter parameters), you get some kind of bonus. Maybe a special outfit, or even something silly like more points. On the other hand, if it takes you longer, don't make a big deal out of it, just don't give the treat.

But another avenue that I don't think has been explored fully is what I like to think of as Superman's Dilemma. No, I'm not talking about kryptonite. What I have in mind is what is Superman's real weakness? It's that he can't be in two places at the same time. So, even though he has all that power, there will be situations where he simply can't save two people who are dying at the same time, and must occasionally make very difficult choices. As human beings, we are naturally captivated by such choices, particularly if we care about all the parties involved. Having to make such choices *is* difficult, but not in a way that means you must be faster with the mouse or quicker on the gamepad. Nor does it mean that you're stumped and have to quit.

There are, of course, many games that have explored this dilemma, but I still think there's plenty of room left. For instance, maybe it'd be "easy" to let them both die, slightly harder to save one of them, and extraordinarily difficult to save both. Now, how much harder or longer would you be willing to work for that happy ending? That way, you leave it up to the player whether to care and how much to invest. The difficulty is thus also tied to a real meaning, with some emotional investment, rather than just an arbitrary hoop or hurdle.

Comments

Bill Loguidice
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I would love to see this

I would love to see this implemented--4 - 5 hours of stunning gameplay versus 20 hours of merely good. However, we'll have to bar traditional game reviewers from reviewing such a game, though, because they're apparently required to say that a game is "short" and criticize it unless it well exceeds 20 hours.

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Catatonic
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Absolutely, Bill. The

Absolutely, Bill. The "traditional" game review will penalize a short length, which would actually be a plus for me. Or how about "non-linear" gameplay, which is a code word for "wander around aimlessly".

Bill Loguidice
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Short and sweet
Catatonic wrote:

Absolutely, Bill. The "traditional" game review will penalize a short length, which would actually be a plus for me. Or how about "non-linear" gameplay, which is a code word for "wander around aimlessly".

I'm with you there. If I can enjoy a great, concise game playing experience without getting lost, I consider it a rousing success!

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Clemenstation
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Hmmmm...

I'm not a big fan of games acquiescing to the lowest-common denominator -- i.e. the 'unskilled player'. We've all been in the position where a game has spanked us, but I think the reward one gets from overcoming a once-impossible challenge through practice and learning is very valuable indeed. Some people DO like to take on games that want us to think we suck at first, and then rise to the occasion. Games are a medium where some form of mastery should be an integral component.

"One is simply rewarding performance rather than penalizing failure. We've talked about this before, but it's a very simple concept. Just make it so that if you do something special (or within tighter parameters), you get some kind of bonus. Maybe a special outfit, or even something silly like more points. On the other hand, if it takes you longer, don't make a big deal out of it, just don't give the treat. "

This is what achievements are for.

Bill Loguidice
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No one is talking about

No one is talking about lowering the skill level a game requires (I don't think), Clemenstation. What we're referring to is how long you have to play a game to reach the end. There's a difference. Adjustable difficulty levels should be a given, preferably selectable at the beginning, with an option for the game to dynamically adjust-on-the-fly if the player so chooses.

More to the specific point, as an adult gamer with a busy life, I don't necessarily WANT games to last 20 - 30 hours in order to beat them - and if you factor in my skill and sporadic play - it could be another 10 hours on TOP of those estimates. I don't want to make YOU - an obviously highly skilled gamer with sufficient time - suffer because of me, but I also in turn don't want to suffer because of you.

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Clemenstation
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Fair Enough

Clearly I went off on a bit of a tangent there. Sorry for the derail.

The thing about playing to "reach the end" is that it's rather difficult to tell when the end IS in many games these days. Final Fantasy XIII, for example, doesn't really start to get challenging until after the credits roll. So is the game complete at this point? Technically, yes, the game is beaten and the story is completed, but on the other hand no, no it ISN'T because all of the toughest fights and best items are still ahead of you. New Game + is often employed to extend the life of games (Dead Space, Prototype, Resident Evil 5, NIER come to mind). But where is the 'true' end point, under these circumstances? Credits? 100% completion? Whenever the player gets too bored?

I personally think New Game + is a great feature, because it retains a linear end point for those who just want to beat the game, while at the same time pulling back the curtain to reveal additional challenges for those who don't feel finished quite yet. Games that use New Game + can probably get away with being shorter, too, in terms of primary campaign length. I'll mention Dead Space again, because I think it hits a nice balance between being accessible for those who want to poke their toes in (campaign = 10-12 hours), but scaling difficulty levels and good achievement design keep other players interested in sticking around a while longer.

Matt Barton
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Yes, achievements were what I

Yes, achievements were what I was talking about, but not just that. Achievements are usually grafted on for doing unnecessary things. I have more in mind achievements that focus on doing what you're "supposed to do" but doing it well. For instance, getting through an adventure game puzzle without having to use any hints, or solving it within a certain time limit.

Silly as it sounds, all it really takes is a big audiovisual response to stuff like that. If you get an achievement, the game should make a big deal out of it, with the equivalent of lots of dinging and fireworks, whatever. Just imagine the euphoria you get from a good pinball machine when you do something incredible--the whole thing is lighting up, dinging, etc. That's very exciting, and easy to implement into a game. Granted, it should be used sparingly, but one hit of that and folks would be spending much more time getting those achievements. Heck, I used to get a big kick out of the little dance in Forbidden Forest and the cheering in various RPGs/JRPGs after a battle. It gets repetitive, though, so again important to reserve for special moments.

Imagine an achievement that would start lighting up as you hit a certain threshold, growing louder/more visible, and then the satisfying audiovisual "DING DING!!!" when you landed it. Thus there's a bit of pre-achievement excitement that ratchets up as you get close to winning one. We get a *little* of this in games like WoW, where mods can let you know if you're getting close to one. I really want to feel that "OH, YEAH!!!" rush when I get an achievement, not just see some lame scroll pop up.

I also think it's a false argument to start talking about games "ought" to be difficult or challenging. Who says? Again, I think the game should reward excellence, but never punish poor players. Again, consider pinball. There's really no "punishment," unless you count having to put in another quarter (something that's not an issue in non-arcade games). If the ball drops, you just get another, instantly, and start playing again. Same for games that allow continues (unless they set you way back to repeat a level or some such). My point is, any game can be challenging if you provide opportunities beyond just winning and losing. There is a continuum there, not an either/or.

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Chris Kennedy
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My take

I find that variety is great for all things, I don't believe that anyone can toss all game traits under an "All games should be _____" blanket. If anything, all games should be fun. I'll grant you that.

Length -

Length can be a major part of a game. I have to mention the M-rated Persona series of games from Atlus here. Those games get up into the 100 hour mark, and I consider them to be well worth it. It is a combination of story-telling, voice acting, and a good deal of dungeon-crawling. There is an emphasis on character development, and you find yourself sitting and watching for long periods. I don't mind this at all. Do I have to make the time for it? Yes. Does the length harm the game's quality or help it? I would say it helps it. In fact, I think this particular game thrives on the long time required to complete it.

This in mind - Does this mean that I should adopt the philosophy that all games should be long in order to be successful and fun to play? No way. In fact, I tend to balance long gaming experiences (Final Fantasy, Persona, Dragon Quest, etc...) with twitch gaming such as Tetris, Mario, etc...

Difficulty - There is something to be said for difficulty. Difficulty can make one's ability to pass a certain point more rewarding. Perhaps a tough puzzle was just solved, or a controller maneuver was executed perfectly. Up until that point, the gamer may have struggled a little bit. There is nothing wrong with that as it makes the solution that much more satisfying. That said, reaching an impossible point in a game can ruin the *entire* experience. Difficulty is good, but I would rather say that a game was challenging rather than say it was difficult.

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Matt Barton
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Games as fun
Chris Kennedy wrote:

I find that variety is great for all things, I don't believe that anyone can toss all game traits under an "All games should be _____" blanket. If anything, all games should be fun. I'll grant you that.

There are even people who disagree with this!

I understand their position, though. Not all movies are pleasurable, but they're still "important," making some kind of statement or affecting you in a powerful way. I could give plenty of examples of "uncomfortable" films that are nevertheless worth watching. Maybe there could be a game that wasn't fun at all, but had the same kind of impact.

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Chris Kennedy
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Perhaps

If gaming was considered to be a form of art, then perhaps expression through gaming would be something that is considered acceptable. I think the issue here is that gaming is not considered art - at least not by the masses & certainly not by Roger Ebert (http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/04/video_games_can_never_be_art.html).

What about movies that are meant to bring about an emotional response and let you leave the theater thinking about something? History isn't always fun. Sometimes movies depict a tragic part of human history. They certainly aren't considered fun, but they could still be considered some form of entertainment due to the response they produce.

I think games are still way too early in their own existence to be considered a form of expression by those that would play them. Now, those that would create them could certainly argue that they have made a game or games that illustrate their feelings. Take Hideo Kojima and the Metal Gear Solid series of games. He has certainly made his thoughts known about certain issues in life (anti-nuclear). There are a few that would play the game and understand his message. I played the first MGS, enjoyed it, and understood his message. I am sure that the masses , however, would just play it and move along.

I think that the history and preservation of games, the expression of one's feelings via a gaming medium, and the overall acceptance of gaming as a form of art isn't going to truly happen until we are all grandparents. Even then - the immediate future of gaming is key to this. There is a great deal of potential, and I think the gaming market penetration is higher than ever - this mostly due to smart phones.

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