Keeping Them Going: Engaging Players and Difficulty

What are games if not mechanisms with challenges applied to them? While the common perception of games would have them fall in the same field as toys, more and more the assumption that games are simply childish distractions from the real world is being questioned. Games in their current state can be more easily likened to a school syllabus or formula: Learn something new, learn the ways in which it can be applied, learn to apply that knowledge in increasingly difficult questions or equations, and then give the player a test in which the player’s ability to apply that knowledge withing strict parameters is evaluated.

With that template attached to them, games can sound very boring and monotonous, but applying such a plain explanation will simplify any medium: Movies are simply one to three hour narratives where a series of events takes place in a linear progression, and music is little more than a series of sounds that can affect the mood of the listener. But while all mediums can explained in such derivative terms, any person in defense of their entertainment of choice will tell you that it’s about what you do with that simple premise that makes it so appealing to them.
So with games, what is it that developers do that makes them so appealing to us? Again, using derivative terms: They provide us with obstacles. Our joy comes from overcoming these obstacles, as well as from learning how do it and doing that well. If a developer understands this, then they can focus on what sort of obstacles to create and how to make overcoming them and learning how to do that can be fun.

Written out, it sounds relatively simple, but common sense will tell us that it’s never that easy. Often, the challenge to developers is to engage us in what we as the player are doing, and to keep us playing. If the player is constantly involved in what’s going on, and enjoying overcoming the obstacles put forth, then the game is good. If they are constantly bored, uninterested, and frustrated at the experience, then the game isn’t good. So how do games keep us engaged in the action?

Games are goals
Games are only engaging when there is a goal or purpose (ironic, really, since playing the games themselves usually serves no purpose). Even games where a goal is not apparent (Noby Noby Boy), become games when a goal is created by the player, either short-term (eating that guy, then a chicken, then pooping them both out as a combined creature) or long term (getting to the moon, Mars, and beyond). While not given to player to being with, the reason many people play that particular game is to achieve those goals. This can be applied to the whole of video games. Players all looking to do something, and games give them many goals to accomplish with the worst possible outcome of failure being a loss of time, which was really the purpose of playing the game to begin with (not that losing data or having to go back to an earlier portion of the game isn’t frustrating).

So what goals are fun, and, more importantly, what sort of short and long-term goals can keep a player hooked on a game and see it through to its conclusion? The balance between long term and short term goals seems to be clearly indicated by a game’s story and narrative. In a game like Portal, for example, the long-term goal of the player is to escape the test facility. The short term goals are the puzzle rooms themselves. The two types of goals help the player become engaged in what is going on, and helps with giving context to these goals, and thus leads to a much more fulfilling experience once the game is complete.

The Slope
Creating goals that the player wants to accomplish is key to empowering them to complete not only the current goal, but ones proceeding them. There are a variety of ways to create goals that keep the player going. One such way is to acknowledge the completion of a goal with a spectacle; be it a cut scene or when “Ode to Joy” plays in Peggle. This gives the player a simple reason to continue playing: to keep going. “Ode to Joy” is positive reinforcement that excites the player, makes them feel better about themselves for having completed the level, and makes them want to continue. A cut scene, on the other hand, is the reward itself, and establishes and if/then bargain with the player; if the player keeps playing the game, they will see more of the story. This can backfire, however, if the player isn’t motivated by cut scenes to continue playing.
The other way to engage the player is making the completion of the goal itself rewarding. Beating a boss that took four tries and over half an hour to defeat can be one of the most thrilling parts of any game. Making a challenging obstacle that the player must apply themselves in order to overcome is the mainstay of challenge in video games.

So how is it that games create challenges for us? What makes a given obstacle challenging or easy? Where is the line between challenging and frustrating? The balance that a developer must strike is giving the player enough challenge to have the player apply themselves to their fullest, and making the challenge easy enough to be able be overcome without the player having to call on outside help (by which point there is little to no thrill in the challenge itself), or worse, abandon the game altogether.

The slope of difficulty must be even with the learning curve for a given game. Player’s don’t want a strenuous boss battle at the beginning of the game, when they are still learning the ropes of the game. Inversely, they don’t want to have a tutorial throughout the entire game, constantly learning but never really applying or evaluating. They want to learn with the game, knowing what to do when the time comes. Game like Portal and The Legend of Zelda show transparently this process. The themes of learning, applying, evaluating resonate recognizably in these games, and with great success. Knowing when and where to test a player’s skill and where to teach them new ones is a vital part of keeping the player going and finishing the game. If the player is constantly challenged, but hardly frustrated, they are more likely to keep going.

How hard is that?
Testing a player’s aptitude at given point can be done in any number of ways. They can be asked to solve an intricate puzzle using the skills they’ve been taught. They can be asked to solve a relatively easy set of puzzles in a given time limit. A mix between small obstacles that make the player feel as if they understand the system they are learning and a more challenging test lets the player know that the skills they are learning within a game aren’t being wasted, however trivial the actually skills may be. So in between large scale tests of the player’s comprehension, what sorts of challenges should one apply?

The trend seems to be that an series of increasingly difficult versions of the same challenge are the way to test a player’s skill. Portal is an excellent example of this method of difficulty. Each of the 19 rooms in that game become increasingly difficult and complex. This sort of difficulty is much different from something like Call of Duty, where the difficulty is chosen by the player beforehand. While this may sound like a much easier solution, one where the game is as challenging as the player wants it to be, the results are hardly as ideal. With only so much time to make such things like difficulty settings, the developers usually include somewhere between 2-4 difficulty settings, ranging from much too easy to much too hard. The way the developers usually do this is also subject to criticism. While most games do tend to increase the actual challenge of the game (better enemy behavior), the difference between these settings is usually the player and enemy’s respective stats: The player is more prone to failing (with things like lower health) and the enemies are less so (meaning they have more health).

This has been a seemingly tried-and-true method of delivering varying levels of challenge to in increasingly diverse audience. However, as simple stat-swapping is becoming more and more looked down upon, developers have been trying to solve this problem. The new Tomb Raider has a difficulty system that is set by the player in very fine detail. To let the player refine his or her experience with a game seems like such an obvious idea to implement, given that video games are one of the most expensive products on the market, but it seems as if developers are only now getting behind the idea that the players should be the ones in charge of how challenging a game is, not developers that seem sure that an extreme amount of difficulty is the best way to test a player’s skill and keep them playing the game they’ve paid for.


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