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  • A Different Approach To Difficulty

    - Alex Vu

    The Effectiveness-Ludoaesthetics Spectrum (ELS)

    On the Effectiveness-Ludoaesthetics Spectrum (ELS), difficulty exists only at the lowest technical level. Each end of the ELS represents what each player wants at a certain point in the game with certain conditions. On this spectrum, games are designed with the player's interactions, approaches and strategies in mind, each with its own degree of effectiveness and ludoaesthetics. These are not solely defined by mechanics or the player's skill level, but rather the way in which they are experienced and perceived by the player.

    Effectiveness refers to how well the player can progress and achieve their goals in a game using the set of tools they're given and the strategies they're allowed to formulate. How easy those tools are to use, and how good they are at helping the player progress towards the game's intended goals, primarily constitute Effectiveness. Players who aim towards and stay on this end primarily look for the most effective ways to achieve the intended goals of the game (which of course include playing the game the easy way).

    Ludoaesthetics refers to the perceivable aesthetic appeals of the aforementioned set of tools and strategies given to the players. Players who aim towards this end do not necessarily look for the most effective ways to achieve the intended goals. But rather they tend to look for the added intrinsic benefits derived from unconventional play. These benefits include:

    • Superficial Attractiveness: Visual and auditory appeal of using the subject matter or the subject matter itself. It can be represented by any entity the player can recognize in the game such as a character with great visual design, a badass-looking weapon with satisfying visual and sound effects, etc.

    • Competitiveness: a.k.a. bragging rights. This is rather self-explanatory. There is always that portion of players who keep seeking greater and greater challenges to prove themselves to the world. They may even go as far as handicapping themselves with arbitrary limitations to heighten the challenge.

    • Greater sense of satisfaction derived from greater challenges that may go beyond the goals intended by the game. People who have been through heights of overwhelming odds know about, and may expect, the immense amount of satisfaction that comes with them.

    • Narrative Fantasy: Players may look for things that may not be effective or productive in terms of gameplay because they would align with the narrative better (in games that understandably contain some degree of ludonarrative dissonance), or they would add an extra layer of depth and intensity to the narrative and thereby enhancing it. Essentially, they're sacrificing gameplay optimality to elevate their narrative fantasy.

    Design for Ludoaesthetics

    The point of designing for ludoaesthetics is NOT to create increasingly harder challenges in order to accommodate the player's increasing skills (though that is not to say such approach has no merits whatsoever). But rather, it is actually to encourage players to strive for aesthetics in their gameplay and to lean more towards the right side of the spectrum.

    Here are a few suggestions on how to go about it.

    Creating more depth

    Depth refers to the amount of space the player is allowed to make interesting choices using the set of tools they're given by a game. For a more detailed explanation of what Depth is in comparison to Complexity, you can take a look at Extra Credits' episode on Depth vs. Complexity.

    Essentially, Complexity is the amount of constituent elements that make up a game, and Depth is the degree of interactivity between those elements. The very nature of ludoaesthetics has to do with the deviation from the default, intended approach (a.k.a. Playing "by-the-book.") Therefore, the more those elements "talk" to one another, the better chance it is for ludoaesthetics to emerge, because then the player will be able to find more different ways to control or manipulate each element.

    [Also read: Design for Theorycrafting]

    Depth is pretty much the prerequisite for ludoaesthetics even as a concept to exist. Without a lot of depth,  the window of opportunities for ludoaesthetics get significantly lower or completely non-existent.

    Creating patterns suggesting the possibility of gameplay aesthetics

    Adding more depth is not only about simply adding more stuff in a game and making them as obscure as they possibly can be. It is also about leaving breadcrumbs to suggest that there is more than meets the eye, therefore encouraging players to explore further possibilities. What kind of depth to even add? And how does one go about communicating it?

    Below is a conceptual representation of a set of challenges typically found in video games.

    Each challenge is represented by a window of failure and a window of success. These windows can be spatial, temporal, symbolic, strategic, or a combination of all. They are the spaces in which the player enters by behaving in a certain expected way. Secondly, the black line represents the player's interactive maneuvers: where to get across and which direction to turn to next, in order to overcome the set of challenges without stumbling into the windows of failure.

    For example, say we have a situation in a 3D platformer game where the player is facing a pit, and across the pit leaning towards the right side there is a narrow platform. In such a scenario, we can assume that the window of failure includes any and all sets of behaviors that lead the player plummeting down the pit, and the window of success includes those that lead the player to landing on the platform across the pit safely.

    Now consider the same representation of challenge above, but this time with  a slight deliberate arrangement.

    As you can see, the sizes of the windows of failure and the windows of success stay exactly the same, but the positions of the windows of success have been altered so that they align somewhat (but not exactly aligned to the point of being too obvious). You can see that nested within the windows of success is a narrower window where the amount of the player's maneuvers stays extremely minimal. Stepping into this window offers the opportunity for a non-disrupted gameplay flow, where a deliberate and guided set of behaviors will let the player "breeze" through the challenges seemingly almost with ease. This window is where ludoaesthetics occur.

    Of course, the downsides of it are aplenty: it can be extremely difficult to realize such a window exists in a real scenario. And in order to stay inside such a narrow window, the player has to be extremely precise and/or smart in their gameplay. You can think of this window of non-disrupted flow as an intended "weak point" of the challenge, where a single and concentrated attack will break the whole thing apart in one fell swoop. But the process of identifying such a weak point, and delivering the finishing blow with great accuracy may require a lot of trials and errors, and can be extremely tedious and/or difficult.


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