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Difficulty Settings

Posted by Nathaniel Chapman , 08 April 2010 · 2677 views

In advance, I want to mention that I am using GTA as a theoretical example in this case. I actually don't remember what it did for difficulty levels - it was just a clear example to explain the terms I'm using.

Something that I've done a lot of thinking about is difficulty modes. Not just because it's something you have to consider on every project, but also because it ties directly into the core meat of system design - what causes your game to be challenging? What level of challenge is fun, and when does it become frustrating?

I find that it's actually a really interesting exercise to look at a game and see how you could make difficulty modes (if it doesn't have them) or make the difficulties more interesting. This is partly because you need to answer two very important questions - what is your core gameplay, and what are the core challenges?

To define those terms as I'm using them:

Core Gameplay - This is the dominant overall experience of the player throughout the game. Core Gameplay can be comprised of multiple parts (for instance, in GTAIV driving and shooting are both part of core gameplay), but it must always be interactive. So, cutscenes are not core gameplay. Additionally, in most cases core gameplay elements are connected and influence each other. For instance, take driving and shooting in GTAIV. If you drive expertly, you can sometimes soften up a target before you kill him by flipping his car or running him over. Or, if you have awesome guns, you can usually blow up his car before he gets a chance to drive off.

Of course, this is a great example of what is NOT core gameplay, too. GTA has a lot of missions where you're forced to just shoot or just drive, and these missions don't generally succeed in my opinion because they actually break core gameplay. GTA's core gameplay relies on choice and interaction between shooting and driving as gameplay elements. Taking either aspect out of the mix fundamentally alters what makes the game work and lessens the play experience (in general).

Core Challenges - These are the individual mechanics - be they mechanical, tactical, strategic, etc. that comprise your core gameplay. These are the things that you have to do in the game, and the sum of your successes and failures at these individual challenges determines your success or failure at the core gameplay as a whole.

For instance, in GTAIV some of the core challenges are Aiming, Ammo management, Proper weapon selection, Cornering, learning the handling characteristics of each car, etc.

Anyways, in my opinion games tend to offer the most interesting difficulty options when they rely on tweaking or even adding new core challenges without invalidating the core gameplay. A great example of this is Thief. Thief's difficulty options added new challenges to their already existing stealth gameplay. They didn't choose to increase enemy health (at least, as far as I remember) because that runs at cross purposes to their core stealth gameplay. Instead, they force you to not kill anyone. This makes the game's environment navigation and perception/awareness challenges much more complex, but doesn't really alter the core balance of the weapons and tools.

The reason why more blunt instruments, like just increasing health and damage, tend to fail IMO is that they don't actually make the game more challenging, they just mess up the pacing. I played an ARPG recently that scaled damage and enemy HP and rather than really being more challenging at higher difficulty levels, it just turned into a massive slog. That's something you really want to avoid at all costs... pacing is key to the game being fun, and hard doesn't mean frustrating or boring, it should mean challenging.

So for instance, if I were designing difficulties for GTA I would probably make the guns more differentiated and single purpose in harder difficulties (IE less general purpose, innacurate guns become more inaccurate, short range guns become more short range, etc.). I might make ammo more scarce, though that can risk hurting your pacing. I might even change the handling profiles of some of the cars to make them more swervy, and a little easier to lose control of. What I wouldn't do is reduce your car's HP or increase enemy HP. I feel like those changes would just make the game more frustrating/dull, not harder.




First, congrats on your first blog entry debut here. thumbsup.gif

About expected game-play experience, in RPG, rules are there to dictate the experience of the players, which is why the game masters need to interpret the meaning of the rules and have to decide which rules they are going to use in their sessions/campaigns. The core game-play of games which difficulty levels can be adjusted by decreasing/increasing damages to some extent is, of course, combat and it's condition for winning must be related with reducing the health/hit points of the opponents into 0. It is without saying that this mechanism was dominant in most of classic CRPG, which probably some players - even designers may still think in the same way even when thinking of games which core game-play should not be focused on that part.

However, the format won't work in a game such as Thief, where the core game-play is sneaking. I believe this is something to do with its design philosophy. For, I've gotten an impression that the designers from Looking Glass Studios tend to regard games as simulations* rather than following/rebuilding game-play formats of existing games, probably reflecting their film influence (Hitchc0ck and Kubrick come to my mind). They build the game-plays to enhance the imaginary experience of the players in the simulated environments. I think even the birth of sneak action game-play is just a sub-product of this process although it was kind of evolutionary for shooter genre, which core structures are still somehow related with reducing the opponents' HP before the protagonist's HP gets 0. Simply put, different rule-sets for different game-experiences. It's always necessary for the game-masters (and probably designers) to imagine what kind of game-play experiences they'd like to offer their players.

As for pacing, Thief allowed the players to play at their own paces. Even in hardest mode, the main character can be spotted numerous times, which is O.K. as long as he doesn't get killed although still fighting is not a wise option and stealth game-play is still intact. If the players choose such pace, the game may not remain so "stealthy", though.

Regarding to putting elements which interfere with core-game play and pacing, there are discussions about hardcore mode of FO:NV in the thread of these boards although the thread may be digressing as usual. The mode won't only increase the difficulty in an indirect manner but also it definitely affects the pacing at the same time, which is probably one of the reasons why NV team separated it from the difficulty setting. In the context of what I wrote above, it is more like adding a set of house-rules which enhance the simulation to create the sense of survival but the addenda won't make the game easier to say at least. I guess there are no clear-cut ways to separate the difficulty from these additional factors which directly or indirectly affect it. This tendency would become more complicated in more sandbox games such as FO3 and probably GTAIV (Sorry, I haven't played it)... You seem to have began to use brain scanners in development. Is there a way to find adequate stress level of the brains of the players, by which you may able to find out the sweat spot for us non-super-taskers of the balance between the core game-play and other game-play elements?

* Of course, by simulations, I mean putting the players in a shoes of other people who are in an interesting situation, which somehow cross over role-playing games. Some role-playing game-designers like Chris Avellone seems to see their games lacks some factors which, he seem to think, important for role-playing games mostly around choices of the players around NPC interactions, story development resulted from them, and character development. However, there are role-playing games of different breed such as Call of Cthulhu, where story proceeds through Lovecraft formula in which the characters try to combine in-world documents with their experience mostly in desperate situations...the simulated dilemma here is knowing too much is dangerous but the characters feel they must know. So, what can they choose? laughing.gif It's basically a role-playing game focused on simulation but, at the same time, the simulation plays the climax of the story. BTW, in these simulation-focused RPG, the most part of character developments in game mechanic sense are done before the game starts - the stats/skills of characters won't change dramatically except the HPs and/or sanity, in CoC's case, of course. I don't try to judge which view is right but even in PnP role-playing games, there are different focuses in game designs. Role-playing games are hard to define and, the bright side of it is that they have many possibilities/interpretations. Personally, I'd rather like to see Avellone to go faithful to his own design philosophy, which makes the players enjoy the "game-masters" of different personalities.
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Nathaniel Chapman
Apr 12 2010 12:32 PM
QUOTE (Wombat @ Apr 10 2010, 07:38 AM)
First, congrats on your first blog entry debut here. thumbsup.gif

About expected game-play experience, in RPG, rules are there to dictate the experience of the players, which is why the game masters need to interpret the meaning of the rules and have to decide which rules they are going to use in their sessions/campaigns. The core game-play of games which difficulty levels can be adjusted by decreasing/increasing damages to some extent is, of course, combat and it's condition for winning must be related with reducing the health/hit points of the opponents into 0. It is without saying that this mechanism was dominant in most of classic CRPG, which probably some players - even designers may still think in the same way even when thinking of games which core game-play should not be focused on that part.


Well, but again, I think there are more interesting ways to scale difficulty even in those CRPGs. For instance, disabling friendly AoE damage in NWN2 was more interesting than just increasing damage. Maybe disabling wounded limbs for the player on super easy mode in Fallout, or making the requirements for repairing wounded limbs more severe.

QUOTE
However, the format won't work in a game such as Thief, where the core game-play is sneaking. I believe this is something to do with its design philosophy. For, I've gotten an impression that the designers from Looking Glass Studios tend to regard games as simulations* rather than following/rebuilding game-play formats of existing games, probably reflecting their film influence (Hitchc0ck and Kubrick come to my mind). They build the game-plays to enhance the imaginary experience of the players in the simulated environments. I think even the birth of sneak action game-play is just a sub-product of this process although it was kind of evolutionary for shooter genre, which core structures are still somehow related with reducing the opponents' HP before the protagonist's HP gets 0. Simply put, different rule-sets for different game-experiences. It's always necessary for the game-masters (and probably designers) to imagine what kind of game-play experiences they'd like to offer their players.

As for pacing, Thief allowed the players to play at their own paces. Even in hardest mode, the main character can be spotted numerous times, which is O.K. as long as he doesn't get killed although still fighting is not a wise option and stealth game-play is still intact. If the players choose such pace, the game may not remain so "stealthy", though.

Regarding to putting elements which interfere with core-game play and pacing, there are discussions about hardcore mode of FO:NV in the thread of these boards although the thread may be digressing as usual. The mode won't only increase the difficulty in an indirect manner but also it definitely affects the pacing at the same time, which is probably one of the reasons why NV team separated it from the difficulty setting. In the context of what I wrote above, it is more like adding a set of house-rules which enhance the simulation to create the sense of survival but the addenda won't make the game easier to say at least. I guess there are no clear-cut ways to separate the difficulty from these additional factors which directly or indirectly affect it. This tendency would become more complicated in more sandbox games such as FO3 and probably GTAIV (Sorry, I haven't played it)... You seem to have began to use brain scanners in development. Is there a way to find adequate stress level of the brains of the players, by which you may able to find out the sweat spot for us non-super-taskers of the balance between the core game-play and other game-play elements?


Well, I think honestly that "Hardcore" mode is a good example of the kind of difficulty setting that I personally find interesting. The game is absolutely going to be more complex in hardcore mode and is going to provide more challenges to the player. That's kind of what I expect from a "harder" game - more depth, not something like "all damaged is doubled" which often just results in more frustration for the player. Because really, you should win and lose not because of damage number but because of tactical decisionmaking. If all you're doing is changing the damage numbers, in theory you're just encouraging the player to not get hit, which actually can reduce tactical depth (aggressive gameplay is less useful). It's a tough balance, but I think the goal of difficulty options should be to make the game more complex/deep and to push the player to play better, not necessarily just play more conservatively.
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Jackalmonkey
Apr 12 2010 07:03 PM
Great read; it's nice to see the rationale behind F:NV's Hardcore mode explained in clear and meaningful terms (i.e. the distinction between core gameplay and challenges).

In the context of an RPG, it looks like you're arguing for player-skill scaling (more or better resource allocation, tactics, "twitch") over character-skill scaling (+/- hit points, damage, or other attributes). So would if be fair to say that difficulty scaling as you envision it necessarily defies conventional player attempts to min/max or otherwise "game" the system?

You also mention how increasing difficulty scaling has traditionally limited gameplay-- reducing tactical depth, for instance. Your system seems to be the inverse: more difficulty really seems like an expansion of gameplay and gameplay considerations. It's a truly welcome paradigm shift, though it makes me wonder: if hard modes are "more game," then are easy modes just "less game"?
QUOTE (Nathaniel Chapman @ Apr 12 2010, 12:32 PM)
Well, but again, I think there are more interesting ways to scale difficulty even in those CRPGs. For instance, disabling friendly AoE damage in NWN2 was more interesting than just increasing damage. Maybe disabling wounded limbs for the player on super easy mode in Fallout, or making the requirements for repairing wounded limbs more severe.

You could say that to those who implemented Heart of Fury mode in an Icewind Dale expansion, although I'd rather leave them alone... Jokes aside, the story gets complex when the main game-play is not fixed to combat and Obsidian began to make such games.

QUOTE (Nathaniel Chapman @ Apr 12 2010, 12:32 PM)
Well, I think honestly that "Hardcore" mode is a good example of the kind of difficulty setting that I personally find interesting. The game is absolutely going to be more complex in hardcore mode and is going to provide more challenges to the player. That's kind of what I expect from a "harder" game - more depth, not something like "all damaged is doubled" which often just results in more frustration for the player. Because really, you should win and lose not because of damage number but because of tactical decisionmaking. If all you're doing is changing the damage numbers, in theory you're just encouraging the player to not get hit, which actually can reduce tactical depth (aggressive gameplay is less useful). It's a tough balance, but I think the goal of difficulty options should be to make the game more complex/deep and to push the player to play better, not necessarily just play more conservatively.

I had gotten your point. However, as I wrote in the post you quoted, I don't think things are so clear-cut especially in sandbox games. In fact, as I wrote in the FO thread, some FPS purist players appear to be unhappy with degrading/jammed weapons in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. while they seem to like the competent AI: They seem to find these things get in their ways. In FONV's case, too (or rather, the problem gets larger when it comes to RPG, where various game-plays are available), armor threshold may give certain tactical depth to combat game-play but some players may as well find the necessity of resource-management just distracting. Actually, someone has already suggested that the designers offer the players more detailed options than just hardcore mode so that they would be able to choose the rules of their liking. The designers may not like it since this may appear to be amateurishly avoiding their responsibility on balancing but this can be a practical solution since, inevitably, tastes differ. Even in this case, the designers could call the default set of rules of their recommendation hardcore mode.

QUOTE (Jackalmonkey @ Apr 12 2010, 07:03 PM)
You also mention how increasing difficulty scaling has traditionally limited gameplay-- reducing tactical depth, for instance. Your system seems to be the inverse: more difficulty really seems like an expansion of gameplay and gameplay considerations. It's a truly welcome paradigm shift, though it makes me wonder: if hard modes are "more game," then are easy modes just "less game"?

His idea of defining core game-play is interesting. However, in complex games such as RPG (not a tactical combat game with character advancement), I think the context of core-game-play depends on the players.
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Jackalmonkey
Apr 13 2010 08:06 AM
QUOTE (Wombat @ Apr 13 2010, 07:21 AM)
His idea of defining core game-play is interesting. However, in complex games such as RPG (not a tactical combat game with character advancement), I think the context of core-game-play depends on the players.


I'm not sure what you mean by context here - what precisely contextualizes gameplay? And in RPGs, isn't gameplay the context for player decisions? It seems that you're putting the cart before the horse.

For instance, if you're playing Mass Effect, you can't decide that you want to sneak up on enemies and incapacitate them one by one in a bloodless fashion a la Thief or Batman:AA. (Well, I suppose you can decide to try, but be prepared for a perpetuity of failure and very long reloading screens.) The core gameplay mechanics won't allow for this approach.

To put it another way, the context of ME's gameplay (which consists of combat, dialogue, a [terrible] hacking minigame, and exploration), determines which player decisions are permitted. Within this context, one could describe the game as player-driven, but the player is driving on the roads that the designers have created for them. Ain't no off-roading.

Then again, I suspect that this business about context is simply confusion derived from a language barrier, in which case, never mind!
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Nathaniel Chapman
Apr 13 2010 09:16 PM
QUOTE (Jackalmonkey @ Apr 12 2010, 08:03 PM)
Great read; it's nice to see the rationale behind F:NV's Hardcore mode explained in clear and meaningful terms (i.e. the distinction between core gameplay and challenges).

In the context of an RPG, it looks like you're arguing for player-skill scaling (more or better resource allocation, tactics, "twitch") over character-skill scaling (+/- hit points, damage, or other attributes). So would if be fair to say that difficulty scaling as you envision it necessarily defies conventional player attempts to min/max or otherwise "game" the system?

You also mention how increasing difficulty scaling has traditionally limited gameplay-- reducing tactical depth, for instance. Your system seems to be the inverse: more difficulty really seems like an expansion of gameplay and gameplay considerations. It's a truly welcome paradigm shift, though it makes me wonder: if hard modes are "more game," then are easy modes just "less game"?

First, I want to clarify, I do not and have not worked on F:NV, so I'm just using it as an example.

My argument would be, generally, yes. But that doesn't mean that easy modes are worse - I think the question you then have to ask is "How much game is right for you"?

For example, some people play casually against their friends (who also play casually) and for them RTSes are prettier, more visually impressive games of army men. Others play them as [complex strategic affairs where you feint a given unit to encourage them building a counter but in fact you focus on the counter to their counter. Either way, both people are having fun, even though the first player isn't playing as deep or complex a game.

And, I'm definitely arguing for more player skill scaling (and less character skill scaling) at higher difficulties. I like to think of it this way: you've got the game that the player is playing (and this is where their skill as a player comes in), and the narrative in which they are roleplaying(this is where character skill and character development come in), and those are both working in tandem to make the RPG experience.

Difficulty options should, in my opinion, affect the game moreso than the narrative. There are some cases where I think that the game reinforces the narrative and thus harder difficulties can help reinforce the narrative too. And there I think is where F:NV's hardcore mode is strongest - in making scavenging and dehydration bigger parts of the gameplay, they use the gameplay mechanics to better reinforce the narrative. It's just that, for more casual players, that may be too much game for them, and so we let them opt out even though they're really not experiencing the story world as they "should".
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Nathaniel Chapman
Apr 13 2010 09:22 PM
QUOTE (Wombat @ Apr 13 2010, 07:21 AM)
His idea of defining core game-play is interesting. However, in complex games such as RPG (not a tactical combat game with character advancement), I think the context of core-game-play depends on the players.


To some extent. Obviously RPGs (and some RPG-like action games!) tend to lay out pretty broad core gameplay options and we let players mix and match from within those options. But we're (and by we I mean the designers) still defining the core gameplay as the various combinations of the options we offer. And, on that point, I think that one way that RPGs actually risk being less satisfying as games than other genres is when we give the player many core gameplay options but do not make the truly "core options" equally deep and satisfying.

The best example I can give is stealth gameplay. RPGs honestly have very little actual stealth gameplay - it's mostly just "hit the stealth button/click the stealth option and hope you don't roll low". Some RPGs have done a little better, but if you look at the depth and complexity of their combat systems and compare them to the depth and complexity of the stealth systems (especially compared against actual stealth focused games like Thief) the stealth gameplay does seem pretty anemic in comparison to the combat.
QUOTE (Nathaniel Chapman @ Apr 13 2010, 09:16 PM)
First, I want to clarify, I do not and have not worked on F:NV, so I'm just using it as an example.

Yes. I've gotten an impression that your focus are on more short-term game-plays. I think this is more or less related with the complex development processes but I feel the designers began to see some parts rather than whole picture. Probably, the age of Fallout and Planescape:Torment, they probably had bigger pictures and more control on the whole projects.

QUOTE (Nathaniel Chapman @ Apr 13 2010, 09:16 PM)
And, I'm definitely arguing for more player skill scaling (and less character skill scaling) at higher difficulties. I like to think of it this way: you've got the game that the player is playing (and this is where their skill as a player comes in), and the narrative in which they are roleplaying(this is where character skill and character development come in), and those are both working in tandem to make the RPG experience.

I see. Rules narrate/dictate game-play experience as simulations to some extent. Among them, character stats narrate/dictate the game-play experience, hands in hands with player's skills (quantitative)/personalities (qualitative).

QUOTE (Nathaniel Chapman @ Apr 13 2010, 09:16 PM)
Difficulty options should, in my opinion, affect the game moreso than the narrative. There are some cases where I think that the game reinforces the narrative and thus harder difficulties can help reinforce the narrative too. And there I think is where F:NV's hardcore mode is strongest - in making scavenging and dehydration bigger parts of the gameplay, they use the gameplay mechanics to better reinforce the narrative. It's just that, for more casual players, that may be too much game for them, and so we let them opt out even though they're really not experiencing the story world as they "should".

The rules about the world narrate/dictate the game-play experience as well. Economy, scavenging and dehydration give the feel of the world to the players. However, these tend to have more long term effects and often result in more of resource management compared with their short-term counterpart, or more pressing game-plays such as combat/stealth systems and thus can affect pacing.

QUOTE (Nathaniel Chapman @ Apr 13 2010, 09:22 PM)
QUOTE (Wombat @ Apr 13 2010, 07:21 AM)
His idea of defining core game-play is interesting. However, in complex games such as RPG (not a tactical combat game with character advancement), I think the context of core-game-play depends on the players.

To some extent. Obviously RPGs (and some RPG-like action games!) tend to lay out pretty broad core gameplay options and we let players mix and match from within those options. But we're (and by we I mean the designers) still defining the core gameplay as the various combinations of the options we offer. And, on that point, I think that one way that RPGs actually risk being less satisfying as games than other genres is when we give the player many core gameplay options but do not make the truly "core options" equally deep and satisfying.

The best example I can give is stealth gameplay. RPGs honestly have very little actual stealth gameplay - it's mostly just "hit the stealth button/click the stealth option and hope you don't roll low". Some RPGs have done a little better, but if you look at the depth and complexity of their combat systems and compare them to the depth and complexity of the stealth systems (especially compared against actual stealth focused games like Thief) the stealth gameplay does seem pretty anemic in comparison to the combat.

I guess I understand your point. That said, this may bit digress from the topic about difficulty-adjustment but, again, when we are talking of depth, I think we have to separate short-term and long-term depths. For, I think the depth of role-playing games can be expressed in rather long-term manner. Generally speaking, it is experienced when a player made a different choice from his previous game. About character-development, for example, he may find it's interesting when sneak option opened up different aspect of the world such as NPC interactions and/or in-world secrets which were not spotted in his previous session as a combat expert. These things may feel trivial but they give the world/story/NPCs more characters and depth. I personally find that Obsidian game-designers tend to be good at designing these long term game-experience, or longevity, compared with other "RPG" designers. Of course, good at polishing short-term game-plays must be a definite plus, though.
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Nathaniel Chapman
Apr 14 2010 08:20 PM
QUOTE (Wombat @ Apr 14 2010, 07:17 AM)
I guess I understand your point. That said, this may bit digress from the topic about difficulty-adjustment but, again, when we are talking of depth, I think we have to separate short-term and long-term depths. For, I think the depth of role-playing games can be expressed in rather long-term manner. Generally speaking, it is experienced when a player made a different choice from his previous game. About character-development, for example, he may find it's interesting when sneak option opened up different aspect of the world such as NPC interactions and/or in-world secrets which were not spotted in his previous session as a combat expert. These things may feel trivial but they give the world/story/NPCs more characters and depth. I personally find that Obsidian game-designers tend to be good at designing these long term game-experience, or longevity, compared with other "RPG" designers. Of course, good at polishing short-term game-plays must be a definite plus, though.


I agree that the "RPG" rewards (NPCs, story, etc.) can have a lot of value. But I'd also argue that great stealth games do that too! If you played Thief, one of the coolest parts of it was the little character interactions you'd hear between guards if you snuck up on them. If you didn't stealth properly, you missed out on all that stuff.

Also, what I think is really important is that there is a somewhat comparable amount of depth that you give the player between various gameplay options if you ask them to mix and match. What I'm saying, more than anything, is that if you are going to give someone the option to stealth in the game, you should spend a little more time polishing your stealth gameplay than most RPGs do. That may mean sacrifices to other systems, or it may just mean a change in focus. But it's something that I think is really valuable.

Let me put it like this: when I find an RPG where playing a thief is close to as satisfying as it was in Thief, I'll be ecstatic. Imagine how much more valuable your stealth abilities will feel in that case!
QUOTE (Nathaniel Chapman @ Apr 14 2010, 08:20 PM)
I agree that the "RPG" rewards (NPCs, story, etc.) can have a lot of value. But I'd also argue that great stealth games do that too! If you played Thief, one of the coolest parts of it was the little character interactions you'd hear between guards if you snuck up on them. If you didn't stealth properly, you missed out on all that stuff.

Also, what I think is really important is that there is a somewhat comparable amount of depth that you give the player between various gameplay options if you ask them to mix and match. What I'm saying, more than anything, is that if you are going to give someone the option to stealth in the game, you should spend a little more time polishing your stealth gameplay than most RPGs do. That may mean sacrifices to other systems, or it may just mean a change in focus. But it's something that I think is really valuable.

Let me put it like this: when I find an RPG where playing a thief is close to as satisfying as it was in Thief, I'll be ecstatic. Imagine how much more valuable your stealth abilities will feel in that case!

Agreed. On the one hand, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, despite of the fact that some people still releasing unofficial patch, was generally regarded as a bad example of what would happen if RPG designers designed an FPS game-play and, on the other hand, I think Oblivion's stealth system was not bad but the depth of the setting was lost. The best of both worlds would be, indeed, gamers' dream. Looking Glass Studio was good at blending them together and wrapping the players in their imaginary worlds. When Obsidian went for FPS/TPS game-play style, I'd like them to "steal" some of the essences from games by LGS rather than just superficially imitating the game-plays of modern main-stream games, which would enhance their forte. In any case, if you think in that way, all I can say is good luck. thumbsup.gif
Great read, the points you highlighted with GTA, namely gameplay, are valid and I think they acknoledged this with Red Dead Redemption, which is very similar to GTA but with better gameplay.
Let me preface this by saying this is all just my opinion. If you read something that you wholly disagree with, just assume that I meant to add “in my opinion” at the end of the sentence even if it is stated as fact.

This was a very interesting read, I agree with it and I’d like to add my left brained interpretation of it, which is likely something that you probably already touched on. It seems like this article focuses wholly on the design aspect of difficulty. However, your methodology speaks towards an important aspect of art. Psychology.

It has been hammered in to my skull that one of the most important aspects of a piece of art is psychology. I have said and will continue to say that videogames are art. In the same way that one may confuse adding hp and having enemies hit harder for what an increase in difficulty should be, many confuse cinematic cut scenes as being the primary element for what would or should make a game art. It’s abhorrent when a game’s main selling point is “it’s just like a movie.” Well, if it’s just like a movie, why not make a movie? What makes the investment of a game worth it?

True, narrative is an element of some games, but the true strength of a narrative game isn’t the plot. Games, on the whole, are often unimpressive when it comes to plot. Instead, it is the ability to inhabit the psychology of the protagonist. Plots usually exist to serve this role. Rather than reading about a character or watching a character, you ARE the character. Moreover, the climax of the experience is when the player and the protagonist experience a moment where their motivations are intertwined and it’s organic.

Although it’s a bit contradictory, it has always seemed that plot was what drove this connection not difficulty. For example, no one in their right mind would call Prince of Persia 4 difficult, however one thing it did well was use narrative to allow the player to inhabit the psychology of the played. It did this in two sections. These are the standout moments of an otherwise unimpressive game. The first time is during a boss fight which requires an understanding of a narrative in conjunction with an understanding of a game mechanic. Essentially you have to jump off of a building and the female lead catches you and places you back on the boss platform. Elika says something along the lines of “Are you crazy?” and the Prince non chalantly responds “I knew you’d catch me.” Presumably, this is what the player is thinking verbatim. It’s certainly what I was thinking.

The second time was at the end. I don’t want to spoil it, but the game holds your hand by telling you exactly where to go and what to do until a moment at the very end. Yet you are able to divine what your goal is largely due to the narrative and character. In both of these instances, you don’t need to be told what to do; you just do it because you, as the player, are in the same place psychologically as the played.

That is the strength of gaming.

What I find extremely interesting about your interpretation about difficulty is that it seems to accomplish this connection consistently, throughout the game and it relies less on plot. I usually don’t turn up the difficulty past normal because in most cases it’s simply aggravating and dull. Why should I bother? However, if difficulty were treated as you suggest then I would set my difficulty higher more often to get the connection and the meaning that I crave.

I haven’t played Thief but, for the sake of consistency I’ll use your example. Thief at harder difficulties requires players to rely more on stealth. This allows the player to inhabit the psychology of the thief they were playing more intently. If the consequence of being seen is a game over, then even though the difficulty is high, the connection is high as well. The tension would be palpable for the player because, Modern Wall Street notwithstanding, most thieves rely on stealth to do what they do. That is at the core what it means to be a thief; to sneak around and taking things without being noticed. If they get noticed, they go to jail and it's game over. That isn't to say there shouldn't be some leeway in the game. Since these are games, not true to life simulations, but you get the jist of what I'm saying I hope.

I imagine that it’s more difficult in to craft this kind of thing in more open kinds of games but if it can be accomplished, this rewards the player with an enhanced experience that goes beyond accomplishment. It speaks to the most important aspect of art; meaning. At least, that’s what I hope the result would be… eventually.
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Nathaniel Chapman
Aug 22 2011 03:38 PM
QUOTE (morganagod @ Jun 10 2011, 12:28 AM)
Let me preface this by saying this is all just my opinion. If you read something that you wholly disagree with, just assume that I meant to add ?in my opinion? at the end of the sentence even if it is stated as fact.

This was a very interesting read, I agree with it and I?d like to add my left brained interpretation of it, which is likely something that you probably already touched on. It seems like this article focuses wholly on the design aspect of difficulty. However, your methodology speaks towards an important aspect of art. Psychology.

It has been hammered in to my skull that one of the most important aspects of a piece of art is psychology. I have said and will continue to say that videogames are art. In the same way that one may confuse adding hp and having enemies hit harder for what an increase in difficulty should be, many confuse cinematic cut scenes as being the primary element for what would or should make a game art. It?s abhorrent when a game?s main selling point is ?it?s just like a movie.? Well, if it?s just like a movie, why not make a movie? What makes the investment of a game worth it?

True, narrative is an element of some games, but the true strength of a narrative game isn?t the plot. Games, on the whole, are often unimpressive when it comes to plot. Instead, it is the ability to inhabit the psychology of the protagonist. Plots usually exist to serve this role. Rather than reading about a character or watching a character, you ARE the character. Moreover, the climax of the experience is when the player and the protagonist experience a moment where their motivations are intertwined and it?s organic.

Although it?s a bit contradictory, it has always seemed that plot was what drove this connection not difficulty. For example, no one in their right mind would call Prince of Persia 4 difficult, however one thing it did well was use narrative to allow the player to inhabit the psychology of the played. It did this in two sections. These are the standout moments of an otherwise unimpressive game. The first time is during a boss fight which requires an understanding of a narrative in conjunction with an understanding of a game mechanic. Essentially you have to jump off of a building and the female lead catches you and places you back on the boss platform. Elika says something along the lines of ?Are you crazy?? and the Prince non chalantly responds ?I knew you?d catch me.? Presumably, this is what the player is thinking verbatim. It?s certainly what I was thinking.

The second time was at the end. I don?t want to spoil it, but the game holds your hand by telling you exactly where to go and what to do until a moment at the very end. Yet you are able to divine what your goal is largely due to the narrative and character. In both of these instances, you don?t need to be told what to do; you just do it because you, as the player, are in the same place psychologically as the played.

That is the strength of gaming.

What I find extremely interesting about your interpretation about difficulty is that it seems to accomplish this connection consistently, throughout the game and it relies less on plot. I usually don?t turn up the difficulty past normal because in most cases it?s simply aggravating and dull. Why should I bother? However, if difficulty were treated as you suggest then I would set my difficulty higher more often to get the connection and the meaning that I crave.

I haven?t played Thief but, for the sake of consistency I?ll use your example. Thief at harder difficulties requires players to rely more on stealth. This allows the player to inhabit the psychology of the thief they were playing more intently. If the consequence of being seen is a game over, then even though the difficulty is high, the connection is high as well. The tension would be palpable for the player because, Modern Wall Street notwithstanding, most thieves rely on stealth to do what they do. That is at the core what it means to be a thief; to sneak around and taking things without being noticed. If they get noticed, they go to jail and it's game over. That isn't to say there shouldn't be some leeway in the game. Since these are games, not true to life simulations, but you get the jist of what I'm saying I hope.

I imagine that it?s more difficult in to craft this kind of thing in more open kinds of games but if it can be accomplished, this rewards the player with an enhanced experience that goes beyond accomplishment. It speaks to the most important aspect of art; meaning. At least, that?s what I hope the result would be? eventually.


I think that's a really interesting analysis. Very good points! Also, of course everything is your opinion, that's a given wink.gif
QUOTE
My Knight awakes next to a burning bonfire. Iím not sure where I am...a massive crow, larger than a man, dropped me here moments ago. Not unlike Demonís Souls, another crestfallen warrior sits near the blaze. I approach this broken-hearted soldier, but he gives me little direction save for a few cryptic hints.

I look around a bit. I can go through an archway toward what appears to be a flooded shrine of some sort. I can head left up a long flight of stone steps affixed to a rock wall. Or I can turn around and march down a spiraling staircase that leads deep underground.

This is how Dark Souls begins. The game has no bright-lit marker on a bottom-left-corner mini-radar. No arrow that hugs the edge of the screen. No button to tap that draws a direct path for me to follow. No explicit dialogue telling me where to go.
The quote above is from an article at BitMob, which may be bit off for the difficulty design topic but may add something considering how game design can signal message to the players while assuring the world/game-play feel consistent.

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