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  • A Different Approach To Difficulty

    [11.13.18]
    - Alex Vu

  • An Example from Master Spy

    A common manifestation of ludoaesthetics comes in the form of speedrunning. Finishing with speed is, for the majority of games, not the primary intended goal. Games are rarely ever designed to be speedrun, and most players do not have to finish any games at high speed in order to not miss anything. So speedrunning has always been a sort of arbitrary self-imposed challenge by those who seek greater sense of enjoyment from their favorite games.

    However, there are a few exceptions. And you can find the above mentioned window of non-disrupted flow in levels like this one from Master Spy by Kris Truitt.

    In this game you play the role of the Master Spy, to infiltrate ridiculously well-guarded buildings, palaces and fortresses with a huge number of different enemies, hazards and contraptions standing in your way. And you are given no tools whatsoever but an invisibility cloak that can help you sneak past the eyesight of certain enemies while halving your movement speed.

    In the example above, your goal is to retrieve the keycard on the other side of the wall slightly to the right of your starting point, and then to escape through the white door right above your starting point safely. And while your cloak can get you past the eyesight of the guards, it is of no use whatsoever against the dogs, who can smell you even when you're cloaked and will sprint forwards to attack you at horrendous speed as soon as you're on the same ground as them.

    So what you have to do as a sequence of actions in this level is first to cloak yourself, then drop down from the first ledge past the the first guard, then quickly decloak to regain speed as the cloak is useless against the incoming dogs. Then before the first dog reaches you, move forward to the right, then quickly jump up. Keep jumping to retrieve the keycard while avoiding the second and third dog. Cloak up, then get on the ledge with the three moving guards. Finally, jump to the left to reach your destination.

    However, as you can see from the footage above (courtesy of a speedrunner nicknamed Obidobi), as soon as the player reaches the ledge with the three moving guards on the right, the guards turn to the other side and begin moving away from where the player is, effectively freeing the player from having to cloak and having their movement speed halved. And then right before the player reaches for the white door, the guard on the far right is about to touch the wall and thereby turning back to the left. This is such a tiny window of success that should the player not have begun moving right after they started the level and stayed uncloaked at the end, they would have failed. The level is designed in such a way that it can be completely solved without wasting any moment and action.

    Is it significantly more difficult to play this way? Yes. Was this arrangement absolutely necessary? Not really. But the designer made the level with the expectation that people are going to speedrun the game and will be looking to optimize their timing with each level. Thus, the levels in Master Spy are designed so that should the player start looking to speedrun the game, they will easily recognize that sweet, sweet window of non-disrupted flow. It is an immensely satisfying experience to discover it.

    Ensure Usability

    As usual, it is easy to get too extremely logical about design and forget all about the equilibrium, which is almost always what design is about.

    In this case, it is important that designers must ensure that whatever tools they're making for their players to achieve ludoaesthetics, MUST have at least some sort of usability, even if it's incredibly niche or extremely difficult to pull off. Things that serve nothing and mean nothing are NOT aesthetic. Say you have an RPG, and one of your players goes out of their way in order to build an unconventional character because they see some sort of future potential from this build, only to find out later that when they're finished with the build, the meta of the game has changed and the window of opportunity for such a build has long passed. This means that the entire amount of depth you added, and the ludoaesthetics you might have intended by allowing that player to go in such away, is utterly useless and entirely wasted. So always remember to ensure usability for everything you add in your game.

    Conclusion

    Organic Difficulty and the ELS are not only, and not necessarily, an alternative solution to the whole difficulty problem. But rather, they represent an entire paradigm shift away from the idea that games should find more and more complex ways to serve players with different skill levels, and towards a design philosophy where players are given integrated tools within the context of games to set their own difficulty at any point without breaking immersion and perhaps the extra baggage of shame. It is not enough to have your players stay at the same level of difficulty throughout the game, or dynamically adjust the difficulty on the fly to suit them. It is best, in my opinion, to let your players cook to their palate. Just make sure that the process of cooking and the game itself are one and the same.

    References

    1. The Designer's Notebook: Difficulty Modes and Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (2008) by Earnest Adams. Retrieved at https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/132061/the_designers_notebook_.php

    2. The case for dynamic difficulty adjustment in games (2005) by Robin Hunicke

    3. Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design (2012) by Sean Baron. Retrieved at http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/166972/cognitive_flow_the_psychology_of_.php

    4. Depth vs. Complexity (2013) by Extra Credits. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVL4st0blGU

    5. The True Genius of Dark Souls II (2014) by Extra Credits. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MM2dDF4B9a4

    6. What Makes Celeste's Assist Mode Special | Game Maker's Toolkit (2018) by Mark Brown. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NInNVEHj_G4

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