Articles Blog

When Difficult Is Fun – Challenging vs. Punishing Games – Extra Credits

When Difficult Is Fun – Challenging vs. Punishing Games – Extra Credits


Hey, everybody very often we get questions like why doesn’t anybody make difficult games anymore And the short answer to that is very simple. It’s because people believe that difficult games don’t sell. But this is false. Punishing games don’t sell. So today, we’re going to talk about what distinguishes a game which is deliciously difficult from one which is just controller crushingly punishing. But first, let’s tackle the “why doesn’t anybody make difficult games anymore?” question in a little more depth. For this, we really have to look at the history of the industry. When the video game industry began, it was centered around the coin Op experience This meant that most of the games were intentionally very difficult, to get you to keep pumping quarters into the arcade. Many of the people who designed these arcade games then transferred over into the growing console industry, bringing their super challenging design philosophy with them. And, counter to all current industry wisdom, this design philosophy worked reasonably well for the initial console audience. After all, the expectation was that the average player was 8 to 14 years old, male, and wouldn’t be getting new games regularly. So, they would have to make the games they had really last. They’d be happy if there was a very high ceiling on skill, so that they could continuously be rewarded for getting better at the game they had, and could play that game which really only had about 5 hours of content for 40 hours or more. But then, as the years passed, production costs began to skyrocket, and, in order to cover those production costs, developers started having to reach for the widest audience possible. At the same time, some of the generation who began playing nes games when they were 12 were now able to start buying their own games so replayability became less of an issue. Developers saw how many studios collapsed for making punishing games, so the new motto for these studios became “everybody wins.” We transitioned from Everquest to World of Warcraft, from Ghosts and Goblins to Maximo, and some really great games came out of this. We really had to step it up on usability, on properly crafted learning curves, and on evening out difficulty spikes. But, we lost a little something too. There was something that games like Super C or Castlevania had that we are poorer for simply dismissing as an industry. But today, at last, with the ability to find alternate, cheaper avenues to distribute through, like Steam or Kongregate, we’re starting to experiment with difficulty again. So, let’s talk about what makes the difference between a game being punishing and it being something you love spending time trying to master. First, and most importantly, is the consistency of rules. If you’re playing a game where getting hit doesn’t usually knock you back, and then an enemy, without warning, hits you, and you fall back into a pit after a grueling play session, that is a ragequit moment. Dark Souls is a glorious example of a game obeying its own rules. From Software had a covenant with their players. Every character that ever appears, follows all of the rules of the game. So, every NPC, every monster that showed up in what normally would be a set-piece moment, was killable. If you could see a monster from some crazy ledge you managed to get yourself to, you could shoot it till it was dead. There were no arbitrary “we don’t want you to do that” invisible walls or invulnerable monsters. If you could find the solution, you could do it. Of course, you don’t have to go this far, but the harder your game is, the less you can mysteriously change your rules on the fly. Which is part and parcel with the second important part of enjoyable difficulty: giving the player enough tools to work with. For something to be enjoyably difficult, rather than punishing, it has to allow the player an outlet to approach problems in new ways. When you fail to beat a challenge, you have to be able to say to yourself, “I need to slide here,” or, “What if I were to wall jump?” rather than simply relying on memorization, a la Battletoads. Which leads us nicely into talking about telegraphing. The player needs to have the ability to make informed choices about the game, even if they’re split second ones. An uninformed choice isn’t actually a choice at all, and this means that everything has to hint at its consequences in some small way. Many of you may remember games where 90% of the pits would kill you if you jumped into them, but the other 10% had secret rooms or important items in them. This is not only an inconsistency of the rules, but a failure to telegraph. This is punishing rather than difficult, because there’s no choice, no player skill involved. Those of you who played the recent, and otherwise great, Fire Emblem Awakening on classic mode probably encountered moments when, without any specifics of where they’d show up, enemy units would appear behind your lines and get a turn to move before you could do anything, often permanently killing off some of your characters. That is punishing, not difficult, because you couldn’t play around it. There was no real choice you could make. You just had to restart the level and rely on your now memorized foreknowledge of where enemies were going to appear. Which, of course, brings us to iteration time. In simplest terms, to make a game not punishing, lower its iteration time. Given how much you–or, at least, I–died in Super Meat Boy, by all rights, it should have seemed punishing. But, they very intelligently did everything they could to allow you as a player to jump right back in the second you died and try something new. The levels are so short that you’re never more than 10 seconds from the challenge you failed at, and the respawn time isn’t arbitrarily clogged with some interstitial screen asking you, “Do you want to continue? It’s back into the action right away to try to solve the puzzle again And that’s where Fire Emblem, in my previous example, fails. Often, the arbitrary, unstoppable deaths occur right in the middle of a 20-minute long battle that you’re otherwise winning. Which means the player now has ten minutes of doing something they already succeeded at, something that’s no longer engaging to them, just to get another crack at the problem they want to solve. Next, there’s usability. As we’ve said before, Complexity does not equal difficulty. The more your players are able to understand and instantly utilize the tools you’ve given them, the wider variety of problems you can present them with, and the larger range of interesting answers they can come up with. Just because you’re making a game that’s meant to be mastered, doesn’t mean it should be hard to get into. I mean, think of Ikaruga. How simple are those mechanics? How readily understandable? And yet, they gave the player the tools they needed to face a plethora of challenges in an incredibly difficult game. This is as true for platformers as it is for shmups or strategy games. The wall slide in Super Meat Boy is something that is immediately understandable for the player, and so is something that the player can work with, something that the designer can rely on the player to problem-solve with, because they feel comfortable using it. Just remember, a big part of that comfort is in controls. When we talk usability, we often talk about user interface or tutorials, but an awesome move that you understand but can’t execute consistently might as well not even be in the game. Those of you who have played Warframe will know what I mean when I simply say, “sliding Spin slash.” It’s awesome, I’d love to use it, but really, “shift, control, W, E?” Lastly, don’t ignore difficulty curve. Just because a game is difficult, it doesn’t mean that its difficulty can just fluctuate wildly all over the place, have huge spikes, or be unreasonably difficult up front. As a designer, you’re not trying to defeat your player. You want them to overcome the challenge you’re setting before them. Your goal as a designer is to get your player so invested, so engaged, that they want to beat this game, even though it’s difficult. You don’t want to simply set something before them that causes them to walk away because they hit a challenge which is too tough, too early. That’s just punishing. It is very easy to make a punishing game. It is quite challenging, though, to get your player through a difficult one. So, to sum up, this industry doesn’t have to give up on difficult games. Things like Meat Boy and Dark Souls prove that. But, if I had to give one piece of final advice, I’d just say this: as a designer, when the player fails, you want them to always feel as though they could have done better. You want them to have that “aha!” moment, where they realize some small thing they could do differently, and be hungry to try again. If instead, they feel like the game made them fail, then you have failed as a designer. If your rules are inconsistent, if your player isn’t presented with choices they can work with or a game that’s usable enough, or if you demand that the player wade through minutes of content they already mastered just to get another chance at the thing they failed at, you have created a game which is punishing, not difficult. And punishing games will never succeed. I’ll see you in Anor Londo.

100 thoughts on “When Difficult Is Fun – Challenging vs. Punishing Games – Extra Credits”

  1. Some of these old games that had punishing death areas that seemed unfair at the time were designed that way back in the 1980's to sell Strategy Guides, which was a big market back then. Take Kings Quest, who really finished the game without the guide book or calling a tip line.

  2. Portal is a pretty good action puzzle game. I like how some of the later levels seem like you’re actually breaking the rules. It wasn’t a long game, but it was challenging and fun. It did however at times take you back to your last start point several minutes in, but then usually it wouldn’t take as long to get back where you were as you’d already figured that part of the puzzle out.

  3. As a fellow warframe player I must say that only certain weapons need that combo, if you wish to use something fun then how about the Arca plasmor

  4. Dark Souls is not consistent. What are you talking about? I have never seen a game with more variance or that's more unreliable.

  5. Well thats pretty much the Topic i need since im creating an difficult Game. Player has many tools, has an Savepoint nearby, but im not entirely sure how I can hype him enough to try everything to beat the extremly difficult Bosses. One friend playtested it so far and was more like "meh". He´s not playing that kind of genre so much, and my target group are experienced Jrpg players, so maybe thats one Problem, but I watched him and figured that he might need some easier enemys for the start. Since the many options are pretty overwhelming at the beginning if your starting Enemys twohit you.

    Well its still deep in development. But it actually is pretty important to get engagement and Punishment right. On the other Hand complete meaningless Deaths ruins games for me too. So I guess having an nearby Savepoint you can always access, but you need to do the whole Battle again is an reasonable midway.

  6. first i want to say, celeste is my favorite game of 2018, i love it (better than GOW or RDR2, imo) im on the 4th level of celeste and i do feel it is punishing, that is its major flaw. the execution part of the game is too rigid.

    what i mean is, i have my satisfying aha moments on how to progress (the thinking part), but executing on them, is an entirely different story. imagine a from software game where you die on every new enemy, thats what the sections of celeste feel like sometimes. it could be the ps4 pad i play on wasnt designed for such precision. also, matilda's hit box is so big, it really shows sometimes. there are spots where reacting is impossible, you have to predict exactly when to time your jump or dash. how do you do that? repetition. i can honestly say it feels like the game is designed around killing me, rather than rewarding retries. if some of the holes were widened a bit, if controlling matilda was a bit more lax, i think i could focus on the parts of the game i could enjoy more. theres this fluidity in game play in spiderman ps4, celeste is the polar opposite. i die for jumping to far, then die again for not jumping far enough, dying for being too high or too low are just pixels apart. the game would feel more fun with less of these moments. theres a major separation between wanting matilda to get from point a to point b, and actually being able to do it, more than any other game. most games, once you've recognized the right decision, thats a major part of the battle, celeste's battle comes in executing on the correct decisions. again, it could just be my controller

    cant believe i found this video while playing celeste and feeling this way, thank you and <3

  7. I love the PS3 controller and the XBox 360 controller more than anything else. I love those designs, it just feels right for my hands. I’m disappointed in the design coming up for the new PS5 controller. To meet the design just does not look comfortable to hold.

  8. thats my biggest complaint with many games. i play ark and its the most punishing game i know. not difficult but punishing. the skill required is pretty low actually but so many times things will happen out of your control and you will lose hours days weeks or even months of real life progress. disconnects, cheap enemies, cheap areas and cheap ass bosses. but theres not much skill just knowledge and grind and learning what not to do by trial and error. and when you do error expect to have hours days weeks or even months of real life in game work crushed due to many bugs and or cheapness of play.

    matter of fact half the "skill" of the game is learning what bugs can happen and how to avoid them or what cheap ass enemy does what and how to counter it. theres jellyfish in the sea that can keep tames stunned till there dead. and about 15 different water tames you could use but 1 is ammune to jellyfish. so everybody uses that because its the only viable sea creature.

    wanna use a crock too bad jellyfish will kill it, shark nope mosasaur nope sorry. and you might think well why not avoid them? theres blinding glare in ark good luck seeing them in the day. so any player who knows the game at all uses 1 sea creature.. completely limiting player choice.

    or like how bout RE2 no way out ghost survivor. your shoved in a cramped space fighting zombies and you have a shitty pistol and your biggest enemies are extremely limited space, slow ass characters and a camera that works fine 98% of the time… except in cramped spaces 😀 many times you are forced to just take a bight with no real other option and the only way to win is by memorizing when and where fuel tanks will drop and shooting them to take out huge hords. and it seemes timed for just when you need it.

    lotta skill in that loll its just an illusion of difficulty to make you feel like your doing good. its like skyrims power fantasy on easy mode with dark souls painted on to it but they save you before anything gets actually hard lol provided you payed attention the last 3 times you died.

    speaking of which dark souls isnt even hard. but its difficulty is done so well most people want to push on as they learn real skills. practice is rewarding.

    but i say its not hard cause if you were a complete noob i could sit behind you and tell you where to go and what you should do next like a guide and youd finish and say that was eassssy. cause knowing is half the battle. your second playthrough is 10x easier cause you know where to get certain items. but hey they get a pass on it because the games still fun.

  9. call of duty match ends, you lose and someone says “terrible effort, that one hurt our reputation”

  10. Is anyone seeing this? At 4:58, the red dots seem to float above the screen, like the effect on the 3DS. Accidental optical illusion??

  11. Umm, did EC just say that Mario Bros. was a punishing game and that punishing games don't sell???

    Umm, highest grossing video game franchise ever!!!???

  12. Hollow knight, and Just shapes and beats is another challenging game because you don’t really die in the game ( except steel soul mode in Hollow knight and that one cutscene in Just shapes and beats ).

  13. Sliding Spin Slash is easy on console. Left analog stick press, left analog stick forward, left trigger press. It’s easy

  14. Record of Lodoss War
    would've been a great (sega dc) example game for this vid. can be finished within 12h but then it wasn't fun. can also be played over 100h without finishing, like, slaying your ancient dragon soulmate, clearing all the prisons and so on. and omg that dragon takes a damn fight like i never saw it again… best run: 45min on a 100h+ savegame… 3.5h fight on a 70h savegame….
    and jfc that game had a hp-bar that ended on 9999 but you could have 100000! simply having to calculate your own hp to know how many u got just added fun to the game!

  15. You know, since you mentioned complexity and learning curve, how the hell would Dwarf Fortress place on that scale?

  16. Ah, the old point-and-click adventure games like King's Quest. They did everything wrong as far as "punishing" goes, which is an all too kind word for it.

  17. Another great example of punishing gameplay would be metropolis zone from sonic , it was a massive difficulty spike and the enemies were nearly impossible to avoid.

  18. 5:43 ->
    This makes me think about Mortal Kombat X.
    The game is nice, I like playing it – to the point I try to learn even the first steps of consistency to the fighting patterns. Which kills my interest towards the game pretty quickly, since I just can't handle the key patterns.

    Can't say the game sucks – I just can say it's not for me – at least if I wanted to be good at it.

  19. Another thing to address, I think, is story. I can't think of a game that is hard that I have played and fit this example, but I can think of games that I've found the gameplay boring or uninteresting that I pushed through because the story seemed really good and I really wanted to know what happened next. I can imagine that same premise could work with a really hard game, but that also requires a good story.

  20. Every From Software game has major issues that make the game unbeatable for some people.

    The 3rd person camera is awkward in the various tunnels and pillared rooms in the games and causes needless damage when the player has to use the analogue stick instead of one of the face buttons to dodge out of the way of damage.

    The bosses give no chance for the players to learn their moves without taking damage the first time. And the damage they give is sometimes inflated from all the regular baddies. This doesn’t even touch on how bosses have unique moves that you didn’t learn as you built your way up to them.

    The player often gets stressed when fighting key enemies or exploring new locations which makes a vicious cycle of more stress and failure. All this does is influence the player to stop playing the game, go online, and manipulate the limits of what the game can do, completely destroying emersion and learnability of the game.

    Some of the items in the games are completely worthless. Or in some of the games, you can’t even get better equipment or upgrades yet unless you look online for a glitch, causing a linearity in the game that makes it seem unbeatable.

    The telegraphing that is in the game doesn’t help because each new enemy has a different moveset, range, and size. And it never is taught beforehand in a safe way for the player to experiment without incurring a death or wasted time.

    The games have complex control schemes, either because of the various equipment pieces and each piece’s unique abilities and cadence, or because the game contains combos that can’t be experimented with in a practical way because of the aforementioned enemies that each individually demand a memorization of their pattern to go through the game. And it gets worse if the player gets stressed as they can’t tell telegraphs or time their moves properly.

    Finally, the negative aspects of death in the games can create an awful downward spiral that the players are completely unable to reverse. In the Souls games, you can only kill an enemy a number of times before it disappears, and souls can be permanently lost upon death. In Sekiro the Dragon Rot feature feels completely unfair as, again, the player has no room to experiment.

  21. Super Mario Maker 2 is a good example.
    But a little different, the designer is the player. The Mario game, which has been established for a long time, is now played by players.
    Some semantics, it's like an extension of infinite power. A map that was intentionally aimed at an opponent will be ignored and discarded as a broken heart-shaped Boo !. Difficult but moderately motivated to make the player clear the level, the well-designed level design is ranked in the rankings. And every time the ranking is modified.
    Think about the ratings given to those many maps. If used well, it can be an important measure in the level design of your next game, and it will be worth using as big data.
    How good is it? Invaluable Free real estate

  22. 2:42 No, there's a dragon NPC that's explicitly unkillable (though also impossible to make an enemy of) because it never lost its immortality scales. And also there are two other NPCs who cannot die but will ditch your playthrough if you try to kill them.

  23. I prefer easy games unless I miss something out. In the orignal 1998 Thief games I set the difficult to the hardest because it would force me to get all the objectives. I have no idea why I like that game as difficult, though now I much prefer to use cheat engine or dll injectors to hack the game & get everything for free. Or to make it super easy, I find hacking & cheating to just be more enjoyable for me.

  24. As someone who is not very good at video games, I have often wondered what should be done about difficulty. I think maybe having easy, normal, and difficult games is fine, but I also think it would be cool to have a game with many difficulty variations; so much so that you could basically choose how hard the game is. An example of how this might work is a map with easier zones, then casual zones, then difficult zones. At the beginning, you can choose the mastery level: tutorial (not to be mistaken for the tutorial mode also offered), easy, normal, hard, brutal, insane. This way, while the story and controls might be the same, or close to it, people playing an easy level on tutorial are playing a different game from those playing a difficult level on insane.
    It's a tough balance, because on one hand, a game that is too easy is boring, where one that is too hard is frustrating.

  25. i dont know about you but in super meat boy when you failed like the 6th platform jump like 32 times in a row then you had to do all other 5 platforms again and again and again and again made me quit it realy realy realy fast…

  26. Another example that is (suspiciously) similar to something like super meat Boy is n++. Platformer with intuitive and fluid movement and and snappy controls, fucking stupid difficulty at times, very short iteration time, and a unique visual style

  27. Its the same on roblox, in the past there were fun & well-made games all around, and now everyone makes super simple games all around the concept of working, buying better tools, repeat, and add tons of gamepasses.

  28. Punishing isn't always bad. Everquest punished you for dying. You lost xp and had to go and retrieve your gear from the body. It was really hard and many nobody liked doing it. The thing is though it forced you to be careful about your actions and respect the dangers of the world that were not trivial. When you did die you often needed help from others to recover the stuff from your corpse and to reserect you or transport you to where you died. This created a community that modern games simply do not have. Most players will remember corpse runs in a negative way but they played that game for years and years because of the community it helped to build.

  29. An excellent example of this is Hollow Knight. It is challenging, yet engaging. For the pantheons, it allows you to attempt the bosses without completely restarting the pantheons.

  30. 2 challenging games:
    1. CUPHEAD. Never played it, probably never will, because according to a lot of people, it is extremely hard.
    2. Keeping up with the big games of 2018? This is one of the few B ones out there: Besides BATIM, there is…
    Baldi's Basics. It's hard because it relies on RNG like 99% of the time. If something doesn't go your way, often it screws you up.
    And 0:21 accurately depicts our character after you get one question wrong.

  31. 5:50 My God, you dont even fucking know. I use my special abbilittes by button mashing because i cant execute any of the combo moves.

  32. This is so applicable to economics / government that it's scary. There's even a branch of Game Theory (economics) which is called mechanism design, that deals with this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *