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  • A Different Approach To Difficulty

    [11.13.18]
    - Alex Vu

  • Organic Difficulty in Games

    There seems to be a number of different terms to address this approach, but just for this article I'm going to use the term "Organic Difficulty." This is something that has been tossed around in the last decade or so.

    The basic idea of Organic Difficulty is that the game does not ask the players to select or adjust their preferred difficulty via GUI-based commands, nor does it automatically adapt itself to match with the player's performance and progress. But rather, the game allows the player to interact with it in certain ways to make it easier, or harder, for themselves. These take the form of tools, approaches, strategies, input sequences or methods, etc. which should often come with some sort of trade-off.

    This is something that has been implemented in a number of games including From Software's Dark Souls, which Extra Credits has dedicated an entire episode to, and which everyone should take a look.

    In Metal Gear Solid V, for every mission the player has completed, there's a score rating system which provides a rough overview of the player's performance based on a number of factors such as stealth, lethality, accuracy, completion speed, whether the player has completed any mission tasks, and what tools they used. While the player does get minus points for mistakes such as getting detected, raising enemy alert, taking hits, etc. some other factors are not as clear-cut as to how they constitute minus points aside from narrative reasons. The player can always go on a lethal rampage, tossing grenades at everybody in sight, or calling a support helicopter to airstrike the entire enemy base. The player is provided the tools to do exactly all of those, and they're always just a few buttons away, and the worst they get is a C rank, provided they completed the mission, and a slight dip in their earnings.

    Another example of this can be found XCOM: Enemy Unknown. There's a "cheesy" tactic in the game that can almost ensure victory, which is to have a unit with the Mimetic Skin ability to safely spot the enemies, thus enabling a squadsight-sniper from across the entire map to pick them off one-by-one safely without any real repercussion. This strategy is extremely effective in virtually every mechanical aspect of combat, with the only risk being that the spotter must not be flanked for they would instantly lose invisibility. The actual problem with this strategy is that it's incredibly boring: your snipers just simply shoot every turn, and you can only take a few shots every turn, not to mention reloading. This strategy is best suited for beginners and people who have made mistakes and want to get out of the downward spiral. While on the other end of the spectrum, there are players who understand how the game and the AI of every alien unit in the game work, so they are more confident about moving up close and personal with enemies with minimal armor. Because for them, it's not about defending against the enemies, but about manipulating, "nudging" the enemies into behaving the way these players want them to (e.g. nobody needs armor when enemies are only going to attack the tank; nobody needs to take good cover when enemies are too scared to move to flank in front of an Opportunist-overwatch unit; etc.)

    The above examples seem to imply a few important points regarding difficulty:

    • Difficulty should not only be designed around the mechanics of a game. It should also take into account the aesthetics or elegance of those very mechanics.

    • Punishment does not always have to be tangible or significant, as long as it is enough to indicate to players that they are straying off the intended experience. A good analogy would be physical pain. The pain itself is not what's causing harm to your body. The physical wound is. Pain is merely a bodily signal to let you know that what's happening right now is pretty bad and you probably shouldn't let what just happened happen again. But remember, the choice is ultimately yours!

    • It may not be a good idea to put people on the linear graph of "gaming skill" where some people are simply "softcore, not-so-good at video games" and some other are "hardcore and always challenge-seeking." The idea alone is absurd, because players on such a graph would move up and down constantly, even during a single playthrough. Some people pick things up faster than a game can predict with its tutorials' pacing. Some people due to real life reasons have to abandon the game for some time, and they lose a bit of their touch when they come back to it.

    • Instead of judging the player's skill and trying to accommodate every possibility, games should be judging player interactions instead, using a spectrum between Effectiveness and Aesthetics of Play (or what I shall humbly name Ludoaesthetics).

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