It had been a scant seven or eight turns since a cadre of my battle-hardened musketmen stormed through the streets of London. The cannons, which had camped ominously on the heavily mined hills outside the city limits, were now coming into position outside the final bastion of the crippled nation. There was no longer any army to speak of, and the defense of Birmingham was tepid to say the least. A few volleys of cannon fire, and then the ground forces surged in, unhindered.
With that, England fell, just as the Chinese had done a few hundred years before, and my Celtic eye of Sauron turned its burning gaze to the Americans. A small, simpering nation that had been bottled into a tight but resource-rich corner of the continent. There’s no real reason to steamroll, but the war machine is already active, and the annihilation of the English was not as taxing either to my economy or my army as I had initially planned. I call it Manifest Destiny, as great swaths of units swivel eastward out of the conquered lands of burning cities.
And over the course of this conquest, my game of Civilization V now begins to feel too easy. What had been challenging and tense as I juggled relationships with demanding countries to my north, east and south, is now a somewhat mechanical effort of maneuvering a juggernaut army counter-clockwise across the continent. I already begin to daydream of playing through with different parameters, different countries, different goals, and I know that barely into the Renaissance I will never actually finish this game.
Just as I would likely not have finished it had the game been too hard. No, for today the range of difficulty under which I am engaged is here at point x, and this game is providing the area y of difficulty. Since x does not fall within the bounds of y, I’ll just go play Diablo.
Another way to think about it is this: Imagine the spectrum of difficulties in the gaming universe to be like the electromagnetic spectrum. Here, in what would be the realm of gamma rays and x-rays, are games like Super Meat Boy, Ninja Gaiden and most ‘shmups. On the other side of the spectrum, over there by those long radio waves, are Kirby’s Epic Yarn and arm wrestling my three-year-old. And somewhere in a compact realm, barely a sliver of the grand spectrum, is what we think of as visible light. That tiny segment is a good representation as the sweet spot for me, the narrow window of difficulty that describes games I like to play.
Of course, difficulty is like any other factor in games, and it can trump or be trumped by other considerations. In fact, I played the snot out of Kirby’s Epic Yarn in part because it was so damned delightful, and equally in part because it was a great time for my son and I, despite being criminally easy.
Similarly, I am currently working my way into Act 2 of Diablo 3 on Inferno mode, which at times is about as easy and fun as choking down a spoonful of cinnamon. But I find myself persisting because I really like it when stuff pops out of other stuff that’s been hit with a sword, at least in videogame terms. In both cases, these games fall well beyond the boundary of my normal spectrum, but if I’m honest with myself these are also cases that represent the exceptions, and most of the time I’m pretty rigid about difficulty.
I would say that being someone responsible for balancing difficulty in a video game is a job I would never want to have, but these days I’m not sure I’d ever want any kind of job making video games. However, if forced at gunpoint to work for a developer of a AAA game title — which I assume is not the standard corporate recruiting process — one of the jobs I would least want is Guy Who’s Responsible For Figuring Out How Hard the Game Should Be. One, because there feels like such slim margins for success, and it is extraordinarily likely that a lot of people are going to yell at you. Two, that’s a terrible job title to have on a resume.
Take a game like Portal, which in my mind is at the exact, perfect center of my difficulty spectrum. Playing that game, it is patently evident how much work was spent balancing, tuning and engineering the experience. You almost can’t help but notice how dialed-in the difficulty level is, and whether it falls in or out of your personal spectrum, I have zero doubt that Portal is exactly where Valve wanted it to be.
The thing is, what I really remember after playing a game is the experience. I may remember on a cognitive level whether a game had good graphics, decent sound design, cool weapons or an interesting setting. But the feel of playing the game — that emotional sense evoked by just remembering a game — is hard to define. It is a sum of numerous parts, and in many ways feels held together by the framework of how challenging the game was. And so many things, so many variables impact that.
For example, if I know what to do to succeed and I have the in-game tools to accomplish that task, but I fail because of some mechanic that seems arbitrary, then I’m going to get frustrated. Or if the camera doesn’t work. Or if some small segment seems disproportionately and arbitrarily difficult. These are all things that become the experiential memory.
When I remember games, I remember how I felt playing them, and one of the most powerful feelings I can experience while playing games is frustration. It is the experiential memory I am most likely to conjure first, because in many ways it is usually the last thing I experience with a game before I quit. This is my playtime, my brief but critical recreation, and I don’t want to spend that time feeling frustrated. It is, of course, possible to create experiences that are difficult and rewarding at the same time, but I think it is a hair’s width tightrope to walk.
I realize, of course, that my capacity for difficulty is my own, and it probably exists at a much lower threshold than other core gamers. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that it is one of the most impactful traits in not only determining whether I will play or continue to play a game, but also that it is one of the biggest deciders in whether I think a game is good or not. Because, ultimately difficulty isn’t just about a game mechanic, it is about your accessibility to the game itself.
A poorly tuned game, particularly one that is too challenging for its audience, has a flaw as fundamental as a showstopping bug. What’s the difference between reaching a point in the game you can’t get past because it crashes, or one where you can’t proceed because you can’t execute. In the end, the result is the same.