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DESIGNING CHALLENGE

09 Feb 2009

Gregory Weir has a new column up at GameSetWatch discussing the failure-friendly gameplay of Crayon Physics, and more generally, the ideal approach to designing challenge in games.

The entire article is well worth your time (as are most of Weir's writings), but this bit stood out to me:

...challenges must be legitimate, recovery must be quick, and creativity must be encouraged.

These words should be carved in marble. If we were to devise a Ten Commandments of Game Design (hmm, now there's a thought), you've probably got your top three right there.

There's an ongoing social debate about the role of challenge in games, and certainly this console generation is already proving a transformative era in that regard. There's little argument that we're experiencing a trend toward easier games, but much contention over whether that's going to be the death -- or the rebirth -- of our industry.

But this debate has been framed incorrectly, and Weir has made an assertion that directly highlights our collective logical misstep:

However, there is a difference between challengeand punishment for failure. [...] A challenging game, in this definition, is one which is hard because the tasks involved require a high level of skill, ability, or cleverness. A punishing game is one which provides a high cost of failure.

As the debate over difficulty has heated up, we've neglected this division. We find ourselves talking about how punishing a game should be far more often than how challenging it should be... and we often don't even realize it.

I've long been a proponent of reasonably difficult games. I'm of the opinion that growing up playing difficult games is largely responsible for the tenacity and willingness to solve problems that I enjoy today, and that our attempts to make games easier are simply rewarding mediocrity on the part of our players rather than encouraging them to learn and apply new skills. This position is often misinterpreted by proponents of easier games, who ask questions like:

  • Why do you want players to die all the time?
  • Do you really think everyone has the time -- or patience -- to replay the same section over and over?
  • You're a sadist.

Ok, that last one isn't a question.

The thing about these arguments is that they're all focused on punishment. Support of difficult games is frequently miconstrued in this way; that I, and gamers and designers like me, want all games to be punishing, and if you're not skilled/patient/masochistic enough to handle it, then you can fuck right off.

Well, I don't like punishment any more than the next guy. What I, and gamers and designers like me, want are more challenging games. Let's return to Weir's major point:

...challenges must be legitimate, recovery must be quick, and creativity must be encouraged.

This is what we want. But what's happened is, as our industry as tried to make games "easier" to "broaden the market", we've taken out the wrong stuff. We took out the challenge, instead of (sometimes, in addition to) taking out the punishment. In other words, we've thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

I firmly believe that the vast majority of gamers -- including all of those fresh-faced "mainstream" members -- are fully capable of learning and applying skills. What's more, I believe they want to do this.

Fundamentally, games are learning machines. Play is training; the development and honing of skills that are likely to prove useful in our out-of-game lives. These are deeply-rooted biological concepts, and we instinctually gravitate toward play for precisely these reasons. Games that do not involve the learning and application of new skills quickly become boring, unfulfilling, and downright pointless.

So, to adapt Weir's point to my own:

  • Encouraging creativity provides exploration of the possibility space, leading to the discovery of new skills.
  • Legitimate challenges create meaningful play by demanding the application of those skills.
  • Quick recovery minimizes punishment, without eliminating necessary negative reinforcement.

Challenge -- not punishment -- is the key. Here is the means by which the "hardcore" and the "casual" can make peace, for the good of the industry and all gamers.

Posted In:

game-design