Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

What’s the deal with difficulty

Posted by Ben Zeigler on August 31, 2006

So, there’s this guy at work who is a notorious grinder (oh, look, he’s playing Xbox Live Arcade games he doesn’t particularly like to raise his gamer score, right now!). He’s the kind of person who played Dark Age of Camelot before they quadrupled the leveling speed, and actually liked it. Because this is something that deserves to be mocked, I asked him if boring tasks were more rewarding than fun tasks. He said they weren’t, but that it was DIFFICULTY that made things more rewarding. But then, what makes something difficult, in a good way?

It’s not just about effort. Something can be very time consuming but not particularly difficult, such as slaughtering low level enemies without personal risk. It’s also not just about risk. Gambling money on a coin flip is plenty risky, but isn’t particularly difficult. The explanation he came up with is that something is difficult in a fun way (which I’m going to call “challenging”) if “it requires developing a skill to succeed”. This feels about right to me. Pressing a button and being randomly rewarded or punished isn’t difficult, but it sure is frustrating. If you show skill in defeating a boss, but it wasn’t actually needed, that isn’t difficult within the context of the game’s explicit goals. However, by setting higher standards for yourself, it becomes challenging again.

The obvious next question is: What’s so challenging about grinding, then? You repeatedly slaughter the same group of enemies with little thought or variation. Where’s the skill here? One answer is that the skills are higher up. The abilities to simultaneously play several games, or to develop the optimal way to increase leveling speed, or to create a complicated macro to avoid playing at all are skills in their own right. They may not be within the game design context created by the developers, but they’re skills. Grinding is about winning the metagame.

It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure I buy it. Why jump out of the game to the metagame in the first place? In the process of doing so, you miss out on a lot of the inherent challenge of a game. There can be just as much challenge and fun to be found by attempting the more difficult and interesting encounters within a game, but instead those are shunned for being too inefficient. Is it a rebellious streak? Do we generate more difficulty so the resulting rewards become more psychologically significant? Or is this all just a justification for seeking the approval of others? Whatever the reason, grinding is going to be around as long as games, and it seems like all we can do is try to make it less painful.

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2 Responses to “What’s the deal with difficulty”

  1. Kldran said

    I just thought I’d comment that I’m the sort of person who spends their entire life in the metagame. I’m notorious in my family for not playing a game according to the goals the game is supposed to have. I find that with most games, I enjoy playing with them like I would a toy, instead of playing them normally.

    I think part of the reason I do this, is that I frequently find normal gameplay to be very boring, very quickly, and by inventing my own goals and design challenges, I can make things more interesting. As a result, I have big issues with inefficiency, and anything that is too good due to it constraining my options. (I think whoever decided Fulcrum Shift in CoH wasn’t broken, needs to be shot. After making a kinetics defender and getting it leveled a bunch, I realized that I could not make a defender capable of competing with it for speeding the rate at which teams went through missions. It made all my other defenders feel weak.)

    Regarding the avoidance of difficult fights, they are only interesting the first time. Once one has figured out how to beat them, the intellectual challenge is gone, leaving only the tedium of trying to do the work involved.

    P.S. I actually don’t do much grinding. I tend to lose interest in it fast, as I quickly learn the things I want to know long before reaching the “goal”. However, I have friends who I know are self labled “completionists” and they often seek to complete everything in a game before moving on. This frequently results in grinding but it’s the achievement they seek, not the grind itself (though I do have one fried who just likes grinding).

  2. JZig said

    Just as a personal note, I recommend trying to get over an obsession with efficiency, because it doesn’t really mesh with a exploratory, metagame approach. It’s generally a bit too easy to win the efficiency meta contest, and I think it’s more interesting to try optimizing for things other than leveling speed. I optimized my CoH characters for crazy-but-effective teamwork builds.

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