Game difficulty forces you to learn the details

Az has a post up about his recent adventures in Hollow Knight and Dead Cells, two Metroidvania-style games (a style a very much do not enjoy). That post and the one before it sounded, to me, like he was playing the games despite not actually enjoying them, but I might have misunderstood what he was getting at in that regard (although I have a friend who is big into those types of games and streams, and every time he is playing it looks/sounds like he is undergoing torture rather than playing a game he enjoys, and all his viewers are basically along for the pain ride. It’s a weird genre…)

That point aside, he also mentioned difficulty and the role it plays in enjoying a game, which is a topic I’ve posted about before, and feel this is a good time to dive into it again. In short, difficulty is what forces you to actually learn a game, and the absence of it is the absence of that motivation.

For example, if you are playing an MMO and a boss puts down red circles of fire, with the mechanic being to step out of them, that mechanic only really works if you must step out. If you can beat the boss while still standing in the fire, or getting out slowly, because the difficulty is that low, you aren’t motivated to learn the mechanic. In a vacuum that might not be a huge issue, but if the overall design of the game hinges on players learning and appreciating the mechanics, the difficulty being too low ruins that entire design, regardless of how good the actual mechanic is. Responsive controls so getting out of the fire feels skillful, interesting abilities to assist in moving out, gearing up correctly so you buy yourself more response time, etc, none of that will matter or feel important if the game doesn’t punish you enough for ignore said fire.

This is one of the key reasons why I love Battle Brothers. It’s a hard game, but only part of that difficulty is based on learning the mechanics. Once you know them, the real difficulty is in putting all that knowledge to good use, and not just beating battles, but winning cleanly so as to roll into the next battle in good shape. Pyrrhic victories are actually bad in that game, and a huge reason behind that is because of the difficulty.

If BB was an easy game, you wouldn’t care nearly as much about finding quality recruits, because you could still win with flawed ones. If the difficulty was lower, hunting down the right gear for your men, based on their skillsets and your overall battle plan, wouldn’t really matter, and you wouldn’t be all that motivated to do so. In short, the game would get pretty boring very quickly, because the details that drive so much of it wouldn’t matter enough to prevent success.

This is also why, in part, I suspect WoW Classic will have more subs/players than current WoW when its released. WoW in 2004 wasn’t the hardest game ever, but compared to current WoW, and 99% of all MMOs today, 2004 WoW might as well be Dwarf Fortress or Darksouls, and that matters because the core design in WoW back when was pretty solid (not perfect, but very very good). Successfully running a dungeon, let alone raiding, meant understanding your class, and you were rewarded for playing well with better loot (relative to your level for pre-cap content). That’s a very important feedback loop, one that is completely lost when everything scales, and that scale is set to faceroll easy welfare-epics status.

Which isn’t to say difficulty is everything, or that ‘hard’ is the right option for all games. Some games are better as more casual experiences, or work when the difficulty can be changed based on preference. But if a game is heavily based around learning and using mechanics well, a lack of difficulty can make that core design feel flat or unimportant.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
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6 Responses to Game difficulty forces you to learn the details

  1. Jeromai says:

    I find it telling that you use the word “force” here. Some players are fine with forced mechanics (perhaps finding it motivational as mentioned), and others simply don’t react well at all to being forced to do anything. Forced PvP, forced tutorials, forced difficulty…

  2. Esteban says:

    “This is also why, in part, I suspect WoW Classic will have more subs/players than current WoW when its released.”

    I doubt we’ll ever get the numbers. My own hunch, however, is that the vanilla mystique will be thoroughly punctured and the difficulty will be revealed to be logistical and organisational, rather than mechanical. Managing 40 raiders, grinding FR/SR, grinding gear to beat the gear checks, grinding attunements, etc.

    In the intervening years, the average WoW player has been trained to cope with countless sets of dungeon and raid mechanics. Vanilla bosses just aren’t particularly scary anymore. The only reason current WoW is ‘easier’ – and it is a legitimate and significant reason – is that there is far less preparatory work required for fewer people.

    • SynCaine says:

      The bosses will be scary, as lots of people are going to actually die in dungeons and wonder why. They aren’t ultra complex dance dance revolution bosses, but they still require solid timing and coordination, plus decent gear/builds. People aren’t use to that during leveling. But that overall will be a good thing, as difficulty motivates people to continue when the overall game is solid (which WoW vanilla is).

    • Anonymous says:

      “My own hunch, however, is that the vanilla mystique will be thoroughly punctured and the difficulty will be revealed to be logistical and organisational, rather than mechanical.”

      This is vastly oversimplifying the situation.
      1. Mechanics in vanilla ranged from MC, which was basically tank n’ spank mixed with just a few extra mechanics per boss, i.e. kinda pants-on-head easy, to naxx, which was really hard, nothing like the massively nerfed version reused for WOTLK. If your understanding of the vanilla mystique is that everything in vanilla was hard, than your understanding of the ‘vanilla mystique’ is nonsensical.
      2. There was one trash mob in naxx which leapt at the raid and had to be intercepted on the way, or it’d blow up the whole raid basically. It was a pretty simple mechanic, given extra difficulty given that hardware at the time was stretched to its limit just handling the 40 man raids with the blocky graphics and all. I’m sure with modern machines this, and many other mechanics, will be much easier. This won’t prove your point, any more than flying across the Atlantic in a modern 747 lessens the ancient feat of crossing the Atlantic in wooden boats. The modern 747 flight, done while sleeping in luxury, doesn’t make the crossings from centuries ago any easier; it only proves that there’s an easier way to make the crossing, with better technology. Same thing with the primitive addons of the time compared to the slick raid addons of current day wow, many now incorporated into the base game. I imagine that yes, even vanilla Naxx will be much easier with 15 years of technology and addon creation experience brought to bear.
      3. Difficulty isn’t just mechanics, it’s also tuning, and bugs. Naxx60 was very very difficult, then they fixed some bugs which added to the difficulty which made it much easier, then they detuned it some more which made it even easier…and still most people never even stepped in Naxx. Of the few people who did step in Naxx, most didn’t kill KT in vanilla, even after all those nerfs. Only 95 guilds killed KT before the 2.01 patch came out; and that’s back when WoW had a much higher playerbase. This continued long after vanilla, the version of the final encounter that world-first kills beat was not the version even the average mythic guild saw for most raids, as Blizzard would reduce the tuning over time so that more guilds could access the content. Since difficulty is a combination of tuning, bugs, and mechanics, and the tuning and bugs varied over time for any given encounter, Blizzard has to choose which version of the encounter to recreate, for every encounter in Wow Classic. I assume Blizzard will at least fix the bugs, which means you’re not doing the same encounter as the world first guilds did back in the day, nor are you doing it on the same hardware, etc.
      4. Going back to ‘vanilla mystique’. naxx was super hard in vanilla, it had high gear requirements, tough mechanics which no one had seen before, and we had to play it on old tech. We couldn’t test out easier versions first and then work up to mythic, it started hard. That said…if your understanding of the vanilla mystique is that WoW was most difficult in vanilla and then been slowly getting easier ever since, that’s simply not what most people are saying about vanilla. The leveling experience has been getting easier, yes, but that doesn’t mean that modern mythic raiding isn’t hard. The biggest difference was that we had to run the old raids to gear new players constantly, so we were running multiple raid instances every week. I want to play Wow classic because of differences like those, not because of some difficulty mystique.

  3. “There is a pervasive myth that making content hard will induce players to rise to the occasion. We find the opposite. :(” — Ghostcrawler

    • SynCaine says:

      Am I reading that correctly, that he said that in 2013? Because if so, sure at that point anyone who enjoyed challenge had long since stopped playing WoW. I’d point him to the lifespan of Vanilla, ending in Nax40, and then TBC with its overall difficulty (at least until we got close to WotLK) as counterpoints and data suggesting the opposite.

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