Challenge vs. Frustration

by Steve Bowler on August 19, 2008 · 29 comments

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I was reading a great followup to GTA IV and how well they nailed their depiction of New York city over at Sexy Videogameland, when Leigh started wondering why it had been so long since she’d played GTA IV, much less thought about it.  Namely, she questions why she used to spend so much time playing the old school pre 32 bit era titles, and how people nowadays hardly spend more than 6-10 hours with any given AAA next gen title.

Why is it that the more complex games get, the less time we spend playing them?

It’s a great question, and it’s been one that I’ve been kicking around for a few months, especially after playing Rearmed so much this past week.  I’ve probably put in more hours playing Rearmed than I have GTA IV, but I’m not sure that has much to do with the values of the game production as it does a lot of other factors.  I don’t think the issue is ever as simple as how real or lush the worlds are (and I’m not implying Leigh felt that way).

Personally, I don’t spend a lot of time with GTA IV because I’m admittedly very burned out on the series.  I’ve beaten as many prostitutes as I’m going to beat in this lifetime, I’ve run over countless pedestrians, I’ve busted as many caps in asses as I have to bust.  I’m all crooked out.  I just don’t identify with a criminal’s plight, no matter how well his story is crafted this time around.  I got caught up in the GTA IV hype about as much as I got caught up in the Halo 3 hype (which is to say, very), and despite buying both titles, never got past the 10 hour mark in either (I at least finished Halo 3’s story mode, though).

But again, I’m probably the exception to the rule here.  I don’t think the reason most people only play the new big titles for 6-10 hours is because they’re tired of the title itself.  I’m wondering if it doesn’t have more to do with the method with which the title is built.

Within the last ten years, there’s been a very deliberate progression away from “hardcore” ludic aesthetics.  Before the 64 bit era games, pretty much everything on the market was “Learn by Death.”  It’s a game design mentality that is built on the shoulders of coin-op:  give the player more challenge than they can possibly accomplish on a single quarter, but reward them with enough cool stuff that they feel compelled to put another quarter in the machine.  Almost universally, this is accomplished through “death,” be it killing off the player, or making them lose the race, not reach the end of the level/puzzle before the clock runs out, etc.  It’s a financial risk reward game developers had to play for so long, in order to coax as many quarters as possible out of a consumer’s pockets.  In many ways, the grind of MMO is the closest current age equivalent (but it’s stretched out over a muuuuuccchhhh longer time curve).

Awhile back at GDC I attended a panel that discussed taking frustration away from the player.  Microsoft evidently has all sorts of metrics that show that players who are able to finish a game are more likely to purchase a sequel or order DLC, so it makes sense to take away the frustration that prohibits a player from finishing the title.  These things range from automatically adjusting difficulty, creating more checkpoints, allowing saves anywhere (vs. gating at savepoints), but most importantly, not punishing death.  Braid, for instance, is a perfect example of how not to punish death:  You simply don’t die.  You just rewind to a point previous to dying, and fix your error.  There’s no need for multiple lives or continues or checkpoints.  You just rewind.

Now, before I continue, I don’t think Braid is what’s wrong with gaming.  In many ways, it’s what’s right.  But the biggest problem with taking away “Learn by Death” is that in many ways, we’ve removed the challenge.  There is little to no tension in GTA IV, because I know that if I get into trouble, I just need to die.  Cops chasing you?  Don’t get arrested; they’ll take away your guns.  Just fight them, die, and wind up at the hospital with all of your guns still on your person.  The only penalty is that you might have to replay the mission you were on, and you probably lost the stolen car you were driving at the time.  Sure, there are hard parts in GTA IV.

But in the ten hours I played GTA IV I didn’t once have a nail-biter moment (at least I don’t recall many).

They came about every 3 minutes in Rearmed, by comparison.

In Rearmed I felt pushed and challenged at every corner, quite frequently more than I would have liked, and at times I laughed at my persistence in trying to get through what I thought was the intended level design only to find I’d just spent the past 20 minutes attempting to get to an impossible to reach secret 1up alcove.  I began to remember the pride I felt at beating Bionic Commando the first five times I played it on the NES.  There weren’t even save points back then; you had to leave the unit on if you couldn’t play through the entire game in one sitting.  I began to realize that I actually enjoy the challenge of Learn by Death, as much as I hate the frustration of it.

We didn’t go to the moon because it was easy, in the words of John F. Kennedy.  We went because it was hard.  I think people, even if they don’t know they want it, crave a challenge, even if it’s a slight one.  I have the sinking suspicion that the more we coddle the player, putting pillows on the sharp spikes and softening the melee blows, we create something that is too simple for them.  It’s been a long-held standard of mine that using god-mode while playing a game is tantamount to admitting that the game difficulty is either broken or you are officially finished with it and are now just going to “dick around with it.”  Even if dicking around with it isn’t your intent, you have now just ruined the game for yourself.  There is no more unique challenge; you’ve seen them all while under the guise of god-mode.  You have pretty much turned the challenge into a drooling child’s teether.

And this is what I think is wrong with the current path of removing player frustration.  While I agree that we need to pull player frustration as much as possible, we do need to challenge the player, and I think that’s where we’re failing as an industry:

  • Assassin’s Creed fails to challenge the player through exploration.  Climbing took the vast majority of their time to create in the game, and yet it’s the least challenging aspect of the game.  It’s too easy to pull off, and by the end of the game I found myself almost trying to make Altair fall.
  • GTA fails to challenge the player through death.  The police meter goes from one to six stars, and yet, the penalty for a six star response is the same as a one star response:  die, and restart in the hospital.
  • Bioshock failed at creating any difficulty or tension at all once the player learns that the entire game can be beaten with a wrench and multiple trips through Vitachambers.

Admittedly, this is a fine line I’m arguing here.  I’m not pretending I can easily do a job any better than Levine or Rockstar or Ubisoft at finding the balance of challenging the player without overly frustrating the player.  At the end of the day, what drives sales is consumer satisfaction, and if you blow the challenge curve into frustrating territory, the user’s going to not be satisfied, your title won’t sell, and you’re out of a job.

But even as I type that, I’m craving the challenge/frustration of Rearmed.  I’d love to say “they got it just right,” but I know that they didn’t.  I’m Learning by Death here in the very worst possible spiked trap kind of way, but I’ve been chewing on these baby teethers that are being passed off as “games” for so long that it’s a breath of fresh air.  I feel like a newfound S&M junkie.  Whip me, beat me, make me bleed, Learn by Death is all I need.

So where is the line?  Where do we put the challenge without the frustration?  Obviously, it’s somewhere in the “harder than GTA” camp but “easier than Learn by Death” camp, but where exactly does that live?  My money, and undoubtedly yours and everyone else’s, goes to the first team that figures it out.

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