How do you like your challenges?
I finished Braid over the weekend. It’s a very hard game. I say that because I couldn’t play for more than 45-60 minutes at a time, without shutting off my Xbox in frustration.
If you read the official Braid walkthrough, which is in fact a statement by the author that you should not use a walkthrough, you are told:
Some of the puzzles will be hard. But when you manage to solve those hard puzzles, you will feel very good about it. The game will feel very rewarding.
All the puzzles can be solved. Some of them might take an hour or two, but you will get it. If you try. And you will feel cool and smart.
It is true that when I did solve some of the harder puzzles, I did feel good about myself. However, I found that it was all too fleeting; 30 minutes of staring at the same screen for 1 minute of joy. After giving it some thought, I have come to a very simple conclusion: I don’t like hard games.
Allow me to backpedal a bit: Braid is a beautiful game. It is evident that it is the product of people who cared deeply about what they were working on. I can’t help but think that everything about it is deliberate, down to every last pixel, if such a thing is even possible. Its difficulty is not an accident of game design — it is meant to be that way. Everything I have read from its creator, Jonathan Blow, supports this. In an interview with Matthew Boyd, he says:
What I do is make the games that I need to make, because I won’t be satisfied with my life if I don’t make them. This doesn’t necessarily have that much to do with the audience. If my audience were to turn out to be very small, I would be bummed, but I wouldn’t change the games I am making in order to gain a bigger audience, because then what’s the point? I would not be making what I think needs to be made.
So when I say that Braid’s difficulty affected my overall level of enjoyment, I am not faulting its game design. In fact, I believe it has been superbly crafted and that its game design should be applauded: it is simply not the game for me.
All games are presented as a series of challenges that must be overcome. The challenge might be to protect your city from invasion, or to beat the final boss of a dungeon, or beat a qualifying lap time, but they are challenges nonetheless.
Sometimes the challenge of the game is to figure out how to play the game. A great example of this is Dwarf Fortress, whose motto is “Losing is Fun!”
It is true that there are some pieces of software that are interactive and do not (strictly) rely on challenges, for example the excellent Galatea by Emily Short. In this article, I am talking about the majority of software released as “games” into the video game and computer market in a given year.
Without any sort of challenge, the typical player will be bored. Most avid gamers have probably encountered a game that they find “too easy.” It is a wholly unsatisfying experience to the player.
On the other hand, if the challenge is too great, the player might want to quit in frustration. This is probably something that we have all experienced when trying to introduce a friend who doesn’t play video games to a new game that we love: they are upset by their inability to keep up and want to stop playing. It is worth noting that in the official Braid walkthrough I linked to above, the player is told “Don’t give up” twice!
Most of the time, when a player defeats a challenge, they are rewarded for it. The reward is often access to new areas of the game, or an additional piece of the storyline or a new form of gameplay. In older games, when memory was limited, sometimes the only reward you got was a score and bragging rights on a scoreboard.
In Dwarf Fortress, the reward is that you are playing longer than you have before, and have access to new features in your fortress.
In Braid, you are rewarded with access to new areas, completed puzzles and more of the disjointed storyline, but arguably the main reward is the feeling of “cool and smart” that you get from completing a puzzle.
There is a class of gamer who loves being challenged. They are the ones who repeat games on ‘Hard Mode’ and who play the same sequence of a game repeatedly in order to best their previous times or scores. I think of them as a sort of athlete, who play an established challenge on a level playing field against others, pushing their response times and dexterity to their limits. They love their challenges when they’re hard.
There is another class of gamer who isn’t crazy about being challenged, although they can stand a little. I think of them as the explorers: they’re the ones who play a game primarily to experience what is up ahead. They love seeing the new environments and gameplay mechanics, and are the first to go to read a walkthrough if they get stuck at a certain spot for an hour or more.
Now of course, like any other classification of personalities, there are people who fit into both categories. Some like being challenged and adore exploration. It’s likely that every hard core game has a bit from both categories.
Why I don’t like hard games
I have realized slowly over the last few years that I am more of an explorer than an athlete. To me, the most amazing thing about Braid was its pitch-perfect design. I can’t think of another game I’ve played this year that made my jaw drop the second I started playing it.
However, I found the puzzles too frustrating. The challenge level was set up much too high for me, and I was more interested in exploring the worlds than I was solving every last puzzle piece. Realizing that I don’t enjoy hard challenges has been a huge discovery for me, both as a gamer and as a game designer.
I think this is reflected in Forumwarz. Over time I have done my best to fine-tune the gameplay to eliminate the major places where existing players get stuck. That’s one of the huge advantages of web-based games — you can deploy changes practically at any time.
For me, the major goal of Forumwarz, like many other RPGs, is to give the player a new world to interact with. As they delve deeper into the universe, they meet unique personalities
and experience cool environments. Playing as a different character class is more about experiencing the same environments in a different way than changing the difficulty level.
We even offer players who aren’t concerned with the RPG gameplay to “cheat”, and basically experience the story in one (long) sitting.
Having said that, we do have athlete-oriented challenges. We’ve got our speedruns, and rewards for people who beat forums that are above their level. But the main design focus of Forumwarz is to provide an environment that the majority of players can enter easily and start enjoying themselves.
Whether you’re a game designer or just a game player, I think it’s a good exercise to determine what levels of challenges you enjoy in your gaming. Where do you fit in?